Thursday, June 28, 2007 58 Comments

The Rawlsian god: cryptocalvinism in action

Regular visitors to this dank intellectual alley will be familiar with my obstinate insistence that progressive idealism, multiculturalism, liberal universalism, or any similar label for the set of thoughts that all good people think, are not just good thoughts, but in fact the dominant modern sect of Christianity.

As an atheist I have no interest in theology, and I do not find theological doctrines, such as the divinity of Jesus, the existence of God, the nature of the Trinity, etc, a useful way to classify the patterns of belief around me. I am only concerned with what people believe about the real world. I think these beliefs evolve much as languages do, I feel it is important to track their evolution across time, and I refuse to remove them from my radar screen on account of theological mutations which strike me as purely superficial.

You may or may not buy this story. But I hope you can agree that the Harvard faculty in 2007 by and large believes in human equality, social justice, world peace and community leadership, that the faculty of the same institution held much the same beliefs in 1957, 1907, 1857 and 1807, and that in any of these years they would have described these views as the absolute cynosure of Christianity. Perhaps I am just naturally suspicious, but it strains my credulity slightly to believe that sometime in 1969, the very same beliefs were rederived from pure reason and universal ethics, whose concurrence with the New Testament is remarkable to say the least.

At least for the purpose of abusing it, I call this sect cryptocalvinism: "crypto" because it conceals its ancestry; and "Calvinist" first because it is the leading direct descendant, through the New England Puritans, of Calvinism proper, and second because it resembles Calvin's Genevan theocracy in many details, most strikingly its fondness for official truth.

Calvinist doctrine has mutated considerably over the years, especially but not exclusively in the theological department. Today's hippie creed of universal love, though it owes less to the 1960s than the 1830s, would come as quite a shock to the grim old doctor. However, one feature that almost all descendants of Calvinism share is an essentially postmillennial commitment to building the kingdom of God on earth - as seen, for example, in the Puritans' city-on-a-hill rhetoric.

But, as some commenters have pointed out, this is all quite irrelevant. Don't we all want to live in a good society? Is it utterly surprising that many Biblical ideas are good ideas? Didn't Jesus also say the sky was blue? Certainly Harvard was founded as a Christian institution, certainly it remained explicitly so until recently, and certainly our secular universalist culture has deep Christian roots. But in the liberal postwar era, we wisely discarded the aspects of Christianity that are obsolete and superstitious, while retaining its sound ethical core, reinforced with a bracing dose of modern reason and science.

This is a very sensible argument. No superficial rhetoric can dismiss it. Certainly there's an element of what one might almost call McCarthyism in my attempts to connect universalism with Protestantism. Of course, McCarthyist techniques of guilt by association are routinely applied against Nazis, fascists, racists, and other bad actors, but this doesn't make them good. The Third Reich, for example, was the first Western state to connect smoking to lung cancer. Which doesn't make me want to go out and buy a pack of Marlboros.

The belief system I call "cryptocalvinism" claims to be a pure product of philosophy, not a mere evolution of blue-state mainline Protestantism. Similarly, the modern "intelligent design" movement assures us that its association with red-state Christianity is just as coincidental.

The only way to refute these claims is on the merits. The fact that proponents of "intelligent design" tend to be fundamentalist Christians is a good clue that atheists such as myself should scrutinize their theories closely. But it is not actually evidence in the case. Likewise, the fact that multicultural universalists embrace ideas closely related to those of their own Christian forebears could explain, if those ideas are unrelated to reality, how they got to be so popular and successful. But it goes nowhere at all toward showing the if.

So I thought it'd be interesting to take a look at the leading political philosopher of liberal universalism: John Rawls. Specifically, Rawls is a theorist of social justice, one of my "four points" of cryptocalvinism.

Actually, I don't just want to take a look at Rawls. I want his head for my mantelpiece. The trouble is that so many writers have debunked Rawls so completely - Nozick's treatment is perhaps the most thorough - that the best anyone can hope for now is a cheap Chinese copy. Nonetheless I will engage in this ritual of decapitation as though it actually mattered.

My contention is that Rawls is not a philosopher, but a minister. Like his Calvinist forebears, he is trying to establish the kingdom of God on Earth. Unlike them, he doesn't admit it. The basic thrust of my attack is to make the Christian aspect of Rawls' theory explicit, and note how much more sense Rawlsianism makes in this light - and how little sense it makes when we take the light away.

The first thing we notice about Rawls is the title of his famous book, A Theory of Justice. As I've mentioned before, this is not just hubristic, but actively Orwellian. For about the last 2500 years, the word justice and its various Indo-European predecessors have meant "the accurate execution of the law." Rawls is no more interested in law than I am in dressage, and when he redefines the word justice to mean, effectively, righteousness, one notes with some dismay that he is confiscating a noun with no existing synonyms. But perhaps this was the publisher's decision - maybe A Theory of Righteousness just wouldn't have moved as well.

The second thing we notice is that Rawls is that he's an incredibly tedious and turgid writer. He has one idea, which he repeats at a length that's simply unbelievable. Bad writing is worrisome in any defense of the status quo, because it fails Auden's ogre test. But again, it is not conclusive.

So let's take a closer look at Rawls' idea, the famous veil of ignorance. But let's try it out in the context where it makes the most sense - the kingdom of God on earth.

Suppose God did, in fact, exist. Suppose he was omnipotent, omniscient, and infinitely benevolent, employing an arbitrary number of angels to achieve his perfect wishes. If you are such a hardcore atheist that you can't imagine this at all, imagine God as a space alien with access to infinite alien technology.

Said alien is newly arrived in the Solar System and wishes to establish his kingdom on Earth, perhaps on account of its water-based ecosphere, mild climate and excellent chocolate. Because he is, in fact, God, implementation details are not a concern. And because he is infinitely benevolent, he wants the best for everyone. Therefore he consults John Rawls.

Rawls tells him that an ideal society will be the one chosen by arbitrary humans who are unaware of the position they are to occupy in that society. So, for example, a Rawlsian might ask: who should be paid more, a NASCAR driver or a truck driver? The observer behind the veil of ignorance is likely to say the truck driver should be paid more, because driving in the Daytona 500 is a hell of a lot of fun and hauling a load of sofas from Chicago to Vegas is no fun at all. Unless the truck driver is paid more to compensate for this inequality, he or she is relatively disadvantaged, an outcome the observer (who can have no reason not to fear assignment to this role) will seek to avoid.

There's an almost medieval flavor to this exercise, and it can lead to an infinite amount of intellectual entertainment. Of course, not even John Rawls can derive "ought" from "is," and there is no rational reason to prefer his definition of an ideal society to anyone else's. Ethics are fundamentally aesthetic. But there is a clarity and prettiness to the Rawlsian theory of righteousness that makes it aesthetically quite attractive, and I certainly cannot imagine any solution to the same problem that I'd find more satisfying.

The difficulty, of course, is in the problem. What Rawls has performed is a beautiful feat of misdirection. His imaginary problem is almost perfectly designed to misdirect the thinking man's attention away from the real problem.

In the kingdom of God on earth, God finds it very easy to make sure NASCAR drivers are paid less than truck drivers. No one can disobey God. He assigns us to our roles, he directs our every movement. If God tells you to turn left at the next light, you don't hang a right.

The question is: what relevance does this have for the actual problem of government? The answer is: none. As Madison put it, if men were angels, we would need no government at all. In Rawls' kingdom, we are not angels, but we are governed by angels. The great engineering problem of designing a system in which fallible humans can govern each other and get along simply does not exist in Rawls' philosophy.

Of course Rawls does not actually say this. He just encourages it. By setting up an ideal of righteousness that only divine rule can achieve, Rawls supplies the perfect distraction to help his readers forget that in reality, men are governed only by men, and history knows only two kinds of government: those based on law, and those based on violence.

For example, in the NASCAR-teamster example, what sort of law would ensure a Rawlsian result? Do we have wage and price controls, Nixon style? The odor of medieval Christianity is unmistakable. You can almost taste the sumptuary laws.

Or would there even be laws? In keeping with its derogation of mere formalist justice, Rawls' philosophy is profoundly antilegal. The veil-of-ignorance problem does not even pretend to any objective solution which can be reliably agreed by multiple disputing parties.

If we were ruled by the Rawlsian god, who solves the veil-of-ignorance problem himself and imposes the answer by sheer angelic force, that'd be just lovely. But in the kingdom of men, when different men have different definitions of "justice," they have a well-known tendency to fight over the result. Cosmic righteousness and consistent, objective law are not just different things. They are actively opposed. Arbitrary rules whose derivation is entirely historical, but whose result is absolutely clear - such as property titles - are often the only way to define a consensus that everyone can agree on peacefully.

In other words, Rawlsianism without the Rawlsian god is an almost perfect recipe for friction. Small wonder that in the 20th century, almost 100 million people were murdered in various attempts to construct egalitarian utopias. You can't fault Edward Bellamy for not knowing better, but you can fault Rawls - and I do.

The design of legal systems is an engineering problem. When we understate this problem, when we replace it with a religious or quasi-religious substitute, or when we seek levels of perfection that are only achievable through the intervention of benevolent spirits, we invite engineering disaster. Rawls himself was lucky enough to live his whole life in a country governed, if imperfectly, by something that still resembled the rule of law, in which "justice" still meant justice and not heavenly righteousness. But not all have been so fortunate.

58 Comments:

Anonymous tggp said...

I think Rawls' importance is over-rated. It is really mostly libertarians who talk about him, and then only because of Nozick's critique of him (and Nozick doesn't even seem to be that popular among libertarians). I've read some who've said that Nozick demolished Rawls' individualist case for egalitarianism, forcing liberals to move to communitarianism. I say egalitarians have always been communitarians, and neither Nozick nor Rawls really had much of an effect. Modern liberals would probably be more concerned with Rorty, and as with libertarians and Nozick it seems most don't think that highly of him either. To help support my point about the irrelevance of this philosophy to liberals, check out this post mentioning the decline of big intellectual books like those of "George Gilder, Alan Bloom, Charles Murray" that "fundamentally shifted how conservatives viewed the world". What books do the liberals give as their own examples for their side? Almost all tactical ones like "Don't Think of an Elephant" and "What's the Matter With Kansas" that complain how the stupid people don't vote for them and their ideas, rather than fleshing out ideas. Conservatives can go on about the importance of Burke, Hayek, Strauss, Weaver, Kirk because having a grounding in the past is important to them, but progressives view themselves as the vanguard of a better world and aren't usually too concerned about the Big Thinkers behind it unless they're Marxists.

This might be a bit of a tangent, but Will Wilkinson has been particularly annoying to me recently (in part because of immigration), and while Ezra Klein also annoys me a lot (he's almost a personification of the arrogant anti-libertarian left in America), I felt sympathetic to his disregard for philosophy and Will's "Rawlsekianism" here. With his prioritizing of social libertarianism (this excellent Catallarchy post explains why it is a minor concern of libertarians) and with his enjoyment of crudity shocking and disgusting social conservatives and even endorsing Hillary Clinton makes it me wonder why the Lew Rockwell and Mises crowd haven't crucified him yet. I say Cato, replace this art-major with an economist ASAP!

June 29, 2007 at 1:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Rawls' importance is over-rated.

I gotta disagree with you here, tggp. A few years ago I took an intro to political philosophy course at a Big Ten university, and Rawls was one of the big topics. Among the different philosophies covered, it was obvious Rawlsianism was the favorite of the instructors and the textbook writers. Nobody outright said, "This is the best political philosophy humanity has ever come up with," but I definitely got that impression. Yeah, it was undergrad, and yeah, it was just a Big Ten U, but this is what they're feeding to us future cogs in the machine, at least.

June 29, 2007 at 7:56 AM  
Blogger Victor said...

I always thought that Rawls' biggest error was that he got valuation schema wrong from the get-go. His argument is essentially that from behind the veil of ignorance, we all would want to minimize the worst-case outcome -- but this strikes me as a profound idiocy, a would-be utilitarian decision based on infinite risk-aversion; utilitarianism for people who don't get algebra, if you will.

A rational agent would instead want to maximize their expected utility, accounting of course for the fact that marginal utility diminishes as the utility source (money for example) grows.

Using money as a simple proxy for utility (just for clarity's sake), a rational agent wouldn't want a society which merely maximizes overall production (because, depending on how it is distributed, it can result in a highly suboptimal expected utility); but neither would a rational agent want a Rawlsian egalitarian society. The rational agtent behind the veil of ignorance would want something in between -- a society where progress is not stifled by enforced egalitarian mediocrity, but where progress also doesn't amount to turning the society into a highly stratified pyramid. In short, we would be looking at s socioeconomic order which could produce something in general outlines resembling modern free-market democracies -- a good expected outcome, social structures encouraging advancement, coupled with a reasonable cushion at the bottom.

Humans are risk-averse, precisely because utility grows less-than-linearly with money and somesuch; but our risk-aversion is a finite, and reasonably quantifiable, factor. Social engineering from behind the veil should be based on that, and not on Rawlsian unstated assumption (I despise those things!) of infinite risk-aversion.

June 29, 2007 at 8:07 AM  
Anonymous RU said...

Nice post, tying together many of your previous posts on crypto-Calvinism and your formalist critique.

June 29, 2007 at 11:28 AM  
Anonymous J. Goard said...

Quite right, Victor. What you describe is almost certainly his biggest error.

Note also his failure to circumscribe or thoroughly define the set whose members should count under the initial position. We happen to live in a world where there seems to be a huge cognitive gap between one single species and its nearest cousins. Even so, chimpanzees and dolphins and dogs seem like beings deserving of some ethical worth.

Such a situation is not, of course, logically necessary. What would Rawls have done if, say, four other primate species had survived in different parts of the world, occupying (to use, admittedly, a poorly defined expression) successive levels of cognitive complexity between the chimp and human? How is the line supposed to be drawn? I don't need exact criteria, just a rough outline: given that I'm actually a Z, how do I know that "justice" requires me to consider that I might have been born a W, X, or Y, but not that I might have been born a U or V, or a mouse, mosquito, cedar tree, stapler, et cetera? Or, for that matter, something on beyond zebra? We're not the theoretical optimum of cognition, either.

The big-U Utilitarians knew, of course, that non-human animals, retarded humans, and such would present a problem for the theory. The resulting hierarchy-of-pleasures theories are crude and don't really accord with our intuitions very well. But it's a damn sight better than extending the Rawlsian veil of ignorance to the trillions of non-human creatures out there, and conversely quite a bit better than having to ignore their claim to moral consideration entirely.

June 29, 2007 at 12:32 PM  
Anonymous tggp said...

Pete Singer style utilitarianism with its concern for animals can get pretty wacky. Singer pretty blatantly does not live up to the moral standards he promotes, but at least he seems to admit it.

Rawls had a much more closed system that only considered citizens, so of course Wilkinson must criticize the assumption of rawlsian nationalism.

Nobody outright said, "This is the best political philosophy humanity has ever come up with," but I definitely got that impression.
My point was that political philosophy isn't really that big of a factor on the left. They take a lot of their assumptions as basically given and then focus on rhetoric to convince others rather than philosophy to justify it. In my view that's actually pretty sensible of them. Rawls was really just justifying the New Deal long after it had been enacted and become acceptable, I don't think he actually helped the cause of liberalism much.

I like what Hoppe says about Rawls "veil of ignorance": "Rawls's moral "parties" were unconstrained by scarcities of any kind and hence did not qualify as actual humans but as free-floating wraiths or disembodied somnambulists."

June 29, 2007 at 3:18 PM  
Blogger Conrad H. Roth said...

"The trouble is that so many writers have debunked Rawls so completely..."

The trouble is, rather, that Rawls wrote one of the most colossally boring books ever to darken my undergraduate course. When I was taught pol. phil. by Chris Bertram, back in 2001, he thought it was the most important text in the subject since, ooh, Mill? Can't ever say it struck me. Now Nozick--now you're talking. His "Knowledge and Skepticism" (pdf) is difficult, but one of the best essays in modern philosophy I've read. I do have a vague recollection of his political work (basketball games?) but it never much interested me.

June 29, 2007 at 5:43 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

There is really not much of the poor fellow left above the cervical vertebrae, but it is always nice to see how many ways Rawls can get the axe.

See also Nick Szabo, whose criticism is much the same as Victor's, if slightly less thorough.

(Victor - it is nice to see you here again. Of course I am not about to convince you that leftism is evil. But your revision of Rawls, though it fixes another of his egregious errors, is still vulnerable to the charge of focusing on results rather than methods, and using the first person plural in a rather uninhibited way. You might want to think carefully about the implementation details of the order you imagine. In particular, have you considered the problem of Pareto-optimality? If people can treat their social benefits as rights and sell them, they will, and they may end up back at the bottom. If they can't, you are violating Pareto-optimality.)

j. goard - you have anticipated one of my posts from next week. This thought is more in the department of Equality than Social Justice, I think, but of course they all blend together...

tggp, I too dislike Wilkinson, it is the DC thing. The libertarian policy wonk is a new animal and not, I feel, a good one. And I agree that the fact that the New Deal's leading philosopher was 12 years old when it started is quite humorous...

June 29, 2007 at 9:55 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

Conrad - no duh. I really do not think of myself as having an especially low tolerance for turgidity. But Rawls took my breath away. If he'd been born Rawlsky, he'd have had a great career in Marxist-Leninist Studies, if he was Al-Rawalas he could have contributed much commentary on the Hadith...

June 29, 2007 at 10:02 PM  
Anonymous Michael S. said...

TGGP's comment that "Rawls was really just justifying the New Deal long after it had been enacted and become acceptable" accurately and succinctly describes this bird of ill omen.

The analogous figure in economics is Keynes. By the time his "General Theory" as published in 1936, politicians had been advocating measures that could have been characterised as "Keynesian" in response to the Great Depression for some time. Rather than explaining the Depression, what Keynes did was to supply a theoretical pretext for what politicians were promoting, and in some cases (e.g. the New Deal in the U.S.) had already implemented.

The Keynesian theory of market failure caused by excessive saving appeared more intellectually respectable than the 19th century socialism that actually motivated the New Deal and similar redistributionist schemes in other countries. Many ordinary people were suspicious of Marxism, and aspects of Marxism (e.g. its labor-based value theory) appeared to be shaky to non-Marxist academic economists. The result was that Keynesianism was preferred, and remained academic orthodoxy until fairly recently.

Even though much economic theory is more a rationalization of preferences and prejudices than the dispassionate science it claims to be, economists are held to some standard of predictive success. The failure of the Keynesian-derived Phillips curve to explain the "stagflation" of the 'seventies was, accordingly, a large factor in Keynesianism's decline and replacement by monetarism in the formulation of policy.

It is unfortunate that there is no real-world check of similar nature on the theories of political philosophers. I do not know what it will take to displace Rawls from the preëminence he enjoys in his field. The turgidity of his prose does not appear to be disqualifying, and indeed may be considered admirable amongst his professional colleagues.

June 30, 2007 at 12:10 PM  
Blogger chris miller said...

"the veil of ignorance" looks to me like a principle for legislation that could applied by any kind of legislator, whether elected by popular vote or divinely appointed -- so I'm not convinced that it fails to address "the actual problem of government" which is -- believe it or not -- the making of laws as well as the arbitration and enforcement of them.

And though some observers behind the veil of ignorance might say "the truck driver should be paid more, because driving in the Daytona 500 is a hell of a lot of fun" --- I wouldn't -- because it wouldn't be a hell of a lot more fun for me. (indeed - I'd be terrified)

So the above example would argue for a wider.. rather than a narrower .. participation in legislation -- democratic rather than technocratic.

I'm starting to like Rawls ! ("Theory of Justice" was published three years after I studied political philosophy) - and I'm glad you've introduced him to me -- especially if, unlike you, he's really painful to read.

He seems quintessentially American -- especially as we remember that if people refused to break the law, the American Revolution would have never occurred.

Is breaking the law really such a terrible thing?

Even hardcore Confucian China recognized that the Emperor only had the right to rule as long as he had the mandate of "Heaven" (and that's not even a Christian heaven - or even a heaven that had any resident gods)

June 30, 2007 at 4:11 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

michael s.,

You're jumping ahead!

But, yes, though actually I think the best analogy for Keynes is Freud. Keynes at least was a good writer and a wit, with a powerful talent for invention. None of this can be said of Rawls.

You might enjoy Henry Hazlitt's Failure of the New Economics, in which he debunks Keynes' General Theory literally line-by-line.

Strangely, Keynes is now thoroughly back in fashion with the "New Keynesians." Of course, you can think of Rawls as a neo-Marxist (or maybe a neo-Fourierite), so bad ideas never die. Why would they?

June 30, 2007 at 4:16 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

chris,

If you're asking me to endorse the American Rebellion, you're asking the wrong person :-)

The principle could be applied. But will it be applied? Herein lies the entire problem.

June 30, 2007 at 4:23 PM  
Blogger Victor said...

Mencius

I never left. I just forgot to come back right away when you re-started posting. I am glad to say BTW that you seem to be delving more into real questions, and less into playing with Snow Queen's ice crystals now.

Of course I am not about to convince you that leftism is evil.

Indeed not. That doesn't mean we can't have an interesting conversation.

But your revision of Rawls, though it fixes another of his egregious errors, is still vulnerable to the charge of focusing on results rather than methods, and using the first person plural in a rather uninhibited way.

Well, yeah, but that's because I didn't offer a corrective revision of Rawls -- I didn't try to fix his system (it's beyond repair IMO), merely to correct a very obvious axiomatic error in it which leads to a very wrong result. I pointed out the way in which Rawls is radically, fundamentally wrong; a way different from the more mundane sort of methodological and metaphysical wrongness so many other philosophers suffer from as well; a way which is mathematically demonstrable, and doesn't involve attacking bad philosophy with more philosophy.

I didn't propose that we should use Rawls' argument, but rather adjusted it for having at least two functional braincells and a working understanding of basic decision theory. Being somewhat of a philosopher myself, philosophers who get basic science and math wrong PISS ME OFF!

You might want to think carefully about the implementation details of the order you imagine. In particular, have you considered the problem of Pareto-optimality? If people can treat their social benefits as rights and sell them, they will, and they may end up back at the bottom. If they can't, you are violating Pareto-optimality.

Outside of the fact that I merely corrected Rawls' own gedankenexperiment rather than embraced its methodology, I don't see why your point about Pareto efficiency has merit.

First of all, if someone can be better off by selling their welfare benefits, this in itself doesn't expose Pareto inefficiency -- for that, you would need to show that at least one person is better off while nobody else is worse off, which you haven't done, and frankly, cannot do.

Secondly, as I am not a formalist, I don't see myself as being under obligation to consider welfare benefits a salable commodity in the first place. I am quite content to say that welfare benefits don't have to be any more salable than, say, parental affection (or parental allowance, if you think affection is not a close enough).

Thirdly, I am not interested in protecting people from themselves anyway, no matter what you think of my views as a liberal.

And lastly, I am surprised you bring up Pareto efficiency on societal scale at all, given your deep aversion to GDP. Applying Pareto calculus to an entire society strikes me as a far chancier proposition that trying to calculate a society's gross production.

June 30, 2007 at 5:05 PM  
Blogger steve said...

Nozyk, in Anarchy, State, and Utopia did attempt to refute Rawls directly. While I found Nozyck' s rhetoric to be bright and glossy and fun to read, I found the syllogisms he used to refute Rawls to be wrong.

The fundamental question that is being asked is this: we live in an interdependent, cooperative society in which all the material goods we have in excess of what the Massai have derive from cooperative engagement; so how do we divide up the excesses of production that arise from cooperation? A purely laissez faire system does it in a way that might (almost) maximize production, but it does a less than perfect job of distribution. How to fix it?

One can ignore the distributive problem, but eventually the poor revolt and things dissolve into chaos. There are ways around that, but they tend to involve political suppression. Caring for the plight of the poor simply proves to be a way to allow the richest to sleep more comfortably at night and to minimize their security costs. Several Latin American states provide perfect examples.

Rawl's Theory of Justice ( misleadingly named, perhaps, and deadly to read) can be viewed as being a rather natural and intuitive solution to the problem.

Victor: I would like to read your solution to the problem you see with Rawls.

tggp: I'm afraid I don't see how Hoppe's critique applies - Rawl's theory only makes sense because of its attempt to deal with the constraints of limited resources. Rather, it seems to me that free-market economists who imagine that scarcity cannot exist because at a high enough price somebody, somewhere will supply the commodity in question have a very short-term view of history. Read Diamond's Collapse.

Finally, I imagine Rawls was a cryptocalvinist, of sorts; he was a Quaker. And his theory has a Quaker sensibility to it. It is reflective of a respectful treatment of others. If one is to have a society that is not ruled by pure force, that is the nature it must embrace. God certainly is not necessary; and in too many cases religion proves counterproductive - especially the sort with true calvinist flavor. But the ethical ideal espoused by the Kant's categorical imperative or Gauthier's morals by agreement, or the Golden Rule is essential to liberty.

June 30, 2007 at 8:39 PM  
Anonymous tggp said...

Strangely, Keynes is now thoroughly back in fashion with the "New Keynesians."
Like Greg Mankiw? That's hardly new. The Post-Keynesians claim to be the real succesors of Keynes and would have called themselves New Keynesians if that name had not already been taken. They do seem more "distinctively" Keynesian rather than neo-classical, which is why people often seem to use the phrase "heterodox economics" almost as a synonym for Post-Keynesians. If they don't they usually mean leftist whiny nobodies like Marxists, feminist/(insert identity politics group here) economics or the laughable "post-autistic economics", leaving the poor old Austrian school to shiver in the cold.

tggp: I'm afraid I don't see how Hoppe's critique applies - Rawl's theory only makes sense because of its attempt to deal with the constraints of limited resources. Rather, it seems to me that free-market economists who imagine that scarcity cannot exist because at a high enough price somebody, somewhere will supply the commodity in question have a very short-term view of history.
You are right that Hoppe's point about scarcity is wrong. BOTH Rawls and economists recognize the existence of scarcity. Thomas Sowell has defined economics as "the study of the allocation of scarce resources in the face of infinite wants" and Rawls was writing about distribution, which only makes sense in the context of scarcity. I believe he also permitted inequality-increasing measures if they also improved the position of the worst off, indicating that he realized the pie was not "fixed". What Hoppe is right about is the ethereal nature of Rawls' agents. I am reminded of the dispute between Galbraith and Hayek on endogenous preferences. Human beings only have preferences because they exist and interact with the real world. There is no Cartesian mind or soul as opposed to the physical brain. Though we do it all the time, it is ridiculous to ask what we would do in someone's position "If I were him", including their genes and upbringing and so on that determine so many things about a person. If you were them, by definition you would be EXACTLY like them and would do EXACTLY the same things and receive EXACTLY the same results. This is one of the things that makes "fairness" or what Thomas Sowell calls "cosmic justice" such a pointless diversion. Rawls attempts to do this by creating his ghostly agents who are not actually any existing person but must evaluate how much they would like to be assigned to be an actual person, but since a person cannot BE another person in any sense the whole exercise is nonsense. I am not averse to contractarianism, which both Benjamin Tucker and James Buchanan have relied upon (even though the former was, like me, a Stirnerite egoist who didn't really believe in any moral truth) as a basis for their political ideals (if "ideals" is a word that can describe something a Stirnerite could possess), but there must be actual existing human beings that create contracts, not "disembodied somnanbulists".

I think you have a misunderstanding of economics. It's supply and demand graphs to not actually indicate infinite supplies. There can easily diminishing marginal returns due to increasing marginal prices to the extent that the price approaches infinity as the demand approaches the physically feasible supply. However, if the resources are actually owned (not part of the tragic commons), there is a very low possibility of "running out", as people will start refusing to sell or consume such valuable resources and people will generally be gradually shifted to alternatives by price.

so how do we divide up the excesses of production that arise from cooperation?
Who says they get divided and who is doing all this division? You act as if there is a two step process in which in which goods come into existence and then ownership is divied up, but it is all one process. The transfer of ownership through trade is an important part of this process, and according to Douglas North this is where the majority of wealth is created.

A purely laissez faire system does it in a way that might (almost) maximize production, but it does a less than perfect job of distribution. How to fix it?
Efficiency can be defined for different resources in a positive sense: just compare the objective amount of output. Of course, the subjective value of these things cannot be determined. "perfect job of distribution" is not a positive standard. It is normative. As an emotivist, I believe normative statements do not have any truth value. Non-emotivists at least tend to agree with Hume that you can't get is from ought or ought from is, so you've got a normative assumption you must have smuggled in that I haven't seen yet in order for that phrase to indicate anything.

Read Diamond's Collapse.
Although I haven't read that specific book, my impression from what I have read is that Diamond doesn't know what he's talking about. He was wrong about Iceland, he was wrong about Easter Island and he thinks agriculture is the worst mistake in human history, despite all the evidence Julian Simon and Steven Pinker (nevermind a non-social but natural scientist like numerous Singularitarians) can present showing improvement (and Diamond does not dispute the very violent nature of hunter gatherers, though perhaps he views this culling of the population greater than the worst modern wars as a positive thing). I enjoyed reading Guns, Germs and Steel, but many parts of his attempt at a "geography is destiny" grand-unified-theory-of-history were just lame. He says his grand project is to explain why Eurasia became dominant. Considering that Eurasia is the largest land-mass and has the largest population, that wasn't a very unlikely outcome. He cannot say anything about differences within Eurasia, without which he cannot answer "Yali's Question" in a broad sense. He refuses to consider the possibility that "primitive" peoples are less intelligent than those of developed civilizations and instead asserts they are smarter without any rigorous evidence. Even a bleeding-heart socialist (he seems to take offence at being called a "liberal") like James Flynn who believes in an environmental (i.e non-genetic) explanation for IQ has to admit that east asians and ashkenzazis have the highest ones while the lowest ones are possessed by the most "primitive" peoples. Diamond gives no explanation for the results of IQ tests, including the most culturally neutral ones like Raven's Progressive Matrices (which turn out to be the most g-loaded and result in the largest racial gaps) because he is not interested in evidence but on how bothersome the conclusion is. His main reason seems to be that the people who migrated one way versus another were basically the same (I do not know if this assumption is true, but I am willing to grant it) so they must be the same now, which seems to indicate that no evolution occurred in the mean time, which is obviously not true (to give a trivial example, melanin varies depending on how much vitamin D people were getting in different areas, with europeans and east asians both fixating different genes in an example of convergent evolution). As Greg Cochran put it, the bow begat the bushmen and if anything evolution has sped up, not stopped with the emergence of humanity. This important idea is the basis for Greg Clark's A Farewell to Alms. Lastly, some of the examples he gives concerning domesticatable plants just doesn't fly. He excludes certain plants that could have been deliberately grown and contained plenty of nutrients, because these plants exhibit other traits that cause them to be inedible (allergens, poisons and so on). The thing is, the ancestors of the modern plants we eat were far more inedible than they are now. They have been bred for human consumption in a form of artificial selection (of course, the division between "natural" and "artificial" is itself rather artificial). As Lloyd points out, it is evolutionarily advantageous for many plants to be dangerous and unpleasant to eat, causing an evolutionary arms war to overcome these defenses, which humans have subverted by "altering the incentives", as it were. Joel Mokyr, who thinks very highly of the book, explains this problem here. This is also relevant to animals, as even without any real necessity, Russian scientists bred cute and cuddly foxes in just a few decades. Diamond's determinism in GG&S leaves no room for chance variation in the behavior of societies (which economists, sociologists and political scientists might discuss), which is simply glaring considering the huge differences between East vs West Germany, North vs South Korea and Maoist China vs British Hong Kong, all of which had basically the same environment and history before geopolitics caused these "natural experiments". In Collapse he does appear to tackle such questions, but still reduces things to the environment, which grows less and less relevant as agriculture and natural resource extraction form a more and more minor part of economies.

But the ethical ideal espoused by the Kant's categorical imperative or Gauthier's morals by agreement, or the Golden Rule is essential to liberty.
I think the idea of reciprocity is necessary, but as an emotivist/Stirnerite I don't go for morality. It might be possible that morality is necessary for what I would consider a functional society (i.e one I'd desire to live in) even if it has no objective truth, just as Voltaire noted that "One should not speak of atheism lest the servants steal the silverware", but I doubt it. Morality can change in unexpected ways an is not as far as I know governed by constraints preventing a disastrous shift in them, so I would hope that as long as rationality exists some standard of morality is not necessary. Perhaps when I am a very old man I shall do as Stirner intended but never followed through with in writing the outcome of the egoists' life, which might grant some more insight into the question.

June 30, 2007 at 10:57 PM  
Anonymous loki on the run said...


Small wonder that in the 20th century, almost 100 million people were murdered in various attempts to construct egalitarian utopias.


Many writers use the above rhetorical device, and that is all it is.

Those who instituted the political systems that are referred to as "attempts to construct egalitarian utopias" were not, in fact, so engaged. They simply used that rhetoric to reduce the oposition from among their subjects to their attempts to gain power for themselves.

Eventually, of course, the great unwashed masses become cynical and recognize that they have been gyped, but they are ever hopeful that a knight in shining armor will come along and elevate them all to their rightful place in society.

June 30, 2007 at 11:52 PM  
Blogger chris miller said...

Am I correct in concluding, Moldbug, that your contempt for democratic institutions is such that you have no interest in participation ?

And that you are peacefully (though not quietly) waiting for the coup that will replace them with a technocratic oligarchy ?

Because if you did participate, I think you would see how "the veil of ignorance" does get applied in legislation -- even if it's only one of many factors that constitute the eventual compromise.

July 1, 2007 at 7:06 AM  
Anonymous Step2 said...

Hi Mencius,

This was a nice bit of deconstruction, but it was attacking a caricature. To take the NASCAR example, inequality is not based on those with boring untalented jobs being paid less than those with exciting highly talented jobs, it is related to exclusionary impediments that disadvantage types of people, no matter their talent, from utilizing those talents.

The rhetoric was especially odd considering how formalism has a similar goal to Rawls, a contract or framework that minimizes conflict. If you presuppose that conflict is inevitable no matter what, that any disagreement must lead to violence, the whole point of building a system is futile. The question Rawls considers is whether or not priorities in conflict can have stability points among reasonable participants. His focus was on the best rules for all participants who plan to maximize their opportunity. Less noble sentiments will benefit to a lesser degree, but the thought experiment was clearly designed to maximize the success of those facing significant obstacles not of their own making. Those who create their own obstacles or waste their opportunity are not given the same attention as reasonable participants.

One section in particular stuck out in the post. "Cosmic righteousness and consistent, objective law are not just different things. They are actively opposed. Arbitrary rules whose derivation is entirely historical, but whose result is absolutely clear - such as property titles - are often the only way to define a consensus that everyone can agree on peacefully." This assumes that the law is inherently objective and consistent, which is plainly false. It is an abstraction that can only be enforced or not enforced, it has no power of its own to implement its consequence. Law is subjectively bound to the conscience, and thus obeyed, by a sense of obligation to another abstract ideal (harmony, patriotism, divine purpose). The last sentence about property titles is so strange I hardly know where to begin. Do you seriously contend that violent property disputes never occur?

July 1, 2007 at 7:45 AM  
Blogger Victor said...

steve,

I would like to read your solution to the problem you see with Rawls.

In what sense? if you mean my correction of rawlsian political philosophy, then I won't even try to offer one; i think it's too deeply broken.

If you mean a solution in a more general sense, an alternative way to engineer a 'good society', then I will plead simple ignorance and inadequacy, and instead simply say that we try out best and make it up as we go along. Too many people have thought that they could engineer a good society, with predictably abysmal results. I prefer to rely on the slow, bumbling, uncertain, and eminently practical empirical process.

July 1, 2007 at 8:54 AM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

victor,

I am bringing up Pareto optimality not on a societal scale but on an individual scale, which is the only scale on which it can apply.

The argument on welfare benefits is simple. Removing any option from anyone violates (individual) Pareto optimality. For example, any restriction of the right to contract is Pareto-suboptimal. Therefore, if I have any good which is nontransferable, giving me the right to transfer it is a Pareto optimization, as it does not restrict the options available to anyone else.

Of course, you could say that this wouldn't be "good" for "society" as a whole. Since neither of these terms can be defined, the proposition is unfalsifiable, which is perhaps what you meant originally. It is a fine answer, but it is an answer for everything.

July 1, 2007 at 5:38 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

step2,

Your view of law and society is very current with informed opinion today. But informed opinion today is a strange, strange thing.

You write:

Law is subjectively bound to the conscience, and thus obeyed, by a sense of obligation to another abstract ideal (harmony, patriotism, divine purpose).

Au contraire. Law is obeyed because people who disobey the law are put in jail. Show me one example, anywhere, any time, of law existing outside the context of overwhelming force.

This Rousseauvian idea of yours, that government is possible only when the governed love their governors, has been responsible for literally centuries of bloodshed. It is killing people right now as we speak in Iraq. 100 years ago, all sane people assumed that the purpose of the state was to enforce the law, not to be loved. The British governed half the world, with a much higher quality of service than exists almost anywhere today, under this theory, and did so quite successfully.

When they were finally convinced to abandon it, under the influence of thinkers of good thoughts such as yourself, the result was massacre, disaster, corruption and poverty. Where would you personally rather live? In the Cairo of Lord Cromer, or the Cairo of Mubarak? The Basra of Gertrude Bell, or the Basra of Tony Blair?

Even when Rousseauvian government is stable, it is never stable without enforcement behind it, and it amounts in very plain terms to a mechanism of internal security that is based on brainwashing and propaganda. The people's love for "abstract ideals" is seldom entirely spontaneous.

I distrust all velvet gloves. Take the abstract ideals off and show us government as it really is. Law enforcement is not a bad thing.

As for property titles, when was the last time you killed a man and took his house? Violent conflicts over property titles exist, but not in this country.

You write: This assumes that the law is inherently objective and consistent, which is plainly false.

It is amazing that this Legal Realist talk is still considered state-of-the-art. Surely, after the Legal Realists plunged us into a century-long nightmare of litigation and government by judiciary, precisely as its critics warned, we can see the value of legal formalism.

Law is inherently objective and consistent because it is defined as such. If it isn't inherently objective and consistent, it is not the rule of law but the rule of men. Which we have far too much of these days.

As for Rawls, certainly not being able to make the hairpin turn at Laguna Seca at 180mph counts as an exclusionary impediment. It excludes me, for example.

Rawls' way of "minimizing conflict" boils down to assuming it away. The proposition is that since Rawlsianism is reasonable, there is no conflict, because everyone will simply sign the social contract on the dotted line, and accept our new Rawlsian overlords. Here again we see the essential role of the Rawlsian god, who propels all of mankind on a steady course to increasing reasonableness.

Presupposing that conflict is inevitable does not make the construction of a system useless. It makes the construction of a utopia useless. In real systems of government, conflict is resolved by laws, whose distribution of resources is arbitrary but whose enforcement is (ideally) certain. This is called "security," and unless you are posting from Somalia or the Gaza Strip, we are both beneficiaries of it.

July 1, 2007 at 6:06 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

steve, you write:

One can ignore the distributive problem, but eventually the poor revolt and things dissolve into chaos. There are ways around that, but they tend to involve political suppression. Caring for the plight of the poor simply proves to be a way to allow the richest to sleep more comfortably at night and to minimize their security costs.

This is certainly the conventional wisdom. Have you ever wondered, though, whether it's actually true?

What you're saying, stripped of its many political euphemisms, is that the solution to mob violence is to pay off the mob.

Perhaps. The proposition certainly cannot be proven or disproven. No experiment is conceivable. Since (see my comment to step2 above) all governments maintain a monopoly of force, they have to stop paying off the mob at some point, or fall. In practice we observe both outcomes.

Can you name any other cases in which making concessions to violence makes the violence go away? If mob violence generates showers of money, does this seem likely to make the leaders of the mob or their followers say, well, boys, we've certainly got more money than we could possibly use, time to go home and live peacefully?

Several Latin American states provide perfect examples.

I wonder which ones you mean. Certainly Chile, for example, demonstrated that it's very easy for a determined government to suppress revolutionary violence, and that the result is generally peace and prosperity.

And what do you think happens to people that try to raise a mob against the state in Cuba or Venezuela? I suspect Castro's successors will find it very easy to turn Cuba into China-in-the-Caribbean. Heck, he himself is already trying to some extent. As he should.

July 1, 2007 at 6:18 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

chris,

My father was a Foreign Service officer for 25 years, my mother worked at DOE and my stepfather was a Senate staffer. I'd like to think I have no illusions about how the sausage is made!

Ignorance there certainly is, but not about the beneficiaries of legislation, who tend to be quite intimately involved in it.

July 1, 2007 at 6:21 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

victor, you write:

Too many people have thought that they could engineer a good society, with predictably abysmal results. I prefer to rely on the slow, bumbling, uncertain, and eminently practical empirical process.

Imagine if we applied this reasoning to operating systems! They would still be glorified Fortran libraries.

The existence of bad engineering is not a proof that good engineering is impossible. The "empirical process" to which you refer is simply the process of Power, the brute-force approach as it were, and I'd certainly think you saw enough of that in your native land.

July 1, 2007 at 6:25 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

loki,

Those who instituted the political systems that are referred to as "attempts to construct egalitarian utopias" were not, in fact, so engaged. They simply used that rhetoric to reduce the opposition from among their subjects to their attempts to gain power for themselves.

Ah, but who can know these things?

I find it actually quite plausible that many of these dictators were utterly sincere. They see the practical problem of creating utopia from a very different perspective than you and I, so of course their actions strike us as evil. But did they really see themselves as evil?

In any case, their supporters (who included two of my grandparents) were certainly not evil, and the likes of Stalin were not gods. The populist tyrants of the 20th century were problems not because they were evil, if in fact they were - there will always be evil people.

But they managed to trick people into supporting them, and utopian rhetoric was an essential part of that trick. Moreover, whatever the Stalins or Castros of the world think, they always seem to end up running the utopia - without a single exception.

July 1, 2007 at 6:32 PM  
Blogger Victor said...

Mencius

The argument on welfare benefits is simple. Removing any option from anyone violates (individual) Pareto optimality. For example, any restriction of the right to contract is Pareto-suboptimal. Therefore, if I have any good which is nontransferable, giving me the right to transfer it is a Pareto optimization, as it does not restrict the options available to anyone else.

Of course, you could say that this wouldn't be "good" for "society" as a whole. Since neither of these terms can be defined, the proposition is unfalsifiable, which is perhaps what you meant originally. It is a fine answer, but it is an answer for everything.


Dude, the very fact that we are playing within Rawls' framework, for argument's sake, entails us provisionally assuming that the concept of social good, and other social aggregate metrics, makes some sort of sense. None of what we discussed would be possible, or even meaningful, otherwise.

More importantly, there is a whole class of problems (entailing Nash equilibria) which cannot be addressed unless you consider such social aggregates. In fact, the problem of reducing violence, towards solving which you had devised formalism in the first place, necessarily implies that we can make some determinations about society as a whole -- rough and approximate, but determinations nonetheless.

Imagine if we applied this reasoning to operating systems! They would still be glorified Fortran libraries.

You don't lose thousands and millions of lives each time your development library segfaults and each time you make a bad engineering choice! For a concrete example, imagine that you are given the controls to one (1) lunar rover, and only the barest of docs. How careful and cautious are you going to be, if you cannot simply junk a failed experiment and try again?.. Or, even more concretely, recall the famous comparison between the rate of advancement in car and computer technologies.

Now mind you, I am not a Burkean. I sympathize with his methodological arguments, but I do not think that we should spend our entire lives fearfully hugging the coasts. There is a place for bold rationalistic exploration in the process of social progress -- a very small place, preferably on very small scale.

Oh, the irony... I seem to be more conservative than you!

The existence of bad engineering is not a proof that good engineering is impossible. The "empirical process" to which you refer is simply the process of Power, the brute-force approach as it were, and I'd certainly think you saw enough of that in your native land.

Now this I think would have been patently obvious. The very problem with marxism was that it was devised purely in the laboratory of the mind, and then sprung upon unsuspecting citizens of the Russian Empire.

Such leaps are occasionally justified by history (e.g. the American revolution), but by and large, they should be as rare as possible. Certainly Rawls' and your attempts at radical redesign of society, from the ground up, should be shot on sight by the nearest available Vice President.

No, the empirical processes I refer to are pretty much what Burke wrote of -- the organic, gradual accumulation of human experience. Unlike him, I am willing to endorse occasional rationalistic leaps, but only very occasionally and with great reluctance. In this regard, I see myself as following the standard pattern in many computer learning paradigms: most actions are devoted to exploitation, and a small fraction of them are devoted to exploration.

July 1, 2007 at 7:09 PM  
Anonymous tggp said...

Law is obeyed because people who disobey the law are put in jail. Show me one example, anywhere, any time, of law existing outside the context of overwhelming force.
Many ancaps claim it can be done solely with boycotts and reputations. I'm not an ancap and think a monopoly on violence (allowing for things like private security, bounty hunters and so on) is necessary. The economist in me says that people respond to incentives and something like the state is necessary to provide such incentives with respect to many crimes.

It is amazing that this Legal Realist talk is still considered state-of-the-art. Surely, after the Legal Realists plunged us into a century-long nightmare of litigation and government by judiciary, precisely as its critics warned, we can see the value of legal formalism.

Law is inherently objective and consistent because it is defined as such. If it isn't inherently objective and consistent, it is not the rule of law but the rule of men. Which we have far too much of these days.

I am sympathetic to your point, but because law is written in natural language I cannot agree that it is completely objective. I think it can be near enough to that though (communication is not perfectly unambiguous but we get by pretty well without too much effort) so that even if there is no such thing as "rule of law" (rules themselves do not have "primary property" and must instead rely on Officer Friendly) we should strive to act as if that is the case and tighten up the law where we find ambiguities. Sports games tend to have much clearer and more objective rules (this is easier to do when you are covering less behavior and the "objectives" we strive for are more obvious) but they must always be enforced by referees of some sort and there will never be absolute agreement on everything. By the way, what do you think of "The Myth of the Rule of Law" which can be from this page? Personally, it irked me. I think most attacks on the rule of law are really excuses from people who do not really want to abide by the rule of law.

You don't lose thousands and millions of lives each time your development library segfaults and each time you make a bad engineering choice!
We lost plenty of lives right now already. That being said, I agree with your Burkean/Hayekian skepticism of rationally engineering societies in your head and instead favor marginal improvements using trial-and-error to help guide the way. Mencius' "formalism" does seem a relatively attractive direction in which to begin moving though.

Finally, I would like to concur with many great points you made, Mencius, but since I had already made statements arguing the same or similar points that would come off too much like self-congratulation.

July 1, 2007 at 10:06 PM  
Blogger steve said...

tggp:

Who says they get divided and who is doing all this division? You act as if there is a two step process in which in which goods come into existence and then ownership is divied up, but it is all one process.

In the case of employment a person is paid and the person, presumably, participates in the production of some good - tangible or intangible. To assert that it can only be seen as one process suggests that there is no difference between working and getting paid. If that is what you really believe, I would like to hire you!

Ownership of the excesses of cooperation is divvied up when parties agree to any exchange. And you are right that trade plays a key role. When two parties approach the bargaining table with roughly equal power, there is a reasonbable chance that the excesses of cooperation will be divvied up in a way that minimizes dissatisfaction. Since the marginal utility of any good is monotonically decreasing, this ought to, in some sense, maximize value or utility or satisfaction produced by the transaction.

so you've got a normative assumption you must have smuggled in that I haven't seen yet in order for that phrase to indicate anything.

I am not convinced that there is an optimal distribution of the goods that flow from cooperation under all unrestrained free market conditions. For example:

Consider a nation that spends half again as much per capita on health care as the next highest spender and gets results that are by virtually any objective criterion worse than any in the top 20 percent of nations. Is the distribution of health care resources sub-optimal? Is it possible to express in the language you are speaking that there is any problem here? That it is either reasonable or desirable to talk about change? Does it matter whether people are aware of this set of facts or not? Or whether they are bothered by them? I hope you can imagine a person holding an intelligent role in this conversation who has not mastered your particular discipline’s jargon.

Non-emotivists at least tend to agree with Hume that you can't get is from ought or ought from is,

I am trained as an engineer and what engineers do is change ought to is.


As for Hunt’s piece on Diamond I must say I am mystified why the presence of Polynesian rats on an isolated island is not de-facto evidence of Polynesians. That a rat would cross 800 miles of open ocean seems unlikely to me.

I understand why rats would cause trees not to reproduce; but I am at a loss to explain how they might actually fell trees..The language of the article comes perilously close to blaming rats for both “substantial evidence that it was rats, more so than humans, that led to deforestation.“ Finally, all the people he quotes suggest deforestation was substantially complete by 1650. If the humans brought rats as a food source and the rats lived only on tree seeds, then the absence of trees would necessarily mean a dearth of food and fuel. Hunt skips this.

Finally, if an animal is purposefully introduced to a new environment as a food source, and that animal plays a role in environmental degredation, is it not reasonable to place part of the blame for the degradation on the humans. Are we to blame deforestation in Brazil exclusively on cows, for instance?

July 1, 2007 at 11:36 PM  
Anonymous loki on the run said...


I find it actually quite plausible that many of these dictators were utterly sincere. They see the practical problem of creating utopia from a very different perspective than you and I, so of course their actions strike us as evil. But did they really see themselves as evil?


As Steven Jay Gould told us, to deceive others, people must first deceive themselves. He clearly did not understand that that dictum applied to him as well.



In any case, their supporters (who included two of my grandparents) were certainly not evil, and the likes of Stalin were not gods. The populist tyrants of the 20th century were problems not because they were evil, if in fact they were - there will always be evil people.


I find the term evil to be useless. There are several different behavioral morphs as far as I can see, perhaps more than several, including psychopaths. It may well be that some people can facultatively express different morphs, but at the end of the day they are all mostly engaged in trying to achieve the same goal. However, their aims might be inimical to me and mine.


But they managed to trick people into supporting them, and utopian rhetoric was an essential part of that trick. Moreover, whatever the Stalins or Castros of the world think, they always seem to end up running the utopia - without a single exception.


Yes, that is the eventual point of view of the great unwashed masses, but they seem to line up every time to be fooled. Of course, the political classes know this, and keep on exploiting them.

July 2, 2007 at 11:30 AM  
Anonymous Michael S. said...

"Law is obeyed because people who disobey the law are put in jail."

The only answer to this must be, it depends upon the law. Cannibalism is against the law, but most people avoid cannibalism because they have a strong aversion to the idea of eating human flesh - and to murder or grave robbery, which would necessarily precede that act - not because they fear imprisonment or execution.

On the other hand, the only reason the great majority of people pay income taxes is that severe fines or imprisonment are likely to befall them if they don't.

Moral sentiments or prejudices precede the existence of laws. A distinction must be made between laws that simply codify pre-existing morality and those that result from the desire of those who rule for the time being to discourage certain kinds of behavior, usually that which threatens their rule.

July 2, 2007 at 3:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reply, Mencius.

Your view of law is not a polar opposite of mine, since I recognize that law exists in reality only to the point that it is enforced. On the other hand, it seems clear to me that whatever penalties that are imposed on the violator, it is far better for the majority of citizens to internalize a degree of consent to the law so that fear of punishment is only one reason (and preferably a secondary or tertiary reason) to obey the law. Tyrannies around the globe use the fear of punishment as their only weapon to control dissent and prevent change, so giving any security apparatus absolute power with no checks or balances will lead to absolute corruption.

My idea does not have to depend upon a love of the government, in fact I have no problem with people being cynical and distrustful of their governments, especially under our current regime. What I do think is that any government functioning without majority consent of the governed is in jeopardy of being a tyranny and justifiably removed from power. I would rather not get into a sidetrack on Iraq, but suffice it to say that the hubris, deception, and utter mismanagement of the fiasco doomed the venture from the start.

Violent conflicts over property titles rarely occur in this country because people trust our legal system, also because major internal upheavals are infrequent in this country. When conflicts do occur they are often among people in the same family or in the same business. Arson and vandalism are violent acts as well, I did not intend to restrict the example to killing.

Legal formalism, as you have presented it, is a useful method for codifying the past and judging the present. In that respect, I would give it some measure of support. However, I do not see any clear mechanism for how it can adapt to change or how it can retain its objective consistency in the face of violations that exploit the spirit if not the letter of the law.

As an example, claiming your inability to make a hairpin turn is an exclusionary impediment is violating the spirt of Rawls' thought experiment. Whether or not you would be allowed to discover if you can make that turn is the point of what Rawls was investigating. If you can't make it, too bad, but at least you have an opportunity to find out. If you can make it, you should have the right to use that talent.

I do not consider Rawls to be a involved in the construction of a system, unless you consider after the fact justifications of the New Deal and the Civil Rights Act to be construction. I am quite happy for the security we benefit from in this country, I just find the idea of security and the rule of law to be based on other factors than coercive force by the government, some of which I actively consent to and others which are inherited as a larger national tradition.

July 2, 2007 at 4:02 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

victor,

More importantly, there is a whole class of problems (entailing Nash equilibria) which cannot be addressed unless you consider such social aggregates. In fact, the problem of reducing violence, towards solving which you had devised formalism in the first place, necessarily implies that we can make some determinations about society as a whole -- rough and approximate, but determinations nonetheless.

Oh, I certainly agree. I just think it's possible to think at both levels. If you are violating Pareto optimality, you need a good reason why, that's all. I was not posing this as a fatal problem, just a problem.

The very problem with Marxism was that it was devised purely in the laboratory of the mind, and then sprung upon unsuspecting citizens of the Russian Empire.

Victor, I have a great deal of respect for your moderate Burkeanism and I'm very confident that I will never convince you out of it. However, this does not stop me from trying.

For me, the problem with Marxism is that it didn't work. This was obvious to many people before it was tried (especially since what was actually tried owed at least as much to Bellamy as to Marx). Bastiat, for example, knew exactly what was wrong with Marx and why. Reason is possible.

However, I should note that the system I'm proposing is not at all untried. My suggestion boils down to the idea that states should be managed by their creditors, a design for social organization that is hundreds of years old and clearly scales to enterprises much larger than many modern states. We know how it works, why it works, when it works and when it doesn't.

Applying this corporate model to sovereign property is certainly an experiment. But I think it's much closer to your moderate Burkeanism than you suspect. It certainly is a far cry from the anarcho-capitalist visions of a Murray Rothbard.

July 2, 2007 at 10:21 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

loki,

Your bent for rhetorical aggression seems to exceed mine, which is a little scary, though I suppose your handle is warning enough! But I think we basically agree.

July 2, 2007 at 10:25 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

anonymous (step2, I presume),

You write:

Tyrannies around the globe use the fear of punishment as their only weapon to control dissent and prevent change, so giving any security apparatus absolute power with no checks or balances will lead to absolute corruption.

Will they? I'd argue that tyranny as we know it is more a phenomenon of insecurity than of security. A perfectly secure ruler has no incentive, for example, to restrict freedom of speech. Any disutility imposed on his or her subjects has the same effect on the Laffer curve as taxation, and a rational absolute ruler will prefer the latter.

I am certainly violating the spirit of Rawls' thought-experiment. I have no problem with conscience and social spirit - I much prefer to live in a society with others who are conscientious. It's just that, as an engineer, I prefer to overdesign for load, and as a structural component in a social design, good intentions that are easy to "lawyer around" strike me as more the handrail and less the I-beam.

July 2, 2007 at 10:36 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

michael s.,

Your point is certainly valid when it comes to the practicalities of enforcement, although note that moral sentiments vary between cultures - dietary cannibalism is by no means unknown in human history.

Laws that strike people as sensible need enforcement, too. They just need a lot less of it. But I do recognize the distinction, blurry though it is.

July 2, 2007 at 10:39 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

tggp,

You agree with me, I agree with you :-) Law cannot be made mathematical, but it can get close enough for a judge whose only interest is correct interpretation to apply accurately. I really think prediction markets would shed some light on this, btw.

The Hasnas paper ("Myth of the Rule of Law") is better than I expected from your description, but not much better. Yes, of course, it is possible to write ridiculously ambiguous so-called laws. But as they say in Texas, "don't piss on my boots and tell me it's raining."

July 2, 2007 at 10:42 PM  
Anonymous TGGP said...

In the case of employment a person is paid and the person, presumably, participates in the production of some good - tangible or intangible.
I thought you and Rawls were discussing societal redistribution, not within a corporation. To me, that is a contractual arrangement and I have no opinion unless I am a party to it in some way.

When two parties approach the bargaining table with roughly equal power
What is "power"? Does that refer to supply & demand?

there is a reasonbable chance that the excesses of cooperation will be divvied up in a way that minimizes dissatisfaction.
If satisfaction and dissatisfaction cannot be objectively measured, how do we know whether or not it is minimized?

Since the marginal utility of any good is monotonically decreasing
This is nit-picking, but I would not go that far. I think in the limit it is, but sometimes aquiring an additional unit can raise the value of all units you possess. You can't do much with one Rocke'em Sock'em robot, but if you've got another you can have them fight.

this ought to, in some sense, maximize value or utility or satisfaction produced by the transaction.
Although I defend neo-classicalism against Mencius' Austrian leanings, I will not do so in the case of utility. Utility really is inherently subjective and at best ordinal rather than cardinal. It makes no sense to try to aggregate it, and only acting individuals can be said to "maximize" it (by picking their most preferred option) in any form.

Consider a nation that spends half again as much per capita on health care as the next highest spender and gets results that are by virtually any objective criterion worse than any in the top 20 percent of nations. Is the distribution of health care resources sub-optimal?
I really am a thoroughgoing subjectivist. I do not think anything can objectively be said to be "sub-optimal". I also think you are making a causal leap between health care spending and outcomes, especially between countries considering massive differences in lifestyles (Japanese in America and Japan are both very long-lived, for example). Robin Hanson, radical as he is considered by others on the former point, seems pretty reasonable to me. I admit I do not put much thought into health-care policy and am likely more ignorant than others concerned about the issue though. If you want to discuss actual political issues in the air today, do so with the people here or here or some other place where people have some inkling of what they're talking about.

I am trained as an engineer and what engineers do is change ought to is.
Are you a societal engineer? Truth be told, I don't believe in "oughts" in any objective sense. An engineer can design a gas-chamber for jews to be killed in, but that doesn't tell us anything about "ought".

As for Hunt’s piece on Diamond I must say I am mystified why the presence of Polynesian rats on an isolated island is not de-facto evidence of Polynesians. That a rat would cross 800 miles of open ocean seems unlikely to me.
I don't see where you disagree with Hunt. He claims the rats came with the Polynesians. He does discuss the findings of J. Stephen Athens with regard to the Eawa plain on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, which was devastated by rats before human beings settled that part of the island (after arriving with rats on other parts).

I understand why rats would cause trees not to reproduce; but I am at a loss to explain how they might actually fell trees.
In evolutionary fitness terms it does not matter whether something dies early or fails to reproduce.

The language of the article comes perilously close to blaming rats for both “substantial evidence that it was rats, more so than humans, that led to deforestation.“

Did you mean to have a semicolon or comma there? Does both refer to the previous sentence or the remainder of its own?

Finally, all the people he quotes suggest deforestation was substantially complete by 1650. If the humans brought rats as a food source and the rats lived only on tree seeds, then the absence of trees would necessarily mean a dearth of food and fuel. Hunt skips this.
I don't think he ever said seeds were the the only food source for the rats or that the humans lacked other sources of food and fuel. I also don't get what point you are trying to make.

Finally, if an animal is purposefully introduced to a new environment as a food source, and that animal plays a role in environmental degredation, is it not reasonable to place part of the blame for the degradation on the humans. Are we to blame deforestation in Brazil exclusively on cows, for instance?Cows do not run wild at 75 per acre, and are often fenced in, which prevents them from destroying what their owners do not want them to destroy. Also, in the first sentence of the fifth paragraph in "Rats in Paradise", hunter presents the possibility that the rats were stowaways. Finally, in another sentence you quoted Hunter contrasts his rat hypothesis with that of "humans, who cut down trees for a number of uses and practiced slash-and-burn agriculture.", which is different from a question about moral culpability or something (David Friedman dismisses similar concerns regarding another environmental issue here).

July 3, 2007 at 12:34 AM  
Blogger Victor said...

Mencius,

You know, perhaps you could enable the <blockquote> tag.

For me, the problem with Marxism is that it didn't work. This was obvious to many people before it was tried (especially since what was actually tried owed at least as much to Bellamy as to Marx). Bastiat, for example, knew exactly what was wrong with Marx and why. Reason is possible.

Ah yes, the wonders of 20/20 hindsight. It's easy after the fact to point to the argument which got it right -- as easy as it is to shoot at the wall first, and then draw the bullseye around the best cluster.

Sure, the problem with marxism is that it didn't work. That's the only problem worth taking seriously. However, the underlying issue is that grand engineering schemes designed in the laboratory of the mind without the testing cycle generally tend to not work in spectacular ways. The problem here of course is that these spectacular failures tend to end up being amazingly nasty and violent.

I can similarly write a lengthy treatise on why formalism won't work, and perhaps it will be wrong, perhaps right -- but we won't find out until we try a radical experiment of implementing it on a societal scale in modern world (Icelandic republic is not much help there); and if I am right, my "I told you so" will have come at a hefty, and likely bloody, cost.

However, I should note that the system I'm proposing is not at all untried. My suggestion boils down to the idea that states should be managed by their creditors, a design for social organization that is hundreds of years old and clearly scales to enterprises much larger than many modern states. We know how it works, why it works, when it works and when it doesn't.

AFAIK it is the design that is nearly untried in the context of a state, a comprehensive sovereign. Furthermore, it is thusly untried in the context of a modern world. Just for one example of a potential problem with it, consider the fact that free-market healthcare insurance is fundamentally broken, yet modern healthcare is such that it is effectively unaffordable without insurance. Would your corporate state institute universal healthcare insurance? Perhaps so; but this already infringes upon its mandate as I understand it (the existence of the ability to opt out of healthcare is a major part of what breaks free market in health insurance).

In short, your proposition is yet another rationalistic utopia. It is one which I, frankly, find quite appealing; but I think it fundamentally a bad idea to play with rationalistic utopias.

I think that at the end of the day, you function much better as a social critic than a social engineer.

Applying this corporate model to sovereign property is certainly an experiment. But I think it's much closer to your moderate Burkeanism than you suspect. It certainly is a far cry from the anarcho-capitalist visions of a Murray Rothbard.

Good thing I am not an anarcho-capitalist then.

July 3, 2007 at 5:29 AM  
Blogger River Cocytus said...

mendacious: As a Christian myself, I find your analysis vis a vis 'Crypto-Calvinism' spot on.

I was part of a Christian org in college called 'Intervarsity Christian Fellowship' which was disturbingly leftist. The theological trap they lay for themselves goes more or less as follows:

God's infinite dignity is offended by Adam's Sin (adam comes from the Hebrew word for 'A man')

No matter what we have done we a regarded as guilty of this Sin,

Disregarding the rest of Christ's life, only his sacrifice is considered to have any importance, specifically the blood sacrifice - symbolic - for sin,

Paul's line about our righteousness being as filthy rags is played up - often indicating an idea that we as humans can do NO good,

Thus believers are saddled with a false and inexorable guilt - which they are by their own action or decision or volition to be relieved of.

This plays deeply with what you have fairly accurately described regarding their so-called Providence. If Providence can be said to exist, comprehending what it is 'doing' requires an understanding of the goal of such a thing, which then in turn requires a grasp of truth (both universals and specifics.

Any kind of theology which couples a reliance on truth with a purposeful ignorance of a large section of it is headed straight for the promised land of error.

Not to even begin to mention that we simply don't know everything.

July 3, 2007 at 11:53 AM  
Blogger River Cocytus said...

'which they are by their own action or decision or volition to be relieved of.'

- should read

'which they are by their own action or decision or volition UNABLE to be relieved of.'

I'm saying it is basically a Pagan kind of Christianity.

July 3, 2007 at 11:56 AM  
Blogger River Cocytus said...

tggp:

Re:

Law is obeyed because people who disobey the law are put in jail. Show me one example, anywhere, any time, of law existing outside the context of overwhelming force.

My adage now simply is:

"The need creates the reason."

A good rule of thumb, I think.

July 3, 2007 at 12:25 PM  
Anonymous tggp said...

free-market healthcare insurance is fundamentally broken
What free-market healthcare insurance (to say nothing of licensing restrictions on doctors and intellectual property restrictions)? There was no such thing as "health insurance" (I don't think they even used the phrase "health care") before WW2 era price-controls caused companies to offer it instead of salaries that could be used to purchase it, and since then government policies have further entrenched the connection between employment and health insurance, which of course is really insulation. If you look at areas of medicine closer to the free-market, we see very different trends.

As I mentioned before, I can't offer good discussion on health care because I am so ignorant. Nevertheless, I would prefer if you were more specific as to how the current health-care system is broken, the reason why private health care should be expected to be inferior to public health care and in which way you think the system should be changed. At that point I will likely have nothing to contribute, but hopefully by then the conversation will have advanced to a point where others can further it along.

July 3, 2007 at 11:40 PM  
Anonymous TGGP said...

tggp:
You quoted something I didn't write. Did you mean to respond to something else I wrote, or to another person?

July 3, 2007 at 11:41 PM  
Blogger Victor said...

The free market in health insurance suffers from two market failure modes: moral hazard and adverse selection. Both are integral to healthcare as we conceive of it in a sane and free society. HMOs were an attempt to attenuate those failures somewhat, but as we all know, it didn't work out too well; and so the free market in healthcare insurance remains structurally broken.

July 4, 2007 at 6:08 AM  
Anonymous tggp said...

Once again, we do not have a free market in health care when THE MAJORITY OF SPENDING IS DONE BY THE GOVERNMENT, and that's only part of it. Adverse selection is not the problem

July 4, 2007 at 10:04 AM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

victor,

I'm afraid the tag restrictions in comments are built into Blogger, unless there is some tweak I haven't found. I don't see why I can't scale my comments section into a full-on forum, but perhaps the lack of a profit motive has something to do with it :-)

I have to agree with TGGP on the health-insurance question: what the US has now actually combines all (okay, almost all) the worst features of a socialist medical system, with the worst features of a capitalist one. A typical hypocritical compromise.

Providing free medical care to people who can't afford to buy it themselves is, quite simply, charity. It's one of the oldest and most common forms of charity, and in a wealthy Western nation it's simply inconceivable that it would fail to thrive. We would all have to turn into Randian maniacs - including the doctors themselves, people who are generally quite happy to care for the poor gratis.

The American medical system worked quite well before the New Deal, and in fact doctors were some of FDR's most bitter opponents. Now, of course, they have been assimilated, and they sing the usual chants of praise.

Again, I find your objections to rationalistic utopias perfectly sensible. Reason works by definition. It is always 100% right. The only problem is that not everything that claims to be reason actually is, and I wish people used the word "rationalism" more in the pejorative way that you do, as a parallel to "scientism."

However, as a social critic, I feel it's tacky to criticize without explaining what I think would work better. Of course anyone is free to take the one without the other.

our brains are

July 4, 2007 at 12:51 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

cocytus,

I'm not sure I agree with the charge of paganism, but I follow the rest, and I think it's interesting to see leftist Calvinism at such a detailed theological level in the modern world. As of course you know the same message is usually just delivered as warm fuzz. But the theology is there behind it.

July 4, 2007 at 12:53 PM  
Blogger Victor said...

Mencius,

Are you aware of the care Milton Friedman had made for an austere welfare state being justified in a purely economic way, from the POV of hard-nosed self-interest?.. Supposedly alleviating abject poverty costs a society less that suffering its effect, such as crime and decreased productivity.

July 4, 2007 at 3:56 PM  
Blogger steve said...

Regarding the question of Diamond vs. Hunt and Collapse at Easter Island, a more complete discussion of my own point of view can be found at Worry Wart.

July 4, 2007 at 4:45 PM  
Anonymous tggp said...

steve, what terrible internet etiquette! You didn't link to your Worry Wart post!

Since you closed the comments there, I will respond here.

persistently denied by the most orthodox laissez affaire economists.
You should be more specific as to who you are referring to. It would be best if you used quotes from people to show that they say or believe the things you state they do.

A second error is to imagine that all people can afford the good at a higher cost.
I cannot imagine an actual economist making that assumption. Someone that did so would not be an economist by any standard I know of.

Or that if this not so, it is an irrelevant fact.
It is the reason demand curves slope downward.

By most accounts, it was a general paucity of bread that drove Parisians to behave as they did during the French Revolution.
Revolutions, including the French one, do not occur when things are at their worst, but when they begin to improve, albeit not to a satisfactory degree. This is called the "crisis of rising expecations". Note that North Korea has been quite stable despite possibly the worst poverty in the world, and France was wealthier than average in revolutionary times.

Now, the laissez-affaire economist would say “not to worry” trees are extremely valuable. They are used in agriculture, building, cooking, and the arts. In short, the whole of the Easter Island economy is built on trees. If there is a shortage, the price will escalate, and more will be produced.
That would only be true if trees were owned, not if there was a "tragedy of the commons", as is my impression of most primitive economies.

In fact, with the current cost of resources - cheap as they are compared to what they are likely to be in three decades from now
What do the futures markets say about the price of water? If Julian Simon were alive, would you make a bet on water as he did with a variety of resources Paul Ehrlich challenged him with?

compares Haiti to the Dominican Republic
What on earth could cause Haiti to resemble an African country and the Dominican Republic to resemble a Latin American country? I have no idea! Do you think that the difference is how laissez-faire the former is compared to the latter?

July 4, 2007 at 9:00 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

victor,

I am generally aware of this Friedmanite argument, though I don't think I've read it specifically. It is certainly echoed by many DC libertarians who wish to preserve the status quo, or at least say they do.

No such argument can be demonstrated or refuted either experimentally or deductively. However, common sense still works, and common sense tells me the argument that welfare reduces crime is dubious to say the least, especially in the light of present history. Friedman once favored a "negative income tax," but I think he abandoned this point.

Charles Murray's Losing Ground is really, really excellent on this point - I suspect you would really enjoy engaging with it, even if you're not predisposed to its conclusions.

July 5, 2007 at 8:53 PM  
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November 6, 2008 at 2:34 PM  
Blogger 信次 said...

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January 31, 2009 at 11:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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March 2, 2009 at 7:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! thanks a lot! ^^

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March 2, 2009 at 7:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

~「朵語‧,最一件事,就。好,你西

March 6, 2009 at 9:30 PM  

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