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.

“Ethnic Violence in Africa: Destructive Legacies of Pre-Colonial States”

Note: I’ve gotten through the first three chapters of Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method. (Rick’s initial thoughts are here, and Bill has been doing Feyerabend for awhile. These are the two you should probably follow a bit more closely throughout the summer.)

My own thoughts on Against Method are coming, but I keep getting distracted. Check out this beast of an article on how pre-colonial states in Africa continue to influence current affairs today, even though these have been absorbed into the post-colonial states we are all familiar with in Africa today. (h/t Kevin Lewis)

“Foucault’s Pendulum”: Social Scholarship, Ideology, and Libertarian Temptations

I'm no prophet. My job is making windows where there 
were once walls.
― Michel Foucault

Martin Luther, a German Augustinian monk, is credited with triggering a profound spiritual movement in the minds of early modern Europeans.  Luther, who was an extremely pious Catholic, eventually became a reluctant rebel by channeling the frustrations of the faithful over their inability to reach out directly to God within the then existing church matrix.  The Protestant Reformation, which he helped unleash, developed in opposition to the powerful institutions and guidelines of the Roman Catholic Church that acted as a gatekeeper to the sacred knowledge.  The reformation movement decentered and fragmented the once powerful Catholic ideology and bureaucracy, eventually shifting the minds of people toward the individual interpretation of Scripture.

In its condemnation of Luther, the papal court compared his heresy with that of Jan Hus.  One hundred years prior to Luther, this religious dissenter from Bohemia had been burned at the stake for essentially advocating the same things that were later ushered in by the Protestants.  Puzzled by the comparison, Luther, who had never heard about Hus, went to a library to research what the Bohemian had been up to.  Stunned by the obvious similarities between Hus’s and his own ideas, the rebellious German monk allegedly exclaimed, “Yes, I am a Hussite.”[1]  This historical anecdote was on my mind while I was following a recent debate about how and why, at the end of his life, Michel Foucault (1926-1984) – a 20th-century philosophical giant of a French-Jewish extraction and, simultaneously, one of the intellectual gurus of the modern left – became interested in “neoliberalism.”[2]

F_Wire

Foucault’s intention to explore the ideas of individual liberty and free enterprise – the process which led him to discovering for himself the writings of modern libertarian and libertarian-leaning thinkers, particularly F. A. Hayek (1899-1992), Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973), Wilhelm Röpke (1899-1966), Milton Freedman (1912-2006), and Gary Becker (1930-2014).  As the intellectual historian James Miller has informed us, the outcome of those insights was that Foucault implicitly came to defend “the value of a libertarian kind of liberalism.”[3] Continue reading

For and/or Against Method, initial miscellany

The past couple weeks I’ve been accumulating material related to our fledgling summer reading group. First I got For and Against Method, realized it was more for than against so I ordered the third edition of Against Method and also found the (apparently much shorter) first edition online.

I’m currently dipping my toes into For and Against, reading Lakatos’s lectures at LSE on the scientific method. I was expecting to be more interested in Feyerabend’s perspective, but so far I’m pleasantly surprised. Lakatos is an interesting guy, and the conversational tone of the (transcribed) lectures is delightful.

I’m not sure how we plan to do this reading group, so, anarchist that I am, I’m going to randomly lash out until something sticks! Here are some initial thoughts from Lakatos’s first two lectures:

  • Around pp. 24-25 he lays out the demarcation problem: we want a (set of) method(s) to separate good and bad science. Presumably, our method should stand up to its own scrutiny. If our method is L(t), taking theory t and returning “good” or “bad”, then L(L) should return “good”. To me, this looks Gödelian.
  • p. 26: “I remember when back in my Popperian days I used to put this question to Marxists and Freudians: ‘Tell me, what specific historical or social events would have to occur tin order for you to give up your Marxism?’ I remember that this was usually accompanied by either stunned silence or confusion. But I was very pleased with the effect.

    “Much later I put the same question to a prominent scientist, who could not give any answer because, he said, ‘of course anomalies always spring up, but somehow sooner or later we always solve them.’ This is why, according to Feyerabend, who follows in Popper’s footsteps, all these criteria for intellectual honesty have one and the same function: they are empty rhetoric to frighten school children.” [emphasis my own]
    • Anyone here know something about rhetoric and the Greeks? Personally, I’m drawn to the notion that it’s all basically rhetoric. The term I prefer, though, is bullshit. Don’t get me wrong, by BS I don’t mean “wrong” or “bad” (per se). And for that matter, I don’t quite mean rhetoric either. It’s something like the sort of communication that goes on during a poker game.
      • You might be able to see that I’m going to be naturally sympathetic to Feyerabend who, apparently, preferred to think of himself as an entertainer than an academic philosopher. That’s part of the reason I’m reading Lakatos first. But I’m happy to see that a) Lakatos has a sense of humor, and b) He’s got a character endorsement from Feyerabend.
    • There’s good BS and bad BS. Bad BS leads to things like advertising campaigns and college accreditation schemes. Good BS leads to open minded learning. Good BS is what happens between grad students in a good program after midnight.
    • Good BS isn’t arbitrary, but it isn’t too tightly bound to reality either. You can’t send an astronaut to space on good BS, but you probably need good BS to come up with the idea in the first place.
    • I’m a materialist at the end of the day, and I believe in an objective external universe (though I can’t reject a Cartesian evil genius). But my map of that universe is highly impressionistic. I think anyone who’s map is more precise is either fooling themselves, or highly specific (i.e. they’re missing out on something).
    • Currently, I’m thinking rhetoric is for strangers and BS is for friends.
  • Lakatos talks about three basic groups: Militant positivists, anarchists, and elitist authoritarianism.
    • The positivists would be right if they were omniscient. In principle we could come up with theories that perfectly aligned with reality. And we could come up with a theory of theories that neatly separated the good from the bad. But the universe is more complex than our finite minds can handle.
      • Did you hear the one about the economist who was told about the latest brilliant new business? His response: “sure it works in practice, but does it work in theory?”
    • Lakatos’s view of the anarchists is that different theories are essentially all at the same level, but some get more support and others get less.
    • According to the elitists “there is a demarcation, but there are no demarcation criteria.”
    • I’m basically an elitist-anarchist with a heavy dose (I hope) of humility. There are better and worse theories (it’s not quite “anything goes”), and often (but not always) the elite are in the right position to pass (fallible) judgement. If a professional economist (ahem) says “Theory X is stupid”, then odds are good they’re correct. But it’s not guaranteed. Not even if all economists agree.
  • There’s no easy way out. Some science is good and some is bad, and there’s no algorithmic way to distinguish them.
    • It’s like the historians’ joke: “What was the outcome of WWII? Too soon to say.” We can extend the metaphor all the way back. It’s too soon to declare any specific outcome to the Big Bang. It’s surely the case that there will be some outcome (according to my materialist, even LaPlacian, priors), but predicting that outcome would require a computer bigger and more powerful than the universe.
  • Fundamentally, distinguishing good and bad science requires going out on a limb, taking a risk, making a judgment. All theories will ultimately be tested against objective reality, but nature isn’t always great about sharing her data and our methods (especially our language, which places the ultimate constraints on our ability to share and accumulate knowledge) prevent us from getting to 100%.

My understanding is that Lakatos will be building up to some notion of a more-or-less objective way to demarcate good and bad science. I believe there is good and bad science, but I’m skeptical of humanity’s ability to draw any sort of hard line separating the two. I think the evaluation of science is more like the evaluation of art than the evaluation of competing answers to a well defined mathematical question.

Sometimes science is more art than science…

Tying this in to my wheelhouse: science (as LaVoie has repeatedly told us) is in a similar position to market enterpreneurship (and also ants, which are amazing) and the Austrian insights apply: this is the sort of stuff that fundamentally only works in a decentralized, anarchic fashion. The ant queen is not actually a central planner. Entrepreneurship is decentralized social learning that central planning is no substitute for. And science is not so comprehensible that we’ll ever find some way to automate approval of grant proposals.

Learning is hard because we’re finite beings staring into an infinite abyss.

Epistemological anarchism to anarchism

I’ve been working on a paper — since I’ve long tabled the idea of a future in academia, or scholarship, I have only a few projects I want to get done in substitution — to expand the work of Paul Feyerabend into a political philosophy. Feyerabend’s primary discipline was the philosophy of science and epistemology, where he considered his central thesis to be “methodological” or “epistemological anarchism.”

His dialogues, essays, and lengthier expositions of (sometimes called) “epistemological Dadaism” can be roughly summed up as

For any scientific conclusion C, there is no one route from empirical premises P.

“Scientific” here being widely inclusive and contemporary with social standards, as a function of Feyerabend’s opposition to positivism. The hubbub of observation statements, empirical tests, auxiliary hypotheses, inferences, axioms, etc. that govern a research programme are only one possible set of multiple that have historically yielded similarly sanctified discoveries. For any B, there is no single route from A. Describing the scientific method as a route of Popperian falsification, for instance, cuts out Galileo, or cuts out Einstein, he would argue.

Feyerabend swore off the doctrine of political anarchism as a cruel system, although he was often inspired by revolutionary anarchists like Bakunin. Even still, his philosophy lends support for social power decentralization in general — even with sometimes grotesque deviations like his support for government suppression of academic inquiry.

I’ll be working on the paper on this, but in lieu of that, I think the primary connection between Feyerabend’s work on epistemology and a potential work in political science is the support of his epistemological thesis — for any scientific conclusion C, there is no one route from empirical premises P — for a broader methodological statement, namely, that for any outcome C, there is no one route from starting point A. For politics, this could mean:

For any social-organizational outcome O, there is no one route from given state of nature N.

Where “route” can clearly apply to ranges of government involvement, or zero government involvement. Feyerabend’s writings do not support this liberal of a reading in general, but in a constrained domain of social organization and especially knowledge-sharing (he was keen on dissolving hierarchies for their disruption of information), there might be a lot of connection to unearth.

This is, again, part of a larger project to bring Feyerabend more into the liberty spectrum — his writings are hosted on marxists.org, after all — or at least on the radar for inspiration. I’ll be posting more, and hopefully defending it, in the future.

Philosophy of science and free speech

Here’s a link to an article I wrote just published in FEE.

I consider this part of an ongoing, gradual effort to incorporate Paul Feyerabend into the liberty canon. It’s probably a mistake, but I’m doing it anyway.

I also want to give a shoutout to the person that commented I’m “pretending that Ayn Rand didn’t exist.” Of course I know what Ayn Rand is, that’s the island next to Great Britain.

Feyerabend: Westernization and culture

There is a short thought, quoted by Paul K. Feyerabend in “Notes on Relativism”, that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. Paul, ever critical of Western rationalism, is commenting at length on the expansion of (Western, capitalist) industrial scientific society to the margins of the developing world and minority cultures. He quotes François Jacob from The Possible and the Actual:

In humans … natural diversity is … strengthened by cultural diversity, which allows mankind to better adapt to a variety of life conditions and to better use the resources of the world. In this area, however, we are now threatened with monotony and dullness. The extraordinary variety which humans have put into their beliefs, their customs and their institutions is dwindling every day. Whether people die out out physically or become transformed under the influence of the model provided by industrial civilization, many cultures are disappearing. If we do not want to live in a world covered with a single technological, pidgin-speaking, uniform way of life — that is, in a very boring world — we have to be careful. We have to use our imagination better.

Prima facie, I want to say, the general message is correct: the world is slowly homogenizing, and homogeneity is boring. People no longer just consult their local markets and preserve culture organically; we buy and sell all over. Although Dallas and San Francisco have very different cultures, to some extent Los Angeles looks like Seattle looks like St. Louis looks like New York City… looks like Athens looks like downtown Rome, etc. This doesn’t explain what we should do — neither Jacob as quoted, nor Feyerabend in his entire book explain how we should “use our imagination better” (which is what makes this paragraph so unsettling). Feyerabend offers some views in other writings, e.g., using the state to intervene with the success of the sciences.

Feyerabend can be interpreted in a plethora of contradictory ways. Though co-opted by the political left (perhaps to their own detriment), far-right nationalists, primitivists and humanists can all find theoretical support in his ideas. He seems to have written surprisingly little specifically about capitalism, although there are plenty of implications in his anthropology; maybe understanding his views on political economy could provide the path to extracting a substantive political philosophy. In any case, the concern of Jacob and Feyerabend is a consequence of, to a large extent, the West’s powerful free markets, globalizing trade, science and universalistic liberalism. And, I want to say, their concern is not only prima facie correct but a growing left/right critique of Western capitalism/liberalism, and therefore one worth addressing.

There may not be a market approach to preserving cultural diversity; maybe all we can say is that so long as homogeneity is a result of the free interactions of individuals it is not undesirable. Here are a few responses anyway, which may or may not be satisfying.

  1. The process of homogenization predates capitalism, and is really just a function of multicultural nations living side by side and competing and trading. Cultures grow, die and are subsumed ad nauseam, some survive well past the initial spawning phase and become hegemonic but eventually these too face extinction or subsumption.
  2. Homogenization in a free world means that the “best of the best” is accessible for societies which, though previously they may have maintained unique non-Western cultures, were far worse-off before the commercial tsunami. Firstly, the people in these societies didn’t consider the expatriate cultural elements “boring” when they arrived, and secondly, they would prefer “boring” Western/industrial culture than their previous dilapidated state. (We may want interesting tourism destinations, but does that take precedent over human well-being and free choice?)
  3. With the success of industrial, liberal society, science has grown and actually developed better preservation technology (and projection tech, like 3D modeling underground structures). Ancient artifacts from long dead cultures are able to survive longer to be appreciated, and living cultures are better able to create and preserve in the present.
  4. Globalization/Westernization means that we discover living cultures we would never have known otherwise. Under the eye of Western society they are opened up to the melting pot process, but discovery is mutual. We take and they take, and therefore,
  5. Another response could be to actually reject Jacob’s story. We are not trending toward a single McWorld, because although Starbucks can be found nearly globally, it functions alongside original cultural products and cuisine, and at the same time foreign cuisine thrives in the West and impacts our identity.

Evaluating the consolidation of cultural diversity sits at an uneasy crossroads between rights concerns, utilitarianism and aesthetics. I’m not sure these responses would be satisfying to those that buy Jacob’s argument, but it’s likely I’ll be returning to this subject at length in the future.