American Classical Liberals Suck

This week Kevin Vallier published a new entry on neoliberalism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Neoliberalism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). It is a well-written, well-researched piece. However, it is also symbolic for the greatest deficiency of American classical liberals: they are unable or unwilling to defend the name, or label if you like, of the ideas they are associated with. Given the influence of American academia and thinks tanks on the rest of the world this is especially important. It has happened before, and it is happening now. It sucks.

This is how Vallier starts his entry:

“Though not all scholars agree on the meaning of the term, “neoliberalism” is now generally thought to label the philosophical view that a society’s political and economic institutions should be robustly liberal and capitalist, but supplemented by a constitutionally limited democracy and a modest welfare state. Recent work on neoliberalism, thus understood, shows this to be a coherent and distinctive political philosophy. This entry explicates neoliberalism by examining the political concepts, principles, and policies shared by F. A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, and James Buchanan, all of whom play leading roles in the new historical research on neoliberalism, and all of whom wrote in political philosophy as well as political economy. Identifying common themes in their work provides an illuminating picture of neoliberalism as a coherent political doctrine.”

The problem is in the words: ‘“neoliberalism” is now generally thought…’’.  Neoliberalism is a hotly debated term, there is certainly no consensus on its meaning. As Oliver Hartwich has emphasized in Neoliberalism, the genesis of a political swearword, it is still most often used as a swearword by the left for all that they think is wrong with capitalism, (classical) liberalism, (more or less) liberal policies by IMF, WTO and World Bank, et cetera. These left wingers are also found in academia, policy and in media circles, which has led to its routine use. However, it is not true that the work of Hayek, Friedman and Buchanan is generally thought to be covered by a neoliberal label. Only those who disagree with it call them neoliberals. It is painful to see that the ideas of these three Nobel Prize winners are now used to explain neoliberalism in a leading online source. They self-identified as classical liberals and just because opponents of their views use a different label is no reason to comply with that malicious practice.  

The worse thing is, it has happened before, also commencing in the US. Fairly recently, classical liberals began to use the label libertarian, as the Cato Institute has been promoting, for example on their (very useful) website  Libertarianism.org, or in David Boaz’ The Libertarian Mind.  Jason Brennan’s Libertarianism, what everyone needs to know is another example. The issue here is that the three aforementioned classical liberals, and others, are now thrown onto the same heap as Rothbard and Rand, to name a few rather different thinkers.

Decades earlier, Hayek and others noted with regret that the Americans were unable to defend the original meaning of the word liberal, with the result that a liberal in the American sense is now what people in other parts of the world call a social-democrat. It is also the reason Hayek and other started to use the name classical liberal.  

The result of all this changing of names is confusion and vulnerability. Nobody knows what label belongs to which ideas, which gives rise to a petty industry on liberal labels, yet without any clarity in the end. It also provides ample opportunity for opponents to negatively attack ideas loosely associated with the (classical) liberal movement, which results in a negative image, which also make liberal ideas less attractive for outsiders. The lack of clarity also makes vulnerable for any kind of criticism. Actually, embracing the swearword other use for you, by offering the ideas of your greatest and brightest thinkers, is a shameful act at least.

American classical liberals should stay firm and defend their ideas under the proper labels. There is no reason for change (see my Degrees of Freedom: Liberal Political Philosophy and Ideology), there is only a need for explanation and defense. Giving up clear and proper labels plainly sucks.         

Monday’s hints and suggestions, rumors and hunches

Or, some Monday links – on thinkers, their devices and “ad hoc” cities, above/ below the sea surface

Back in February, Nick Cowen here at NOL pointed the 100th anniversary of John Rawls’ birth. At the time I somehow caught that this year also marks 50 years since his Theory of Justice book publication (a rather banal discovery it seems now, but still). The “veil of ignorance” was a strong introduction to the world of ideas and one of the few things to make it past my undergraduate studies.

The 1st American edition – source

Beyond those lectures (early 00s), I have yet to read the book. I suspect that it could belong to the “books everyone would like to have read, but almost no one actually reads” list, along with that Beveridge Report (this quip about the Report I read somewhere I cannot remember). Anyway, here be a fresh tribute proper:

On the Legacy of A Theory of Justice (Law & Liberty, there are responses to the main essay, too)

As far as round anniversaries involving nice thought experiments go, I would also note that Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “violinist” and Herbert A. Simon’s “alien telescope” papers were published in 1971 and 1991, respectively. The first is a defense of the right to abortion, while the second is a tool to discern social structures (guess what, I have not read the “violinist” paper either. It seems interesting and timely enough – the top courts in US and Germany decided on abortion in 1973/75 – but I firstly found out about it, and some relevant criticisms, only last year. Simon, the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences laureate 1978, provided insights across a few fields over the years):

The trolley problem problem (Aeon)

Organizations and Markets (Journal of Economic Perspectives)

Getting to more recent staff, Brandon the other day expressed his doubts about the new charter city project in Honduras (Próspera). Find below a comprehensive read on the matter:

Prospectus On Próspera (Astal Codex Ten)

Now, as a pc gamer of yore, I have been expecting more nods to the underwater city of Rapture from the Bioshock game series, maybe. Rapture was a utopia free of state intervention, purportedly founded top-down on individualistic ideals in 1946, that failed. No, not quite libertarian ideals, more of a wildly objectivist kind, with a paternalistic edge. The adherence to laissez-faire, but not to laissez-passer (the founder forbid any relations with the rest of the world), brought smuggling, inequality and eventually the downfall of the city.

Not Rapture, but close enough style-wise (Moscow State University main building) – source: my own archive

At least this is how I understand it (right, I have not played any of these games. Survival/ horror FPS, nope. I do appreciate the games’ grandeur for 40s-50s ideas and architecture, though). As for any relevance to the Próspera project – come to think of it again – I admit the whole comparison is tempting, but way overblown, ok. Próspera is a public/ private law creature, envisaged in the constitution of a sovereign state. I desist.

Why Bioshock still has, and will always have, something to say (Ars Technica)

Ideology in Bioshock: A Critical Analysis (Press Start)

Some Monday Links

Madison’s Consistency on the Bill of Rights (National Affairs)

Reading Wealth of Nations and Meeting Adam Smith (The Hedgehog Review)

Not everyone (Verfassungsblog)

Philosophers Rebuild Society (Existential Comics)

Nightcap

  1. The imperial sociology of “the tribe” in Afghanistan Nivi Manchanda, Millennium
  2. Life in the capital city of pre-modern Japan John Butler, Asian Review of Books
  3. The Irish free trade crisis of 1779 Joel Herman, Age of Revolutions
  4. Insiders and outsiders in 17th century philosophy Eric Schliesser, Philosophical Reviews

In memory of Gerald Gaus (1952-2020)

I was saddened to hear that Gerald Gaus, the world-renowned liberal philosopher, died yesterday. Gaus was a critical developer of a public reason approach to classical liberalism, and powerful exponent of the interdisciplinary research agenda of Philosophy, Politics and Economics. While we met in person only occasionally, he was a significant influence on my approach to understanding the liberal tradition.

His perspective was deeply pluralist. One observation that really struck me from The Order of Public Reason (and that I still grapple with today) was that a society could function more effectively (in fact, might only function at all) when citizens have a range of moral attitudes towards things like rule-following, and especially eagerness to punish rule-breakers. For society to progress, you may need both conservative-inclined individuals to enforce moral norms and liberal-minded people to challenge them when circumstances prompt reform.

He applied this idea of strength through moral diversity to the political system too. On Gaus’s account, one of the strengths of liberal democracy is its ability to shift from conservative to liberal, and left to right, through competitive elections. Social progress cannot follow a straight and obvious path but requires, at different moments, experimentation, innovation, reversal and consolidation. Democracy helps select the dominant mode from a diversity of perspectives.

This depth of pluralism is counter-intuitive within the discipline of normative political theory that increasingly avers a narrow set of ideological commitments as acceptable, and rejects even fairly minor variations in social morality as possessing little or no value. Indeed, the last time I saw Gaus was early this year when he gave an evening talk at the Britain and Ireland Association for Political Thought conference. He presented a model for seeking political compromises among very different moral ideals. His commitment to treating the whole political spectrum as worthy of engagement drew a few heckles. The prospect of engaging with Trump supporters, for example, evidently nauseated some of the audience. Gaus was the very model of the liberal interlocutor, ignoring the hostility, and responding with grace, civility and ideas for going forward productively.

His approach to scholarship and discussion embodied his commitment to liberal toleration and the fusion of ethical horizons. That’s how he will be remembered.

Nightcap

  1. Great philosophers are bad philosophers Michael Huemer, Fake Nous
  2. Great philosophers as architects Kevin Vallier, Reconciled
  3. On being wrong, but with style Jason Brennan, Bleeding Heart Libertarians
  4. On incompatibilities and inconsistencies Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth

Sunday Poetry: Hermann Hesse’s Stages

Not much to say about this one. Helps me to take the edge off stressful times.

Phases

As every flower fades and as all youth
Departs, so life at every stage,
So every virtue, so our grasp of truth,
Blooms in its day and may not last forever.
Since life may summon us at every age
Be ready, heart, for parting, new endeavour,
Be ready bravely and without remorse
To find new light that old ties cannot give.
In all beginnings dwells a magic force
For guarding us and helping us to live.
 
Serenely let us move to distant places
And let no sentiments of home detain us.
The Cosmic Spirit seeks not to restrain us
But lifts us stage by stage to wider spaces.
If we accept a home of our own making,
Familiar habit makes for indolence.
We must prepare for parting and leave-taking
Or else remain the slaves of permanence.
 
Even the hour of our death may send
Us speeding on to fresh and newer spaces,
And life may summon us to newer races.
So be it, heart: bid farewell without end.
 
I wish you all a pleasant Sunday.

Sunday Poetry: Rüstow vs. Mises

One of the bests books I’ve read this year was Serge Audier’s & Jurgen Reinhoudt’s relatively unknown (unfortunately!) translation of the protocols of the Walter-Lippmann-Colloquium. The NOUS-Network organized a wonderful seminar in which we thoroughly discussed the book and the emergence of Neoliberalism. For the preparation of this weekend’s Hayek-Kreis seminar, I reread the book and stood once again in awe of the magnificence of the discussion during the Colloquium.

By the way: If you are an undergraduate, graduate, or PhD scholar, please consider joining the NOUS-Network for Constitutional Economics and Social Philosophy as a Young Affiliate! NOUS is an information platform and a community for interdisciplinary research. The network links all academic fields relevant for thinking about social order and liberty. It spans philosophy, politics, economics and fosters scholarly research, contact and exchange.

In the following excerpt, it becomes clear, that the participant’s opinion on the psychological and sociological causes of the decline of Liberalism differed significantly. Mr Rüstow eloquently captures the standpoints of the two opposing groups (not without bias to be fair) and even cheekily disses Ludwig von Mises.

“Mr Rüstow: ‘All things considered, it is undeniable that here, in our circle, two different points of view are represented. One group does not find anything essential to criticize or to change in traditional liberalism, such as it was and such as it is, apart from, naturally, the adjustments and the current developments that are self-evident.

In their view, the responsibility for all the misfortune falls exclusively on the opposite side, on those who, out of stupidity or out of malice, or through a mixture of both, cannot or do not want to discern and observe the salutary truths of liberalism. 

We, on the other hand, we seek the responsibility for the decline of liberalism in liberalism itself; and, therefore, we seek the solution in a fundamental renewal of liberalism. In order to justify in a positive manner this second point of view, I have to refer to what I have said and, especially, to the excellent arguments of Mr Lippmann.

Here, I would only like to draw attention to the fact that if the unwavering representatives of old liberalism were right, the practical prospects [for liberalism] would be almost hopeless. Because it does not really seem that old liberalism has gained in persuasive and in seductive force or that the arguments, no matter how shrewd they may be, of these representatives have the least possibility of bringing about a conversion movement within the realm of Bolshevism, Fascism, or of National Socialism. If they did not listen to Moses and the prophets—Adam Smith and Ricardo—how will they believe Mr. von Mises?'”

As always, I wish you all pleasant Sunday.

 

Sunday Poetry: Junger’s War Observations

Without noticing it, I heavily built my reading schedule this year around of what one might call a “post-liberal reading list”. The idea, that the demise of social institutions might be the inevitable consequence of an ongoing individualization of society struck me as initially convincing. I am currently in search of good examinations on the ultimate effect Liberalism has on the development of social institutions. Hopefully, Steven Horwitz’ “Hayek’s Modern Family” will provide me with some compelling arguments to refute the post-liberal agenda.

Not directly being post-liberal, but pointing towards the importance of “homecoming and belonging”, Sebastian Junger’s book “Tribe” has had a lasting influence on me. I found the following observations of a war refugee voluntary reentering Sarajevo during its siege both fascinating and devastating.

“What catastrophes seem to do – sometimes in the span of a few minutes – is to turn back the clock on ten thousand years of social evolution. […]

“‘I missed being that close to people. I missed being loved in that way’, she told me. ‘In Bosnia – as it is now – we don’t trust each other anymore; we became really bad people. We didn’t learn the lesson of the war, which is how important it is to share everything you have with humans being close to you. The best way to explain it is that the war makes you an animal. We were animals. It’s insane – but that’s the basic human instinct, to help another human being who is sitting or standing or lying close to you.’

I asked Ahmetašević if people had ultimately been happier during the war. 
‘We were the happiest,’ Ahmetašević said. Then she added: “And we laughed more.'”

I wish you all a pleasant Sunday.

Psychedelics versus modern philosophy

Anyone who studies philosophy has run into the assumption that psychoactive drugs and philosophy go hand-in-hand. Really, after analytic and continental, and whatever other traditions people come up with, there could be another sect, that of “stoner philosophy,” which is something like Mister Rogers, Alan Watts and Bob Ross thrown into a peaceful blender. This is when you’re sitting around getting high, wondering if aliens exist, instead of sitting in a classroom, wondering if other people’s minds exist.

A historical study of this connection, from East to West, would probably scandalize a lot of “serious” philosophers, and show some regular inebriation, but in general, I think the two are opposed (tragically or not). Particularly, the institutionalization of philosophy, when “natural philosophy” and “moral philosophy” etc all became separated some time after Hobbes, is opposed to what it sees as a lay way of thinking about the world. As my philosophy of science professor told me – you become a philosopher when you have your doctorate.

Professional philosophers and “psychonauts” are in opposition to each other. The analytics and continentals have spent centuries building elaborate systems – developing monstrous levels of specificity, so as to make their work completely incomprehensible to the rest of the world – and earning credentials to close the gates of access. Meanwhile, the casual or professional tripper is able to buy a tab for less than $10 and experience, or imagine they experience, market-price existentialism without reading a page of Camus.

The professional philosopher sneers in bad faith at psychedelic profundity because it makes them seem irrelevant.

On the other hand, the inarticulate tripper is not in such a great place. The psychonaut rests on intuition, and is probably not equipt with the critical thinking and logical itinerary to make sense of the journey on the comedown. A trip promises insight but also promises that neither your epistemic priors nor a rational reconstruction will be enough to establish its validity – by its very nature. (Psychedelic knowledge is “revealed,” not “discovered,” right?) You might get an insight that looks good, but is bad, without you knowing it. (I wrote about this in college. Holy shit my writing was bad.)

What happens when you irrationally, psychonautically attach to an idea that’s immune to logical tinkering? If you believe something for irrational reasons you’ll hang on to it for even longer than something that you believed for rational reasons, because new rational reasons can talk you out of a logogenetic idea, but not an irrationally-formed one. Depending on the centrality of the belief, of course.

The psychonaut claims easy knowledge, but could have trouble organizing it in the other, orderly web of belief of his coldly-discovered priors. However, this kind of knowledge has taken a high prestige today, with help from accredited social figures like Steve Jobs dosing LSD. In a way, the win of casual inebriated profundity is a “people’s victory” over the esoteric, pretentious toils of the professional philosophers. If you can figure out Truth by serotonin-fucking yourself on any day of the week then there’s no need to study Heidegger… and there’s even less reason to get a PhD in phenomenology, making institutional philosophy obsolete.

So, philosophers will be opposed to the psychonauts because it trivializes their hard-earned degrees (bad faith), and trivializes all their carefully crafted logic (slightly less bad faith). Psychonauts will be opposed to the philosophers for their specialized field which must explicitly reject such spontaneous routes to knowledge. The people taking psychedelics find themselves fighting some sort of anti-scientific elitism war, doing Feyerabend’s work. The tension is worse with the professional, modern philosophical class, but still exists in general.

A survey of history would show a lot of intertwining, but ultimately, I think the newer age of philosophy has a lot more overlap with other drugs than psychedelics (specifically Epicurean as opposed to elucidatory drugs, e.g. Adderall, analgesics, cocaine) — which is its own interesting question.

Sunday Poetry: Camus about Europe

Albert Camus is the most influential writers to me (See here why). This passage is from his third “Letter to a German Friend” (1944), depicting his unbroken love for European culture in the dark times of the second world war.

“Sometimes on a street corner, in the brief intervals of the long struggle that involves us all, I happen to think of all those places in Europe I know well. It is a magnificent land moulded by suffering and history. I relive those pilgrimages I once made with all the men of the West: the roses in the cloisters of Florence, the gilded bulbous domes of Krakow, the Hradschin and its dead palaces, the contorted statues of the Charles Bridge over the Vltava, the delicate gardens of Salzburg. All those flowers and stones, those hills and those landscapes where men’s time and the world’s time have mingled old trees and monuments! My memories have fused together such superimposed images to make a single face, which is the face of my true native land. … It never occurred to me that someday we should have to liberate them from you. And even now, at certain moments of rage and despair, I am occasionally sorry that the roses continue to grow in the cloister of San Marco and the pigeons drop clusters from the Cathedral of Salzburg, and the red geraniums grow tirelessly in the little cemeteries of Silesia.”

I wish you all a pleasant Sunday.

Intellectuals You Should Know About

I read a lot. Wide, deep and across quite a number of different fields. As a self-proscribed ‘writer’ and ‘editor’, reading much is both satisfying an intellectual desire and a professionally useful practice in familiarize myself with various styles, voices and topics. A common tip for aspiring writers is to read someone they admire and try to imitate their style; at this, at least, I am somewhat successful, as a friend recently told me that my style reminded him of Deirdre McCloskey. Full of idolized admiration for Deirdre’s work, I couldn’t imagine a higher praise.

As readers, the eternal curse of modernity is our laughable inability to keep up with the couple of millions of books that are published every year. Not to mention written materials on blog or respectable outlets or in magazines and journals. As consumers of the written word, we are completely outstripped, utterly defenseless and overwhelmingly inundated.

When in September I published my discussion of geographer and anthropologist Jared Diamond’s impressive work, I got a lot of feedback of astonishment from friends and family – including the friend that praised me for occasionally (accidentally…?) write like McCloskey: “Wow,” he said, “I’ve never heard of him before!”

Huh, I thought. I wonder what other household names of public intellectuals are not read as much as they deserve.

My exact reaction of astonishment was more like a gaping “What?!”, betraying my wanna-know-everything attitude, slight elitism and writer lifestyle. Contrary to the belief that our times is one of all talking and no listening (well, writing and no reading), it takes a vast amount of reading before you can produce anything that others want to read. Sure, anybody with a laptop and an internet connection can start a blog and flush out their thoughts (I did so for years) but it takes knowledge to say something intelligent and interesting – knowledge acquired by extensive reading.

It also takes a lot of practice to develop a voice of one’s own. Authors with astonishing and recognizable writing styles are made, not born.

What, then, should you read?

In light of this surprise, I decided to make a list of intellectuals I would advise anybody to read. Note that this is not a list of the most important thinkers ever, nor is it a collection of the most profound academic contribution to various disciplines. Instead it’s a gathering of writers whose popular writing (often in addition to their rigorous academic work) is exactly that – popular. That means that a lot of others liked them (and if you’re anything like others, you might too) and more importantly: a lot of smart people you meet are rather likely refer to these authors or to the ideas contained in their work. Here are 11 authors I would consider to be household names and whose writing will make you a much smarter and interesting person.

Jared Diamond

Let’s begin our list with aforementioned Jared Diamond, whose trilogy on humanity is compulsory reading for pretty-much everyone. This year he released Upheaval, which received very mixed responses and that I decided to skip after hearing his pitch on Sam Harris’ Making Sense podcast. Diamond’s publisher maintains that this is the third installment of his “monumental trilogy” of how civilizations rise and fall, but to me that was The World Until Yesterday: 

  • Guns, Germs and Steel is the book that definitely made Diamond a well-known name, the kind of Big Picture civilizational economic history we have recently seen in Yuval Harari’s work – the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, that strangely boring book that everyone seems to be reading these days – or the less well-known but more captivating Columbia professor Ruth DeFries’ The Big Ratchet. If you like, you could describe this Pulitzer prize-winning book as well-written geographical reasons for why the West is rich and the Rest isn’t. If that’s your thing, read away.
  • Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, the book that my September piece was mostly concerned with, is a dense story of many different human civilizations falling apart: Easter Islanders, Native Americans in the dry southwest or central America and my favourite chapter: The Greenland Norse. Complemented with the Fall of Civilizations podcast and Dan Carlin’s recent book The End is Always Near would make you ridiculously interesting to talk to in these hyper-catastrophist times. Upheaval is a natural extension of Collapse so if you crave more, that one is for you.
  • I would rather point to The World Until Yesterday for Diamond’s third gem as it is a deep dive into the lives of traditional societies in general, but in practice mostly New Guinean societies. Somehow, Diamond made anthropology exciting!

Paul Collier

Rapidly moving up in controversy, Paul Collier is an Oxford development economist whose work most intellectuals have a distinctly firm opinion about. His popular claim to fame rests on:

  • Exodus, a very cool (and prescient!) take on global migration. Highly recommended.
  • The Bottom Billion, for a plunge into global poverty and development economics. It might be slightly outdated (published in 2007) as many of the 60 failing countries he identifies have seem quite some growth in the last decade.

I should also recommend his latest book, Future of Capitalism, but I wasn’t very impressed with it. In these times of political polarization, populist uprisings, urban-rural divides and worries about AI, it is still a relevant read.

Whenever Collier speaks, you want to listen.

The Four Horsemen of Atheism (or “New Atheism”):
Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett

to which we should add the “one Horse-woman“, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whom I’m ashamed to only know as “the wife of Niall Ferguson” (yes, my background is money and history, OK, not politics or religion…).

Together, these 5 brilliant minds may have helped many out of their religiosity, but their contributions loom much larger than that. As most of the Western world has gradually abandoned faith, their religious inclinations have turned to other areas: environmentalism (Mike Munger’s take on recycling never gets old!), invented hierarchies or social justice. The writings of these five horsemen can be hugely beneficial here too. Some recommended reading includes:

Speaking of Ferguson, as I’m a big financial history guy, I am shamelessly squeezing in this prolific writer, professor (well, Senior Fellow at Hoover institution nowadays) and public intellectual:

I should also mention his two-volume biography of Henry Kissinger (first volume 2015, next probably finished next year), which I ignored (politics is boring) and his recent book The Square and the Tower, which I heard very bad things about – and so downgraded for now.

Steven Pinker

Ah, this Harvard cognitive scientist and linguist-turned-public-intellectual is a must-read. His top trilogy, which I voraciously consumed last fall, includes:

  • The Blank Slate, the best description of this book that I ever heard came from Charlotta Stern, sociologist at Stockholm University: every sound argument against the “Nurture Only”-idea that biology doesn’t matter compiled into a single book. Yes, you want to read it.
  • The Better Angels of Our Nature, a Big Picture humanity-scale look at violence, resurrecting Norbert Elias’ Civilizing Process theory to explain why we hurt and kill each other less than at probably any point in human history. Nassim Nicholas Taleb (see below) is decidedly not convinced
  • Enlightenment Now! The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, as if Better Angels wasn’t Big Picture enough, here’s the ultimate case for why humanity is doing pretty well, why doomsday sayers are wrong on every count and why we shouldn’t despair. Many of the topics of Better Angels re-occur in Enlightenment Now!, but I don’t regret reading both as Pinker’s prose is easy to follow and his content well-sourced should you require more convincing. Originally a cognitive scientist, he has a ton of more books you might wanna check out – The Language Instinct, for instance, ranks pretty high on my Next Up list:
  • The Language Instinct
  • How the Mind Works
  • The Stuff of Thought

Matt Ridley

Speaking of optimistic people taking a Big Picture view of humanity, zoologist and science writer Matt Ridley is a must. Tall (like me!), Oxford-educated (like me!) and techno-optimist (like me!), no wonder I like him.

At last, How Innovation Works is schedule for May 2020. 

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Oh, boy – here’s a controversial one. Frequently does he get into loud and hostile arguments with other high-profile intellectuals, and rarely does he pull any punches. His popular writing is found in the “Incerto” serie – the Latin term for ‘doubt’ or ‘uncertainty’ that capture Taleb’s core work. The set of books are together described as “an investigation of luck, uncertainty, probability, opacity, human error, risk, disorder, and decision-making in a world we don’t understand:”

They are intended to push One Big Idea: that we frequently overlook how random the world is, ascribing causality where none belongs and overestimate what we can know from (relatively recent) past events. Black Swans, the proverbial unpredictable event, dominates the social sciences in Taleb’s view. While the 2000-odd pages worth of the Incerto series may seem daunting, the books (and even the individual chapters) are designed not to fall very far from each other. The interested reader can, in other words, pick any one of them and work backwards in accordance with whatever is of interest. You wanna read all – or any – of them.

Having read Fooled by Randomness first, I’ve always held that highest. Be ready for a lot of sarcastic and frequently hostile (but thoughtful) objections of things you took for granted.

In sum: just bloody read more

Any selection of important contemporary intellectuals is arbitrary, highly skewed and super-unfair. There are more, many more, whose fantastic writings deserve attention. As I said, the eternal curse of modernity is our laughable inability to keep up with avalanche of cool stuff written every year.

As readers, we are overrun – and the only thing you can do to keep is is to read more. Read widely.

Above are some amazing thinkers. Drop me a line or tweet me with readings you would add to a list like this.

Sunday Poetry: Adorno about traffic lights

I hate the Frankfurt School. Even more, I hate Theodor W. Adorno. Apart from his atrocious Sociology (I think his philosophy is ridiculous too, but I have not dealt with it in depth yet), he had a very bizarre opinion on Jazz.
However, he seemed to be a heavy fan of traffic lights. In 1962 he wrote the following words to the local newspaper:

“When crossing the Senckenberg plant, near the corner of Dantestraße, one of our secretaries was run over and seriously injured after a passerby had been killed in an accident at the same place a few days earlier. On the way to university, one has to run across the street in an unworthy way, as if one was running for his life. If a student, or a professor, is in the state that is actually appropriate for him, namely in his mind, then the threat of death is immediately prevalent.” 

In consequence of his rant, albeit 25 years later, the city built the now-famous Adorno-Ampel in Frankfurt near his faculty. Kind of lovely anecdote.

I wish you all pleasant Sunday.

What Albert Camus taught us about freedom

The French-Algerian author and philosopher Albert Camus is unarguably one of the most read and thought-provoking intellectuals of the 20th century. Although he mainly gained attention through his philosophical theory of the absurd, which he carefully and subconsciously embedded in his novels, Camus also decisively contributed significant ideas and thoughts to the development of freedom in the post Second World War era. That is why I want to present you five little known things we still can learn from Albert Camus’ political legacy.

  • Oppose every form of totalitarianism

After the Second World War, socialism spread across Eastern Europe and was proclaimed the alternative draft to capitalism, which was regarded to be one of the reasons for the rise of fascism in Germany. On the other side, socialism was believed to bring about freedom for everybody in the end. Even though many intellectuals at first were attracted by the socialist ideology, Camus instantly saw the dangers of its predominant “the ends justify the means” narrative. He justifiably considered the vicious suppression of opposing views in order to obtain total freedom in the future as an early shibboleth for totalitarianism.

To achieve self-realization, an individual needs personal freedom, which is one of the first victims of totalitarian despotism. Thus, Camus vigorously fought against right or left authoritarian proposals – and for individual liberty, which lead to his conclusion: “None of the evils that totalitarianism claims to cure is worse than totalitarianism itself”.

  • A diverse Europe

If one thing is for sure, then it is Camus’ unbroken love for Europe. However, his conception of Europe does not portray the continent as a possible source for collectively controlled industry, military or thoughts. In contrast, he depicts Europe as an exciting intellectual battlefield of ideas, in which for 20 centuries people revolted “against the world, against the gods, and against themselves.” Thus, European people are unified through shared ideas and values rather than divided by borders.

That is why he forecasts the emergence of an unideological Europe populated by free people and based on unity and diversity already in 1957. Although he felt a strong love for his homeland France, he notes that an expansion of the realm he defines as “home” does not necessarily affects his love in a negative way. That is why he later on even argued for the “United States of the world.”

  • Nihilism is not a solution

In “A letter to a German friend” Camus remarks certain similarities between him and the Nazis regarding their philosophical starting point. They both reject any intrinsic, predetermined meaning in this world. However, the Nazis derive an arbitrariness of defining moral categories such as “good” and “evil” as well as a human subjugation to their animal instincts from this perception. Thus, it is allowed to murder on behalf of an inhuman ideology.

Contrary, Camus insisted that this nihilism leads to self-abandonment of humanity. In turn, he argues that we must fight against the unfairness of the world by creating our own meaning of life in order to achieve happiness. If there is no deeper meaning in our existence, every person has to seek happiness in his or her own way. When we accept our destiny, even if it devastating at first glance as he describes it in “The myth of Sisyphus”, we can pursue our own goals and therefore fulfil our personal meaning of life.

  • Total artistic freedom

Considering his artistic background, Camus’ conception of the value of freedom is quite interesting. Classical liberalist such as Locke and Mill regard freedom as the state of nature: The man is born free and thus freedom is the natural state of any person. Liberty for Camus instead is a necessary condition to fulfil every personal perception of the meaning of life. That is why he particularly emphasizes the invaluable worth of liberty for humanity: When people are not free, they cannot pursue their own meaning of life and thus achieve happiness in an unfair world.

Considering the immense value art personally has for Camus, it certainly reflects a major component in his personal equation towards fulfilment, alongside other interests such as sports and love. Hence, it is not surprising that he was a lifelong supporter of total artistic freedom, which prevents nobody from obtaining happiness through individual perceptions of art. That is why he famously concludes “Without freedom, no art; art lives only on the restraints it imposes on itself and dies of all others.”

  • Abrogate the death penalty

In the chilling essay “reflections on the Guillotine” Camus insists on the abolishment of the death penalty. Apart from different scientific arguments such as low efficiency and a non-existing deterrence-effect, Camus also points out the general moral fragility of the death penalty: He is deeply worried by the state privilege of deciding over life and death. This privilege is exploited through the death penalty, which solely is a form of revenge. On the contrary, it is only triggering an unbearable spiral of violence instead of preventing it. Alternatively, he argues for being set at labour for life as maximal punishment.

Albert Camus was not an Anarcho-capitalist nor was he a libertarian. Nevertheless, he regarded individual freedom as an essential element of society and examined the inseparable relation between freedom and art. Every true work of art increased the inner freedom of its admirer and thus free art gives scope for individual happiness. One can never solely serve the other – they presuppose each other. Because of his artistic and philosophical roots, Camus provides an unusual moral argument for individual liberty, which makes him worth reading even today.

Against Ideology

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!