The Left has long been weak. It dominates elite circles, but not much else.
Amy Coney Barrett earned her law degree from Notre Dame. The other 8 justices earned their degrees from Harvard or Yale. President Trump’s ideological shake-up of the Supreme Court bodes well for diversity, which in turn bodes well for a resurgence of the American Left in the civic, intellectual, and moral life of the republic.
The stranglehold that the two schools had on Ivy legal thought has meant that the American Right would always be stronger ideologically as well as civically and morally.
It is perhaps ironic that Donald Trump, in trying to Make America Great Again, has done just that by opening up the avenues of power to diverse modes of thought. Donald Trump’s crusade for diversity has indeed opened up elite American circles to competition. This will only strengthen the Left, as it will now have to incorporate non-professional voices into its apparatuses of power, as the Right has long done with much success.
A strong Left that is not overly reliant on elite opinion bodes well for the republic.
Political/ideological debates have a lot of moving parts, and there are a lot of timely issues to address. Given the marginal impact of anything we do in this sphere (e.g. voting, sharing a blog post on Twitter, or being a solitary voter in a vast sea of the entire 6200 people in this country), it’s only natural that we have to economize on information and argument and that results. We can’t help but deplete the intellectual commons.
What are some low cost ways to improve the quality?
- Value Intellectual humility.
- Devalue the sort of behavior that makes things worse.
It bears repeating: value intellectual humility. It’s not easy. I’m as drawn the confident claims as you are. I’ve got a lot of smart people in my bubble and when they boldly declare something, I tend to believe them. But the “I honestly don’t know” posts deserve more attention and are less likely to get it. Let’s adjust in that direction. I’ll try to write more about things I don’t know about in the future (although I don’t know what that’s going to look like).
It’s a statistical impossibility that, of all of the people burned at the stake for heresy or witchcraft or whatever, nobody deserved some punishment received in an unfair process. Don’t get me wrong, witch hunts are a bad thing in general, but we can’t discount them as entirely (maybe just 99.9%) unjustified. But cancel culture is, like good old fashioned witch hunts is doing a lot of harm to the intellectual commons. I’m they catch more bad guys than 17th century Puritans, but lets not leave cancellations up to Twitter mobs. Particularly when it comes to cancelling ideas.
Bad ideas don’t need to be cancelled. They need to be crushed under good ideas.
Far be it from me to peddle unreplicated psychological research (confirmation bias alert!), but I tend to believe that there’s something to the claim that the extreme poles of the ideological landscape exhibit some unsettling traits: narrow-mindedness, authoritarianism, and apparently Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy.
“Narcissistic psychopath” is not a label I’d like to see bandied about because it’s just too close to ad hominum. But “authoritarian” is a term I’d like to see more widely used as a pejorative, regardless of the position taken by would be authoritarians.
Let’s quit with the shouting, cancelling, flag waving, and blindly taking reactionary positions. Invite debate, and invite holding people accountable. But letting Twitter be the last word is as absurd as letting Helen Lovejoy-esque moral scolding decide how things should be.
But then again, maybe I’m wrong.
The 20th century was a century in which societies consolidated the belief that governments should provide certainty and protection from collective risks and developed the expectation that governments are well equipped to do so through large-scale interventions in the social environment.
The image of the state was transformed from that of an alien and often hostile apparatus in the service of the king and nobility to that of a collective organization entrusted with society’s safety and prosperity. This view grew stronger in the years of war-like economy and post-war reconstruction during the 21st century. Nationalism gave it the face of a father taking care of his extended family. Socialism gave it the image of a collective machine serving the interests of the working class. Democracy promised to tame its power, make it accountable to its subjects and harness it for the provision of public goods, whose definition was open to public deliberation.
The image of the state was also shaped by a growing belief in the use of science to give meaning to the ‘common good’ and offer prescriptions as to how a powerful central planner should work to achieve it. The state and science together provided a replacement for the loss of divinity. They offered a rationalization of power as enlightened parenthood. They created a secular Deus Ex Machina. Governments cultivated this paradigm as they were strengthening their role and clout over society through increasing levels of taxation, regulation and distribution, which in turn fostered public expectations for state effectiveness and political accountability. Recurrent failures led to policy re-adjustments some of which were historical political transitions. Yet all these transitions were responses that complied with this paradigm and sought to re-establish confidence in it.
Consider one of the most discussed economic and political transitions, the neoliberal turn. In light of recurrent economic crises, most prominently long-standing stagflation in the 1970s, neoliberalism best describes a re-adjustment of the role of government in the economy through privatizations, a drift away from Keynesianism to monetarism, and the re-regulation of economic structure. In the field of ideology, there was an effort to reshape public perceptions of what the state should not do with the promotion of economic freedom. Governments – most of them very reluctantly, such as both the Conservative and Labour governments in the late 1970s and the Ford and Carter administrations, while others very enthusiastically such as the Reagan and Thatcher governments – adopted versions of a ‘take some economic decisions back to you’ approach.
In the so-called neoliberal era, the state did not become less interventionist overall. Instead, governments redefined the nature of interventions in some areas to forms of surveillance of the responsibilities and individual risks that were given back to businesses and workers. Neoliberalism was a large-scale intervention in itself. It was an effort to revamp the economy and protect the capacity of states to extract resources from the market for political allocation. Governments preserved interventions that privileged the few and maintained those that continued to offer a safety net for the many (such as health insurance, progressive taxation and welfare state spending).
A remarkable juncture occurred when the 2009 crisis posed a systemic threat. Governments intervened to patch the financial system from a sequence of cascading events – partly the result of imbalances attributed to its own macroeconomic policies. The management of collective risk came center stage.
Terrorism is another case of the interventionist state. Spectacular terrorist attacks triggered a war-like response that combined the use of the criminal justice system with extra-judicial actions, including the mobilization of security and military forces and the introduction of new intrusive norms of intelligence collection and surveillance.
It is easy to discern that, over time, demand for drastic state action is more pronounced in the presence of dramatic single-source events or cascading events that are traceable as a single sequence. While millions are killed by car accidents and diseases, large-scale massacres such as the 9/11 or unravelling developments from the collapse of a major bank trigger a collective alarm. The public expects the state to intervene and give a heroic fight against the visible threat on behalf of society.
The most extreme version of the protective state is the current general lockdown. Not knowing any way out, governments can only deliver a form of collective protection that requires a general population quarantine. They offer society the kind of shield that a medieval wall and a locked gate offers in times of siege. Society both expects and accepts this.
Yet in the current pandemic governments still cannot deliver a cure. If a safe vaccine is not found, if the epidemic does not recede with growing immunity, if seasonal change doesn’t make any difference with contagion and if an effective anti-viral treatment is not found, governments will oversee their economies in rapid collapse and will soon have to make tough choices about how to turn the epidemic into a chronic manageable condition. For the time being, citizens remain disciplined in their lock-down and are the ones demanding strict measures. Governments know that, like in terrorism, citizens can be overwhelmed by fear as well as managed through fear.
In our efforts to understand what has happened and to make informed guesses about what could happen, metaphors can help or distort our perception. Societies have subscribed to an ideal image of political power that metaphorically resembles the biblical God: omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent. They call for a divine intervention, they express their dissatisfaction when they see no signs of it but they never question its raison d’ être. But there is an ontologically different metaphor. In Greek mythology gods are superhuman creatures struggling for domination and survival with their own moral regards, vices and ignorance as they mess around with the world of humans. They struggle to rule based more on terror than wisdom, imposing justice that serves their order. Humans have to worship them in order to appease them. I find this imagery closer to a realist depiction of government.
Recently, a former classmate badgered me into accompanying her on a run to the supermarket. As we were checking out, I, as a person who is very dedicated to the principle of self-interest, used a handful of coupons and a discount card to lower my final tally. My companion had a judgmental reaction to the proceedings: she gave me to understand that she never sought discounts or used coupons because to do so was beneath her station. Oddly, she could see no connection between her attitude and her continuous complaints about being short on funds. It was only much later that I connected her attitude at the cash register with her frequent monologues about a “broken society,” a slight fixation on “inequality,” and an overweening sense of entitlement.
In 1971, NBC produced a sitcom called The Good Life, not to be confused with the British series of the same name. The American series was unsuccessful, in comparison to its competition, and it was canceled after fifteen episodes. I have never seen the show as NBC has never rerun it or provided a home release of it. I first heard of The Good Life in a book, whose title I have regrettably forgotten (for a long time I thought the book was Greg Easterbrook’s The Progress Paradox but now I can’t find any allusion to the tv show in Easterbrook’s book.). The author of the forgotten book alluded to The Good Life as a watershed moment in tv history with its portrayal of the so-called super-rich – the one bit I remember was that the book described the show as “the most luxurious show [in terms of portrayal of lifestyle]” and connected the show to a sudden increase in a broad sense of entitled victimhood throughout society. The Good Life was also, apparently, part of creating the environment conducive for the success of the soap opera Dallas (1978 – 1991).
The plot behind The Good Life is that a middle-class couple become exhausted with the pressures of suburban life and maintaining a lifestyle that’s beyond their means. Consequently, the pair decide to scam their way into the household of an industrialist multimillionaire by disguising themselves as a butler and housekeeper. The theme which (apparently) underlay the show was the idea that there is a class of people who live extravagant, exotic lives (the proverbial good life) and therefore can afford to support some sponging malcontents.
When researching the show, one thing that struck me about it was how prescient it was in terms of foretelling some of the themes which are present in our current socio-political discourse. The two con-artists are reasonably successful college graduates who believe that society promised them the good life as a reward for going to college and having careers; however, when the pair see the lifestyle shown in glossy magazines – mansions, tennis courts, Rolls-Royce cars – the couple feels that society has reneged on its promise. The logic of the show’s premise is that the couple has been pushed by society – that wicked, amorphous “they” – toward a life of deception because there is no other path to riches open to them.
LitHub ran an article titled “How the well-educated and downwardly mobile found socialism.” The article isn’t worth reading, but the title touches on what began as the fictional premise of The Good Life and has become a full blown, ideologically fraught, issue today. What happens when perception of status is overblown and there is no sense of timeframe to temper expectations?
Thinking of the popularity of AOC or Andrew Yang and the manner in which they have successfully tapped into the tropes of “unjust society” of “inequality,” the modern millennial (my own generation) seems to have embraced the premise of The Good Life. The tv show contained a very subtle, and completely subversive, inversion of the moral order: because “society’s promises” were broken, the dishonesty of the protagonists was not immoral. The extension of such reasoning is that the industrialist was obligated to support the swindlers anyway due to his greater wealth.
Capx just ran a terrific article by Jethro Elsden, “Jane Austen, the accidental economist,” in response to the new film version of Emma. One of the interesting tidbits the author found was that in modern terms, Mr Darcy’s £10,000 per annum income is probably equivalent to £60 million today, which would make his wealth around £3 billion. Even then Elizabeth Darcy had to “make small economies” once she decided to support her sponging sister and feckless brother-in-law. Granted the economies might have been the result of not telling her husband, but still the point remains that no one can long support spongers.
Elsden alluded to the logic of social pressure and the malignant effect it had on Austen’s characters who feel compelled to engage in an “arms race.” A major reason the swindlers of The Good Life turn to dishonesty is that they feel pressured to look like successful suburban college graduates. The problem was that in the case of Austen’s characters and the tv show from 154 years later, the definition of “success” in relation to appearances was fungible. Rationally, it is ridiculous for the youngish couple of The Good Life to be in same place financially and socially as their mark, the middle-aged, widower industrialist whose lifestyle (but not work ethic) they covet.
To return, finally, to the anecdote regarding my shopping expedition, the episode is an example of a type of path that begins with frivolous preconceptions and ends with The Good Life on the comic end and the rise of Andrew Yang, Bernie Sanders, or Elizabeth Warren on the other. These politicians have located a demographic which has no sense of progression of time, stages of development, or realistic expectations. A perfect example is my ex-classmate, who has subjected herself to a fantasy regarding her own realistic expectation and now believes that the social contract has been broken. For such a demographic, the emotional trumps the rational. It is easier to believe themselves wronged than as merely victims of their own imaginations.
Since first dipping my feet (brain?) into philosophical waters I’ve realized that the world has more dimensions than my mind. Many more. Which means insisting on a consistent philosophy is, in all likelihood, a recipe for disaster.
This isn’t to say I’ve got an inconsistent philosophy, or that I’m ready to throw up my hands and say “anything goes!“. But like a good bridge, my philosophy is full of tensions.
I can’t derive everything back to the Harm Principle (a principle I like), recognition of subjective values (which I’m on board with), or some notion of a social utility function (which I do like as a rhetorical crutch or skyhook, but am unwilling to take with me more than arm’s length from the whiteboard).
Instead, I’ve got a smorgasbord of mental tools–ethical notions (“don’t kill people!”), social science models (prisoners’ dilemma, comparative advantage)–that I try to match appropriately to the situation.
This puts me in the unfortunate position of requiring a great deal of humility. But as it will say on my tombstone: worse things have happened to better people…
I approach the world with libertarian priors. At the end of the day, I’m a left-libertarian anarchist. But Jonathan Haidt’s work has convinced me that my priors say more about me than the world. To be sure, libertarianism brings something important to the table, but so do other views.
Recognizing the importance of ideological pluralism lets me use my ideology like a lever instead of a bat–a tool instead of a weapon. And hey, what’s more libertarian than pluralism?!
As a centuries-long-run prospect for a meta-utopia I’m still staunchly libertarian. Go back in time 500 years and you’ll be told democracy is a pipe dream. I think we’re in a similar moment for the ideas of radical freedom, self-determination, and decentralization of power I’d really like to see put into practice. But imagine going back in 500 years, convincing everyone you’re a powerful wizard, then implementing democracy all at once. I don’t think it’d work out very well. Hell, I’m not even sure about going back in time 3 years to run that experiment! Similarly, flipping the An-Cap switch tomorrow would probably be 100 steps forward, 1000 steps back. Without the appropriate culture in place, good ideas are likely to backfire.
Still, I’m a libertarian anarchist by default and want to see the world move in that direction. But in the short-medium run I refuse to be dogmatic.
I get a lot out of my ideological priors, but I get more by refusing to slavishly follow them at all costs. Yes, the greatest good will be served in an anarcho-capitalist world (I think). But it’s a long trip from here to there. Sustaining that equilibrium will require a cultural shift that hasn’t happened yet–and ignoring those informal institutions is likely to lead to something more like feudalism than utopia. In the mean time, I say move towards greater freedom and avoid getting bogged down in partisanship.
So I’ve got a long-run goal: radical federalism and maximal freedom. But how do we get there? What are the short- and medium-run goals?
Simply to make things better while encouraging people to engage in voluntary interactions that create value, especially by building up social capital networks.
My Austrian-subjectivist priors are in tension with my rationalist-utilitarian instinct. But I think we find a way out by considering policy effects on future generations. Tyler Cowen suggests pursuing policy that promotes long run economic growth.
The big caveat is that although GDP is the best available metric to pursue, GDP is an imperfect measure. Figuring out “GDP, properly understood” adds a layer of complexity that makes policy evaluation all the more difficult. Which is part of the controversy with my recent posts on pollution taxes.
For example, after the end of slavery, total leisure time increased which would decrease measured GDP. But clearly a proper accounting of productivity would discount the initially higher GDP by the cost of forced labor. Similarly, we have to refine our notion of measured* economic well-being to account for things left out of the old methods–like household consumption, leisure, black markets (side note: the war on drugs is a waste!), human capital**, and ecological assets that fall outside the private property system.
Addendum for the left: what’s best for the world’s poorest people is a worthy addition to Cowen’s policy. And it’s an addition that also tends to push us towards libertarian arguments (like liberalization of immigration policy).
Unfortunately, I’m a rationalist by default which means I have to work at my epistemic humility. I’m constantly tempted to see the world as more legible than it really is. I have to keep reminding myself that I don’t know could fill a library. But the world is much more complex than any functional team of smart people could handle, let alone a lone economist–even if he happens to be one of few who really do get it.
One of my favorite arguments is the Austrian-libertarian point that “if we knew what people would do with their freedom, we wouldn’t need it.” For example, the reason to allow someone to start new businesses isn’t because we know that it’s going to make things better. Instead, it’s because market innovation depends on decentralized, crowd-sourced experimentation. We don’t say “oh, this Steve Jobs guy is about to improve our lives,” because if we could do that (we can’t) then we could instead find a less costly way to get the same outcome (we can’t do that either).
This line of reasoning also applies to policy. There are some easy cases–there’s plenty of low-hanging fruit in occupational licensing. But society is a complex system, so you can’t do just one thing. Any one policy change ripples through the system and creates unintended consequences.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we should do nothing. But my conservative friends are right that we shouldn’t go too fast. In any case, we’ve got more tensions that require me to listen to a wider range of ideological voices due to my cognitive limits.
A particularly interesting policy question is to what extent we should (not) take account of the impacts of American (Canadian, European, Chinese, etc., etc.) policy on non-Americans.
Here we find another tension. On the one hand, surely being accidentally born into a particular geography doesn’t give you greater moral weight than others. On the other, even if we want American policy to help Haitians, there’s a knowledge problem exacerbated by distance.
I think the appropriate response is a friendly and open federalism. Local issues should be handled locally. We should be neighborly. We should resist the temptation to centralize power.
But we should also take advantage of large-scale governance structures (private or public) to deal with large-scale issues. Match the scale of governance to the scale of the relevant externalities.
The downside of this approach is that some locales will do terrible things. “States’ rights” is a bad argument for slavery (or for anything else). But stepping in to make things better isn’t an unambiguous improvement. If there’s one thing to learn from America’s adventures in statecraft*** it’s that you can’t just force a country to be free.
Given that, we should be more open to accept the world’s huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Historically, our record is far from spotless. But there have also been humanitarian successes in moving people away from tyranny.
We have a moral obligation to at least consider the well-being of everyone around the globe. And the lowest hanging fruit for actually making a positive difference is opening up our borders. Not to say there’s a simple answer, but the answer lies in the direction of freedom of movement.
How should we (according to me) go about deciding questions of public policy? We should opt to encourage the creation of value and reduction of costs (i.e. economic growth). But we should do so carefully and with open minds.
GDP growth is a worthy goal, but not for it’s own sake. John Stuart Mill wrote:
“How many of the so-called luxuries, conveniences, refinements, and ornaments of life, are worth the labour which must be undergone as the condition of producing them?… In opposition to the ‘gospel of work,’ I would assert the gospel of leisure, and maintain that human beings cannot rise to the finer attributes of their nature compatibly with a life filled with labour.”
Mindless insistence on measurable output overlooks important things like going to your kid’s little league game, grabbing a beer with friends, or quiet contemplation. And even if the people arguing for protecting the environment seem a bit silly, we’re wrong to ignore the importance of environmental externalities in affecting our standard of living. All of which is to say, Cowen is right that we need to carefully consider the shortfalls of how we measure economic growth, all while encouraging it.
Perhaps most importantly, we should relish a tension between consequentialism and principles. There are plenty of low-hanging fruits for libertarianism, but if we want to get the most out of this metaphorical tree we need to let a fear of bad outcomes encourage us to invest in civil society, informal institutions, and rich social networks so that freedom can expand without costing us inhumanity. I want to see the welfare state ended, but I’m willing to wait while we start by reducing barriers to entrepreneurship. I want to see taxes go away, but I’m willing to see a less-bad tax replace an egregious one.
We should reject the dogmatism that too often leads us to over-prioritize ideological purity. First, such purity can trap us in local optima (metaphor: a self-driving car programmed to never go east sounds like a good way to get from NYC to LA… till it gets stuck in a cul de sac somewhere). Second, that purity is an illusion. God’s true ethical system simply isn’t available to us–it’s more complex than our brains are–so why worry?
Post script: don’t take this to be an argument against libertarianism. Or a call to prioritize “pragmatism” over ideology or any other political values. I’m not trying to make a definitive argument abolishing ideology, I’m just gently pushing back. The key word here is tension. We can’t have tension between A and B if we get rid of A.
*Here’s another tension: I don’t believe we can actually measure economic well-being. I think we can make educated guesses based on well-thought out studies of observable proxy variables, but I believe in the impossibility of interpersonal utility comparison.
**A major pet peeve of mine is the conflation of education and schooling. Education, properly understood, is simply not measurable. We might find some clever proxy variables (for example, the Economic Complexity Index is my current favorite metric for productive capability–which overlaps capital and human capital accumulation).
***That’d be a good title for a comic book! If you know the right historian and/or international relations scholar, put them in touch with Zach Weinersmith!
François Furet, in the preliminary essay that serves as an introduction to The Past of an Illusion, entitled “The Equalitarian Passion,” highlights that in the Ancient Regime inequality was legally consecrated, while after the French Revolution, inequality persists surreptitiously, of contraband, thus cementing a feeling of vindication in the face of illegitimate inequality. Something similar happens in a system of regulations that, with the intention of serving the common good, re-establishes, de facto, a system of monopolies and oligopolies.
It is paradoxical that a political legal system made up mostly of general and abstract rules finds an unintended consequence of an increase in general well-being, while a regimented system based on a specific goal of social justice and growth finds itself as an involuntary stagnant consequence and with high rates of inequality. However, attentive given that no one can be judged morally for their involuntary results and instead for their intentions, it is commonly interpreted that the success of societies organized around abstract and general principles cannot be adjudicated to such principles, as it is also considered active policies that deliberately seek the common good cannot be reviewed by virtue of their poor results, but in any case what deserves to be discussed are the means to reach such objectives.
Once this point is reached, we discard any political program that does not have a purpose of reform or transformation based on a specific objective and in which the political discussion is about society models and the means to achieve in the practice of the realization of such models, the table is served for the ideologization of political discourse. Kenneth Minogue had rescued the original concept of “ideology” -before the Marxist who points to a set of values of the ruling class at the service of the perpetuation of his power-, which dealt with the set of claims with scientific pretension that, through a redemptorist program, he proposed a series of concrete transformations of society. This word and notion comes from the ideologues of the French Revolution, which mostly fulfilled a pedagogical function.
Since the ideology of politics is installed, any doctrine that arises from its discourse in terms of defending a system of coexistence articulated around abstract and general norms and lacking a specific purpose of designing the society according to a certain model. In the political arena, therefore, there are political programs that seek to impose a certain model of society, articulated around a series of assertions with alleged scientific validity. Whatever the model of society under discussion, by the mere fact of proposing such political programs the transformation of society in function of those, the legal norms expressed in abstract and general terms that make up both the individual guarantees and the private right run the serious risk of being considered as an obstacle and an irrational hindrance of the past that prevents the realization of such models of society. This is the process that Friedrich A. Hayek had described in The Road to Serfdom.
The paradox is that a legal – political system composed mostly of abstract (that is, lacking a concrete purpose) and general (that is, the same for all citizens regardless of their status) rules allows to coordinate in a more efficient way the resources of those that a society has, through a better coordination of individual plans, about whose content we know nothing and whose final configuration is impossible to predict, that is, a complex social order. On the other hand, the abolition or gradual weakening of such a system of coordination in the allocation of resources and its replacement by a system of planning or centralized control of the economy and society based on a specific model generates an economic breakdown that only serves of excuse to redouble centralization in the administration of resources. At one point, neither the model of society nor the need to have a central planning to reach it, nor even that there is such a model or such a central planning of society, is only discussed, but it is indeed discussed which are the most appropriate means to “improve” said model.
That said, it is worth making a terminological clarification: what Hayek called in The Road to Serfdom “socialism” and then in Law, Legislation and Liberty “constructivism,” can be assimilated to a large extent to what Kenneth Minogue called “ideology” (although in truth, it must be recognized that Minogue, at the time, accused Hayek of being an ideological author). But, as Hayek himself clarifies in his prologue to the 1974 edition of The Road to Serfdom, the socialism to which he alluded in 1944 was not income redistribution programs, but the centralized planning of the economy and society . Similarly, Hayek’s critique of the notion of social justice concerns precisely those programs of political reform that seek to establish, through centralized planning, a designed social order. Another issue is the positivization of values through abstract and general rules. A negative income tax – as proposed by Milton Friedman at the time – can be implemented through abstract and general norms, as well as patterns of redistribution inspired by John Rawls’ theory of justice. The problem is not redistribution, but the replacement of a spontaneous social organization system with a centralized planning system.
At the heart of the dispute between the prevalence of a spontaneous social order versus its replacement by a system of centralized planning of society is a divergence around the concept of the abstract. The supporters of the centralized planning of society are convinced that, through the measuring elements provided by science, the wealth of social events can be selected in aggregates that allow forming an abstract model of society, which In turn, it allows planning its reform according to the ideal model of society in whose transformation the political program that gives it reason to be to the politician’s own activity and that justifies his ethics of responsibility.
Of course, statistical tools, which are constantly developing (Hayek himself was a professor of statistics, and from The Road to Serfdom to today appeared the desktop computer and the science of Big Data, for example), allow a better allocation of public resources in the implementation of government programs. It is very useful for the rationalization of the government administration to know how much the population is going to vaccinate, the poverty and indigence statistics in order to determine, for example, subsidies to the demand, or the needs of schooling at its various levels. However, if there is consensus on the need for a vaccination program, or on the importance of subsidizing access to certain goods or the importance of schooling the population, it is because the members of that society already have a set of principles about what is considered good or bad, desirable or undesirable, necessary or superfluous. Such abstract notions do not arise from the abstraction of social events in statistical aggregates, but, on the contrary, these abstract concepts allow to form the groupings by virtue of which the social reality will have to be interpreted.
Such principles are born, develop and evolve according to the game of continuous human interaction. As described above, they consist of uses and customs that individuals incorporate in the course of exchanges and that prove with the passage of time to provide a better performance to the members of the community that follow them. Accounting standards, public behaviour guidelines, compliance with the word pledged, good faith, are examples of such practices that are extended throughout the population by incorporating such standards into the habits of its members. It was what Max Weber at the time conceptualized as the emergence of “rational capitalism.” These principles are not immutable, but on the contrary they adapt to the circumstances. However, they also enjoy certain permanence in time that allows them to serve as a structure or parameter for rational decision-making, since such a structure of values prohibits a certain range of decisions, which makes its transitivity possible.
This system of discovery and spontaneous evolution of the abstract values according to which reality is perceived and its respective organized elements can assume various configurations and has its own process of immanent criticism. The egalitarian guidelines that we can characterize as typical of modern society, in which every human being has the right to have equal consideration and respect, were extended over less efficient structures such as those of the caste and estates societies, in which the restrictions of competition and the unpredictable exercise of political authority generate stagnation (what Acemoglu and Robinson call “extractive economic and political institutions,” as opposed to “inclusive”). For its part, the peaceful resolution of disputes through the right of judges allows readjusting the set of expectations with which each member of society usually makes its decisions.
Such a system of discovery of abstract values with which each individual can count on to coordinate their respective life plans and their corresponding immanent criticism through the judicial system is also susceptible of receiving a critical analysis by a reasoned examination regarding it and as a result of this, a new political legal order or partial reform of the existing one may arise through the legislative promulgation or even of a constituent assembly. A spontaneous order may have as its origin the enactment ex nihilo of it by a legislator, but among its defining characteristics is the note that it should not necessarily be so. Another of its defining characteristics is that the consequences of a political legal order, still created by the will of a legislator or constituent, cannot be foreseen in its entirety. Moreover, the future evolution of this order cannot be foreseen in its totality and detail. Such degree of uncertainty does not come from the deficiency or insufficiency of the elements of measurement that have for object to know the reality, but in the levels of complexity to which such order can arrive in their more abstract planes.
However, these degrees of complexity decrease drastically in the daily experience of the subjects that interact with each other, seeking to coordinate or compete in their respective individual plans, since each one of them knows what expectations to have regarding the actions of the rest of the subjects (the more “inclusive” the institutions are, the lower the degree of uncertainty). For the case in which two spheres of autonomy collide, the controversy will be resolved by a court that will have to say the content of the law for the specific case submitted to its decision. From this result, they will have to configure a set of expectations with which agents will know that they can count or not.
In contrast to this, at the level of the legislator and the political authority, such levels of certainty leave room for increasing degrees of complexity. Although there are many administrative decisions that can be taken with a high degree of probability of being successful following the procedures of administrative law and the general principles of law – what Max Weber described as a process of rationalization in political decision-making , the certain thing is that it arrives at a point in which the legal reasoning arrives at a limit – what in his moment Carl Schmitt characterized like an instance in which the right dies and leaves its place to the policy. This is where the political authority is faced with the need to dispense with the rationalizing element of law and articulate its decision-making process based on another type of “anchoring”: a philosophical doctrine, a conception of life, a political doctrine, a reason of state or an ideology.
Those who oppose the extension of political power over the autonomous institutions and processes of society maintain that such philosophies, reasons of state, or ideologies are mere masks of pure political will left to their free will. However, at least in principle, they can serve as limitations or at least elements of political responsibility of the ruler in a democracy. There are numerous cases in which a democratically elected governor receives criticism from public opinion regarding a supposed lack of consequence with his political doctrine, a double discourse, or the configuration of a consistent but mistaken ideology. Even so, except for the cases of impeachment and the impossibility of re-election, the tools to control the political reasons of the rulers and their consequences are rather scarce.
However, a distinction can be made between a simple political doctrine and an ideologized political doctrine – or, in Minogue’s terms, quite simply an ideology. A political doctrine can sustain a series of diffuse principles that do not exhaust a totalizing vision of reality. For example, German Christian Democracy can be defined equally by rejection of the extreme left, as the extreme right, a market freedom regulated by the State in order to preserve competition from the actions of monopolies (the “competitive order” of Ordo-Liberalism) and the moderate defence of certain values prevalent in society through the non-interference of the government in its autonomous processes, that is, a clear division between society and State. However, no one can define in detail an ideology of German Christian Democracy.
In many circumstances, this “de-ideologization” is interpreted as “pragmatism” or “opportunism.” However, there is also room for opportunism in the interpretation of a political ideology by the public power that invokes it as a reason of state. The great problem that “ideologies” or ideological visions of politics do present is that, by offering a totalizing and scientific version of reality, they can be used as tools to discredit the legal system.
It is true that a legal system could be replaced by another in its entirety through a legislative reform – in the case of private law, a new civil code, for example – or a constitutional reform. But once reformed or replaced by the new, unless a tyranny has been instituted, it becomes the new legal order that will limit the political power. The problem arises when there is a phenomenon that can be named as the “road to serfdom”: the continuous, permanent and incremental discrediting, erosion, violation and exception to the current legal order.
When such a process is presented, freedom understood as the absence of arbitrary coercion is in decline, since, by invoking a reason of state or a state of exception, the expectations with which individuals counted to form their plans of life are frustrated in a way impossible to foresee. As a result, the political legal order becomes perceived as arbitrary and its obligation to obey it put in doubt.
Another consequence of the phenomenon known as the “road to serfdom” is that the system of immanent criticism of positive law affected by the application of this by judges in the face of concrete controversies is eroded. As already mentioned, attentive to the open texture of legal language, the judicial system allows for marginal readjustments on the content of the law that represent a true process of evolution, in the sense of adaptation to changes in the environment. In turn, this readjustment introduces new expectations in the agents, which generates a change in reality and opens the way for a new interpretation change through the open texture of the letter of the law, in a real feedback process negative that gives stability and predictability to the system.
On the contrary, the state of emergency and emergency legislation, as well as legislative and judicial activism, which seek to modify the content of the law not to solve the internal contradictions generated by its open texture, but to transform it according to concepts alien to the law. Right, they erode such a negative feedback system of expectations and, far from achieving the modernization of the law, what they obtain is their obsolescence, their discredit, and their disobedience. See that in countries with a greater authoritarian tradition, the adherence to standards by the population is significantly lower than in countries where emergency legislation and the state of emergency was limited to cases of war.
There aren’t many signs that the French will soon free themselves from the trap they have sprung on themselves. The Macron administration had been elected to do something precisely about the strangling effect of taxation on French economic life and, on individual freedom. (The latter message may have been garbled during his campaign.) Are there any solutions in sight for the French crisis of psychic poverty, framed by both good social services and high taxes?
I see two kinds of obstacles to reform. The first is comprised of collective cognitive and of attitudinal deficiencies. The second, paradoxically, is a feature of French society that American progressives would envy if they knew about it.
Cognition and attitudes
After four months of weekly demonstrations, the gilets jaunes (“yellow vests”) protesters had not found the language to articulate clearly their frustration. I mean, at least those who were left protesting. They seem to be falling back increasingly on crude views of “social justice” (“les inégalités”) as if, again, the issue was never to produce more, or to retain more of what they produce, but only to confiscate even more from the (fleeing) rich. Over the many years of democratic socialism, French culture has lost the conceptual vocabulary that would be necessary to plan an exit out of the impasse. Here is an example of this loss: In the past twenty years of reading and watching television in French almost every day, I have almost never come across the single word “libéral.” (That would be in the old English meaning of “market oriented.”) The common, nearly universal term is “ultra-libéral.” It’s as if favoring an analysis inclined toward market forces could not possibly exist without being “ultra,” which denotes extremism.
What started as a fairly subtle insult against those who discreetly appreciate capitalism has become fixed usage: You want more free market? You are a sort of fanatic. This usage was started by professional intellectuals, of course (of which France has not shortage). Then, it became a tool tacitly to shut off certain ideas from the masses, all the while retaining the words derogatory muscle. So, in France today, one can easily think of oneself as a moderate socialist – on the center left – but there is no balancing position on the center right. (3) It makes it difficult to think clearly, and especially to begin to think clearly about politics. After all, what young person wants to be an extremist, except those who are really extremists?
I saw recently online a French petition asking that French economist Frédéric Bastiat’s work be studied in French schools. Bastiat is one of the clearest exponents of fundamental economics. His contribution is not as large or as broad as Adam Smith’s but it’s more insightful, in my judgment. (He is the inventor of the “broken window” metaphor, for instance.) He also wrote unusually limpid French. Bastiat has not been part of secondary studies in France in my lifetime. His name is barely known at the university level. Marx and second, and third-rate Marxists, on the other hand, are omnipresent. (Some cynics would claim that whatever their conversation, the educated French do not read Bastiat, or A. Smith, but neither do they really read Marx!)
Few, in France, are able to diagnose the malaise that grips the country because it has ceased to have a name. The handful who understand capitalism are usually allergic to it because it does not guarantee equal outcomes. A minority, mostly business people, grasp well enough how it works and how it has pulled most of humanity out of poverty but they are socially shamed from expressing this perception. There is little curiosity among the French about such questions as why the American GDP/capita is 35% higher than the French. They treat this information as a sort of deed of Nature. Or, for the more ideological, among them, it’s the sad result of America’s unfairness to itself. A debate that ought to take place is born dead. How did this happen? Socialists of my generation, most good democrats, born during and right after WWII largely, early on took over the media and the universities. They have shaped and constrained public opinion since at least the sixties. They have managed to stop discussions of alternative economic paths without really conspiring to do so, possibly without even meaning to.
A really deep state
In 1945, after the long night of the 1940 defeat and of the Nazi occupation, many French people where in a mood to engender a new society. They created a number of novel government organizations designed to implement their vision of clean government but also, of justice. (They took prosperity for granted, it seems.) One of the new organizations was a post-graduate school especially designed to ensure that access to the highest levels of the government bureaucracy would be democratic and meritocratic. It’s called, “École Nationale d’Administration” (ENA). It accepts only graduates of prestigious schools. The ENA students’ per capita training costs are about seven times the average cost for all other higher education students. ENA students are considered public servants and they receive a salary. France thus possesses a predictably renewed cadre of trained administrators to run its government. And, repeating myself here, its members are chosen according to a strictly meritocratic process (unlike the most prestigious American universities, for example), a process that is also extremely selective.
In 2019, ENA is flourishing. The school has contributed four presidents and eight Prime Ministers to-date. Its graduates are numerous among professional politicians, as you might expect. In addition, they are teeming in the highest ranks of the civil service, and also of business. That’s because they go back and forth between the two worlds, with some benefit to their careers and to their wallets. This iteration does not imply corruption. Mostly, ENA graduates do not have a reputation for dishonesty at all. They help one another but it’s mostly above board. (4) This being said, it’s difficult to become really poor if you are an ENA graduate.
Graduates of ENA are often disparagingly described as a “caste,” which is sociologically inaccurate because caste is inherited. The word is meant to render a certain collective attitude of being smugly sealed from others. The intended meaning is really that of “upper caste,” of Brahman caste, to signify: those who think they possess all the wisdom.
All ENA graduates have made it to the top by taking the same sort of exam. The style of exams and the way they are corrected become known over time. Naturally, ENA candidates study to the exam. The ENA formula for success is not a mystery although it’s not just a formula; ENA also requires a sharp intelligence and character. ENA graduates have important traits in common, including a willingness to spend their adolescence cramming for increasingly difficult competitive exams. There are few charming dilettantes in their ranks. They all emerge from a process that does not reward imagination.
ENA graduates – dubbed “énarques” – seem overwhelmingly to share a certain view of the desirable interface between government and the economy. It’s not hard to guess at, based on thousands of their speeches reproduced in the media, and with the help of a little familiarity with French classical education. Its origin is neither in capitalism nor in socialism. (Sorry for the only slightly misleading title of this essay.) It predates both by 100-150 years. It’s rooted in the well known story of the Minister Colbert’s 17th century economic reforms. (It’s well known in the sense that every French school kid knows his name and a thing or two about the reforms themselves.) Colbert (1619-1683) raised tariffs, regulated production in minute detail and, above all, he created with public funds whole industries where none existed, in glass, in porcelain, but also in textiles, and others. I believe his main aim was only to increase government (royal) revenue but others think differently. At any rate, there is a widespread belief that general French prosperity rose under his administration.
To make matters worse, Colbert is a historical figure easy to like: hard working, honest, an effective patron of the arts. With such a luminary to look up to, it’s fairly effortless to ignore both the actual disorderly origins of capitalism, and also the initially compassionate roots of its socialist counter-reaction. (On capitalism’s origins, and originality, you might consult my entry: “Capitalism.” The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Blackwell Publishing. Vol. 2, Malden, Mass. 2006. Make sure of that particular edition – 2006 – my predecessors and successors were mostly opaque Marxist academic lowlifes.)
For seventy years, French economic policy has thus been made largely by deeply persuaded statists, people who think rule from above natural (especially as it takes place within a broadly democratic framework), who judge government intervention in economic matters to be necessary, fruitful, and virtuous, people who believe that government investment is investment, people who have given little thought to private enterprise, (although they occasionally pay lip service to it, largely as if it were a kind of charity). Almost none of them, these de facto rulers, is a bad person. Their pure hearts make them all the more dangerous, I believe. The result is there in France for all to see: a sclerotic economy that has failed to provide enough jobs for fifty years, a modest standard of living by the criteria of societies that industrialized in the nineteenth century, a worsening unease about the future, a shortage of the freedom of small pleasures for the many.
I do not use the conventional words of “tyranny” or “despotism” here because both are normally more less deliberately imposed on the populace. Nothing of the sort happened in France. On the contrary, lack of individual freedom in France is the accumulated consequence of measures and programs democratically adopted within the framework described above. Together, these well-meaning social programs are squeezing the liveliness out of all but the upper layers of French society.
There exists in the country a growing resentment of the énarques’ basically anti-capitalist rule. One recent president, Sarkozy, even declared he partly owed his election to bragging about not being a graduate from ENA. Yet, the thousands of énarques permanently at the levers of command for seventy years are not about to relinquish them, irrespective of the political party or parties in power. Few groups controlling as much as they ever does so voluntarily. The deep sentiment of their collective virtuousness will make them even more intransigent. Most French critics believe that the énarquesare incapable of changing as a cadre, precisely because they are really an intellectual elite of sorts, precisely because they are not corrupt. And, as I remarked above, ENA’s statist (“socialist”) reign has lasted so long that the French people in general have lost track of the very conceptual vocabulary an anti-bureaucrat rebellion would require. (We know what we don’t want, but what do we want?)
(3) It’s true also that historical accidents have deprived France of a normal Tory party. Its place is currently occupied by reactionary nationalists (currently the “Rassemblement national,” direct descendant of the “Front National,” of Marine Le Pen) who don’t favor market forces much more than does the left.
(4) I take the ENA graduates’ reputation for probity seriously because, right now, as I write, there are clamors for abolishing the school but its generating corruption in any way is not one of the reasons advanced.
Now it is true. As I predicted some time ago, Jair Bolsonaro became Brazil’s president. Bolsonaro is not the brightest guy in the room, but I believe he has some qualities a leader requires. Above all, Bolsonaro shows conviction, a quality central to leadership, as Albert Mohler observes. Bolsonaro has the conviction that socialism/communism is the wrong way, and that Brazil has to try an alternative. The alternative, he has grown to understand, is the free market.
In his first remarks as president, Bolsonaro said that Brazil is “leaving socialism.” Some Brazilian friends, even people with high education, found this quote preposterous. In their view, Brazil can’t abandon socialism because she never tried it. That’s quite scary! After almost two decades of rule of the Worker’s Party (PT) there are people in Brazil who believe that Brazil never tried socialism.
It must be observed that PT is a big party, with many internal tendencies. Still, historically the party has the objective of turning Brazil into a socialist country. It is quite shocking that some people haven’t realized this!
On the other hand, many Brazilians still charge capitalism for all the country’s problems. The difficulty with this is that, if we take capitalism as free-market, Brazil has never been capitalist. Brazil’s economic history, in a nutshell, is of government control of the economy.
One of the challenges Brazil has, as surprising as it may be, is to teach people what is socialism and what is capitalism. The other is to make people understand that socialism is just bad. It has been tried. It failed, as it should. Capitalism, understood as economic freedom, worked everywhere. And there is no reason to believe that it wouldn’t work in Brazil.
President Macron spoke to the French nation today (12/10/18). He apologized a little for his figurative distance from the rank-and-file. Then he tried to buy some off the yellow vests off with other people’s money. The national minimum monthly wage will rise by about US$113; overtime will not be taxed anymore. You are not going to believe the next appeasement measure he announced. I have a hard time believing it myself but I read it and heard it from several sources. President Macron decreed a significant Christmas bonus for public servants and ordered (I think) private employers to follow suite. The bonus will also be tax-free. I have no idea what effects these measures will have. I suspect the weather has more influence on the yellow vests’ behavior.
The movement began, as most Americans know by now, as a protest against a new extra tax on diesel fuel. It was presented a little breathlessly as a way to save the planet. This is significant in several ways. First, it suggests that a large fraction of the French people do not believe in climate change (like me) or do not care about it. Second, it demonstrates that Mr Macron, probably along with the political class in general, have lost touch with much of their electorate for not realizing the these perceptions. Third, it shows sheer incompetence if not cynicism. Any average thinking person in France could have warned Mr Macron that a tax on diesel is one of the most regressive taxes possible. The transport of ordinary goods in France relies largely on diesel-powered trucks. A tax on diesel proportionately (proportionately) hits the poor more than the prosperous. Perhaps the government thought that those affected were too stupid or too passive to protest.
The government has reversed its decision on the diesel tax but it’s too late. It seems to me the diesel tax was simply a case of the straw that broke the camel back. Fifty years ago, the French gave themselves a wonderful cradle-to-grave summer camp. It’s a real good one, I must say, including a sort of winter camp of free ski vacations for children. (Would I make this up?) This was based on the original idea that “the rich” could be taxed into paying for summer camp. (Sounds familiar?) After two generations, the bills are finally coming due. The definition of “the rich” has been going down fast. Indirect (and therefore regressive) taxes are everywhere. The increase in the tax on diesel was just one of the latest.
The providential and fun state has other consequences. The main one is that it is implicitly anti-business. It protects employees almost completely against being laid off. It’s solicitous of their leisure with a 34 hour week and many many vacations and holidays. French governing circles have become used to celebrating GDP growth rates so low they are considered shameful in America. I think it’s rigorously true that in the past twenty years, unemployment has never gone below 8%. It’s normally been closer to 9% and even 10%. It’s 20% if you are young. I am guessing (guessing) that it’s 40% and up if you are young and your name is Mohammed.
There is worse. In a pattern that will seem familiar to many Americans, there is a big well-being divide between the capital, Paris proper, and the rest of France. Parisians live in a low-density city with good public transport and many employment opportunities. Housing prices and rents are high in Paris, as you might expect. In nearly all of the rest of France, there are few jobs, spotty services. (I am told it’s not uncommon to have to drive 2 hours each way to consult a specialist); hospitals are good but far and few. Many of those charming villages you see from the freeway have not had schools for many years. Housing in the hinterland is cheap. Of course, this is enough to cause people of low means to be stuck where they are.
It’s difficult for foreign reporters to understand the yellow vests movement, for a small reason and for a big one. First, it does seem to be originally a genuine grassroot movement. Accordingly, it has no leaders and not authorized spokespersons. Second, and much more importantly, in my lifetime the very conceptual vocabulary of market economies has vanished from the public discourse. The yellow vests interviewed on television do not know how to express what hurts them. When ordinary French men and women, and what passes for their intellectual elites, discuss, or even think, about economic problems the only tools they have at their disposal is the pseudo-Marxist vocabulary of those who got their Marxism from Cliff Notes (if that). I think there is only one small French group (on Facebook) that is able to evade this conceptual tyranny. In France, thinking in terms of vaguely socialist terms has ceased to be a choice. It’s now a monolithic social and intellectual reality.
I don’t see how even a more determined and more talented political leader than Mr Macron can tell the great mass of the French people: Summer camp is over; everybody go home and learn to make do with less free stuff. Then, re-learn work.
With all this, France is a functioning democracy. The French elected Macron after six years of disastrous “Socialist” Party rule. Perhaps, as has been the case before, the French people -with their historical inability to reform- will be the canary in the mine for everyone else: The big generous state based on taxation is bad for you or for your children. Just ask the French.