A Farewell to Conspiracies

At common law, a conspiracy is an agreement between two or more people to commit a crime. I would add in many secretive government activities too, such as spying, which are crimes as far as the victims are concerned. We won’t be seeing them very often in the near future. In fact, that future is already here – just not evenly distributed.

Last month a new software program was uploaded to Github called Darkleaks. It’s billed as a decentralized auction for information. What that means in practice is that someone with access to information (such as the Pentagon Papers, a movie script, or the NOC List) can sell that information without meeting the buyer or revealing their identity. The sale is handled entirely online in a trustless manner. And the auction is distributed – it cannot be shut down any more than Bittorrent or Tor can be.

And the first auction is now underway, as I first learned from Andrea Castillo at Mercatus. The Silk Road 2.0 website was shut down by law enforcement, but now one of the administrators of the website (or so they claim to be) has popped up offering server data for sale. Transaction histories, user names, passwords, and source code are for sale. To the extent any of this information can be traced back to real world identities, it offers the possibility of exposing the buyers and sellers that participated in that dark market.

The technical details of how the auction works are interesting, but Andrea explains them well enough. I suggest reading her piece for details on how trust is established between buyer and seller under such unusual circumstances. What’s more interesting to me is how this technical innovation will affect society.

Lets examine the characteristics of this seller, and think about what it means going forward. This person is not authorized by any entity (certainly not the bosses of the Silk Road 2.0 website, or its users) to divulge this information. They simply have access to it, and are willing to trade that access (in the form of an upload) for money. And they are doing it in such a way they can deny they’re the ones providing the access. This auction could be initiated by anyone with the appropriate server access (including unauthorized hackers).

Think of all the organizations in the world that depend on secrecy to function, and use fear and force (whether legal or illegal) to make non-ideological members keep the secrets. Mafia families have accountants and secretaries (and also unreliable family members). Spy agencies and large corporations have many thousands of employees. Even ideological organizations like ISIS or Al Qaeda will have to deal with alienated members looking to get out and make a couple bucks doing it.

Further, the software used to list an auction runs on regular personal computers. Anyone with the technical skill to collect useful information in the first place will have the skill necessary to list an auction. The primary barrier to entry is that only those with decent operational security (using one-time email addresses and such) will be able to use this system with a low risk of getting caught. But with the financial incentive the auction provides, many can acquire these skills.

In essence, there’s no real barrier to auctions such as this from becoming a widespread practice. And there are a number of uses I can foresee immediately. Governments around the world are known to hoard zero-day vulnerabilities in major software (that is, methods of hacking in software systems that aren’t generally known to the security profession). These same governments also create hacking tools. Knowledge of both of these is very commercially valuable and would likely produce “good” auction results. So would lists of spies in foreign jurisdictions.

Criminal organizations depend heavily on their activities remaining secret, or at least keeping law enforcement divided and disorganized. If interested and wealthy members of a society made a practice of buying this information and releasing it to public news agencies (so that political organization could rally to defeat the criminals), this could make it very hard to organize crime. It would also be hard on the politicians and members of the judiciary who may have abetted the criminal organization’s activities.

Corporate whistleblowers will also now have a means of releasing information, making some money, and not losing their jobs. (Unless the whistle-blow causes their corporate employers to be shut down entirely I suppose) This will prove very tempting to many people who might feel their employers are up to no good, and for whom the money is just the kick in the pants they need to ‘do something’.

The list goes on, and readers should feel welcome to add more ideas in the comments.

Andrea makes the argument in her post that “defensive purchasing” of the information might be something that some governments or criminal organizations might engage in, but she misses the point that defensive purchasing will be totally ineffective. There’s nothing that prevents the information from being sold a second time. After all, information can be copied an infinite number of times. The seller doesn’t “lose” his copy when he makes a copy for the buyer. If Monsanto buys an auction that claims to divulge some ugly corporate practice, they’ll make the seller some money and then the seller can just re-auction the same information next week. Defensive purchasing just makes the seller richer while buying the target of the leak no additional security. If a seller is determined to maximize their own income, they’ll keep selling the same information over and over until someone makes it public (making future auctions pointless). And so every auction game ends eventually in total transparency.

The long term effects of this new reality are not certain. On the one hand, criminal and abusive conspiracies will never get very large or old. Each additional person who knows the secret is an increased risk of betrayal, and the knowledge end-game will drive rational actors to betray first and at least make a buck off it. This will reduce crime and also (hopefully) corruption in government.

The “downside” of this change is that all enforceable contracts will have to rely on the public courts, which means that the government will suddenly have a really big advantage in stomping out any sort of activity it doesn’t like. You may think that sounds generally like a good thing, but imagine a government that decided to outlaw things we today consider legal and safe activities (and ones you enjoy). If criminal organizations are so beset by internal betrayals that they cannot function, then even black markets won’t be an option for you. The government, as long as it retains the support of the voters and maintains the monopoly of legitimate police and Courts, will have a lot more power to regulate our lives.

Somehow I don’t think that’s the end result the anarchists that programmed Darkleaks were planning on, but then, they’re good coders, not good political scientists. And this is how I see it playing out.

Actually It’s About Ethics in Arbitrage Opportunities

One of the more fun classic economics papers is Radford’s “The Economic Organization of a P.O.W. Camp“.

The key paragraph:

We reached a transit camp in Italy about a fortnight after capture and received ¼ of a Red Cross food parcel each a week later. At once exchanges, already established, multiplied in volume. Starting with simple direct barter, such as a nonsmoker giving a smoker friend his cigarette issue in exchange for a chocolate ration, more complex exchanges soon became an accepted custom. Stories circulated of a padre who started off round the camp with a tin of cheese and five cigarettes and returned to his bed with a complete parcel in addition to his original cheese and cigarettes; the market was not yet perfect. Within a week or two, as the volume of trade grew, rough scales of exchange values came into existence. Sikhs, who had at first exchanged tinned beef for practically any other foodstuff, began to insist on jam and margarine. It was realized that a tin of jam was worth l/2 lb. of margarine plus something else; that a cigarette issue was worth several chocolate issues, and a tin of diced carrots was worth practically nothing.

Let’s think about that padre for a moment.

Russ Roberts always insisted to those of us who took his class that we assume the padre had been a fair dealer; he hadn’t lied and he hadn’t strong-armed anyone. The exchanges were voluntary. If so, Roberts, asked us: did he make his trading partners better off? If so, how?

The quote already makes it clear. It’s about information. If you know that someone doesn’t smoke, but likes jam, you have an opportunity. You can go to them and say–I will give you a few spoonfulls of jam if you will give me all of your cigarettes. Since they don’t care about the cigarettes (perhaps they are even disgusted by them, and would have just thrown them in the garbage) they are perfectly happy to make the trade.

You still have most of the jam, and now you have a lot more cigarettes. If you then go and find someone who feels the equal and opposite way about cigarettes and jam as the first trading partner, you can double up on your jam, too.

The key thing here is information. You have it, they don’t. You are not making them worse off with your trade—on the contrary, they have something they want, and got rid of something they either didn’t want, or didn’t want as much as what you gave them. In the narrow world of the exchange, it was mutually beneficial—that was Roberts’ main point.

The reason that middlemen are so hated, and commerce in general treated as morally suspect, is because from the outside or in retrospect we can see that the padre’s trading partners weren’t made as better off as they could have been—if they’d known all of the information that the padre did.

There are two scenarios that come to mind that would have allowed the padre to get such a windfall:

  1. He was simply a shrewd bargainer. He was careful to tease out what people cared about before even introducing the idea of a trade, and then made his first offer on the terms most favorable for himself. He got what he wanted because people aren’t very careful about such things by default.
  2. He had most of the information he needed about everyone up front, from conversations he had had with them before the parcels even arrived. Based on that, for every trade he already had another trading partner in mind for what he was getting.

A combination of, or middle position between, the two is of course possible. Probable, even.

But I think people have different moral intuitions about 1 than 2. 1 feels like basic prudence; maybe it’s a bit aggressive but both people are on relatively equal footing. The padre’s trading partner could demand better terms, if they’d just thought about the possibility of using what they had for future trades. In short, the failure is largely of their imagination; the padre could have helped the guy out by pointing this out, but few people think that’s his duty.

But the second scenario feels a bit like dishonesty. The padre knows with some certainty that his trading partner could get better deals elsewhere, but says nothing. His taking advantage of this knowledge and being sure to get in with the first offer feels like taking advantage. If only everyone had the information that the padre had, the whole group could be made much better off than they end up being. But the padre chooses to keep it to himself so that he can maximize his windfall.

There’s some truth to this intuition, especially in small group settings and among family members. If we all horded information to try and maximize our individual private benefit in every context, group action would be all but impossible to any meaningful degree. Even the conduct of business depends to no small degree to those willing to give in an open and uncalculated way.

But negotiation, hard sells, and prudent bargaining have their place. In a time where commerce has connected businesses and billions of strangers the world over, that place is quite large.

Moreover, the information that the padre obtained is hard to get. Especially on a global scale. Providing the incentive to uncover it is part of what leads to long run betterment for everyone.

Radford’s article gets to this point. In the quoted paragraph, you can already see that people have learned to be more prudent after the initial rounds of trading.

Later in the article, the prisoners converge on cigarettes as the common currency. They list what they have in terms of cigarettes, so the information that was precious when the padre had it is now trivially easy to come by.

In such a situation, how is arbitrage even possible?

Let’s say that someone figured out—or just speculated—that there might be a week that the parcels failed to come, and stored their parcels in order to sell at a premium on such a week. They certainly make a profit if they are right in their guess or their information is reliable.

And look at how much better this is than the padre: we have someone who takes all the up-front risk on themselves; it may turn out that they delayed consumption for no gain at all. But they’re performing a valuable service for the community: hedging against the possibility that there will be a shortage in the future. And they only get compensated for their efforts if they are right.

“The profit motive” is extremely socially valuable in very specific contexts. This is such a simple point, but so many opponents and would-be friends of commerce ignore one or both parts of it. Some refuse to see is that it is valuable, and others refuse to see that it is valuable in very specific contexts.

If you ever find yourself talking past an ideological opponent on this matter, I implore you to look at what has been said on both sides and ask whether either or both of you have ignored some part of this point.

Building Communities of Values, Part I

We left off our story in early May 2007, (and that essay was mostly written that fall), when, in the aftermath of the French presidential election I first became fully convinced that people existed whose genuinely held ends I did not consider ends.  Shortly thereafter Michael Ignatieff delivered the Isaiah Berlin Lecture at Wolfson College Oxford.  (It is a measure of the significance of that speech that a reasonably extensive Google search has so far failed to find a transcript, or even a definite date, in part no doubt, because subsequent events would make a Michael Ignatieff lecture on political judgement vaguely embarrassing.)  This was my first introduction to Isaiah Berlin, in whose tradition I mostly place myself, though I think the major theme of his work, the justification of a liberal pluralist order, is basically a failure.  In any case I would like to start with one of Berlin’s definition of Politics:
Since men are beings made by nature to live in communities, their communal purposes are the ultimate values from which the rest are derived, or with which their ends as individuals are identified. Politics – the art of living in a polis – is not an activity which can be dispensed with by those who prefer private life : it is not like seafaring or sculpture which those who do not wish to do so need not undertake. Political conduct is intrinsic to being a human being at a certain stage of civilization, and what it demands is intrinsic to living a successful human life – Isaiah Berlin, The Originality of Machiavelli, [1953]
So what does the art of living in a polis entail?  To my understanding, it is the attempt to make the norms and institutions which structure our lives compatible with our ends, that is, reflective of our values.  These kind of structures surround us with powerful incentives, such that generally it is only possible for a person to live contrary to prevailing norms, standards and institutions with effort and attention, both of which are limited quantities.  Our understanding of willpower is nascent, however a key early finding is that people, by and large, work unconsciously, and conscious decisions deplete a limited reservoir of ability to override our unconscious desires.  The key to living a life compatible with your values is to minimize the number of decisions that you need to make consciously.  Since you will, as a practical manner, only physically be able to dissent from the prevailing Welterschauung of your community on a limited number of issues, tragedy may only be avoided where it is possible to surround yourself with structures that make living your values effortless.  The full realization of your values may only be lived in community with people who share them.
Now you were born into a society with existing structures and norms, which embody within them certain trade-offs: between positive and negative liberties, between work and leisure, between individual and corporate ends and so on.  What you cannot know a priori, and almost certainly cannot ever know with any degree of completeness, is which trade-offs are actually being embodied in any given structure.  Structures, even considered in isolation, are often multivalent, and when interacting with other structures and norms it can quickly become practically impossible to fully specify everything that a given structure does.  Thus even if you know what kind of life you would like to live, there is no way, on your own, to determine what kind of structures and norms would best provide a stable equilibrium that allows that kind of life, or even if such an equilibrium exists, much less to find a way to that life from where you are.
  However, while it is impossible for an individual to know all of that, it is often possible for a single person to determine, with reasonable accuracy, the way that a certain interaction makes certain trade-offs.  It is therefore possible for a group of people, none of whom know the entirety of any particular institution, to determine collectively what kind of trade-offs and values that it embodies.  And a large group of people, none of whom know any constituent institution in detail, may be able to determine a basically coherent vision of what a good society looks like.  It is therefore necessary, for a person to live their values, to find a group of people who share them, and to a great extent to defer to that group.  However this leaves us with a problem.  It is often difficult to determine exactly what you yourself value, and the extent to which you will be willing to make certain trade-offs can look very different depending on how those trade-offs are framed.  It is not uncommon to find that a trade-off you though would make ahead of time suddenly seem unappealing when the time comes to actually make that decision.  If you are opaque, even to yourself, can you, with substantially less knowledge, determine what someone else values?  What a group values?

Who Pays for the Costs of the System?

This is part I of II of my response to Adam here.

It doesn’t seem to me that opportunism is particular to either system. Though systematic cynicism may yield insights, serving as a kind of critical theory for identifying fault lines, I don’t think that’s why we have the systems in the first place. We trust and make laws and enforce them because that’s the cost we have to pay to get what we actually want; which is peace and prosperity in which to flourish.

Part of the cost are the specific fault lines for opportunism that a given institution creates. But that is only part of the story.

An important part, of course. But I don’t think the radicals are right in their belief that it is the most important part.

(emphasis mine)

Well, that’s a matter of perspective. The costs are certainly the system, there is no cleaving the benefits from the costs, there is no unalloyed good, there is payment to be made, pigs must be killed so I can enjoy my meal. The question, of course, is who bears the brunt? Who has to pay for the peace and prosperity wanted by all? Whose head is getting twisted off?

Sureshbhai Patel had to pay the price for someone else’s safety.

The caller early Friday morning reports an individual walking on the street near his home. “He was doing it yesterday and today…He’s just on foot. He’s just kind of walking around close to the garage.”

The operator asks what the man looks like. “He’s a skinny black guy, he’s got a toboggan on, he’s really skinny.”

He adds: “I’ve lived here four years and I’ve never seen him before.”

Sureshbhai Patel had only arrived in the United States about a week earlier to help care for his grandson. Patel took a walk each morning, according to his son, Chirag Patel, an engineer who recently bought a home in Madison.

The caller says: “I’m just kind of following from a distance now.” He says he is about to go to work and is nervous to leave his wife with the man walking around outside.

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Making Distinctions

William F. Buckley Jr would famously slouch into his chair, pushing it as far back as it could lean, so that he could stare with glassy-eyed calculation at his interlocutor as a frog might stare at a fat fly, and he would bite the end of his pen, intoning, “Er, very well, Mr. Ambassador, but shall we, um, make, ah, some distinctions?

The electricity evoked by this laconic request was a sight to behold, week after week, for decades, and in many and various contexts, because he was asking the interlocutor to analyze his own argument, which, in front of people, is a terribly uncomfortable thing to do. The forensic quality of Buckley’s forensics is instructive for use in the forum, or as we like to say here at Sweet Talk, in the agora, where debate is open and, more importantly, lively. The problem, of course, is that in a pluralistic environment, an argument–nay, even a mere observation will be made that will create a visceral response, and the initial reactions will be formed by viscera. Generally, petards and hoisting are subsequent, and probably consequent. This is what makes it fun, at least until the psychopaths arrive.


An article was forwarded to me, entitled “What is Ritual?” and I clicked over to read it. At once I was delighted; moments later, I had a visceral reaction–I didn’t like the article, but I should have–and it has taken me days to, um, make, ah, some distinctions. I was flummoxed how the piece was lucid, well-researched, well-written, and relatively jargon-free–indeed, I learned a great deal from it in a short time–but, for some reason, seemed convoluted and confusing, as I put it in my initial visceral reaction: hopelessly so. Of that I do hereby repent.

Remember: “Shall we make distinctions?” is an invitation for the interlocutor to examine his own argument, so, disciplining myself, I turned my reaction around upon myself. Therefore, “Why am I confused?” replaces “Why is this confusing?” The onus is now upon myself.

As a general rule, I am seeking application of ideas, not description; in other words, I want to shoot the arrows I have more effectively, not add more arrows to my quiver. “What is Ritual?” actually says “application” in two different ways. First, the notion of ritual is an active and participatory reality. Ritual, like crime, is everywhere, in little ways and in big ways, and ritual is a common human experience presently. Second, the present tense of the copulative “to be” (is) seems to say that the post is going to define this participatory reality so that I can better understand and do application. Because of my desire to read for application, I read the title as drawing an equals sign: “X = ritual.”

My expectations stretched the second point; “is” is simply a copulative, and can function in many different ways, regardless of tense. As the piece unfolded, my own expectations, not the piece itself, disappointed me, but if I may offer the gentlest critique, perhaps the piece should have been entitled, “How Ritual Came To Be.” That’s not a big change, but change enough to reveal a distinction that should be made, a distinction that can apply quite broadly.

Take any social-economic phenomenon: for example, the practice of tipping rarys, something all the kids were doing back in the 1940s, but let’s pretend we all tip rarys this very day, and our lives are wound up in the pleasure of tipping rarys. “My God, Chet,” someone exclaims. “Why do we so love tipping rarys?” If we are all in the act of tipping the rary, or preparing to tip the rary, it is inappropriate and useless, utterly useless, for Chet to describe the historical process which brought forth tipping rarys.

On the other hand, when the academy finds it worthwhile to study the social-economic phenomenon of tipping rarys, the history of the practice is absolutely necessary and essential so that we can make some distinctions, namely whether the practice of tipping rarys is the flower of its own root, or whether it has been plucked and is being kept alive in a new context with its own historical-social-economic significance. The determining factor is, of course, not the practice itself, but the community which practices it. From there a study of the history of the community flows, which study has a goal of identifying the present circumstances of the community, its practices, and its tenets over against its historical identity, not to somehow confine and limit it.

When Father Carves the Duck is an easily recognizable Thanksgiving ritual, lampooned. “How Ritual Came To Be” informs us readily with descriptors of primal provenance, e.g., the sacrificial duck, but it hardly addresses what is going on presently in this ritual, and why the poem resonates among cultural participants. If the description of what is going on travels too far from “familial interaction,” it fails to be an effective describing process for the purpose of application. In other words, there is no sacrificial duck here. What, then, is this? More distinctions are needed to be made. More work.

It’s a long way to tip a rary.

The Costs Are the System

I have not one, but two fellow Sweet Talkers who want me to believe that the political system just is lies and violence.

Here’s Sam:

When I say that the lies and the violence ARE the system, I mean simply that as long as there are rewards to being cunning or wicked, there will be cunning, wicked men on earth. Peaceful, cooperative people require defense against the cunning and the wicked. Such defense is necessarily violent, and by the logic of coalition politics, it is often necessarily deceitful. Without measured, controlled, well-directed violence, there is chaos and social disorder. Sometimes this means stuffing a couple dozen or so ICBMs inside a big steel tube and sending it out on the most dread of all possible missions. Most of the time, it means issuing select members of the community a badge and instructing them to enforce the law as she is written.

Here’s BF:

There are few (no?) truly unalloyed goods in the world. Even if one views government as a necessary instrument for preserving the social order, or, even, that the current governance structure is a force for good in the world, there have to be costs; this is aside from the literal monetary costs, but also includes the implicit human costs that are necessary for the system to work. Even if you assume the current structure of the criminal justice system is a net-good, you have to be honest and realize that innocent people will be hassledarrestedraped, torturedconvicted, and, sometimes, executed by agents of the state to bring you the goods.

Both of them are thinking quite consciously in the language and framework of economics and game theory; of trade-offs, cost-benefit analyses, of cooperation or defection.

If that line of thought is taken to its extreme, then the specific bad things that they mention are not the only costs of the system. In fact, from the economic way of thinking, the whole system is nothing but cost. We want things—food, shelter, entertainment, whatever it may be—and in order to get those things, we need specialization and trade. In order to get specialization, we need the institutions that make it possible. These institutions, in theory, minimize certain costs—transaction costs, as well as the risk of violence or arson which tend to limit the extent of trade.

But the necessity of these institutions is itself a cost (I hastily restate that this is the economic way of thinking; there are others).

Put more plainly, our institutions are the cost we’re willing to pay in order to offset other costs; they’re a net gain in the sense of providing more benefits for less than we would have in their absence (though there may be better alternatives).

So, if I may chastise my fellow Sweet Talkers, it’s not quite right to point to, say, police brutality as the cost of the system (as BF does). Rather, having a standing police force at all, and a military, and legislature, and courts, and law (and yes also property rights), and, well, the whole damn lot of it, is the cost of the system.

So in a very real sense, the cost is  the system, but BF especially seems to focus on costs of a particular kind.

Let’s call it opportunism. Opportunism is something that institutions are very clearly directed at minimizing; through incentives and punishments of various sorts but more directly through norms. The problem, of course, is that the very people who create, implement, enforce, and reform institutions are just as capable of opportunism as people of any sort. They are also capable of dangerous incompetence; sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which, especially from the distance of a news story.

But let’s stick with opportunism, for the sake of this post.

It’s no secret that I’m fascinated by the Amish. When I read up on them a couple of years ago, my friends and family were about ready to strangle me to keep me from talking their ears off about the Amish. Their way of life is so different from ours, and yet they are right in the middle of a thoroughly modern nation, pushing back against it and making compromises in strategic and interesting ways.

But a friend of mine—a true believer in the narrative of liberation—does not approve of such communities. He grew up with a friend who was inside of a highly religious community, and they all looked the other way while the father sexually abused this friend. “If I Google ‘Amish abuse‘, what will I find?” he asked.

Anarcho-capitalists often point to specific episodes in history where some governance arrangement cropped up that did not involve a government that directly used violence against its citizens. There was always some implicit violence in the background—from outside invaders if you didn’t buy into the system, say, or from fellow citizens if you were judged “outlaw” and thus not protected by the community. But let’s put that to the side for a moment. Opportunism still existed even at the furthest distance from such threats.

Risk is a kind of cost, as any economist will tell you. It’s factored right into the price of a commodity, just like labor; a labor-intensive product is relatively higher priced, a product that involves a lot of risk to produce is relatively higher priced.

When the goal is cooperation and community, the greatest alternative to the threat of violence is trust. What the anarcho-capitalists point to are systems that rely far more on trust than on overt or even implicit threats of violence. Sounds great, right?

But my friend is not just carrying a chip on his shoulder about some specific thing he witnessed in his youth. Trust carries risks; hell trust just is going out on a limb on the faith that you won’t be cut down. It’s making yourself vulnerable. And what is opportunism, but the exploitation of vulnerability?

When an institution imparts an enormous amount of trust to people in specific roles, that trust can be abused. And that abuse is no less pretty than the sorts of incidents that BF highlights in his various posts.

It doesn’t seem to me that opportunism is particular to either system. Though systematic cynicism may yield insights, serving as a kind of critical theory for identifying fault lines, I don’t think that’s why we have the systems in the first place. We trust and make laws and enforce them because that’s the cost we have to pay to get what we actually want; which is peace and prosperity in which to flourish.

Part of the cost are the specific fault lines for opportunism that a given institution creates. But that is only part of the story.

An important part, of course. But I don’t think the radicals are right in their belief that it is the most important part.

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*Trigger Warning: This is a very poor post.

As a wise old man once said, “The lies and the violence ARE the system.” They are part and parcel. There is no cleaving between the lies and violence with the the rest of the system. There is no having one’s baby back ribs without popping off a pig’s head. There are few (no?) truly unalloyed goods in the world. Even if one views government as a necessary instrument for preserving the social order, or, even, that the current governance structure is a force for good in the world, there have to be costs; this is aside from the literal monetary costs, but also includes the implicit human costs that are necessary for the system to work. Even if you assume the current structure of the criminal justice system is a net-good, you have to be honest and realize that innocent people will be hassledarrestedraped, torturedconvicted, and, sometimes, executed by agents of the state to bring you the goods. Hell, some self-identifying liberals believe that the possibility of convictions of innocents to be a feature, not a bug.

Many more-mainstream reformers and activists who choose to work within the system seem to believe that there is a possibility of eliminating those costs. Ridiculous. And, when they’re faced by the inevitability of tradeoffs, they act surprised that such a thing is necessary. Less delusional reformers and activists understand the necessity, even if they do not necessarily approve of what that cost is. There’s another faction, though. The radicals. Unlike most reformers or activists, they usually understand the system’s very nature. Instead of holding their nose while seeking to effect change, they, instead, actively reject the system itself and view any compromise with the system as failure. Hence, you have the destinationists rebuking the directionalists. This constant tension is part and parcel to the very concept of activism/ideology.

This inevitability, brought upon by the heterogeneity of human life, is evident in any and all forms of human interactions of sufficient complexity and communities of sufficient size(how’s that for some hedging). If you get enough people together, there will be variance in thought and action. There seems to be a notion among some that everyone in a particular ideological/activist group needs to fit a respectable mold before they can or should be taken seriously. One can stay in their respectability bubble and tut-tut those who are on the more extreme end of XYZ ideology/activism, but there can be no Martin without Malcolm, and there can be no Martin and Malcolm without the Black Panthers.

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Internet Arguing Destroyed the Universe

Once there was a person who argued on the Internet.

He spouted off any old thing that came to his mind. He saw things that disagreed with him for no particular reason, and he yelled at them—well, he typed at them, BUT HE TYPED IN ALL CAPS, YOU BETTER BELIEVE IT!

Gradually he became aware that some knowledge might exist outside of himself. So he started to read books. “Why, this is great!” He said to himself, “I can use some of this in my arguments!”

And so he did. And the more he read, the more he encountered other people who had read the same or similar things that he had, and became friends with them. Together and individually, they argued about stuff—and every so often made a reference to some famous philosopher or economist or sociologist or essayist or business book author.

Frustratingly, this did not seem to get everyone to see things his way. So, our hero continued to read more, to search for the one book that would have the one argument that would convince everyone on the spot that he was right.

Over time, he noticed that the knowledge outside of himself seemed to be quite interconnected. The arguments made about morality seemed to rest on assumptions about the nature of knowledge itself, which seemed to rest on assumptions about the nature of the universe, claims about which relied on assumptions about knowledge, which relied on assumptions about the morals of people making contributions to the general stock of knowledge.

This was way more than he bargained for.

What to do? From trendy business book author Nassim Taleb, he learned of something called a “barbell strategy”, which he interpreted as meaning “do either the smallest unit or the largest unit, but nothing in between.”

So he wrote blog posts and essays on the one hand, and tweets and tweet-storms on the other, but not comments. But he still felt like he didn’t know enough, and he was betraying the grand unity of knowledge by talking about it piecemeal. So he went deeper; he only did aphorisms on the one hand and books on the other. The more he learned, the fewer he did of each; shorter, more profound aphorisms, and longer, more thorough books.

After reading the very last book, he stopped saying anything at all. He simply stood, in the library where he had finally hunted it down, staring at the last page.

After a long time, someone came up and asked him the time.

He opened his mouth to answer, and articulated the entirety of human knowledge, killing them instantly and destroying the universe.

And that is why Internet arguing is to be avoided at all costs.

Civil Society Is Not An Instrument

Errors in political philosophy and public policy frequently involve errors in philosophic anthropology. In order to best govern men we must first know who we are. This insight is core to the disposition present in American Conservativism which has long held that human society and political economy are irreducibly complex. Reality, that great mugger, will expose the error of your theory. To know how man is to be governed, we must first know who man is; and to know how to govern society, we must know what a society is. The modern conversation surrounding the place of civil society in American life largely takes its cues and vocabulary from Alexis de Tocqueville. Tocqueville defines civil society as a network of intermediate institutions that stand between the individual and the state as networks of meaning and solidarity. These networks, being closer to the ground to the problems of life, are supposed to be more efficient than the state or other modes of organization for solving social ills. Tocqueville, for all his praise of civil society, never elevates it beyond the status of an instrument. It is a way to organize a good, but not necessarily a good in itself. This is in contrast to the contention of Catholic Social Doctrine.

Catholic Social Doctrine regards societies as having a real existence, a unity of order which contrasts with a mere instrumental assemblage of persons on the one hand, and a unity of substance, something like an individual person or an animal on the other hand. Societies can be harmed in addition to the persons that make up a society. Societies are what is called an “n + 1” person and have a good that is common to the society itself. That is, in a society there are the good of the members, but there is a common good that is not the good of the members but the good of the society as society. Though these accounts intersect, they both pinion the state and limits its scope, the difference between society being an instrumental good, or society being a common good is not a minor difference and it is worthy of examination.

Catholic exegesis into the first chapters of Genesis is somewhat analogous to the use of a “state of nature” in the work of Hobbes or Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It sets the stage for reflections on the nature of social orders and the origin of institutions like sacramental marriage. Similar to a “state of nature” analysis present in modern philosophy, to understand man in society, we must begin at the beginning.

In the opening chapters of Genesis God creates the universe from nothing in a succession of substances and ordering of natural kinds. God then brings Adam into existence and the focus on the text shifts to him. We learn that Adam has the power to name the animals, and we also know it is not good for Adam to be alone, and thus we know Adam is both a rational and relational animal. Rational, because Adam can name and abstract universals from particulars, and relational because he cannot be perfected and achieve the good for him alone. God creates Eve to be in union with Adam. God calls everything he creates “good” but creation is not called “very good” until the union of Adam and Eve. To quote Russell Hittinger: “Creation is not crowned with a new natural kind. Creation is crowned with a society.”

But what is a Society? Russell Hittinger defines a society in this way: “Wherever there are plural rational agents, aiming at common ends, through united action, and where their unity is one of the intrinsic goods being aimed at, we have a society, something distinct in dignity.”

There are two parts of this definition that separate the union of Adam and Eve from that of union of say, two pair bonded lions producing children. The first is that they are “plural rational agents;” Adam and Eve have the power to name, and thus the power to abstract universal truths from particular things. Adam and Eve also have the power to will decisively and to consider the good. It is their use of this rational power toward common ends and unity itself as a common end that is our second part of the definition. Adam and Eve aim toward the perfection of one another and they aim for this through united action. Adam and Eve further aim to prefect their unity. That this unity is capable of being perfected, that is it something that can exist in greater and lesser degree, is evidence of its real existence. Thus when we speak of Adam and Eve in marriage we can speak of the persons Adam and Eve, but we can also speak of their group unity, of the marriage itself. We can speak of Adam and Eve as well as Adam-and-Eve. God calls creation very good after the creation of Adam-and-Eve because God has brought into existence a society, what we have called above an “N + 1” person.

The one flesh unity of Adam and Eve is a unity of order, a society, a proper ordering that can exist in greater and lesser degree and thus bears relationships of justice to other moral actors. However, Adam and Eve retain their individual personhood. It must be emphasized that the unity of order is not the unity of substance. A unity of substance is like the unity of a human body. If it were the unity of substance being aimed at, then Adam and Eve would not have a one flesh unity, but would rather be merely approximating the unity of substance present before the jealousy of the gods in Aristophanes speech in Plato’s Symposium.

Aristophanes means to explain love as the reuniting of two substances into one. Human beings existed as two headed creatures with two sets of gentalia, sometimes male and female, other times male and male, and other times female and female. The jealousy of the gods lead Zeus to disunite this unity and mankind therefore looks in love for their other half in order to be reunited. This unity however is ultimately futile, because we cannot rejoin in substance what the gods divided. There is therefore a note of tragedy in love as we try to put ourselves back together.

There is none of this tragedy in the Genesis account, the one flesh unity of Adam and Eve is a right relationship that makes creation “very good” but does not reach up to the relationship of identity present in Aristophanes’s account of love. Adam and Eve are real and distinct. Their identity is never dissolved into their union, but their union is real and distinct all the same.

That there is a reality to the personhood of societies belongs to the domain of things that the philosopher J. Budziszewski calls “What we can’t not know”. It is a matter of common language and common sense that we can meaningfully speak of the actions of The United States of America, Oklahoma State University, or Holy Family Cathedral as unities and not merely as aggregations of parts. This language of treating organizations like countries, sports teams, universities and churches as a real unity is not just present in our common language but also in our laws. F W Maitland writes:

“If the law allows men to form permanently organised groups, those groups will be for common opinion right-and-duty-bearing units; and if the law-giver will not openly treat them as such, he will misrepresent, or, as the French say, he will “denature” the facts: in other words, he will make a mess, and call it law.”
When I use the word person when referring to society, it mean it precisely in the sense that Maitland intends. Societies are “right-and-duty bearing units” and as such exist in the order of justice and thus can be morally harm or be harmed. For example: A university is a duty bearing unity that exists for research into truths about the world and for the education of these truths to its students. A university owes its students an education and thus at least has rights insofar as they allow the university to fulfill its duty. Thus the university can harm me by not being in right relationship with me insofar as it fails to fulfill what is my right by agreement, namely an education. Similarly I can morally harm the university itself by not being in right relationship with it, say if I refuse to pay it on the grounds that university does not exist and is a mere aggregation of professors, administrators, janitors and so on.

Since we can talk of the personhood of Adam and Eve’s marriage in the sense Maitland describes, and since we can also talk of the personhood of a university, sports team, or parish in the sense Maitland describes, we can also talk about the good of those entities. Since Adam and Eve seek the perfection of their marriage, we can talk about the good of the marriage qua marriage. Similarly, since universities seek their own perfection, we can talk about the good of that university qua university. And if the actions of these unions are not reduced entirely to the actions of its members, and we have seen that they cannot, then it makes sense to talk about a common good. A common good is the good of some society qua society. It is the good that perfects the society in itself and it is not merely reduced to the good of its individual members. Societies are group persons, and can be morally harm and be harmed. The converse is also true. Societies can be good and seek the good.

An example of this principle, of a good being properly speaking common and not private to its members, is to consider marriage once again. If a couple dissolves their marriage, they cannot divide it up. You can divide up the private goods within the marriage with one spouse getting the house, the other spouse getting the car and so on. But you cannot divide the marriage itself. You cannot go to a judge and say “I would like to keep 60% percent of the marriage”. The good of marriage, being common, cannot be cashed out. It is an all or nothing sort of institution.

In this way, societies are distinct from what we may call partnerships. In a partnership, two or more rational agents unite for common action but only seek private ends. The distinction can be confusing since partnerships can be elevated into societies and societies can become mere partnerships. An example is illustrative. Russell Hittinger in his lectures and essays often uses the example of selling motors to Honda. When Hittinger sells motors to Honda in contract, he does not aim at a society but merely at mutually agreeable ends that involve him being paid and Honda getting the motors he sold them. Crucially, if he fails to give the motors to Honda, the partnership ends. This is all well and good. Partnerships are not bad things. It would be suffocating if every trade partner I engaged with constituted a society and had a common good. But nonetheless, what separates partnerships from societies is the aiming at unity for its own sake. The crew team does not dissolve after losing the race, the church choir does not disband after an off key performance, the nation does not become a failed state after a failed trade deal and so on. The aim toward unity and the perfection of that unity is what distinguishes a partnership from a society and distinguishes a basket of private goods from a common good. With the concept of partnership and society in place, we can discern the objection the traditional case for civil society made by critics like Tocqueville against the idea of the Sovereign State.

The doctrine of the Sovereign State is summarized effectively by Thomas Hobbes “For power unlimited is absolute sovereignty. And the sovereign, in every Commonwealth, is the absolute representative of all the subjects; and therefore no other can be representative of any part of them, but so far forth as he shall give leave.” This view is also summarized in Article 3 of Declaration of the Rights of Man. “The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.”

For Hobbes and for post-Revolutionary France the seat of all fraternity resides essentially in the nation state. Other civic organizations may exist, but only insofar as they serve the legitimate interests of the state. Societies such as churches, families, clubs, universities, think tanks and so on do not exist as independent agents distinct by reason of dignity, but rather as extensions of the power of the states. The state, in the interest of efficiency, social order and so on, allows these entities to be treated “as if” they are group persons, when in fact they exist through and for the interests of the Sovereign State.

Therefore the Sovereign State does not so much recognize the existence of families, churches, clubs, corporations etc. as it devolves authority to those entities in the economic interest of efficiency. A good example of this model is modern China. China does not take itself to be righting an injustice when it opens it markets. China rather takes itself to be pursuing its ends, the material prosperity of its people, the increase in power of the Chinese state and Communist Party in particular, by the most effective means. If allowing for the competition of economic actors were not the most effective way to make China rich and the Communist Party strong, then China would do something else. The recognition of entities other than the Sovereign State is always done with a lens of “what have you done for me lately?”

Most defenses of civil society essentially fall into this frame. They tell the state what it can to for them. Ernest Gellner describes civil society as a “miracle” in Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and Its Rivals, but he also describes civil society as the “social residue after the state is subtracted.” Gellner’s description of civil society is not unique to him. On this view, civil society is an essential instrument, a wonderful instrument, but only an instrument. It is the residue that is left when the state is subtracted. The problem with this view according to Catholic Social Doctrine is that it does not allow for defenses of civil society that focus on intrinsic perfection. From the point of view of Catholic Social Doctrine, the instrumentalist conception of civil society reduces true societies to mere partnerships. They regard entities with their own common good as being merely a coordinating device to get at certain private goods.

This is fine as far as it goes, but in the case of China we typically regard it as an injustice, and not merely an inefficacy if they were to get rid of all their free trade zones tomorrow. This distinction between and injustice and an inefficacy is the core of the objection of Catholic Social Doctrine to instrumentalist defenses of civil society. If societies are mere partnerships, then we can only talk about whether societies are efficient achieving their private ends. We cannot talk about whether there is an end in itself for a given society such as marriage or church. When we talk about the good of marriage qua marriage, or of church qua church, we are leaving behind the instrumentalist analysis into an area it cannot tread. These and other arguments are properly arguments about social ontology, about what a group-person is and what rights and duties it can bear. On these questions the instrumentalist defense is silent. The instrumentalist defender of civil society can bring forth commendable charts and graphs about the positive externalities of marriage, but is unable to tell us what a marriage is in any deep sense. If we only know what social entities can do and only recognize them for what they can do, we are liable to forget what they are. We can, to paraphrase Maitland, denature the facts. We can make a mess and call it law.

Filtering Out the Garbage

So you’ve read your McCloskey and your MacIntyre, and you’ve overcome your first year philosophy student syndrome. You’ve resolved to try and understand a literature on its own terms before making a written critique of it, especially one you intend to get published in a journal. You already feel smugly virtuous about it.

Unfortunately for you, Garett Jones has decided to make an example of you.

“If this method is so great, give me a critique of Marxism,” he challenges you, “after all, they have quite a literature. We can’t just dismiss them because of the fall of the USSR; that’s hardly a peer-reviewed event.”

He is pushing your buttons, because he is cut from a similar libertarian cloth as you are, especially when it comes to Marxism. But you can’t back down now! So you grit your teeth and disappear into a black hole of Marx and Marxist prose.

Ages later, you crawl back out and hand Garett the first draft of your critique before collapsing into a heap on the floor. It was hard work, but you were able to highlight the truths that Marxists were better at identifying than most others, while still maintaining that the framework ought to be abandoned.

“Bravo,” Garett says with a small smile, “now, do creationism. I hear their literature dates back quite some time…”

You stare at him. Like Garett, you are a nonbeliever. But you do not have much interest in this debate. You suspect he knows this, but you refuse to show weakness. At least there are some religious writers who actually know how to write well, though the sheer volume of works you could potentially read is even more intimidatingly large than the last one.

But you see the task through, learning from the last one to be strategic. You focus around the goal of works claiming to be able to overturn the conclusions of evolutionary theory. After a much longer period than the first, you crawl out of your research hole, and stretch your trembling arm up to give Garett your paper.

“Very good, you made very efficient use of your time,” he praised, “now, I’ve found that there’s a surprisingly large literature on leprechauns. And not as a myth, but as purportedly real creatures. Could you debunk this literature for me?”

You stare at him, open mouthed, for a time, before crumpling up on the floor, defeated.

Trade-Offs, Heuristics, and Uncertainty

In the discussion with Garett, I was put in mind of Daniel Russell’s take on “all-things-considered” rationality as an ideal.

Take for instance the idea that ‘the rational person’ acts on all-things-considered judgments. As Davidson says, to accept such an ideal is to accept the rationality of all-things-considered judgments as a principle of one’s own; the charge that one has violated that principle cannot be met with the response, ‘So I have broken your rule; who says I should do things your way?’ 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.

As flawed humans with limited resources, we have to make trade-offs even of how much time and thought to invest in figuring out what the best trade-off is.

Similarly, if there really is a literature for everything, we cannot reasonably expect people to be as thorough as the MacIntyre and McCloskey method would demand in order to determine which can be dismissed entirely. Even for those literatures we do think are worthy of such a response, no one person is going to be able to read every single paper and work in it. This means selectivity, which introduces bias into the sample by definition.

But as with all-things-considered rationality, we must say that there is nothing in the ideal itself that says we must pursue this thoroughness as far as possible. The ideal in advancing is one of due diligence, and of giving the other side credit by default and having a healthy amount of intellectual humility.

But as Sam says, some literatures really are just philosophical circle-jerks. Some, like leprechaunology, should just be dismissed as rubbish without being thorough about it.

Garett says a few simple rules can help here, but I’m skeptical that’s the case. There are definitely heuristics that can help us economize on our scholarly time in this regard. But those heuristics are no more written into the fabric of the universe than human knowledge of any sort.

Consider the following scenario:

There’s a community of rhetoric that is just obviously full of garbage. Everyone KNOWS their literature is a bunch of pseudoscientific nonsense. But then one day you encounter a paper by someone you greatly respect who cites them favorably. Incredulous, you track down the cited papers and read them. To your surprise, you find them fairly reasonable, though you disagree with them. You dig deeper and deeper until you are reading the core texts of the literature, and you’re convinced of the value of their framework and central conclusions.

Question: have you just discovered an unfairly maligned but valuable literature, or have you just gone from being a reasonable person to being a crank?

Your answer will probably depend on what I say the literature in question is, which is precisely why I’m going to leave it unspecified.

My point? Nothing more than that it is impossible to judge these things “from the outside.” Sam’s advice for philosophy to become more empirical derives from the framework he is already inside of; a combination of the finite texts and lectures he’s absorbed in his lifetime as well as his judgment. Of course, his judgment of what texts to read in the first place was guided by inferences internal to an already existing conceptual scheme, and so on. There’s no end to the turtling here.

We do need mental shortcuts, and some literatures are more valuable than others, while some are just rubbish. But any shortcut will require substantial trade-offs, and it is my judgment, from where I stand in my conceptual scheme, that humility is a more valuable investment on the margin than additional reasons for people to be dismissive.

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