Uncharitable Behavior on Twitter

James Poulos says much with which I agree.

Twitter is a megaphone for the worldview wars. It fosters constant competition among our claims that everyone should care and act as we do.

Read the whole thing. I would like to thank a commenter who told me about “unfollowing,” which is one of many useful but hidden options on Facebook. I have been unfollowing friends, left and right, who use Facebook only to post political views.

I think of myself as anti-elitist. But I am even more anti-mobist. When the mob emerges, I cease to be libertarian and instead become ultra-conservative. There is no phenomenon more barbaric than the mob.

Unwinnable Arguments and Normative Sociology

Young African-American males experience a high incarceration rate. Progressives, conservatives, and libertarians each have a
desired cause for this.

Progressives: racism in the criminal justice system
Conservatives: high propensity of young African-American males to commit crimes
Libertarians; the war on drugs

Progressives prefer the oppressor-oppressed axis, which makes racism the desired cause. Conservatives are most comfortable with the civilization-barbarism axis, which makes criminal behavior the preferred cause. Libertarians prefer the freedom-coercion axis, which makes the war on drugs the preferred cause.

I claim that trying to argue that one of these is the cause is an unwinnable argument. Each of these causal forces has an element of truth, or at least plausibility. The chances are slim of coming up with an empirical analysis that decisively rules in favor of one cause and rules out all other causes.

In general, an unwinnable argument about causality is any argument in which one tries to affirm that X is the sole cause of Y or that X is not at all a cause of Y under circumstances of high causal density.

For example, arguments about the role of financial deregulation in the financial crisis of 2008 tend to be unwinnable. The case for seeing financial deregulation as the sole cause is compelling only to people who are inclined to espouse it. The case for seeing financial deregulation as not a factor at all is compelling only to those of us who are inclined to emphasize other causes.

Some further claims:

1. When there is a desired cause (meaning a cause that fits well with one’s political axis in the three-axes model, chances are the issue involves an unwinnable argument.

2. If your objective is to win an unwinnable argument, then you will tend to engage in normative sociology. To turn your desired cause into the cause, you have to filter out evidence that might support another causal factor and only discuss evidence that supports your desired cause.

It hardly requires saying that I think that it is counterproductive to try to win an unwinnable argument. It is almost as counterproductive to try to reason with someone who is convinced that they can win an unwinnable argument.

I am not saying that it is counterproductive to try to make an argument for or against something being a causal factor. However, I think that it does help to keep in mind that when a desired causal factor is involved it is challenging to remain objective in assessing the evidence.

There is a Cowen-Hanson paper Are Disagreements Honest? that you should read if you have not done so already. One of the reasons that disagreements can persist is because the protagonists engage in normative sociology.

Desired Causes and Actual Causes

Joseph Heath writes,

Often when we study social problems, there is an almost irresistible temptation to study what we would like the cause of those problems to be (for whatever reason), to the neglect of the actual causes. When this goes uncorrected, you can get the phenomenon of “politically correct” explanations for various social problems – where there’s no hard evidence that A actually causes B, but where people, for one reason or another, think that A ought to be the explanation for B. This can lead to a situation in which denying that A is the cause of B becomes morally stigmatized, and so people affirm the connection primarily because they feel obliged to, not because they’ve been persuaded by any evidence.

Pointer from Alex Tabarrok. Heath, borrowing an off-hand joke from Robert Nozick, calls this “normative sociology.” But it is by no means limited to sociology. Think of people blaming snowstorms on global warming. Or blaming the financial crisis on “an atmosphere of deregulation.” Or blaming inequality on the decline in labor unions.

We can also find this normative analysis among libertarians. Blaming terrorism on blowback for foreign intervention.

Or we can find it among conservatives. Blaming the financial crisis on loose monetary policy.

Pinker, Hobbes, and Baltimore

I am still re-reading The Blank Slate. In his chapter on violence, he endorses Hobbes. On p. 330, he writes,

Adjudication by an armed authority appears to be the most effective general violence-reduction technique ever invented. . .there can be no debate on the massive effects of having a criminal justice system as opposed to anarchy. The shockingly high homicide rates of pre-state societies, with 10 to 60 percent of the men dying at the hands of other men, provide one kind of evidence. Another is the emergence of a violent culture of honor in just about any corner of the world that is beyond the reach of the law. Many historians argue that people acquiesced to centralized authorities during the Middle Ages and other periods to relieve themselves of the bureden of having to retaliate against those who would harm them and their kin. And the growth of those authorities may explain the hundredfold decline in homicide rates in European societies since the Middle Ages.

See also Mark Weiner, The Rule of the Clan. A few remarks.

1. This chapter challenges the more anarchist-leaning libertarian views. Instead, Pinker argues that it is natural for humans to form coalition, to fear others’ coalitions, and to launch pre-emptive strikes on relatively small pretenses. (Of course, governments do this as well. Pinker would not argue that nation-states are inherently peaceful with one another. Quite the contrary.) Another excerpt, from p. 331:

When law enforcement vanishes, all manner of violence breaks out: looting, settling old scores, ethnic cleansin, and petty warfare among gangs, warlords and mafias.

2. Reading this chapter, I could not help thinking of Baltimore. Another excerpt, also from p. 331:

The generalization that anarchy in the sense of a lack of government leads to anarchy in the sense of violent chaos may seem banal, but it is often overlooked in today’s still-romantic climate. Government in general is anathema to many conservatives, and the police and prison system are anathema to many liberals. Many people on the left, citing uncertainty about the deterrent value of capital punishment compared to life imprisonment, maintain that deterrence is not effective in general. And many oppose more effective policing of inner-city neighborhoods, even though it may be the most effective way for their decent inhabitants to abjure the code of the streets. Certainly we must combat the racial inequities that put too many African American men in prison, but. . .we must also combat the racial inequities that leave too many African Americans exposed to criminals.

He does proceed to point out that drug laws, by creating an underground economy in which participants cannot call in police to contain disputes, help to promote a climate of violence.

Charles Murray is Revolting

I have just started his latest book, By the People. You may have heard that he calls for civil disobedience against excessive government. I am wondering how he would handle two objections.

1. How will the other side respond? I could see progressives engaging in civil disobedience, also. In fact, if conservatives were to win in 2016, I expect to see the emergence of a very large, and possibly violent, protest movement. If conservatives/libertarians were to set a precedent of disobeying laws, then I think this would encourage progressives to disobey laws. For example, they might decide that laws protecting property rights are unjust, and proceed to “liberate” the possessions and homes of the one percent.

2. Would civil disobedience not leave most progressive policies untouched? Social Security, Medicare, and the core of regulation surely would remain. At best, the protests would work against the silliest, least significant regulations.

3. Civil disobedience is ultimately a form of voice. Libertarians should be focusing on ways to increase the opportunity for exit.

Jonathan Rauch Hearts John Boehner

Rauch has a new e-book (free, at least as of the other day, when I downloaded it) called Political Realism. He argues that progressive political reforms have had adverse unintended consequences. In particular, they have made life more difficult for John Boehner.

Rauch relies on a distinction between professional and amateur politicians, a distinction for which he credits James John Q. Wilson. The pros just want to stay in power, and they will compromise on principles in order to keep it. The amateurs are ideologues.

Rauch argues that seemingly well-intentioned reforms have weakened political parties and thereby strengthened the amateurs. The reforms include attempts to require transparency in government, to restrict campaign finance, to curb earmarks, and to give ordinary voters more power to choose candidates via primaries.

The major unintended consequence of these reforms has been polarization and gridlock. Because the professionals are no longer free to manage the political process, government has become ineffective. Rauch argues that we should dial back the reforms that weaken the party pros and instead think in terms of reforms that strengthen them.

If you believe, as Rauch does, that the professionals would govern more effectively if given more slack, then his argument goes through. However, I am not sure that I buy into that assumption.

I can see one issue–entitlement reform–on which a compromise among professionals could have beneficial effects. But the unsustainable system of entitlements was built by those very professionals whom Rauch extols. My cynical take is that the professionals are good at compromising on the use of other people’s money, most especially when the other people are too young to vote or not even yet born.

If you ask me, the single most consequential political act of my lifetime is likely to be President Obama’s decision to throw the Bowles-Simpson recommendations under the bus. That may have destroyed the last chance to prevent a budget train wreck. Yet Rauch believes that Obama is one of the good guys, a professional able to compromise.

Obama’s professionalism, according to Rauch, is illustrated by the way that health care reform involved compromising with various interests. But if Obamacare is your poster child for professional politics, you are not going to convince me to jump on board the Rauch bandwagon.

As you can tell, my feelings about the book are mixed. I think that the main points are insightful. I see those as

1. Professional politicians are better able to compromise if amateur ideologues are less influential.

2. Progressive reforms have worked to empower amateur ideologues.

However, I do not share Rauch’s optimism for what the professionals might accomplish if they had their way.

Stability of Government

In this essay, I write,

Ultimately, it is the cultural beliefs of citizens that determines whether a limited-access order or an open-access order can remain stable. For a limited-access order, the necessity is for citizens to give enough legitimacy to the monarch to enable the monarch to rule without having to give way to an open-access order. For an open-access order the necessity is for citizens to withhold legitimacy from the government when it tries to expand too much.

Since I first composed that essay, I have come to think that open-access orders have two sources of stability. One is the fact that nearly everyone feels that they have a stake in the system. The other source is the set of norms and beliefs that had to develop to make an open-access order possible in the first place. Those layers of beliefs provide a strong counter-weight to disorderly political activism.

Michael Strong Asks a Question

He asks,

Has Romer “thought seriously” about a large scale government that can put people in jail? Not to mention ubiquitous police abuse and civil rights violations.

Apparently, Paul Romer is skeptical of private police forces.
My thoughts:

1. Suppose I were to fly to Honduras for a vacation, and I encounter individuals in uniforms who have the power to enforce laws, including putting me in jail. Would I prefer that those individuals be employed by elected officials or by a private corporation? It is not obvious to me that I should place more confidence in the former.

Actually, I think that most people are like Romer in that it does appear obvious to them that police accountable to elected officials will be more trustworthy than private police. This could be a self-fulfilling equilibrium. If people believe that their voice gives them status under a state, they may be more inclined to obey the laws of that state. When people confer legitimacy on the police and the state, the police need to employ less violence in doing their jobs. This reinforces the trust that people place in the state.

2. FOOL rules. I think that the issue of the power to put people in jail illustrates the importance of Fear Of Others’ Liberty. When one thinks of it as “the power to put me in jail,” it seems hard to trust anyone with that power. But when one thinks of it as the power to put an incorrigibly destructive person in jail, one wants someone to have that power. For example, I bet that if you took a public opinion poll after the non-stop television coverage of riots in Baltimore, the support for police incarcerating those involved would have been overwhelming.

Because of FOOL, I think that most people are willing to tolerate the existence of police and of punishment, including incarceration. I think that once you accept that those institutions will be present in a society, the best one can hope for is that laws are just and that they are justly enforced. I do not think that we can reach an ideal in practice, but I would like to see competitive forces at work. It seems to me that if we had competitive government with free movement of people and businesses, then perhaps places where laws are unjust or enforced capriciously would tend to lose population. Or perhaps one might see a pattern where different laws are considered just by different cultures.

3. If you think about how people actually choose where to live, they tend to place a high priority on avoiding areas with reputations for a lot of crime. This tends to produce a population distribution in which some areas are safe and affluent, while other areas are relatively dangerous and also poor. Police work in the former is relatively simple, and police work in the latter is relatively difficult.

4. As an aside, note that the three-axes model has predicted the reactions to the events in Baltimore among progressives, conservatives, and libertarians with uncanny accuracy.

Joseph Heath on the Roots of Conservatism

He writes,

There is of course a much-observed tension between the cultural-evolutionary and the free-market versions of conservatism, particularly since the untrammelled free market is the most effective device for destroying traditional institutions that has ever been devised by man. Most of what cultural conservatives and religious fundamentalists hate about the modern world – the rootlessness, hedonism, crass commercialism, loose sexual morality, anti-authoritarianism, and general lack of discipline – is either a direct product of the market, or is a tendency that is dramatically amplified by it. What brings the cultural and the market conservative together is the conviction that these unplanned processes are better than the alternative, which is “social engineering” in the rationalist style.

Read the whole thing. I arrived at it starting from Alex Tabarrok’s link.

Thinking about the quoted paragraph in terms of the three-axes model, I would say that there is a tension about markets in the civilization vs. barbarism axis. A conservative would view productive work as civilized, and markets encourage productive work. However, a conservative would worry that consumer tastes are barbaric, and markets work to satisfy consumer tastes.

Another way in which the market process is civilized from a conservative perspective is that businesses fail. Failure builds character because it reinforces humility. It keeps us from developing too high an opinion of ourselves as individuals or of humanity as a whole. (David Brooks’ latest book, The Road to Character, which I have started reading, seems to stress humility.) In contrast, progressives seem to see government as a tool to eliminate all forms of failure.