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.

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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.

How not to reason on common political issues

In the essay Political Bias in Philosophy and Why it Matters, Spencer Case enumerates several examples of perceived political bias in philosophy including a doozy which follows shortly. I don’t have the original text in front of me and therefore can’t judge if the quote is somehow taken out of context, but assuming Case is fairly summarizing, get a load of this:

Later, without pausing to consider any anti-abortion arguments, Wood asserts that “It is an affront to human intelligence to pretend that [pro-life] views are anything but an attempt to confine women, as far as possible, to their traditional sexual subordination as less than free persons.

At least Woods has the virtue of frankness.

I suppose women who hold pro-life views and don’t agree that they should be “confined” “to their traditional sexual subordination as less than free persons” can be dismissed out of hand; their consciousness must be false. Again, I don’t want to slam somebody for something taken out of context, but I will run with it here because I find this attitude disturbingly common among pro-choice people. (It’s disturbingly common but not, I think, a majority view on that side.) If the mark of an educated person is being able to entertain a thought without accepting it, this subgroup sets a very poor example for people aspiring to education. Watch some of these and see if there’s any conceivable reason—that is, other than raging misogyny—why a person might be opposed to this procedure. Any reason at all.

Since it apparently matters for these kinds of discussions, I am pro-choice. Just because we ought to keep the option open for making the best of a bad situation doesn’t mean it isn’t unsettling. It’s dishonest to deny the best available option might have pros and cons. And it’s both dishonest and lazy to think your opponents cannot possibly be motivated by anything other than evil.

Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit” pt. 1: politics and social media

Harry Frankfurt’s great essay “On Bullshit” was originally published in 1986 but has aged incredibly well. Briefly, for background, a lie depends on the truth, as the speaker of a lie intends to misrepresent something that is not true as something that is. In contrast, bullshit isn’t the misrepresentation of something false as something true; truth and falsity don’t really enter into the equation. Here’s a sample that is especially relevant today:

Why is there so much bullshit? Of course it is impossible to be sure that there is relatively more of it nowadays than at other times. There is more communication of all kinds in our time than ever before, but the proportion that is bullshit may not have increased. Without assuming that the incidence of bullshit is actually greater now, I will mention a few considerations that help to account for the fact that it is currently so great.

Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled—whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others—to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant. Closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country’s affairs. The lack of any significant connection between a person’s opinions and his apprehension of reality will be even more severe, needless to say, for someone who believes it his responsibility, as a conscientious moral agent, to evaluate events and conditions in all parts of the world.

As the scope of government has increased over time politicians are led to articulate positions about more and more things they don’t really know or care about. Most people can recognize these as bullshit at least some of the time, and many dislike it at least some of the time, but as Frankfurt says it probably is inevitable given the circumstances.

Social media is in large part about expressing the image of yourself that you want other people to have: how good/caring/special/smart/patriotic/etc. you are and what socio-political tribe you’re part of. Since it’s so low-cost to broadcast these messages to the world, people broadcast them constantly. But of course one can’t be expert in everything, and can’t deeply care about everything. Which leads to mountains of bullshit.

So here’s the tricky part: is there any end in sight to all the bullshit? I expect some adjustment to social media bullshit as people learn how meaningless it really is, but political bullshit seems unstoppable.

The other essential tension

I spent the weekend at a joint Institute for Humane Studies and Mercatus Center policy seminar. Like all the events I’ve done with either, I enjoyed it tremendously. One thing always strikes me as a difficult question after events like this: the extent to which value-neutral social science and value-driven political positions can really be separate.

One of the hats I wear is that of a student of social science trying to answer questions about the world, answers that don’t depend on my preferring them to be one way or the other. Another is of a classical liberal who prefers things in the world to be one way instead of another and who, given the chance, would make them so. I don’t think these two really conflict with each other in the sense that I think the strongest justifications for classical liberal positions are lessons we’ve learned from social science, but I wasn’t always this way and can never really be sure my inner Rothbardian isn’t steering the whole ship. As a day-to-day matter I vent my political preferences occasionally on social media but spend most of my energy on the wertfrei stuff. The IHS seems to be able to blend these very naturally in a way I appreciate but can never quite force myself to do 100% when I’m on my own.

On Fischer on libertarianism, or, How errors compound

I’ve seen a lot of attacks against libertarianism in highbrow media outlets in the last few years. I take this as a good sign overall, even if the attacks rarely if ever have anything convincing in them. I’m not just being partisan; I’d welcome a good critique. But so far I’ve been disappointed. My goal on this blog is not to defend libertarianism per se. I am a libertarian, and I think you should be too, but it’s really not my purpose here. I keep this blog as a sort of scratch pad for economics-related thinking.

However, I couldn’t resist commenting on Claude Fischer’s odd hit piece “Libertarianism is Very Strange”. Not so much for the misunderstanding of libertarianism, which is part of it, but for the strange lack of consistency and the economic error(s). The latter first. Fischer writes on the historically odd emphasis libertarians place on individualism:

For most of history, including Philadelphia, 1776, more humans were effectively property than free. Children, youth, women, slaves, and servants belonged to patriarchs; many patriarchs were themselves serfs to chiefs and lords. And selling oneself into slavery was routine for the poor in many societies. Most world cultures have treated the individual as a limb of the household, lineage, or tribe. We moderns abhor the idea of punishing the brother or child of a wrongdoer, but in many cultures collective punishment makes perfect sense, for each person is just part of the whole. [emphasis added]

That’s one way to look at the rationale behind collective punishment, but not a very good one. Why else might other, mainly earlier societies use collective punishment?

This is a law & economics question. The answer is not that “each person is just part of the whole” but that when resources for law enforcement are very limited, it is a more efficient way to get people to modify their behaviors than punishing only the lawbreaker. By making my family liable for the crimes I might commit, the costs of monitoring me shift from the authorities to my family, i.e. from the high-cost observer to the low-cost observer. With greater knowledge of what I’m doing, they’re more likely to nip my criminal impulses in the bud than some distant, near-sighted authority. You’ll notice that collective punishment tends to disappear as societies become wealthier and can thereby support more capable law enforcement, as well as allowing them to rely less and less on their families, clans, or communities and more and more on the impersonal economy.

In general, this is a problem throughout the piece. Sociological analysis is one way to understand the world, and through this lens the best explanation might seem to be in how the members of society conceive of themselves. Economic analysis is another, and its evolutionary logic does a much better job of explaining this phenomenon without having to read minds. And it doesn’t rely on society being logically prior to individuals, which is good because there is no singular entity that is society. Society is a collection of individuals. Connected and interdependent in many complicated ways though they may be, only they think, choose, act, etc.

Later in the piece, Fischer makes another claim:

Americans’ life expectancy, health, physical security, and living standards soared in the 20th century—not, however, because of the march of libertarianism, as Domenech insinuates, but in great measure because of the welfare state and of regulation of food, medicine, water, work safety, pollution, and so on. Personal liberty itself has also improved in the last century, with civil rights for minorities and women and broader guarantees of civil liberties. These advances, too, largely developed not against government but with it.

A lot of people believe this in full or in part, including economists. But there are so many other factors involved that this claim is misleading in its oversimplification. Why didn’t the regulatory era happen much sooner? Put differently, why didn’t it happen until social product and tax revenues were high enough to sustain it? If some European monarch had tried to implement a modern-looking regulatory system in the late Middle Ages, how would it have gone?

The field of public choice is full of case studies in which government intervention into the economy or society more broadly have negative social benefits, and they almost always have some high-sounding purpose. It may be the case that some of these interventions were socially beneficial, sure. But it also may be the case that technological progress would have taken us even further than it has if it were not for governments intervening on behalf of powerful interests. Showing a blithe disregard for a century and more of incredible technological progress is easier than wading in to separate the helpful from the unhelpful and seeing what the balance is. You don’t have to be a libertarian to see that such a gross oversimplification is irresponsible at best.

My broader takeaway is Fischer’s inconsistency. Libertarianism is silly because it’s ahistorical—a factual claim I would dispute in a longer post, but will let slide here—but somehow this doesn’t apply to, say, all other political philosophy ever? Rawls does not suggest that the original position behind the veil of ignorance is realistic. Hobbes does not suggest that we agreed to an absolute monarch to protect us from each other. What Fischer criticizes Nozick for is what political philosophers have been doing for quite a while, including political philosophers Fischer probably likes.

Moreover, isn’t it good to have goals? The past was awful in a million ways. Isn’t it good to envision a society that is awful in as few of them as possible? And shouldn’t we incorporate economics into it so that we can be sure our means can accomplish our ends and our best intentions don’t run off the rails?

Most of the attacks against libertarianism that I mentioned above have been poorly done hit pieces that we’ll look back on one day and laugh at. Fischer is no hack, but he doesn’t do much better. In attacking libertarianism he makes other errors, and these undermine his case more than his political priors.

The two threads in every debate

In any political debate there are two currents underpinning each participant’s position: the preference-based one and the factual one. These aren’t typically distinguished very carefully, but they exist anyway. For instance, one could hold that more immigration from Latin America is desirable from a cultural point of view but that the economic absorptive powers of US society are not sufficient to support it. Or one could hold that it is both desirable and possible for the US law enforcement system to prevent large numbers of people from consuming some illegal drug. Etc, etc.

Not only is it important to separate these admittedly related currents, but it’s important to remember that different people and different debates are guided by different proportions in underlying justifications. It’s probably true that somebody, somewhere is guided by one exclusively without regard to the other, but in most cases these two exist side by side.

Especially since getting to graduate school I tend to rely less on (my-own-)preference-based justifications for my positions and more on factual ones. Obviously, there is still room for debate no matter which part you choose to rely on more; it could be that I have incorrect beliefs about facts, however much I try not to, and I could debate with somebody having the same preferences I have about alternative means of realizing them. The Affordable Care Act is a popular subject of these kinds of debates—I think most people probably want affordable, quality health care to be available to large numbers of people, but there is considerable room for disagreement about whether the ACA is an efficient way to accomplish this.

I don’t mean to slight preferences by saying they are all beyond rational investigation. Philosophy informs (creates?) our preferences, and to the extent that philosophy is about discovering truth, there is room for debate on correct positions. But this is not what I’m expert in, so I don’t make a habit out of it.

It shouldn’t automatically be cause for suspicion when preferences and factual suppositions point a person in the same direction. In fact, it’s probably the exceptional case in which they don’t. But in the interests of intellectual honesty it’s important to make the distinction so we know what we’re talking about and why. And in the interests of strategy, of “dialogue”, it’s important to remember that other people may not use the two threads in the same proportion that you do. Not only will this help you get to the root of the problem quicker, but it will help you from seeing the world like a medieval morality play in which every conflict is good vs. evil. Related: Which Side Are You On? Robert Wolff, Murray Rothbard, and Me by David D. Friedman.

My take on negative vs. positive rights

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains a division in rights thus: “The holder of a negative right is entitled to non-interference, while the holder of a positive right is entitled to provision of some good or service.” Most libertarians are not comfortable with positive rights, because they imply that someone else has to provide or pay for the provision of that good or service for the positive right holder. You respect my right to free speech by simply not silencing me or punishing me for my speech. However, it is not the case that you respect my right to health care by simply not impeding me from getting it; you respect my right to health care by paying for my health care if I am unable to.

There are many sophisticated arguments for each position, and it should be no surprise that I favor the negative rights-only side. One of the things that has always struck me as flawed in the assumptions of positive rights is a question of time, which to my (meager) knowledge has never been fleshed out.

Let us assume that A has a right to, say, health care, meaning a positive right that others must pay to provide A with. We can also (safely) assume that A has a right to free speech, meaning a negative right that other people do not have to actively do anything to respect. Others may not respect his rights, but we are assuming that he indeed still has them.

Further information: A lives in 1000 C.E.

Rights don’t disappear: if Thomas Paine had the right to free speech in 1776, I currently have the right to free speech in 2012. But do they emerge? I’ve always thought that rights were conceived of as timeless. (This leaves aside the difficult question of when humans became persons, but afterwards I think of rights as being set.)

It seems absurd to think that A has a positive right to health care in 1000 C.E. Maybe it is not absurd, and it’s just a sad fact that it was only relatively recently in human history when we could realistically respect certain rights. If that’s the case, what other rights do we have that we haven’t yet discovered?

How exactly would rights emerge? Do they depend on material progress? Will there be genuine positive rights in 2112 that do not exist now? If so, we could easily imagine a Luddite war removing our capacity for respecting some positive rights and thus making the right disappear.

One response to this is to hold that “the right to health care” is really just shorthand for one facet of “the right to [realistically] maximized welfare”. My concern with that is that this broad right is, well, far too broad. It has no end in sight. I accept that as there was no recognizable line separating proto-human non-persons from persons, there may not have been an exact moment we could identify to say that rights began then. But taking a long enough view one could identify two categories, even if the boundaries blur. With this right to maximized welfare, technological capacity is constantly changing, forcing us to estimate a constantly changing boundary that cannot be approximated in hindsight.

And like a lot of discussions of positive rights, it makes economists groan. Intentions aside, many things are not realistic or even possible, but only specialists might know this.

There’s the technical issue that the right to maximized welfare might best be served by respecting only negative rights. Sure, in the short run we could theoretically increase utility by providing everybody under the median income with food stamps, but in the long run this would be counterproductive, in which case we’ve respected the rights of people right now and failed to respect the rights of anybody after right now.

Put differently: what maximizes the short run is not what maximizes the long run. There is a tradeoff to be made, and one end of the spectrum will necessarily not be the preferred side. This is a technical question in the realm of economics and not philosophy, but it bears directly on philosophical investigation and cannot be ignored.