The veil of nostalgia

In article for Worth, titled “A new wealth gap is growing – attention inequality,” authors Joon Yun and Eric Yun of the Yun Family Foundation, an institute dedicated to “transforming the way people think,” argued that “attention inequality” is having a destructive force on society and expressed nostalgia for the days of “monoculture.” They defined this idyllic time as one where all attention was focused on one or two people or groups, e.g. the Beatles, and on no one else. The idea expressed by the Yuns is that the new internet world where everyone may take his best shot at fame is unfair, and a veil that should not have been lifted has been removed. In the meantime, everyone, described as “the heart-broken masses,” wanders through the selection at will, as customers as well as fame-seekers. The Yuns’ complaint is very similar to a running theme in the works of Michel Houellebecq: the free market of choice has created winners and losers and in doing so has destroyed the dreams and self-respect of the last group.

Perhaps the question is whether existing in a world of dreams, one in which a person could feel good about himself using the “might have been” fantasy, is an acceptable burden to thrust upon society. After all, in his short story “The secret life of Walter Mitty [which the Ben Stiller film butchered],” satirist James Thurber’s point was that living in dreams replaces action, allowing people to imagine themselves as people filled with unrecognized abilities. Even Thurber’s picture of the type for whom such an existence is necessary was probably accurate: a passive middle-aged man who had missed opportunities in his youth (implied WWII vet, so both chances to be a military hero and cash in benefits to start a business, further education, etc.) and resents his wife as the cause and the personification of the mediocrity of his existence.

But are we better off with the veil of mediocre monoculture lifted? Is the fact that revelation may not be pleasant for those who discover that they are unappealing to the modern market really a justifiable cause for concern? Is the old world of “monoculture” really something to look back upon with nostalgia?

My former composition and counterpoint teacher was also a concert pianist, who trained at The Juilliard School. While still a student my teacher was signed by a major record label. One of the tidbits I learned from him was that back in “those days (mid-20th century)” practically the only way a young (classical) artist had of obtaining notice was to be at an elite conservatory since that is where the scouts went almost exclusively.

The MO for finding the “latest new thing” made perfect sense for the time period. There was (and still is) a tremendous amount of investment on the part of the label that went into publicity for and grooming of a young artist. Further, in my teacher’s case, the label handled studio and recording expenses, created and booked concert tours, and handled venue costs. The artist did not have to repay the funding; however, total expenses would be deducted from any royalties should he/she become successful. The investment risk meant that going to places where the already-succeeding were clustered was the safest bet for the big labels. There was very little room in the equation for a person who was not already positioned to join the upper professional echelons, or someone who had no insider access.

Was a situation where the major labels acted as gatekeepers and only considered people who fit a certain profile really better than the current one where the internet and digital tools allow artists to perform directly to the audience? The nostalgia for a time of “monoculture” speaks to a yearning for a closed, stratified world. The world where my teacher grew up and worked was a world in which someone with big dreams could imagine himself as simply undiscovered, an unrecognized talent whose gifts would never benefit society. There is some security, a perverse comfort, in such a dynamic. A person never has to confront the idea that maybe he has no talent, maybe his music is not good enough, maybe what he does is something no one finds interesting, perhaps there is no market for him to fill.

The breakup of the “monoculture” has forced average Joe dreamer to confront these possibilities. Instead of only playing and dreaming in his garage, he can now release his own albums on iTunes and Prime Music, upload videos to YouTube and Daily Motion; he can have his own website and create his own publicity. He can wait to see if his work is accepted and if there is an audience for it. The Yun family has argued that the process of exposure and competition is cruel, that it breaks up human contact, that it consigns the vast majority who desire to be part of the “culture” to being part of the “heartbroken masses.” But the real question is: How is average Joe dreamer any better off under the old system? Isn’t a situation in which he at least has a chance to be seen, to make it big, better than one in which he is simply locked out? 

2019: Year in Review

It’s been a heck of a year. Thanks for plugging along with Notes On Liberty. Like the world around me, NOL keeps getting better and better. Traffic in 2019 came from all over the place, but the usual suspects didn’t disappoint: the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, India, and Australia (in that order) supplied the most readers, again.

As far as most popular posts, I’ll list the top 10 below, but such a list doesn’t do justice to NOL and the Notewriters’ contribution to the Great Conversation, nor will the list reflect the fact that some of NOL‘s classic pieces from years ago were also popular again.

Nick’s “One weird old tax could slash wealth inequality (NIMBYs, don’t click!)” was in the top ten for most of this year, and his posts on John Rawls, The Joker film, Dominic Cummings, and the UK’s pornographer & puritan coalition are all worth reading again (and again). The Financial Times, RealClearPolicy, 3 Quarks Daily, and RealClearWorld all featured Nick’s stuff throughout 2019.

Joakim had a banner year at NOL, and four of his posts made the top 10. He got love from the left, right, and everything in between this year. “Elite Anxiety: Paul Collier’s ‘Future of Capitalism’” (#9), “In Defense of Not Having a Clue” (#8), and “You’re Not Worth My Time” (#7) all caused havoc on the internet and in coffee shops around the world. Joakim’s piece on Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice (#2) broke – no shattered – NOL‘s records. Aside from shattering NOL‘s records, Joakim also had excellent stuff on financial history, Richard Davies, and Nassim Taleb. He is also beginning to bud as a cultural commentator, too, as you can probably tell from his sporadic notes on opinions. Joakim wants a more rational, more internationalist, and more skeptical world to live in. He’s doing everything he can to make that happen. And don’t forget this one: “Economists, Economic History, and Theory.”

Tridivesh had an excellent third year at NOL. His most popular piece was “Italy and the Belt and Road Initiative,” and most of his other notes have been featured on RealClearWorld‘s front page. Tridivesh has also been working with me behind the scenes to unveil a new feature at NOL in 2020, and I couldn’t be more humbled about working with him.

Bill had a slower year here at NOL, as he’s been working in the real world, but he still managed to put out some bangers. “Epistemological anarchism to anarchism” kicked off a Feyerabendian buzz at NOL, and he put together well-argued pieces on psychedelics, abortion, and the alt-right. His short 2017 note on left-libertarianism has quietly become a NOL classic.

Mary had a phenomenal year at NOL, which was capped off with some love from RealClearPolicy for her “Contempt for Capitalism” piece. She kicked off the year with a sharp piece on semiotics in national dialogue, before then producing a four-part essay on bourgeois culture. Mary also savaged privileged hypocrisy and took a cultural tour through the early 20th century. Oh, and she did all this while doing doctoral work at Oxford. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with in 2020.

Aris’ debut year at NOL was phenomenal. Reread “Rawls, Antigone and the tragic irony of norms” and you’ll know what I’m talking about. I am looking forward to Dr Trantidis’ first full year at NOL in 2020.

Rick continues to be my favorite blogger. His pieces on pollution taxes (here and here) stirred up the libertarian faithful, and he is at his Niskanenian best on bullshit jobs and property rights. His notes on Paul Feyerabend, which I hope he’ll continue throughout 2020, were the centerpiece of NOL‘s spontaneity this year.

Vincent only had two posts at NOL in 2019, but boy were they good: “Interwar US inequality data are deeply flawed” and “Not all GDP measurement errors are greater than zero!” Dr Geloso focused most of his time on publishing academic work.

Alexander instituted the “Sunday Poetry” series at NOL this year and I couldn’t be happier about it. I look forward to reading NOL every day, but especially on Sundays now thanks to his new series. Alex also put out the popular essay “Libertarianism and Neoliberalism – A difference that matters?” (#10), which I suspect will one day grow to be a classic. That wasn’t all. Alex was the author of a number of my personal faves at NOL this year, including pieces about the Austro-Hungarian Empire, constructivism in international relations (part 1 and part 2), and some of the more difficult challenges facing diplomacy today.

Edwin ground out a number of posts in 2019 and, true to character, they challenged orthodoxy and widely-held (by libertarians) opinions. He said “no” to military intervention in Venezuela, though not for the reasons you may think, and that free immigration cannot be classified as a right under classical liberalism. He also poured cold water on Hong Kong’s protests and recommended some good reads on various topics (namely, Robert Nozick and The Troubles). Edwin has several essays on liberalism at NOL that are now bona fide classics.

Federico produced a number of longform essays this year, including “Institutions, Machines, and Complex Orders” and “Three Lessons on Institutions and Incentives” (the latter went on to be featured in the Financial Times and led to at least one formal talk on the subject in Buenos Aires). He also contributed to NOL‘s longstanding position as a bulwark against libertarian dogma with “There is no such thing as a sunk cost fallacy.”

Jacques had a number of hits this year, including “Poverty Under Democratic Socialism” and “Mass shootings in perspective.” His notes on the problems with higher education, aka the university system, also garnered plenty of eyeballs.

Michelangelo, Lode, Zak, and Shree were all working on their PhDs this year, so we didn’t hear from them much, if at all. Hopefully, 2020 will give them a bit more freedom to expand their thoughts. Lucas was not able to contribute anything this year either, but I am confident that 2020 will be the year he reenters the public fray.

Mark spent the year promoting his new book (co-authored by Noel Johnson) Persecution & Toleration. Out of this work arose one of the more popular posts at NOL earlier in the year: “The Institutional Foundations of Antisemitism.” Hopefully Mark will have a little less on his plate in 2020, so he can hang out at NOL more often.

Derrill’s “Romance Econometrics” generated buzz in the left-wing econ blogosphere, and his “Watson my mind today” series began to take flight in 2019. Dr Watson is a true teacher, and I am hoping 2020 is the year he can start dedicating more time to the NOL project, first with his “Watson my mind today” series and second with more insights into thinking like an economist.

Kevin’s “Hyperinflation and trust in ancient Rome” (#6) took the internet by storm, and his 2017 posts on paradoxical geniuses and the deleted slavery clause in the US constitution both received renewed and much deserved interest. But it was his “The Myth of the Nazi War Machine” (#1) that catapulted NOL into its best year yet. I have no idea what Kevin will write about in 2020, but I do know that it’ll be great stuff.

Bruno, one of NOL’s most consistent bloggers and one of its two representatives from Brazil, did not disappoint. His “Liberalism in International Relations” did exceptionally well, as did his post on the differences between conservatives, liberals, and libertarians. Bruno also pitched in on Brazilian politics and Christianity as a global and political phenomenon. His postmodernism posts from years past continue to do well.

Andrei, after several years of gentle prodding, finally got on the board at NOL and his thoughts on Foucault and his libertarian temptation late in life (#5) did much better than predicted. I am hoping to get him more involved in 2020. You can do your part by engaging him in the ‘comments’ threads.

Chhay Lin kept us all abreast of the situation in Hong Kong this year. Ash honed in on housing economics, Barry chimed in on EU elections, and Adrián teased us all in January with his “Selective Moral Argumentation.” Hopefully these four can find a way to fire on all cylinders at NOL in 2020, because they have a lot of cool stuff on their minds (including, but not limited to, bitcoin, language, elections in dictatorships, literature, and YIMBYism).

Ethan crushed it this year, with most of his posts ending up on the front page of RealClearPolicy. More importantly, though, was his commitment to the Tocquevillian idea that lawyers are responsible for education in democratic societies. For that, I am grateful, and I hope he can continue the pace he set during the first half of the year. His most popular piece, by the way, was “Spaghetti Monsters and Free Exercise.” Read it again!

I had a good year here, too. My pieces on federation (#3) and American literature (#4) did waaaaaay better than expected, and my nightcaps continue to pick up readers and push the conversation. I launched the “Be Our Guest” feature here at NOL, too, and it has been a mild success.

Thank you, readers, for a great 2019 and I hope you stick around for what’s in store during 2020. It might be good, it might be bad, and it might be ugly, but isn’t that what spontaneous thoughts on a humble creed are all about? Keep leaving comments, too. The conversation can’t move (forward or backward) without your voice.

Nightcap

  1. Fighting China: think counterinsurgency, not war John Vrolyk, War on the Rocks
  2. Learning history Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
  3. Might disagreement fade like violence? Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias
  4. Has “human rights” replaced inequality? Katharine Young, Inference

Nightcap

  1. Comedy and humor in the Soviet Union Indra Ekmanis, PRI’s The World
  2. What happened to the children of dictators? Grant Starrett
  3. The most blasphemous idea in contemporary discourse? Ingrid Robeyns, Crooked Timber
  4. Are voting ages still democratic? Bill Rein, NOL

Nightcap

  1. The nature and origins of modernity Brian Micklethwait, Samizdata
  2. If poverty is declining, why worry about inequality? Pranab Bardhan, 3 Quarks Daily
  3. 800 years of change in Hawaii and the Pacific Glyn Ford, Asian Review of Books
  4. Are we still living in Western Civilisation? Ananya Chowdhury, ASI

Institutions, Machines, and Complex Orders (Part 8): Inequality before the law, de facto

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.

[Editor’s note: here is Part 7, and here is the essay in its entirety.]

Nightcap

  1. Modern China: From the Great Qing to Xi Jinping Connor Gahre, Origins
  2. Modern America: Flirting with isolation Henry Nau, Claremont Review of Books
  3. Modern Britain: Success and failure with inequality Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  4. Can American dads have it all? Ross Douthat, New York Times