Land of Sunshine

The missiles spared Sacramento. This confused a lot of folks. On its own, California was a nuclear superpower. Most of the Naval shipyards all the way from Mare Island clear down to 32nd Street in San Diego were either already outfitted for handling nuclear material or could be rapidly converted in wartime. Granted, California’s power and communications grids were, well, let’s go ahead and be generous and say that they weren’t particularly robust against enemy disruption. If you topple Sacramento, you gut the CA ARNG end strength. If you gut the ARNG end strength, the wide, beautiful beaches described by Walter Sobchak at Donny’s funeral are almost entirely free of pillboxes. Invading forces can waltz right in. But if Sacramento stands, every single armory will stand ready under titles 10 and 32 to repel enemy invaders. With the discipline the Guard forces have gained since their Iraq mobilizations, gone are the slapstick Mayberry days. The US Army National Guard is nearly indistinguishable from regular Army in terms of combat readiness. Sparing Sacramento was more than a mere tactical blunder, it was utter stupidity writ large. “What gives?” was the most common question I heard from the landlubber nomads I took up with from time to time, at least once they discovered that I was former military. It was one of the first questions Anika asked after she caught up with me two days outside the Louisiana plantation where her beloved pet rat was taken from her and fed to the merciless steel teeth of the mulcher. Continue reading “Land of Sunshine”

Looking the wrong way down the telescope

Via William A. Clark (Flickr)
Via William A. Clark (Flickr)

This is my first post here, so let me begin in the manner in which I hope to continue: with some backhanded praise. Adam Gurri’s concept and critique of “telescopic morality” is a fantastic rhetorical flourish. It evokes the idea of a moral trompe l’oeil, a trick in which we erroneously transmute distant moral concerns into near ones. It’s also a great entry point into some excellent analysis of our relationship to information, and our general irascibility on social media. If you haven’t read the article that lays out the idea, you should. So far, so good.

It is also what a certain kind of academic might describe, archly, as “problematic”. It rests on twin foundations: first, that there are relevant moral distinctions based on proximity (literal or metaphorical); and, second, that telescopic morality tends towards the Sisyphean, since it encourages ineffectual or irrelevant moral actions. I disagree with both of those propositions.

But there’s more to this discussion than those two propositions alone. The rip tide is a suspicion about consequentialist ethical systems (or perhaps just utilitarianism). That’s a much larger battle, but I would like to try to set down what I regard as a limiting principle, no matter what your ethical proclivities – numbers cannot be ignored in in any ethical construct, particularly as applied to charity.

Near, far, wherever you are…

Though it’s not explicit, Adam’s critique of “telescopic morality” is really a critique of Peter Singer’s “expanding circle”. For the unfamiliar, Singer is a utilitarian in the bullet-biting mold. He is famous for many things, but the most relevant for current purposes is his admonition to give generously to charity, particularly in the developing world. “The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle” is a quick and easy introduction.[1]

The “expanding circle” refers to the expanding scope of ethical concern – beginning traditionally with the individual, then the family, class, nation, and so on to humanity at large.[2] Interestingly, one of Singer’s first arguments in favor of expanding the circle is made on a pragmatic basis: that it is now possible to effect change on a global basis in a way that was impossible in the past.[3] This is the inverse of Adam’s view—that it’s essentially impossible to make a difference—so I’ll revisit it in a moment.

The second argument is that the interconnection of human interests (think global trade; think global warming) leads ineluctably to the development of a global ethic. There is something to this idea. Though we may not meet the Bangladeshi that has sewn our t-shirt in the way we could once have known a village tailor, do we owe them any less an obligation of community? This is the kernel of the much maligned, over-used, but not entirely inaccurate metaphor of the “global village”.

From these precepts one could build a fairly strong set of claims about the ethical value of distant persons. One could also make strong claims about the importance of distant persons based on fundamental rights, or working off some Kantian imperative of universalizability, or perhaps even through the virtue of compassion. Yet I don’t think we need to go all the way to the fundamental equality of man to embrace “telescopic morality.”

No, all we need to do is demonstrate that distant persons have some non-trivial value and then let math do the rest of the work. Getting over this hurdle is fairly easy. Whatever you think about the methodological foundation of ethics, our collective ethical instincts have some pulling power.[4] And you will be hard pressed to find allies if your starting position is that distant persons have zero value. If you accept that distant persons have some ethical value then, as the old joke goes, you’re just haggling over the price.

Sisyphus pushes the rock downhill

And when you’re haggling about the price, you’ll want to think about the exchange rate. There’s a reason I say “prices” and “exchange rates.” The language of finance is a neat little heuristic in the debate about charitable interventions. It’s probably the easiest entry point to effective altruism because it provides a ready-made language in which to talk about the relative merits of two charitable options.

Try this comparison about the relative merits of Make a Wish and VillageReach, for example, stolen shamelessly from a brilliant post by Jason Kuznicki:

“One wish [from Make a Wish] for one relatively privileged (albeit distinctly unlucky) first-world kid. Or fifteen hundred years of life [from VillageReach] — for children who will otherwise die.”

Or, two examples from Giving What We Can:

“[T]he UK’s National Health Service considers it cost-effective to spend up to £20,000 (over $30,000) for a single year of healthy life saved. […] Against Malaria Foundation distributes mosquito nets at a cost of only $2,300 per life saved.”

“For the same amount of money as training one guide dog, we could instead completely cure over 2,000 people of blindness.”

These kinds of results should be obvious in the developed world. The low-hanging fruit has already been picked in first world countries, and you can leverage the enormous purchasing power differential when spending dollars (or euros, or pounds) in the third world.

So, the question to ask yourself is how much more do you care about your neighbors than those in foreign countries? This is what I like to call your “personal ethical exchange rate”. Take a moment, if you’re willing, to set an exchange rate between the interests of hypothetical neighbor A and hypothetical distant person B.

Do you care thousands of times more about A than B? Tens of thousands of times more? Because when it comes to the relative efficiency of local versus foreign interventions, that’s the order of magnitude we’re talking about. There are few, if any, who are prepared to discount distant lives quite so heavily. There may be such people, but I think they are forced to defend a far more difficult proposition than merely “one should favor one’s neighbors.”

We can’t be heroes

When Adam argues that telescopic morality is ineffectual, he is (on my reading at least) arguing that the scale of certain problems is so great that individual interventions are immaterial. A key quote:

“The crusader on behalf of the greater good who fights their hardest on behalf of policies whose outcomes they cannot hope to actually measure is nothing compared to the everyday citizen who does not hesitate to help pick up the pieces after a disaster. Hell, the activist-crusader is nothing compared to the neighbor who helps clear up the snow after a blizzard.”

Adam is tallying efforts like those of VillageReach and Against Malaria against the totality of problems such as child health and malaria infection in the developing world. Those problems seem to be insurmountable or, at least, of a scale much larger than, say, building local community networks.

However, there seems to me to be no clear reason why one would measure each intervention only in terms of progress (with respect to some arbitrarily defined “problem”), rather than on a standalone basis. I regard each choice as a kind of ethical unit—an object of discrete analysis—and one which may have its own merits or demerits.[5] That choice should not be thought of as just another block on a progress bar, its value determined by how many percentage points it has brought you closer to 100. (By analogy, if asked whether you would rather have paid down 1% of your mortgage or 5% of your credit card, looking only at the percentages would be silly.)

But even so, there’s plenty of evidence that seemingly insurmountable problems can be overcome. Smallpox has been eradicated, and nearly 1 billion people have risen out of extreme poverty.[6] Our actions in distant places have a distinct, measurable outcome. Those results are no less distinct or measurable because they are not directly observed by us. None of this is to say that there aren’t important debates around the effectiveness of aid. But those debates are founded on a shared assumption that helping distant persons is a worthwhile goal if it can, in fact, be achieved.

The consequences of virtue

All that I have said above is intensely focused on outcomes. It’s the tallying of results. If that sticks in your craw, as I imagine it might in Adam’s, it may be because your system of ethics is based on who people are rather than what they do. You might be more interested in virtue than in results. And you might think a person’s place in their community is a better measure of their ethics than some arid accounting of global benefits.

I am not a virtue ethicist in any traditional sense, so I can’t honestly say I find that point of view persuasive. But I am not hostile to it. It falls, for me, into the “reasonable minds may disagree” mental category. However, I am not prepared to extend that generosity to a critique of “telescopic morality.” And that is because, at its most basic, I do not think that virtue ethics is a license to be innumerate. As Joseph Raz rather neatly puts it “numbers matter.” And once you begin to look at the numbers, the case for helping the distant over your local community is, in my view, overwhelming. Indeed, I think the virtues of wisdom and compassion demand it.

[1] In my more whimsical moments, I like to think of Singer as the Ghost of Cognitive Dissonance, haunting undergraduate ethicists in well-to-do universities worldwide. “Don’t you agree you are morally obliged to give to the very poor?” “Then why don’t you?”

[2] I’m going to leave to one side for a moment the animal world, notwithstanding that it is mentioned by Singer and seems to me to be obviously in-scope. This is mainly because the case for vegetarianism tends to be so obvious, so right, and so utterly inconsistent with most people’s choices, that it produces violent objections. Accordingly, it has a tendency to derail conversations.

[3] Singer also makes an evolutionary argument for the expanding circle, which I fully intend to ignore right now.

[4] At this point I will mention Experimental Philosophy (aka “x-phi”), a line of inquiry in which empirical results from, for example, surveys, can be used for various philosophical purposes. It’s particularly interesting when applied to classic ethical problems, like the Trolley Problem. I only mention it, though, rather than really weigh in, because I live in suppressed fear of being assassinated by trolley in some sleepy university town.

[5] I admit this is a more controversial, and complex, question than I have really indicated here. One set of people who don’t much like thinking in pieces in this way are rule consequentialists (although, in my defense, there’s just as many problems with thinking in recursive act-rule loops). There’s also just the more prosaic point that thinking about ethics in tiny little pieces is some version of mental transaction costs hell. That said, I think my point about arbitrary “progress” measures stands.

[6] My personal favorite example of unnoticed progress is that usage of the word “moist” is at historical lows.

Who Do I Say That I Am?

I don’t agree with Adam that individual responsibility emerged within a tradition, or only ever existed within a space framed by groups. Individual responsibility may be a relic of the state of nature, if one ever existed.

The Durkheim and Foucault schools seem to rightly identify that the individual is shaped by structures and institutions, wherever the individual does not practice volition. But the individual retains volition over the shaping of self in every respect. The individual can only exercise that volition selectively. And the individual should be careful about rejecting the formative structures without extensive deliberation, per Hayek.

The teleological consequence that Durkheim and Foucault aim at (and here I must beg the reader to contradict me if they understand better, because my familiarity with these writers is strictly third-hand) is that certain structures shape the individual badly, in particular “capitalism,” which I put into scare quotes because theirs is a stylized capitalism, but so is mine.

Adam’s thesis fizzled in the examples. But what I understand is that he would warn libertarians not to presume volitional action on the part of those agents that seldom act volitionally. I think a more robust model would first compare the marginal benefit to marginal cost to the individual of thinking volitionally about a particular habit.

How much instruction in virtue is needed? Most pedagogies of virtue guide the individual through a program of deliberation over habits. But we are short on instruction in virtue.

Perhaps the best lesson to learn about virtues is concentrated in the problem of faction, as rightly identified by Adam Smith and Richard Whately. Where deliberation over a habit is discouraged, or completely blocked, we should suspect that the habit is supportive of faction, rather than sympathy. Mill thus placed a great emphasis on liberty of conversation. Precisely those habits that structures discourage individuals from deliberating on are those habits that are most suspect of forming vice in the individual to the benefit of some in-group sympathy.

Finally, virtue is best exemplified and then caught, rather than taught. But who will take the initiative to demonstrate? Particularly when the students might be few, and might not absorb the lesson apart from repeated demonstrations? Those who subjectively value the increase in virtue should expect to have to shoulder that burden personally. The only true route to reform, whether of society or the individual, is through personal expense.

From Game Theory to Group Action

In a recent thought experiment, I argued that institutions—including government institutions—are just the cost we pay for better outcomes. Specifically:

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.


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).

This simplifies matters rather drastically. It is basically a social contract model, which means that it implies we have chosen these institutions so that we can pursue certain specified ends. The ends in the model are basically utility maximization, something I have trouble with but that certainly has its uses in terms of simplification.

Moreover, it’s not quite clear who we’re talking about here. Who pays the costs in this model? Who benefits?

In what follows I’m going to start from a bit of game theory and attempt to walk my way to a richer model of group action.


Adding Options to the Prisoner’s Dilemma

In “Governance as a strategy in state-of-nature games,” Jason Briggeman suggests an alternative to the most popular method of modeling Hobbesian state of nature scenarios in game theory.

It starts with a simple prisoner’s dilemma.  Each player can either defect or cooperate. If one defects and the other cooperates, the cooperator gets the worst possible payoff (possibly a negative one) while the defector gets the most. If they both cooperate, neither gets as much as the defector would in the previous scenario but the overall “pie” of payoffs is maximized. If they both defect, they each receive a punishment lower than the cooperator in the first scenario, but the overall “pie” is minimized. The payoff structure is such that defect/defect is the equilibrium outcome.



The specific versions that Jason looked at were couched in Hobbesian terms; in place of cooperation is “lay aside natural right” and in place of defection is “retain natural right”. The typical addition to this in the literature was apparently to include an “install a sovereign” option, which is basically a stand-in for Leviathan.



This is some serious hand-waving. I mean, it’s game theory, so you can set it up however you like with whatever payoffs you like, if that’s how you get your kicks. But it doesn’t seem very useful to speak of an “install a sovereign” option. Rather…rex ex machina.

Jason certainly thinks so, and he offers an excellent alternative. These are the choices on his matrix:

1. Cooperate (and do not coerce other player)
2. Cooperate/Impose (i.e., cooperate while coercing other player to cooperate)
3. Defect/Impose (i.e., defect while coercing other player to cooperate)
4. Defect (and do not coerce other player)

Resulting in:



You should check out the paper to get the full take on the math. The bottom line is that changes in the relative costs of coercion will change the outcome of the game.

I think this is a great, useful model with a wide range of applications. I’m going to add on top of it here for my purposes (and as a result it’ll get too unwieldy to put into a matrix).

First, being as we are at Sweet Talk, it seems to me that it would make sense to add a persuasion element. Following Jason, this would add two options for each players: Cooperate/Persuade and Defect/Persuade. Assuming persuasion isn’t a free lunch, there would be some cost to figuring out how to persuade someone, and probably some disutility to the one being persuaded, since there must be some reason they didn’t want to do it in the first place.

Given the commensurability of values in game theory models, it normally wouldn’t make much sense to add this in addition to the impose element. The reason is that even if we understand, conceptually, that one involves coercion and the other doesn’t, the big addition is really the inclusion of any option for a player to control the choice of the other player. You could say that the persuasion option has a lower relative disutility for the one being persuaded, or differentiate it in some other way. But you’re just going to be sacrificing elegance without really adding anything useful. But I’m going somewhere with this.

On top of adding persuasion, we can add some risk into the model, beyond the risk of choosing the wrong strategy relative to the other player’s strategy. Perhaps no amount of cost will guarantee that impose or persuade work every time; they just have some underlying probability that they will work.

Again, this mostly complicates the model rather than makes it more useful; expected utility is a pretty straightforward calculation that doesn’t really change the character of the model other than overcomplicating it further.

But I want to introduce the idea that some things are not guaranteed.

I introduce it in order to take my first step away from game theory: let’s now say that we’re not talking about risk, which is quantifiable, but uncertainty, which is not. All we know for sure is that our attempt to impose or persuade may not be successful, we cannot quantify the probability of failure.

We know how this sort of uncertainty is dealt with in practice, of course; a lot of heuristics learned from others and from experience.

Now say that we do not have commensurable utility. Say there’s a great deal of uncertainty about what other players will do, so that we need heuristics and experience there as well. Say knowledge is not flat, but requires interpretative frameworks—such that we can be persuaded, or persuade others, to change their interpretative framework in order to influence their choices. And there are obvious scenarios that would change relative costs of coercion—if one player had a gun and the other did not.


Social, Organizational, and Coercion Capital

We’ve now basically stepped outside of game theory and utility-based models. However, I hope we have done so in a way that has shown how they can serve as useful simplifying analogies.

I would now like to step away from the vacuum that individuals appear to be in within these models to the background of groups and group action which forms the basis of nearly all human decisionmaking.

Let us imagine that the biggest sources of variance in the relative costs of persuading, coercing, and coordinating are differences in capital stocks. Organizational capital provides the resources for efficiently accomplishing a task as a group. Social capital provides the resources for persuading certain people to a particular point of view. And coercion capital provides the resources for Jason’s “impose” option.

In the flat and commensurate world of game theory and utility economics, capital is numerical; more capital is better than less capital. On the other hand, the Austrian School has long emphasized the heterogeneous nature of real-world capital and the resulting illiquidity. A bread-slicer cannot be used to manufacture cars; stockpiling bread-slicers will not help you to compete with Toyota even if you’ve technically increased your capital stock. Details matter.

Consider the following: a police state that is heavily armed but widely distrusted and considered illegitimate by its citizens. Moreover, there is a high degree of trust—or social capital—among the civilian population. So black markets flourish; even though the state built up a great deal of coercion outcome it still has a hard time imposing specific behaviors on its citizenry.

What has been called “the authorizing magic of legitimacy” may be thought of as a regime that has an enormous amount of social capital, which allows it to more effectively economize on its coercion capital.

OK, we know what a bread-slicer looks like, and an assembly line robot arm. What do these more abstract forms of capital look like? How do they work?

I believe that all three categories can only be drawn upon by people who are members of particular groups. More than that, membership of the group is a crucial and embodied part of who they are, of their identity. I think the Catholics are correct that there are groups that can usefully be thought of as having their own existence.

Barack Obama is able to draw on some of the coercion capital of our nation because he has immersed himself in the machinery of modern politics, and committed himself to a role within a group (the federal government) that draws certain boundaries. Those boundaries are more indeterminate that people like to think (though not as toothless as others imagine). One of the hard constraints is that the shape of the coercion capital is, itself, the social capital that the role of President has built up in persuading everyone below him in the hierarchy to follow his lead in those areas where his lead is considered appropriate. As John Searle put it, most people think power comes from the barrel of a gun, but actually the one with the gun is the most at risk, while the one with power often sits behind a desk away from harm. But that is only possible because the bureaucrat’s power is “an institutional fact” created by “collective intentionality”. For our purposes here, it is because his role has considerable social capital.

Organizational capital is largely about developing skills and practical knowledge, and effectively transmitting them to new members as well as to those with a pressing need for them. Norms, ethics, and culture cut across this and social capital; in as much as they promote cooperation they act as the latter, in as much as they promote effectiveness they act as organizational capital. A culture of trust is largely a matter of social capital, a culture that promotes commitment to achieving the group’s goals is more a matter of organizational capital.

Practices that address uncertainty also fall into organizational capital. In the section above I spoke of heuristics and learning from experience, but often the best approaches are simply time-tested practices we don’t necessarily know the reasons for. In a famous case, what appeared to be completely superstitious agricultural practices based on priestly mandates turned out to be an extraordinarily effective system for coping with the challenges of a specific ecosystem.


Out Groups

It’s my belief that accessing these forms of capital means, in practice, that decisions are made at the level of the group rather than the individual more often than not. The very nature of the capital requires this, as I hope I made clear with the example of the President above. On the whole, I don’t think this is either good or bad; it’s human nature. Most arguments that it’s better to decide at the level of the individual simply miss out on how deeply individual context is set by groups. Individualism is a very important tradition of thought, but it is only possible when given shape by an enormous background established by groups, as caretakers of living traditions. Of the various forms of capital.

But there are definite fault lines created by this. The nature of human group membership unfortunately biases against those perceived to be outside of that group. And one of the classic ways we distinguish one another is by physical features; skin color but also other traits that signal difference in ethnicity. When the coercion capital especially is concentrated in the hands of a particular subset of the population, they may find they have freer hand to err on the side of tyranny for those groups who they do not much rely on for social or organizational capital. In short, minorities are inevitably harmed disproportionately by political systems.

When I say that good government is an ideal worth thinking seriously about, I don’t mean to deny this point, so emphasized by Sam and boatfloating. When I say that governance and coercion are necessary, I don’t mean to sweep injustice under the rug. And I certainly agree with both of them that we have invested far too much in our coercion capital, and drawn on it far too often, with reckless disregard for the people out of view who will be disproportionately harmed.

I do think that people who see harm these days are far too inclined towards outright negation; that their rhetoric and their actions recklessly drag us towards a future where we kill the goose who laid the golden egg. Such critiques, like game theory and mainstream economics, should instead serve as a kind of critical theory. It should serve to identify fault lines in what is a constructive, rather than destructive, project on the whole.

Previous Posts in This Thread:

Ich Bin Ein Ausländer

We once called it “California.” The old names, the names lent by Conquistadors, by cartographers, by dime novel authors, the names penned by men whose brittle bones have been long since reclaimed by the hungry earth, these opaque names were scorched alongside the flattering, fatuous lies we told ourselves and each other. Gerrymandering and historical political accident no longer holds dominion in this shattered world of ruin and faithlessness. So it is that I trek not to California in the merciless summer, but to Orchardland.

Before the collapse, before the atomic scorch, I drove through the fens of the deep south a few times. From the comfort of an air-conditioned automobile, it’s pretty easy to miss all the pestilence. At least in early summer, the swamplands of mainland America are rotten with midges, horseflies, mosquitoes, gnats, bats, fat cats, and Jack Sprats. I lived in Florida in the early 90s, so I knew that alligators existed. But seeing one from the comfort of a balcony is a different thing from being treed with no hope for calling for help. Every so often, the largely-deserted South will offer a delightful treat. You see, with the collapse of the mercantile exchanges, textile production all but vanished. Flax and cotton production have long life cycles, so in the bright days of our un-sundered past, farmers would sell future contracts against expected yields. This allowed them to finance payrolls, seed stock, fertilizer, capital expenditures, and all the sundry costs needed to raise a crop. Without properly functioning financial markets, annual agriculture collapsed. Contrast this with perennial production in Orchardland, which still has on-site apiaries and seed on the branch. The farmers who didn’t end up ash and shadows can still keep orange trees running, even without extensive trade networks. It’s strange though: cloth should make for better trade goods than oranges. Cloth doesn’t spoil. Maybe there’s something about the bayou that makes it tough to spin flax into linen.

At any rate, shortly after I parted ways with my traveling companions, I took brief refuge in the decay of what was surely once a golden daughter of Louisiana: a blotchy sprawl of an estate-et-plantation, now roughly converted to homely, diverse cottage farming. Here, some house beans. There, an adorable pumpkin patch in green. Yonder, some maybe, I don’t know, hyssop? There were rabbit hutches, chicken coops, pig pens, and maybe a dozen head of cattle. I scanned the herd, hoping against hope I’d again see the black beast from my dreams. Fortune frowned. Alas.

The graybeard council that ran the joint lent me the night’s use of an outbuilding that for all I knew once contained a meth lab or served as an abattoir (or both) instructed me to stay indoors that night since they would be conducting a periodic rat purge that evening and they didn’t want me in the way. I had to appreciate their bluntness. In younger years, they probably would have deployed a touch of genteel hospitality and made an appeal to my safety or comfort. At any rate, the musty shack was outfitted with a study enough cot and a Korea-era munitions chest for storage. And after a few minutes’ settling in, it appeared to have come equipped with an eight year old kid.

Me: Holy crap, kid. You startled me. What are you doing in here?

She was hunched behind a standing mirror, hiding her face in her wispy, lank hair, eyes cast down, bony shoulders hunched.

Her: Hiding.

Me: What’s your name, kid? And who are you hiding from? And why?

Her: Templeton.

Me: Templeton? That’s an unusual name for a girl.

Her. My name’s not Templeton. His name is Templeton. My name is Anika.

Twilight hadn’t quite began to brush its fingers over the massive willows, but it had recently posted bail and was fixin’ to show up for its daily dust-up at the ol’ corral. Anika was perhaps not quite draped in shadow, but she was at least trying it on, seeing how well it fit. I couldn’t see who or what she meant by “Templeton.”

Me: Why don’t you come out from behind that mirror?

I could just barely make out a quick clench in her hunched pose. I heard a ragged breath and then she hesitantly stood and shuffled into full view. In something between a clutch and a cradle, a snow-white rat twitched curious whiskers in her tiny, grubby hands.

Me: Oh. That’s Templeton, isn’t it?

I saw in her eyes the defiance that only the young and powerless ever seem to muster. It is when we have nothing left to lose that our teeth acquire a keen sharpness. Anika plainly had little to begin with.

Anika: He’s my friend.

She punctuated that last word, lading more freight upon it than ordinary gunwales might bear. By “friend,” she meant no mere companion, but a confidant in a world torn asunder, a vessel for the sacred lore of her heart’s secrets, a warm comfort on cold nights, a tiny symbiote with which to swap weed-strong affection for a few scavenged table scraps. Hints of tears welled at the corners of her eyes.

Anika: You’re not gonna tell anyone, mister. Right?

Me: They told me they were on a rat hunt tonight. Are you worried they’ll do something to Templeton?

Anika: They put the ones they catch alive in the mulch grinder. Templeton never hurt anyone. You can’t tell anyone we’re here. He never hurt anyone.

At this, she really did begin to cry. Sniffles at first, but just as the first great wracking sob was sneaking its way out, she managed to gain a measure of control and keep it at the lip-quiver, shoulder-hitch level. I gave her a moment to recover her composure. Dealing with crying children is not something to which I am accustomed.

Me: Do you know why they kill all the rats?

She hesitated, dried her eyes, and raised her eyes to fix upon me an arresting gaze.

Anika: Rats steal the eggs, they eat the rye and the corn, and they get the pigs’ eyes at night. But Templeton never did any of that. He’s a good boy.

As she stroked her friend’s fur, I struggled to find a way to explain the hunt. I sat down on the cot.

Me: The problem with the rats has nothing to do with the rats themselves.

Anika: What’s that supposed to mean?

Me: Well, every single one of those rats could be as kind and gentle as Templeton over there. They could raise baby rats with love, they could snuggle each other at night, the might even volunteer at the rat PTA…

Anika: What’s a PTA?

Me: Never mind. The important thing is that even if individually, every single rat out there in the fields is, on its own, on an individual basis, a paragon of gentility, the fact remains that the problem is…

I paused, searching for the right word.

Me: the problem is in their ratness. Their group behavior is harmful, even if individually they might be beyond reproach. What your elders want to do is to get rid of the group rat behavior. I think the only way they know of how to do that is to kill all the rats.

Oddly, this didn’t seem to comfort her. I have to admit, I agreed with her retort.

Anika: But that’s not FAIR. How can you hold innocents guilty for group crimes? Templeton didn’t do anything WRONG.

The shouting must have attracted attention. I heard pounding on the door just before it swung open. A sternly bearded man strode in and wordlessly confiscated Anika’s animal. He stomped out with the rat in one hand and Anika’s earlobe twisted in the other.

I lay down on the cot, squeezed my eyes shut and did my best to drown out the sound of both her shrieking and the abrupt death squeal of Templeton as the merciless teeth of the grinder transformed him from a child’s companion into fertilizer. Unfortunately, half-remembered N.W.A. lyrics didn’t prove up to the task.

I left the farm the next morning haunted and ill-rested.

Previous posts in this series
The Truth Shall Set You Free
Gentle Death
It’s Better to Regret Something You Have Done Than to Regret Something You Haven’t Done
Locke and Key


Adam alerted me to Vulgar Morality’s piece “Freedom and Community” last night.

My thoughts:

The Vulgar Moralist points out the theory of clubs, which is really just an extension of contractarian political philosophy. In order to get into a club I have to give up some liberties. I must pay dues, or demonstrate some credible commitment to the group. Perhaps I have to go through some rite of passage. Perhaps I have to be baptized, or get circumcised, or post a bond.

But community that exists for positive purposes must first protect itself against the collectivist’s problem of free riders, and the methodological individualist’s problem of collective decision making. Those problems are symmetric. Methodological individualism is mathematically tractable, so economists prefer that approach.

Collectivism works particularly well at destroying things, as VM points out through various examples. Apart from the formation of a club, groups are better at breaking than building.

James C. Scott illustrates this well in “Two Cheers For Anarchism.” Scott shows that wildcat strikes and unorganized protests are the most threatening to incumbent powers. Organized movements have particular decision makers whose self interest can be bought. Politics is exchange. A collectivist movement with no decision makers is not doing politics. It is destroying the existing order.

The Freiburg Circle in Germany during WWII, out of which the Ordoliberals emerged, consisted of individuals who had made a credible commitment. If discovered, each of them faced certain punishment, possibly death. They were working to circumvent an absolute surrender that would cripple Germany sufficiently to motivate a WWIII in the next generation. They were trying to build a shadow government to replace the Naziis when the time came. They succeeded in part.

That positive collective was sustained by an externally enforced credible commitment. One could say that the early Christians, who faced persecution at the hands of the state, also “enjoyed” that sort of external enforcement. But the identities of those committed were well known, or easy to monitor. Circumcision is easily detected. Baptism was designed as a public act.

The problem with collectivist movements that can only destroy is that they are anonymous. There is a desire for a changed world that begins by looking outward with blame. One absolves oneself by virtue of becoming part of such a commitment – free collective. The problem most certainly, says the collectivist, is the system.

So long as the movement remains unorganized, perhaps it can achieve some welfare – enhancing results, at least in the Kaldor / Hicks sense. Destructive movements can produce the equivalent of omnibus repeals of rent -seeker friendly programs, overcoming transitional gains traps. But unless those programs all bequeath the rents on the same concentrated set of interests, a mass destructive movement will be difficult to sustain. Witness the inability of the occupy movement to come to real agreement about positive action.

An organized movement will almost certainly compromise its most cherished ideologies. Witness political parties. The politics of exchange is relatively peaceful and constructive, compared to the mob. But it cannot bring itself to omnibus repeals. It privileges the status quo.

Gordon Tullock showed us that most rebellions result in the same middle management of the state, under a new executive. VM corroborates with the example of the Egyptian rebellion. The institutions that made America relatively successful were in place long before 1776, or 1789. Those institutions largely survived the American Revolution, with many of the same individuals in the decision-maker’s positions.

I’m an utter pessimist with respect to reform. I don’t like the destructive results of the riot. I’m not a fan of omnibus repeal. Many of those who receive benefits of existing programs are fully capitalized into those programs, and I don’t like the idea of not compensating them.

So I fall back into a position of sacrificial altruism as the only legitimate route for reform. If a group wants to reform a program, let them compensate the capitalized interests. Morality, misapplied, takes the mob’s attitude. Burn it with fire. It is outward facing with its blame and absolved of all responsibility. Anonymity is unaccountable. It cannot peacefully overcome the status quo, so it moves outside the exchange of politics, and demands something for nothing.

Morality, correctly applied, subverts politics. It uses exchange to take responsibility, even where it bears no guilt, and pays from its own resources, honestly earned, to effect reform. It is like the good Samaritan. It is like the Muslims protecting Christians from violence during the rebellions. It is like the volunteer visiting the elementary school to read with the kids who are behind.

It is quaint. It is mundane. It is constructive. It is what sustains us.

Uber, but for Violence

The dawn of the Roman Republic is traditionally dated to 509 BC, when the last king of Rome was exiled. Shortly thereafter, around 495, the lower classes, the plebs, began to demand relief from taxation and the forgiveness of debts. The Senate was rather unsympathetic to this request, and tensions mounted, until Rome was invaded and had to raise an army. The plebs refused to enlist without the promise of concessions, and the Senate in accordance with grand universal tradition punted. Anybody who enlisted would not be punished for outstanding debts, and anyone in prison for the default would be let free if they joined the army. They further promised to consider some relief measure after the war was over. This produced the desired effect, and the invasion was quickly repelled, and the army disbanded to await their relief. In accordance with grand universal tradition the Senate decreed that everyone who was released should go back to prison, and that people whose imprisonment was deferred by service should be locked up with them. This did not go over well, and there followed a period of recriminations and revenge taking

The next year, 494 BC, Rome was again invaded, and again the Senate sought to raise an army, and again the plebs decided that perhaps they would be happier not fighting on behalf of their creditors, but thank you for asking. The senate, responded by appointing a dictator to restore order, and passing limited debt relief for the people who joined the army. Again the people joined the army, and again the invaders were repelled, and again, upon their return to Rome, the Senate refused to relieve their debts. Now the plebs decided to go on strike, and decamped to a near-by mountain, and await a response from the Senate. The Senate, aware of their dependence on the plebs for soldiers, and their inability to defend against a concerted attack by the plebs, took the only available option, and utterly caved. Thus the office of the Tribune of the Plebs was born, giving the lower classes some say in how they were governed.

Now fast forward to 73 BC. Roman legions have conquered most of Italy and large parts of North Africa and Spain. The army is no longer comprised of free plebs defending their homeland, but professional soldiers, fighting for pay and a share of any land that was conquered. Rome’s conquests mean that the land that was previously farmed by plebs is instead owned by equestrians and patricians, and the labour is provided not by plebs, but the nations who had lost their wars with Rome and been enslaved as punishment. Slaves being cheap and expendable, they were mistreated horrendously, and so it was not a surprise when a few thousand of them decided they would rather not be slaves after all, and got together to begin sacking cities. The slaves crushed a hastily assembled militia, and as word of their exploits spread, more and more slaves went to join them, and their ranks eventually swelled to 120,000. A second, more professional army was assembled to defeat them, and, after some initial success, was defeated. The Senate became alarmed, and assembled a third, much larger army to deal with it, and, after some intrigue, it did. Crassus, one of the commanders of the army captured 6000 of the slaves, and had them crucified at regular intervals from Capua to Rome as a reminder of the price of failed rebellion. Crassus and Pompei took their armies as close to Rome as they were allowed, and then stood for Consul, the highest elected office, and, despite Pompeii being legally ineligible, both won, due in no small part to the implied threat of the armies encamped nearby.

Now further ahead. It is now 532 AD, in Constantinople. In a manner somewhat similar to Irish football clubs, 6th century Constantinople expressed it’s divisions through it’s sporting clubs, and the most popular sport was chariot racing. Though there were four major factions, at this time only two had real influence, the Blues and the Greens. Meeting at these events, and with the supporters of your favorite team, would be a natural time to talk about the controversies of the day, both political and religious, and aristocratic families looking to make connections within the power structure would sponsor the teams, and thus curry favour and get invites to more exclusive parties. After one particularly fractious race, as this rivalry began to break into open warfare that left several on each side dead, the Emperor intervened, and attempted to help restore calm, succeeding only in uniting them in their annoyance with the Emperor. At the next race, the two sides began shouting abuse at the Emperor, and wound up besieging his palace. Justinian, however had a plan. He sent an envoy to the blues, reminding them that, after all weren’t the greens the real enemy, and if he were deposed, wouldn’t it be a green who would now rule? In accordance with grand universal tradition he had his confidant present the leader of the blues with a giant sack of money, and the blues decided that really Justinian wasn’t so bad after all, and left the stadium. The greens were rounded up by the army and slaughtered to the man, and their allies in the nobility were executed as well for good measure, ensuring peace and stability for years to come.

Slaves in the Roman Empire were a non-renewable resource. Forced to live in barracks and with a very short life span, slaves mostly did not replace themselves, and without a ready source of new slaves, mass slavery died out, to be replaced with serfdom and peasantry, who were expected to marry and raise families, and thus could be expected to provide future generations of peasants for toil. The loss of the Middle Eastern and North African trade routes to the House of Islam, and internal trade being lost to banditry, the kind of specialization that allowed cities to flourish was no longer feasible, and Europe became thoroughly rural. All politics is local, and so while we have stories of servants murdering their lords and so on, the networks were not in place for a proper peasant revolt for most of the early and high middle ages, and the exceptions come mostly from outside the feudal system or where the feudal system was inchoate, like the Stellinga who protested their enserfment and forced conversions after the Carolingians subjugated Saxony. The first wide scale peasant revolt of the late middle ages (so far as has been recorded) happened in Flanders, one of the first regions of Europe to re-urbanize, in the 1320s. Despite some initial success capturing cities, peasants were no match for armour and cavalry in the field, and the revolt was crushed, the leaders killed. The peasant army at Cassel lost nearly half it’s force between 10,000 and 20,000 men. The French armoured force fighting them on the other hand, only a handful, and of the cavalry perhaps only 17 knights were killed. The major cities of the rebellion were forced to dismantle their fortifications, pay heavy fines, and lost all of their privileges to the Count of Flanders.

This was the first of a wave of revolts, throughout western Europe. In France, England, Germany, Italy, Hungary and Spain and so on a familiar tale would play out, as, upset with the heavy tax burden, or the loss of privledges, or in protest of restrictive laws, commoners would rise up and be crushed mercilessly, and their oppression would deepen for their troubles. However, towards the end of the 18th century, the outline of a new pattern began to take place. For most of the previous thousand years there was an advantage to being the defender. A Lord or Baron under attack could retreat behind his castle walls and await relief, or if it became necessary, to ride out encased in heavy armour, nearly impervious to the meager weapons of the peasantry. Agincourt was the announcement that armour could no longer be relied on, and the advent of artillery sounded the death knell of the castle as an impervious base of operations. Gradually, a King could hire, equip and train an army that did not rely on the military aristocracy, and, eventually, cities could as well. Soon projecting power was not about how well the knights were armoured, or how thick the walls of the castle were, but how much firepower could be brought to bear. The aristocracy receded in importance, the castles became antiquated curiosities, and the state was born. But a ruling class that had long grown used to treating their lower classes as irrelevant would be in for a shock. Rebellions and revolutions still failed far more often than they succeeded, but in sharp contrast to earlier eras, instead of slaughtering the rebellious subjects, the subject often succeeded in inflicting tremendous damage, and the victory of the state depended as much on the allegiance of the army as the force of the King’s arms.

Indeed you can track the faction that controls France by knowing the Faction that guards Paris. In the Early and High middle ages, guarding Paris was the responsibility of the King’s vassals and Castellans. Towards the end of the High middle ages however, Paris had begun to grow too large, and the King had defeated most of the castellans around Paris, and responsibility passed to the guilds to create a Royal Guard for the city. Naturally the guard was still under the command of an aristocrat, but the men who served in it were tradesmen who lived and worked in the city. As the city grew richer and the men softer, they stopped serving in the guard themselves, and instead hired a professional force to do the work for them, and positions in the guard were increasingly filled by the king’s former soldiers. At the height of the Absolute Monarchy a separate Police force was created, and, as power flowed away from Paris and towards Versailles, the Guard and Police force were merged, under the command of an officer appointed directly by the King. At the crucial moment of the revolution, when it came time to choose between the King and the National Assembly the Paris Guard chose to obey the assembly. As local distinctions and privileges were abolished, the Paris guard was disbanded, and the safety of Paris was left to the National Guard commanded by the liberal nobility. When the radicals took control on the 10 August, it was in large part because the National Guard in Paris abandoned their officers and joined the republican side. In turn, they transferred their allegiance to the Thermidor reaction, leaving the committee for public safety undefended in the city hall. Their inability to suppress the royalist uprisings led to the famous whiff of grapeshot, and directly contributed to the rise of Napoleon, who disarmed the guards and replaced them with a professional police force under his control. During this time, the guard regained again it’s status as a middle class militia, and when the bourgeois monarchy was restored, the guard was restored with it. A similar process plays out in London, and in all the capitols of Europe. The great wave of revolutions in 1848 mostly failed, but the rebellions in Berlin succeeded in getting the Hohenzollern King to transfer control of Berlin from the Royal Army to a citizen militia, in addition to a constitution and an electoral assembly.  In general, the rise of the middle classes was accompanied by the rise of middle class militias and guards, often explicitly excluding both the nobility and the lower classes.

These changes are, in part, about wealth, but also about technology. The fall of the military aristocracy was partly about state-building, the centralization of power, and the movement of the centre of financial power from land and rents to cities and trade, but also about the fall of the castle and the death of heavy cavalry as an effective fighting force. When the plebeians revolted, they exacted concessions because smallholders formed the backbone of the army, and the patricians could not defend themselves against their enemies without them. By contrast, when the slaves revolted, despite forming the economic backbone of the empire, slaves did not form the armed defensive backbone of the republic, and so the interests of the slaves could be ignored. When Constantinople revolted, the Emperor was threatened, in no small part because his power base turned against him, and so he had to pay them off. It was only after he had placated his base that the army could be used to crush the remaining dissenters. In the west, military force became increasing centralized in the hands of a small military elite, and the interests of the peasants became increasingly ignored, as they successively lost their rights and privileges to castellans and the cavalry. It was only when trained forces of commoner infantry developed the tactics and weapons necessary to defeat the castles and cavalry that the power of the crown again waned, and as weapons became more widespread and easier to use that power started falling into the hands of the middle classes, and so it became necessary to consider their interests when making decisions.

In effect, as the technology needed to effectively resist coercion became more and more widely available, the number of people from which the system needed buy-in increased. It was entirely possible for French nobles to ignore the rights and desires of the French peasants in 10th century France, increasing the taxes and duties owed to landlords. Peasants never successfully overthrew their Lords after all.  The Kaiser in the tenth century would never have bothered sending the french equivalent of Lenin into France, that the Kaiser in the twentieth felt it worthwhile is only because the revolt of the lower class would need to be taken seriously in a way that peasant rebellion in the tenth did not. The great liberalizations of the late 19th century, universal male suffrage and constitutional democracy, happened against a background of anarchist violence against the aristocracy, and the threat of a widespread workers revolt. The backdrop of the construction of social democracy was the spectre of revolutionary communism. Decolonization, and the great civil wars of the third world, are necessarily complicated, but a prime enabler has been the widespread availability of a cheap, easy to build, easy to maintain weapon, the AK-47 and it’s derivatives, that narrowed the technological gap between colonizer and colonized, and reduced the barrier to entry of meaningful resistance to established authority. This is to say, that the modern history of the rise of the common man, is the history of the disruption of the means of violence.


My first ten years of life were spent in a small townhouse community which had a small playground in the middle. This neighborhood became increasingly Pakistani during our time there. The mother of one of my best friends would babysit most of the smallest kids in the neighborhood. She and my father would often sit and watch as the neighborhood kids played in the playground.

The subject of many of their conversations was arranged marriage. Hers had been, and she favored it. She argued that people in arranged marriages were more happy than people who married by choice. She pointed to a lower divorce rate among arranged marriages who ended up in countries where divorce was a feasible option. Interestingly, however, she was not going to push this on her own children. They were Muslim of course, but they also grew up to be thoroughly American kids, and even their parents expected them to approach marriage the American way.

I’ve often thought about her point of view, however. It is so alien to me, to those of us raised outside a culture like that. In fact, arranged marriages seem repellent, an artifact of an earlier time when liberty and independent thought did not have the cherished place in our shared values that they do today.

But what I take away from her perspective is that it is possible to be committed or uncommitted to something whether or not it was your choice to be a part of it in the first place. It’s possible to be committed to a marriage that was arranged for you, and uncommitted to a marriage you chose to enter. Similarly, it’s possible to be committed to the duties of citizenship of a country you were born in, and uncommitted to a country you immigrated to.

Marriages, civil society, and nations have a distinct existence. They always have flaws, and not just the sort that you can fix. Much like information entropy predicts that patching software bugs will create future software bugs, all unions have holes in them which ultimately cannot be completely filled. Commitment is about embracing your role in those unions, and making it your own, not regardless of those flaws but in spite of them.

There are no perfect unions any more than there are perfect people. Holding either to a strict standard of perfection is a recipe for disappointment and bitterness, and of forever finding excuses not to commit to anything. Much more healthy is having a standard for what is good enough to be realistic while still being idealistic enough to aspire to. Such ideals are not developed in isolation, but in partnership with the people in your life who you are committed to being in some relationship with.

I don’t think it’s possible to have a good life without commitment. Personal growth requires commitment to developing skills and gaining experience with various practices. And flourishing requires a commitment to developing your practical wisdom; the skill of living well.

Locke and Key

Before our faith collapsed and with it tender civilization, it was not uncommon that I found myself whizzing along America’s highways and byways. I grew up itinerant, a son of the military. That changed little following my own enlistment into the Navy and into its deadliest of all submarine fleets. As a younger man, all I demanded of myself was a full tank of gas, a few bucks in my wallet, and a transmission in decent shape. These days, five years on from the Great Slough (I’m still not sure what to call it), the petroleum has rotted in the tanks, no longer even remotely fit to power an internal combustion engine. The only power left accessible to me is found either in muscle or wind. Sailboats work poorly on land, so I hoof it on those few occasions I’m obliged to stray from the fickle sea.

On foot, it pays to travel in packs. A pack can deter banditry, can stand its ground against raids, and if need be, can scatter to the wind in a way that a lone backpacker cannot. And when the threat consists of armed thugs, I find that being overly selective about the company I keep is a luxury I cannot easily afford. So it was that I teamed up with an old Dixie dirt farmer by the name of Alan, a former yoga instructor named Brenda, and Chad, a guy who was half a semester from finishing up his BA in Urban Studies when the lights went out in America.

Naturally, our road banter turned to the topic of immigration. Continue reading “Locke and Key”

The Glamour of Macho Epistemology

One of the central claims of Deirdre McCloskey’s The Rhetoric of Economics is that there is a major disconnect between the practice of economics and how economists describe that practice. She indicts the field for embracing the ideals of reductionist modernist scientism; that is, of thinking that it is possible to develop a single scientific method that can be explained and easily understood by undergraduates, which nevertheless provides an unshakable foundation for progress in science.

I’ve taken up this argument elsewhere, but I want to focus on an interesting aspect of it here. Unlike the party line at many of the heterodox schools of economics, McCloskey does not deny that economists have made progress in the past 50-100 years. She thinks the proliferation of mathematical models and econometrics have been tremendously beneficial, in fact. She simply thinks that, by taking too narrow an interpretation of what counts as science, economists have handicapped themselves unnecessarily.

But isn’t it interesting that they could hold onto an epistemology that is completely wrong, and yet continue to make progress in practice? The divide between what is described as scientific and what economists do in practice is uncanny; why does it exist? Why does it go so largely unnoticed? Could it serve some purpose?

I am reminded of Karl Popper’s description of the towering figures of the Enlightenment—how they were seized by the notion that truth is manifest, that it is visible and recognizable if only you seek to find it. Popper argued that this is utterly wrong, yet amazingly, belief in it motivated some of the best work in science and scholarship in history.

The irony of this example is that Popper and his intellectual descendants are the primary targets of McCloskey’s book and its sequels. But could Popperian falsificationism play a similar role for economists as the doctrine of a manifest truth did for the Enlightenment thinkers?

It puts me in mind of Virginia Postrel’s The Power of Glamour, though glamour is visual rather than verbal. Still, there is an image here—an image of oneself as scientist, and image of what it means to be a scientist. Glamour is an image that is more simple, more perfect than reality could ever be, and it provokes a sense of longing. It is “known to be false but felt to be true.”

The glamour of Popper’s epistemology is hard to deny. The essay in which Popper discusses the doctrine of manifest truth, “On the Sources of Knowledge and Ignorance,” is part of the collection called Conjectures and Refutations. Throughout the collection Popper calls for scientists to advance “bold conjectures” and then “attempted refutations.” Popper makes the aspiring scientist feel akin to the courageous warrior; not advancing timidly but boldly, sticking your own neck out for the greater good of all. In short, he makes science sound exciting—no small accomplishment.

McCloskey doesn’t deny that science often requires courage—and the rest of the virtues. What she denies is that the practice of science boils down to Popper’s very simple formula. For one thing, falsification is not so straightforward as Popper claims. People must be persuaded that a falsification has occurred, a much more spongy matter than hard-headed methodologists like to make it sound. For another, most of science is getting up to speed on other people’s accomplishments, ideas, failures, and so on. In short, it’s immersing yourself into a body of scholarship. There is simply nothing sexy about that.

What macho epistemology along the lines that Popper and other methodologists may do is spark people’s initial interest in a field. Science, like all practices, has standards of quality that are accessible only to those who have been inculcated in the norms of the community of practice. Before that inculcation takes place, the thing that draws people in the first place, the carrots, are external goods. That is, the promise of material rewards, or fame, or glory, or anything other than the “goods internal to the practice”, and MacIntyre would say.

What are we to make of this? Does science need a noble lie? I would not go that far. Like McCloskey, I believe in the strength of committed self-consciousness. But I also don’t think that sweeping aside shared myths and glamour is a guarantee of future success; for one thing, history has shown us that a great deal can be accomplished even while buying into some very implausible myths. For another, we all need objects of aspiration, even if complete attainment is forever out of reach.

But not all such aspirations are made equal. And there’s a strong case to be made that the methodologist mythology worshipped in economics has run out of resources for spurring further advancements. I stand with McCloskey in believing that it is high time for economics to step out of the sandbox.