Sunday, October 31, 2010

Multiculturalism and the right

And now for some Canadian content. A little while back there were two surprising elections here, even though both were predicted by polls -- in Toronto, perhaps Canada's most liberal (small-l) city, a fat, white, presumably heterosexual, male conservative (small-c) soundly defeated a liberal Liberal (also white and male, but not so fat, and openly gay); and in Calgary, perhaps Canada's most conservative major city, a Muslim was elected as the first Islamic mayor in Canada. Now, in themselves, these results might be a bit unusual, but hardly that interesting -- it's what they suggest about that familiar theme of multiculturalism that's significant. For reasons both naive and opportunistic, liberals have made this theme a pet project, viewing it in the former sense as perhaps just "more pavilions at Folkfest" (thanks to Kate at SDA for the expression), and in the latter, more cynical, sense, as the source of an easy supply of immigrant votes in any given election. But the naivete is rapidly falling away, as the previous post indicated, and now even the electoral opportunism seems threatened -- Rob Ford, the Toronto conservative, apparently outpolled his liberal rival by about 52% to 30% of respondents born outside of the country.

Granted, these are just a couple of Canadian municipal elections, but sometimes small events can portend larger things. Here, for example, are some possible take aways:

  • Liberal attempts, both in Canada and the US, to pander to new immigrants, including bribing them with tax-intensive programs, may finally be reaching the point not just of diminishing returns but of negative returns -- more than most, immigrants as a group tend to be hard-working family people who dislike seeing their earnings taken from them to fund easy election-time promises as much as anyone.
  • Conservatives recognize cultural diversity, once no longer a fetish, as indeed a rich source of vitality and energy within any society, as are a continual influx of new immigrants -- but add two general provisos: first, that the rate of cultural change be contained within supportable limits; and second, that the most general principles of a free society be recognized by all, including the supreme value of the individual.
  • And immigrants, so many, as I say, from family-oriented, hard-working backgrounds, are increasingly finding contemporary conservatism a more natural political expression than contemporary liberalism -- indeed, the small government emphasis on freedom, tolerance, and opportunity is frequently a primary reason so many left their homes to seek this society out in the first place.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Multiculturalism and the left

A while back now, German Chancellor Merkel caused no small amount of consternation within the liberal-left everywhere with her announcement that the German experiment with "multikulti" was a failure (e.g., Yahoo News: "Merkel says German multi-cultural society has failed"). Now, partly this failure is just a result of some short-sighted labor policies that Europe in general, Germany in particular, has followed for years after WW2, of using immigrant labor to first rebuild, and now maintain, their societies (a policy that the US is having trouble with now as well). But little or no effort was made to assimilate these workers into the Western societies, and, whether out of necessity or a naive idealism, an ideology of "multiculturalism" was used to justify this, the idea being that "tolerance" will allow all the world's cultures to mingle freely while still preserving intact their distinct customs, beliefs, values, and practices. In Canada, this ideology underlay the use of a new metaphor for this mingling -- the idea of a cultural "mosaic" as opposed to the supposedly less tolerant American notion of the "melting pot". As a mosaic, however, it's a facade that's crumbling here as  everywhere.

One reason for this failure, which one would think would have been obvious, is that mixing cultures in this way changes them -- not a bad or insupportable thing in itself, but there is a rate of change beyond which people everywhere begin to feel that they are foreigners or aliens in their own land, and they resist this. But there's a larger and much more significant reason as well -- it can be seen in an essay by a self-described liberal, Susan Jacoby, entitled "Multiculturalism and Its Discontents": "I am an atheist," she writes, "with an affinity for non-fundamentalist religious believers whose faith has made room for secular knowledge. I am also a political liberal. I am not, however, a multiculturalist who believes that all cultures and religions are equally worthy of respect."  After quoting Ayaan Hirsi Ali to the effect that "'All human beings are equal, but all cultures and religions are not. . . . The culture of the Western Enlightenment is better.' (italics in the original)", Jacoby goes on to lament the fact that so many of her fellow liberals have failed to grasp this about what's supposed to be their own cultural heritage.Worse, it's as though they're unnerved by such a clear and frank statement and are driven to a perverse sort of relativism that forces them to disavow it as a result. And this leads Jacoby to make some observations that, perhaps unwittingly, also say much about the relative positions of the political left and right in the contemporary world:
Finally, it is a politically strategic error as well as a form of moral blindness for liberals to push people like Hirsi Ali into the eager arms of the political Right. ...
This muddled thinking allows the American religious and political Right to misrepresent itself as the chief defender of Enlightenment values. More important, reflexive liberal multiculturalism fails every child being denied, in the name of faith and family, full access to the promise of this nation.
 At some point, it may be possible for Jacoby and many others like her to come to a realization that perhaps the American right today is representing itself accurately as the chief defender of Enlightenment values. And at that point a choice will be necessary -- between continued allegiance to an old but now reactionary political label, or to the values they thought that label stood for.

Friday, October 29, 2010

On moral bullying

This came up in a comment exchange from an earlier post, and I thought it was important enough to post on its own:

We all would like to think of ourselves as good people, right? And to be thought of as such. But this is exactly what provides the leverage point for the moral bully -- the ones who, big with a sense of their own swollen rectitude, like to morally push around anyone they think might be vulnerable. This is an old story within religions,  with the self-righteous inflating their own egos and sense of power by denouncing the sins of others. But it's a modern story too, especially within the quasi-religious politics of the modern liberal-left, where the sins take the form of failing to re-cycle, for example, or exhibiting one of a number of "phobias" (homo-, Islamo-, etc.) or -- the most popular form of denunciation by far -- of racism. Some of which, of course, may well be genuine forms of bad behavior or consciousness, but that's not the point here. Because the characteristic of the bully is his/her focus -- it's not really on the sins as such at all, but rather on the putative sinner, and the point is not to correct or change anything, but rather simply to morally dominate. This is what makes such tactics so prominent and ugly a part of political debates, after all, and all the more so when one side or the other is losing the debate on substantive grounds.

Now, in order to be a target for such bullying, whether of the older religious sort or the more recent political sort, you have to have bought into the mind set from which it emanates, and this is what makes the pseudo-elite of the fashionably orthodox today, the bien pensant, so easy to herd -- that reflexive anxiety that they might have strayed  in their mind from the path of correctness, and so in danger of stepping on some lurking social landmine by expressing one of the many forbidden thoughts. As, for example, did Juan Williams quite publicly recently, and look what happened to him. So in order to build a defense against the moral bullies, the first thing you have to do is reconsider your engagement with the socially fashionable, particularly in politics -- and this is true on both political wings, by the way, depending on your social context. That is, the first step is a declaration of personal independence from the tyranny of political labels and fashions. The problem is that the next steps will require some thinking on your own, as opposed to the ease of simply putting on whatever everyone else is wearing.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A week out from the midterm

I should preface this with a reminder that I'm a Canadian, and so an observer rather than a voter. But US elections have a significant impact north of the border too -- the effect is more indirect, obviously, than our own elections, but it may well be deeper, in the influence on our political culture generally.

In any case, while I think of myself as a long-range optimist, in shorter ranges I'm inclined to prepare for worst-case scenarios. So, a week away from the mid-terms, I'm concerned that predictions of a huge Republican sweep are over-confident, and anything short of a monumental overturn will be taken as a Democrat "moral victory". Not that that means much except in the immediate aftermath, but it would have been better to see more modest expectations, and be pleasantly surprised, rather than the opposite. My own sense is that the Republicans should retake control of the House, and make gains in the Senate but be short of a majority -- that seems to me a reasonable expectation, with anything significantly more than that being a genuine Republican victory, anything less a genuine Democratic victory.

My real point, though, is that it's a mistake to look upon any one election or set of elections as some epochal, climactic, make-or-break event. That's an understandable tendency when things seem dire (and I don't doubt it's easier to say when you're out of the fray yourself, as I am) but it invites all the risks of triumphal overconfidence when things go one way, and despairing resignation when they go the other. When what's really needed is a long-term focus on changing the underlying political culture I spoke of above.

Along those lines, it can be helpful to stand back a bit and look at the real nature of the political alternatives before us, or the dimensions of political space. Elections tend to force alternatives into the single dimension of left and right, but political realities are usually more complex. So, for example, despite the general BigGov/smaller-state distinction between Democrats and Republicans, there is a BigGov, corporatist wing of the Republican Party too, just as there is limited state, free-market/capitalist wing of the Democrats. And on both sides there are the usual divisions over "social issues". But the social issues needn't separate people politically, unless they see the state as a means of enforcing their particular views or values -- in other words, it makes sense to pursue a long-term strategy of forging alliances among smaller government proponents, who are prepared to use persuasion rather than power to advance their values. And that, as I've said elsewhere, would be truly progressive.

Monday, October 25, 2010

How do people change their politics?

One of the more interesting comments to come out of the Juan Williams brouhaha (as opposed to a foofarah) is this one  by Doctor Zero, "Juan Williams And The Preference Cascade". A "preference cascade" is a phrase he borrowed from Instapundit himself, Glenn Reynolds, and the good Doctor defines it thusly: "a preference cascade occurs when people trapped inside a manufactured consensus suddenly realize that many other people share their doubts." That consensus might be "manufactured" in a variety of ways, some crude, some subtle -- e.g., a crude totalitarian surveillance, or a more subtle social imposition of "right thinking" -- but however it's done, it becomes increasingly fragile under circumstances that undermine it, including, obviously, those who question it. At some point, there need be only a small event, a single voice, to trigger the "preference cascade" that suddenly shatters the consensus. Doc Zero's contention is that Williams was fired because he threatened to be that voice, with the firing intended to shore up the consensus by sending the message that such sentiments, such "feelings", cannot even be expressed within the confines of the bien pensant liberal orthodoxy that NPR symbolizes.

Whatever the case may be with respect to this episode, however, I think the idea of a preference cascade is a handy one, in the way it can be used to explain fairly sudden, and otherwise quite surprising, changes, not only in political groups, but within individuals as well. It's not just a social consensus, in other words, that gets undermined or hollowed out by disconfirming events, it's also one's own overt beliefs. One can continue to think of oneself as liberal or conservative, left-wing or right-wing, even as one's opinions about this or that particular issue are the opposite of one's long-standing self-labeling -- until something occurs, and it may be quite small in itself, that precipitates a kind of internal cascade, and the old labels just don't seem to have the same relevance any longer. It's why change sometimes seems to come in lurches.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Rehabilitating Herbert Spencer?

This is a curious but interesting sequence -- starting, approximately, with this post by Brian Tamanaha, "Racist Progressives, Meet Hard-Hearted Libertarians", which references, going back a further step, a couple of posts by libertarians asserting that the forebears of contemporary left-liberals or "progressives" were often bigoted and racist. Okay, says Tamanaha, but your forebears were often cold-hearted social Darwinists willing to let the poor starve in the streets, and he uses Herbert Spencer, apparently the originator of the phrase "survival of the fittest", as exhibit one -- e.g., taken from Spencer's Social Statics:
It seems hard that a labourer incapacitated by sickness from competing with his stronger fellows, should have to bear the resulting privations. It seems hard that widows and orphans should be left to struggle for life or death. Nevertheless, when regarded not separately, but in connection with the interests of universal humanity, these harsh fatalities are seen to be full of the highest beneficence—the same beneficence which brings to early graves the children of diseased parents, and singles out the low-spirited, the intemperate, and the debilitated as the victims of an epidemic.
As Tamanaha says, "That's cold".

Now, as a tu quoque argument this is maybe a bit silly, but it does go to the way in which older and uglier predecessors continue to affect or influence contemporary inheritors. Ilya Somin, in a response post on Volokh, "Of 'Racist Progressives' And 'Hard-Hearted Libertarians'" largely agrees with Tamanaha about Spencer's social Darwinism, but argues that
Few modern libertarians even cite Spencer or other social Darwinists at all. By contrast, modern liberals do often cite early 20th century progressives as inspirations for their ideology. And until recently, few of them paid much attention to the more unsavory aspects of early 20th century Progressivism (though I should add that some far left radical scholars, such as Gabriel Kolko, were much more critical).
The other noteworthy point that Somin makes is that bigotry against whatever minority group is out of favor at the moment becomes much more dangerous when backed by an interventionist state, and along these lines he quotes his colleague David Bernstein:
“[a]s a matter of American history, activist government was often used to oppress minority groups. As a matter of world history, the record of “activist government” with regard to minorities is even worse. And as a matter of political theory, it’s not at all clear why one would expect public policy in a democracy to necessarily be helpful to minority groups.”
And then Damon Root steps in with a defence of Spencer himself, in a post on Reason's blog, "Battle of the 'Embarrassing Grandparents': Racist Progressives vs. Herbert Spencer" (that Somin referenced in an update):
As for the much-abused phrase “survival of the fittest,” Tamanaha seems ignorant of what Spencer actually wrote. By fit, Spencer most certainly did not mean brute force. In Spencer’s view, human society had evolved from a "militant" state, which was characterized by violence and force, to an "industrial" one, characterized by trade and voluntary cooperation. Thus any increase in private charity and “the spontaneous sympathy of men for each other” count as prime examples of the “survival of the fittest” as articulated by Spencer.

 So, I have a couple of responses myself to this little teacup tempest. First, I'll admit I've never read Spencer and never thought to do so, but I think Root makes an interesting case for him -- enough that I'm inclined now to look him up. But I also think that the extended passage Tamanaha quoted is indeed "cold", as he says, and what's worse, wrong. It's wrong in the same way that the cruder versions of contemporary evolutionary psychology are wrong, in overlooking or dismissing culture as the primary system for environmental adaptation, as opposed to the biological organism -- and cultural adaptations that build upon  compassion or a desire to help the weak may well make for a stronger or "fitter" social structure within which we all can thrive. What Root says about Spencer above mitigates this criticism, but doesn't eliminate it.

The second point, though, is just to point out that the state is by no means the only way we have of acting together, being social, exercising compassion, or helping the weak. Indeed, the state, because of its inescapable connection with force, will always have a tendency to devolve into either tyrannies large or small, or wasteful, dehumanizing, dependency-inducing bureaucracies, or both. This too Spencer apparently saw, and partially integrated into his case. And here is where we can really use some of that willingness to think outside of accustomed limits that we saw in the parable of the traffic lights, to find more creative and human approaches to providing for human needs than the state.

Have cold - can't blog

To put it in the manner of that snobby elitist, Homer Simpson. Back soon though, promise.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Well, what about traffic lights?!

Any time you try to talk about reducing the intrusive role of the state in human affairs, that's the question that almost always comes up at some point, right? We need state regulation of behavior, as symbolized by traffic lights, or there'd be, you know, chaos! Anarchy! The end of civilization as we know it!

So take just five minutes and have a look at the video below (thanks to David Zetland, at Aquanomics):

Surprising, no?

Now, of course, not that much hinges on traffic lights per se one way or another -- but, as in the question in the post's title, they're a symbol, and so the video above operates as a kind of parable, with a meaning beyond its face value. I don't want to make too much of it, but I think there really is a sense that, as we've become accustomed to, and dependent upon, an increasingly dense mesh of rules and regulations, requirements and proscriptions, our sense of what's possible becomes shrunken, our imaginations stunted. As a parable, this just asks that we question those acquired reflexes again, allow for the possiblity of regained, or even new kinds of freedom. Which might  just make us not only more free, but also richer, and even safer. It's a thought.

Oh, and if you're interested in a little more context, here's Part 1: "Roads unfit for people".

Monday, October 18, 2010

The moving fulcrum

In a previous post I talked about some signs of a slow retreat from statism in terms of an ebbing tide. But I'm thinking now, because of the cyclic aspect of tides, that wasn't quite the right metaphor. It's not that there aren't cycles in historical change, because there are, in political change especially, as we can see in the oscillations between left and right in most democratic polities, and in, for example, US Presidential politics over the last few decades. But those cycles tend to obscure deeper movements that are more directional -- a spiral would be a better model than a simple cycle, and a pendulum whose hinge or fulcrum is moving would be better still. A pendulum swing, after all, is a familiar trope in politics, and we saw it illustrated in the 2008 election that swept not just Obama but Democrats everywhere into power after the Bush years. The swing seemed to have enough momentum that liberals and so-called "progressives" could be excused in thinking it would carry them and their statist agenda into a new era. But when the pendulum's fulcrum itself is moving, and moving in a direction contrary to the swing, the momentum is dampened considerably -- and that's exactly what the statist liberals have run into, with the startling rise of the Tea Party phenomenon and the sharp resistance to additional state intrusions, spending, and taxes.

In other words, the primary movement of the American polity, over and above the usual back and forth oscillations, is to the right, and this is shifting the terms of the debate on both right and left. Marxist terminology, once common on the left, has now almost completely disappeared, apart from some zombified remnants on college campuses, and Hayek and markets are at least more widely understood than ever -- as Brad DeLong nicely illustrates with this post, "How Much Does the Market Organization of Economic Life Matter?", and its revealing little chart of the results of an historical experiment. And even more telling is this confessional article by Kevin Drum, in Mother Jones, on "Schools and Poverty":
I'm going to get the ed people mad at me again — and I guess I'll add the poverty people too this time — but I continue to think that the biggest problem here is simply that no one has any really compelling answers. Movies like Waiting for Superman (which I haven't seen), along with an endless stream of credulous punditry, keep suggesting that the answers are out there if only we'll fund them and take them seriously. But they aren't.
His despair goes beyond the usual left lament that people are maybe tapped out when it comes to yet more tax increases -- he actually begins to question whether the taxes would do any good anyway:
... the tolerance of the middle class for raising its own taxes to improve education is pretty low. One reason, I suspect, is that people have largely lost faith that their taxes are being used for anything useful. If they pay more, they won't get better schools, they'll just get higher teacher salaries as the teachers unions hoover up all the dough.
And this is in Mother Jones!

Of course, as Adam Schaeffer says, in the post from which I got the link ("Why Won’t this Pig Fly? We’ve Tried Everything to Fix Education and Poverty. . ."), there actually are some answers or approaches that can address these problems:
We know what improves education, allows success to scale quickly, and saves money as well; a real market in education, aka private school choice, the freer and broader the better. The education problem is intractable only if the government continues to monopolize education services.
But getting to such solutions will still require a change in fundamental political mindset -- the hinge of the pendulum still has a distance to go.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


Since the sub-title of this blog is "On fractal change", and since, as Jason Kottke notes, the inventor of the concept of the fractal, Benoit Mandelbrot, has died, I thought this might be a good moment to expand a little on what I mean by the word, and what the word means for me. First, here's Wikipedia's entry, and here's its initial definition, borrowed from Mandelbrot himself: "A fractal is 'a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole,'[1] a property called self-similarity." ([1] The Fractal Geometry of Nature). Which may not be all that helpful by itself, but that last word, "self-similarity", is a clue to why the concept has spread so widely, to cover things like the shape of leaves or clouds or coastlines or financial charts or culture.

Mandelbrot gave the term a technical and mathematical meaning, but what I want is its metaphoric aspect. As a metaphor, "fractal" describes things in which similar, though never identical, patterns reappear at all scales large and small. And this can help in two ways: first, by providing a kind of handle or way of grasping the structure of systems that otherwise appear monolithic and either chaotic or complex; and second, by alerting us to the way in which patterns, whether spatial, temporal, or otherwise, can change in scale abruptly or discontinuously -- Mandelbrot's book on financial markets, for example, The (Mis)Behavior of Markets, was in many ways an early insight into the "black swan" phenomenon that Nassim Taleb has popularized. So, in speaking of "fractal change", I'm referring to historical patterns that repeat on scales varying from an individual's day to day job, to vast "phase changes" in the very structure of human societies. And I'm also referring to the way in which change can surprise us by sudden shifts in scale, as in a televised rant becoming the seed of an anomalous political movement.

But here, with a hat tip to Jason Kottke again, and in memory of Benoit Mandelbrot, is a journey into the infinite depths of the greatest fractal ever, the Mandelbrot Set:

Mandelbrot Fractal Set Trip To e214 HD from teamfresh on Vimeo.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Transitions to capitalism

The economic system we call capitalism was a kind of cultural discovery, and, in terms of its consequences, probably the greatest cultural discovery in human history. Like the advent of urban civilization thousands of years ago, capitalism opened up a whole new continent, a new world, for development, and we're still just in the process of exploring that space. It was, in other words, a huge and relatively quick success, despite introducing some new strains associated with alienation (as I sketched in the theme).

But in the transition to capitalism, other kinds of issues arise, associated with a period in which an old order is disintegrating even as a new one is still not fully formed. Before a stable establishment of capitalist legal and property relations,  in other words, not to mention some kind of democratic government, the rule of law rather than people, and the status equality of everyone, there is ample opportunity for abuse, which is usually realized. We see this both historically and currently, in the three major transitions to capitalism:

  • The first, of course, occurred in the West, starting perhaps as early as the Renaissance, with the transition from feudalism to capitalism, and gave rise to issues surrounding the enclosure of formerly common land, among other problems.
  • The next was the transition from non-Western traditional cultures to capitalist that occurred along with Western expansion and imperialism, starting from perhaps the mid-18th century and still continuing today, and this has had some severe problems associated just with the encounter between cultures.
  • The third one was, and is, the transition from socialism to capitalism, starting at the end of the 80's of the last century, and still to come in the case of Cuba and North Korea. The worst case of abuse here has obviously been the rise of an oligarchic kleptocracy in the remnants of the Soviet Union, and it remains to be seen whether China's autocracy will be able to avoid that fate, or will be just another form of it.
These sorts of transitions, by their nature, can't be easy, and in some cases in the past -- thinking of tribal and aboriginal cultures in particular -- have been, or still are, tragic. But change happens, at all levels, and while we can do our best to mitigate its bad effects, I don't think we can realistically hope to eliminate them all. And certainly, though I'm by no means any sort of historical determinist, I do think that efforts to halt or reverse such overwhelmingly beneficial developments as arise in the wake of the emergent, modern individual -- emancipation, equality of status, democracy, rule of law, individual rights, freedom of trade, etc. -- would be a tragic error of vastly greater scope.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The China question

In a short piece in Foreign Policy, "Reinventing the Wheel", William Easterly talks about economic development, linking it to past levels of technology, going back as far as 1000 BCE. This is a result of both the way in which technology builds upon itself, as Easterly points out, and also of the geographical and cultural separation of societies before recent communication and transportation improvements (which I don't think Easterly makes enough of). But the idea of the cumulative, snowballing effect of early technological development runs into some objections:
The most important counterexample is China, which in 1500 had plow cultivation, printing, paper, books, firearms, the compass, iron, and steel, and yet failed to emulate Europe's Industrial Revolution in the centuries that followed. Scholars have argued that autocratic Chinese emperors killed off technological progress for domestic political reasons. For example, one Ming emperor banned long-distance oceanic exploration for fear of foreign influence threatening his power, after Chinese ships had already reached East Africa in 1422.
Which didn't happen in Europe largely because of Europe's political incoherence:
Fragmented Europe did not have any one autocrat who could kill off technological innovation, and the constant threats of living in a hostile neighborhood spurred the advancement of military technology. And because borders were relatively open around 1500, the reality that citizens could leave for more advanced places -- the forerunner of today's "brain drain" -- kept alive the spirit of innovation.
So what lessons can be drawn from this about current problems of development? What's interesting is that China pops again as an illustration that past failures needn't prevent playing catch-up: "As China's history has shown [meaning presumably recent, free-market history, though he doesn't say], when governments stop killing innovation, good things happen." Yet, as we all know, China's political system seems hardly less autocratic now than it was when it did kill innovation -- what is it that makes the difference?

The answer is likely to be that understated aspect of communication/transportation improvements, that have shrunk the world down to dimensions considerably smaller than 15th century Europe, and that put contemporary China in a position similar to that of an early modern European state. Note how, under these conditions, capitalism is the default evolutionary path. The question that China poses, then, is whether the other aspects of modernity will follow as well -- specifically, democracy, the rule of law, and individual rights? These features took a while to develop in the West, as the transition was made from feudalism to capitalism. So I think there's a reasonable expectation that we'll see them develop in China as well, since they seem to be very much of a single cultural piece or pattern -- the only real question is, how peacefully?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The vice of equality

This post a while back talked about a certain impasse you're at when one or more of your moral values or assumptions lead you to conclusions that are at odds with the real world -- that is, in conflict with reality as you know it. At that point, as I said, your options are either to condemn or at least lament reality as not being good enough for you, or, as in reductio ad absurdam arguments, to begin to re-examine and question some of those moral values and assumptions that lead you into this impasse in the first place. I ended the post by singling out the assumption that I think is the one real culprit here, and the source as well of a great deal of moral and political confusion and worse in society generally -- this is the notion of equality.

First, let's try to be clear about the term. The equality contained in a phrase like "all men are created equal" is not a vice -- on the contrary, it's a great moral truth. But what does it mean? It clearly doesn't mean that all people are created equal in intelligence or looks or athletic ability or circumstances of birth or any other quality that may enable one to do better than another -- since that is manifestly false. It means, simply, that all people are created equal in status. Which means, among other things, what Anatole France famously mocked in his witticism about the law, in its majestic equality, forbidding the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, etc. He was right, certainly, about the limitations of such equality, but wrong to disdain its majesty -- because until the great bourgeois/capitalist transformations, such equality was virtually unknown, and the great mass of people everywhere lived permanently as inherently lower or lesser beings within an explicitly hierarchical structure of class or caste.

So, I'm referring here to substantive equality, not status equality, and when I use the term "equality" hereafter, it should be understand in the former sense as opposed to the latter. Nor do I mean that equality just as such is evil -- in itself, whatever equality or inequality occurs naturally or unforced is morally neutral. So the title of this post should really have been "The vice of forced substantive equality", but I thought the gain in technical accuracy wasn't worth the loss in impact.

"Forced substantive equality" means simply taking something away from one to give to another in order to make them more equal in whatever that "something" is -- typically money, of course. And it that sense it seems wrong just on the face of it -- not only because such taking ignores questions of desert or merit, not to mention simply differential desires or objectives, but also and primarily because it simply skips over the issue of "right". Who or what does this taking, and what gives them the right to do it -- i.e., how can you assume that the person from whom the money (say) is taken doesn't have a right to it in the first place?

At this point, philosophical egalitarians typically try to move into some variety of either consequentialism or contractarianism, and in either case the arguments can go, and have gone, on for a very long time. Both arguments, however, suffer from the technocratic delusion of grandeur -- the notion that some one or group is able to oversee the whole of society and judge who deserves what, or who has "agreed" to what, or what are the consequences of what. I've dealt with this to some extent in this post on "'Social justice' vs. 'just society'", and I don't want to get any more involved in that very basic error here. For now, it's enough to point out how forced equality violates our ordinary moral instincts, and how, as a result, what we might call "populist" egalitarians (to distinguish them from the more philosophical variety) typically try to attach the goal of substantive equality to other goals or issues that do have moral standing, such as helping the less fortunate.

But helping people who need help is obviously not the same as trying to make them more equal, even if, as a side-effect, it ends up doing so. In fact, one of the more effective ways of helping people is to provide them with a job, an action that might well have the equally irrelevant  side-effect of increasing inequality.

Another source of confusion is mixing equality up with issues of merit, as in denying (a presumption of) merit to those with more -- presuming, instead, that luck or nefarious practices accounts for their greater wealth, and assuming, therefore, that it's all right to take away such wealth. But merely presuming that someone's wealth is ill-gotten is obviously prejudiced and wrong. And just as wrong is the desire to take away the good fortune of others. Certainly we question the good luck of bad people or the bad luck of good people, but fortune per se, whether good or ill, can't tell us whether a person is good or bad. Luck itself, in other words, is morally neutral, but the wish to deny it to others is morally flawed.

So, once we strip away the confusions and irrelevancies surrounding the notion of forced substantive equality -- that it's not the same as equality of status, not the same as simply helping people who need it, and not required by some notion of merit -- then we're left with a core that has a distinctly unappealing aspect. Or, rather, a core the appeal of which is only to the darker impulses of human nature -- impulses such as common envy, or an embittered animus at the achievements of others, or a desire to pull down the successful. Here lies the real reason that the urge for this sort of equality persists in human societies -- not because it's a noble aspiration, like freedom or justice, or a virtue, like compassion, but simply because it's a vice, like greed or gluttony. In fact, while other vices seem driven by a more natural desire for mere creature comforts, this one appears to be one of the nastier, more neurotic, and more malicious, driven by its resentful comparison with others. It may well be responsible for more real harm in human society than all the other vices put together, and in any case it is the erroneous assumption at the root of a number of moral absurdities, of which Cohen's notion of socialism is just an example.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Cultural relativity of another kind

The idea that some cultures may be better or worse than others is enough of a taboo, at least within certain political groupings, that a friend of mine literally gasped when, not realizing just how much of a taboo it was, I said as much in a casual conversation. It was as though he were actually worried about being overheard by the Thought Police (this was in Canada).

So it was indeed a breath of fresh air when another friend referred me to this John McWhorter review of a book by Amy Wax, entitled Race, Wrongs, and Remedies: Group Justice in the 21st Century, in which it's argued that the primary current cause of poverty and dysfunction within black communities is the dysfunctional culture of those communities. Wax clearly recognizes that that culture especially is the result of great historic wrongs, but just as clearly asserts that the only possible remedy for those wrongs now rests within the black communities themselves. Here's the opening paragraph of McWhorter's review:
This book is depressing because it is so persuasive. There is a school of thought in America which argues that the government must be the main force that provides help to the black community. This shibboleth is predicated upon another one: that such government efforts will make a serious difference in disparities between blacks and whites. Amy Wax not only argues that such efforts have failed, she also suggests that such efforts cannot bring equality, and therefore must be abandoned. Wax identifies the illusion that mars American thinking on this subject as the myth of reverse causation—that if racism was the cause of a problem, then eliminating racism will solve it. If only this were true. But it isn’t true: racism can set in motion cultural patterns that take on a life of their own.
I'd only add a generalization to this -- other examples of less functional or even malfunctional cultures in the context of the modern industrialized world might include many aboriginal or tribally-based Islamic communities; on the other hand, cultures that are currently flourishing in the same context might include many Asian or Jewish communities.

But the most important consideration in all this -- what should alleviate a little of McWhorter's depression -- is that, unlike race, culture is changeable, and dysfunctional cultures will evolve into more functional forms in time, as long as  they're not being being continually supported or enabled by the withholding of judgment or making excuses.

But here's Amy Wax herself, in dialogue with Adam Serwer:

Sunday, October 10, 2010

"Nutrition or character?"

Mickey Kaus makes an interesting point in the course of an argument that sides with Gingrich against Pelosi about the apparently minor issue of food stamps: "Pelosi's Wrong About Gingrich and Food Stamps". It starts out like this: Gingrich says Republicans should campaign for "paychecks" not "foodstamps"; Pelosi accuses him and the Republicans of trying to divide people between those who need foodstamps and those who don't; Kaus says Pelosi is wrong about Gingrich in that he's really saying everyone is in danger of becoming too dependent on government handouts, of which foodstamps are just an illustration.

But Kaus expands on his point by arguing that a sign of this spreading dependency is the loss of stigma associated with accepting such handouts, and an associated loss in work ethic, an aspect of character. So, Kaus says:
The real issue isn't whether food stamp use goes up during a vicious economic slump--that's what they're there for. The issue is whether, thanks to the justified stigma, food stamp use goes down again when the recession ends.
Gingrich, rightly, worries that it won't. It's a valid left-right point of disagreement. A few months ago, I thought I was stacking the deck when I phrased the disagreement like this:
If you came across two societies--Society A, in which food stamps were stigmatized, with families reluctant to go on the dole even if they were eligible, and Society B, in which they weren't, you would want to bet on (and live in) Society A.
To my surprise, blogger Matt Yglesias of the liberal Center for American Progress immediately chimed in on behalf of Society B, if it produced better-nourished children who became a "better-educated workforce" with "lower crime" and "less disabilty."
Well, there you have a choice. What's America's bigger problem--nutrition or character? "Which future do I want?" asks Gingrich. "More food stamps? Or more paychecks?" Society B or Society A? But not "us" versus "them."
Remember that Churchill quote about those who would trade honor for peace ending up with neither? Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that a similar fate might befall those who would trade character for nutrition?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Labels and Llosa

David Boaz, at the Cato blog, has an interesting post on the Nobel prize winner in literature, entitled "The Politics of Mario Vargas Llosa". Interesting, because of what he calls a "missing word" -- "liberal". That's the political label that is never used by others to describe Llosa's views, though they might resort to such various terms as right-wing, conservative, or even -- the latest scarecrow put up by the atavistic left -- "neoliberal", but never simply "liberal". Yet, curiously, that's the label that Llosa himself uses. Why? No doubt part of the answer would involve the international context of his politics, as distinct from the more parochial and peculiar usages that have come to prevail in the US. But the more important part, the reason that underlies that globalized context, is that he refuses to to abandon the meaning that made the label such a powerful political force from its origins -- that "liberalism" is, as Boaz quotes from the Encyclopedia Brittannica, the "Political and economic doctrine that emphasizes the rights and freedoms of the individual and the need to limit the powers of government", or, as Llosa himself puts it, with a little more economy and force, a liberal is "a lover of liberty, a person who rises up against oppression".

Here's a little more from Llosa on true liberalism:
...the liberal I aspire to be considers freedom a core value. Thanks to this freedom, humanity has been able to journey from the primitive cave to the stars and the information revolution, to progress from forms of collectivist and despotic association to representative democracy. The foundations of liberty are private property and the rule of law; this system guarantees the fewest possible forms of injustice, produces the greatest material and cultural progress, most effectively stems violence and provides the greatest respect for human rights. According to this concept of liberalism, freedom is a single, unified concept. Political and economic liberties are as inseparable as the two sides of a medal.
Political democracy and the free market are foundations of a liberal position. But, thus formulated, these two expressions have an abstract, algebraic quality that dehumanizes and removes them from the experience of the common people. Liberalism is much, much more than that. Basically, it is tolerance and respect for others, and especially for those who think differently from ourselves, who practice other customs and worship another god or who are non-believers. By agreeing to live with those who are different, human beings took the most extraordinary step on the road to civilization. It was an attitude or willingness that preceded democracy and made it possible, contributing more than any scientific discovery or philosophical system to counter violence and calm the instinct to control and kill in human relations. It is also what awakened that natural lack of trust in power, in all powers, which is something of a second nature to us liberals.
 And here is his description of collectivism, or the anti-liberal:
Collectivism was inevitable during the dawn of history, when the individual was simply part of the tribe and depended on the entire society for survival, but began to decline as material and intellectual progress enabled man to dominate nature, overcome the fear of thunder, the beast, the unknown and the other--he who had a different color skin, another language and other customs. But collectivism has survived throughout history in those doctrines and ideologies that place the supreme value of an individual on his belonging to a specific group (a race, social class, religion or nation). All of these collectivist doctrines--Nazism, fascism, religious fanaticism and communism--are the natural enemies of freedom and the bitter adversaries of liberals. In every age, that atavistic defect, collectivism, has reared its ugly head to threaten civilization and throw us back to the age of barbarism. Yesterday it was called fascism and communism; today it is known as nationalism and religious fundamentalism.
Which, to speak of another political usage often mentioned alongside "liberalism", is the reason I always try to put "progressivism" in scare quotes -- given its tendency to share in that "atavistic defect, collectivism", it would be far more accurate and honest to label it "regressivism".

Thursday, October 7, 2010

So many levels

Now, I really think this is a spoof, but I'm not certain, and anyway it's good enough that it doesn't matter -- Eugene Volokh has the following post about a unique service: "Hire an Atheist to Watch Your Pet After the Rapture", which points at this.

In the immortal words of Homer Simpson, it works on so many levels. Here are a few:

  • Theological: Yeah of course the Supreme Being (SB) is not going to worry too much about the atheists, right -- they had their chance and made their choice. But what about the pets!? How is it that the SB doesn't care as much about the sufferings of the other beings He/She/It has created as their owners do? Or even as much as the carefully screened ethical atheists do, who after all are volunteering to look after them at their own expense for the rest of the lives left them after the Almighty has forsaken them?
  • Ethical: Okay, forget about God's own ethics -- we could just say the ways of the Lord are mysterious and let it go. But what about those who are willing to abandon not just their pets but their pets' caregivers to whatever fate is left after they get theirs? Doesn't that smack a bit of the old "I'm all right, Jack" morality -- I got mine, too bad about you? Yet, these are supposed to be the good people, aren't they? And, of course, from the other side, what about those atheists who are supposedly ethical enough to be trusted to look after a stranger's pets, but who are willing participants in what they must believe to be a kind of scam, taking advantage of gullible, and perhaps theologically confused believers?
  • Psychological: Quite apart from the ethics as such, what would be going on in the minds of people, on either side, able to hold such complicated, conflicting views on divine justice, ethical behavior, pragmatic considerations, etc. Compartmentalization? Screening-out? Simple-mindedness? Complexity? "Negative capability"?
  • Economic: So the believer pays a one time fee for some peace of mind; the company gets a revenue stream that depends on finding new believers/suckers at least until the market is saturated; but what do the atheists get, and when? And what happens to the business after the Rapture?
  • Weird: "[Please note: we can now offer rescue services for horses, camels, llamas and donkeys in NH,VT, ID and MT ]"

Ah, it dost tease us out of thought....

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Socialism and a moral reductio ad absurdam

In mathematics, "reductio ad absurdam" is a type of proof that works like this: if you want to prove that something is true (or false), assume the opposite -- i.e., assume that it's false (or true) -- and then show that this assumption leads to an absurdity (typically a contradiction), from which you conclude that your assumption of the opposite was wrong, and that therefore the something is in fact true (or false). Indirect, but, in math at least, irrefutable. Outside of math, things are always a little messier, but a similar argument can be used in the case of moral or ethical issues as well -- if it can be agreed that a particular moral position runs into serious conflict with reality, then that alone should lead us to question the assumptions that led up to that position.

As a case in point, consider this review of G.A. Cohen's Why Not Socialism by Andy Lamey (entitled "The Thinking Man’s Marxist"). Cohen's brand of so-called "analytical Marxism" is immediately an oddity. To his great credit, he saw it as a contrast to what he apparently called "bullshit Marxism" -- namely, the vaporous rhetoric of the French post-structuralist, post-modern, post-post poseurs. But Marxist socialism, with its origins in Hegelian dialectic and its roots in a collectivist political backlash is, to say the least, a difficult fit with the arid, logical procedures of Anglo-American philosophical analysis. Nevertheless, Cohen tries to force the two together, with the result being the illustration of the moral reductio I've mentioned, at least as summarized by Lamey, who quotes Cohen as saying:
“The socialist aspiration is to extend community and justice to the whole of our economic life. As I have acknowledged, we now know that we do not now know how to do that.”
Cohen’s conclusion is thus a mixed one. We should endorse his two moral principles even though there is no sign they will lead to socialism any time soon. But perhaps they could have some application here and there, as in the education or health spheres. Or perhaps one day our circumstance will change and socialism will become possible. Cohen’s closing lines refer to markets as systems of predation. “Our attempt to get beyond predation has thus far failed. I do not think the right conclusion is to give up.”
There's a kind of pathos here -- Cohen, raised in the socialist faith and desperately hoping to cling to it at whatever cost, was still both rational and honest enough to admit that, as far as he or anyone could see, it was an impossibility. What he could not do was take that one next step in the reductio sequence -- re-examining the moral assumptions that had led him into this fatal conflict with the real world. 

Cohen is by no means the only one brought to this sort of moral impasse, though he's more explicit about it than most. Others reaching the same dead end may decide that it's the world that's false -- or, in moral terms, not "good enough" -- rather than their beliefs, a kind of insanity, perhaps, that cultural processes akin to natural selection will tend to weed out. But there's no denying the depth of the crisis in which one is immersed when one's most fundamental values appear to be implicated in fundamental contradiction with reality. In a subsequent post, I want to look at the value that I think is primarily responsible for this kind of crisis: equality.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Obama the neocon?

Probably not, but an editorial by Fred Hiatt, "Will Obama's foreign policy follow his new democracy rhetoric?", raises the possibility just enough that it lets me get in a plug for that prominent bogeyman of the left, that banner for the hideous Bush-Cheney foreign policy, necoconservatism.

This was -- and may still be -- a "third way", if you like, between two other strategic alternatives for foreign policy. On the one hand, there was the naive idealism/crass cynicism of "liberal internationalism", which was an attempt at a top-down imposition of order by creating the shells or facades of global institutions fluffed up with a lot of talk about "international law", etc., but behind which facades sheltered the worst sorts of despotisms and petty tyrannies engaged in the same old squabbles that states have always fought over. As a general strategy, it failed miserably the first time it was tried, with the League of Nations, and at least as miserably the second time, with the United Nations, except, of course, that nuclear weapons have preserved us from another world war. On the other hand, there is the older notion of realpolitik, exemplified by Kissinger, which at least has its realism, or attempt at realism, to save it from cynicism. But, even in Metternich's or Bismark's day, its lack of any moral principle other than national self-interest was never realistic enough in a long term sense, and fails all the more dismally today when nations and their economies are so much more tightly interlocked. So, on the third hand, we have the strategic approach known as neoconservatism, which views a truly realistic foreign policy as one guided by some long-range and general principles, such as democracy, the rule of law, and individual rights. Contrary to popular leftist opinion, this doesn't imply a policy of belligerent intervention and nation building in states that lack those principles now (except under exceptional conditions, where alternatives are worse), but instead a policy of positive encouragement and help, in a long-term effort to build a bottom-up world order chacteristized by peace and mutual prosperity.

Now, as I indicated, I don't hold out much hope that Obama even understands these kinds of distinctions -- not because he's stupid, but simply because his whole background indicates a kind of can't-we-all-just-get-along foreign policy naivete at best, and a lefty, America as the real "evil empire" mind set at worst. See this post summarizing Kenneth Anderson's take on the present Administration's underlying foreign policy assumptions for a more nuanced, but no less skeptical, analysis. But it would be nice to think that, regardless of the label used, and notwithstanding the forum in which they were uttered, words like these had some real "neoconservative" substance behind them:
The idea is a simple one -- that freedom, justice and peace for the world must begin with freedom, justice, and peace in the lives of individual human beings. And for the United States, this is a matter of moral and pragmatic necessity. As Robert Kennedy said, "the individual man, the child of God, is the touchstone of value, and all society, groups, the state, exist for his benefit." So we stand up for universal values because it's the right thing to do. But we also know from experience that those who defend these values for their people have been our closest friends and allies, while those who have denied those rights -- whether terrorist groups or tyrannical governments -- have chosen to be our adversaries....
 ...experience shows us that history is on the side of liberty; that the strongest foundation for human progress lies in open economies, open societies, and open governments. To put it simply, democracy, more than any other form of government, delivers for our citizens. And I believe that truth will only grow stronger in a world where the borders between nations are blurred.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Among the eco-fans

Where it's important to remember that "fan" is short for "fanatic".

First up, of course, has to be that demented ad for something called the "10:10 climate change campaign" in Britain. Apparently, it was thought that showing warmist believers in positions of authority blowing minority skeptics, including school children, to bloody bits would be funny. Which, in terms of the comedy of stupidity, it kind of is, but not in the way intended. Anyway, here's a link to the original (hastily taken down by the 10:10 campaign itself, but not hastily enough to prevent it going viral). And here's a re-mix, which nicely exposes the murderous rectitude at its base:

Thanks to Hot Air

The next stop doesn't have quite the impact of the previous, and at least doesn't pretend that it's "funny" -- it's a post by Doctor Science at Obsidian Wings, entitled "Of Stink Bugs and Men". It's point is simply that human beings, in coming out of Africa, are an "invasive" species, like, oh, stink bugs, kudzu, or cane toads. Never mind that the nasty examples mentioned are nasty only in a human-centered orientation in the first first place, nor that every single land animal is also an "invasive" species, nor that the "invasion" of new ecological spaces is a natural aspect of evolution for every species that ever existed -- no, what's intended by this particular observation is just a variation on the common theme in the large pathological wing of eco-ideology, that human beings are a "cancer on the planet". As the Doctor says:
The overwhelming factor, for H. sapiens as well as stink bugs, is that our native range is adapted to us -- humans or bugs become dangerously invasive when we can escape not just the limited space of our native range, but the constraints on our population that come from other co-native species: predators or parasites (including diseases).
Thanks to Megan McArdle 

If we strip the pathology from this, though, it becomes more interesting -- human beings became successful, in an evolutionary sense, when we escaped the constraints of our initial environment and began to colonize wider spaces, following retreating glaciers into environments that must have seemed impossibly harsh in comparison to our origins. The courage and drive of those early "invaders" can provide us with a good lesson now -- having spread to all corners of the globe, isn't it time that we start to look beyond it? Those who look upon humanity as a kind of stink bug or cancer, of course, would say no.

I'd say yes.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Tide going out?

It's looking that way -- the tide of statism, that is. There are signs that it may have reached its high-water mark sometime in the 70's of the last century, and has been slowly receding since -- lower marginal tax rates, privatization initiatives, deregulation, etc. And, of course, the momentous collapse of "actually existing" socialism in the early 90's. In the midst of history, as we always are, it can be difficult to see real turning points, and there have certainly been some big waves washing in to obscure the trend. But as we now watch even the welfare states of Europe begin to step back from the path they'd been following, as though from an abyss (to mix metaphors a little), it's increasingly difficult to avoid seeing what's before us. The latest example may be that Nanny State bellwether, Sweden, as an article by Duncan Currie, "Sweden's Quiet Revolution", indicates:
The broader story of the 2010 election is the collapse of Sweden’s old political order, which was dominated by the Social Democrats (who held power for all but nine years and a few months between September 1932 and October 2006). “There is a general change in Swedish society,” Stockholm University political scientist Jenny Madestam told the New York Times prior to the vote. “Social-democratic ideas are losing their grip on Sweden, and we are getting more and more individualistic.” Indeed, the country is a far more market-friendly place today than it was 20 years ago, thanks in part to reforms implemented by the Social Democrats themselves. Over the past two decades, it has been one of Western Europe’s most energetic liberalizers — cutting taxes, loosening regulatory shackles, and increasing competition.
This is what gives the left -- liberal, green, anti-capitalist, or "progressive" -- such willies. For some time now they've had to pin their dwindling hopes not on their ideas, which even they recognize as a bit old and stale, if not sclerotic, but on things like demographics -- more immigration! -- or, or, maybe a great big capitalist crisis! And so, when a great big capitalist crisis (GBCC) came along, as they routinely do, imagine the relief and even exhilaration of the left -- especially as, in the US, it coincided with not just the first black president but with the first black "progressive" President!

Little wonder, then, at their confusion, consternation, and bitterness now, when they see that even a GBCC doesn't seem to be able to turn the tide.

P.S.: here's an earlier take on the bellwether.

UPDATE: Oh, and for a little more on the greens (green being the new red for many old lefties who can't quite bring themselves to say the word "socialism" anymore), here's a piece by Johnathan Adler, "The Sorry Green Giant", showing how much of the politicized environmental movement has been taken over by an ideological rump of displaced anti-capitalists, with the result that that movement too is experiencing the ebbing of trust and interest we see in projects to expand the state everywhere:
The environmentalist love affair with big government leads to counterproductive policies and alienates large portions of the electorate. Americans may support environmental protection, but they don’t support a massive, overweening regulatory state. If the only Green answer to ecological concerns is yet more government control of private economic activity, many Americans will turn away.
This year the environmental movement suffered a tremendous political defeat — some would even call it a reckoning.