Libertarians vs. Human Nature

I believe that humans in large societies have two natural desires that frustrate libertarians.

1. A desire for religion, defined as a set of rituals, norms, and affirmations that are shared by a group and which the group believes it is wrong not to share. Thus, rooting for your local sports team is not a religion, because you realize that it is not wrong for someone else not to root for your local sports team. But if you are against GMO foods, then you believe that those who disagree with you are wrong.

2. A desire for war. I think that it is in human nature to fantasize about battles against tribal enemies. War arises when those fantasies are strong enough to drive behavior. People who have recently experienced war have mixed feelings about it. Some want revenge for defeats. Others are sick of war. The sickness of war often dominates, but not always. If there has been no recent experience of war, there is a gradual loss of the aversion to war, and war becomes more likely. Peter Turchin takes this view. Incidentally, Robin Hanson recently binge-read Turchin. I think that the way to read Turchin is to view his thought as 95 percent intuition/theory, 5 percent empirical analysis. Turchin himself would prefer you to believe that he is much more driven by empirical analysis.

If these desires were to disappear, I believe that humans could live without a state. However, given these desires, the best approach for a peaceful large society is that which was undertaken in the U.S. when it was founded: freedom of religion guaranteed by the government, and a political system designed for peaceful succession and limitations on the power of any one political office.

At the moment, I fear that the anti-Trump resistance strikes me as having the characteristics of a religion whose followers are fantasizing about war. Perhaps there is a symmetry on the other side, but it is dampened by the fact that when you hold the Presidency you can get your way peacefully (if coercively).

I think that it is fine for libertarians to warn of the dangers of religion and to oppose war. That is what I am doing here. On other other hand, when libertarians assume away the desire for religion and war, their thinking becomes at best irrelevant and at worst nihilistic.

Different Types of Expertise

Something bothered me about the way that Tyler Cowen framed the issue of rule by experts vs. popular rule. He refers to David Levy and Sandra Peart’s new book, which I started reading. I think I am going to be bothered by their framing, also. Let me try to articulate my issue.

Last year, I was not happy with the way my bike brakes were working, and I took the bike into the shop. An “expert” diagnosed the problem as a worn brake cable and replaced the cable. The brake worked much better with the new cable, so as far as I can tell the diagnosis and the remedy were correct.

I believe that economics is fundamentally different from bicycle brake repair. We are not experts in the same sense that my bike mechanic was an expert. Let me try to explain why that is the case.

We know what a brake is supposed to do. It is much harder to give an account of what a financial system (or example) is supposed to do.

We can describe in complete and comprehensive terms how a bicycle brake should work. We cannot do that with a financial system.

A bicycle brake was built from a design. Knowledge of how it was designed can help us to fix it. The financial system emerged. There is no design specification to which we can refer.

When brakes are not working well on a bike, there are a limited number of possible causes. When a financial system does not work well, there are more possible causes than we can list.

Theories about brakes are easily tested under controlled conditions. Theories about financial systems are not.

The brake itself does not have beliefs that affect its behavior. The participants in the financial system do have beliefs that affect the behavior of the system.

It is possible to gain some wisdom from studying economics, just as it is possible to gain some wisdom from studying history. But it is not possible to attain the sort of expertise in economics that one can attain as a physicist, plumber, or bicycle repairman. To encourage such analogies is unwise.

Timothy Taylor on Homo Narrativus

He writes,

Homo sapiens likes to protest that all conclusions come from a dispassionate consideration of the evidence. But again and again, you will observe that when a certain homo sapiens agrees with the main thrust of a certain narrative, the supposedly dispassionate consideration of evidence involves compiling every factoid and theory in support, as well as denigrating those who believe otherwise as liars and fools; conversely, when a different homo sapiens disagrees with the main thrust of certain narrative, the supposedly dispassionate consideration of the evidence involves compiling every factoid and theory in opposition, and again denigrating those who believe otherwise as liars and fools. Homo sapiens often brandishes facts and theories as a nearly transparent cover for the homo narrativus within.

That is his gloss on Robert Shiller’s recent address to the American Economic Association.

Notes from the 2017 Edge Question

Folks were asked to name a scientific concept that deserves to be better known.

Lisa Randall nominates “effective theory.”

an effective theory tells us precisely its limitations—the conditions and values of parameters for which the theory breaks down. The laws of the effective theory succeed until we reach its limitations when these assumptions are no longer true or our measurements or requirements become increasingly precise.

Matthew D. Lieberman nominates naive realism.

If I am seeing reality for what it is and you see it differently, then one of us has a broken reality detector and I know mine isn’t broken. If you can’t see reality as it is, or worse yet, can see it but refuse to acknowledge it, then you must be crazy, stupid, biased, lazy or deceitful.

In the absence of a thorough appreciation for how our brain ensures that we will end up as naïve realists, we can’t help but see complex social events differently from one another, with each of us denigrating the other for failing to see what is so obviously true.

Matthew O. Jackson nominates homophily.

New parents learn from talking with other new parents, and help take care of each other’s children. People of the same religion share beliefs, customs, holidays, and norms of behavior. By the very nature of any workplace, you will spend most of your day interacting with people in the same profession and often in the same sub-field.

…Homophily lies at the root of many social and economic problems, and understanding it can help us better address the many issues that societies around the globe face, from inequality and immobility, to political polarization.

Dylan Evans nominates need for closure.

However great our desire for an answer may be, we must make sure that our desire for truth is even greater, with the result that we prefer to remain in a state of uncertainty rather than filling in the gaps in our knowledge with something we have made up.

Gary Klein nominates decentering.

Decentering is not about empathy—intuiting how others might be feeling. Rather, it is about intuiting what others are thinking. It is about imagining what is going through another person’s mind. It is about getting inside someone else’s head.

…Being able to take someone else’s perspective lets people disagree without escalating into conflicts.

Adam Waytz nominates the illusion of explanatory depth.

If you asked one hundred people on the street if they understand how a refrigerator works, most would respond, yes, they do. But ask them to then produce a detailed, step-by-step explanation of how exactly a refrigerator works and you would likely hear silence or stammering. This powerful but inaccurate feeling of knowing is what Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil in 2002 termed, the illusion of explanatory depth (IOED), stating, “Most people feel they understand the world with far greater detail, coherence, and depth than they really do.”

Cristine H. Legare nominates Cumulative Culture.

Cumulative culture requires the high fidelity transmission of two qualitatively different abilities—instrumental skills (e.g., how to keep warm during winter) and social conventions (e.g., how to perform a ceremonial dance). Children acquire these skills through high fidelity imitation and behavioral conformity. These abilities afford the rapid acquisition of behavior more complex than could ever otherwise be learned exclusively through individual discovery or trial-and-error learning.

If someone had asked me, I would have proposed something similar: cultural intelligence.

Eric R. Weinstein gives us Russell Conjugation.

the human mind is constantly looking ahead well beyond what is true or false to ask “What is the social consequence of accepting the facts as they are?” While this line of thinking is obviously self-serving, we are descended from social creatures who could not safely form opinions around pure facts so much as around how those facts are presented to us by those we ape, trust or fear. Thus, as listeners and readers our minds generally mirror the emotional state of the source, while in our roles as authoritative narrators presenting the facts, we maintain an arsenal of language to subliminally instruct our listeners and readers on how we expect them to color their perceptions.

Sarah Demers nominates blind analysis.

The idea is to fully establish procedures for a measurement before we look at the data so we can’t be swayed by intermediate results. They require rigorous tests along the way to convince ourselves that the procedures we develop are robust and that we understand our equipment and techniques. We can’t “unsee” the data once we’ve taken a look.

John Tooby nominates coalitional instincts.

These programs enable us and induce us to form, maintain, join, support, recognize, defend, defect from, factionalize, exploit, resist, subordinate, distrust, dislike, oppose, and attack coalitions. Coalitions are sets of individuals interpreted by their members and/or by others as sharing a common abstract identity

…to earn membership in a group you must send signals that clearly indicate that you differentially support it compared to rival groups. Hence, optimal weighting of beliefs and communications in the individual mind will make it feel good to think and express content conforming to and flattering to one’s group’s shared beliefs, and feel good attacking and misrepresenting rival groups.

Ideology and Polarity

Jordan Peterson says,

In a sophisticated religious system, there is a positive and negative polarity. Ideologies simplify that polarity and, in doing so, demonize and oversimplify.

That sentence really bolsters my approach in the Three Axes Model. The whole interview is interesting.

In fact, I have been binge-watching his lectures. Reviews of his book suggested that it might be inaccessible, but his lectures are very accessible, albeit with a big investment of time. If you don’t have the patience for his style, you might want to jump to lecture 5, part 1. But my view is that you should have patience for his style.

Peterson, like Jung, believes that ancient myths tell us a lot about how we are wired. In my eBook, I say that the Progressive oppressor-oppressed axis can be found in the Exodus story. I think that Peterson would locate what I call the civilization-barbarism axis in a lot of ancient myths in which the death of a king or the emergence of a terrible king leads to chaos until a hero fights the chaos and is crowned the new king.

The libertarian liberty-coercion axis may be more modern. In Peterson’s terms, government (and our cultural inheritance in general) always enbodies both the good father who provides order and the tyrant who chains people. The liberty-coercion axis sees the tyrant and not the good father. Peterson probably would find libertarian utopianism to be akin to other utopianisms. In that sense, he would view a really dogmatic libertarian as dangerous, the way that Whitaker Chambers famously remarked that reading Ayn Rand made him feel as though there was lurking a “To a gas chamber–go!” mindset.

I think that embedded in his course is a philosophy of science that is profound. I think it can be applied usefully as a perspective on economic models. I will say more about that when I finish the course.

Right-scaling the Polity

Eli Dourado writes,

if economic integration prevails, the optimal country size is small, maybe even a city-state.

Given what we know about optimal country size, a monolithic America makes less sense today than it did a century ago. What made America into the superpower that it is today is its massive internal free trade area. Now that trade barriers have declined worldwide, this is less of an advantage than ever before. It’s not at all clear that this diminishing advantage outweighs the cost of our divisive politics based on unshared cultural assumptions.

I have been interested in this issue for a long time. In 2005, I wrote We need 250 states. Among other things, I pointed out that

In 1790, the largest state in the union, Virginia, had a population of under 700,000. Today, Montgomery County has a population of over 900,000. Our nine-member County Council answers to about the same number of registered voters as the entire House of Representatives of the United States at the time of the founding of the Republic.

Switzerland, although it is much smaller than the U.S., is even more decentralized. We have way too much policy made in Washington relative to what could be made more appropriately at local levels. But right now Washington is the only city that can borrow huge sums of money, and that makes it hard to shift responsibilities around.

Richard Florida on Autonomy for Cities

He writes,

The world has become spikier and spikier, across nations, across regions, and within cities. The clustering of talent and economic assets also makes the city the new economic and social organizing unit, undermining two core institutions of the old order: the large vertical corporation and the nation-state.

…this age of urbanized knowledge capitalism requires a shift in power from the nation-state to cities, which are the key economic and social organizing unit of the knowledge economy. That means also means that cities must take on the outsized power of the nation-state and the imperial presidency. We must devolve power and resources back to the local level — raking back their tax money from the federal government so they can spend it on themselves.

In a way, he is suggesting the the wealthy (and blue) cities should secede from Donald Trump’s America. Whatever merits the concept may have (and I try to encourage ideas of this sort), I doubt that Florida has thought through the details of “raking back their tax money.”

We are headed to a point (already past it?) where at the Federal level cutting 100 percent of discretionary spending that is not related to national security will still leave a deficit. That means that could wind up giving the cities responsibility for housing, education, infrastructure, etc. without any tax revenue to rake back to pay for those functions.

You could let the cities do what the Feds do, and run big deficits, but that seems rather dangerous. Or you could transfer a lot of budget dollars from the Federal government and states to cities by giving them Medicaid, but that does not sound like fun.

Look, the consequences of devolution of power to cities could turn out to be very good. But they might be more radical than what Richard Florida has in mind.

Tyler Cowen Sets a Trap

In an NPR discussion about the deal struck by President-elect Trump with Carrier to keep a plant in Indiana, he says,

There’s plenty of talk that the reason Carrier went along with the deal was because they were afraid their parent company would lose a lot of defense contracts. So this now creates the specter of a president always being willing to punish or reward companies depending on whether or not they give him a good press release.

Why would progressives be inclined to agree with Cowen?

1. They hate Mr. Trump.

2. They do not agree that keeping this plant in Indiana served a compelling and long-standing public purpose. They might even understand that we have an economy in which free trade ultimately is what serves the public purpose.

3. They do not like the idea of businesses being offered carrots and sticks to do things to allow a president to score points with a constituency (“give him a good press release.”)

4. They do not like the idea of policy made in an ad hoc manner between the president and an individual firm, as opposed to policy that is embedded in legislation that affects all firms.

The trap here is that because of (1) progressives might start to reflect on (2) – (4).

Consider, for example, the Obama Administration’s mandate for contraception coverage in health insurance. This forced some businesses, such as Hobby Lobby, to offer contraception coverage when they did not want to do so. How did this differ from what Mr. Trump did to Carrier?

1. Progressives do not hate Obama. However, on reflection they would realize that this cannot be a defense of the contraception mandate.

2. Progressives believe that contraception coverage is important. However, if you took a vote, I bet that more people would prioritize “keeping jobs in America” than having contraception coverage in health insurance. It seems to me that the “compelling and long-standing public purpose” argument would be a stretch.

3. The contraception mandate certainly allowed the Democrats to score points with a constituency that they consider important. It was an important issue for feminists. So I do not think that you can find the difference between the contraception mandate and the Carrier deal here.

That leaves only (4). The contraception mandate was given to all health insurance providers under the Obama Administration’s interpretation of the Affordable Care Act. It represents the rule of law (ish) and not a one-off transaction. Even there, Donald Evans makes the counterpoint (in the same NPR discussion) that

I don’t think it’s a bad thing for the president to send the strong message to the workers of America that he’s going to create the environment for them to do well right here and – and send that same message to the corporations of America.

Mr. Evans seems to me to be saying that Mr. Trump will put generic policies in place that will pursue the goal of keeping plants in America. One can argue that the goal of this deal was not to set a precedent for one-off deals but instead to signal a forthcoming change in policies that will be administered under the rule of law.

As a libertarian, I do not believe that “keeping plants in America” should be a goal for public policy. I believe instead in patterns of sustainable specialization and trade, which includes making efficient use of labor and other resources from other countries. I also believe that contraception coverage is something that should be negotiated between individual households and health insurance providers. Maybe if progressives fall into the trap set by Tyler Cowen, a few of them will start to see where I am coming from in my point of view.

A Note on the Oppressor-Oppressed Axis

A commenter writes,

It seemed obvious to me that one could apply the oppressor-oppressed axis by noting that Castro was the oppressor and the Cuban people were the oppressed.

I need to clarify that the oppressor-oppressed axis is not about oppression per se. It is about classifying certain groups as inherently oppressed and others as inherently oppressors. A couple of generations ago, the Left would have considered manufacturing workers to be oppressed. Today American manufacturing workers (and former manufacturing workers) are treated as oppressors, because they are white. Meanwhile, very affluent people can be seen as oppressed, because of their skin color or sexual orientation.

In the case of Cuba, poor Cubans were granted the status of “oppressed,” and rich individuals and corporations had the status of oppressors. Castro, who personally accumulated hundreds of millions of dollars in net worth while he was dictator, was regarded as a friend of the oppressed because the government provided the health care system.

When it is applied appropriately (for example, during the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s), the oppressor-oppressed model is to the Left’s credit. However, when applied unthinkingly or hypocritically, I think it discredits the Left. Some progressives realize this, but many do not. I think they would benefit from reading my revised Three Languages of Politics when it appears next year.