From the Comments: Israel and Palestine

Irfan and Jacques are going the rounds on Israel and Palestine (Canaan?). The dialogue, so far, is excellent. Jacques started things off and Dr Khawaja responded with this fine piece of pop-ethnography:

I just spent three weeks in Jerusalem, about a hundred yards from the scene of the action Jacques describes in this post, and spent hours observing the events Jacques describes (and many he doesn’t describe) at first hand. I described this post on Facebook as “factually challenged,” and promised to set it straight. So here I am. (A different version of this comment included about a dozen links substantiating my claims, but the post didn’t go through that way, so I’ll send the links separately.)

I had originally wanted to divide my post into two sections, first laying lay out the number of sheer inaccuracies Jacques has crammed into this post, and then identifying what I would call handwaving claims–large claims made without substantiation, or misleading claims made without clarification. It turns out to be impossible to do this, because Jacques has managed to combine inaccuracy with handwaving in a way that makes it impossible to disentangle the two. In any case, my claim is that when we add the sheer inaccuracies to the handwaving in his post, a rational reader would conclude that the post tells us nothing of value about recent events in Jerusalem.

1. Jacques tells us that there were violent riots in Jerusalem. Correct. He doesn’t mention that despite the outbreaks of violence, the demonstrations were largely peaceful. Nor does he venture to tell us who started the violence, or under what circumstances. The word “riot” seems to imply a series of violent disturbances caused or initiated by rioters, but alas, one word can’t stand in for real-world observation of what actually happened. Nothing in Jacques’s account settles the crucial issue: who started the violence?

I have read almost all of the press coverage on recent events in Jerusalem, and saw the events themselves up close–at a few yards’ distance, for hours, in real time. I can’t easily summarize what I saw. There were at least four different demonstrations taking place simultaneously, within a few “blocks” of each other, and different things happened at different places at different times. On some occasions, I saw Israeli police officers either initiating or provoking violence. In other cases, Palestinians did so. There are also questions worth asking about what counts as an initiation of force under these circumstances. Typically, pointing a gun at someone without cause is regarded as a form of assault. But Israeli police officers and soldiers do this all the time. An Israeli border police officer played chicken with me with her M-16 for no reason other than her amusement. If I’d been armed and shot her, would my shooting have been an initiation or a retaliation? Nothing in Jacques’s account settles or even deals with this, but one can’t understand events in Jerusalem without settling issues like this.

Suffice it to say that the press coverage of relevant events, especially the American press coverage, was either non-existent or extremely defective. It is very easy to claim that what took place in Jerusalem consisted of riots if all you do is wait for violence to break out, film it, and then declare that “the event” you just covered was a “riot.” It doesn’t follow, and isn’t true, that that’s what really happened. And I can assert, categorically, that it wasn’t. In short, there is a lot more to the story than “riots.” For a starters, there were all those events that took place when no one was rioting.

(I’ve discussed some of the micro-level issues involved here on Facebook, some on public and some on private settings.)

2. Jacques tells us that “all of Jerusalem” is under Israeli control. He doesn’t mention that “Jerusalem” is a moving and expanding target that lacks an eastern boundary, as does the “Israeli control” he mentions. He also neglects to mention that the phrase “under Israeli control” is an equivocal claim: Shuafat refugee camp is technically within the jurisdiction of Jerusalem, but it is run by the UNRWA; it is not de facto governed by the Jerusalem Municipality or by Israel. Something similar is true of the “Haram Sharif” complex that is the subject of Jacques’ post: it is technically within the boundaries of the Jerusalem municipality, but (as Jacques himself admits) it is managed or administered by the waqf under the auspices of the Jordanian government. Oddly, having told us that “all of Jerusalem” is under Israeli control, and then noting himself that Haram Sharif (in Jerusalem) is administered by Jordan, Jacques fails to draw the obvious inference: sovereignty over Jerusalem is contested, not settled. Israel claims sovereignty over “it,” as do the Palestinians, but claiming sovereignty and having sovereignty are two different things. (Many people have asserted sovereignty over Texas, but it doesn’t follow that their say-so resolves the issue.) I put the word “it” in scare quotes because in calling “it” the “Temple Mount,” Jacques manages to confuse a further set of issues that I’ll discuss below (in [4]).

3. Jacques: “In addition, most Palestinians from the adjacent West Bank are allowed to visit on a controlled basis, for religious purposes only.”

Two problems here. First, does Jacques mean to say that most Palestinians are in fact allowed into Jerusalem? This would imply that 51% or more of West Bank Palestinians are permitted into Jerusalem. I’d like to see a source for that claim. There are roughly 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank. Jacques’s “most Palestinians” claim implies that something like 1.25 million West Bank Palestinians have entry permits for Jerusalem, which strikes me as implausible in the extreme. It’s unclear how many permits are in fact given, but the usual figure is in the thousands. Not a representative sample, but: I know a few dozen Palestinian West Bankers; only one of them has an entry permit for Jerusalem. The rest are consigned to remain indefinitely in the West Bank.

In any case, permits are not given “for religious purposes only.” Permits are given for entry into Jerusalem/Israel, full stop. They’re checked at checkpoints into Jerusalem, but not thereafter, and what is checked is simply whether you have a permit or not, and whether you’re carrying contraband or not (unless a given soldier decides to initiate his own “investigation,” which sometimes happens). Once past the checkpoint, there is no mechanism in place to determine whether someone entering Jerusalem is doing so to pray at Al Aqsa or to score chicks on the beaches of Jaffa (or both). Further, permits are given for a variety of reasons, including medical care, family unification, and work. But they are given far more stingily than Jacques’s description would imply.

I raise both points (one favorable to the Palestinians, the other to the Israelis) to raise questions about the sources of Jacques’ information on the subject. His description of facts on the ground is unrecognizable to anyone who’s actually had to deal with those facts, as I have.

4. Jacques: “At the center of the preoccupations of the three monotheistic religions is a place called the Temple Mount.”

This paragraph of Jacques’ repeats the conventional wisdom on the subject, at least in the United States. Unfortunately, the conventional wisdom reflects total ignorance of even basic facts of geography, which is hard to convey to those who haven’t been to the place in question.

Let’s start from scratch. The contested location is a big rectangle located in the Old City of Jerusalem. The western end of the rectangle contains what Jews call the Western Wall and its plaza. The eastern part of the rectangle contains a large complex housing the Dome of the Rock, Al Aqsa mosque, a few auxiliary religious facilities, and a large plaza connecting them. Parts of the rectangle are declared off-limits to civilians by the Israeli authorities.

Jews refer to the *whole* rectangle, including the Muslim shrines, as the “Temple Mount” and claim it (all of it) for their own. Particularly hard core Zionists want to expropriate the Muslims altogether, claim the whole site for their own, destroy the Muslim shrines on it, build a temple on their ruins, and exclude Muslims from entering. Such people have grown increasingly powerful over the years.

Muslims refer to the *eastern part* of the rectangle as “Haram Sharif,” or the Noble Sanctuary, and claim it, in its entirety, for Islam. Hard core Muslims want to exclude Jews from this area altogether.

It is worth noting, however, that not even hard core fundamentalist Muslims wish to expropriate Jews of the Western Wall, much less build a mosque there, despite the fact that the Western Wall Plaza was built on the ruins of the so-called Mughrabi neighborhood–an Arab neighborhood expropriated and destroyed after Israel’s conquest of East Jerusalem in 1967.

It is also worth noting that though Israel divides the Old City into quarters, including the Jewish and Muslim Quarters, it permits Jewish settlement of the Muslim Quarter, but not the reverse. The “Jewish Quarter” is conveniently defined to include the Western Wall–though its plaza was built on a Muslim neighborhood, and you have to pass through Muslim neighborhoods to reach it–but no mosque within the Jewish Quarter is permitted to operate at all. Nor has “the Muslim Quarter” been re-defined to include the mosques that happen to lie in the “Jewish Quarter.”Indeed, a passerby would have no idea that these mosques are in fact mosques at all: they’re shut down and deliberately being left to fall into decay. The same is true of mosques in Jerusalem but in neighborhoods where Muslim entry would be deemed undesirable, e.g., the mosque of Mary in Ein Kerem.

Finally, Jacques’s claim that Jews are forbidden to enter Haram Sharif, whether on rabbinical or secular grounds, is laughably preposterous: they do it all the time, and are encouraged to. Indeed, the Israeli settler group Ateret Cohanim advertises tours that it conducts into Haram Sharif.

Of all of the claims Jacques makes in this post, this last one suggests (with all due respect) that he has no idea what he’s talking about. The whole controversy over the “Temple Mount” arises precisely because Jews ARE allowed into the mosque complex (and take advantage of that right), and Muslims suspect their intentions in doing so. Contrary to what one reads in the American press, these suspicions have a credible basis. Muslims suspect Jewish intentions in Jerusalem because of the example of Jewish settlement activity in Hebron, where apparently innocuous Jewish entry into a religious shrine led, gradually, to the wholesale expropriation and depopulation of the Palestinian neighborhoods of the Old City. Today, Hebron is (for Palestinians) partly an open-air prison and partly a ghost town. The case of Hebron H2 zone has been amply documented. Jacques follows American convention in ignoring this documentation, and proceeding to talk about Jerusalem as though the two things had nothing to do with each other. Jacques also wonders out loud why Muslims would take issue with what he regards as ordinary security measures.

Even setting aside what “ordinary security measures” have done in Hebron (or Nablus, Qalqilya, Tulkarem, Silwan, or Issawiya), he assumes that the measures would be deployed in good faith. No one who has actually dealt with Israeli police officers or soldiers would believe this. It may not occur to Jacques, but occurs to them, that security measures can be abused so as to treat the people covered by them as playthings. Jacques’s post shows literally zero awareness of a fact known to just about anyone who has dealt with Israeli security: most border police officers and soldiers are bored, immature, and heavily armed but lightly supervised children between the ages of 18-28 who will do just about anything to relieve their boredom–up to and including murder, battery, and torture. The Israelis may talk up a propaganda storm about their security needs, but once one sees what these “needs” look like on the ground, one’s sympathy for them begins to evaporate.

Further, Muslims and Jews do not “pray within a stone’s throw of each other,” whether literally or metaphorically. Though adjacent to the mosque complex, the Western Wall is separated from it by huge stone walls. Entry into the Western Wall plaza is entirely separate from entry into the mosque complex. Informally (the place is heavily policed, and the police often make their own rules), Arabs are discouraged from entering the plaza, and seldom do. Muslims and Jews only come into contact when Jews enter the mosque area, or when Jews walk (or march) through Muslim neighborhoods en route to the Kotel. I have never seen or even heard of a case in which Muslims entered the Western Wall plaza en masse in the way that Jews enter Haram Sharif. Indeed, doing so would be almost physically impossible. (Put it this way: Muslims would have to be very, very determined to do it.)

Contrary to Jacques’s assertion, Christians do visit both the Western Wall Plaza and the mosques. That they visit the Western Wall should be obvious. If you want a pleasant confirmation of Christians visiting the mosques, I’d suggest searching “Visit Al Aqsa Mosque with Me!” on You Tube. You’ll be taken on a delightful tour of the area with a perky Christian Palestinian woman named Maha who can also teach you how to make hummus or say “Merry Christmas” in Arabic. (Her Old City tour also goes to the Western Wall.)

I wonder whether Jacques has gotten his information from the Wikipedia entry on “Temple Mount Entry Restrictions.” Much of what he says dutifully parrots what is said there. That was a mistake, to put it mildly. Wikipedia is often useful, but not here.

5. Jacques mentions the shooting of July 14, and then mentions Israel’s security measures, wondering why they should be thought so controversial. I have a challenge for him. The shooting of July 14 took place outside of the Temple Mount/Al Aqsa complex, not within it. The attackers came from a neighborhood of Um al Fahm, a city about an hour or so to the north of Jerusalem. As should be self-evident, in order to bring weapons near the Temple Mount complex (which is in the Old City), these attackers had to bring those weapons into the Old City itself. The Old City is a walled structure that can only be entered by a series of gates (seven of them). The gates are easily identifiable, easily guarded, and it’s easily possible to put metal detectors in front of each of them.

If security were the paramount consideration Jacques takes it to be, why didn’t the Israeli authorities install the metal detectors at each of the gates of the Old City? Doing so would have prevented the July 14 attack, and would prevent any similar attack. But installing them in front of Al Aqsa would not have prevented the attackers from bringing weapons into the Old City and shooting someone outside of Al Aqsa, correct? Which is exactly what they did. Why then install security measures in front of Al Aqsa rather than at the entrance to the Old City itself? A common sense question for a person who claims to possess it.

6. While I’m posing questions about “common sense” security measures, here is another. After the July 14 shooting, and in advance of any rioting, the Israeli authorities shut down whole neighborhoods of East Jerusalem–something they do as a matter of course in Jerusalemite neighborhoods like Issawiya, and as a matter of course in the West Bank. I got to see these closures in a tediously microscopic way, and could probably write a couple of thousand words on them alone. But just to make things clear: large swatches of Jerusalem as well as the West Bank are under a semi-permanent state of lockdown, a lockdown imposed by the Israelis on its Palestinian population.

Now, remarkable as this information may be, shootings take place in the United States just as they do in Israel. Indeed, on average, a shooting takes place just about every other day in my county, often just a mile or two from where I live. Yet, no one regards it as legitimate to close down whole neighborhoods over any given shooting, or to institute curfews over them–and to do so simply on the basis of the ethnicity of the presumed shooter. To put the matter as simply as I can: a black person may well shoot and kill someone in a nearby neighborhood in north Jersey, but that doesn’t imply that every black neighborhood in the vicinity of the shooting will be locked down and put under curfew as a result. But that is what routinely happens in Arab Jerusalem, and what Jacques appears to be defending as a matter of “common sense.”

Is it, really? If so, why not try it right here in the States? If we did, would it be any surprise that the people locked down might eventually fight back? Would they be wrong to? The undiscussed issue here is what the police can permissibly do, on ethnic grounds, in the name of collective punishment of what it regards as an unruly population. Suffice it to say that it’s not obvious that collective punishment is a legitimate mode of law enforcement.

Jacques refers to Israel as a “garrison state,” treating its Jewish population as the besieged. The claim is utterly preposterous. Israeli Jews not only aren’t besieged in Israel, but generally don’t feel besieged. Spend some time in the streets of Haifa, Tel Aviv, or Jerusalem and ask yourself whether the people around you are operating with a siege mentality. What Jacques seems not to have grasped is that it is not Israeli Jews who are garrisoned by Israel, but its Palestinian Arab population.

A “garrison” is a body of troops stationed to defend a piece of territory. Typically, a garrison defends an “inside” against outsiders. But in this case, the garrison consists of Israeli troops treating insiders as though they were outsiders–and then complaining about the result. Well, that’s the price of creating a sectarian state in a place where a significant part of the population doesn’t belong to your sect. The more I visit Israel, the more I see of Israel; the more I see of it, the less sympathy I have for Israelis and their supporters. And, I might add, the less patience I have for Americans who defend Israel from afar without knowing what things look like on the ground.

And:

the views he expresses on Jerusalem are well within the boundaries of conventional, mainstream American opinion, which is why I took the time to respond to them. Most American defenders of Israel believe most of the things Jacques asserts, and many would go much farther than he has. American discourse on Israel is just wildly skewed, and French as he may be, Jacques’ views are just an instance of that all-American phenomenon.

More here, including links.

In general I am inclined to side, if I must, with Irfan’s argument, but Jacques, as usual, presents a case, in the threads, that can not so easily be dismissed or debunked:

The fact that, in this case, two Palestinians (with Israeli citizenship) tried to assassinate members of Israeli forces counts for nothing, explains nothing [in Irfan’s argument]. Palestinians live under military occupation, have for the longest time. I am sure it’s really unpleasant. It should stop. Stopping it, of course, requires negotiations between rational, motivated people.

Here’s a bunch of stuff at NOL on rationality (or rather, irrationality). And here is Barry’s long, somewhat famous, essay on Israel, Palestine, and rational debate.

Where did Homo Economicus come from?

Over on my Facebook page, I posted a short criticism of both neoclassical and behavioral economic scholarship on rational choice (drawing from a paper I’m working on exploring that topic). Stated a bit polemically,  though homo economicus has largely been dead in neoclassical theory, his spirit still haunts the work of most modern neoclassical scholars. Likewise, though behavioral economists are trying to dig the grave and put the final nails in the coffin of homo economicus, their nightmares are still plagued with the anxieties of his memory.

This led a former colleague from Hillsdale to ask me where I thought homo economicus came from historically. I wrote the following in response (lightly edited for this post):

It could be argued, in a sense, that the protestant Christian aim to complete moral purity and the Enlightenment aim to make man perfect in knowledge in morality (as embodied in Franklin’s virtue ethics) helped give rise to a culture that would be primed for such a model. Within economics, historically it comes from Bentham’s utilitarianism and Jevon’s mathematical extrapolations from Bentham’s psychology. However, I’d say this comes from a deeper “Cartesian anxiety” in Bernstein’s use of the term to make economic a big-T True, capital-C Certain, capital-S Science just like physics (which Jevon’s himself stated was an aim of his work,[1] and has preoccupied economists since the days of JS Mill). If economic science cannot be said to be completely positive and “scientific” like the natural sciences with absolutely falsifiable propositions and an algorithmic means of theory-choice, it is feared, it must be written off as a pseudo-scientific waste of time or else ideology to justify capitalism. If economics cannot make certain claims to knowledge, it must be solipsist and relativist and, again, be another form of pseudo-science or ideology. If economic models cannot reach definitive mathematical results, then they must be relativistic and a waste of time. This is just another example of the extreme Cartesian/Katian/Platonic (in Rorty’s use of the term) either/or: objectivity OR relativism, science OR nonscience, determinate mathematical solutions OR ideological emotional bickering. Homo economicus was erected as a means to be an epistemic foundation to solve all these anxieties and either/ors.

Of course, as any good Deweyan, I think all these either/ors are nonsense. Their understanding of science, as revealed through the so-called “growth of knowledge” literature in postempiricist philosophy of science (ie., the work of Thomas Kuhn, Lakotos, Karl Popper, Paul Feyerabend, Michael Polanyi, Richard Bernstein, Richard Rorty, etc.) has shown that this positivist conception of science, that is science consists of algorithmic theory choice selected based off correspondence with theory-free, brute “facts” of the “external world,” is woefully inaccurate. Dialogical Aristotelian practical reasoning in the community of scientists plays just as much of a role in formulating a scientific consensus as empirical verification. This does not undermine science’s claims to objectivity or rationality, in fact it puts such claims in more epistemically tenable terms.

Further, the desire to make the social sciences just another extension of the natural science, as Hayek shows in the Counterrevolution of Science, and as even positivists like Milton Freidman argue, is a completely misleading urge that has led to some of the worst follies in modern social theory. Obviously, I cheer the fact that “homo economicus is dead, and we have killed him,” but now that we’ve “out-rationalized the rationalizer of all rationalizers,” we must try to re-evaluate our economic theories and methods to, as Bernstein or Dewey would put it, “reconstruct” our economic science.

In short, immenatizing the eschaton in epistemology and philosophy of science created homo economicus.

For the record, you don’t have to be a radical scientific anti-realist like Feyerabend or Rorty to agree with my analysis here.[2] I myself wax more towards Quine than Rorty in scientific matters. However, the main point of philosophy of science since positivism is the exact type of foundationalist epistemology undergirding modern positivist methodology in the mainstream of the economics profession, and the concept of rationality that is used to buttress it, is a naive view of science, natural or social.

Notably, this critique is largely unrelated to much of the Austrian school. Mises’ own conception of rationality is mostly unrelated to homo economicus as he understands rationality to be purposive action, emphasizing that economists first understand the subjective meaning from the point of view of the economic actor him/herself before declaring any action “irrational.”[3] [4]

What are your thoughts on this? Are neoclassical and behavioral economics both still way too influenced by the spirit of homo economicus, or am I off the mark? Is my analysis of the historical conditions that led to the rise of homo economicus right? Please, discuss in the comments.

[1] Consider this quote from Jevon’s magnum opus Theory of Political Economy “Economics, if it is to be a science at all, must be a mathematical science.”

[2] In fact, I doubt anybody mentioned is really a scientific anti-realist, I agree with Bernstein that Feyerabend is best read as a satirist of the Cartesian anxiety and extreme either/or of relativism and objectivism in philosophy of science and think Rorty’s views are more complex than simple scientific anti-realism, but that’s an unrelated point.

[3] Of course, any critique of epistemic foundationalism would apply to Mises, especially his apriorism; after all, Mises did write a book called “Ultimate Foundations of the Social Sciences” and the Cartesian anxiety is strong with him, especially in his later works. Notably, none of this applies to most of Mises’ students, especially Schutz, Machlup, and Hayek.

[4] For a more detailed discussion of Mises and the Austrians on rationality, see my blog post here or this paper by Mario Rizzo. For a more general discussion of the insights of the type of philosophy of science I’m discussing, see Chapter 2 of Richard Bernstein’s excellent 1983 book Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. France has less and less influence in the EU, and fears to use what it still has (peep B-Stock here at NOL from awhile back, too)
  2. U of Missouri Student VP: “I think that it’s important for us to create that distinction and create a space where we can all learn from one another and start to create a place of healing rather than a place where we are experiencing a lot of hate like we have in the past.” Mmhm. And what better way to learn from one another than by restricting what can and cannot be said?
  3. Along the Divide: Israel’s Allies (long book review)
  4. Standing Up for Migrant Workers in the Arab Gulf (don’t forget Amit’s piece on migrant workers from Bangladesh here at NOL)
  5. Economic rationality versus full rationality
  6. Rand Paul strikes back
  7. The Case for Brexit (contra B-Stock here at NOL)

People: neither blithering idiots nor towering geniuses

Or is it that they’re both?

As a young libertarian first exposed to economics (actually it was my third exposure where it took) I was struck with an exciting proposition: people don’t need the government to look after them because (we’ve assumed that) they’re rational! In that case, government can almost only ever do harm. Add in some public choice and Austrian insights and you’ve got a water tight defense of liberty.

But actually you don’t. Because as it turns out, people might actually be complete morons. I’ll bet if you marketed a brand of bottled water as having never been warm–cleaned with pre-chilled filters made in iceland, and never poured into room temperature bottles–it would sell. But if that’s the case, the world should be a scary place. People would be doing ridiculous things and electing ridiculous politicians to help them act even more absurdly.

I’m an economist and I still do plenty of irrational things. But it turns out that first taste of economics was econ of a particular variety: the study of what is rational. Not the study of how people rationally act. That’s not to say it’s worthless. David Friedman put it well in Hidden Order: if people are rational some times and act randomly other times, then we can still make useful predictions about their behavior. But I don’t think that economics is some sort of half-science that assumes away randomness in order to study some portion of people’s actions.

Mostly, I think the study of rationality lays a foundation, and offers a puzzle, to allow further study of ecological rationality. The world is orderly and roughly follows the predictions we make when we assume individuals are rational. And yet people seem far from rational. What gives?!

It turns out we have to pay attention to institutions. These often hidden rules of the game direct our actions and embed our learning in social rules. Those crazy (probably imaginary) sociologists might have been on to something when they said that individuals’ actions are shaped by social forces. It’s not that people don’t have autonomy, it’s that people don’t exist in a vacuum.


Yes they are.

What’s my point? Learning a little bit of economics goes a long way to making good arguments for liberty, but it doesn’t go far enough. We live in an a much more interesting world than the one we learn about in econ 101.

Economic Rationality

[Cross-posted at the Foldvarium]

The concept of rational action is a frontier of economic theory. The new field of behavioral economics combines economics and psychology to analyze actions that seem to be irrational. For example, people value health and long life, yet they smoke and eat unhealthy food. A related field, behavioral finance, examines psychological and emotional traits that prevent people from making wise investments. Perverse psychological biases include anchoring to past prices and facts, the bias of weighing recent events too highly relative to the more distant past, being overly confident in one’s abilities, and following the herd to a cliff.

Neoclassical economics often assumes that people are purely self-interested and always seek financial gain, and that therefore altruism is irrational, whereas as Adam Smith and Henry George wrote, human beings have two motivations: self interest and sympathy for others. Since people get satisfaction from serving others, it is incorrect to label altruism or actions based on subjective views of justice as “irrational.”

The Austrian school of economic thought has a different perspective on rationality. The Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises envisioned human action as inherently rational. A person has unlimited desires and scarce resources. Human beings economize, seeking maximum benefits for a given cost, or minimizing costs for a given benefit. At any moment in time, a person ranks his goals, ranging from most to least important. He chooses the resources to achieve the most important goal at some moment, then the second most, and so on, until his gains from trade have become exhausted. This is the inherent rationality of human action. Continue reading