Moral Ideals: When “Good Enough” Just Is “Good”

Daniel Russell’s Practical Intelligence and the Virtues is one of the most philosophically sophisticated books I have ever read. The most impressive section lays out a framework for how to think about moral ideals, how they provide the top end of a scale and give us a sense when “virtuous enough” is what he calls “virtuous tout court“; that is, what positions on the scale that fall short of perfect virtue nevertheless are virtuous, without qualification.

Satis Concepts vs Binary Concepts

Russell is directly responding to Christine Swanton’s argument that virtues should be thought of as “threshold” concepts. Swanton argues that this is an alternative to the version of virtue ethics that relies on “what the virtuous individual would do” in a given situation, a formulation made especially widespread by Rosalind Hursthouse. Russell likes the idea of “thresholds”, but thinks it is not sufficiently precise. Moreover, he does not think it is at odds with Hursthouse’s formulation, but rather that the two are necessary for one another.

In the place of “thresholds” Russell suggests “satis concepts”—“satis” being Latin for “enough”.

In this respect, satis concepts like painful and bald are unlike, say, whole or perfect, or prime, positive, and even in the case of numbers, which we might say are ‘binary’ concepts: in the case of the latter, since there are no degrees of F-ness among F things, things are either ‘absolutely’ F or not F at all, and so it makes no sense to talk here of something’s being ‘F enough’. By contrast, satis concepts are such that there are degrees of F-ness among F things, and so since something need not be ‘absolutely’ F to be F, something can be F by being ‘F enough’.

The fact that most or all actually existing Fs in the world will be cases of “enough” is the key here. And the implication of this is that there must be some scale in which you can be more or less F. In the case of binary concepts, there is no scale and no “enough”; a prime number is either prime or it isn’t, there is no “more or less prime”, and “prime enough” is simply incoherent.

Boundary vs Vague Concepts

A further distinction that Russell introduces is between those things that have a sharp boundary between being F or not-F, and those things where no such sharp boundary exists but we can still speak meaningfully of some things being F or not-F.

‘Boundary’ satis concepts are such that while something can be F by being F enough, there is also a boundary dividing F things from not-F things. Notice that since boundaries establish ‘set-theoretically describable divisions’, boundaries by definition are sharp. For instance, we might say that painful is a boundary concept, since anything above a certain boundary of pressure on the skin, say, will count as painful.

However, though there are boundary satis concepts, most boundary concepts are binary, like the prime numbers example above.

Boundary concepts, then, are such that there is a sharp set-theoretical boundary between F and not-F things, whether or not there are degrees of F-ness among F things (i.e. whether or not F is binary). Only where there are degrees of F-ness among F things is a boundary concept also a satis concept.

Russell here points out that the problem with Swanton’s use of the word “threshold” is that it makes it sound like virtue is a boundary satis concept, though he’s quite sure that isn’t what she means. So he introduces the next term in his taxonomy:

Since virtue is a satis concept, but lacks a sharp boundary, it would seem to be a vague satis concept. A classic description of vague concepts holds that a vague concept F is such that there will be ‘borderline cases’ of F, that is, cases in which no method of making F more precise could settle in a privileged way whether the thing is F or not. Vagueness thus arises because of the concept itself, not because we happen to lack a method that would settle these cases. This account of vagueness does not go quite far enough, though, since a concept with sharp boundaries between F things, not-F things, and borderline cases is not a vague concept, despite having borderline cases; so we should say instead that a concept is vague if it lacks such boundaries

Russell offers “bald” and “tall” as examples; there are borderline cases where the vagueness arises from the concepts of baldness or tallness themselves, which cannot be completely settled except arbitrarily (and Russell argues that this does not truly settle it).

Model Concepts vs Central Cases

What makes either boundary or vague concepts also satis concepts is the fact that they exist on a continuous scale in which you can be more or less F, and because you can be F tout court without being “as F as possible.” In some cases, Russell points out, it isn’t even coherent to speak of being “as F as possible.” So while it is coherent to speak of someone being “as bald as possible” but consider cases where one is “bald” simply by being “bald enough”, for tallness, for instance, it is not coherent to contrast against being “as tall as possible.”

When considering whether someone counts as tall, and even if someone who falls short of complete baldness is nevertheless bald, we usually consult central, representative cases of tallness and baldness. In some cases, however, central cases may not be enough. For instance, a multi-dimensional vague concept like personhood is hard to pin down with merely central cases. Russell references fetuses as well as patients in “severe” comas as instances where figuring out what constitutes personhood would matter to us. In order to make use of the central concepts of personhood, we need to understand “in what ways must a person resemble the ‘central cases’?” According to Russell, what we require is a model.

When we try to say what personhood really is, we construct a theoretical model of what we take to be the essential features of personhood, in some kind of reflective equilibrium, and realized to the fullest degree, since the model must illuminate the central cases, not just join their ranks. This model, we should note, is an ideal, and therefore not merely a central case: you or I could stand as a central case of personhood, but not as a model of personhood, since particular persons always have shortcomings in some dimension or other of personhood, a shortcoming that the model is to reveal as a shortcoming.

Vague satis concepts that require such models in order to be made coherent are what Russell calls model concepts (are you following the nesting venn diagrams so far?)

One aspect of model concepts is that they are not purely interest-relative.

Some cases of ‘F enough’ require no such model because ‘F enough’ is purely interest-relative, and sometimes those interests permit—and even require—that we eliminate vagueness by simply stipulating a boundary. For instance, consider the children’s game of racing to fill a cup by carrying water across the room in a spoon. Since the object of the game is to be the first to fill one’s cup, players need to know with a fair bit of precision when a cup counts as ‘full’, and an easy way to solve this problem is to draw a line on the cup and stipulate, ‘Full is at that line’. Notice that a cup that is ‘full enough’ in this stipulated sense is not necessarily full tout court; all we can say is that it is ‘full*’, full for this rather special purpose.

He continues:

What makes ‘F enough’ purely interest-relative? When we ask whether a fetus or a comatose patient is a ‘person enough’, we take a keen interest in the answer, but what we want to know is whether the fetus or patient is a person tout court, not a ‘person*’, or a ‘person’ relative to just any old interest or purpose we may have. Here our interest is in finding out whether the patient is really a person, and so here ‘person enough’ is not purely interest-relative. Depending on how the answer comes out, we may even have to revise the interests that initially prompted the question.

Russell further stipulates that model concepts must deal with a substantive concept, not just our use of language. That is, it must refer to F in the de re rather than purely de dicto sense. He contrasts the concept of personhood with that of baldness. In the latter case when it comes to borderline cases we really are just talking about the de dicto use of the word “baldness”, whereas in the case of personhood we care about what a person really is, regardless of what words you want to use.

Therefore, a concept F is a model concept just in case being F enough entails being F tout court, where ‘F tout court’ is understood neither in a purely interest-relative sense nor in a de dicto sense, but in terms of what it is to be F, de re. In the case of model concepts, the possibility of error about ‘F enough’ is more than the possibility of being out of step with how competent speakers talk about what is F enough. It is instead the possibility that one may even be in step with everyone else about the central cases, but nonetheless be mistaken in thinking that those cases really are or are not F.

Russell’s discussion of how models calibrate our understanding of the subset of vague satis concepts they are necessary for reminds me of Deirdre McCloskey’s decades-long quest to get empirical economists to answer the question of “how big is big?” Here is Russell:

Cups are full, power plants are safe, and men are bald by degrees that can be ordinally ranked, and in some cases we can even say by just how much one degree differs from another. How such scales are calibrated, then, depends on our interests, or perhaps on common usage of the  related terms. By contrast, model concepts like rational and person also yield a calibrated scale, but here the scale requires a ‘standardized’ calibration: what it is to count as rational at all, and to what extent a given agent is rational, is to be determined (where it can be determined) by a scale that is calibrated by a model of ideal rationality that both sets the top end of the scale and gives meaning to the idea that a particular agent occupies a certain level on that scale. (Likewise for personhood.) Understanding what it is to be F tout court in a de re sense, then, calls for a theoretical model of ‘really F’.

It should be clear by now that Russell believes that any theory of virtue ethics must be build around model concepts. And moreover, that it is the nature of such concepts that they are both “thresholds” in Swanton’s sense and require ideals in Hursthouse’s sense.

Therefore, it is a mistake to suppose that the idea that one need only be ‘virtuous enough’ to be virtuous is an alternative to thinking of the virtues in terms of ideal models. On the contrary, thinking of virtue in terms of ideals is required on account of the very sort of satis concept that virtue is.

Ideals vs Aspirations

As if this account wasn’t intricate enough, Russell goes on to address the question of just how hard we must strive to approach our ideals, once we specify them. Many of the critiques of Hursthouse’s “virtuous person” standard boil down to the idea that it is unreasonably high; that is precisely Swanton’s motivation in attempting to provide a “threshold” alternative.

Russell meets this critique by turning to Donald Davidson’s model of rationality, which includes, among other things, the notion of “all-things-considered” judgments.

What does committing to meeting that requirement come to? Obviously, the ideal of ‘the rational person’—the person with ‘overall rational unity’—is ‘an ideal of which we are bound to fall short’, but it is my view that committing to this ideal is not the same as committing to becoming as like it as possible. Rather, to commit to the ideal of overall rational unity is to accept the principles of such rationality as principles one recognizes as one’s own principles, principles to which one can be held, by which one can be criticized, and in relation to which one must frame one’s response to such criticism—indeed, the very giving of such criticism presupposes the agent’s ability to respond in just this way.

He continues:

By accepting the ideal, one has made the ‘rule’ or principle a principle to which one sees oneself as bound. But committing to making all-things-considered judgments is not the same as committing to the (rather queer) life-project of becoming the best maker of all-things-considered judgments there can be. That project, like every other, consumes resources and opportunities, and can no more be assumed to be a rational one than any other project can. That is a fact about practical rationality: when it comes to making all-things-considered judgments, at some point it is reasonable to stop considering, choose, and hope that the choice is one we can live with, or perhaps grow into. Indeed, trying to become persons who do consider all things before acting is something that we have all-things-considered reasons not to do.

In short, the question of how hard we must aspire to approximate the ideal is a separate question from merely specifying the top-of-the-value-scale model, and one that ought to be addressed in that specification itself as the model of “all-things-considered” rationality does.

Uses For This Framework

It should be obvious that I am highly impressed by this framework. I can see it already implicitly at work in places where it and its implications haven’t been fully fleshed out. Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Virtues can be seen as providing a “model concept” to both hold up as an ideal and to describe the actual virtuousness of modern middle class life. The task of reviving “a serious ethical conversation about middle-class life, the life of towns, the forum and the agora” involves in no small part specifying and defending such a model. This is nowhere more clear than in the section of the book commenting on Jane Austin:

Jane talks of virtues up and down, back and forth, on all sides. But not from a theory. Her English suspicion of theory allows for ethical complexity. Complexity, but not coherence: grace, understanding, manners, amiability, good habits; each gives its set speech, and then withdraws from the scene.

It is clear that McCloskey believes it possible to have a model that allows for both complexity and coherence—and so, indeed, does Russell.

I myself also implicitly utilized model concepts when deciding what sort of book I wanted to write.

There are two books I have in my head, with two very different implied authors.

One book is a long treatise on virtue ethics in the market, written by an implied author who is capable of addressing the main critiques that would come out of the philosophical community. This implied author is very well read in the conversations of philosophy in and out of ethics, and is well equipped to engage in that conversation. The problem is that Deirdre McCloskey has basically written this book already, and even though my version of virtue ethics may differ slightly from hers, I don’t think that this is the best contribution I could make right now, nor am I well equipped to make it. It would take me several more years of research before I could comfortably write as this implied author.

The second book has an implied audience of the people who buy books in the business section of a book store (or Amazon). Unpretentious, practical minded people who nevertheless view consulting books as both enjoyable and useful. The implied author is well read and confident in the subject he is writing about, but not an expert or a specialist in philosophy or economics. He works for a living and thus experiences the world of business forty hours a week or more, and has so for his whole career—but not as an executive or entrepreneur or anything more exciting than a salaried employee. His value proposition for his implied audience is that his life is similar to theirs, and he can offer a framework for looking at that life that is very clarifying, but also satisfying. Useful, but also enjoyable to engage with critically or from the inside.

I believe that that is an implied author I am capable of becoming within a reasonable timeframe, and that is more or less the book that I want to write.

In this case, the “implied author” is a model concept, one that I have spent most of this year working to approximate, and will no doubt continue to do so through 2015. However, this model is only useful to me insofar as it can guide me in deciding when enough is enough; when I am qualified enough to write the book and therefore qualified tout court.

Which brings me to my pseudonymous fellow Sweet Talker boatfloating, who eloquently wrote:

You do not need to shoot and kill a 7-year old girl sleeping on her grandmother’s couch yourself to support the tough-on-crime approach. You do not need to kill an innocent Iraq War veteran yourself to support the War on Drugs. You do not need toextort sex yourself to support the continued criminalization of a consensual act. You do not need to torture innocent people and informants yourself to be for the use of torture.

You do need to(or, at least, should) recognize your public policy preferences will have unintended consequences. You do need to(or, at least, should) recognize that these unintended consequences will incur costs. You do need to(or, at least, should) recognize that most of these costs will not be borne by you. You do need to(or, at least, should) be made to understand, fully, these costs. To do otherwise is moral and intellectual cowardice.

This is highly provocative, especially to a crusader against telescopic morality (another model concept) such as myself. So I ask him: what is the ideal here, and when is enough enough? This directly parallels “all-things-considered” rationality; when is a citizen’s policy position “all-things-considered” enough to make one a good citizen tout court?

It’s unfortunate that I cannot boil Russell’s framework down to less than a 3,000 word post, because I think it is very important. And I encourage everyone to read the book and in particular the fourth chapter, which covers this specific subject.

But I don’t think you have to navigate his nesting venn diagram of concepts in order to get the gist of the questions—what is the ideal? When is enough enough? How hard are we obligated to work on approaching the ideal?

One Is The Loneliest Number

More advent musings

John Derbyshire, who sometimes injudiciously shares naughty thoughts with the world, has notoriously wagered alongside Pascal, oscillating irregularly between a deistic agnostic and a fully materialistic atheist.

He chafes against the charge of “materialistic,” as I recall (and I can’t be bothered to look it up, but I know I’m not being unfair), offering as an argument that there is no alternative. On at least one occasion he criticized his well-meaning critics with this observation:

Those who appeal to Natural Law–some sort of appeal to the complexities of the cosmos–in an effort to re-convert him to Christianity commit a logical sleight of hand (and here the information is relevant that Derbyshire is a popularizer of advanced mathematics), that is, when they say, “How can you deny there is a Creator-God when the world is so magnificent? O John Derbyshire, you especially should know that there’s almost no mathematical probability that all this could just happen,” –when they make this argument, they are stumbling mathematically.

Au contraire, he would say. It did just happen. Those who argue that it cannot be have deftly removed the numerator from the probability.

Indeed, when I look at the work of God, and all its majesty and wonder, I come at it from a basis of faith. Of course I see the hand of God. But if I do not come at it from the basis of faith, I see the improbabilities having come to pass. It doesn’t matter the improbabilities of the physical world, both cosmic and quantum; it doesn’t matter the improbabilities of the emotional world of familial relationships and psychology; it doesn’t matter the improbabilities of laws of thermodynamics over against natural selection. They all, by all reckoning, just happened. It cannot be elsewise.

In other words, the numeral one is still atop the denominator, no matter how vast the denominator should happen to be. A chance of one in two is a chance of one in two. A chance of one in seventeen billion is still a chance, no matter how infinitesimal. Materialists rejoice as ones who walked into a casino once, and only once, placed a single chip upon a random number at the roulette wheel, and won. By chance, not miraculously. By chance.

Indeed, it is necessary to  maintain the numerator in order to remain a person of faith, i.e., a person of The Faith, which includes a Creator-God. If faithful people remove the numerator, they become fundamentalist materialists themselves, denying the confession of The Faith which includes a Creator-God. The Faith demands belief to be completely suspended, surrounded in its entirety by doubt. From that position of utter weakness, The Faith does its work.

That is to say, if there is not a one atop the denominator, there is no longer a declaration of The Faith; instead, adherents are reduced to arguing probabilities. From there, it’s a short slope to slide down into the denial of the Redeemer-God, when we bow our heads on Christmas morning, reciting that impossible thing, the number zero above the denominator, namely that, somewhere in between “Very God of Very God,” transcendent beyond apprehension, and “He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate,” there is the phrase which earns a hearty chuckle from our coevals who surround us entirely in the maelstrom of the agora, “He came down from heaven, was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”

There’s where the zero belongs: zero chance, not even a table upon which to place your bet. Let Pascal rot, or burn, whichever.


The Virtue of Sausage-Making(NSFW)

Was reading some of Sam’s stuff here and here and David’s here, and I got to thinking.

Specialization and trade is a(the?) source of our wealth. By being able to outsource much of what we had been historically forced to do to just live to others, while focusing our highly adaptable monkey brains on fewer tasks, we’ve been able to attain a standard-of-living not imaginable to our ancestors. I do not have to sew my own clothing. I do not have to butcher my own meat. I do not have to brew my own beer. I do not have to bake my own bread.


There are plenty of DIY and back-to-the-earth-types who ascribe a certain moral goodness to doing these things by one’s own hands. I don’t cotton to that particular thinking, but there’s something there worth investigating. One doesn’t need to have a hand in every single thing they consume to live a moral life, but I do think one has to acknowledge that when you outsource XYZ, you do not have the full picture of your own consumption of XYZ.

I’ve had some friends and family who are vegetarian, and even one is a vegan(we’ve since stopped talking*), and one reason for them having turned away from delicious, healthy, and wonderful meat and meat-products was because of factory-farming. This, obviously, is a false dichotomy. One can certainly eat meat that isn’t factory-raised, but is there something to the notion that we should be closer to or, at least cognizant of, the process of our consumption?

I’ve an 80-some-year-old grandmother who lives on a farm by herself. She wakes up every morning at the crack of dawn to do farm things. If she wants to eat some chicken, she goes to the coop, picks one up, snaps its neck, scalds it, plucks it, and then cooks it. I’m not a stranger to that process. I’m no stranger to the process by which I’m able to eat whatever else I eat, either. I’m Texan. It’s really nothing new, special, or altogether interesting to me, but it would be to those who’d never participated in the process.

With this in mind, a friend and I decided to go hunting(he lives in NYC and is surrounded by sanctimonious, emaciated vegans.) with a redneck friend of ours(it’s okay, he styles himself a redneck, so this is not a slur) who happens to work on a hunting ranch. Long story short:

Continue reading “The Virtue of Sausage-Making(NSFW)”

Virtue in a box

Imagine you’re alone in a room. In front of you is a terminal with only two buttons. If you press one of the buttons, you can bring justice to some number of people. If you press the other button, justice will be denied. There’s no one watching, and once you step out of the room there will be no lasting record of which button you pushed or if you pushed neither of them. There’s total deniability, but also total inability to provably claim any credit. Essentially, no one will ever know but you. Which button do you push?

* * *

A widely held belief among Americans is that in government, the game is rigged. And this belief is correct. Every year, more laws are added. In 1960 there were “only” 22,877 pages of Federal Regulations. By 1975 it was up to 71,224, and in 2013 it was 175,496. And this doesn’t include the rules promulgated by independent Federal Agencies like the SEC or CFTC. These laws are rarely passed for the benefit of the average American; more often they are passed for the benefit of special interests such as licensed occupations, which have expanded from 5% of the workforce to 30% since the 1960s. Every major industry plays this game, even California’s new technology companies originally founded with lofty ideals.

Examples of special interests turning the law against the common good are never in short supply in America. The Utah Insurance Commission found that Zenefits prices were so low as to be “unfair” to incumbent companies. Uber is outlawed in Oregon out of “fairness” to existing taxi operators. Tesla is outmaneuvered by car dealers in Michigan, Texas, and New Jersey, preventing direct sales. Policemen who assault and murder regular citizens are protected by their union, prosecutors fail to indict them, and sometimes the offender even gets promoted. And that’s to say nothing of institutional spending priorities like the Senate Launch System, a rocket program many times more expensive than privately available alternatives–but work continues anyway, providing fat contractor awards (which feed back into campaign contributions) in key States and Congressional districts.

Of course, I’m not saying anything new. Coverage of the shortcomings in America’s legislative process are well covered by the media and frequently discussed, and thus Congress has well-earned its low approval ratings. Americans know the game is rigged, and they’re pretty unhappy about it.

* * *

Now when this topic comes up, people usually point to the need for campaign finance reform. They point out that the link between campaign contributions and legislative action, which is real and observable. Folks point out things like:

  • How much time Congressmen spends raising money instead of actually reading the bills they pass, or
  • How often President Obama is at a fund-raiser dinner instead of a National Security meeting, or
  • Just how messy the whole lobbying industry can become, c.f., Jack Abramoff, or
  • How, even when there’s immense public interest in campaign finance reform, Congress still removes restrictions on donations from the immensely rich in order to keep that money coming.

And these are fair points. I am not opposed to campaign finance reform. There are institutional arrangements that would give our elected representatives more time to govern thoughtfully, and reduce the influence of special interests–and we should put them into practice. (My personal pet reform idea is to have the government provide generous matching funds, but only if the original donation came directly from an individual constituent of the office sought, and the money was spent no more than three months before an election – neatly solving both campaign finance and endless election cycles in one law without abridging the freedoms in the First Amendment). But frankly, I think the campaign finance reform movement is missing the larger picture. The fact is, campaign funds are just one way that influence works.

* * *

Legislators basically do two things: they write laws, and they vote on them. There might be some benefit on structurally separating those functions, but I’m not proposing or discussing anything that radical today. Instead, let’s focus on one basic truth: laws have economic consequences, producing winners and losers. And when those winners and losers can influence the process of writing and voting on laws, they will. They’d be foolish not to. And that influence can take many forms besides just making a perfectly legal campaign contribution. Other examples include:

The point is, campaign finance (while important) is just one of the ways in which politicians can be bribed or influenced. And the more illegal ones (particularly blackmail and bribes dropped into offshore accounts) are very hard to track or police. Even if Congress inexplicably passed the Platonic ideal form of campaign finance reform, one that both put the general public’s interest ahead of any special interests and avoided all the thorny free speech issues that campaign finance laws usually invoke, you wouldn’t solve these other problems. At the end of the day, as long as politicians have something valuable to sell, a buyer will find a way.

Probably the most damning (in my opinion) evidence of this basic truth (that buyers (the guys with money) and sellers (the guys with political assets to sell) find each other) is found in a paper by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page. If scholarly papers aren’t your thing, here’s a New Yorker article on their findings. And if even that’s too much, here’s a Daily Show interview with the authors. The take-away is that there’s a strong correlation between the interests of economic elites and business interests and the laws that are passed, and basically no correlation at all between the laws passed and the interests of average voters and mass-based voters groups (like AARP or AFL-CIO). What the second group thinks or believes simply doesn’t have a causal relationship with government policy.

 * * *

An interesting thing about the Gilens paper is that it covers the years from 1982 to 2002. So it’s possible that the elite and business interests did not exercise outsize influence outside of this range. And there’s a reason to believe this might be the case–because the American economy had undergone a change in the last several decades that overlaps the period Gilens studied. And I am speaking of the rise in inequality and general stagnation of lower class incomes that has occurred in America since the 1970s. Here’s colorful chart:

Changes in Wages

As you an see, something changed after 1973 or so. When I mentioned this on Twitter, Marc Andreessen forwarded to me this paper which suggests technological change is at fault. But honestly, I don’t believe that. Rapid technological change has been going on for centuries, and the wealth produced by industrialization created widespread prosperity for even the less-well education previously. And even today, companies like Uber are helping taxi drivers (not a high-skill occupation) earn more money. When wealth continues to get created but the distribution changes, something has changed in the relative bargaining power of the constituent groups. And my personal theory is that the reason for that change is the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 (the LRA).

The LRA seems on its face to be a harmless bill, but it does several things relevant to the effective control of government by elites–it authorizes the installation of electronic voting machines in the House, creates a record of who votes in the Committee of the Whole, and authorizes the televisation of committee discussions. Basically, transparency increased and a record of who voted for what both on the floor votes and in committee was created. (Prior to the installation of electronic voting machines in the House votes were handled simply by having members stand or raise their hands. Sometimes close votes were formally counted, but it wasn’t recorded who voted what. Post electronic voting, it is)

And this is a really big deal, because if a Congressman can prove what he voted for, he can sell that vote.

* * *

Vote buying has a long history in the United States, but during the 19th century most of that vote buying and selling was done at the level of individual citizens. Prior to 1896 the US Government didn’t even print official ballots. Local parties would print ballots with their preferred politicians on them and pay workers to submit them to the voting booth. Even George Washington bought votes with bribes of whiskey.  Of course, the bribes were enforceable because the ballots weren’t secret–votes were often oral, written down with assistance or supervision, or pre-printed and handed in without change. America didn’t adopt secret ballots in Presidential elections until beginning in 1884, and paying for votes wasn’t made illegal until 1925.

Nowadays the thought on non-secret ballots is probably unthinkable to the average America. The idea of employers, neighbors, friends, family, or (worst of all) strangers on the Internet knowing who you voted for almost seems like an invasion of privacy. And widespread knowledge of voting patterns would immediately raise concerns about intimidation.

And it my belief that this fine American tradition of vote buying is exactly what’s happening with Congress today (and since the early 70s) because of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970. During and since the mid-1970s, the first professional lobbying firms were founded and lobbying spending increased in Washington D.C. from tens of millions to many billions. The idea of earmarked spending was invented in the 1980s and lucratively lobbied for–the lobbyists grew incredibly rich too. Lobbying is now Washington D.C.’s largest source of rich citizens, and as a result the suburbs around Washington D.C. are tied for first (with the suburbs outside New York City that are home to senior Wall St. bankers and lawyers) as the richest towns in America.

If the American people want to have a government again that’s actual by, of, and for the people (and not just the top 10% and major corporations), there is only one solution: Congressional votes and legislative drafting must become secret.

To many this idea will seem loony. If the votes are secret, how do the voters know whether they are being represented well or not? Well, they won’t, not perfectly, but neither will the lobbyists and corporate donors. And the fact is, voters will never be as well-informed or well-organized as moneyed interests. It simply isn’t impossible to inform or organize hundreds of millions of people. And it’s not even rational for those people to become informed; the average voter simply doesn’t derive enough benefit from understanding the difference between various policy choices to make the effort to learn them worth it.

For America to get back to the era before lobbyists controlled the government policies enacted, America must return to a system where votes and drafting cannot by bought and sold. Simply reforming the campaign finance laws won’t prevent bribery or blackmail. Only a legislating and voting system which is completely secret will deny Congressman the proof that they voted for a certain bill or requested a certain earmark be added to a bill, the proof they require to extract funds and perks from lobbyists.

* * *

You’re still hesitant, aren’t you? Not convinced? I get it. Legislators aren’t like regulator voters. When a voter goes into the voting booth, he’s representing no one but himself. There’s no “wrong” way to vote as long as you vote for the candidates you honestly think are best. And why would you ever vote against your conscience? No one’s offering to pay you to vote for anyone else because they know your ballot is secret. But Legislators – they represent other people. There’s a fundamental principal:agent problem with voters and the legislators they elect, which is how the voters are supposed to trust a legislator to do the right thing behind closed doors.

On this point, I ask you to return to the question I posed in the very first paragraph of this post. You’re alone with the room with a voting machine that guarantees anonymous voting. What do you vote for, the wrong thing or the right thing? No one will ever know what you did (and therefore cannot influence the result one way or the other), so only your conscience can be your guide.

My contention is fairly simple: politicians are people too. People are often flawed, sinful, lazy, and stupid. But most of them aren’t actually sociopaths. Most people wouldn’t hurt people for the sole reason of enjoying the consequent suffering. Once you remove all external influences most people will do the right thing (as they see it). And for the rare sociopath that slips through, there’s hundreds of other normal, good people who can outvote him.

I know in this day and age it seems naive to the point of stupidity to think that politicians are capable of being good. And it’s not my contention they’ll be angels. But rather, consider that most of your adult life (or all of it perhaps) took place in the post-lobbying world where power has corrupted every last one the politicians you knew, no matter how well-meaning they might have been to start with. Take that source of corruption away and maybe Congress can start acting like more normal people again.

I Ordered the Code Red

All right, so who’s actually for torture? Not me, nuh uh, no way. However, all the shrieking over this coincidentally-timed Senate report on CIA torture tactics has me a little confused.

The shrieking has the same sound as twelve-year old boys who castrate themselves upon hearing that, yes, Mommy had sex with Daddy to bring them into being. Yes, little Jimmy, we torture. Did you really think that civilizations are brought in through the nursery room window by the stork? Or, really, that civilizations just happen? Civilizations are forged, and the edges of civilization are hot, being hammered on, and the only people who can dwell there are vile, wretched, lost souls whose job it is to encounter the barbarians.

On this side of Guantanamo is civilization, where we do not torture each other; we are justifiably upset and concerned that civil rights and law and order are coming together, lately, rather violently. On the other side of Guantanamo is barbarity, where they dwell who should be tortured. I’m just glad I’m not the one who has to justify my vile and wretched acts to myself or to anyone else.

To be sure, I’m not upset to learn that we torture, especially when we consider, with some historical sensitivities, what is being reported as perpetrated by the CIA is a warm-up lap for those barbarians who are well-versed in torture tactics. I’m more upset that someone pulled the curtain back. I don’t wanna see blood and gore while Bing Crosby winds me around the Christmas tree while I string it with lights which reflect in my tiny tots’ eyes.

There are vile and wretched people doing Bad Things in my behalf so that I can have Good Things. We have chambers in order to keep the one hidden from the other. Thus we participate in it, consciously or no. I’d rather not be conscious of it, but I can’t imagine, in my innermost, a way to maintain the frontier of civilization against barbarians without nastiness. So, add my shriek to the chorus of shrieks, but as for me, mine is so much kayfabe so that no one thinks that I’m actually for torture. Not me, nuh uh, no way.

Of Faith

Faith is one of the Christian trio of primary virtues. Along with hope and love, it adds a temporal dimension to the Classical four (courage, temperance, prudence, and justice). Faith is backwards-looking, it is retrospective, empirical. We demonstrate faith through constancy. We keep our word, we fulfill our promises. Think of the appending language: we keep or preserve the faith. We maintain faith in adversity. It is a durable thing, preserved through diligent practice.

If you’re on Twitter, and your feed is anything like mine, two stories have dominated your feed today. One is the sordid tale of MIT economist Jon Gruber, who has been executing his role as disgraced (to the tune of, what is it, six million bucks in all) scapegoat-cum-sage in front of a sanguine Congress. The other is the lurid tale of CIA operatives torturing detainees. With few exceptions, most of the chatter I’ve read decries either one of these stories or the other, with a rare few decrying both.

What I find interesting is that any adult American could be surprised by either of these revelations. Shocked? Okay. Dismayed? Perhaps. But not surprised. It defies belief that anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the history of this civilized earth could be surprised when political elites behave precisely as their incentives predict, subject to the constraints of their institutions in which they operate. I cannot endeavor to lay my finger upon the historical period in which the political elite ruled the constituency bathed in the milk of human kindness. It isn’t part of the job description, it never has been. That anyone could rouse themselves to believe otherwise is testament to the power of indoctrinating rhetoric.

I have faith in American political institutions. I have faith that men and women in power will have a natural propensity to behave knavishly. If you find that you have faith of another type, perhaps this is a good time to revisit some of your beliefs and adjust them accordingly. The violence and the lies are not part of the system. The violence and the lies ARE the system.

Ethics, Estonia & E-Government

Deirdre McCloskey advances a relatively controversial theory about the cause of the industrial revolution. She argues that the institutional or technological factors usually put forwarded are insufficient — that in addition, a new conception of bourgeois dignity was required. While I personally tend to lean toward more conventional causes, it’s impossible to deny that McCloskey has a point. At a sui generis level, the prevailing ethic influences both what is literally possible (in terms of production possibility sets) and what is perceived to be possible — if not necessary — by the broader public.

A good case study supporting McCloskey’s thesis is the development of e-government in Estonia. Estonia has the world’s most digitized public service. It is truly remarkable: with more than 2500 e-government services available and counting, Estonia is slowly automating the majority of its public sector.

How did Estonia get here? Any inquiry into the nature and causes of its digital wealth of nations turns up a potpourri of institutional factors and theories. Perhaps the most important was the relative lack of legacy architecture following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet this was true of other baltic states as well. The accumulation of this and other institutional factors thus leaves me vaguely unsatisfied.

But perhaps, a la McCloskey, the missing ingredient in explaining their success is related to ethics. In this case, a hacker ethic, which motivated young civil servants to take on an ambitious and risky reform agenda, letting development guide policy rather than the other way around. Early successes captured the minds of the public, and suddenly broke open perceptions about what lay within the realm of possibility.

If this is accurate, it strongly cautions against superficial policy emulation without adjusting for the enthusiasm and competency of whoever is actually enacting the policy. And it also serves as a template for social reform movements more generally. Truly innovative reform requires not just visionary leaders or well read technocrats, but an energized core driven by a sense of possibility (and a willingness to “hack” the old regime) that has yet to penetrate the broader social imaginary.

Food for thought. You can read more on Estonia’s e-government in Tarmo Kalvet, Innovation: a factor explaining e-government success in Estonia

estonia ethics

Stick It Where The Sun Don’t Shine

Randall troubles himself over the #phronesis of civility. Martin Gurri replies obliquely.

I am a child of privilege. I am a white married adult male living in one of the wealthiest tracts of land in the whole of history. It is devilishly easy for me to fancy that a benevolent Creator has crafted this mundane paradise for my benefit and my benefit alone. I am not subject to the gross harassment of thugs public or private. I am not subservient to the will of hereditary superiors. I owe no fealty, I pay piffling tribute to the state, at least compared to the tithes of my ancestors. I am at risk of neither conscription nor invasion. My society is so civilized that the nastiest the culture wars have to offer are heated online discussions centered ostensibly on the patently ludicrous topic of ethics in gaming journalism.

These are the challenges of my time. Beowulf v Grendel round II it ain’t. Or if it is, the beast is slain, and his mom’s head is mounted in my mead hall. lol

As a privileged middle aged dad, part of my noblesse oblige is to do what I can to extend the blessings of my narrow providence to marginalized groups. That’s why I count myself as aggressively pro-immigration, that’s why I shout into the uncaring wilderness about the benefits of expanding the sphere of euvoluntary exchange, and that’s why I do my best to not be an outright jerk when I exchange ideas with people.

That’s also why I’m naturally hesitant to wag my finger at people who don’t share my instinctual proclivities towards restraint and temperance. Randall called Maggie McNeill out for an aggressive exchange with a sex work prohibitionist. But like me, I’m sure he recognizes that Maggie has been in this fight for a long time, and she’s seen firsthand the ugliness of encounters with not only comfortable prohibitionists, but with the long end of the truncheon that enforces those statutes.

My task is analysis and commentary. It is not censure. I have a hard enough time policing my own speech. I can’t even imagine being enough of a shitheel to try to police the speech of others.

But that’s just me. Not exactly the go-to dude for matters of moral rectitude or whatever.

Respectability Politics, amirite?

Had a discussion earlier, and I came to a very different conclusion than others about the following two tweets:

Others viewed the first as far-too vitriolic, thus, proving-the-point. I saw the second as a provocation of such casual ease that only one firmly ensconced in the safety of the majoritarian bubble could possibly make it, which is then later followed by, my ear, false concern and admonishments for prayer.

Something I’ve been vacillating on the past few weeks/months/years is the role of rhetoric among low-status/oppressed/put-upon when addressing high-status/oppressors. How gracious are they required to be to be allowed by the cultural/social gatekeepers into the conversation? How much of this is playing into the legitimacy of whatever, possible, injustice happening?

Obviously, some/many/most of my four readers will not really agree with me on this particular issue, but, as an example, would MLK have been as effective without a Malcolm X as a ballast(or vice versa) in the wider civil rights movement?

(By the by, I understand nothing I’m saying hasn’t been beaten into the ground forever and forever now by others much smarter than I, but it’s something I can’t really square with myself)

ETA: About fifteen minutes after posting.