Thursday, December 17, 2009 19 Comments

Shooting the alligator and other conversations

I feel last week's essay, which was late anyway, is meaty enough for two weeks. So there.

There are a few comments from me on a new blog, Liberal Biorealism, eg here and here. The author is a credentialed philosopher attempting to reconcile the two halves of his title. Which ain't easy, since biorealism (an elegant coinage) is what some call HBD and most call racism.

Teh Internets are a big place, though, surely with room for a good liberal racist. Naturally, LB's goal is to convince liberals to be racist rather than racists to be liberal, and he is not always good about replying when served. But he can take off the gloves and hit a little. I charge him with contempt for history; he suggests that I should be burned as a witch. We could both be right.

A textbook example of how to handle one of these ambushes comes from a Columbia (or, well, Barnard) economics professor, Rajiv Sethi. (You can tell you're a geek if you think "Sethi" should rhyme with "get high.") Professor Sethi and I discuss maturity transformation and deposit insurance. Giving an excellent impression of genuine intellectual curiosity, handling his inadequate academic weapon ably while advancing in a retrograde direction, he disappears out the back door of the dojo with limbs, honor, and ego intact, to go ogle his coeds.

It is remarkable how resistant economists, Austrians of course excepted, are to anything like a monocausal explanation of the business cycle. Professor Sethi - and perhaps even President Dudley - can clearly follow the entire reasoning, even if his model isn't quite done yet. He understands that malaria is transmitted by mosquitoes. Which leads him to conclude: malaria is transmitted by mosquitoes, miasmas, and evil spirits. Also, malaria can never be eradicated, because there are mosquitoes everywhere - not to mention the miasmas and evil spirits.

The problem, I think, is that the business cycle is the prime arcanum of 20th-century macroeconomics. From January 1, 1900 to December 31, 1999, 20th-century economists sold cures for this disease. Indeed they sold pretty much nothing else. Since they did not, in fact, cure it, it must be very deep and mysterious, and very hard to cure. Again, an intellectual pathology quite reminiscent of the medieval scholastics. Any data that does not fit this hypothesis goes in one ear and out the other - its implications, like those of Climategate, are simply too large to process.

Finally, I append brief indignant parting thoughts to yet another insufferable Bryan Caplan paean to Whig history. I thought I'd paste in the text of that Macaulay quote - appearing in the excellent Democracy and France, by the unjustly forgotten Edmond Scherer - one of many volumes that Professor Caplan will never be able to read, because it (a) anticipates his thesis by 125 years, and (b) associates it with all the wrong crowd.

Note that while I do believe that Macaulay actually both said and believed this, it is significant that he seldom if ever said and believed it publicly. (The quote, like Mill's famous quip about "a good stout despotism," is from a letter). The Whigs of then were more sensible, it seems, than the Whigs of now - but no less sly:
I am certain that I never wrote a line, and that I never, in parliament, in conversation, or even on the hustings, - a place where it is the fashion to court the populace, - uttered a word indicating an opinion that the supreme authority in a state ought to be entrusted to the majority of citizens told by the head; in other words, to the poorest and most ignorant part of society. I have long been convinced that institutions purely democratic must, sooner or later, destroy liberty, or civilization, or both.
But the time will come when New England will be as thickly peopled as Old England. Wages will be as low, and will fluctuate as much with you as with us. You will have your Manchesters and your Birminghams, and in those Manchesters and Birminghams hundreds of thousands of artizans will assuredly be sometimes out of work. Then your institutions will be fairly brought to the test.

Distress everywhere makes the labourer mutinous and discontented, and inclines him to listen with eagerness to agitators, who tell him that it is a monstrous iniquity that one man should have a million, while another cannot get a full meal. In bad years there is plenty of grumbling here, and sometimes a little rioting; but it matters little, for here the sufferers are not the rulers. The supreme power is in the hands of a class, numerous indeed, but select, of an educated class, of a class which is, and knows itself to be, deeply interested in the security of property and the maintenance of order.

Accordingly, the malcontents are firmly but gently restrained The bad time is got over without robbing the wealthy to relieve the indigent. The springs of national prosperity soon begin to flow again; work is plentiful, wages rise, and all is tranquillity and cheerfulness I have seen England pass three or four times through such critical seasons as I have described. Through such seasons the United States will have to pass in the course of the next century, if not of this. How will you pass through them?

I heartily wish you a good deliverance. But my reason and my wishes are at war, and I cannot help foreboding the worst. It is quite plain that your government will never be able to restrain a distressed and discontented majority, for with you the majority is the government, and has the rich, who are always a minority, absolutely at its mercy.

The day will come when in the state of New York, a multitude of people, not one of whom has had more than half a breakfast, or expects to have more than half a dinner, will choose a Legislature. Is it possible to doubt what sort of Legislature will be chosen? On one side is a statesman preaching patience, respect for vested rights, strict observance of public faith. On the other is a demagogue ranting about the tyranny of capitalists and usurers, and asking why anybody should be permitted to drink champagne and to ride in a carriage while thousands of honest folks are in want of necessaries. Which of the two candidates is likely to be preferred by a working man who hears his children crying for more bread?

I seriously apprehend that you will, in some such season of adversity as I have described, do things which will prevent prosperity from returning. Either some Caesar or Napoleon will seize the reins of government with a strong hand, or your Republic will be as fearfully plundered and laid waste by barbarians in the twentieth century as the Roman empire was in the fifth, with this difference, that the Huns and Vandals who ravaged the Roman empire came from without, and that your Huns and Vandals will have been engendered within your own country by your own institutions.
Scherer comments:
His reasoning is powerful, indeed it is always so. Macaulay had the merit of conveying a precise meaning in ordinary language. Democracy, according to him, tends to socialism, and socialism consists in taking from those who have and giving to those who have not; and, as is the case in democracy, those who have not are at the same time those who take, so the proceedings restore a state of things primitive in the history of society, - expropriation and conquest.
Ie: it's hard out there for a Whig.


Anonymous Erik said...

Excellent and interesting, Moldbug!

December 17, 2009 at 3:47 AM  
Anonymous josh said...

Liberal Biorealism is blocked on our public school network. Category: Hate. Good luck, professor.

December 17, 2009 at 7:21 AM  
Blogger Leonard said...

Sadly, Mencius never does seem to get across to the guy that democracy won and continues to prevail via military means. Would Obama have won his "peace" prize if the USA had no military capability to initiate wars of conquest outside of North America? No, of course not.

I will join Mr. Liberal Biorealist in condemning the use of "parahumans", or "subhumans", or such, for various debased criminal scum. No, these men are fully human; that is part of the problem. (I take a biological essentialist position on "human".) These men are debased by culture, not genes. "Bezonian", please.

December 17, 2009 at 7:49 AM  
Blogger Jewish Atheist said...

Which ain't easy, since biorealism (an elegant coinage) is what some call HBD and most call racism.

There's no reason you can't be a liberal and believe in HBD. HBD is just more evidence against the "poor people are just lazy" hypothesis of many anti-liberals. (I can't say "conservatives," because what does that even mean anymore?) The original progressives were pretty straightforwardly racists, weren't they?

The reason that contemporary liberalism is instinctively opposed to HBD is that it appears on first blush to be a milder form of all the horrible anti-liberal racist claims of years (not so far) past. And it's been seized upon by people like you to support those old anti-liberal arguments.

The racists -- who were very wrong, make no mistake -- were defeated at great cost, and so obviously, liberals are going to be skittish about anything resembling racism. But the mild claims of HBD, which people like you pretend support the old claims of the segregationists and slaveholders, etc., do not support those claims. HBD has to do with statistical averages, and I don't think it's a single-SD difference in IQ that the segregationists of old believed in.

But it's easy to tell who cares about the science of HBD and who uses it as a propaganda tool. Watson, Pinker, Summers -- all those guys are liberals who care about the truth. The commenters here who hold up Detroit as the epitome of African-Americanism (rather than an outlier) and those who are anti-semitic (oh, well with regard to THE JEWS, IQ isn't the most relevant measure!!) and those who insist that Barack Obama is unintelligent... well, I think I know where they stand, intellectual honesty-wise.

December 17, 2009 at 8:26 AM  
Anonymous tenkev said...

Jewish Atheist - Detroit is the rule, not an exception. See Memphis, Baltimore, Washington DC, New Orleans, Camden, Atlanta, Philadelphia

December 17, 2009 at 10:40 AM  
Blogger Savrola said...

Like Mtraven, JA's every post is a fundamental demonstration of liberalism's intellectual superficiality.

And why not? Any idealogy that's modelled as many hats as liberalism has, is bound to be far adrift from all but it's...uh, biological origins.

For example, the "poor people are just lazy" meme is wholly Puritanical/Calvinistic...Whig perspective.

So from a liberal perspective, what does "it's not their fault mean?"

To the liberal, it means that the time has come to be particularly mendacious.

The anti-thesis of the liberal free will position is the pre-Enlightenment school of thought which postulated that people are the way they are, and we have to make allowances.
Of course, this sometimes involves chopping off people's heads, and enslaving
It's a bit difficult to understand the origins of the pre-Enlightenment view on free-will,
because universal-humanism existed in the Dark Ages, with it's desire to remake humanity in the image of varying ideals, and the two theories coexisted frequently.
Therefore, the Puritan's efforts impose their rampant egalitarianims on mankind were frequently aided by non and anti-Puritans, in much the same way that young Southern American men, are eagerly dying overseas to complete the destruction of their identity.

Liberalism vociferously opposes diversity based on a dialectical approach based on constant alteration.

In terms of intellectual honesty, does not Obama, with his similar IQ levels and long record of lazymindedness resemble George Bush?

December 17, 2009 at 11:21 AM  
Blogger TGGP said...

I liked the point about Teutonophiles rather than Anglophiles. It is just silly to blame "New Dealers" for Bismarck's baby. An explanation for this is in Ed Glaeser's Why Doesn't the U.S. Have a European-Style Welfare State? (I know I've pointed it out many times before, but it's really on topic for what's discussed at this blog). Like Liberal Biorealist, Glaeser highlights the fact that racial/ethnic diversity inhibits the creation & growth of a welfare state. At my own blog recently we've been discussing the replacement of monarchy/aristocracy with democracy and its causes, all are invited to join in.

tenkev, Atlanta seems out of place on your list.

December 17, 2009 at 11:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The racists -- who were very wrong, make no mistake -- were defeated at great cost

What cost? There was considerable effort, but it cost nothing as far as I can tell. And if "progressives" freely chose to assume that cost, why should I care? The fact that they paid for it does not mean I should support it.

The "costs" of solving this problem certainly vastly outweigh any benefits.

December 17, 2009 at 12:11 PM  
Anonymous Basque said...

Mencius, thanks for the links to the discussions you had. I always enjoy reading you demolish academics. In the past I've always enjoyed stumbling across some discussion you've had in various comment threads across the blogosphere.

I know it's probably too inconvenient for you to link to every notable discussion you've ever had, but whenever possible please do! They're almost as enjoyable as your essays and it's always fun to watch the reactions of your interlocutors.

December 17, 2009 at 1:05 PM  
Blogger TGGP said...

Off-topic for this thread, but in case anyone's interest in George Kennan remains piqued, check out Grant Havers' recent post at TakiMag. Havers also manages to tie in his own book on Lincoln.

December 17, 2009 at 2:29 PM  
Blogger Alrenous said...

"Our political system, to be consistent with human nature, must accommodate our wired-in drive to help others."


It's interesting that this means, "There must be laws forcing people to be charitable." Read literally, it's the utterly obvious, "Humans' political system must take into account the properties of humans."

An apparently lost thought; if it's truly a human desire, all the system needs to is be indifferent, and let humans go ahead and pursue their desires.

Were we to find this is not enough, then the very premise is denied; it is to find that humans don't like charity all that much.

"I think this is a lesson from biology that many on the right ... don’t really choose to hear and attend to."

That there need be laws forcing people to be charitable, if indeed it is human nature to be charitable? Indeed not, why would they 'attend' to that lesson?

"It is telling that, typically, those on the right who accept HBD suddenly find themselves invoking highly abstract and bloodless notions, such as an inviolable right to property"

Phew. Was worried I might be misinterpreting for a second there.

"Yet what does such a formal and idealized notion have to do with human biology, and human inclinations taken as a whole?"

I thought science was all about formalizing descriptions of existence into idealized laws. Apparently LB disagrees.

"It is telling too that those on the right who believe in HBD, who so often find a biological impulse driving virtually every cultural development, seem to envision that someday we will turn away from our current welfare state systems, which are the norm across all industrialized democracies."


"It is telling that [some] seem to think that our current welfare system is not working."


Well I suppose it's like debate. Good first try, I guess.

"Isn’t the most natural explanation of mankind’s convergence on such a state that liberalism is built into us?"

Having found the natural explanation, it is of course unnecessary to continue investigating, or indeed even to verify its naturalism.

"Why deny the possibility of biology playing a crucial role here?"

Oh, I thought we were talking about political might-makes-right. Are we back to talking about the fact that human political systems are best served by taking into account the properties of humans?

"Why imagine that we might ever spurn the welfare state?"

My logic circuits are getting whiplash.

Bit stupid of me to assume there might be logic here, really.

"The difficult question will be how to come to terms with, and reconcile, all of the strong biological inclinations human beings harbor."

For example - and I'm just throwing this out here - welfare might not be the best way to show compassion. Someone ought to look into it, mayhap. Try an alternative, even, just for a bit.

Whoa there! No need to get so excited. It's just something to think about.

"Our political system"...

I'm so glad it's not my political system. I'd hate to be responsible for that catastrophe.


Incidentally this is the exact reason I don't read this stuff, normally. I wonder how much it must hurt to twist one's own thoughts so cruelly.

Were it proven that humans are not sufficiently charitable, would LB have any difficulty in using this as an even stronger argument for not only welfare, but welfare as it currently exists?

The argument...err, intended not structured to tolerate this symmetry. If the yes/no answer to this question is indeed irrelevant to the outcome, then there must be some deeper underpinning.

December 17, 2009 at 3:10 PM  
Anonymous Lawful Neutral said...

"there need be laws forcing people to be charitable, if indeed it is human nature to be charitable?"

Come on, Alrenous, you could be a little more, uh, charitable with LB here. He's also got envy and the desire to bring down those above us on his side. When the charity we're talking about involves teaming up with someone who has less than I do to take from someone with more, it's not such a ridiculous proposition.

I'm perfectly willing to believe that somewhere deep in our monkey brains is an in-built egalitarianism. I'm sure it's much more easily inflamed by thoughts of our superiors than our inferiors, but LB is not speaking nonsense when he says a political system should take this property of humans into account.

December 17, 2009 at 6:12 PM  
Blogger mtraven said...

Gee, I haven't commented here in close to a year and still my name is a watchword for for superficiality. It's nice to be remembered for something!

Anyway, I thought Jewish Atheists's comments were spot-on. Liberalism's opposition to HBD is an artifact of current circumstances, not fundamental to its worldview. Liberal humanism does posit that there is a universal human nature, but not that humans are identical across the entire spectrum of characteristics, capabilities, or dispositions. Stupid people get the same rights as other people; and if stupidity turns out to be have a genetic or racial component that's really neither here nor there. In theory.

Over at Liberal Biorealist I recommended Frans de Waal's recent book The Age of Empathy (summarized here), which shows that such dispositions are present in non-human primates and other mammals. Or go his antecedent, Kropotkin's Mutual Aid. That's some actual "liberal biorealism" for you (de Waal is a leading primatologist).

December 17, 2009 at 8:48 PM  
Blogger Savrola said...

"Stupid people get the same rights as other people;"

Because you say so, of course.

December 20, 2009 at 10:32 AM  
Anonymous MK said...

A thread from 'staight dope boards' that Mencius may be interested in:

"Maybe post colonial African countires should not have handed over power so quickly.

Is there any merit in the argument that countries such as South Africa and Rhodesia should have tried to integrate the indigenous population into the government in phases rather than handing over power immediately.
Take SA for example. I strongly suspect that if Apartheid never started, South Africa would be a much better place right now, who knows, maybe even considered a first world country. If the general population had equal access to education and a democratic vote from early on, by now perhaps they would be able to make a more informed choice in who to vote for. Instead most people decide who to vote for almost entirely by race, which clearly has its draw backs. South Africa is certainly not doing as badly as other African nations but it is clear that resources are not managed effectively and corruption is rife. I don't think I even need to mention the situation in Zimbabwe.

If these countries, rather than give over complete control after a general election, allowed other races to participate at low levels of government at first and equalized access to education and other services, would the transition have resulted in a more prepared, representative government?"

December 20, 2009 at 5:35 PM  
Blogger Alrenous said...


"I'm perfectly willing to believe that somewhere deep in our monkey brains is an in-built egalitarianism."

Did I give the impression that I don't believe it?

The political system should take every property of humans into account.

December 21, 2009 at 3:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The definitions of such things are perpetually disputed but I believe that many people would regard my published views as representing those of liberal biorealism.

The biorealism part requires no elucidation in these quarters. As for liberalism, that too should require no elucidation but in this crowd it requires so much to be properly understood (such as how long it takes for you to get college kid to accurately understand your biorealistic view) that I won't bother to try but will suffice with a half-assed sentence or two.

Wealth inequality resulting in drastically different lifestyles causes such an intense amount of human anguish to all involved (the Eloi pay for their comforts too you know) that I can't possibly see how anyone but its immediate beneficiaries could prefer capitalistic anarchy to light socialism. Not currently being one of those fortunately rich I will vote for policies that increase my stature and the stature of those who (for whatever reason) I presently empathize with.


December 23, 2009 at 9:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

JA had the right idea but downplayed the reality of HBD writ large (if you think black Detroit is an outlier you really don't get around very much). MTray as always rules, infact the only minor quibble that I have with Mtray is how he can be so complacently mute about the grand lie of racial homogeneity when that lie is propounded by the triumphantly powerful to such a huge degree that it can disappear even so historical a figure as James Watson. How does seeing Power Amok not raise his bloodpressure even sufficiently for him to stand up on his own tiny soapbox and squeak that, "for what it's worth, there are grand differences between the contents of the craniums of Bushmen and Jews and that the All Powerful ones who deny it are either fools or liars". I've been a fan of his for some time and never saw him make even so milqtoast a statement as that one.


December 23, 2009 at 10:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

JA has been invited repeatedly and at length to put his hypotheses to empirical test at the corner of Six Mile Road and Livernois Avenue in Detroit, at 0200 hours any morning.

His failure to do so tells us where he stands, intellectual-honesty wise.

He's free not to, because he knows how unlikely it is that the local anthropoid apes would permit him to egress with life and limb intact. Feel that, JA? It's called cognitive dissonance. The truth will set you free.

December 28, 2009 at 4:47 PM  

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