Two Bald Eagles: Symbols of Divided Attitudes?

I spotted two Bald Eagles today in Cincinnati, which is really fitting for the Fourth of July. The two Bald Eagles—one indolent and one vigilant—capture not only the attitudes of two influential figures in American politics about this national symbol that was hotly debated till 1789, but they also reflect the fractured character of these United States.

You probably already know that Benjamin Franklin was an outspoken detractor of the bald eagle. He stated his disinterest in the national symbol in a letter to a friend:
“I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country; he is a bird of bad moral character; like those among men who live by sharping and robbing, he is generally poor, and often very lousy. The turkey is a much more respectable bird and withal a true, original native of America.”

In contrast, President John F. Kennedy wrote to the Audubon Society:
“The Founding Fathers made an appropriate choice when they selected the bald eagle as the emblem of the nation. The fierce beauty and proud independence of this great bird aptly symbolizes the strength and freedom of America. But as latter-day citizens we shall fail our trust if we permit the eagle to disappear.”

The two Bald Eagles, which symbolize, in my estimation, two divergent historical viewpoints, show us that American history is splintered into sharp conceptions of the past as it has been politicizedly revised to forge a more perfect union. There is little question that the tendency toward seeking out varied intellectual interpretations of US history is unabating and maybe essential to the growth of a mature republic. On holidays like the Fourth of July, however, a modicum of romanticism of the past is also required if revisionist histories make it harder and harder for the average person to develop a classicist vision of the Republic as a good—if not perfect—union and make it seem like a simple-minded theory. 

The two Bald Eagles aren’t just symbolic of the past; they also stand for partisanship and apathy in the present toward issues like inflation, NATO strategy, Roe v. Wade, and a variety of other divisive concerns. In addition, I learned there is an unfortunate debate on whether to have a 4th of July concert without hearing the 1812 Overture. For those who are not familiar, it is a musical composition by the Russian composer Tchaikovsky that has become a staple for July 4th events since 1976. 

In view of this divisiveness here is my unsophisticated theory of American unity for the present moment: Although the rhetoric of entrenched divisiveness and the rage of political factions—against internal conflicts and international relations—are not silenced by the Fourth of July fireworks, the accompanying music, festivities, and the promise of harmony, they do present a forceful antidote to both. So why have a double mind on a national ritual that serves as a unifying force and one of the few restraints on partisanship? Despite the fact that I am a resident alien, I propose preserving Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, arousing the inner dozing Bald Eagle, and making an effort to reunite the divided attitude toward all challenges. The aim, in my opinion, should be to manifest what Publius calls in Federalist 63 the “cool and deliberate sense of community.”

Have a happy Fourth!

In the Ruins of Public Reason, Part I: The Problem of Dialogical Illiberalism

Note: This is part of a series on public discourse. View Part 2 here.

Older readers of NOL may have noticed I have been absent from the blogosphere for the last four or so years. Part of this has been that I have rather intentionally taken a somewhat monkish vow of silence on many things that perplex me about the contemporary world. On many of these issues—the growing tide of global populist authoritarianism, the policy and cultural responses to COVID, and increasing political polarization to name a few—I still don’t know what is true or if I am equipped to say much other than express a vague, general sense that almost everyone in those debates has gotten something fundamentally wrong. Consequently, I have taken time in a philosophy grad school program to think about more fundamental issues rather than get lost in the daily obsessions of the internet. Now, I am done with that venture and have decided for various personal reasons to not pursue an academic career so I will have more time to write more freely here.

I think even more than my being epistemically overwhelmed by the…everything…of the last few years or even the time and energy constraints of grad school, a bigger reason why I have been loathe to blog or engage in public discussion has been a sense of frustration, exhaustion and melancholic angst with the state of public discourse, especially online. It seems like nearly everyone today—from partisan activists to family members, to friends, to even respected thinkers whose ideas have influenced me in the past, seem to be guilty of contributing to this problem. I surely do not exclude myself from these criticisms of the zeitgeist, for the zeitgeist very much lives in my head. For now, rather than discuss any substantive issues, I am going to start a series about some meta-issues that have poisoned our public discourse and made it unpleasant and even psychologically impossible for me, and I am sure others, to write publicly.

For now, I just want to narrow in on identifying the symptoms of our ruined discourse. I am talking about how almost every one of almost every ideological stripe these days constantly displays a vicious lack of charity to almost everyone they engage with who they vaguely associate with some outgroup. An illiberal intolerant attitude where their first impulse is to try to censor ideas that they find disagreeable. For the politically engaged and outraged, it seems like no disagreement can be a good-faith one. So many seem to just assume that almost anyone they disagree with is acting in bad faith. To be sure, many people are acting in bad faith, but that is no reason to become the monster one is fighting or assume that as the default with every interlocutor. So many people treat nearly every difference of opinion, no matter how great or small, not as potentially interesting differences in values that can be commensurably discussed or interesting empirical disagreements, but as “dangerous” ideas that need to be quashed.

I am talking about the tendency for people—everywhere from cable news, to Thanksgiving tables, to Twitter–to “nutpickoutgroups to outrage other members of their ingroups. How so much of political discourse has substituted sub-rational bumper stickers, memes, and tweets for substantive positions and arguments. How so many clearly rationalize terrible arguments they should know better than to make because said arguments have ideologically convenient or politically expedient conclusions. How so many seem more interested in morally grandstanding to their favored ingroup than trying to learn more from those with whom they have fruitful differences. How for some people to even listen to you, they make you engage in some sort of ideological purity test. How they engage in dishonest guilt by association to try to assassinate the character of people they might have minor disagreements with. How they generally view anyone with whom they have disagreements contemptuously

Of course, much of this has always been an element of how hooligans engage in democratic politics. However, the degree to which it has reached a fever pitch is a change from a few decades ago. Further, this loathsome creeping intolerance and lack of epistemic virtue have now seeped from screeching political rallies, Twitter, or Yahoo News comment sections to many self-important elites who fancy themselves above the fray of the irrational cacophony of political discourse, and often help shape that discourse. I am talking the sort of people who stridently read or write for NY Times and The Atlantic, legal professionals, elites in the ivory tower where I once delusionally hoped to find a bubble of safety.

The problem goes by many names—right-wing reactionaries call it “wokeness” or “cancel culture” when done by the left, leftists and progressives call it fascist authoritarianism when right-wingers do it. To some varying extent, both are correct about each other and wrong about themselves. To be clear, I do think the right’s illiberal authoritarianism is very much a bigger threat in this political moment, but rather than spending time unproductively fanning the flames of that culture war debate, let me neutrally call the problem dialogical illiberalism in the small “l” sense of liberalism. It is a form of brain rot that seems to have infected every one of all political persuasions to varying degrees of significance—from conservative culture warriors to socialist Breadtubers, to ostensibly “liberal” centrists, to anarchist antifascist activists, to even my (former) ingroup of some libertarian academics. None of you are free from sin.

In the extreme, the dialogical illiberal is not just an unreasonable conversation partner, but a dialectical rent-seeker demanding the state coercively censor those with whom they disagree. For now, I want to focus on the merely dialogical and social form of this illiberalism simply to avoid getting lost in the complicated intricacies of liberal free speech norms and First Amendment legal disputes. Those are complicated debates worth having but beyond the scope of this series. Suffice it to say, I have little patience for this form of actively statist censoriousness in whatever form. But I think its increasing prevalence has its roots in a culture of dialogical illiberalism that has evolved in the norms of public discourse, which is what I am interested in analyzing here.

This is where, usually, this genre of article goes into some detailed examples and case studies of “the problem” to convince you it is real. Typically, these are rather dishonestly cherry-picked to support whatever implicit tribal position the author happens to have. Frankly, I have no interest in such a performative exercise here—it is better left to the reader. It would just distract us by tempting us to engage in the accidental details of some particular examples rather than stepping back and seeing the bigger picture. I don’t wish to miss the trees for the forest, and neither should you. Suffice it to say, if you are unconvinced of that what I am talking about is a genuine problem, this series of posts probably isn’t for you. You have either been living under a rock (in which case I urge you to return because ignorance is sometimes bliss), are unusually patient with bad argumentation (in which case, I envy you), or might be part of the problem.

I imagine you are nodding your head in agreement and recalling times when this has been done to you or by someone in some other political tribe to someone in your tribe. I encourage you to stop this now and try to recall a time when someone you respect and agree with was being unreasonable and uncharitable to someone else, or perhaps when you yourself have done this in a social media exchange, or with a family member or friend. I know I have. If you are completely incapable of doing this, I encourage you to save yourself some time and stop reading now—this series isn’t for you. Perhaps return to Twitter.

Perhaps at this point, you are trying to rationalize your own version of dialogical illiberalism as somehow justifiable. If you can give an original good faith argument for it, go ahead and I might consider moderating my hardline position against dialogical illiberalism. Perhaps you are thinking something like this: “But they really are so terrible and bad-faith that we should not take them seriously as debaters. You are just engaging in toxic both-sideism!” Perhaps you are right about “them,”—whoever that outgroup might be in your head. However, that is no reason to become just like “them” to the point that you cannot engage with nearly anyone in good faith. Maybe you should reflect on whether you are projecting a caricature of “them” on people who genuinely are not one of “them.” Again, avoid becoming the monster you are fighting. If you do not wish to make that effort, return to the Twitter mob.

Most readers will agree with something like this, to put it bluntly: political discourse is terrible because politically active people are massive assholes to each other. I wish to understand why people of all ideological stripes have become such massive assholes and how I can stop being one myself. If you are interested in trying not to be an asshole too, perhaps you will join me.

I don’t have an explicit plan for this series, I am not sure how many posts it will comprise. But I expect to focus on topics such as how dialogical illiberals psychologically think of themselves while they are engaging in bad-faith discussion, the role of social media in making the problem worse, the extent to which the incentive structure of democratic institutions leads to dialogical illiberalism, the chilling effect this lack of civility has on discourse, and other cultural causes and effects of dialogical illiberalism.  

If you wish, consider this an exercise in therapeutic edification for me and, if you feel similarly, perhaps for you. I am not trying to make an argument trying to convince you of much substantively. If you change your mind about something, consider that a bonus. My goals here are to express my frustration with this moment in American cultural discourse, diagnose some of what I see as the psychological and social factors contributing to the problem, and hopefully come away making myself (and, with any luck, the reader) closer to the sort of person who is not part of the problem.

I do not have all the answers and do not think I will find them here, but I do have two ground rules I hope to establish: 1) It will be hard at times for me not to hide my frustration with people who are characteristically dialogical illiberals, I am sure that has already come through. But, when possible, my hope is to analyze these individuals with the empathetic self-detachment of a good philosophical anthropologist. Do, please, call me out in the comments when I fall short of that ideal.  2) To make my biases clear: I am a very idiosyncratic sort of radical liberal/anarchist/left-libertarian hybrid. I am very much on the left side of the culture wars instinctively, while at the same time I am strongly disposed to think any policy solutions the state could enact are bound to fail. Consequently, I am more likely to be harsher to the dialogical illiberalism on the right side of the political spectrum, yet more knowledgeable of the dialogical illiberalism on the left side. You do not have to be on the same side of those anti-statist policy conclusions or be sympathetic to my radically leftist cultural tendencies to learn something from this series. My aim here is not to convince you to join my oddly specific and strange “team.” I think that sort of mindset is what encourages the dialogical liberalism I am chiding to begin with. I will try to bracket my cultural and policy views where possible and focus more on the meta-issues poisoning our discourse, but I cannot help that those views will often seep through.

Greenwald on Silicon Valley

On Thursday, Parler was the most popular app in the United States. By Monday, three of the four Silicon Valley monopolies united to destroy it.

With virtual unanimity, leading U.S. liberals celebrated this use of Silicon Valley monopoly power to shut down Parler, just as they overwhelmingly cheered the prior two extraordinary assertions of tech power to control U.S. political discourse: censorship of The New York Post’s reporting on the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop, and the banning of the U.S. President from major platforms. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find a single national liberal-left politician even expressing concerns about any of this, let alone opposing it.

Not only did leading left-wing politicians not object but some of them were the ones who pleaded with Silicon Valley to use their power this way. After the internet-policing site Sleeping Giants flagged several Parler posts that called for violence, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked: “What are @Apple and @GooglePlay doing about this?”

The rest is here. Do read it. (H/t Mark from Placerville)

I haven’t jumped into American domestic politics for a long, long time. It’s nice to see that Glenn Greenwald is still the same ol’ Glenn Greenwald. I saw on Twitter awhile back that some Leftists were savaging him because he refused to take their side on something or other.

The tribal trend is one that is here to stay, I think, at least for the duration of my lifetime. In the old days, in the United States, politics was more polarized. Whole families based part of their identity on a political party. What we are seeing is a return to the norm after 80 years of postwar boom (and bust), when being an American trumped being a Democrat/Republican. Coming to terms with a bug in the democratic system (polarization), is going to be difficult for a lot of Americans.

The problem is not just ignorance with polarization, either. Before the postwar boom, America’s federal government did a lot less than it does now. Our polarized society, which again is a normal feature of democracies that don’t win world wars, is fighting for resources that are now wielded largely by one entity rather than by hundreds of local entities. There are plusses and minuses to this. The federal government is more professional about such things, and graft is harder to commit, but this also means that there will be more losers (for those federal goodies).

In the past, violent riots were the product of racist and Nativist animosities that were not dealt with effectively by local authorities. Basically, black Americans and immigrants were not able to get any public goods from local and “state” governments unless they literally fought for a place at the table. Today, and for the foreseeable future, the animosities are going to be federal in scope rather than local, so violence will not be a product of racist or Nativist abuse. Violent riots will probably flare up more often than they once did, too, but they won’t be as deadly as the racist or Nativist riots of old.

I hope I’m wrong, but I rarely am.

A Rare Civilized Exchange with the Other Side

I had an unusual experience yesterday and today, a civilized exchange with a liberal. It was on Facebook. I think it’s worth sharing, maybe only as curiosity.

Jacques Delacroix to S.R.S.: I am reading you and your accomplices between the lines. Is it true that you have trouble imagining any Trump supporter as reasonably intelligent, reasonably well informed, and well aware of Mr Trump’s rather obvious shortfalls? Just asking.

S.R.S. to Jacques Delacroix: Speaking only for myself: I don’t have trouble imagining that at all. It helps that I have maintained FB friendships with a number of them, obviously including you, but also others, some of whom I know (or once knew) in real life and not just on FB. I certainly understand that there are those out there who like tax cuts for corporations and individuals (even when slanted toward the already wealthy), who generally want to repeal government regulations on business, and who want highly conservative judges and Justices–all standard Republican fare and key accomplishments of the Trump administration.

I assume many of these conservatives are well aware that Trump has a “room temperature IQ” (quoting you, I believe, but I’m not positive of that), that Trump talks before he thinks (let alone consults with actual experts), and that his rhetoric borders on xenophobic and authoritarian. The mantra is: “don’t worry; he’s not DOING those things, and his talk won’t hurt anything; or at least it will hurt less than if a Democrat were in the White House.”

I’m deeply opposed on the policy positions, and I’m sometimes baffled by some typical conservative positions (e.g., deficits are anathema except when it is a Republican President), but I know there are intelligent people on both sides.

As I said (earlier in this post or somewhere similar), I’m more concerned than those conservatives about the long-term damage being done by the authoritarian and arguably xenophobic rhetoric coming straight from the highest office in the land.

And in general, I’m very concerned about the demonization of political opponents (“Cheatin’ Obama” is one case in point, or calling his political opponents and the reporters in the press “evil” people). Trump didn’t invent it, and the Democrats do some of it too. But I believe the rhetoric has grown exponentially under Trump (after all, a constant refrain of his campaign was that he would imprison his opponent), and I think it is highly corrosive to the possibility of genuine democracy. I am saddened, and scared, by the fact that most conservatives in power and their supporters on the ground either don’t see this as a problem, or see it as less concerning than the possibility of a moderate Democrat in the White House.

Jacques Delacroix to S.R.S. Thanks for taking the trouble. I recognize most of what you are saying and I even agree with some. Certainly, this includes the deficit spending pre-dating the epidemic. Mr Trump is certainly not my idea of a good conservative. (More on this below.) I am baffled by your description of him as authoritarian. He has used executive orders much less than his predecessor. (“I have a pen and a phone.” Obama) He has not bragged about doing so. He has not tried to circumvent the constitutional order. (Whatever he has said, including recently, he has not tried.) I am open to instruction on authoritarianism. It really matters to me. There is nothing I detest more. But, please, limit yourself to deeds; I already know about the logorrhea. As for his being “xenophobic,” it’s one of those political correctness inspired statements I suspect is devoid of meaning. I am obviously a foreigner. “Yes but you are white.” My wife is a woman of color. She voted for him; she will again, without compunction. I feel (feel, don’t know to corroborate it) that your distaste and that of your tribe, and shared by some Republicans, is something else, something like caste rejection. I stated that Mr Trump is not my idea of a good conservative. In this connection, I, but also you, are faced with the following two quandaries about the functioning of our political institutions.

First, how could Mr Trump -with his obvious personal shortcomings – have so easily triumphed in a field of 18 other Rep. candidates, most of whom looked viable? In this connection, I think his ascendancy among blue-collar workers needs to be explained. The Dem Party should do the explaining.

Second, how could the Dem end up producing the enormously damaged good that is Mrs Clinton in 2016. (I know you don’t appreciate name calling, but she is obviously a major crook, in my book.) How could the higher ranks of the Dem Party openly scheme against Sen. Sander? (He is a man I know well because I used to be him, when we were both 25.) I think he is a little dumb but no doubt honest. Plus, his program was clear. He would have given Mr Trump a run for his money, including among people like me who are used to choosing between the lesser of two or more evils. Furthermore, how can the Dem Party, only three years later, come up for a candidate with the mental shipwreck that is Mr Biden? This is downright strange. Conventional explanations just won’t do. As I explained recently [hereBC] , I smell a rat, here again.

PS I don’t think I said that Mr Trump had a room temperature IQ because I don’t believe it for a second. Rather, I must have attributed this belief to liberals. PS2. There are different kinds of name calling. Mr Trump’s schoolyard variety is entertaining and rather innocent as compared to everything else. If it makes his adversaries lose their cool, that’s fine with me. In the 19th century, there was an inspired politician who claimed that his opponent’s sister was a “Thespian.” I like that. Thank for your attention.

S.R.S. declined to pursue this further. He mentioned two books.

Three Lessons on Institutions and Incentives (Part 8): Conclusion

Far from the custom of assigning to cultural factors, or educational, or geographic or relative to the particular constitution of the ruling elites, the three works reviewed – Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance, by Douglass C. North; The Elusive Quest for Growth, by William Easterly and Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu & James A. Robinson, state an explanation of the progress and decline of nations articulated on abstract incentives, which serve as a structure in which frame the rational agent makes his choices. The four authors have a common reference to methodological individualism, but such an individual agent does not make decisions in a vacuum, but inserted within a framework of incentives.

That such incentives, to act as points of reference for individual action, should materialize historically, does not mean that such conditions for action come from a particular circumstance of time and place, but that they depend on an abstract structure that relates to different terms and that is present in every phenomenon of human interaction.

To finish, it is worth referring to the conclusions reached by North in his referenced work: the case of the two successive Spanish Americas, the Habsburg and the Bourbons. The first extended from the discovery and colonization of America to the early eighteenth century. The viceroyalties of America enjoyed great political autonomy – Spanish immigration had been little and a “Creole” elite had developed – and they were closed to trade, which was limited to the “export” of gold to Spain. With the arrival of the Bourbons at the beginning of the 18th century and the implementation of their Reforms – which from the economic point of view were a resounding success both in Spain and in America – the relationship was reversed: political power passed into the hands of the “Peninsular Spaniards” and an opening of a more fluid trade between the metropolis and its colonies was launched. North explains that the independence movements could be successful due to a transitory alliance between the sectors that wanted to return to the Habsburg system and those who wanted to deepen the modernizing and free-market impulse of the Bourbons. Once achieved independence, these two currents came into conflict, which, according to the author, would extend until today.

According to North’s thesis on Spanish America, there would be two political patterns in tension: on the one hand, an elitist politician who is open to the economy and on the other a “popular” current that is traditionally protectionist. In the second half of the 19th century, success belonged to the “Bourbon pattern” and, in the 20th Century, the “Habsburg pattern” prevailed. In terms of Acemoglu & Robinson, it would be the dispute between a combination of extractive political institutions with inclusive economic institutions and another combination of inclusive political institutions with extractive economic institutions. Of course, in practice, moments of extractive political and economic institutions were also known, as well as short-lived experiences of inclusive institutions, both politically and economically.

The notion of polarized societies used by Easterly can serve as a way to deepen this analysis. It is much clearer to find problems of countries with societies divided into distant and dissimilar regions, in which the policy is expressly articulated as a function of tribes or ethnic groups and which the dispute over public policies expressly favors or harms a another ethnic group. However, as it has been stated, it is not ethnicity or nationality that determines the low economic and institutional performance of a country, but the polarization structure itself, whatever the functions in which such polarization is expressed (language, religion, ethnicity, ideology, etc.). Understanding these latter is fundamental to be able to provide a common thread for a principle of solution.

Just as on the political level an express agreement can be reached on the way to choose who exercises public power and under what conditions, Easterly states a series of conditions related to economic institutions whose agreement would allow for economic growth, regardless of the region, culture, or education of the ruling class of each country. Throughout The Elusive Quest for Growth you can find mentioned to free trade as a main factor of progress, monetary stability and exchange freedom as examples of clear and equitable rules, a state that participates in large infrastructure works but that refrain from arbitrating in the distribution of economic rents among various groups, a low level of public indebtedness, stability in property rights and an independent justice that allows individuals to innovate and save, as well as support programs and incentives to members of society who are immersed in poverty traps.

As mentioned, many times the policy -especially when, in the terms of Acemoglu & Robinson, it is inclusive- consists of the composition of interests of various kinds for the purpose of articulating a government program. From the work of the authors commented here, it can be inferred that, just as there is an agreement on the political plane regarding the rules of the democratic game, which include periodic elections, limited re-elections and division of powers, among others, there should also be a consensus in a body of economic institutions that should be left out of political negotiation, so that economic policy is as neutral as possible against the conflicting interests of which a country with a polarized society is composed.

[Editor’s note: Here is Part 7, and here is the entire, Longform Essay.]

Three Lessons on Institutions and Incentives (Part 7): Breaking the mold

This role of entrepreneurs also depends on an abstract characteristic of technological knowledge: it works in a manner contrary to that of most goods, since it is more productive to the extent that it is more widespread in the population. This characteristic of the abstract nature of technological knowledge is related to the phenomenon of the combination of skills (matching of skills): the negative side of creative destruction lies in substitution phenomena (a computer program of inventory management increases the productivity of work saving the salaries of the army of employees who used to carry them with pencil and paper), but the positive side comes from the phenomena of complementarity.

As William Easterly exemplifies, the cardiac surgeon will be more productive in a first world hospital, where he will have specialized nurses, other qualified doctors like him, a sophisticated system of hospital administration, and so on, being the only cardiac surgeon in a hospital. city ​​of the third world, where it does not have professionalized nurses, nor the help of other medical colleagues, working in a hospital in which he himself has to deal with administrative issues. If there were only substitution relations, it would be convenient for a doctor to practice his profession in the most remote place possible. However, as relations of complementarity of knowledge exponentially increase the productivity of the professionals involved, the doctor will find it more convenient to practice in a health center that has the largest number of doctors and paramedics possible.

The latter does lead to the phenomenon of “traps”: any rational agent, who maximizes the utility of their choices will be discouraged to deepen their studies if they perceive that they can not give any use to their education. There are the cases in which a person discovers that in his country there is no technology or the necessary number of professionals to develop a specific activity, or that, existing, you will find prohibited the exercise of their profession based on restrictions regarding their race, caste, social class, sex, etc. Since, rationally, a person who is included in a particular group under which he will be found forbidden or will be hindered the exercise of his profession, he will find as the most rational of their alternatives to abandon their studies, so that their chances of progress will no longer be limited only by legal or social barriers, but because of their lack of suitability for high-paying functions. Such are the so-called “poverty traps.”

There are also wealth traps. There are those cases in which the individual knows that he is within a favored group or in which he knows a large number of professionals and, therefore, invests time and money in his education because he knows that he has high chances of success, which will then be confirmed. Obviously, such phenomena of divergence generates another problem, addressed both by Easterly and by Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson, which is that of polarized societies.

Easterly affirms that it is the exchange of goods and services, through the mutual benefits that they report to the parties that participate in it, the main source of wealth generation. Where individuals are allowed to exchange, in a stable institutional framework with a stable currency, is where prosperity flourishes. However, Easterly recognizes that bad luck can devastate nations, as are the cases of geological and climatic phenomena such as earthquakes, tsunamis or mudslides, as well as recognizing that the situations of individuals involved in a poverty trap can only be resolved through an active public policy that not only provides education, but also establishes the conditions so that the recipients of that educational system can count on certain expectations that they will be able to apply that knowledge acquired through education and that, consequently, it is reasonable to study.

Just as the bad star can affect the economic performance of the countries, so can a favorable conjuncture, such as the case of a transitory improvement in terms of exchange of a given country. But this favorable circumstance can become a counter-march. Easterly explains that, for a simple statistical matter, it is very difficult for both a nation and an individual to always remain on the crest of the wave, over the years everything tends to return to the average. The problem occurs when a country -or a person, too- got used to a certain level of spending in the boom years and intends to maintain it through debt or emisionism. We come to the cases in which, according to Easterly, the government can “kill the growth.” Public debt and inflation generate capital consumption and, consequently, poverty.

Another way that governments have to discourage growth is through corruption. Not only because it means a transfer of resources from productive activities to unproductive activities, but because it also means a bad signal for citizens. However, in cases of corruption, as noted above, wealth at least changes hands. There is another case, even more pernicious, in which the government’s actions, whether motivated by corruption or inspired by good intentions, destroy wealth, without even redistributing it: this is the case of inconsistent public policies derived from highly polarized societies.

Public policies that aim to favor a given industry, but at the same time need to agree on measures with other sectors of the economy, whose purpose is to compensate for the losses generated by those policies, can lead to a tangle of inconsistent regulations that, instead of transfer riches from one sector to another, directly destroy them. For example: exchange controls harm the export sector, since they generate black markets. The exporters will have costs that will be partly quoted according to the black market prices (which are higher) and they will have to liquidate the value of their exports at the official exchange rate, which will be lower. Regulations of this kind may not involve acts of corruption, but they do destroy wealth, which there is no way to recover.

Easterly lists numerous examples of everything that needs to be done to destroy growth. However, there is something that deserves to be especially highlighted: the progress or stagnation of nations does not depend on educational, cultural or geographic factors, but rather on the incentive framework that predominates. This incentive framework will always be abstract, that is, it can be applied at any time and place.

[Editor’s note: Here is Part 6, and here is the entire, Longform Essay.]

Three Lessons on Institutions and Incentives (Part 4): Institutions and the Rule of Law

Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson call the set of regulations that obstruct innovation “extractive institutions.” Of course, here again, extractive institutions are less harmful than the total absence of institutions. Not every change in the status quo can be interpreted as “creative destruction” or “entrepreneurship.” As Friedrich Hayek pointed out in Law, Legislation and Freedom, so that the most mutually compatible plans can be carried out, it is necessary that a well-defined set of expectations be systematically frustrated: the usurpations, the frauds, collusions, the paramilitary bands, etc., etc. The main thing is to have institutions that guarantee a minimum of order. Now, many times the institutions manage to be put into effect as a result of having the consensus of a certain number of interests that see in the law an opportunity to extract benefits. It is the distinction between Acemoglu & Robinson between the already mentioned “extractive institutions” and “inclusive institutions.” The latter are constituted by that set of rules that formally are equal for all and that materially protect private property, the value of money, competition understood as freedom of entry to markets, among other values ​​of modern capitalism.

The distinction between extractive and inclusive institutions can find its parallelism in the expressions of “Rule by Law” and “Rule of Law.” The first consists on the accommodation of general and abstract normative statements with a second intention: to benefit a group at the expense of society as a whole. It is common to hear the criticism that the law has a false neutrality and that therefore any defense of the “Rule of Law” must be ideological (in the Marxist sense of the term). However, what distinguishes the concept of “Rule of Law” from “Rule by Law” is that, for the first of the terms, the consequences are unlikely to be predicted in terms of their particular and even more individual, while the second has an intentionality, declared or hidden.

To give an example, the procedural due process has such a degree of abstraction that it can hardly be predicted who will benefit from those proceedings. However, a law that prohibits the importation of a product of domestic manufacture clearly aims to redistribute resources from consumers to the local producers (although this type of regulation usually also generates consequences that are very difficult to foresee and often contrary to its original intentional).

Critics of the Rule of Law state that it is not neutral, because it protects exclusively the interests of the proprietors. However, such criticism loses sight of the fact that in the Modernity, any inhabitant, even those who are not citizens, can have access to the right to property, regardless of whether or not they belong to a certain caste, class, or social class. This, unlike the legal and political systems of the so-called Ancien Régime, which limited access to private property in perpetuity and irrevocably to a certain group of people, or even more, to a certain clan or group of families. It does not matter if, in Modernity, a person does not own any particular good, as long as he can count on the expectation of being able to become one at some time. In this sense, private property understood in the modern sense as that right that any inhabitant can enjoy from having stability in their possessions to the point of only being stripped of it by their own consent or by following the procedural due process.

This unlike laws protecting infant industries, professions or trades, or promotion of certain activities that are deemed as socially necessary or valuable, which establish a regime of transfers of resources from one sector of society to another. As the School of Public Choice indicates, such laws encourage “lobbying” and reduce the efficiency in the allocation of resources. In such institutional arrangements, individuals and businesses do not prosper through the discipline of serving the consumer, but through political agreements. Economic agents continue to maximize, but at the expense of regulations that deliberately establish certain winners (the owners of protected activities) and certain losers (consumers and potential producers who are denied access to protected activities). Under these circumstances, the citizenry begins to perceive an arbitrary sense in the norms and have no moral issues with challenging them (any contraband, without commercial purposes, is a clear example of this). Obviously, when non-compliance with standards becomes so extensive, regulations become ineffective. Moreover, as James M. Buchanan put it in his brief essay “A policy in the interests of producers,” the stagnation generated by protectionism means that the winners of such a system – the protected producers – turn out to be less rich than they would be in an open and competitive institutional framework.

Sometimes protectionism seeks its foundation in a mistaken theory of “original accumulation.” (Joseph Schumpeter ruled out the validity of such proposals by pointing out that, although those could have had some basis until the 19th century, the development of capital markets made this theory completely obsolete.)

However, neither Douglass North, nor William Easterly, nor Acemoglu & Robinson, deal with the problem of original accumulation. They prefer to encompass such phenomena within the set of erroneous theories that serve to justify policies arising from political agreements in polarized societies. This means that a certain institutional arrangement, an economic growth policy, a stabilization program, a constitutional reform, foreign policy and so on, in a polarized society is not inspired by abstract and formal principles but in concrete goals that benefit certain sectors of society above others.

The examples of polarized societies, to which Easterly and Acemoglu & Robinson turn, come mostly from African countries since these are mostly created in the process of decolonization and comprise different ethnic groups and languages ​​within themselves, so polarization is much more evident: certain policies benefit a certain ethnic group over another. Easterly specifically cites the case of an African nation in which an ethnic group that represents 10% of the population lives in the region where a certain commodity is produced and whose export generates large revenues and, in the meantime, the government is elected, with some exceptions, by 90% of the remaining population, which imposes export rights on the said commodity, whose collection is destined to industrialization plans that systematically fail.

It is often tempting to explain the failure of such industrialization plans for the corruption evidenced in their execution. In fact, corruption cases are verified, but public policy would also fail even if those involved were incorruptible. Many times bad policies destroy much more wealth than political corruption. Corruption implies a transfer of resources and, therefore, an inefficient allocation of resources, while bad public policies result in the destruction of wealth.

However, examples of polarized societies in African countries can generate confusion around the main message of The Elusive Quest for Growth and Why Nations Fail. The economic performance of nations has nothing to do with geography, culture, or lack of preparation of the ruling elites to draw the plans of government. Easterly holds the main responsibility for the rise and fall of nations in incentives, while Acemoglu & Robinson point to the institutions that establish such incentive schemes. Regarding the opinion of Douglass C. North, although his line of research can lend itself to a “culturalist” interpretation, he himself recognizes the disruptive change of formal institutions as a determining factor of economic performance.

In summary, the three works discussed here have as a common denominator the role of incentives as a determinant of the economic performance of countries, above culture (which North would call “informal institutions”), geography, or the level of education of its elites. However, the case of polarized societies is presented as a critical point of such approaches.

José Luis de Imaz in Los que mandan (The ones who command) had defined politics as the activity consisting of articulating diverse interests according to a coherent plan of government. The definition of Imaz deserves to be put back into use, since it addresses the problem of polarization and also because its double edge allows to tie the loose ends left by the visions that we can group, with greater or lesser precision, under the “neo- institutionalist” (clearly the case of North, although it would be pending to discuss the label for Easterly and Acemoglu & Robinson).

Notwithstanding, that polarization is manifest in tribal or caste societies does not mean that it is not present in other societal forms. In the United States, the north and south; in Europe, the separatist movements; in Argentina, the interior and Buenos Aires. With greater or lesser intensity, manifestly or latently, politics is always structured on a space of tension of interests in competition for resources. Those who frequent the work of Carl Schmitt often claim that trade and law are “civilized” means for the exchange and dispute of such resources, politics and war are on the other side of the same question in terms of intensity of the conflict.

However, the term institutions – which define incentives – does not refer only to deliberate political agreements in pursuit of a specific purpose, such as a given public policy. The concept of institution also concerns a series of abstract and general principles whose final result at a particular level no one can foresee, because their level of abstraction imposes an insurmountable limit for the knowledge of its concrete consequences.

[Editor’s note: Here is Part 3; Here is the entire, Longform Essay]


  1. What are the real fault lines diving Americans? George Hawley, Law & Liberty
  2. Beliefs and interests Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  3. Can we trust deliberation priests? Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias
  4. R. Kelly and mob justice Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth

It’s no longer the economy, but we are still stupid

Motivated Reasoning, Public Opinion, and Presidential Approval‘, an interesting new paper forthcoming in the journal Political Behavior (summarized here), by Kathleen M. Donovan, Paul M. Kellstedt, Ellen M. Key, Matthew J. Lebo finds that support for sitting presidents has become increasingly misaligned with national economic expectations. Rather than being a sign of voters realizing that presidents play little role determining economic performance, they attribute this to increased partisan polarization.

I think this is a compelling account. All I would add is a potential causal mechanism. My current favorite dimensions for analyzing democratic trends in the developed world is demography. Voters are ageing. When retired, they tend to have much less direct involvement with the productive economy than when they were working. On average, the elderly are quite rich and living off entitlements they have acquired during their working lives. So they are both less reliant on current economic opportunities and less knowledgeable of them. This means their personal costs of partisanship, relative to good policy, is lower than it used to be. And this is what lets all the culture-war nonsense creep into people’s decision functions.


  1. A clash of the sacred and the secular Nader Hashemi, Liberty Forum
  2. The perks and perils of having a state-run church James Robinson, Cato Unbound
  3. Dutch pasts and the American archive Derek Kane O’Leary, JHIBlog
  4. Liberalism, democracy, and polarization Edwin van de Haar, NOL


  1. Was Hayek a One-Worlder? Garreth Bloor, Law & Liberty
  2. George Washington’s maritime world BJ Armstrong, War on the Rocks
  3. Cable TV really does matter for political outcomes Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution
  4. Sovietology Sheila Fitzpatrick, London Review of Books

Jacques the Moron

The verbal assaults against Pres. Trump, both oral and printed, have become almost mechanical. The concerted attempt to make his presidency seem illegitimate has largely become successful for much of the America population thanks to this systematic demeaning of the man. The above-board conspiracy has mostly won. I am not referring to criticism of Mr Trump’s policies based on facts and analysis. That’s fine and necessary, of course. (I have done some of this myself, right on my FB and on this blog.) I refer to personal attacks. Individuals with zero achievements, many demonstrable morons themselves, routinely call the president a moron. (I am not making this up; I could name names; perhaps I will, right here.)

When opponents are not content with opposing President Trump but insult him too, they also insult me. I voted for Mr Trump for the same reasons million others did. First, his name was not Clinton; second, I thought it was important to seize the chance to appoint a conservative Supreme Court Justice (or two). Since he has taken office, Mr Trump has surprised me pleasantly. There is no doubt in my mind that the current general American prosperity has a great deal to do with his policies, beginning with the general tax cut. Incidentally, I am well aware of the fact that the drop in unemployment began with the Obama administration. Another administration might have stopped it, or slowed it down. So, I have had two years to recant my vote. I have not. If you call the man I voted for a moron; you are calling me a moron.

I am not inclined to be indulgent with respect to the insult because I believe I know where it comes from thanks the many hours I spent at the faculty club. It’s a social class reaction; it’s the offended retort of those who think they are superior because they have read three books. It’s the cry of anguish of the semi-washed against the great unwashed (the “deplorables” in Mrs Clinton precise and unforgettable formula). Those who insult Pres. Trump, and therefore, me, are elitists with little reason to consider themselves an elite of any kind. Obviously, those who merely oppose his policies don’t need to call him names; they just have to describe that which they object to.

The daily name calling is wearying. It will leave a mark on my soul. I am far from sure that I will find it in me to forgive, or if I will ever forget. I think a ditch has been dug that will not be filled.


  1. Welcome back, American nationalism Francis Buckley, Cato Unbound
  2. When belief makes reality David Riesbeck, Policy of Truth
  3. The slave holders on the border Melchisedek Chétima, Africa is a Country
  4. Yes, The Black Hole is Legit Sci-fi Rick Brownell, Medium Cosgrrrl


  1. Making sense of Japan’s new immigration policy Emese Schwarcz, Diplomat
  2. Deportations with benefits Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
  3. Democracy as an information system Henry Farrell, Crooked Timber
  4. Against debate Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling





  1. On the inexhaustible desire to keep talking about Marx Jonathan Wolff, Times Literary Supplement
  2. The promise of polarization Sam Tanenhaus, New Republic
  3. Anglo-Saxon England was more cosmopolitan than you think Rhiannon Curry, 1843
  4. DC unfriends Silicon Valley Declan McCullagh, Reason