A PPE pandemic reading list

I haven’t written for a while – other duties get in the way – but I’d like to suggest this reading list in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics for the present time of crisis and perplexity. The main reason is that everyone seems to be an expert in Economics, Epidemiology, and Political Philosophy these days, assuming that from “facts” we can easily derive “values” and answer the question, “what is to be done?” I think this is at best a naïve attitude and at worst the same rationalistic hubris we experience everytime a political issue is simplified and reduced to a matter of “science”. Yes, there are facts and they shouldn’t be ignored, but it’s not easy to decide what is to be done, morally and politically, in light of those facts.

The first item on the list is Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. A classic, and a reminder that people choose all the time to sacrifice some degree of liberty in the altar of survival (or a chance to survive), but also a reminder that Leviathan may turn from friend to foe, from protector to persecutor – and there is very little we can do about it. The second item is John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, which then explores this topic in light of the fact that civil government shouldn’t have absolute power. It makes an attempt to show us how that power can, or should, be limited within a certain sphere of responsibility. Though it’s still there to protect us.

In this time of pandemic, people feel tempted to panic. People and politicians are calling for dramatic measures, and one reason is that the use of government coercion – which, according to Locke, ought to be limited – might be necessary to force people to cooperate, for example, by staying home. This is a proposed solution to the dilemmas of collective action posed by the problem that some may “free-ride” on the rest, and, as a result, the disease will keep spreading, frustrating any attempt to slow it down. Against dramatic, desperate and, perhaps, arrogant, use of political power, and in favor of prudence and wisdom, Edmund Burke’s collection of writings from the period of the French Revolution can be a beacon of light. On the other hand, explaining the dilemmas of collective action and suggesting ways of solving them, Mancur Olson offers an insightful look at incentives and group behavior in The Logic of Collective Action.

However, the idea that government coercion is the only solution to dilemmas of collective action (such as imposing a quarantine, for example) doesn’t hold water. In fact, other economists follow Olson in saying the problem is real and challenges a strict individualist way of thinking, but, adding to Olson’s point, they also acknowledge the role of private action and sanctions in fostering cooperation. Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons is a wonderful study that opens up a number of possibilities for private enforcing of collective action to preserve and promote the frugal allocation of common goods. This can be complemented by The Quest for Community, an overlooked work by sociologist Robert Nisbet, where it becomes clear that, between individuals, the state, and the market, there’s room for other associations and communities that strengthen civil society – particularly in this challenging time. Nisbet’s lesson invites liberty-loving people to reflect on whether a hyper-individualistic view of the world ends up pitting helpess individuals against Leviathan instead of offering the buffer zone of community in between. This is something Alexis de Tocqueville discussed in the 19th century.

And just for the sake of dealing with the issue that “is” doesn’t easily lead to “ought”, and that science might have facts and an explanation for them, but does not easily conduce to a proper discussion on values policy, I must finish this PPE pandemic reading list with F. A. Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty. On Chapter 4, for example, Hayek introduces a constrast between “rationalist liberalism” and “anti-rationalist liberalism”. Rationalist liberals assume too easily that knowledge of the facts on the ground will give them what they need to re-design a society governed by reason. Hayek warns us against this technocratic assumption and offers a defence of “anti-rationalist liberalism”. Anti-rationalist liberals understand the importance of spontaneous order and of constraining power (even at a time of crisis) while prudently balancing the values of liberty and safety in light of past experience and tradition.


Three Additional readings:

Buzan, Waever and De Wilde, Security: A New Framework for Analysis (1997). In a liberal democracy, the state steps in suspending some civil liberties only if it can persuade citizens that there’s a threat that justifies it. This book offers a framework to interpret how such threats are constructed in official and non-official discourse, and to what extent this construction of a threat can be effective.

Robert Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan (2013). 25th anniversary edition. Looks at US history and how government employed crises to its advantage and the advantage of the ruling elites. In particular, security and economy related issues are dealt with.

Sanford Ikeda, Dynamics of the Mixed Economy (2002). Shows that a time of crisis might be a time for further interventionism in the economy, as Higgs (see above) suggests, but might also be a time for disintervention, as seems to be the case with part of the agenda today (FDA deregulation, etc.) This is based on Ludwig von Mises’ view that interventionist economies are not very stable and are always swinging as a pendulum between socialism and capitalism.

 

Nightcap

  1. Artists for hire: the forgotten masters of the British East India Company Peter Parker (wait, what?), Literary Review
  2. Lenin, capitalists, rope Scott Sumner, MoneyIllusion
  3. Barriers to cognitive diversity Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  4. How the Saudi-Iran rivalry has unravelled the Middle East Toby Matthiesen, Financial Times

Nightcap

  1. Excellent analysis of Trump’s impeachment and acquittal Greg Weiner, Law & Liberty
  2. Chinese encounters with the rest of the world Henrietta Harrison, TLS
  3. Moctezuma’s empire has fallen, but so too has the Spanish.” Ben Ehrenreich, Guardian
  4. Boundary conditions for emergent complexity Nick Nielsen, Grand Strategy Annex

Nightcap

  1. Outlaw universities (affirmative action) Michael Huemer, Fake Nous
  2. The case against judicial supremacy Marc DeGirolami, Law & Liberty
  3. Another case against executive supremacy David Cohen, Politico
  4. From outer space, the Earth is mostly blue Margarette Lincoln, Literary Review

Rawls, Antigone and the tragic irony of norms

Is civil disobedience justified when it invokes a moral objection to target a law that has been enacted through a legitimate process? The reason societies seek to establish a legitimate process in law making is because they want to set up common rules and norms which people who disagree with them will still have to abide by. However, history shows us many instances in which, even in a democratic system, civil disobedience both triggered and animated a debate on legitimately enacted rules and, often, led to their revision as well as the reform of the procedural rules that allowed their enactment in the first place.

Rawls’ position on civil disobedience struggles with this question. His position is that, once society has set up principles of justice in an institutional setting, acts of civil disobedience are just insofar as they appeal to the sense of justice of the majority and should be willing to bear the consequences of their actions. We may read the Rawlsian perspective as follows: these acts are still of value because they re-launch a process of public reasoning regarding the law itself.

However, the implications from this statement are broader and baffling. First, we don’t know how far this revision can go. Will it be allowed to cast doubt on the basic principles of justice which society previously agreed to observe? Can it challenge the procedural source of legitimacy for the contested norms?

Second, civic disobedience cannot be reduced to appeals to a sense of justice demanding the revision of law through the same process. Instead, the rationale behind civil disobedience reminds us that there will always be competing conceptions of justice that go as far as challenging the source of legitimacy – what some have come to accept as the just process may no longer seen as just by others. A society’s prior decision at a single historical moment that this is a just process for law making does not end the debate over different perceptions of justice concerning both norms and processes.

Moreover, acts of civil disobedience appear in moments in which different moral norms clash and judgment should be passed regarding which one takes precedence over the other. Episodes in the US history, particularly regarding the civil rights of African Americans, epitomize the important role of acts of disobedience in invoking a higher moral ground against norms approved by the majority through the institutions of a democratic system. We have learnt from history that these moments spawned animosities and brought about new episodes of conflict. They were emotionally disturbing episodes.

This implies that social contract theories tend to adopt an a-historical approach to norm-building and a, strangely- a-social view of public reasoning. Norm-building is seen as cleansed of emotions and often dismissive of the idea that there will be unintended and unforeseen consequences. A reduced historical and social conception of justice is what acts of civil disobedience reminds us of. The process of defining justice as norms and as process remains an open turf for never-ending, reflective social interactions that no constitutional moment can capture, crystallise and entrench indefinitely.

These three elements – the historicity and sociability of norms, normative contradiction, and the emotional dimension in the conflict over norms – is manifested in Sophocles’ masterpiece, Antigone. Sophocles’ theatrical play on civil disobedience was written around 441 BC, about 2,400 years before Rawls’s work. It conveys a nuanced message on norms, normative debates, public deliberation and reasoning, and sees the social nature of all as a human tragedy.

The play is set in the aftermath of a civil war in Thebes and the final battle which Thebes survives the attack of seven exiled Theban generals. One of the generals, Polynices, son of King Oedipus, fights his own brother, Eteocles, a defender of the city. In that fight, the two brothers kill each other.

Creon, the legitimate King of Thebes and uncle of the two brothers, issues a public order for Eteocles to be buried with honours and for Polynices to be left outside the walls to rot unburied as punishment for his betrayal. Creon also orders that whoever tries to bury Polynices’s body shall be arrested and executed.

Polynices’s sister, Antigone, defies Creon’s order and secretly buries her brother in accordance with the religious tradition that demands that the dead must be buried. Soon after, Antigone gets arrested and is brought by guards before Creon and the city. She chooses not to apologize for her actions or claim ignorance of law. Instead, she confronts Creon by invoking that the law of the gods is superior to the law of men.

Creon sentences her to death, publicly stating that everyone should be treated equally before the law. He would make no exception for her niece. Creon presents himself as a just leader who firmly adheres to ‘equality before the law’ even if that means he would sentence to death one of closest family members. The law, he stresses, is above everyone.

Antigone’s public act with an emotional appeal to the law of gods initially fails to trigger sympathy from the people of Thebes and Creon insists on his sentence. Antigone is taken off stage to be buried alive in a cave.

Creon’s own son and Antigone’s fiancé, Haemon, rushes to defend Antigone but he too fails to convince his father to change his decision. Even against his son, Creon reiterates his conviction that the law takes precedence over personal relations. But gradually the people of Thebes, the chorus of the play, changes its stance and starts showing more sympathy to Antigone’s drama.

In the next scene, a respected prophet named Tiresias makes a public interference. He tells Creon and the city that their neglect of the moral law will displease the gods and will bring more sorrow and pain to Creon’s family and the city of Thebes. The leader of the chorus changes his mind and asks Creon to reconsider his decision and set Antigone free. We are witnessing here that public is changing its views following a morally charged debate triggered by an act of civil disobedience. Antigone disobeyed the law guided by her love for her brother, but she was also honouring the law of the gods. Creon decides to spare Antigone. Emotions and fears have a drastic effect on public perceptions political decision making.

But Creon’s decision came too late. Antigone committed suicide. So did Haemon and, following the news of his death, her mother and Creon’s wife, Eurydice. The play ends with Creon devastated, isolated, discredited and vulnerable, and the city of Thebes descending back into chaos.

Rather than a clear clash between a hero and a villain, the two protagonists are tragic figures and so is the city itself. Creon wants to demonstrate that he is a prudent ruler who obeys the law that he rightfully sets. But he has to listen to the people he commands. His confrontation with Antigone is his own public act in which he defends his decision. The chorus, representing the people, initially sides with Creon but turns against him after observing a human drama unfolding and after hearing the menacing words of a prophet about the incoming doom. Perceptions of justice are drastically reshaped through an interplay of feelings, reasons and fears. Deliberation is emotionally charged.

Unlike Rawls, Sophocles’ theatrical play presents us with a richer blend of public reasoning, emotions, emotive responses, and unforeseen and unintended consequences in a debate over clashing norms and perceptions of justice. Creon – the personification of equal rules for everyone including his own relatives – is the legitimate political authority but his decision creates a personal and civic catastrophe. Thebes descends into a spiral of death and civil unrest. A just act of disobedience triggers a spiral of turmoil and tragedy. Emotions and personal affections guide decisions that produce unforeseen dramatic developments for the protagonists and the city as a whole.

The Greek drama is purposefully presented as a morally inconclusive story. Antigone had no initial intentions to make her actions a public statement and did not wish to bring down the entire political system. But after her arrest she did make a dramatic public defence of her stance invoking the moral law. Creon was surprised and angered, torn between his adherence to the rule of law and his duty towards his family. The Theban public watches all this astounded, emotional and anxious. This is far from a society that can be equilibrated into an orderly state. It cannot even rest secure about its own convictions.

Sophocles grasped much of what political theory tends to shy away from: the complexity and ambiguity surrounding normative thinking in human societies that tends to bring about tragic or fatal results for every system of norms shaken by its own contradictions. In short, Sophocles lyrically presents us the tragic irony of norms creation. Rather than taking a nomothetic stance, his play helps us reflect on the tragedy of human interactions from a nearly anthropological viewpoint.  

Sophocles allows the audience to pass their own judgment through both logical and emotional engagement. The audience is baffled by the merits of each of the opposing viewpoints – Creon’s defence of formal equality before the law and Antigone’s defence of a higher moral ground. But it is also touched and distraught by how tragic the protagonists are, trapped in the consequences of their own moral standing and reasoning. In Sophocles’ play, society is watching and reflecting on behaviors and norms through pathos, ethos and logos. After each performance, the verdict is a flow of tears rather than a canonical judgment.

Nightcap

  1. Democracy doesn’t matter to the defenders of ‘economic freedom’ Quinn Slobodian, Guardian
  2. After the Berlin Wall: whither democracy? Sabine Beppler-Spahl, spiked!
  3. How Europe stumped Britain’s conservatives Geoffrey Wheatcroft, New Republic
  4. Don’t forget the one-fifth clause (impeachment, American-style) Eugene Volokh, Volokh Conspiracy

Mass shooting in perspective

Each of the past few years, about 35,000 Americans died in traffic accidents. This fact should be taken into account when considering recent massacres of civilians. I was wondering if anyone else would be cold hearted enough to go that way. So I waited a few days to comment on the massacres in Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton, to avoid duplicating others’ commentaries. Plus, I have technical difficulties associated with my current location. Please, comment or wave if you see this.

Of the approximately 35,000 victims about half died in accidents involving alcohol. I will assume, against my thesis, that only 10,000 people each year died indirectly or directly because someone drank too much alcohol and drove.

How to count victims of mass shootings has become – strangely enough- controversial. Nevertheless, I am quite certain that shootings, specifically, of strangers for other than greed, or jealousy, or disappointed love have not caused 10,000 deaths in any of the past few years, not even close.

Do you agree; do you see where I am going?

So drunk drivers kill many more people – about 10,000 annually – than mass shooters. The victims of the ones are just as dead as the victims of the others; the loss and grief associated with the ones must be similar to those associated with the others. The deaths from one cause seem to me to be as meaningless as the deaths from the other. (That’s by contrast with the death of a firefighter in the line of duty, for example.)

A rational collective response should give priority to the avoidance of the many deaths from drunk driving over the much fewer deaths caused by mass assassins. Yet, the public reactions of the left are exactly the reverse of those rational expectations. In part, this inversion of priorities is due to the magnification the media affords mass shootings but not the slow massacre on the roads. In part, it may be due to the sometimes concentrated nature of the death tolls by mass shooting. This explanation, however, has only limited value because the small death toll at the Gilroy Garlic Festival, for example, was given much more publicity than is conceivable for any drunk driving accident with three lethal casualties.

This irrational ordering of priorities is made all the more puzzling by the fact that it would be much easier to reduce the number of deaths from drunk driving than by domestic mass shootings. Two reasons. First, people in jail can’t kill anyone with a car. The second reason is a little more subtle; bear with me.

Drunk drivers fall into two main categories, alcoholics who think they have to drive, and self-indulgent slobs. My intuition is that there are many more of the latter than of the former (especially among the young, who are overrepresented in car accidents) but I don’t have any figures. Self-indulgent slobs are capable of rational calculus. If the relevant punishment is severe enough and certain enough, they will become less self-indulgent. I used to be one of them. When the penalty for drunk driving went from about $100 to several thousand during my lifetime, I discovered that I could take a taxi, or pay a friend to drive me back, or drink at home. The quality of my life declined but it was worth it. It’s likely that my fear of heavy punishment saved someone’s life over the long run.

So, a credible remedial scheme is simple: withdrawal of driver’s license for a long period on the first offense associated with heavy fines for driving without a license. A significant jail term without possibility of parole would punish each subsequent infraction. Again, imprisoned drivers don’t kill anyone through their drunk driving. That’s a valid reason in itself to keep them locked up for a long time. It’s probably also economically reasonable.

So, I wonder why is there not a passionate public outcry on the political left and among its media partners in favor of a nation-wide remedial endeavor of the kind I just described?

Drunk driving kills many more Americans than do criminal mass shootings of the Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton kind. This, although suppressive remedies to drunk driving are conceptually straightforward. My friend Vernon Bohr pointed out in a comment on Facebook that accidental drownings of children alone claim more lives of all categories of Americans than do mass shootings. There are better priorities.

The indifference of the left to those more important preventable causes of mortality as compared to its display of strong collective emotion with respect to sudden death by shooting seems strange, on the surface. This strong emotion is usually, almost always associated with urgent calls for some sort of federal gun control.

The contrast is made all the more striking by the following legal facts: First, the regulation of behavior that is potentially harmful to others – such as driving automobiles – falls squarely within the purview of state legislatures, primarily, of Congress, secondarily. Number two, driving is nowhere a right, except by default. Possessing weapons, by contrast, is a right explicitly guaranteed by the US Constitution, and twice reaffirmed by the US Supreme Court.

So, why would the considerable emotional and political resources of the left, aptly guided by the mass media, be expanded on the deaths of comparatively few, on a problem that is difficult to understand, one whose resolution would also encounter strong legal obstacles? Why this relentless emphasis when there are obvious, bigger, more rational objects of collective compassion?

I am thinking of two answers. One, the unpredictability of shooting events make them seem more disruptive than the somewhat routinized highway deaths, including by drunk drivers. The logical implication of this explanation is that if mass shootings became more frequent, they would appear more routine, and thus, less disruptive, and less deserving of left-wing attention. Note that there is a long way to go between the few hundred annual casualties by mass killings, and the 10,000 I attribute to drunk driving alone.

Thus, mass shootings garner both attention and emotion – including on the left – precisely because they are comparatively rare. If this were correct, attention and emotion would diminish with an increased frequency of such events. That is not a trend I observe. Others may see it.

Two, the left, and its media component, may focus on mass shootings in preference to making more rational choices, not in spite of the legal obstacles in their path but because of them. In this perspective, the focus on mass shootings may not be an exercise in misguided compassion, but a means to a higher end.

Americans are, on the whole, much attached to their Constitution. Modifying it is an arduous and uncertain task. Shortcuts to this effect are much appreciated. It would be difficult to find a more effective shortcut than the guided emotionalism the left supplies on the occasion of each mass shooting perpetuated by an American who is not also a violent jihadist. The spectacle of perfectly innocent victims, including children, cut down by someone seemingly exercising his constitutional right to bear arms must be the most formidable nonrational argument against that constitutional right. It can be mustered to sidestep collective choices – such as further reductions in deaths by drunk drivers – that would make the most sense from the standpoint of simple compassion. Thus, a one tenth reduction in deaths by drunk driver, and the corresponding shrinking of human misery, would do about twice more good than would the total (total) elimination of mass shootings.

The outburst of emotionalism expertly guided by the media we witnessed following three civilian mass shootings in quick succession is not about compassion, it’s about power. Every reduction in the autonomy of individuals increases the power of government, of those who are in charge of it through legitimate political means, and of the permanent bureaucracy.

Incidentally, I suspect there must be libertarian solutions to the vast and continuing problem of death by drunk driver, solutions that don’t involve putting people in jail. I don’t know what those are. I would like to hear about them.