No Country for Creative Destruction

Imagine a country whose inhabitants reject every unpleasant byproduct of innovation and competition.

This country would be Frédéric Bastiat’s worst nightmare: in order to avoid the slightest maladies expected to emerge from creative destruction, all their advantages would remain unseen forever.

Nevertheless, that impossibility to acknowledge the unintended favourable consequences of competition is not conditioned by any type of censure, but by a sort of self-imposed moral blindness: the metaphysical belief that “being” is good and “becoming” is bad. A whole people inspired by W. B. Yeats, they want to be gathered into the artifice of eternity.

In this imaginary country, which would deserve a place in “The Universal History of Infamy” by J.L. Borges, people cultivate a curious strain of meritocracy, an Orwellian one: they praise stagnation for its stability and derogate growth because of the stubborn and incorruptible conviction that life in society is a zero-sum game.

Since growth is an unintended consequence of creative destruction, they reason additionally, then there must be no moral merit to be recognised in such dumb luck. On the other hand, stagnation is the unequivocal signal of the good deeds to the unlucky, who otherwise could suffer the obvious lost coming from every innovation.

In this fantastic country, Friedrich Nietzsche and his successors are well read: everybody knows that, in the Eternal Return, the whole chance is played at each throw of the dice. So, they conclude, “if John Rawls asked us to choose between growth or stagnation, we would shout at him: Stagnation!!!”

But the majority of the inhabitants of “Stagnantland” are not the only to blame for their devotion to quietness. The few and exceptional proponents of creative destruction who live in Stagnantland are mostly keen on the second term of the concept. That is why some love to say, from time to time, “we all are stagnationist” – the few contrarians are just Kalki’s devotees.

These imaginary people love to spend their vacations abroad, particularly in a legendary island named “Revolution”. Paradoxically, in Revolution Island the Revolutionary government found a way to avoid any kind of counter-revolutionary innovation. It is not necessary to mention that Revolution Island is, by far, Stagnantlanders’ favourite holiday destination.

They show their photos from their last vacation in Revolution Island and proudly stress: “Look: they left the buildings as they were back in 1950!!! Awesome!!!” If you dare to point out that the picture resembles a city in war, that the 1950 buildings lack of any maintenance or refurbishment, they will not get irritated. They will simply smile at you and reply smugly: “but they are happy!”

Actually, for Stagnantlanders, as for many others, ignorance is bliss, but their governments do not need to resort to such rudimentary devices as censure and spying to prevent people from being informed about the innovations and discoveries occurring in other countries, as Revolutionary Island rulers sadly do. Stagnantlanders simply reject any innovation as an article of faith!

Notwithstanding, they allow to themselves some guilty pleasures: they love to use smartphones brought by ant-smuggling and to watch contemporary foreign films which, despite being realistic, show a dystopian future to them.

As everything is deteriorated, progress is always a going back to an ancient and glorious time. In Stagnantland, things are not created, but restored. As with Parmenides, they do not believe in movement, but if there has to be an arrow of time, you had better point it to the past.

Moreover, Stagnantland is an imaginary country because it does not only lack of duration, but of territory as well. As the matter of fact, no man inhabits Stagnantland, but it is indeed stagnation that inhabits the hearts of Stagnantlanders. That is how, from dusk to dawn, any territory could be fully conquered by the said sympathy for the stagnation.

Nevertheless, if we scrutinise the question with due diligence, we will discover that the stagnation is not an ineluctable future, but our common past. Human beings appeared very much earlier than civilisation. So, all those generations must have been doing something before agriculture, commerce, and institutions.

Before the concept of creative destruction had been formulated by Joseph Schumpeter, it was needed a former conception about how people are conditioned by institutions: Bernard Mandeville pointed out how private vices might turn into public benefits, if politicians arranged the correct set of incentives. The main issue, thus, should be the process of discovery of such institutions.

That is why the said aversion to competition and innovation is hardly a problem of a misguided sense of justice, but mostly a matter of what we could coin as “bounded imagination”: the difficultly of reason to deal with complex phenomena. Don’t you think so, Horatio?

What is ‘Good’? What was Arendt pursuing?

Arendt is not the most consistent or coherent philosopher. Her writings display shades of sentimental as well as stoic rationality. Some might scoff at the progression of her thoughts. But the depth of her emotion is what grants her literature the luminescence that we need in times of moral darkness. The world was left waiting for what could have been a monumental work on political judgement when Arendt passed on before getting a chance to complete the final segment of The Life of Mind. The piece entitled ‘Judgement’ was left with an epigraph:

Victrix causa deis placuit, sed victa Catoni.

Taken from Lucan’s Pharsalia, it translates to ‘the victorious cause pleased the gods, but the defeated one pleases Cato.’ It refers to the Roman philosopher and thinker Cato’s life and beliefs. He chose to commit suicide rather than give in to the faction he thought was ‘wrong’. Thus, what is ‘good’ would remain good even if it is defeated a hundred times. His stoicism and moral stubbornness is perhaps what Arendt wanted us to inculcate as a way of moral disciplining of the mind. But also of relevance is the presumption that there is, in fact, something good that is universal and not subject to fluctuations of regions, religion, class or caste. It is like music? Only humans have the capacity to perceive beats, melody, pitch and a number of other variables that combine to make music as we know it. Irrespective of how isolated or engaged our culture might have been with a globalized world, we carry within us the ability to differentiate good music from bad. What differs is our perception of what is happy from sad. A Balinese music for cremation might sound quite happy and serene to the uninitiated. Similarly, perhaps we possess the capacity to ascertain the ‘good’ pursuits from the bad. While culture, upbringing and circumstances of nature might affect the way we perceive the degree to which we are obligated to act upon the thus discovered moral, no (non-sociopathic) human can deny the existence of the goodness of the moral once confronted with it.

I remember asking my professor once about what he thought was that one universal value in constitutions around the world that need protection from majoritarian attempts at amendment. He answered, without blinking, equality. I knew there was something within the wide array of norms that we associate with equality that I know is a good that commands universality. However, there was enough in the substantive affirmations of equality that had room for reasonable disagreement such that as an unbiased spectator I would not be able to dismiss one side over the other. Perhaps the universal principle requires a Humean recognition or a Kantian deliberation. Either way, that it exists and is worth pursuing is an unquestionable precursor to an Arendtian enquiry into the state of things.

There are some hints as to what she might have thought definitely existed within the set (and let us treat it as a set of values/ideals/principles for nothing if not humility about the extent of our understanding and knowledge) of what is ‘good’. Political freedom features quite prominently into her thought. The freedom to participate in public affairs as equals seems to have a place of prominence for Arendt. Not so much the concept of equality extended to realms outside the political. We are not born equal and cannot and should not try to find a natural occurrence of equality for that would require an unjust comparison of the distinctions and characteristics that distinguish individuals. The last blog post talked about Arendt’s insistence on separating the political from social and personal realms. While identity politics is often engaged to make a case for equality, and Arendt had nothing against the ideal of equality, she believed that it is in the political realm that we needed to affirm the ideal of equality most vehemently and zealously. This is because it affects directly our participation in the political which in turn affects everything about our existence in the world.

A better way to read Arendt is to go meta-psychological on her. Perhaps one of the ‘good’  values within the set is a form of communicative rationality, the desire and pursuance of a method of thinking representatively. And perhaps, just as liberation is a necessary precursor to freedom, so is the engagement of Arendtian judgment to finding that which is ‘good’.

Nightcap

  1. No easy road: easements and occupation in the West Bank Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
  2. Clouds over the Pacific: War, Stagnation, and the end of the Asian Century James Holmes, National Review
  3. Was philosophy founded by non-Western women? Dag Herbjørnsrud, Aeon
  4. Natural History of a Cherry Tree Nick Nielsen, Grand Strategy Annex

The Factual Basis of Political Opinions

“Ideology is a menace.” Paul Collier says in his forthcoming book The Future of Capitalism and I couldn’t agree more: ideology (and by extension morality) “binds and blinds”, as psychology professor Jonathan Haidt describes it, and ideology, especially utopian dreams by dedicated rulers, is what allows – indeed accounts for – the darkest episodes of humanity. There is a strange dissonance among people for whom political positions, ideology and politics are supremely important:

  • They portray their position as if supported by facts and empirical claims about the world (or at least spit out such claims as if they did believe that)
  • At the same time, believing that their “core values” and “ideological convictions” are immune to factual objections (“these are my values; this is my opinion”)

My purpose here is to illustrate that all political positions, at least in part, have their basis in empirically verifiable claims about the world. What political pundits fail to understand is not only that facts rule the world, but that facts also limits the range of positions one can plausible take. You may read the following as an extension of “everyone is entitled to his or her own opinions, but not to his or her own facts”. Let me show you:

  • “I like ice-cream” is an innocent and unobjectionable opinion to have. Innocent because hey, who doesn’t like ice-cream, and unobjectionable because there is no way we can verify whether you actually like ice-cream. We can’t effortlessly observe the reactions in your brain from eating ice-cream or even criticize such a position.
  • “Ice-cream is the best thing in the world”, again unobjectionable, but perhaps not so innocent. Intelligent people may very well disagree over value scales, and it’s possible that for this particular person, ice-cream ranks higher than other potential candidates (pleasure, food, world peace, social harmony, resurrection of dinosaurs etc).
  • “I like ice-cream because it cures cancer”. This statement, however, is neither unobjectionable nor innocent. First, you’re making a causal claim about curing cancer, for which we have facts and a fair amount of evidence weighing on the matter. Secondly, you’re making a value judgment on the kinds of things you like (namely those that cure cancer). Consequently, that would imply that you like other things that cure cancer.

Without being skilled in medicine, I’m pretty sure the evidence is overwhelmingly against this wonderful cancer-treating property of ice-cream, meaning that your causal claim is simply wrong. That also means one that you have to update your position through a) finding a new reason to like ice-cream, thus either invoking some other empirical or causal statement we can verify or revert back to the subjective statements of preferences above, b) renege on your ice-cream position. There are no other alternatives.

Now, replace “ice-cream” above with *minimum wages* and “cancer” with “poverty” or any other politically contested issue of your choice, and the fundamental point here should be obvious: your “opinions” are not simply innocent statements of your unverifiable subjective preferences, but contain some factual basis in them. If political opinions, then, consists of subjective value preferences and statements about the world and/or causal connections between things, you are no longer “entitled to your own opinions”. You may form your preferences any way you like – subject to them being internally consistent – but you cannot hold opinions that are based on incorrect observations or causal derivations about the world.

Let me invoke my national heritage, illustrating the point more clearly from a recent discussion on Swedish television.  The “inflammatory” Jordan Peterson, as part of his world tour, visited Norway and Sweden over the past weekend. On Friday he was a guest at Skavlan, one of the most viewed shows in either country (boasting occasionally of more viewers than the large sport events) and– naturally– discussed feminism and gender differences. After explaining the scientific evidence for biological gender differences*, and the observed tendency for maximally (gender) egalitarian societies to have the largest rather than smallest gender-related outcomes, Peterson concludes:

“there are only two reasons men and women differ. One is cultural, and the other is biological. And if you minimize the cultural differences, you maximize the biological differences… I know – everyone’s shocked when they hear this – this isn’t shocking news, people have known this in the scientific community for at least 25 years.”

After giving the example of diverging gender rates among engineers and nurses he elaborates on equality of opportunity, to which one of the other talk show guests, Annie Lööf (MP and leader of the fourth largest party with 9% of the parliamentary seats) responds with feelings and personal anecdotes. Here’s the relevant segment transcribed (for context and clarity, I slightly amended their statements):

Peterson: “One of the answers is that you maximize people’s free choice. […] If you maximize free choice, then you also maximize differences in choice between people – and so you can’t have both of those [maximal equality of opportunity and minimal differences along gender lines]”

Lööf: “because we are human beings [there will always be differences in choice]; I can’t see why it differs between me and Skavlan for instance; of course it differs in biological things, but not in choices. I think more about how we raise them [children], how we live and that education, culture and attitudes form a human being whether or not they are a girl or a boy.”

Peterson: “Yes, yes. That is what people who think that the differences between people are primarily culturally constructed believe, but it is not what the evidence suggests.”

Lööf: “Ok, we don’t agree on that”.

So here’s the point: this is not a dispute over preferences. Whether or not biology influences (even constitute, to follow Pinker) the choices we make is not an “I like ice-cream” kind of dispute, where you can unobjectionably pick whatever flavor you like and the rest of us simply have to agree or disagree. This is a dispute of facts. Lööf’s positon on gender differences and her desire to politically alter outcomes of people’s choices is explicitly based on her belief that the behaviour of human beings is culturally predicated and thus malleable. If that causal and empirical proposition is incorrect (which Peterson suggests it is), she can no longer readily hold that position. Instead, what does she do? She says: “Ok, we don’t agree”, as if the dispute was over ice-cream!

Political strategizing or virtue signalling aside, this perfectly illustrates the problem of political “opinions”: they espouse ideological positions as the outcome of enlightened or informed fact-based positions, but when those empirical statements are disproved, they revert to being expressions of subjective preference without a consequent diminution of their worth! Conservatives still gladly hum along to Trump’s protectionism, despite overwhelmingly being contradicted in the factual part of their opinion; progressives heedlessly champion rent control, believing that it helps the poor when it overwhelmingly hurts the poor. And both camps act as if the rest of us should pay attention or go out of our way to support them over what, at best, amounts to “I like ice-cream” proposals.

Ideology is a menace, and political “opinions” are the forefront of that ideological menace.

____

*(For a comprehensive overview of the scientific knowledge of psychological differences between men and women, see Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate – or Pinker’s well-viewed TED-talk outline.)

Nightcap

  1. On “Madison’s nightmare” Ilya Somin, Volokh Conspiracy
  2. Good parenting versus good citizenship Gina Schouten, Crooked Timber
  3. The birth of the British East India Company Francis Sempa, Asian Review of Books
  4. The bitterness of Adam Smith Branko Milanovic, globalinequality

Nightcap

  1. The Cause and Mechanisms of American De-Industrialization John Mueller, Law & Liberty
  2. Against moral crusades Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  3. A test with Imran Khan Nitin Pai, Pragati Express
  4. The De-Industrialization of the U.S.: A String of Enlightening Fallacies Jacques Delacroix, NOL

Courts as Modern Civic Churches?

India is in the middle of an anachronistic power tussle. Watching The Tudors right when the Indian Supreme Court is hearing submissions in the Sabrimala case placed before me an interesting hypothesis – the King v Church tug of war is replicating itself, albeit democratically, in the controversy surrounding the Essential Practices Test.

First introduced in the Shirur Mutt case (1954 AIR 282), the doctrine provides for a test that would make state interference justified under a Constitution that gives to her citizens (Article 25), the freedom to practice and profess their religion, and to religious denominations (Article 26), the right to manage affairs and administer properties, both being subject to restrictions on public order, morality, and health. Essentially, the test gives the Court the power to determine what constitutes “essential to the practice of the religion” and holds that everything non-essential is subject to legislative action by the State.

A number of scholars (Gautam Bhatia, Shreya Atrey) have commented on the un/desirability of the consequences of such a test. The clearest of them all comes from Jacobsohn who characterizes the test as an attempt to internally reform the religion by allowing the judges to “re-characterize the religion in a more progressive light”.

What has given these objections much weight is the support Justice Chandrachud has lent to the skepticism of judicial discretion bestowed by the doctrine. He questions the ecclesiastical function of the court and proposes to use constitutional morality as the one stop test for determining the constitutionality of a religious practice, instead of going the long way of finding the non-essential elements that may be subjected to progressive restraints. This adherence to the constitutional word is consistent with the treatment of the constitution as the new-age charter of a civic religion, a notion oft repeated and celebrated in India.

King Henry VIII’s ostensible zeal for reform came out of his hatred for papal supremacy. Divine rights of the Kings placed the King directly under God, and God alone. He would then become the supreme mortal in terms of matters relating to governance and spirituality. The Indian courts do not wish to claim any such supremacy over spiritual matters (yet). What they seek to do is social reform – a venerable objective behind the framing of the Indian constitution. In that, they seek to be not just interpreters and guardians of the constitution, but active participants of change in realizing the aims of the constitution.

But one must question this insistence that in religion, like with the legislation, there is an umbra and a penumbra and that the latter is so hierarchy placed that it may be interfered upon, whereas the umbra is so essential that it may not be touched. What is religion but not faith? And what is faith but not a collection of beliefs organically coalesced to create charters that may look different for each generation? Is it not possible that a religion undergo change so as to value a tenet A over B within a span of decades? Is it also not possible that A and B exist simultaneously without harming the essentiality of each other, howsoever inconsistent they might seem to an educated rational mind? Since when has religion been the epitome of moral consistency?

Much can be said on the justifiability of this aspiration. Much more can be said of the legitimacy of the court’s position on such matters. Democratically speaking, ridding a society of its ills is more likely to give positive results if it comes from a joined political action rather than from a bench of judges who, in all their wisdom, are not privy to a large section of the society. Of course, the Indian supreme court has “grounded itself” (a phrased used by Dr. Rajeev Dhavan) and has acquired the kind of legitimacy that demands respectful obedience from its supporters. And this has been primarily because of the non-traditional use of judicial description for activism against a falling parliament often mired in political games to care much about the legal and policy lacunae deserving attention.

Sabrimala is an especially thorny issue, not just because the judges must conclusively decide the path the judiciary wishes to take with respect to social reform but also because they can either be the ecclesiastical court and inform the citizens of the immorality (grounded in the constitution, no doubt but then looking at the vastness of the Indian constitution, it can probably accommodate all moral philosophers barring Peter Singer) of their actions or they can let arguably unethical practices live, giving individual liberty the space that separation of church and state demands.