Matt Bruenig is Anti-Social

Everyone has a hobby. For Matt Bruenig its writing “take downs” of libertarianism as lacking any singularly coherent normative theory. In his latest, he deconstructs the “just desert” basis of capitalism, specifically the claim that capitalism rewards risk. In this post my goal isn’t to defend just desert theories, per se. Rather I’d like to shed some light on Matt’s subversive modus operandi and the fallacies and dangers within it.

For context, I have gone back through Matt’s archive and not found a single positive defense of his own normative framework. In this sense he prefers to define his ideology negatively as “not x therefore y”. And while he makes regular gestures towards egalitarianism, he has yet to show how his own abstract normative theory is any less arbitrary or sensitive to the deconstructionist tactics he is fond of employing.

From Kant to Hegel to Hayek

To understand why Matt is so successful at taking apart normative theories and so cautious about defending his own, it’s worth tracing the background assumptions of modern moral philosophy back to Kant. Kant famously claimed our conceptual commitments are inescapably normative (e.g. if I say x is a cat I am “responsible” for a particular judgement about x) and that, in making those commitments, we are required to maintain justificatory, inferential and critical consistency (e.g. we can’t simultaneously say x is not a cat). Kant and followers like Rawls thought you could use this insight to construct a transcendental argument that bridged is and ought. Read philosopher Robert Brandom’s work for more on this, or enjoy this short video.

The key error Kant made was in taking as sacrosanct the “mentalistic” paradigm inherited from Descartes, which gave “subject” and “object” ontological primacy, and “representation” primacy in theories of epistemology and intentionality. If you don’t believe me, read about Fichte’s notion of “pure I“. It took Hegel to enter the scene and point out how weird the implication of a “noumenal” or objective realm of “things in themselves” was if it meant having knowledge of the inaccessible. So he “naturalized” Kant’s theory of normativity by arguing that it had to be situated socially and recognitively in cultural practices. This in effect rejected the subject-object paradigm by shifting to an intersubjective theory of meaning. See Jurgen Habermas on “de-transcendalizating mentalism” for more on this.

Normativity is, to paraphrase Kant, a property that leads a concept to self-bind, e.g. a duty as distinct from compulsion. Hegel accepted this but argued that it in no way necessitated Kant’s transcendental approach in which de-contextualized or “pure” normative principals were derived prior to interaction with concrete problems. Rather, Hegel argued normativity was immanent to the social process of intersubjective norm construction, the most “objective” of which are our stable institutions. We are bound to the normative commitments implicit to our objective institutions because in a very real sense they mirror us. This is a deep concept, but can be easily understood as a precursor to the idea of the “extended will” that follows from embodied cognition in cognitive psychology.  As philosopher of mind Andy Clark explains the idea,

advanced cognition depends crucially on our ability to dissipate reasoning: to diffuse achieved knowledge and practical wisdom through complex social structures, and to reduce the loads on individual brains by locating those brains in complex webs of linguistic, social, political and institutional constraints.

The rationality of our social structures is therefore often hidden as a feature, not a bug. Yet as self-conscious beings we ought to be able to extract and make explicit the implicit principals that pre-structure our social practices. For example, perhaps “justice as fairness” isn’t a context-free normative standard which looms over all other practices. Instead, what if discrete norms like “I cut, you choose” or “lets flip a coin” or “first one to improve and enclose unclaimed land gets it” develop spontaneously through cultural evolution as low cost ways of securing agreeable cooperative social relationships? For more on this idea, read Joseph Heath’s “A Puzzle for Constractualism“.

Rawls would actually be sympathetic to this view, since he characterized the egalitarian norm as based on conflict reduction. But that does not imply that particular norms can be isolated and then imposed from the top down. This makes the basic category error that FA Hayek explains as being behind all forms of “rational constructivism”. The fairness norm only gained its normative authority or self-binding character from the legitimating history of mutual recognition that preceded and maintained it in specific cases. This would seem to better match observed reality, where there is not, for example, one universal standard of “fair ownership”, but a multiplicity of standards rooted in historical practice. Thus instituting Rawls’ difference principal, for example, would not be just in the US context without substantial cultural buy-in — for the same reason imposing American capitalistic property norms in developing countries regularly leads to violent push back.

Bottom Up Normativity

If that is how actual normativity arises in practice, talking about “just desert” in abstract is totally wrong headed. Instead you would need to instantiate a desert norm in a concrete social reality. Then you would have to carefully investigate the genealogy of the norm to discover it implicit rationale. Jurgen Habermas calls this approach “rational reconstruction.” Note that reconstructing the rationality implicit in normative behavior is an interpretive (not descriptive) exercise.

People who follow this otherwise post-Kantian tradition have actually done this for the American context of capital and desert. The Hansmann argument for shareholder primacy, for example, rests on the demonstration that ownership in a firm will tend to flow to the constituency with the lowest governance cost, which for complex companies tends to be shareholders (specifically, it can be demonstrated that shareholder primacy is hicks-kaldor efficient). Risk is a non-trivial part of this issue. As residual claimants, capital holders are the most expendable insofar as they are what remains after other contractual obligations have been honored.

So does that mean at some point in history someone went out and designed corporate law based on a grand utilitarian moral theory? No, on the contrary. These norms of ownership were discovered in the same bottom up way as norms like “I cut, you choose”. Scholars like Hansmann had to explicitly reconstruct this rationale through interrogation of the alternatives, like stakeholder theory. (By the way, reconstruction of the welfare state also points to a transaction cost basis, not egalitarian principals.)

Still, it must be said that capital owners have a holistic normative relationship with the present state of affairs — that is, the bundle of concepts that tend to accompany norms of ownership, like “entitlement” and “deservedness,” apply perforce. From their own standpoint and from the point of view of the community at large, the reductive claim that “shareholders retain profits ONLY because that’s the best for the social welfare function” is illegitimate because the rational reconstruction only ever identifies one feature of an ethical totality.

To see this, consider that the dividend cheques get delivered not due to an awareness of Ronald Coase’s most cited work, but because of the self-binding intersubjective concept of ownership itself. It isn’t just the legal realist’s vision of command and compulsion. The USPS guy delivers the cheque largely because he has internalized and affirms the prevailing norms of ownership by which he himself implicitly benefits. As H.L.A. Hart put it, his recognition gives the law an “internal point of view.”

In this light, Matt’s struggle for abstract consistency is at root subversive. He has innumerable posts arguing against private ownership that would make no normative distinction between a company merger and civil asset forfeiture, other than perhaps that the latter is typically more regressive in its effects. The main upshot of Matt gaining any following of import would therefore be to further undermine the distinguishing legitimacy of various social norms through raw philosophical sophistry.

Whose Filibuster?

Seriously? If Matt were a luck egalitarian he’d be Anton Chigurh. Of course, Matt can go ahead and keep shoplifting without really causing much harm. This is because he is in essence free riding on the ethical behavior of everyone around him. If everyone behaved like Matt, on the other hand, it would be a catastrophe. This conclusion, too, can be rationally reconstructed by showing how norms play an important role in self-binding us to mutually beneficial cooperative equilibria.

Consider the US congress, which has reached new heights of dysfunction in recent years largely because congressional norms have collapsed. Writing for the National Journal, Norm Ornstein gives the profligate use of the senate filibuster as an example:

Rules matter, but in the Senate, norms and the larger fabric of interactions matter as much or more. The fact is that Rule XXII, which governs debate, remained the same from 1975 until this Congress; and for most of the era, it worked fine. Majorities were at times frustrated by the minority’s use of filibusters, but they were relatively rare, and most issues were worked out before legislation or nominations reached the floor. There was a larger understanding that filibusters were not to be used routinely.

The beginning the anti-social zeitgeist in congress probably began with some Republican strategist throwing his or her hands in the air and yelling “the norms are arbitrary. All that matters is that our normative framework is the right one!” The irony is that the collapse of the anti-filibuster norm has ended up hurting both the Democrat’s and Republican’s political agendas. Think of it in terms of a Prisoner’s Dilemma. The norm against its use acted as a self-binding mechanism against strategic gamesmanship, and helped make legislative cooperation stable.

To make this explicit, consider the model V(x) = U(x) + kN(x) where the value of doing x is given by its private utility plus its norm appropriateness weighted by k. k is the weight you assign normative considerations (i.e. how self-bound you are to a norm) and is a reaction function based on other agent’s k (that is, it’s intersubjective). Let’s say x represents the decision to filibuster. If k ever declines, say for the historical factors identified in Ornstein’s article, it risks collapsing as a self-fulling prophecy. Normativity goes out the window. Both parties become mired in strategic legislative undercutting. Multiple ethical equilibria and all that.

This is the sense in which I think a world full of Matt Bruenigs would be worse in virtually everyone’s eyes. He seems to think that by pulling the normative rug out from under capitalism he is improving the chances that America will fall into his half baked ideal of market socialism, whereas it is only liable to cause a cultural concussion. Identifying anti-social behavior and rhetoric is a real enough problem that I think it’s worth coining a new term to help with calling it out when it happens:


Our Modern Euthyphro Dilemma

Does god make his commandments base on what is right, or is what is right based on his commandments? This is the Euthyphro dilemma, and it has boggled theologians and moral philosophers alike for literally millenia

The dilemma is supposed to challenge believers in divine command theory, but it has relevance for modern secular moral theory as well. This is because the original dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro was not really about the nature of god, but about the nature of normative authority more generally. By being constant through time and space and separate from human particularity, God simply reflects the idealized universality and generality which we seek in our principals of justice.

In lieu of god, secular moral philosophy from Kant on has been trying to somehow leverage sureness back into our moral sense through convoluted transcendental arguments. Such efforts usually involve the metaphysical construction of an “ideal self” in some ideal scenario behaving in ideal ways to which we must all rationally assent. Our secular Euthyphro dilemma thus becomes: Are our abstract moral theories based on what is right, or is what is right based on our abstract moral theories? Against any Kantian construction, the dilemma is no less powerful as when levied against divine command.


Take 20th century Kantian philosopher John Rawls, for example. His concept of the “original position” asks us to imagine ourselves standing outside of society bereft of any knowledge of our personal identity, including our conception of a good life. Behind this veil of ignorance, he argued, we’d all rationally agree to an egalitarian society in which there was the greatest benefit for the least advantaged.

With this idealized social contract, Rawls’ goal is to establish a formal derivation of political authority in order to justify a particular macro-distributive end. But what appears to be an innocuous thought experiment is on closer inspection a series of arbitrary and inconceivable stipulations. After all, what is left of a self after its identity has been stripped away? How can a purely instrumental rationality even motivate a choice, much less reveal risk preferences? Why does the nation state set the boundary of social justice? Even taking the exercise at face value, the construct fails to establish a meta-ethical bridge to true normativity because it merely pushes the prescriptive element onto an unfounded imperative to act according to one definition of rationality.

To do Rawls justice, I should add that he was aware of all this and so in addendum wrote hundreds of pages of tedious conceptual scaffolding. This guarantees the incompleteness of my rough sketch, however the flaw with constructing a Kantian normative architecture lies not in the design specifics or even the level of detail, but in the very idea that normative authority can be grounded via ethical autoCAD. With sufficient prodding all Kantian constructions invariably implode under their unnatural abstract formalism. Indeed, examples span the political spectrum to include Kant inspired libertarians, whose invocations of the non-aggression principal are similarly void of content, and become contradictory fast once any substance is added.

Thus when contemporary Kantians debate it winds up being a symmetric game of mutually assured deconstruction. Distributive justice types are able to accurately reveal the inconsistencies of their opponents, while procedural justice types make a science of egalitarian absurdities. In the end, beneath the twin rubble piles that result, there remains only the meek voices of special pleading.

If what is right is not based on abstract moral theory, then normative authority must be antecedent to our modern moral philosophy. In later posts I will try to explain how normativity arises from the bottom up, from the particular to the general, rather than the other way around. As Nietzsche famously argued, relinquishing god as the locus of normative authority was essential to opening new possibilities of human development. Today, the same should be said of all secular moral frameworks which give normative authority the same god-like unity of voice, contra the polycentrism we actually observe. So say it with me:

Kant is dead. Kant remains dead. And we have killed him.

Old Man River

Really, dear reader, not a single one of you pointed this out or reminded me of it? I’ve been doing my riff on Heraclitus (you know, the river guy?) for months, now. You should be ashamed. One of the greatest songs in the American repertoire, the perfect theme for Heraclitus…

Seriously, even after my “Heraclitus hates Athens because he’s under the influence of Zoroastrian teachings which strongly eschew slavery, and Athens is a corrupt, slavery-based economic, self-indulgent city-state” post?

Philistines, every one of you.

I can’t look any one of you in the eye, ever again.

Rock Bottom

Redemption is a subject near and dear to my heart, for personal reasons. I was never an addict, mind you, but (alarmingly long ago now) I experienced my own rock bottom.

Most people who talk seriously about hitting rock bottom know that by using the term they’re participating in a bit of lousy and misleading rhetoric. There is no “bottom” but the bottom of a grave. So long as you live, rock bottom is a state of mind, a series of events that precipitate an awakening, however brief.

The “rock” is right on the money, however. One minute you’re sleepwalking, unaware of the fog, and all of a sudden you smack face-first into something. The fog lifts as soon as you become aware of it, and you see that you weren’t sleepwalking at all, but rather sinking in quicksand.

The “bottom” is also dubious because of how radically different—even seemingly trivial from the outside—the “rock” can be. Some people undergo the worst pitfalls of addiction, suffer the worst bodily harm and emotional loss and alienation, but never hit rock bottom. Others encounter some minor setback, or not even that, and hit rock bottom and bounce hard. My own “rock” would no doubt seem similarly insignificant to most. I simply saw, at a moment when someone trusted me, a reflection in myself of someone I truly hated. It was jarring, and a jarring is what a sleeper requires to awaken, though they as often as not go right back to sleep.


Along with redemption, I am interested in redeemers.

Redeemers are rather more valuable than those in need of redemption, in spite of how attitudes have changed about such people. When I think of redeemers, I think of John the Baptist. He lived in the wild, he ate grasshoppers, he was kind of an emaciated raving wacko, but he was unflinching in his righteousness and generous in his forgiveness, for those who asked of it. Or so the stories go!

I’m no biblical scholar, but to my amateur eyes old John seems to form a type, existing in storytelling well before the Bible, of the man who has found wisdom in madness. I can already hear the protests that John was not in fact supposed to be mad, and I’m sure that’s right, though he looked the part. No, John was much more like Diogenes the Cynic, who scorned human artifice and found wisdom in his poverty (we will not say “humble conditions” for humility was not a Greek virtue and certainly not one of his).

The great redeemer of Christian culture is, of course, Jesus Christ himself. What Christ shared with Diogenes and John the Baptist was a connection with some source of wisdom. For Christ it was his divine nature. For John it was divinity as discovered in the life of the ascetic; for Diogenes it was in nature itself.

Unfortunately these days we tend to think it is the redeemed who have brought back the most. Most of the newer (fictional) stories of redemption that I know of involve a redeemer who was also once redeemed. In the stories, the addict or the fallen are deaf to the exhortations of their loved ones and the people who seem pure and true. “You don’t know, you don’t understand!” They cry, like a teenager confronted by their parents.

“Oh, but I do,” the redeemer whispers, “for I, too, was once an alcoholic/cokehead/abuser/killer, and I found my way back to the light. You can, too—I will show you the way.”

Where once knowledge was found in divinity or madness or nature, today it is found in vice itself; in the vice experienced by those who have managed to summon the strength to tear themselves away after prolonged exposure.

And you do bring something with you, when you come back from the dreaming. But it carries a price. And it is not nearly so valuable as the knowledge, the virtue, of those who have simply lived a good life, being good people, and found the strength not to find themselves among the ranks of the fallen, no matter what the bitch Fortuna threw in their way. If you invest your time in honing the skill of living well, you will have made progress on the road to wisdom, while the sleepers were busy struggling in the quicksand.

Corruption At The Highest Levels

Well, where else is it going to go?

A certain blogger provoked, as he is wont to do, by positing that all community is inherently corrupt. Seeing as how we’re all born into community, a.k.a. family, the question was severely sophomoric, and thinly veiled as tired provocateurship, you know, like a football linebacker spitting on the offensive tackle. Nevertheless, Yours Truly was provoked, and a stew simmered.

The question itself is intriguing because of its shallowness. It is the yelp of the idealist when first he is pierced by that stinging recognition that things purported to be good ain’t necessarily so. The reaction is easily predicted: flank the enemy, who herald their own purity, and shout the epithet, “You are corrupt! You are not pure! You are now The Other!”

Naturally, getting back to the command post from the enemy’s flanks can be fraught, traveling under the dark veil that corruption is actually everywhere, creating the surreal environment of The Other bleeding into The Pure, a conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily ideals. Most people find themselves wandering in this twilight zone of the zealot for a long time, even mouthing the words to the battle hymn of the pluralism, but expending valuable soldierly energy stamping out the apostate.

Some grow weary of carrying out the Inquisition, recognizing, perhaps, that some dear friends were lost along the way, or potential friends were forever quarantined in the ghetto. The fanatics fire their machine guns without a mind to aiming, and the zealots, even though they aim, never come off the front lines. Cynicism sets up, a seepage where the first wound bit. Everything is corrupt. The sun is growing dim and will soon snuff out, abandoning all life to a cold, hard rock.

Life stirs, however. Is it possible that I, being born into community, am corrupt by nature? And that I not only participate in the corruption of my communities, but also contribute to that corruption, unknowingly, unwittingly, even against my will? There are those wicked individuals who incarnate corruption, a slurry of my innocent corruption, seasoned with a bit of yours, fortified with their own reprehensibility. There are those zealots and fanatics who wallow in it thinking that it is purity. And then there are such as I, recognizing my putrid state, and the state of the community around me, the inescapable camp, a desperate band trying to tease out some virtue from among it all, not because I am more virtuous than the wicked, the zealot, and the fanatic, but because I aim to be more virtuous than I am. I reckon to be more virtuous than I am, and it is one whale of a task, considering the cold fact that the MPs continuously point you into the thick of the fray, where we must all dwell, firing at will or willing to not fire. What will we do?

We’ll do the best we can, and then we will pass along what best we did, our many deeds of valor and cowardice, to have virtue teased out of them by our progeny and disciples. Virtue is a creative act of several individuals, calling into being happiness, joy, and idealism where there is not, like a song emerging from within the confusion of the armies: sometimes more join the tune, sometimes fewer. Thus the rivers flow to the ocean and then find their way back to the mountains.

Rhetoric in the Workplace

I’ve been thinking a lot about this two year old Garett Jones piece on trustworthiness.

There’s a story that people tell themselves that if they do good work, make a great product, write a riveting novel, or whatever it is—then success will follow. Few people seriously defend this notion as an universal truth, but it is nevertheless a story that is told in order to instill a sort of work ethic to strive for the good internal to a practice.

But it simply is not true. Even in the workplace, where managers theoretically monitor your productivity. Managers do not look over your shoulder all day long. Managers have other people to think of and other responsibilities. At the end of the day on top of being reliable you have to make the case that you are worthy of trust, you have been doing productive, valuable work.

Your trustworthiness and the value of your (choose one: work, product, novel, painting, table) is not Manifest Truth that can be perceived for those who can pierce the veil. Part of going out into the world is realizing that you have to be an advocate for yourself. A principled advocate, but an advocate none the less.

One of the lessons of McCloskey’s body of work is that engagement with other human beings always involves both ethics and rhetoric, and the two are not cleanly separable.

How Public Welfare Enhances Social Capital

Lamenting the atomism of modern society, the decline of community, associations and other forms of “social capital,” is such a common refrain on both the left and right that one wonders why they haven’t put aside their differences to form a club! I hear there are some vacancies down at the YMCA, and I bet you rates have never been so good. Call it… the Enemies of Anomie & Toastmasters Society.

Yet theorists of social capital spend more time writing about it (in itself a highly autonomous practice) than they do actually forming new co-valent social bonds. Perhaps it’s because, for both camps, the decline is seen to have been caused by such deep and hard to resist forces that they are equally resigned to pontification.

On the right, the deep source of creeping atomism is the all-encompassing, bureaucratized welfare state. Redistribution in this view is inherently trust-reducing due to its zero-sumness (Mary robbing Peter to pay Paul). For example, its argued that universal social programs crowd-out private safety-nets, like religious organizations or the family, destroying unseen pro-social externalities. In some accounts this merely accelerates a feedback loop of eroding social norms that was initiated the second Western Civilization embraced value pluralism.

Surprisingly, many on the left have come to similar conclusions, if only in a different vocabulary. Habermas, for example, has argued that state welfare systems “colonize” more natural forms of solidarity, contributing to their “reification” — an objectifying process by which implicit social relations are made explicit and impersonal, sapping them of their moral character. Readers of Sweet Talk might know this as a re-balancing from the sacred to the profane, the inherent transcendental and instrumental duality of all social relations.

Heady stuff. But is any of it accurate? Is it an inexorable law of late capitalism that we become individuated narcissists? Is there some theorem in Public Choice that says more welfare = less social capital? The answer to both is a big fat no.

In fact, the inverse relationship between social capital and the modern welfare state has been greatly exaggerated. There are three main reasons for this tendency, which I explore below: Continue reading “How Public Welfare Enhances Social Capital”