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Of Supererogatory Rhetoric

My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about the duty owed rhetoric. All right, here is how I feel about the duty owed rhetoric: Continue reading “Of Supererogatory Rhetoric”


Comment Section Kayfabe

Featured Image

Forums and comments sections are, to all appearances, scripted performances. There’s nothing new under the sun, but the web has let us see just how scripted unedited arguments between regular people can seem. You see this also with first year philosophy students; their objections to the classics are often quite predictable. Why is it that people with varying levels of familiarity with a subject will provide seemingly scripted responses? How does apparent spontaneity take on the air of professional wrestling?

The answer, I think, is that each discussion is a game, which the players were prepared for in advance. For the most part they are not even aware of this, especially if they are young and relatively unstudied on the topic under discussion. But they are prepared nevertheless, by the communities they are a part of, which induct them into certain traditions.

Following the script is a healthy and necessary part of wrestling with existing ideas yourself and making them your own. But it can also become a dead end. You can fall into the same patterns endlessly without any potential for growth.

In The Anatomy of Peace, it is argued that ongoing conflict can be sustained only by a kind of collusion among the participants. “Everyone begins acting in ways that invite more of the very problem from the other side that each is complaining about!”

In Leadership and Self-Deception, another book by the same authors, it is argued that we often feel a need to be justified in our side of the conflict, and thus ignore opportunities to find peace. One character shares an anecdote:

“On a particular Friday night, Bryan asked if he could use the car. I didn’t want him to use it, so I gave him an unreasonably early curfew time as a condition — a time I didn’t think he could accept. ‘Okay, you can use it,’ I said smugly, ‘but only if you’re back by 10: 30.’ ‘Okay, Mom,’ he said, as he whisked the keys off the key rack. ‘Sure.’ The door banged behind him.”

“I plopped myself down on the couch, feeling very burdened and vowing that I’d never let him use the car again. The whole evening went that way. The more I thought about it, the madder I got at my irresponsible kid.”

When her son returned right on time, she “felt a keen pang of disappointment.”

“After he came in the door — having made it in time, mind you — rather than thanking him, or congratulating him, or acknowledging him, I welcomed him with a curt, ‘You sure cut it close, didn’t you?’ ”

Though he had done his part in this instance, she rewarded him with immediate hostility which invited a response in kind.

In this instance it looks like it’s primarily about personal relationships between specific individuals, but it is at least as much about roles. This aspect is prominently featured in Edwin Friedman’s discussion of what he calls “emotional triangles” in his book A Failure of Nerve.

Friedman says that “there may be no such thing as a two-person relationship,” as we bring in context from our other relationships, often without noticing. For Friedman, all relationships involve at minimum three people; hence “triangles”.

The way I would put it is that a two way relationship involves playing many different games, all of which are made possible by institutional, cultural, and personal context. In these games, as Friedman observes, “it is position rather than nature that is the key to understanding our functioning in any family or work system.” This is the emphasis on role; in his examples, roles within a family or business. But for our purposes, it can be extended to roles in an argument—I’m the Black Lives Matter person and you’re the Blue Lives Matter person; I’m the conservative and you’re the socialist.

Once we take our roles, the various games we play in them “interlock in a reciprocally self-reinforcing manner,” as Friedman puts it. So much so that the dynamics are perpetuated even as there is a complete turnover in the individual players.

Seeing these engagements as games should help clarify why that might be. Novices in chess who play one another often play very predictably. A veteran could guess what they’re going to do a few moves ahead. The structure of the game invites certain approaches; you can only learn the pitfalls of those approaches with time and experience.

In the realm of arguments, studying the classics can help us see how it has played out in the past, and prepare us somewhat. This can only get you so far, however—like boxing, while the training is important, nothing can replace experience in the ring. And like boxing, mere experience can also lead to bad habits and plateaus in growth.

There’s no escaping stepping into the arena, one way or another. But be wary about falling into the same patterns over and over. If you find yourself rooting against a peaceful resolution, it is probably time to change the game.

The Public Viewing David’s "Coronation" at the Louvre by Louis Léopold Boilly

Compulsory Suffrage

It’s voting season in America and it’s voting season at Sweet Talk. Paul Crider has inveighed against libertarians who dismiss the value of the vote, and Samuel Hammond has declaimed the way libertarians deal with collective action problems like voting. By way of counterpoint, Nathaneal Snow chooses to let others speak, having lost faith in reform.

All speak from a libertarian tradition of one kind or another, which I suspect makes my own proposal anathema to them. I think we should force Americans to the polls.

First the proposal: the form of compulsory voting that I advocate is neither truly compulsory nor truly voting. Under the Australian model, the compulsion is in the form of a nominal fine (AUD 20 or about US$15.50) or the requirement to present a “valid and sufficient” reason for not voting. Likewise, the requirement to “vote”, while presented as such, only really extends to making it to the ballot box; from there you may spoil your ballot to your heart’s content. There are other models (some 26 around the world) but the Australian model is nearest and dearest to my heart.

Why might anyone advocate this approach? There’s a range of reasons, but my preferred ones are largely pragmatic. Voluntary voting is a sort of two-factor voting: (i) can you convince someone to show up and (ii) can you convince them to vote for you? The first roughly maps to intensity of political feeling, the second to your political inclinations. Speed and direction, if you will, which together create velocity at the polls.

The first of these–the willingness to show up–tends to be corrosive. Intensity of political feeling goes hand in hand with more radical political beliefs, and therefore voluntary voting has a structural bias towards polarization. The accompanying rhetoric, ginned up to “motivate the base”, tends to have the same effect.

For the same reasons, single issue voters in a voluntary voting system will have outsize influence in an election. Where policies result in concentrated benefits and diffuse harms (or vice versa), voluntary voting will tend to over-represent the concentrated interests, who will make the extra effort to vote. One might think of the National Rifle Association as exemplary of this tendency, given the relative concentration of gun ownership in the United States, but there are examples on the other side of politics. These effects are especially magnified in off-cycle or smaller-scale US elections (mid terms, municipal elections, school boards, etc.).

The move to compulsory voting would also inoculate the American political system against one particularly anti-democratic tendency: voter suppression. Of course, it’s still possible to argue about voter ID and ballot box fraud in a compulsory voting system, but the stakes are lower (fraud is mathematically less significant) and it cannot be a proxy for voter suppression. Sadly, it doesn’t fix gerrymandering.

It’s also more representative. In one sense that’s completely obvious, given the total expected turnout, but it’s worth remembering that the groups least likely to vote tend to be clustered, for example, among the young or poor. For this reason the move to a compulsory voting appears to result in a broader distribution of government spending (though this is, of course, legitimately contested). An incidental benefit of greater participation also appears to be a more politically informed population, in net terms. We should be cautious about such incidental conclusions–there’s no such thing as a randomized controlled trial for voting systems–but not lose sight of the core benefit: more people cast their votes.

For those who dwell on the (ir)rationality of voting, it also breaks one troubling calculus over the value of a vote. Given any meaningful practical hurdle to voting, the most disadvantaged are least likely to make it to the ballots. Since that depresses turnout among that group, it reduces the likelihood that a bloc of similarly situated voters will be decisive. In turn, the likelihood that any individual will be decisive drops further. The incentive to “defect” rises, and rises again. While in general, I am doubtful that the expected return on voting is what motivates most voters, there seems little reason to diminish it further for particular groups.

Not to mention all the practical hurdles to voting tend to fade when the entire populace is expected–and required–to vote. In Australia voting occurs on a Saturday, voting places are nearby and plentiful, and voters usually enjoy a sausage sandwich straight off the barbie (it’s called a “sausage sizzle”).

Sausages or not, many Americans are unwilling to countenance this kind of governmental compulsion. In some senses, this isn’t altogether surprising – being required to attend a certain place at a certain time (or risk a fine) in service of political goals has a whiff of autocracy about it for those who have never lived the experience. I have, and perhaps it’s correspondingly normal to me. Either way, I can’t see how it can be conceptually distinguished from even run-of-the-mill government interventions in the United States: jury duty, taxes (which, as certain libertarians are keen to remind us, is functionally the same as compelled labor), or even a visit to the DMV. Especially not when conscientious objectors would be taxed less than a parking ticket for their refusal. Australians don’t hate it (in fact, some 70% or so are in favor of continuing compulsory voting) and I see little reason to believe that Americans would ultimately feel any differently.

Would it materially favor a particular party? I am not certain. The conventional wisdom is that higher turnout favors left wing parties, and if you believe voter ID laws are stealth voter suppression by the GOP, that would seem to be vindicated by practice. However, those that have studied the application of compulsory voting to the US seem to believe that only the outcome of very close elections (2000, 2004) would be changed in one direction or the other. It’s certainly possible to change some of the compositional elements of politics (polarization, concentrated interests, etc.) without necessarily changing party-based outcomes. I’m hard-pressed to think it matters either way. In even the most basic democracy, the preferences of the populace at large should be logically prior to the benefits or costs to a given party.

Last and least, there’s the symbolism and the theory. On the governmental side, greater participation is suggestive of a more comprehensive mandate. I offer this argument a little tepidly because I am no absolutist about democracy (I favor, for example, the Westminster system), nor do I think a “mandate”–already a wispy concept–is the missing link for political authority. I do, however, think there is some expressive value to voting, even when compelled, and believe that civic engagement is a muscle that needs to be exercised to grow stronger. The most that really needs to be said in this respect is that compulsory voting is certainly no worse than voluntary voting from the standpoint of political theory.

I am skeptical that a change of this sort will happen in the United States in my lifetime, no matter how many offhand presidential comments it attracts. That said, before something become possible, you first have to believe in it, so in the spirit of reciprocity, perhaps compulsory voting should be Australia’s little light on the hill.


Selective Contraction of the Voter Supply

Steven Landsburg offers some advice to the altruist:

Every now and then, some eccentric altruist gathers up his assets and donates them to the United States Treasury. As a result, our current or future tax bills must fall. The beneficiaries are the many millions of U.S. taxpayers, each of whom experiences a tiny reduction in his tax burden. But we do not all benefit equally. Those of us in the highest tax brackets—by and large, the richest Americans—collect disproportionate shares of the gift.

An alternative strategy for the altruist would be to convert his assets to cash and, instead of giving them to the Treasury, hold a bonfire. The result is essentially the same… your share of the benefits is proportional not to your tax bill but to the quantity of cash you happen to be holding at the moment of the bonfire.

There has been some discussion about whether or not to vote. The argument in stages can be read in the pages above.

I am of the I-don’t-vote camp. That has afforded me certain ethical peace over the last year, especially when I found myself offering policy advice to hopeful politicians. I felt I could be more objective and more bold in my presentation of advice than I likely would have been had I had a dog in the fight.

I continue to dwell in my I-don’t-vote position for a few reasons. First, my vote is probabilistically indecisive. Second, the space between available platforms is not really all that big. Third, who is elected does not matter all that much, and should not matter at all.

I will add a new justification momentarily.

I am on record decrying that “all reform is a fail.”

I am utterly pessimistic about the capacity for an organization founded upon the monopoly of force to be capable of positive action, or reform that justly compensates those harmed by a change in policy. In Landsburg’s model above, I would expect the Treasury to leverage any bequeathment through some sort of multiplier into further indebting the remaining taxpayers. I agree, the bonfire is a much better idea.

And here is where I part from the bleeding heart libertarians who believe in reform. They have not as of yet been sufficiently disappointed by past reforms. It has been too easy to allow one’s perspective to be biased by only observing the survivors of past reforms. The uncompensated and other losers fall out of the data.

Similarly, I part with many religious economists. There are those who attempt to justify markets as moral from a particular theological point of view. They are really interested in defending the status quo. Those positions tend to privilege their own theological priors because the advocate is an ultimate beneficiary. I cannot remember ever having read a free-market-Anabaptist point of view other than my own. I should suspect that I am wrong.

Both parties can point to peaceful and beneficial resolution of collective action problems through private agencies and local levels of governance. They think those processes can be transferred to higher levels of governance. Often a wise or benevolent executive is presumed. Among the doctrinaire, dominionism (the idea that God’s Chosen should seek to fill every public office, and the eschaton will obtain once they do) is not uncommon.

My contention is that collective action problems resolved outside institutions founded on violence are different in kind from collective action problems resolved through voting.

My new justification for not voting is that in stark comparison to some who advocate the exclusion of particular voices from the ballot box, my abdication from that platform amplifies the voices of others. As a married white male protestant with education, it may behoove me more than anyone else not to vote.

It should be clear that when some urge libertarians to vote, they really mean libertarians like themselves, libertarians like me (though with a different attitude). They really want to amplify their own voices, and are demonstrably unwilling and uninterested in learning from other voices. They want to be libertarian dominionists.

They miss the idea that democracy is about deliberation and skip straight to decision, in the same way that mainstream economists skip straight over choice and jump to optimization, in the same way that I am prone to mansplaining, and in the same way that white churches like to be in control of racial reconciliation efforts with black churches.

The New Bondage

Adam has been mighty preachy lately. Now we are all to blame, as he puts it, “Morality is not a guide for living a blameless life. It is not a method for keeping your hands unsoiled by culpability.” Thus the malady. Later, the means: “Above all, [acceptance] is seeing everyone as well as yourself for their ugliness and their beauty and loving them for both.” Here endeth the lesson.


But we’re left without an end. Why would I want to do this? After all, we’ve been subject to several homilies whose rhetoric is designed to discourage me from doing much of anything of this nature. For example, in The Morality of Futility, Adam writes, “Our moral sphere should not be stretched beyond the scale appropriate for an individual human life.” This is early Adam Gurri, of course. What about something more recent? Here he is less than a year removed from this recent spate of moralizing: “The bigger your ambitions, the worse the consequences for your flaws.”

Ah. So we see the connecting principles, revealing that we do not have a contradiction, but an exchange, and not necessarily an exchange of one ideal for another, but an exchange of emphasis. Telescopic Morality, as a pejorative, emphasizes vocation, i.e., doing the tasks at hand, inasmuch as one is able; Culpabilitarianism, on the other hand, emphasizes accepting responsibility for the condition of the cosmic order, with the moral impulsion to do something about it. “We must,” Adam pleads. “Thou shalt.”

So Adam would bind us.

One of my best friends in the whole world informed me that he does not buy anything made in China, and, in attempt to bind me in his moral world, he implied that neither should I. He made it clear that he was not making a Buy American argument; he was making a moral argument: child slave labor is morally wrong, and any moral person would not support child slave labor. “Well, actually…” I began, followed by an explanation of world markets, noting that his slightly more expensive hecho in Mexico shoes would be exponentially more expensive were child slavery abolished, seeing as how demand for non-slave labor would drive the price of cheaply made shoes to the point where the poor could not afford shoes, just like it was before Chinese child slave labor.

Indeed, we participate in evil.

Now what? Do we close world markets? Do we shut down food factories? Do we go to war against China? And on what basis? On our moral purity? What a fanciful idea! What fantasy!

Thus we are doubly bound, both with the moral imperative to decry immorality, paired with the added moral imperative to accept culpability. And then what? What shall we do then? How do we bear in mind the rhetoric of culpability when we have no moral norm beyond solipsistic striving? How do I actually accomplish culpability? Do I work it off?

This is the impulse behind leftist ideology, and it has been for a century and a half, in its modern incarnation, namely that civilization is deeply flawed, and benefits materially from obvious evil (a term which, in a post-religious context, has been termed materialistically, but still carries the same moral freight): government policy has become primarily social policy, progressives, liberals, anarcho-fascists, leftists, Marxists, and whatever nomenclature whichever sect of the Left you can derive–policy is about forcibly righting moral wrongs; freedom is anathema because free people are culpable in evildoing. They are at fault. They must work harder at love. We will see to it.

It is no wonder that civilization developed a hankering for an all-powerful, all-seeing, personal God who could hold us accountable, ultimately. Our ancestors even developed the notion of an eschaton, at which point this personal God would judge us, each individually, those who did good going to heaven, those who did evil going to hell. Alas! What if God has caught you committing evil? Not to worry: you can buy him off, either with money, a tithe of your firstfruits, or with the blood of a common beast or the most-evolved animal.

But now we have acceptance as a choice. I accept that I am culpable. For we are convinced that neither witness nor the outcry of the human heart, nor all the evidence of good and evil, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, armies, wars, bureaucracy, legislation, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all the cold happenstance of existence, will be able to separate us from the discoverable truths. We shall identify and overcome, expunging evils one by one.

Who will accuse me? I may accept culpability, but there is now no condemnation.


We Are All To Blame

Featured Image is The Third of May 1808, by Francisco Goya

We are all to blame, we are all to blame…and if only all were convinced of it!

-Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Demons

Morality is not a guide for living a blameless life. It is not a method for keeping your hands unsoiled by culpability.

I do not know if anyone really believes that it is, but I have noticed many talk as if it were so.

The conversation goes like this: Bob talks about how Jane fell short of some exacting moral standard, and thus shares the blame for something wicked. Jill points out that Bob himself has fallen short of that or some other exacting standard, and thus shares the blame for the same thing or something else. Heather turns around and pulls the same thing on Jill.

In short, they proceed by negation.

This game can go on indefinitely; many never escape it. It takes a big leap to see that no one can be blameless. Our hands are always dirty, just by living in this world, supported by institutions which require an ocean of blood to create and maintain. As social creatures we always stand in relationship to other people, and these relationships always involve an element of domination and hurt.

Once you make this leap, only two paths remain open to you.

The first is nihilism. The blame game and the standards are both negated entirely. The players become disenchanted; everything beautiful about the world becomes entirely obscured by ugliness. Institutions become just tools of power, relationships become just relationships of domination.

The second is acceptance. Seeing the ugliness in the world and in ourselves, and taking ownership of it. Accepting responsibility for having a place in this world, and confronting your own wrongdoings. Above all, it is seeing everyone as well as yourself for their ugliness and their beauty and loving them for both. You must be able to do this in order to accept the world. If ugliness irreparably tarnishes the beautiful for you, then you will end up either rejecting the world, or falling into self-deception.

This path is much more difficult than the other, and more difficult still than the idle chatter of the blame game. It is a wonder that we ever find acceptance, even for a fleeting moment.

I don’t imagine I can convince you to seek this acceptance. But I hope that you can see that, although you are not blameless, you are worthy of love.



Voting as a collective action problem

A common criticism of libertarian philosophy is that it can’t handle collective action problems: That a totally voluntary society lacks the tools to build lighthouses, prevent over-fishing, or ensure we all get our vaccines.

In response, libertarians developed a branch economics dedicated to showing how collective action problems can be solved with voluntary cooperative arrangements. Elinor Ostrom’s work was particularly important for arguing that, under the right conditions, norms and civil society can evolve to govern the commons from the bottom up.

There are obviously limits to informal norms, however. For one, they are easy to undermine through appeals to rationalistic arguments. After all, norms exist to enforce cooperative arrangements that would otherwise be unstable. That suggests it is always possible for a sophist to jeopardize collective action by appealing to their peer’s individually rational, myopic reasons for action (“Just catch one more fish, no one will notice.”), and with each person who defects it becomes more tempting for everyone else to defect.

Voting represents an interesting test case for the robustness of voluntary solutions to collective action problems. After all, any single individual’s vote is mathematically insignificant, and yet they add up to be significant.

Yet many of the same libertarians who insist that norms and civil society can solve large scale collective action problems also insist that voting is individually irrational, and therefore abstain. This merely affirms the worries of many that the libertarian emphasis on individual rationalism contains the seeds of its own unravelling with respect to collective action.

Of course, that we vote in large numbers at all is in some sense a vindication of Ostrom and her school of economics. We cement the norm of voting with the help of overlapping institutions like political parties, religious congregations, unions, non-profits, membership clubs, and not to mention friends and family. We communicate voting intention to other individuals within these groups, which are small enough to reinforce a mutual expectation of follow through. Groups in turn coordinate with other groups, like when a local union coordinates with its other chapters. Pretty quickly a meagre individual vote becomes amplified into the hugely consequential endorsement of a union federation or influential political action committee.

I therefore don’t believe libertarians are totally sincere when they make the “voting is irrational” argument. Or, more to the point, I suspect it is a case of motivated reasoning. For one, it is cognitively dissonant with their optimism about voluntary collective action in other spheres (“collective action for me but not for thee”). And second, it seems to spring from their mood-aversion to electoral politics more generally, which suggests it is a kind of “technique of neutralization“—that is, a proactive way of rationalizing defection from societal norms that one finds inconvenient.

Other libertarians double down on their mood-aversion and argue that voting is inherently immoral or distasteful, possibly because it involves participating in a coercive enterprise. This view confuses me the most, especially when paired with the “voting is ineffectual” view. Which is it? An inherent vice or an astronomically insignificant form of self-expression? There is no pressing need for a new norm against voting anyway, just like there is no need for a norm for littering, overfishing or free-riding off of herd immunity. Those behaviors all fall out of individually rational human action. They are what is left in the absence of coordination.

Motivated reasoning is just the generous interpretation. The less generous one is that the average libertarian is tragically bereft of the social capital needed to leverage idiosyncratic beliefs and motivations into collective action. There may be some truth to that. If you thought it was hard to herd cats, try herding philosophical anarchists.

The even less generous view is that libertarianism represents a self-defeating memeplex, a mind virus that handicaps its host so badly that it ceases to spread. Indeed, if you wanted to actively hobble the labor movement, say, wouldn’t you want to plant agent provocateurs within their ranks to charismatically defend the game theoretic logic of being a scab? Or better yet, that being a scab is just and noble?

As a matter of fact, that is more or less what happened in the 1960s. It was called the New Left, and their congenital aversion to norm-conformity hobbled the progressive movement’s ability to influence institution change for a generation. Now the right is having it’s own countercultural moment with the alt-right, which, with some libertarian fellow travelers, is trying in vain to affect social change through various forms of culture jamming and norm subversion.


With activists like this, maybe muh roads won’t be built after all.