Contra Hayek, Maybe: The Intellectuals and Christianity

In The Intellectuals and Socialism Hayek attributes the success of socialist thought to its penetration among intellectuals, defined as “second-hand dealers in ideas” such as writers, editors, and pillars of the community, who were not theorists but relayed the ideas of theorists to the people at large. Students of Hayek to the present day have tended to accept this hypothesis, but I think it is incomplete.

Consider a narrower case. The traditional accounts of who wrote the Bible haven’t held up to scrutiny very well. Scholars of the New Testament almost universally agree that the fourteen books of the New Testament traditionally attributed to Paul were not all written by him.* David Aune writes in the Blackwell Companion to the New Testament:

While seven of the letters attributed to Paul are almost universally accepted as authentic (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon), four are just as widely judged to be pseudepigraphical, i.e. written by unknown authors under Paul’s name: Ephesians and the Pastorals (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus).

Some scholars go lower than seven. F.C. Baur went as low as four (Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Romans), and Bruno Bauer went all the way to zero. Regardless of the actual number or the possible biases of individual scholars, the fact is the consensus is lower than fourteen (or thirteen, removing the anonymous and long-debated Epistle to the Hebrews). Included in the consensus are the reasoned opinions of many self-professed Christians, who make up a majority of Biblical scholars. Even the Vatican, as official an organization as can be, acknowledges that this is the consensus, although it appears to lend greater weight to other theories.

There is a clear intellectual link between these Christian academics and the Christian faithful: church leaders and Christian writers. Yet it is far from common knowledge that even most scholars who are Christians deny Pauline authorship of a substantial number of the Pauline epistles, or that this is a topic of debate at all. The second-hand dealers in ideas have failed to relay what seems to be a very important piece of high academic theory to their non-specialist audiences. It is not as though these ideas are new; for example, Schleiermacher challenged the authenticity of 1 Timothy in 1807.

The question, then, is why the process by which socialist ideas were transmitted from theorists to the public is not repeated for scholarly takes on the Bible. I can think of a few possible reasons:

  1. Most Christians already have stronger opinions about the Bible than citizens in general have about forms of social organization. The people who were influenced by socialist ideas adopted a position where they didn’t have one before. Changing minds is a bigger task than making them up.
  2. Socialism is a clearer articulation of a perspective people already had; social creationism is and has always been popular. They were already ripe for it in a way that Christians as a whole aren’t ripe for accepting the scholarly consensus or they were in effect already socialists, just waiting for a creed.
  3. The essential aspect of these beliefs is the psychological desire for purpose. Socialism as a new ideology provided it and the current product in Christianity provides it, not the “newer” scholarly version. In the minds of the consumers of the Christian message there’s nothing to improve. You don’t consistently give sermons nobody wants to hear or you end up talking to an empty room.
  4. There are more intellectual rōnin in this arena who end up dominating the narrative. The second-hand dealers in ideas are disconnected from the theorists in the realm of Christianity in ways they are not disconnected in other areas. This is probably the least credible. It may have some small explanatory power for popular Christian books, but for church leaders the situation is probably the reverse; seminaries are full of stubborn apologists, of course, but they often teach critical scholarship and employ critical scholars, and the boundary between the two groups is not firm.
  5. The information isn’t relevant. I think this one is, if not self-evidently false, at least highly unlikely. Apologist theorists have spilled a lot of ink dealing with this issue. Even those who don’t think it leads to significant changes think it’s relevant.

This only recently occurred to me so I am not confident in ranking these options. I suspect some mix of 2 and 3.

I sign off for now with Colossians 1:24-26:

24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, 25 of which I became a minister according to the divine office which was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26 the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his saints.

…wherever it came from.

* I use this case as an example but it extends far beyond the New Testament, and indeed beyond Christianity.

Wednesday nexus

1. R.I.P. Douglass North, 1993 Economics Nobel laureate, 1920–2015. Bio here; New York Times obituary here.

2. Alex Tabarrok tackles a persistent meme about refugees.

3. Don Boudreaux on trusting political leaders:

In short, when the subject of discussion or the object of action is the economy, politicians and their deputies typically sound and act as if they are imbeciles (or as if the audiences they aim to please are made up largely of imbeciles). So why should I trust that these same politicians and their deputies, when they discuss and act on matters about which I know far less than economics, are not imbeciles? Why should I suppose them to be any more informed, reasonable, and wise – and less politically motivated – than they are when they discuss economics?

4. Two can play this game: How Democrats Suppress the Vote. I’m kicking myself for never having thought or read about this before, though in fairness I suppose very few people have.

Scheduling local elections at odd times appears to be a deliberate strategy aimed at keeping turnout low, which gives more influence to groups like teachers unions that have a direct stake in the election’s outcome.

The article draws largely from a book by political scientist Sarah Anzia that I guess I’ll have to read now.

5. And some levity: The 12 coaches rumored for every college football job opening ever. Teaser:

1. The Back The Truck Up dream coach you deserve: This is [your university], dammit. Before you even think of calling any of these other candidates, you get out that dang checkbook, you sit down in front of the most accomplished and least interested NFL or college head coach, and you make him say no.

Bias in social psychology

Via Twitter, a new study suggesting a large body of social psychology research may be seriously biased. The abstract, with my emphasis:

Prior research suggests that liberals are more complex than conservatives. However, it may be that liberals are not more complex in general, but rather only more complex on certain topic domains (while conservatives are more complex in other domains). Four studies (comprised of over 2,500 participants) evaluated this idea. Study 1 involves the domain specificity of a self-report questionnaire related to complexity (dogmatism). By making only small adjustments to a popularly used dogmatism scale, results show that liberals can be significantly more dogmatic if a liberal domain is made salient. Studies 2–4 involve the domain specificity of integrative complexity. A large number of open-ended responses from college students (Studies 2 and 3) and candidates in the 2004 Presidential election (Study 4) across an array of topic domains reveals little or no main effect of political ideology on integrative complexity, but rather topic domain by ideology interactions. Liberals are higher in complexity on some topics, but conservatives are higher on others. Overall, this large dataset calls into question the typical interpretation that conservatives are less complex than liberals in a domain-general way.

This immediately made me think of another recent paper about the lack of political diversity in social psychology [summarized by one of the authors here]. The abstract of that paper, with my emphasis:

Psychologists have demonstrated the value of diversity – particularly diversity of viewpoints – for enhancing creativity, discovery, and problem solving. But one key type of viewpoint diversity is lacking in academic psychology in general and social psychology in particular: political diversity. This article reviews the available evidence and finds support for four claims: (1) Academic psychology once had considerable political diversity, but has lost nearly all of it in the last 50 years. (2) This lack of political diversity can undermine the validity of social psychological science via mechanisms such as the embedding of liberal values into research questions and methods, steering researchers away from important but politically unpalatable research topics, and producing conclusions that mischaracterize liberals and conservatives alike. (3) Increased political diversity would improve social psychological science by reducing the impact of bias mechanisms such as confirmation bias, and by empowering dissenting minorities to improve the quality of the majority’s thinking. (4) The underrepresentation of non-liberals in social psychology is most likely due to a combination of self-selection, hostile climate, and discrimination. We close with recommendations for increasing political diversity in social psychology.

For what little it’s worth, this fits with my subjective impressions about the current intellectual climate. In my experience the thought leaders on the left typically cannot even characterize libertarian ideas properly, much less understand them on a deeper level, and, perhaps secure in their dominance, are extremely dismissive of them and the people who hold them. We could hardly expect it to be be much better for people who don’t earn a living by research and instruction, and a quick perusal of just about any corner of the internet will confirm this pessimism. To a lesser extent the same thing seems to happen with conservative ideas, although I admit I pay less attention to these.

The problem, of course, is that the marketplace of ideas only works if it’s competitive. If the academic climate is dogmatic and hostile to minority positions, refusing to engage with them, how could we expect the ideas that emerge to be the strongest?

I have always enjoyed the apocryphal story of Pauline Kael musing that she couldn’t believe Nixon was elected president, as nobody she knew voted for him. The true quote is still interesting and not very comforting:

I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.

Practical steps after the Paris attacks

By now you’ve no doubt heard of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, and you’ve no doubt heard the rumblings about “what we should do now”. Neocons whose Iraq war set the rise of ISIS in motion see it as further proof that the Western powers should never have eased up on the hard line. The anti-immigration factions are having a field day. Cooler heads remind us to remain calm but it’s not very clear what exactly we’re supposed to do once we’ve calmed down. What kinds of policies would help here?

It’s very hard to stop people once they are committed to doing violence. What sends them down that path? How can they be deterred earlier? We always read that a major recruiting pool for attacks like these are the young, the disaffected, the unacculturated, the unsuccessful. Often these are second- or third-generation sons of immigrants who immigrated at great cost to themselves. What long-term policies would remove the appeal of joining terror networks? (The short term is another question, one that is outside the scope here.)

The major question is why, given the choice between ordinary life in the new country and terrorism, some people choose terrorism? How does policy move the people who might choose terrorism into the category of people who don’t?

One thing that would surely help is to radically scale back the social programs that Europe is famous for. If merely existing in a country entitles immigrants to housing and other necessaries paid for with tax funds, incentives to learn the local languages and customs enough to get along with the natives are greatly reduced. Incentives should encourage staying in school and in the workforce, where people are acculturated to their host countries, much more than they do now. I note that the very successful acculturation of immigrants to the US throughout almost all of its history happened in times when, for the most part, he who did not work did not eat.

It’s not just welfare policies, it’s labor policies too. Europe in general and France in particular have extremely tight labor policies committed to preserving the status quo that strangle dynamism in the cradle. Supposing the social safety net were scaled back dramatically, sending immigrants en masse into the workforce, it would be very difficult to fit all of them into it given that labor policies are what they currently are. Because firing is so difficult, hiring is a big risk and is undertaken at much less than its natural level. Many workers, especially unskilled immigrant workers, don’t (yet) have the productivity to justify being paid very high minimum wages and aren’t legally allowed to contract to work for less. (Thus the artificial need for the welfare state.) This is bad for everybody who isn’t part of the protected classes, and it prevents acculturation of newcomers.

The obvious rejoinder is that these policies exist for the benefit of current Europeans, though the points still stand. The discipline of interacting with other people in productive ways is good for immigrants and for natives, and the disincentives to do so in overly intrusive policy systems affect both immigrants and natives.

Of course, this isn’t to suggest that the immigrants should completely abandon their traditional cultures. One of the most attractive things about American culture, for example, is the mix of influences from all over the world. But cultures that are successful are successful due to widespread tacit agreement on very basic, nonsectarian things. These are the things that productive interaction teaches and reinforces and that too much government assistance doesn’t.

The effect of this would be to reduce the terrorist recruiting pool very sharply, even holding violence in the Middle East constant. Of course, it would not be eliminated entirely. Short of incredibly draconian police state measures nothing will, and I think the argument against the draconian police state doesn’t have to be restated here.

Social creationism

One of the many, many great contributions Friedrich Hayek made to civilization was his decades-long attack on constructivism, a.k.a. constructivist rationalism, “a conception which assumes that all social institutions are, and ought to be, the product of deliberate design.” [source] He wrote about it in book after book but outside of a fairly narrow scholarly circle the idea is not very popular. One of the reasons is that few people have the time or inclination to wade through the sources. Another reason is that the name isn’t very catchy.

I’ve been using another term for it for a few years in private conversation: social creationism. The metaphor is apt, I think, and more likely to be understood. Creationism as a theory about the natural world is scoffed at (correctly) by most people, at least most people whose trade is ideas, but paradoxically many of these people think the world of human institutions is “the product of deliberate design” and push to remake it in their own images. It’s a rare thinker who consistently acknowledges the evolutionary development of social institutions and the exceedingly complex interplay between them.

The error comes partly from people observing that some institutions, e.g. legislation or university policies, are deliberately designed, and assuming that the same kind of telos operates on a wider scale. First, there is no one intelligence behind all institutions. Not even The Protocols of the Elders of Zion attributed that much power to its supervillains. Second, even if it were true that each institution were deliberately designed, the complex web of interactions, reactions, adjustments, etc. in a world with free will would make the overall final product different from what was intended. Just as biological entities develop and change and weren’t created in one pass, the final product of human interaction, society, is beyond anybody’s capacity to bring about.

Free speech hero: the raving campus street preacher

Even though universities take a lot of heat for their growing tendency to censor legally protected speech, there’s one free speech fixture that still seems to be going strong: the raving, half homeless-looking, evangelical street preacher. If you haven’t been on a campus in a while, it’s just like you remember. There are many of them, and they are sometimes women, but I think reducing it down to a single representative man will get the point across just fine. As readers of this blog probably know, I agree with basically none of what this man ever says. I have this in common with most of his target audience, I think.

What he says, especially about sexuality—yesterday I walked past one raving about “homos”—is much more frank than what you normally hear from others, and less and less palatable over time to college students. Yet he always has a crowd around him, and the crowd always seems to know the proper response is either to ignore him or to laugh and heckle, not to get upset.

I know the problem of the offensive but unsanctioned street preacher is not the same as (potentially?) offensive agents who either implicitly or explicitly have the university’s sanction, whether instructors, guest speakers, or fellow students. But the value of college is not just in the officially sanctioned activities. This guy does a great service on campus. What is the danger of ideas, again? People might believe them? It’s good to have a constant fixture on campuses with very unpopular ideas who amuses rather than harms. The raving campus street preacher shows people can be exposed to disagreeable ideas without being transformed by them.

I hope he isn’t banned at Yale.

David Malo on autocracy

David Malo [1793–1853] is a very interesting figure in Hawaiian history. He was born during Kamehameha I’s war to unify the islands—under his own rule, of course—fifteen years after Captain Cook brought the outside world in. He grew up learning and becoming an expert on traditional Hawaiian lore. After Kamehameha II abolished the kapu system in 1819 and Protestant missionaries arrived from New England in 1820, he became a Christian and later a minister. He is best known for writing a historical work in the Hawaiian language. N.B. Emerson translated this work, Ka Mo‘olelo Hawai‘i, as Hawaiian Antiquities. It’s an interesting mix of respect and appreciation for his native culture with the convert’s zeal for Christianity.

I bring it up here because of my abiding interest in governance. Gordon Tullock made the point that autocracy is the most common form of government throughout history; though we are mainly interested in democracies these days, we need to explain this fact. Malo’s brief comment in the section about the organization of the government:

2. It is probable that because it was impossible for all the people to act in concert in the government, in settling the difficulties, lifting the burdens, and disentangling the embarrassments of the people from one end of the land to the other that one was made king, with sole authority to conduct the government and to do all its business. This most likely was the reason why certain ones were selected to be chiefs. But we are not informed who was the first one chosen to be king; that is only matter of conjecture.

As far as I can tell, the most common explanation of the ancient Hawaiian system of government by modern scholars is that several centuries after the initial settling of Hawai‘i a second wave of settlers brought along the more rigid system then prevailing in the Polynesian core and more or less imposed it on the people already there. If this is correct it hardly matters for our purposes; the question then becomes why this system developed in the Society Islands.

Malo’s speculation is remarkably like explanations for why autocracy emerges from other parts of the world. I consider it unlikely, though possible, that the republican Yankee missionaries would have foisted this view on him. Whether it’s correct or not, in Hawai‘i or elsewhere, people keep finding it plausible across time and space.

The blindness of Bernie Sanders (and others)

At the seminar I mentioned in my previous post, one of the things I noticed about Burke and Tocqueville was their approach was completely political. The economic side of life and the laws that govern it were never on their radar. This isn’t a defect, it’s simply a result of the fact that one person cannot be an expert in everything.

I try to avoid commenting too precisely on ephemeral political issues, but something’s been stuck in my head for a few days and it ties in with timeless issues. There was some Bernie Sanders bit floating around the internet recently about how absurd it was that you could get an auto loan with a 2.5% interest rate but 7.5%, triple the rate, for a student loan. To a person with his background and training, sure, it probably seems absurd. But even the most cursory familiarity with economics makes it completely intelligible. A man aspiring to the most powerful position in history has a duty to familiarize himself with the ideas that he will confront (largely unsuccessfully) if he attains it. It’s possible he really does know and is simply pandering, as I suspect many of them do much of the time, but my subjective impression of him is that he is overwhelmingly sincere even in his completely uninformed opinions. Perhaps especially in his completely uninformed opinions. Those are the kind you don’t get feedback on by definition.

Consider the different consumers of auto loans and student loans. On one hand, auto loan borrowers are much older (read: more mature) than student loan borrowers. They are already in a stable pattern of employment. If they aren’t, they don’t successfully get loans. Lenders have a decent idea of what to expect from them. Additionally, if a borrower defaults on an auto loan the lender can take the car. This isn’t ideal but it makes the loan substantially less risky. Last, the loans are a percentage of the price of a car, not chump change but not massive.

On the other hand, students are young (read: less reliable). The financial future is still wide open for them. In other situations, isn’t this one of their big complaints? They don’t know, and lenders don’t know, if they will be making big bucks when they finish college or if they will be working part time at a coffee shop trying to figure things out. To top it off, education lenders can’t take back a graduate’s learning if the graduate defaults. The lender is stuck holding the bag. Last, the amounts sought after are usually much greater than the price of a car.

Now, if you’re a loan officer at an institution with money to lend, how will you be induced to lend to this second category of borrowers? How will the people with whose money you are entrusted be induced to let you hold it in the first place instead of putting it elsewhere? The lower recovery rate over a longer time must be balanced with a higher payoff in the event of recovery, i.e. a higher interest rate. Interest rates should be thought of as prices: the prices of giving up current money for repayment in future money in all the situations this occurs. Mandating that education loans and auto loans have the same range of interest rates is equivalent to mandating that it shouldn’t be worth any lender’s time to lend to college students unless they are already well off and worth the risk but least in need of the loan. That’s not exactly what Sanders wants, but it’s what he’ll get.

To a politically-minded person this level of detail is invisible. My guess is that Sanders simply doesn’t see it, the way a color blind person walks in the same world as everybody else but doesn’t see things that are obvious to other people. It’s fine if he doesn’t—most people don’t—but it’s a problem if he aspires to order people around based on his blindness. What I think is his preferred solution, having payment for college education be a public financial responsibility, is a natural outgrowth of this blindness. There would be a possible economic debate as a result, the relative pros and cons of private financing (really quasi-private here) vs. financing out of tax money, but where I’ve seen this comparison made by people on his side it’s been mostly a lackluster token effort.

None of this is a slam-dunk argument against Bernie Sanders and in favor of another candidate. That’s not what I do. I think most other candidates, not just now but in general, either don’t know what they’re talking about or don’t care. But he’s the flavor of the week representing this kind of thought, and it’s a common and important mistake that needs addressing.

Burke and Tocqueville on liberty, then and now

This weekend I had the great pleasure of attending a seminar put on by the Institute for Humane Studies. The theme was “Burke and Tocqueville on Liberty”. Both of these writers were important influences on Western political theory and so are still worth studying, even if you don’t agree with how later writers used them. Indeed, it occurred to me during the final day’s discussion that they are still highly relevant in understanding today’s left and right.

It was explicit in Burke and to a lesser extent in Tocqueville that they saw the early modern transition away from strong monarchy toward democratic republicanism to involve the loss of social unity, and Tocqueville, perhaps without knowing it, wrote extensively on the grasping efforts to replace it. This sentiment is echoed in other thinkers as well. Even if social unity under the Ancien Régime broadly considered was imposed and not chosen or commonly understood, at least it was there, and they missed it when it was gone. Both the left and right since that time can be thought of as pushing its replacement.

It came to me while thinking about several passages in Tocqueville and their modern versions criticizing low culture. People where assigned a place under the old systems and society made sense. When history finally allowed the mass of people to choose their own culture, from the aristocratic perspective of both writers the people chose poorly. They chose things concerned elites don’t think have value toward their larger social purposes. The modern left and right take turns bemoaning low culture for this reason. I understand the sentiment and share it on the level of taste but it doesn’t undermine how I think society should operate.

The French Revolutionaries, Burke’s bêtes noires, tried to replace the unity under king and church with a rationalistic patriotism that they more or less created from whole cloth, even a Temple of Reason! Aside from the fact that it led to very undesirable consequences, it wasn’t very successful at creating a new unity. The French underclasses mostly kept right along with their Catholicism, and with some exceptions the revolutionaries themselves seemed unfulfilled. By Tocqueville’s time the monarchy had been reestablished. It’s easy to dismiss this as one powerful segment of society arrogating benefits for itself, but it seems to have been deeper than that, and now I think I see why.

This makes more sense of the late 18th and 19th century intellectual currents emphasizing republican virtue. It wasn’t enough to replace the old forms of government. Something else had to be replaced too, and while the movements that became the modern left and right differed on what the replacement should be they implicitly agreed that they needed one.

This also helps me understand some sociological features of the libertarian movement. As good as I think its arguments are, it’s just not very popular as a total package. It doesn’t offer a replacement for the old sense of place and purpose. Conservatives have religion, tradition, and a sense of patriotism to cling to, and progressives have a sense of cosmopolitanism and a secular millenarianism. Libertarians have…whatever they individually find inspiring, which is why their movement a) is small and b) has the highest average IQ of the ones considered; it doesn’t provide the subconscious, passive satisfaction most people look for.

This also helps me understand thinkers like Smith* and Mill who thought about both moral philosophy and economics/political philosophy. They had great intellects incapable of satisfaction in only narrow channels, but these seemed naturally related to them. They were men of their time. The concern about faction of the writers behind Publius makes more sense in this light as well.

Libertarianism is like atheism in this way, offering an alternative to other modes of thought that isn’t exactly a full replacement for them. I’m not sure what to do about this, but at least I know what the issue is now.

* Smith lived before the storm but it was clearly already gathering.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 850 other followers