One Year of Sweet Talking

It’s been one year since the first post went up here at Sweet Talk. For all the esoteric terrain that we’ve covered here, we’ve done amazingly well in this first year. In terms of traffic, we’re certainly doing better than my expectations, which I had thought were fairly optimistic.

But more importantly, I’ve had the privilege of blogging alongside 14 extremely smart, well read, and creative writers. All told, we’ve put in 350 posts on

Oh, and maybe a post or two about rhetoric or virtue ethics—here and there!

If I may say so, the growth of Sweet Talk is a testament to what makes us Jews so successful in general. I’m talking, of course, about guilt. My mother, though Jewish, is not a stereotypical Jewish mother, but I tapped into my roots in order to “encourage” people to post. Whenever a Sweet Talker hinted that they were relaxing and enjoying their free time, I did whatever I could to make them feel bad for not posting. The secret is to make getting invited seem like a privilege, and then to hint that I was very disappointed when the posts didn’t start coming shortly after invitation.

I think the results speak for themselves.

More seriously, the greatest accomplishment of Sweet Talk has been to bring together a group of truly incredible people. More than creating a joint outlet for us all to write on—we’ve all had blogs and other places to write here and there—connecting with one another has been very rewarding. For all of us—I hope! Outside of the virtual walls of Sweet Talk we discuss everything and anything, trading jokes and barbs. I know that if Sweet Talk becomes something that lasts—as I intend for it to be—people will come and go within this group, and individuals’ contributions will go up and down. But I’m grateful for every one of the bonds that was strengthened through the joint effort of getting this off the ground, regardless of what the future holds for anyone’s part in it. The bonds will last, either way.

I hope to bring on many more contributors this year. Many have already accepted invitations but have demonstrated a remarkable resilience against my guilting. This has also kept Sweet Talk a bit of a sausage fest, as the women who have shown an interest in writing here have shown greater prudence in prioritizing their lives over posts for which the compensation is guilting about doing yet more posts. Funny how that works.

Our hope when we set out a year ago was the create a conversational blog, where a high percentage of the posts were responding to one another. It’s hard for me to quantify it, but my gut says that perhaps as much as a third have ended up being direct or indirect responses (or reactions) to one another. And that’s pretty damn good, if I may say so. I hope we can keep it up. On a couple of fun occasions, one or two Sweet Talkers were on a tear in terms of putting out posts, and it fired up a few of the rest of us. That sense that we’re all contributing to something together, but having fun toying with different ideas in an environment where we won’t be attacked for it, is what we all wanted going on. So far, that’s what we’ve had, and I intend to do whatever I can to maintain that.

If that sounds good to you, please feel free to email me and we can talk about making you a Sweet Talker yourself! We’re always looking for more people to join in our conversation.

Science is Persuasion


Even Heterodox Economics is Misguided

Earlier this week, Arnold Kling—who taught the first economics class I ever took—wrote a post comparing behaviorism in psychology to Samuelsonianism in economics. In his view, the chief failings of these approaches are an overemphasis on mechanistic models on the one hand, and a “blank slate” view of human nature on the other. For both reasons, he’s rereading Stephen Pinker, enemy of blank slate models and enthusiastic booster of computational, rather than mechanistic, models of cognition.

I argued that computational models are not different in kind from mechanistic ones, they are just more sophisticated. I pointed him towards works in the rhetoric of inquiry tradition, in particular Economics and Hermeneutics, an excellent collection edited by the late Don Lavoie and available for free online.

It seems that he’s now reading that very collection, which is great. However, I remember my own first encounter with this tradition of thought—through Deirdre McCloskey’s The Rhetoric of Economics—and I found it quite baffling at the time.

I think there are a lot of people educated in economics who sense that something is wrong in the house that Samuelson built. However, the tools that most heterodox schools have to offer—and here I include even most versions of the Austrian school—simply won’t help you see some of the fundamental errors of the mainstream view. At best the problems of the mainstream schools are replaced with more nuanced, subtle, and complex models that nevertheless share the same underlying characteristics.

This is the basis of McCloskey’s critique of the neo-institutionalists; they think they’ve moved beyond Samuelsonian limitations, when in fact they’ve simply subsumed the idea of an institution into a Samuelsonian framework. Thus instead of conveying meaning or providing frameworks of interpretation or shaping conjective reality, institutions are treated as structures of reward-and-punishment designed in just such a way to make utility maximizers cooperate with one another.

The writers in the Project On Rhetoric Of Inquiry, as well as hermeneutics and what Lavoie calls “the interpretative turn” in general, can be hard for outsiders of that tradition to get their head around. So this post will be my attempt to introduce one version of that line of thinking. My intended audience are primarily heterodox economists, but the argument will be relevant to economists and social scientists in general, and indeed any scientist or scholar.

Continue reading “Science is Persuasion”

Separation Anxiety

Friendly Society

If given the choice to live in a world dominated by risk or uncertainty, I would choose risk every time. Risk is manageable. Risk can be hedged. Risk can even bring people together.

Take the Friendly Societies of the 18th and 19th century. These predecessors of the modern insurance cooperative helped to distribute financial risks among their members. But in addition to providing access to doctor care or income in tough times, members could literally count on a shoulder to cry on. The prerogative of a decentralized social safety net had the by-product of strengthening the all around community, in the form civic engagement, social events and close knit relationships.

Friendly and mutual aid societies flourished for over 300 years in places like England thanks to the challenge of measuring risk accurately, especially on an individual level. For the most part, insurance schemes, both formal and friendly, brush over the immense heterogeneity of risk types to come up with a flat rate or membership premium — an average cost — which in our fundamental ignorance we agree to pay.


In fact, when individual risk is well known (usually by the individual him or herself) our ability to manage risk with insurance or mutual aid tends to break down. For instance, a person seeking health insurance may choose to conceal their heightened risk of cancer by not sharing their family history. In their famous 1976 paper, Stiglitz and Rothschild showed how this kind of asymmetry of information makes insurance hard, if not impossible. In contrast, consider that a young man cannot easily conceal the salient fact that he is young and male. Since this correlates with worse driving, auto insurance is able to separate into several pools, or to charge several prices, without worry of members misrepresenting their risk type.

In the jargon of game theory, this is the difference between a pooling and separating equilibrium, and it’s not limited to insurance. In any scenario where the type of person or good is not directly observed, you instead observe a signal — a piece of communication — which may or may not be informative. But when different types put off different signals, even if they’re not wholly accurate, types can be discerned, separated and priced accordingly.

In the case of England, Friendly Societies tended to be grouped around industry, skill level, and other imperfect “types”. As a whole, then, the Friendlies weren’t totally unsophisticated. But relative to modern insurance, the mechanisms available for making members reveal their riskiness were first order approximations at best.

History’s Card Sharks

This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. In the limit, if every person has an idiosyncratic and public risk profile, insurance would be like trying to bet a round of poker with the cards face up. Rather than spreading the cost of car accidents, or health care, or unemployment across large groups, we would be much closer to paying our own way in full. While this could be considered efficient in a narrow sense (each consensually pays his or her marginal cost), in practice it could also be disastrous. Rather than having the congenitally lucky occasionally support the unlucky, the unlucky would lose by predestination. There’s no point in bluffing — you’re simply dealt the hand you’re dealt.

Now imagine Friendly Societies as represented by a group of casual poker players that meet regularly. The play is sloppy and heuristic based, and no one really knows how to calculate pot odds. Sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down, but in long run everyone tends to break even. Then one day a new player is invited, a player who happens to be a poker tournament champion and retired statistician. Sometimes he’s up, sometimes he’s down, but in the long run the rest of the table ends up consistently going bust. A friendly game among friendly society suddenly isn’t that friendly anymore, and the group disbands. This is more less the story of how Friendly Societies went from flourishing to sudden decline around the turn of the 20th century.

Innovations in the science of actuarial analysis (the statistical study of risk) had been diffusing through society since at least 1693, when Edmond Halley constructed the first “life table” allowing him to calculate annuities based on age. Not long after in 1738, Abraham de Moivre published “The Doctrine of Chances,” credited as discovering the normal distribution that was greatly expounded on by Gauss in the 1800s. Then in 1762, The Equitable Life Assurance Society was founded, with the first modern usage of the term “actuary” (the company exists to this day as Equitable Life, the world’s old mutual insurer). However, as a profession, insurance was truly born much later in 1848, with the founding of the Institute of Actuaries in London, thanks to breakthroughs in measurement and accounting techniques (such as commutation functions) that brought the doctrine of chances from theory to practice.

Scientific actuaries were history’s card sharks. In order to compete, Friendly Societies were forced to adapt — to learn to better calculate the odds — and ultimately they converged on many of the same administrative, procedural, and “scientific” insurance-like structures. The growing (and widely misused) economic surplus this generated fueled an insurance boom peaking in the later part of the 19th century. For efficiency advantages, societies began deepening national networks well beyond the scope of brotherly love, and strove to expand risk classifications and reduce exposure to high risk types.


By better classifying risk, the “flat rate” pooling equilibrium of the 18th century and earlier rapidly became untenable. Across Europe, the market became increasingly separated, with many differentiated premia and some high-risk types pushed out altogether. This fueled a growing industrial unrest that culminated with the consolidation of private social insurance schemes into nationally run systems.

Commercial insurance, by generating a burst of competition and transitory political instability, was in a sense a victim of its own success. But as many economists have noted, while decidedly non-voluntarist, national schemes (like the one instituted in the UK by the National Insurance Act of 1911) were able to discover large efficiencies of scale through less administrative intensity, tax-based collections, and a comprehensive risk pool. This transaction-cost advantage — and the centuries of social capital it crowded out — guarantees that the days of the close knit mutualists are gone for good, save for some religious congregations. In their stead stands L’Etat Providence — The Welfare State — via a historical process that (as I’ve described) was most rigorously identified by French legal scholar Francois Ewald in a book by the same name.


The point of this essay (if you’ve made it this far) is to suggest that we are in the midst of a measurement and statistical revolution of equal or greater scale as the 19th century diffusion of actuarial science, with potentially many of the same social and political implications.

With a $99 genotype and sub-$1000 whole genome sequence, in the near future the idea of an insurer asking for your family history of cancer will seem quaint. The immense and inevitable promise of genomics and personalized medicine also portends the inevitable collapse of large, relatively heterogeneous insurance pools, in favour of equally “personalized” healthcare costs schedules.

As I hinted at earlier, this phenomena of moving from pooling to separating equilibria following  advances in measurement technology is by no means limited to risk or health care. Any qualitative distribution can be theoretically mapped to a price distribution, but wind up collapsing into a single price given practical measurement constraints. For example, in the past mediocre restaurants were partially supported by the churn of ignorant consumers, since reliable ratings and reviews were hard to come by. Today, rating platforms like mean that restaurants of different quality have more room to raise or reduce prices accordingly, to separate based on credible signals. It’s the end of asymmetric information.

In the corporate setting, pooling equilibria are represented by relatively flat salary structures given a particular seniority, department or education level. Sometimes there is a commission or performance bonus, but day to day productivity is rarely if ever tracked. This opacity is what permits the possibility of zero marginal product (ZMP) workers — workers who literally contribute nothing to a firm’s output.

For any given kitchen, at some point an additional cook does not actually produce more food. While it can be misleading to say that any particular cook is non-productive (maybe there are simply too many cooks in the kitchen), in deciding on which cook to dismiss it matters a great deal that the cooks aren’t all equally productive. On the contrary, the individual contribution of every kind of worker to a firm’s output is often extremely heterogeneous, with the top 20% of workers contributing as much as the lower 80%.

With automation and artificial intelligence reducing the demand for human inputs, the kitchen, so to speak, is shrinking.  It has therefore become paramount for firms to identify the 20 and eject the 80. The contemporary increase in country level inequality is widely recognized as technology driven, but few have put their finger on the micro-foundations that explain why. Part of the story is surely “human-machine substitutability,” but in addition firms have simply started monitoring and classifying worker productivity better than in the past. This leads to a separating equilibrium that shows up in the data as job market polarization, rising premia on the central “signals” like college degrees, and (to the extent that signals are sticky) reduced social mobility. Unsurprisingly, a class based society is first and foremost a society which classifies. The silver lining in this case is that, rather than classes based on pedigree, nobility or race, the future promises to be highly — if not brutally — meritocratic.


In one future scenario, just as actuaries identified groups that were uninsurable, perhaps large sections of society will discover they are unhirable. Supposing they have too many “one-star” ratings, as it were, on their HR record, their only hope will be in working for fellow one-stars, and to build a matching-economy around their mediocrity. This is essentially the “Average is Over” scenario imagined by Tyler Cowen, who foresees the return of shanty-towns across the United States. But I wouldn’t bet on it. In many ways, the recent calls for a “universal basic income” exactly parallel the early 20th century’s push towards nationalized social insurance. Only here it is labour-income itself that would be nationalized, as part of the inescapable political economy of separation anxiety.

My own anxiety stems from that fundamental uncertainty of the future, as if the social order is dancing along a knife edge dividing two radically different steady states. In either state — from hyper-meritocracy to a New New Deal — the case of the Friendly Societies demonstrates that the only thing for certain will be the loss of our sacred intangibles: the unmeasured qualities that united distinct types under one roof, from the fraternal lodge to the corporate office.

Against the Oxford Comma, Suspicion, and Other Things

It is now mandated that one use the Oxford Comma, properly known; it is commonly known as the serial comma. There are those of us who remember the days when use of the serial comma was optional. Options, at least in public discourse, are increasingly rare.

The age-old saw, which never did cut right, advises that you cannot have both security and liberty, that the two together make one pie, i.e., you can have lots of liberty, but not much security; you can have lots of security, but not much liberty. Society argues about how much of each we shall have, and, depending on the size of the pie, we come out better or worse, or both.

The reason we must use the serial comma is to guarantee security, at least in written expression. In the second place, now that it is mandated, if you do not use it, grammar police will have your hide. In the first place, your readers cannot be trusted to read without suspicion. They have been trained to operate quite criticizingly, an attitude which is similar to critically, but is morally distinct and disgusting.

It used to be that a reader was trained to read empathetically, no matter the author or the subject, so if he or she was wont to use the serial comma, that was okay, and if he chose not to use the serial comma, instead allowing for ambiguity in writing, she was entrusting the reader the task of interpretation in favor of clear communication.

No, we have become lazy, solipsistic moralists, with the goal of browbeating each other into conformity, or at least conversating to exhaustion into compliance, all character expunged, all eccentricities marginalized, merciless readers. This is what comes of forcing the political, which needs be merciless, into almost every aspect of daily life, where mercy is much needed. Where isn’t political language? In sex and grocery shopping it is; therefore, we must use the Oxford Comma. Thou shalt.

I’m referring, of course, to this, this, and this, among other things.


You Don’t Have a PR Person Telling You What to Say

For years after the success of Pygmalion, his play later adapted into the more famous musical My Fair Lady, George Bernard Shaw spilled a lot of ink arguing that Eliza would not marry Higgins. But he never edited the script to make this explicit within the play itself. Yet he wrote the play, so presumably he knew his own intentions—surely his take on the matter is authoritative?

This is wrong. The meaning of a text, or a play, or a film, or a song, is not subjective. Nor is it objective. It is conjective; Deirdre McCloskey’s word for what John Searle refers to as an “institutional fact” (or even more of a mouthful, “ontologically subjective but epistemologically objective”). Shaw could only write the play at all because he was educated and gained experience within a particular storytelling tradition at a particular place and a particular period of history. Certainly a great deal of subjective thoughts, feelings, intuitions and understandings played a role in the process of writing the play.

But the meaning exists in the space between the play and the audience, not in any one person’s head. So despite Shaw’s protests, the interpretation that, having now fully become a lady, Eliza would not settle for anything less than marriage, has a lot of strength given the culture the play is supposed to take place in. Certainly that’s how audiences have largely interpreted it for as long as it or its musical adaptation have been shown.

There are some strange implications to this point, once you accept it. If text takes on a life of its own once you’ve put it out there, what about text with a less artistic intent? Say…a tweet?

Consider this telling statement from indie game developer Tim Schafer:

Game-fame, he says, is a tool. It is not to be taken personally and certainly not to be taken seriously. But there is always a price.

“If you’re going to create a high-profile media version of yourself, you have to accept that person is sometimes going to be a magnet for animosity. But early on, I always realized there was a difference between me the person and me the media creation who was generated to help me get games funded.

“Some people get driven kind of crazy by confusing the two things.”

Does this mean that the person who is presented to the public is a complete fake, a phony, a hypocrite? No, nor need he be.

The point is that every statement has an implied author, and that the character of this implied person is not the subjective vision you have of yourself. No, the implications are conjective; your audience will piece together that character from the context they have available to them.

Rhetoric is much maligned in our authenticity obsessed era, but it is nothing more than than the art of wrestling with how you will be interpreted. To see why rhetoric is so important, look no further than Suey Park, one of many who found her life turned upside down by a few tweets that went viral:

She grew uncomfortable when I asked why conflict on Twitter had once ensnared her to such an extent. “You don’t have a PR person telling you what to say. Sometimes I feel like a child celebrity, defined by some things said and done in immaturity forever.”

Public Relations, being a subset of rhetoric, is another thing that people look down their noses at these days. Yet Suey Park clearly wishes she could have had some of its insights in mind before this incident occurred.

An important part of communicating the meaning you intended to, and representing the implied author you had in mind, is to consider your implied audience. Sometimes the enterprising rhetorician will create this implied audience where it did not previous exist—McCloskey’s example is Robert Fogel creating an audience of economically literate historians. But most of the time this is just a recipe for not getting your intended meaning across.

We live in a difficult time. It has grown harder to control what your audience will be.

For most of history, a speech, a newspaper, or a magazine all had fairly clear audiences. Now, anything you say anywhere can suddenly go viral. This includes private conversations, given how trivially easy it is to record audio or make a video on a smartphone. Donald Sterling certainly didn’t think he was announcing his racist attitudes to the world.

Given that meaning depends on context, the fact that a statement can instantly jump contexts is troubling. But that does not mean that we should give up hope. We need to channel Tim Schafer’s detachment from the implied author we present to the world, and to take our rhetoric more seriously. The fact that meaning can be more easily snatched away from us than ever is all the more reason why we need to prepare ourselves to contest hostile interpretations, if we wish to have any influence at all.

Three cheers for PR, public personas, and rhetoric. We would all do well to take persuasion as seriously as the ancients our medieval ancestors.

The Conversation Behind and Within the Literature


If only there were a vast literature on how to familiarize yourself with vast literatures.

What is a literature? Well, it’s a conversation among scholars, in the form of papers and books. Sometimes essays and articles are also admitted into this pantheon, though usually only grudgingly. As for blog posts—forget it!

I’m joking around a little here, but what I’m trying to draw your attention to is the fact that the conversation is always larger than the literature. The literature is the subset. The bigger conversation includes not only essays and articles and blog posts, but phone calls, chat sessions, emails, letters—for these conversations have been going on for a while, after all! You could probably throw telegrams in there, on that note. And of course, literal face to face conversations are also included here.

These are always the larger background context of the subset we call “the literature.” The literature itself is, as I said, for the most part made up of papers and books. Rituals to imbue papers with a certain authority include the peer-review process and publication in certain high-status journals. But while these factor into how influential a given paper becomes, they are not the whole of it, and influential papers can occur outside of the bounds of these rituals. Working papers and white papers are examples of things that are capable of gaining influence despite being “unpublished” (though sometimes actually made public through services such as the Social Science Research Network) or not having been peer-reviewed.

Peer review is a funny phrase, because if an author gains any attention at all, they will naturally be reviewed by their peers after the fact rather than before publication. And that conversation—between various authors responding to the papers of other authors—is much more valuable than the up-front “peer-review process”. In point of fact, the ex post interplay is exactly what we mean when we speak of “the literature”.

When this subset of the textual component of these conversations reach a certain size and have been going on for long enough, curating collections and conducting meta-analyses can become valuable contributions in themselves. The goal is to clarify the state of scholarship in a subject by identifying areas of consensus as well as key points still in contention, or simply by providing an accessible history of the conversation.

Such curation, meta-analysis, and history is itself a part of the conversation, not above it. It is making the argument “this is what the character of our conversation is. This is where it came from.” Sometimes it is even “this is where it should go from here.” In short, it is not just clerical work, simply gathering facts about the conversation, any more than a paper within that conversation is simply explaining a manifest truth. Both are engaging in persuasion, using evidence, arguments, and all the tools of rhetoric to make the case that one way of looking at things is superior to the alternatives. In the case of putting together something like a collection of introductory political theory texts, you are making the argument that the specifics texts you have chosen are in some way representative. Someone else might disagree—they usually do. That is why you will find more than one reader for a given subject; that is itself a part of the conversation.

Some people see the peer-review process as some kind of guarantor of quality. I have always seen it as primarily a way to enforce the norms of a specific community of scholars. Some people see science as an accumulative process where we get more and more knowledge, and that is how we make progress. I see it as a conversation that is just as capable of facing setbacks as it is of making progress, though I’m in general quite optimistic about how we’ve been doing for the past 200 years, on the whole. But specific fields have fallen into huge errors and pulled themselves out (or not) in that time—witness the ascension of Freudianism in the 20th century.

This characterization of science is, of course, an argument that I am advancing. And completely contestable.

Previous Posts in This Thread:

Religious Objects of Exasperation

There are a few topics in American politics which touch off firestorms, even while topics of similar importance and complexity can be discussed with some level of calm and distance. There are probably topics of similar difficulty in other countries, but I will stick to what I know personally here.

These topics are well known to most Americans, simply because of all the shouting. I think there’s a reason for all this shouting, and it’s because of conflict between objective reality and dogmatic belief by one side or the other, and the other side’s exasperation with the nonsensical dogma.

The way this usually comes about is that at time n a policy or opposition to a policy enters the consciousness of a political faction for perfectly good reasons, and it comes a defining characteristic of that faction. “We are A, and therefore we believe X.” At the time this defining characteristic is taken up, it’s not even a bad idea – or at least, the jury on whether it’s good or bad is still out.

Over time though the facts on the ground change. New evidence comes in, or the underlying social reasons for the policy go away, etc. The belief however doesn’t change, because of how it’s tied to the identify of the faction. “We are still A, and will remain A, and therefor we cannot stop believing X.”

Now I want to emphasize that this is not even irrational. The psychological identification with causes or beliefs is a part of human nature, and I think it’s useful. Forming groups of belief in greater goods is what allows society to happen at all. If we couldn’t join religions or feel patriotic towards a nation, we would be stuck with the bloodline-clans of hunter-gatherers as the most sophisticated form of government. Agriculture and markets would be impossible, let alone science and culture.

This psychological trick works pretty well when the self is identified with timeless goods, like love, or very abstract and flexible institutions, like the British Monarchy. The trick gets stupid though when it identifies with specific policy ideas (or policy oppositions) which may be proven wrong at at least sub-optimal within a decade or so.

Unfortunately though, our political parties have gotten in the habit of writing really detailed policy platforms during election season, and some number of these policies end up getting tied to their identify. Inevitably some of these ideas prove to be wrong (humans, amirite?), the faction refuses to admit it, the other faction eventually gets fed up with their stupidity over the point, and the firestorms I mentioned before get kicked off on a regular basis.

On the American Right the two most obvious examples of this stupidity are opposition to reasonable climate change regulations, and creationism. The science for evolution being a real thing is overwhelming. The science for global climate change isn’t as well supported as evolution, but it’s good enough we should be talking about reasonable precautions. Even if the risk of catastrophe is only 25%, a 25% chance of total social collapse is worth spending money on to avoid! We can dicker over the details of what to do about it, but total opposition just isn’t reasonable at this point.

As for the Left, I could make a list of these dogmas, but the impetus for this post was the City of Los Angeles passing a bill to bring the minimum wage up to $15 over the next five years. This is … dumb. The economic case against the minimum wage is at least as strong as the one for AGW, in my opinion. Yes, helping the poor eat and having a roof over their head is great – but why choose the minimum wage as a policy level? It’s not even in the Top 20 of ideas to help the poor, due to its numerous downsides (which are both theoretically sound and empirically observed). Of course the answer is because “supporting a minimum wage” has become an identify issue for the Left, and they won’t hear anything against it.

What’s to be done about the above? Well, my advice to the Right is to offer real bargains for getting rid of the minimum wage. Trade to get rid of it, by offering real welfare policies that are well funded in exchange. You’ll never convince the Left to let the poor fend entirely for themselves (nor should you; where’s your empathy?), but you can probably find a few willing to try superior methods. You don’t have to convince the entire Left to go with it – just enough of them to reach 51%.

But my advice to everyone (left, right, libertarian, green, or bacon) is this: don’t identify who you are with any policy, belief, or cause that’s less than 500 years old. You can’t avoid being a member of a community of belief, and you don’t want to avoid this either (society is good, mm’kay), but unless you eventually want to find yourself on the wrong and stupid side of an argument, carefully choose the timeless values you identify with. You’ll find friends in every corner of the world and every political faction, and when new facts come to light you’ll be able to integrate them well as they don’t threaten your identity.

Society itself will benefit from this advise too – since we can more quickly adopt the well-supported policies, and also stop yelling at each other over stupid and inane crap. I hope you’ll do your part to make this rational and polite future come to pass.

A response to the MacIntyrical critique of my capabilities approach

Adam has graciously offered some criticism of my series on the capabilities approach. He raises some serious concerns, but I think he also overstates the differences between us. He contrasts my version of the capabilities approach with Alasdair MacIntyre’s ideal of fostering “independent practical reasoners”. Before I get to the disagreements though, I want to highlight how close we are. Adam says,

We don’t just want people to decide for themselves, we want them to become truly capable of deciding for themselves. And developing that capability requires an acknowledgement of their dependency on others, both during the process of that development, and afterwards. This sure sounds a lot like the “effective agency” of the capabilities approach.

Adam’s first complaint is that the capabilities approach fails to grapple with the implications of its own pluralism. The political philosopher Eric Nelson has made a similar critique. In trying to allow for individuals to choose from as wide a variety of lifestyles as possible, the capabilities approach embraces pluralism, but as Adam notes, “any one vision of pluralism precludes, at minimum, all visions of monism”. Adam goes on to accuse pluralists generally of glossing over this paradox. Well, I hereby acknowledge the paradox, and its doozy nature. I have no clever way out of it, except to point out that this affects all pluralist liberal paradigms, not just the capabilities approach. A capabilities approach à la Nussbaum is worse on the pluralism front than other forms of liberalism, as Ingrid Robeyns argues in an article explicitly trying to distinguish the core tenets of the capabilities approach from extraneous items added on by particular versions,

The fact that the capability approach has, at its very core, more to offer in terms of the theory of the good than in terms of the theory of the right has an important implication, namely that it is not very suitable for ethical issues that primarily concern the right. For example, the capability approach is not a very helpful theory in considerations on the morality of abortion since so much of that ethical debate is about issues of the right rather than about issues of the good. That is, most of the philosophical debates on the ethics of abortion concern the moral status of the fetus, notions of personhood, or questions about the autonomy and self-ownership of the pregnant woman — issues on which the capability approach remains mute [citations]. It is therefore not surprising that the capability approach is more useful and more widely used as a theory analyzing socio-economic policies where there is a consensus on those aspects that are questions about the right or where the questions about the right are much less weighty than those about the good. Examples include debates about poverty alleviation, distributive justice, and disability ethics.

So the capabilities approach can be tuned to taste along a pluralism spectrum. But I don’t think this really solves the problem; for any issue where someone claims there’s an overlapping consensus, I can find someone — usually not even obviously insane — who fervently dissents. And anyway this doesn’t get me out of the hot water because I am willing to affirm most of Nussbaum’s controversial list. This is all very consistent with another of Adam’s points: life is inevitably political. Pluralism is a value because humans are fallible and not all-wise. It’s therefore prudent to allow people (and peoples) wide latitude in choosing their own way. But sometimes life forces us to take a side. Speaking for myself and not for other capabilitarians or libertarians, I am willing to call myself a partisan for such issues as, say, a woman’s right to an abortion. And I will use capabilitarian rhetoric to make my case (partisan disagreements are bound to exist among capabilitarians too).

Adam is troubled by my example of a capabilitarian accommodation for the Amish choosing not to exercise the capability to vote:

The problem is that “one’s own goals and values” are not formed in a vacuum, but within the context of the communities we have lived and grown in, and have subsequently filled a large space in the specific histories of our individual lives. You don’t just wake up one day and decide to be Amish—that is, for almost in entirety, completely at odds with the reality of what it means to be Amish. The Amish are born Amish. They are raised with a certain set of values.

He presses the point that there can be no education or other political environment that can really accommodate the Amish. Any education not occurring within the social context of an Amish community under full Amish regulation will presume an alternative, non-Amish worldview and set of values. I agree, but I don’t understand how this is seen as a problem for the capabilities approach, which focuses so much energy on showing how the “social context” can be just as important as the formal legal rules of a society. No one, least of all a capabilitarian, is suggesting there is or should be a level playing field for alternative ways of life. I, and I’m guessing most capabilitarians, instead favor a society in which the individual has the option to choose ways of life different from what they were born into, even if exercising that option is difficult.

If this freedom (effective, rather than merely legal) to exit, as one might phrase it, means that the Amish way of life is doomed, then that’s just bad luck for the Amish way of life. The capabilities approach is unapologetically individualistic. While an individual surely has reason to value their affiliations and group identities, they shouldn’t be held hostage to those affiliations and groups. And if an individual while growing up is not taught to read, not granted wide access to uncensored information, not encouraged to be curious about that information, and effectively prevented from social contact with nonmembers of their group, then that individual effectively is a hostage.

The use of the Amish as an example is cute, because at least in my experience people have warm and fuzzy feelings about the Amish. And honestly I don’t know enough about the Amish to accuse them of violating my capabilitarian sensibilities. But consider replacing “the Amish” with whatever backward cult you may object to more feverishly, perhaps Christian Scientists who withhold modern medicine from their children or those Pakistani tribesmen who will kill their daughters for the sake of “family honor”. The point is that there must exist some limiting principles by which some social context an individual is raised in is deemed too restrictive to qualify as fertile for the “development of independent practical reasoners”. Honestly, I don’t see how MacIntyre’s project of developing such reasoning individuals can deny the existence of such disqualifying social contexts, even if the specification of limiting principles is left murky and subject to political contest. Finally, I also want to point out that the Amish are not a stagnant society; cultural evolution is at work in their midst as well.

So, in this sense, I essentially accept Adam’s criticism that the capabilities approach excludes certain lifestyles but I choose to own the implications. My capabilitarianism tries very hard to be as pluralistic as possible, accepts that “true neutrality” is impossible except maybe in Dungeons & Dragons, and yes, constrains the set of lifestyles effectively on offer to those that might be chosen by fully informed and intelligent human beings.

Adam is right that the capabilities approach is an incomplete theory. Unsurprisingly, Deirdre McCloskey makes a similar argument in her review (pdf) of Nussbaum’s Frontiers of Justice. All the virtues are necessary for a flourishing society full of flourishing individuals.

As Smith said in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), the invisible hand will not produce humans if we start where Mandeville starts, with selfish prudence only. Oddly, an older view is reinstated. The wider our list of virtues for flourishing — that is, the wider our list of capabilities — the stronger is the Nussbaum Lemma [that one cannot extract justice from initial conditions that do not already include justice in some form] — that is, the more and more implausible does it become that some ‘immensely simple theory’ (as Bernard Williams, 1985, put it) will turn out to give a human society. In other words, the civic republican notion that the way to have a good society is to make a bunch of good people — which seems very naive in the light of invisible hand liberalism — turns out to be much more plausible than we liberals thought.

But this is a strange criticism of the capabilities approach. McCloskey says Nussbaum’s capabilities approach is, instead of the Prudence-only of Rawls and friends, “Prudence, Justice, and a bit of Love.” So clearly capabilitarians have added something worthwhile. And if we haven’t grokked the full picture, it’s because we haven’t gone far enough in adding the virtues to a Prudence-only skeleton. But fully engaging virtue theory within a political theory will only narrow down the eligible set of lifestyles we can pursue. If I have already thrown the Amish under the buggy, pulling in more virtues into the theory will just be backing up and trampling the Amish under hoof and wheel all over again. This is because my liberal worldview is a product of my ethical commitments — that is, my understanding of the virtues. This is surely controversial and requires a detailed defense, but I will leave that to another day.

There is one final source of confusion for me in Adam’s critique. He says,

To take politics seriously is to reject reductionist and formalist pictures of politics, except in so far as they are used as thought experiments within a more hermeneutic vision. That is, a vision that focuses on persuasion and rhetoric and ethics.

Remember that feminism and the civil rights movement and India’s independence movement all achieved their victories through persuasion and ethical commitment. If Deirdre McCloskey is right, persuasion and ethics are the whole story behind our present enrichment, and therefore the only reason we can talk about having taxpayer-funded welfare at all in any meaningful sense.

But I concluded my series with this very theme. The considerations of a thoughtful libertarian, while not able to dispel the inevitability of politics, should nonetheless rein in the earnest capabilitarian from assuming the machinery of state is always the proper weapon against any given injustice or failure to flourish (this includes persuading the Amish of their alleged shortcomings). I suggested that this implies most of the work to build flourishing human beings must be done “within the murk and mire of the social context, where we talk with one another, and raise consciousness about failures of justice.” So, I guess I’m trying to end this response on a conciliatory note. I find very little theoretical structure that Adam and I disagree about; I am just more aggressively liberal in the values I would persuade the world to adopt.


Estimates vary, but nuclear and mitochondrial DNA evidence suggests that the allele split between canis lupus familiaris and canis lupus occurred 11 to 32 thousand years ago. Dogs were domesticated prior to the advent of farming, and they’ve been with us ever since. Humans have availed themselves of selective breeding and dogs’ natural propensity for obedience to create something entirely other than their wild forebears. Where once stalked a mess of snarling teeth and patient hunting tactics now stood a loyal, resolute friend ready to render aid and comfort fit to purpose bred.  Continue reading “Dominion”

On Drinking Single Malt Scotch

College is a wonderful place to learn the medicinal value of fermented beverages and distilled spirits. To avoid debt, I took on a few jobs at a time, weaving them as the warp to my class schedule’s woof. One of those jobs involved some physical labor which would have made OSHA disintegrate in the heat of its own outrage, but the abuse was overlooked because we were teen-aged students needing the dollars; moreover, we enjoyed the adventure. One aspect of that job had us navigating the underground tunnels looking for leaks in the steam system. Pressurized steam is invisible, but a steam leak is usually audible. The thrill of the terror of possibly not hearing the leak was invigorating.

I went to a small religious school in Chicago, which is, I might suggest, a beer drinking town. I suppose that doesn’t make it terribly unique, but beer it was for our aching muscles and joints–also for the realization of the possibility of actual bodily harm, which youth, in its wisdom, suppresses until after the battle. The good people at the Miller Brewing Company had just introduced a fine concoction which they named “Miller Genuine Draft.” Pitchers of this golden elixir were available at an affordable price at a Madison Avenue bar which was not particular about enforcing the draconian and prohibitory drinking age laws, so we expressed our love for MGD, as it was known, by purchasing gallons of it at a time. On my twenty-first birthday, we celebrated by buying a pitcher of the more expensive Miller Brewing Company product, Leinenkugel’s Red.

Performance anxiety requires something a little stronger. My boss was a nice, rather muscular lady who enjoyed wearing coveralls and screaming unprintable epithets at us young men to ensure we were earning our pennies. At any rate, she was of Polish descent, and we were living in one of the Polish strongholds of Chicago, so I was introduced to cheap vodka, which was readily available, and I learned, through it, how to scream those same epithets with efficient effectiveness to mitigate anxiety. Continue reading “On Drinking Single Malt Scotch”