Do we have the right to be wrong?

The pandemic, and the consequent decisions taken by our and other governments, have confronted us with the question of the extent of our autonomy. Although we are aware of the exceptional nature of the situation, the matter about the right that assists each individual to make decisions about their own life returns more strongly.

In this sense, we can wonder: How do we make decisions? Are we rational beings? Are thus our decision-making processes rational or we tend to act based on emotions, instincts, or heuristics? Even if we think in terms of choices rather than of actions, do we have enough evidence to think that we rationally choose between options? And if so, can we find the optimal solutions for our problems? Can we evaluate the optimality of our decisions?

The rationality of our actions and our decision-making processes have been widely discussed, not only in the field of economics but also in the legal, political, and sociological realms. Some authors have proposed that our decisions are not based on perfect information or precise though-processes, as Friedrich Hayek, who enlightened us about dispersed knowledge in society or Herbert Simon , who showed us how limited rationality works in real decision-making situations.

More recently, various theories such as behavioral economics and several experiments conducted by scholars from different disciplines, such as those conducted by Carl Sunstein, have showed that individuals act influenced by cognitive limitations and emotional biases. For example, some of these studies have shown how, influenced by these biases, we fail in our perception of the risk, miscalculating the odds we have of suffering certain diseases or how our choices are influenced by the way the relevant information is presented (framing). Thus, it has long been revealed that human actions and choices are not the result of a perfectly rational thought-process, and such discoveries were very useful in predicting certain patterns of behavior.

Personally, I have always found these theories fascinating, showing us that our mind does not work as the precise instrument that other visions have proposed. These “limitations” of our rationality and cognitive capacity have always led me to conclude that we must assume a humble position regarding what we can and cannot do in terms of public policies or the “construction” of social and political reality. Even this humility should be applied to scientific knowledge that manifests itself in constant change and revision. What is worrying is that, recently, this type of analysis has made a jump from the descriptive realm to the normative one, obtaining prescriptive conclusions from these experiments.

On the other hand, nowadays it is common to find that, from different perspectives and schools, subjective rights of all kinds are multiplied. It seems that individuals enjoy -at least theoretically- not only all the rights constitutionally recognized, the rights established by international human rights treatises and all the tacit or unwritten rights but also the collective rights (adding several generations). It is discussed from the right to elect and to be elected (i.e., lowering the age of vote) to the right to enjoy a healthy environment. In addition, from diverse political agendas, it is proposed the widening of all rights enjoyed by people, groups and even animals. We could discuss at length about these rights and obligations involving third parties – not only to respect them but also, in many cases, to take responsibility for the effective enjoyment of them.

But it would seem that, among all these rights that we enjoy or intend to enjoy, the right to be wrong does not appear. Everything is permitted (again, in theory) while individuals live according to the standards or goals to accepted by the community and the State at a given time. From different perspectives we are constantly offered advice and suggestions to achieve the ideal that is presented almost as indisputable: a long, healthy, and calm life (not without some ingredient of novelty or adventure). Not only from the philosophical and theological views -that indicate that human life seems to have happiness, virtue, personal flourishing, or any other transcendent purpose as its goal- but also from more scientific perspectives that provide us with details about what our limitations are in making the right decisions about how to lead a full life. They all seem to agree in proposing a “perfectionist” ideal of human life.

However, when combined these two tendencies of thought -that is, on the one hand, the perfectionist ideal of human life and, secondly, a clear vision about human limitations for making good decisions or planning courses of action, it appears this idea that it is necessary to “underpin”, help or direct the decisions of individuals with the intention to help them that they achieve such ideal ends.

Just to illustrate this point outside the case of the pandemic, we note that all political views coincide in “guiding” citizens when it comes to eating and healthy habits. In this regard, if directing citizens consumption is concerned, much of the political range (conservatism, social democracy, and even the left) seem to agree in wanting to provide healthy standards that everyone should enjoy. This is reflected in a variety of decisions made by governments from one “ideal individual” – which range from prohibiting table salt in restaurants, forcing stores to not sell alcohol at a certain time of the night (and not only limiting the sale to adults as might be expected), forcing food producers or distributors to include a lot of information about its components in packaging, etc. The question does not end here: smoking tobacco, for example, has been almost completely banned everywhere (and not only in closed public spaces but also in open spaces and even in many buildings or premises for exclusive private use).

Faced with this reality, we ask ourselves the question: Do we have the right or not to decide about our lives (our body, our health, etc.)? Can adults without serious cognitive problems -beyond those biases named above that we all “suffered”- with their legitimate autonomy, freedom, and responsibility and, if you like, access to public information about the possible consequences of their actions, choose to assume risks? Do them have the right to put salt to their food, although there are numerous studies that show a correlation between salt intake and high blood pressure? Don’t all those who choose to paraglide or drive a car on a high-speed avenue also take risks? Why are some elections forbidden or more “observed” than others?

So, from this perspective that combines perfectionism and observation of the cognitive limitations of individuals: Does this lead us directly to conclude that our decisions should be replaced or at least “influenced” or “improved” – as suggested by the nudge theory – by the decision of a public official or an expert scientist? Do we let a nutritionist tell us the ideal diet based on recent generic scientific studies? Do we allow an official or civil servant to indicate what activity / sport / food / drink / medical treatment / insurance should we carry out / practice / consume / submit to / hire considering the general statistics of the population for my age / sex / social condition? Would we allow this civil servant to “suggest” us the way of interacting with other individuals or habits to adopt?

To answer this question, it could help us to bring here the conceptual distinction proposed by Dr. Martín Diego Farrell in his essay on “Nino, democracy and utilitarianism”. There Farrell proposes two alternatives to justify democracy: The first one holds that all adults, free of physical or mental impairments, are the best judges of their interests and, in its turn, the second one points out that the same adults would be the best judges of their own preferences.

Farrell argues that the former is indefensible by the number of counterexamples we can find in which an adult seems not to know his best objective interest (perhaps knowable by an expert without his intervention) and, at the same time, other examples that show adults opting freely against their own interest. Instead, he openly defends the second argument: adults are the best experts and judges of their own (subjective) preferences. Although we will discuss in the next few paragraphs the assertion about the possibility that expert may have the objective knowledge of another person´s best interest, we will concede the point for now and agree with Farrell that each adult is the best judge of their own preferences.

This is how we could now answer the questions we posed before. I think that most of us would intuitively reject the proposal of experts/officials telling us what food to eat, what sports to practice, what form of social relationships to prefer and so. Of course, with the exceptions of exceptional situations of crisis in which we consciously seek help from experts in each subject, so that they can provide us with, in this case, personalized advice, considering our specific circumstances, beliefs and wishes. On the other hand, the pandemic has left us a clear image of the fallible, provisional, and changing nature of scientific knowledge.

I believe that the perfectionist and scientistic vision of individual life is based on a conception that responds and falls into the following errors:

a) Confusing correlation with causality: Studies on the influence of certain habit or the consumption of certain food or drink on individuals´ health show correlations and no causal links. That is, it cannot be reliably proven that this or that habit produces such a consequence but only that, given two variables, the values ​​of one vary systematically with the homonymous values ​​of the other. This coincidence may respond to an external cause to both (which produces or “causes ” both variables) or by multiple causes that are difficult to unravel at this level. This is obvious to any scientist or expert in each area, but it is forgotten when it is discussed in the public sphere, where not practicing sports “causes” obesity, salt “causes” high pressure and not wearing a face mask seems to “causes” the contagion of the coronavirus.

b) Studies always work with populations, that is, with a sample or group of individuals of a certain sex, age, physical characteristics, etc. that could have a probability of, for example, suffering certain disease. Let´s say- for the purpose of illustration- that certain group of individuals -men over 65 years have a 60% chance of having a heart attack. But this “class” or group probability does not tell us anything about each particular individual being part or not of that 60%. What if a public policy of restricting salt is being imposed on a man with low blood pressure and a very low probability of having a heart attack? Can’t this individual make the decision to consume more salt than recommended by public bodies or professional chambers at his own risk? Let´s remember all the atrocious examples that were experienced during the pandemic about relatives who have not been able to accompany terminally ill patients, penalties even of jail for people who circulated at prohibited hours and contradictory recommendations that prevented individuals from being able, with the public information available, to decide about their possibilities to work, circulate, see their relatives, etc. under threat of sanction.

c) Scientific studies and their practical conclusions are constantly changing. We have lived through this intensely in the last 20months or more of the pandemic, where what at first seemed irrefutable, months later seems shocking. Just as an example, the practically absolute prohibition -in countries as Argentina- for children to walk in the streets the first three months of quarantine. These major shifts in scientific criteria in one area can be observed (perhaps without the speed we see during the pandemic) in many other realms. Continuing with the nutritional example, we can say that the paradigms in this area seem to change drastically and quickly. Only in the last 20 or 30 years has it gone from suggesting that alcohol was bad to recommending a glass of wine a day to prevent heart disease; to try to eliminate meat in all its forms to currently attempt to eliminate all carbohydrates and sugars and to consume only proteins and fats and many more.

But, beyond all these characteristics of scientific knowledge that inform “perfectionist” public policies, we can also raise an even more fundamental point: Even if we could know, reliably and with certainty, -what science would never guarantee- how a certain habit can affect our health or what would happen if we do not met with the ideal, don´t we have any right to choose how to live our lives? When did we renounce to that right in favor of the experts of a group of professional councils or of the civil servants of a Ministry of Health? Should we forbid the individual who wants to dedicate his life to climbing the Himalayas to carry out such an endeavor because of the high risks of his life plan? And the one who practices hang gliding? Don’t these individuals know their own preferences better than anyone else?

And here are some more points added from a higher level of observation:

a) Levels of Abstraction: Why might we think that individuals choosing between options are “biased” and when individuals working as government agents in offices creating “nudges” are not biased as other individuals in their daily life? Individuals who work in the civil service or have some degree of professional or scientific specialty, don´t they suffer from the same biases and limitations described in the studies above mentioned, typical of every human being? For example, don´t they choose between theoretical or experimental options for those results presented in a more pleasant way (problem of the architecture of the election) or that confirmed more strongly their hypotheses (confirmation fallacy)?

b) Scientific theories are fallible. Also, some of the results of these experiments may turn out to be incorrect or incomplete in the future. Do we have the right to influence individual decisions based on studies that are, like any scientific theory or experiment, fallible and provisional? After all, isn’t it more worthy for the individual to pay the costs of his bad decision rather than paying the costs of a government agent’s bad decision?

c) Finally, a more philosophical point: How does chance or destiny influence on our daily decisions? Is there a case where the options are presented in a “neutral distribution” way? Let us suppose the case of an individual’s decision regarding the acquisition of medical or retirement insurances (issues that have also been very relevant during the pandemic). The individual must choose between “default options”. The options could be presented to consumers randomly or in a way decided by offerors – but without any central agent deciding-. In the latter case, the options are established by the offerors because they are trying to influence commercially on consumers´ choice and, therefore, it could be said that there is no neutral distribution even though it is not a “nudge” of the public sphere. But, on the other hand, there is a suggestion made by government agents, then the ” nudge ” is intervening in the market, albeit subtly. That is to say that private influence is being replaced by governmental influence, bringing an artificial “architecture” of the choice that did not exist before and, therefore, eliminating randomness. Here we are again facing “levels of abstraction” problem: Don´t “experts” -who propose the ” nudge”- have the same limitations as individuals that interact?

Recapitulating, during this long process we lived the last year and a half since pandemic, quarantine and all the -health, economic, political -measures taken by governments, the question about the scope of our autonomy reemerged. Standing on a platform where philosophical perfectionism and a misunderstood scientism are combined, it has gone from trying to discover patterns of behavior to prescribing ideal results and to opening the door to all kinds of measures, which establish from our right to move freely, if we can work, if we can trade, etc. And what has been more unusual, without explicit limits on the duration of such measures. I think this responds to a trend of thought that had started much earlier. But shouldn’t we take back the reins of our lives as adults? Don’t we know our interests better -or, at least, our preferences- by ourselves? If others believe they know our interests better than us, shouldn´t each of us, considering our preferences, be the best judges of how much risk we want to take? We could think that governments and expert organizations can, in good faith, publish all the information and studies produced and, likewise, could suggest, recommend, and even collaborate to follow the suggestions; but not to compel, prohibit and sanction those who are “wrong” at their own risk.

Of course, this implies taking responsibility for our actions and not demanding or claiming the governments to decide for us or to be accountable for our mistakes. If we decide to climb the Himalayas, we will have to train for many years, buy the appropriate equipment, take out the appropriate insurance, face possible injuries and if something goes wrong, even face death. Ultimately, in each election our desires, our beliefs, our projects, and our philosophical perspectives – that provides- meaning to our lives- come into play. So, we cannot ask the government or the experts to prohibit something from us (because it is risky) or, what is worse, to prohibit it from all citizens, so as not to face the dangers or costs of our eventual mistakes.

We find ourselves – by our decision – facing the paradox that we, given our limitations, cannot make personal and everyday decisions about our work, food or habits, but we can choose legitimately officials, experts or governmental agents that are going to lead us on such tasks. I propose, instead, to reassume our adulthood and start exercising our right to bring the life plan whose consequences we can assume. This, instead of taking it as natural that others decide for us in exchange of unloading on them the responsibility of our own life. Only then we will be able to claim, legitimately, the right to take our own decisions at the risk of being wrong.

Atomistic? Moi?

I have written a brief paper entitled ‘Hayek: Postatomic Liberal’ intended for a collection on anti-rationalist thinkers. For the time being, the draft is available from SSRN and Here are a couple of snippets:

Hayek offers a way of fighting the monster of Rationalism while avoiding becoming an inscrutable monster oneself. The crucial move, and in this he follows Hume, is to recognize the non-rational origins of most social institutions, but treating this neither as grounds for dismissal of those institutions as unsound, nor an excuse to retreat from reason altogether. Indeed, reason itself has non-rational, emergent origins but is nevertheless a marvelous feature of humanity. Anti-rationalist themes that appear throughout Hayek’s work include: an emphasis on learning by processes of discovery, trial and error, feedback and adaptation rather than knowing by abstract theorizing; and the notion that the internal processes by which we come to a particular belief or decision is more complex than either a scientific experimenter or our own selves in introspection can know. We are always, on some level, a mystery even to ourselves…

Departing from Cartesian assumptions of atomistic individualism, this account can seem solipsistic. When we are in the mode of thinking of ourselves essentially as separate minds that relate to others through interactions in a material world, then it feels important that we share that world and are capable of clear communication about it and ourselves in order to share a genuine connection with others. Otherwise, we are each in our separate worlds of illusion. From a Hayekian skeptical standpoint, the mind’s eye can seem to be a narrow slit through which shadows of an external world make shallow, distorted impressions on a remote psyche. Fortunately, this is not the implication once we dispose of the supposedly foundational subject/object distinction. We can recognize subjecthood as an abstract category, a product of a philosophy laden with abstruse theological baggage… During most of our everyday experience, when we are not primed to be so self-conscious and self-centered, the phenomenal experience of ourselves and the environment is more continuous, flowing and irreducibly social in the sense that the categories that we use for interacting with the world are constituted and remade through interactions with many other minds.

Three Lessons on Institutions and Incentives (Part 2); Institutions: definition and subtypes

Implicitly, Douglass C. North, William Easterly, and Daron Acemoglu & James A. Robinson share the same notion of “institution.” In this respect, what must be taken into account is not a real definition of the former but its operative concept, that is, what characteristic features relate it to the rest of the concepts of each theoretical body. In this sense, we can affirm that for these authors an institution is a limiting factor for human interaction. More precisely, in terms of D.C. North, institutions can be defined as abstract constraints imposed on human social decisions that structure political, economic, and social interaction. The rational agent finds limited its action and its spectrum of choices by institutions, which can be derived as much from the law as from custom, his habits, or his moral constraints.

However, the particular limitations that a particular person experiences are not relevant, but those that are incorporated into the behavior of a large number of human beings that interact with each other, which allows them to recognize a structural pattern of human social action. In this way, although an institution limits human action, because it is widespread throughout the social fabric, building it, it allows each individual inserted in such a set of interactions to represent expectations about the behavior of their fellow human beings that have a high probability of being true (something similar to what Friedrich A. Hayek had previously enunciated in his concept of “spontaneous order”). These expectations allow each individual to make plans with a high degree of probability of accomplishment, or at least to identify those actions that could be ruinous. In this sense, an institution is not only a limitation of human action, but, correlatively, a motivator for it, i. e. an incentive. The structure of human interactions that institutions project in the political, economic, and social fields helps the rational agent to make more efficient decisions, since they have a lower margin of risk. Of course, not all the incentives generate the same economic performance.

It is true that any pattern of human interactions that constrains the scope of choices of the agent (i.e., institutions), however inefficient they might be, represent an advantage over the total absence of it, since it works as a hedge against the arbitrary power and violence from third parties. Thus, the main distinction to be drawn is between anomie and institutionalization.

This latter opinion is expressly stated in Why Nations Fail: the extractive institutions -the ones that establish rules that favor a group at the expense of the whole-, both politically and economically, although they are harmful, are less so than civil war, polarization, factions, or anarchy. Acemoglu & Robinson argue that a country that does not have “inclusive” institutions, but at least have extractive institutions, might experience a rapid development obtained from the importation of discoveries from better organized countries – the phenomenon of “catch up.” However, after reaching a certain maturity, if the country in question does not advance towards political and economic opening, stagnation and subsequent implosion will be difficult to avoid.

Here is where the book of Acemoglu & Robinson finds its point of greatest affinity with the work of William Easterly: to continue on a path of growth and development, countries and their ruling classes must be willing to admit that progress only comes through innovation and that all innovation is accompanied by a process of “creative destruction.”

[Editor’s note: You can find Part 1 here. You can find the entire Longform Essay here.]


  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


  1. If Brexit goes ahead, say goodbye to radical redistribution Chris Bertram, Crooked Timber
  2. The lasting, important influence of Karl Marx Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
  3. Perverse rationality Nick Nielsen, Grand Strategy Annex
  4. Scents of heaven: frankincense and myrrh in the Christian realm Timothy Carroll, Aeon


  1. Thoughts on Strauss and Machiavelli Jerry Weinberger, Law & Liberty
  2. Rationalism, rationality & reasonableness Chris Dillow, Stumbling and Mumbling
  3. Dialogue with the Public and Academic Snobbery Carole McGranahan, Savage Minds
  4. 1983: the year the world nearly ended Julie McDowall, Spectator

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.


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