Musings on opinions: de gustibus non est disputandum

A well-known Latin adage reads “de gustibus non est disputandum”, roughly translated as “about tastes it should not be disputed”. In English, we usually refer to the maxim as “over tastes there is no argument”, indicating the economist’s fundamental creed that tastes and preferences may very well come from somewhere but are useless to argue over. We can’t prove them. We can’t disavow them. Ultimately, they just are and we have to live with that.

In November last year, ridiculing a prominent Swedish politician, I used the example of ice-cream flavours to illustrate the point:

“I like ice-cream” is an innocent and unobjectionable opinion to have. Innocent because hey, who doesn’t like ice-cream, and unobjectionable because there is no way we can verify whether you actually like ice-cream. We can’t effortlessly observe the reactions in your brain from eating ice-cream or even criticize such a position.

Over tastes there is no dispute. You like what you like. We can theorize all we want over sociological or cultural impacts, or perhaps attempt to trace biological reasons that may explain why some people like what they like – but ultimately we must act in the world (Proposition #1) and so we shrug our shoulders and get on with life. We accept that people believe, like, and prefer different things and that’s that.

Being strange rationalising creatures, you don’t have to scratch humans very deeply before you encounter convictions or beliefs that make no sense whatsoever. Most of the time we’re talking plainly irrational or internally inconsistent beliefs, but, like most tastes and political opinions, they are very cheap to hold – you are generally not taxed or suffer noticeable disadvantages from holding erroneous or contradictory beliefs. Sometimes, by giving the speaker social kudos for believing it, the cost of holding an erroneous belief might even be negative – portraying openly it gives us benefits with our in-group. (yes, we’re all Caplanites now).

Let’s continue the “what to eat” comparison since, apparently, the personal is political and recently what I eat seems to be everybody else’s business too.

When I make a decision in the world (as I must to stay alive, Proposition #1), I occasionally feel the urge to explain that choice to others – because they ask or because I submit to the internalised pressure. I might say “eating ice-cream is good for me” (Proposition #2a).

Now, most people would probably consider that statement obviously incorrect (ice-cream is a sweet, a dessert; desserts make you fat and unhealthy, i.e. not good for you). The trouble is, of course, that I didn’t specify what I meant by “good for me”.  It’s really unclear what that exactly means, since we don’t know what I have in mind and what I value as “good” (taste? Longevity? Complete vitamins? How it makes me feel? Social considerations?).

This version of Proposition 2a therefore essentially reverts back to a Proposition 1 claim; you can like whatever you want and you happen to like what ice-cream does to you in that dimension (taste, feeling, social consideration). Anything still goes.

I might also offer a slightly different version (Proposition #2b) where I say “eating ice-cream is good for me because it cures cancer”.

Aha! Now I’ve not only given you a clear metric of what I mean by ‘good’ (curing cancer), I’ve also established a causal mechanism about the world: ice-cream cures cancer.

By now, we’ve completely left the domain of “everything goes” and “over tastes there is no argument”. I’m making a statement about the world, and this statement is ludicrous. Admittedly, there might be some revolutionary science that shows the beneficial impacts of ice-cream on cancer, but I seriously doubt it – let’s say the causal claim here is as incorrect and refuted as a claim can possibly be.

Am I still justified in staying with my conviction and eating ice-cream? No, of course not! I gave a measure of what I meant by ‘good’ and clear causal criteria (“cure cancer”) for how ice-cream fits into that – and it’s completely wrong! I must change my behaviour, accordingly.

If I don’t change my behaviour and maintain enjoying my delicious chocolate-flavoured ice-cream, two things happen: First, I can surrender my outrageous claim and revert back to Proposition 1. That’s fine. Or I can amend Proposition 2b into something more believable – like “eating ice-cream makes me happy, and I like being happy”.

What’s the story here?

If we substitute ice-cream for – I posit with zero evidence – the vast majority of people’s beliefs (about causality in the world, about health and nutrition, about politics, about economics and religion), we’re in essentially the same position. All those convictions, ranging from what food is good for you, to how that spiritual omnipotent power you revere helps your life, to what the government should do with taxes or regulations to reduce poverty, are most likely completely wrong.

Sharing my own experiences or telling stories about how I solved some problem is how we socially interact as humans – that’s fine and wonderful, and essentially amounts to Proposition 1-style statements. If you and I are sufficiently alike, you might benefit from those experiences.

Making statements about the world, however, particularly causal relations about the world, subjects me to a much higher level of proof. Now my experiences or beliefs or tastes are not enough. Indeed, it doesn’t even matter if I invoke the subjective and anecdotal stories of a few friends or this or that family member. I’m still doing shit science, making claims about the world on seriously fragile grounds. It’s not quite Frankfurt’s “Bullshit” yet, since we haven’t presumed that I don’t care about the truth, but as a statement of the world, what I’m saying is at least garbage.

I am entitled to my own beliefs and tastes and political “opinions“, whatever that means. I am not, however, entitled to my own facts and my own causal mechanisms of the world.

Keeping these spheres separate – or at least being clear about moving from one to the other – ought to rank among the highest virtues of peaceful human co-existence. We should be more humble and realise that on most topics, most of the time, we really don’t know. But that doesn’t mean anything goes.

Coup and Counter Coup III (Gülenists and Kemalists)

My last post established the party structure in Turkey. The flow of events since the attempted coup of fifteenth July and the emergency regime instituted on twentieth July is that of a government assault on opposition. Democracy as liberal democracy continues to give way to illiberal majoritarianism. Liberal democracy has never existed in its purest form in Turkey, but there was more of it ten years ago and it looks like becoming further diluted. Initial indications that the state of emergency would be three months only, rather than the constitutionally allowed maximum of six months have been undermined by constant renewal with no debate and no indication of when the renewals will end.

When the AKP first came to power its campaign materials included claims that it would end the use of the state of emergency as a tool of government. A long period of emergency rule in the southeast (that is where ethnic Kurds are a majority) had only recently ended. The AKP is now the party that has turned the state of emergency into a permanent state tool for the whole of Turkey. If it ends, it will only be if next month’s referendum gives President Erdoğan the further powers he is seeking, and he sees that as sufficient to compensate for the loss of emergency powers. The ‘presidential’ regime proposed, in reality a regime of elective authoritarianism with an enfeebled National Assembly and judiciary, would turn some emergency powers, particularly rule by decree with the force of law, into ‘normal’ practices.

Not only was the three month period of state of emergency a mislead to dissipate any opposition to the emergency regime, it was dishonestly presented as purely a means to crack down on the Gülenists (followers of the religious community leader Fetullah Gülen who lives in the United States) involved in the coup attempt. The investigation of the coup quickly turned into broad persecution of any associate of the Gülen movement, along with any one connected with Kurdish autonomy movements and the far left in general.

Anyone too loudly questioning the government’s methods, going back to criticisms during the night of the coup with regard to using the mosques to call people to protest and encouraging civilians to put themselves in danger at such protests (hundreds did die), or the mob violence atmosphere of that night, has been accused of Gülenism and been persecuted. Persecution has taken the form of loss of employment, arrest, detention and prison sentences, all relying on emergency powers. Opponents of the AKP have been very willing to believe accusations of Gülenism and to ignore, or downplay, the injustices taking place.

The role of the Gülenists in the coup is debated, though mostly outside Turkey. Most people in Turkey, including myself, have observed the power and ruthlessness of the group, and do not see another plausible candidate. If the idea of a Gülenist conspiracy seems like conspiracy theory, there are real conspiracies and only conspiracy theory could explain why the coup is believed to be Gülenist, if it is not true there has been a Gülenist conspiracy. It was pointed out years ago by the well known Turkish-American economist and Harvard professor Dani Rodrik that Gülenist police, prosecutors and judges had falsified evidence of an army coup with civilian collaborators and given long jail sentences, enabling officers to rise up who participated in the July coup attempt. Ahmet Şik, a journalist now in prison, wrote a well known  book exposing the Gülenists in their infiltration and manipulation of the state and was imprisoned himself now. Amongst the twisted actions of the emergency empowered states, Şik has now been imprisoned on charges of Gülenism.

Maybe other malcontents including some hardcore Kemalists participated, but the initial reaction of hard core Kemalists after the coup was to support Erdoğan. In one case this appears to have meant a radical move from complete opposition to Erdoğan to complete support. That is Doğu Perinçek, one of the most extraordinary characters in Turkish politics, a marginal figure in prison under more than one regime, who has never gained real electoral support who nevertheless finds his way to the centre of events. Perinçek has renamed his ‘Workers Party’, ‘Nation Party’ and may have acted as a contact with Putin through Aleksandr Dugin, a Russian nationalist thinker who enjoys an ambiguous relationship with the Russian President. Perinçek is a novelistic parody of a Kemalist who somehow found his way into real life. He does act as a point of reference for an ‘anti-imperialist’, that is anti-American and anti-EU form of Kemalism, which sees the Baath party (that is the authoritarian pan-Arabist ‘Renaissance’ party of the Assad regime in Syria and in the past of the Saddam regime in Iraq) as a natural ally.

Less colourful characters in the army with comparable views, who were sacked or retired during the faked trials orchestrated by the Gülenists, have come back apparently working with Erdoğan on a Eurasian perspective, as an alternative to the EU and Nato. This position existed in some senior army people before the AKP came to power, though the overall army line was to support NATO and the application process for the EU. The alliance with Putin is now looking ragged, as the Russian troops are clearly co-operating with a Kurdish group in Syria, PYD, defined as terrorist partners of the PKK by the Turkish government. The immediate atmosphere in July and soon after pushed some significant proportion of Kemalists towards Erdoğan as an enemy of their two old enemies: Gülenists and the PKK. The mainstream inheritor of the Kemalist legacy, the CHP, has continued to oppose Erdoğan and the emergency regime, even if rather cautiously and in fear of persecution if they go ‘too far’.

(A discursive approach is taking over from narration of events and future posts will probably proceed in the same way as I try to build a rounded account of Turkey since July 2016, with some historical background. The next post should give some account of other aspects of Kemalist legacy along with the polarisations the AKP seeks and uses to maintain its position.)

Some more thoughts on what to do with conspiracy theorists and other libertarian sympathizers

Just a quick note on a perennial topic…

Years ago I met my (now) ex-girlfriends crazy uncle. For whatever reason we ended up talking about how some policy or other was a bad idea. “Oh cool,” I thought, a fellow traveler. And then he started talking about how 9-11 was an inside job. “Okay, sure, whatever, but there’s so much else. We could actually convince people that, for example, a better regulatory system could improve the world.” To which he replied that yes indeed 9-11 sure was extra inside-job-y.

Now, this guy was a legitimately crazy uncle, so whatever. But this exchange wasn’t about his being a crazy uncle, because I’ve met plenty of non-crazy, non-uncles who have been similarly zombie-like. Whether they’re of the “Obama is a secret gay Muslim” variety, or any other variety of conspiracy theorist, they are just completely uninterested in attacking the Democratic party for any sensible reason. And this is true of anti-Republicans too. There the conversation is something like “war sure is bad, huh?” “Yeah, and Bush’s puppet masters set the whole thing up.” “Okay, let’s just assume that’s true, how do we reduce the amount of war?” “By getting hung up on evidence that only convinces people who don’t need any more convincing!” “I’m going to go get another drink.”

Here’s the thing: there are plenty of good arguments for opposing whoever it is you want to oppose. Yes, it feels good to talk about how the bums in charge are pawns for the cartoon-mustache-twirlingly-evil powers that be. But if you want to be taken seriously, keep it to yourself.

I see two things going on here. First, these conspiracy zombies are simply bad at thinking like economists. The first rule of being a good economist is that you have to recognize opportunity cost. By perseverating on the big, exciting, good-vs-evil struggle amongst competing factions of the Illuminati (I guess?) you attach all your attention to something you’re unlikely to have any real influence on at the expense of minor but achievable goals like marginal improvement of the immigration system, or school choice, or any number of other things the other side is willing to discuss with you (yeah, yeah, they aren’t willing to discuss that stuff because they’re convinced that your side is in a deal with the devil too…).

Second, and this is more troubling, people have a natural predilection to these sorts of things. People would rather get excited about conspiracies than actually make the world a better place. Is there anything we can do about that? I don’t know. Maybe we need to convince rank-and-file Republicans and Democrats that aliens are conspiring to pit humans against one another by making us argue unproductively rather than simply reform immigration policy. Maybe Krugerz was right?

On Conspiracies and Immigration Reform

Late last month I asked a simple question, what does the Obama administration hope to accomplish in regards to immigration? I answered that its goal was not to reform the United States immigration system unilaterally, but to use executive action to force Congress into acting.

My prediction turned out to be correct. The administration had initially planned to announce executive actions meant to provide relief from deportation for many of the country’s illegal alien population and to make legal migration easier after the Labor Day weekend. ‘Had’ is the key word here. In its latest series of press conferences the administration has pushed back the announcement till year’s end.

Why did the administration push back its announcement? Partly because the administration doesn’t really want to issue executive actions – it merely wants to use the threat of executive action. Some opponents of the current administration, including libertarians, envision the executive branch as having unlimited powers but the truth is that the administration has all too real limits to its powers. Members of the President’s own party lobbied for the postponement in fear that a radical change in immigration policy will cause them to lose their upcoming elections.

The state is not a monolithic beast with a single mind. Rather it is composed of several competing factions who are nonetheless united in their shared goal of maintaining a functioning order. The state is usually seen as the antithesis of the market, but I think this a wrong way to think. The state is itself a product of spontaneous order and better thought of as an example of how human cooperation can do great harm.

What this means is that the Obama administration must first secure its hold over its own party before it can duke it with other factions within the state apparatus.

It also means that conspiracy theories, of the like discussed in the comments section of my last post, are unlikely. It is true that ‘open borders’ could be used to rob the United States of its sovereignty in favor of creating a larger transnational state in its favor. However it is unclear why Obama and his allies, as individuals, should wish to see the creation of a new state unless they were assured they would be leaders in it. The creation of a new state is no small feat and usually requires a long time horizon.

Monarchs of the past could afford to undergo the long process because they were assured that even if they themselves did not live to see their creations their children would. Obama has no such assurance; in a few years he will vacate the White House and go into retirement. As a matter of tradition Obama, as most US Presidents have, will leave electoral politics. He may lend his support to some charitable cause, but he will never again be active in day to day politics. His incentives are as such to maintain the United States as strong as possible to preserve his legacy.

Who then does have the incentive to see the creation of a new state? Presumably it would have to be a faction in the current state apparatus that has some power but has been relegated to a position where they cannot expect to rise any further. In times of old this would be a Duke who, although strong, could not expect to see himself made King under the current regime because of one reason or another.

Which faction could fit the bill today? The Democrats? No. As noted above, current Democrats would not be assured of their involvement in a new state and would not risk their current power given their short time horizon. The Republicans? No. The Republican Party is believed by many to be destined to become a permanent minority party at the national level, but for the foreseeable future it still has enough sway to win a healthy amount of seats in Congress and could very well win the Presidency under a charismatic candidate. Even if the Republican Party is destined to become a minority party, why would it want a stronger state replace the US? It anything it should want the south and western mountain states to secede so that it could continue to influence national politics, albeit in a new nation. What about Hawaii? The far flung state owes its political union with the US to an overthrow of its indigenous monarchy. It may harbor some desire to regain its independence, but it is unclear why it would want to see the US by a larger state still. If anything the rebellious factions in the US should desire to break up, not increase, the current state.

By no means should I be seen as saying that conspiracies cannot be in play. I simply do not see the necessary incentives for a conspiracy to arise that would wish to see the United States replaced by a transnational state.

Let us compare this with the European Union, a new state in the process of being formed from the remnants of the previously separate European countries. As many observers have noted previously, it is hard not to notice that the European Union is effectively a new German Reich. Germany was unable to secure an empire on the continent using arms, but it has been immensely successful in winning its empire through commerce. German politicians and their bureaucrat allies have a clear incentive to see the continued rise of the EU, but even here there are rival factions who oppose them. One wonders if euroskepticism in the United Kingdom is truly because the British people oppose the EU or because Germany and its allies, and not the UK, will be the center of power in the new state?

Jacques Delacroix, 9/11, and Ron Paul the Truther

Hey all,

I am in the midst of midterms, but I thought I’d direct you to our blogger’s most recent charges against Congressman Ron Paul: he is a “truther”!

I don’t have much to say on the topic, because Delacroix has been known to exaggerate when it comes to Ron Paul, but I thought I’d give his views a shake.  If any of our readers are “truthers”, by the way, you should probably get your head checked.  If you think have a good case for an inside job, though, be sure to lay it out here on this humble blog.  We like controversy and discussion!