- The imperial sociology of “the tribe” in Afghanistan Nivi Manchanda, Millennium
- Life in the capital city of pre-modern Japan John Butler, Asian Review of Books
- The Irish free trade crisis of 1779 Joel Herman, Age of Revolutions
- Insiders and outsiders in 17th century philosophy Eric Schliesser, Philosophical Reviews
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.
Not much to say about this one. Helps me to take the edge off stressful times.
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?'”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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:
- Dawkins: The God Delusion (update: Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide, just released last month, apparently at first intended for children/teenagers)
- Hitchens: God Is Not Great
- Dennett: Darwin’s Dangerous Idea
- Harris: The End of Faith (but I like The Moral Landscape even more. Disclaimer: I’m a voracious consumer of his Making Sense podcast)
- Hirsi Ali: Infidel: My Life
- The Ascent of Money, which was my introduction to Ferguson during second year of Uni and still my favourite book of his
- The Cash Nexus, which I confess to not having read. Shame, I know.
- House of Rothschild (Money’s Prophets + The World’s Banker), the massive two-volume biography of the Rothschilds and an absolute treasure trove for 19th century European finance. Whenever I need some background info on that topic – or I find myself bored around a well-equipped academic library – I browse Ferguson’s diligent archival work.
- Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, the controversial “maybe it wasn’t all bad…?” take on British imperialism. Predictably, Ferguson generated some outrage over this.
- Civilization, “a book that belongs at the more populist end of the Ferguson oeuvre” which we can also say about:
- The Great Degeneration (which I didn’t mind reading, but wasn’t overly impressed with).
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.
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
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.
- Rational Optimist, a book in the same style as Pinker’s Enlightenment Now!, Hans Rosling’s Factfulness, Johan Norberg’s Progress, and Angus Deaton’s The Great Escape, briefly summarised as: Shit is getting better. Accept it.
- The Origin of Virtue, one of his earlier books in the 1990s that I haven’t read yet (together with Genome and The Red Queen), but I imagine is similar in content to Nicholas Christakis 500-page Blueprint from earlier this year (which I have read).
- Ridley’s most recent book is from 2015 Evolution of Everything and we’ll blame his House of Lords duties for distracting him from his forthcoming book on Innovation that I’ve written about before (How Innovation Works and Why It Flourishes in Freedom).
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.
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.
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.
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!
I have recently given a 7-minute smart talk on “the Philosophy and Ethics behind Blockchain” at the Saxion Smart Solutions Festival. The talk is intended for laymen who are interested in the intersection of Philosophy and Blockchain.
What follows is a video and transcript of the talk.
Purpose of my Smart Talk
The purpose of this smart talk is four-fold:
- Firstly, I contend that philosophy matters if we would like to understand the practical and social implications of Blockchain;
- I then give a brief description of Crypto-Anarchism, a philosophy that together with the Cypherpunk movement have deeply influenced the Blockchain space from its early beginnings;
- This is then followed by a description of the essence of the Bitcoin Blockchain. I also make a comparative analysis between the Bitcoin Blockchain and Crypto-Anarchism;
- Finally, I will conclude that the Blockchain space is moving towards the development of products that are very well in line with its initial philosophy. These products are Distributed Autonomous Organizations or DAOs in short.
Why Philosophy Matters
I believe that in order to understand something, and to understand where it’s going to we have to understand where it’s coming from. In other words, if we want to understand the practical and social implications of Blockchain, we cannot dismiss the philosophy that has given birth to it.
What is the Crypto-Anarchist and Cypherpunk philosophy?
The invention of Blockchain has a long and very intriguing history. Blockchain was invented in 2008 by Satoshi Nakamoto, a mysterious person or group of people whose real identity until this day has always been concealed. Although Blockchain was invented in 2008, we also know that Satoshi was heavily influenced by crypto-anarchists and cypherpunks.
In 1992, a crypto-anarchist called Timothy May invited a group of cryptographers, mathematicians, engineers, and others concerned with our liberties for a meeting. Their goal was to think of ways to protect
- their privacy,
- their political freedom,
- and their economic freedom through the use of cryptography.
Cryptography is the science or practice of making information unintelligible. It is a means to protect your communication. For example, if you make a purchase on a webshop you actually don’t send a message to the payment service provider that includes your name, your product Y, the amount X and the time Z. What you send is a message that is scrambled into something unintelligible so that whenever a person intercepts the message – for example a malicious hacker – will not be able to understand it.
Crypto-anarchists and cypherpunks are practical idealists so they developed real-life applications that supported their ideals. They developed such things as untraceable e-mail, untraceable payments. They discussed ideas of anonymous markets, self-enforcing smart contracts, secure messaging etc. Most of the technical elements that form the foundation of Bitcoin and the Bitcoin Blockchain were already developed by this group of people.
This group of people that came together in 1992 are known as Cypherpunks. I am sure that most people know at least one person from that group. The Dutchman Robert Gonggrijp (founder of XS4ALL) was part of this group as well as Julian Assange (founder of Wikileaks).
An important question we have to raise here is:
“What are Crypto-anarchists and Cypherpunks and what do they want?”
In the words of Timothy May (1994),
“Crypto-anarchy is the cyberspatial realization of anarcho-capitalism (libertarian anarchism)… Digital cash, untraceable and anonymous (like real cash), is also coming, though various technical and practical hurdles remain… For libertarians, strong crypto provides the means by which government will be avoided.”
Working in the same philosophical tradition as John Locke. The crypto-anarchists are also strict contractarians. They believe that two parties should be allowed to engage in any social and economic activity as long as both parties agree on the said activity. In other words, they believe that every social interaction should be legitimate as long as it happens voluntarily and without coercion. They are very skeptical of centralized institutions, such as governments as – according to them – governments are monopolistic coercive institutions. They want governments to be limited, and preferably non-existent. Crypto-anarchists don’t equate anarchism with disorder. They believe that within an anarchist society – thus one without a government – rules and regulations will emerge naturally from the ground up.
“And what are cypherpunks?”
Cypherpunks are activists who are also very skeptical of centralized institutions like governments. They use cryptography as the means to preserve the freedoms they deem important.
Let’s sum up what they want.
|Transparency: Transparency of governments|
|Voluntaryism: Voluntaryist social and economic interactions|
|Privacy: Privacy for everyone|
|Propertarian: Strict property rights|
|Free markets: No institutional monopoly of money production|
|Decentralization: Decentralization of power. Social order happens from the bottom-up|
Overview of the workings of the Bitcoin Blockchain
Now, let’s take a look at what a Blockchain is and see how it’s related to Crypto-anarchism and Cypherpunk. The most basic explanation of Blockchain is that it is a database, distributed among a network of computers so that every computer has an exact copy of this database. Every computer on the network – also called a node – verifies every mutation of the database. When someone tries to insert malicious data into the Blockchain, the network will easily discover it. In order to hijack the database, you need to be able to hijack a majority of the nodes on the network.
This is in stark contrast with traditional, centralized networks that contain a central server. The relationship between the central server and the connected devices is called a client-server relationship. However, one could also refer to it as a master-slave relationship. The central server has an administrator. This administrator can determine who Is adding what content to the database, he stores your password, your username etc. In such a network, you have to trust the administrator that he acts properly. These type of networks are very prone for corruption, censorship and attacks. In order to attack this centralized network, all you have to do is attack this central server. Therefore, we also say that it has a single point of failure (SPOF).
This is the most basic explanation of what Blockchain is and how its contrasts with centralized networks – but it’s also a boring explanation. A question I’d like us to explore is:
“What is the essence of Blockchain?”
The essence of Blockchain, I beleive, is that it creates trust in a network of unknown participants. It is an elegant solution to the possible corruption of digital networks. In its essence, it is a technology against censorship and corruption of digital networks. There is no need to appeal to authority, because rules are set by consensus, reached through active discussions and persuasion instead of coercion.
In this sense, the Bitcoin Blockchain perfectly matches the philosophy of Crypto-anarchism and Cypherpunk.
Comparison between Crypto-Anarchism and the Bitcoin Blockchain
|Transparency: Transparency of governments||Transparency: Blockchain is open source and transparent. Everyone can look into the source code and follow every transaction.|
|Voluntaryism: Voluntaryist social and economic interactions||Voluntaryism: Everyone is free to join and leave the network. Everyone is allowed to use Bitcoin, and not coerced into using it.|
|Privacy: Privacy for everyone||Privacy: Anyone, anywhere can create a Bitcoin wallet without having to provide private information. Bitcoin addresses are pseudonymous and its encouraged to use a different Bitcoin address for every transaction.|
|Propertarian: Strict property rights||Propertarian: When you own your private key of your wallet, no one can take it away from you.|
|Free markets: No institutional monopoly of money production||Free markets: Introduces competition in money production.|
|Decentralization: Decentralization of power. Social order happens from the bottom-up||Decentralization: Blockchain is copied and distributed over a large network of computers. There’s no need to appeal to authority to participate or to make transactions. In that sense, it is radically neutral. Everyone on the network, no matter whether you are a king or humble civil servant, is treated the same and according to pre-specified consensus rules.|
What types of applications can we look forward to
Knowing where Blockchain came from. What can we say about the types of applications they would like to build? What types of applications can we look forward to in the future that hold true to this anti-censorship/anti-corruption philosophy of the Crypto-anarchists and Cypherpunks?
The ultimate types of application for them are Distributed Autonomous Organizations or DAOs for short. These are organizations, that don’t have a single point of decision-making. They have no board of directors, no select group of owners that have exclusive ownership rights, no one executive that directs the organization. These organizations, instead, are open and inclusive for anyone. They are ruled by machine consensus and not by the whims of a small group of people.
There are already DAOs. Bitcoin was the first DAO. There is no Bitcoin company, no Bitcoin executive. If you think about DAOs, imagine a Facebook without a Facebook CEO, a YouTube without a YouTube company, and an investment fund without a fund manager.
This book explores the aesthetics of the novel from the perspective of Continental European philosophy, presenting a theory on the philosophical definition and importance of the novel as a literary genre. It analyses a variety of individuals whose work is reflected in both theoretical literary criticism and Continental European aesthetics, including Mikhail Bakhtin, Georg Lukács, Theodor Adorno, and Walter Benjamin. Moving through material from eighteenth century and ancient Greek philosophy and aesthetics, the book provides comprehensive coverage of the major positions on the philosophy of the novel. Distinctive features include the importance of Vico’s view of the epic to understanding the novel, the importance of Kierkegaard’s view of the novel and irony along with his other aesthetic views, the different possibilities associated with seeing the novel as ‘mimetic’ and the importance of Proust in understanding the genre in all its philosophical aspects, relating the issue of the philosophical aesthetics of the novel with the issue of philosophy written as a novel and the interaction between these two alternative positions.
Jacques has a new book out, too, titled Indecent Stories by Decent Women. It’s under a pen name, John René Adolph, for obvious reasons. Here is a 2014 essay by Jacques titled “Why Young Women Are Stupid (If They Are): A Scientific Inquiry.”