Learning as Adventure

Michael Oakeshott referred to philosophical reflection as “an adventure.” He probably wasn’t thinking an adventure of the Henry Morton Stanley variety. Still, who hasn’t had a moment in their education when they were introduced to something new that seemed to open up a whole range of new, exciting possibilities? An adventure is as good a way as any to think about  the process of learning, when it is going well; a journey in which the goals and destination are continuously revised in light of what is discovered along the way.

Our guide today will not be Oakeshott, but Hans-Georg Gadamer. Our goal will be to encourage both optimism and humility in what you can accomplish in your self-education these days, in light of the vast amounts of texts and other media that are always just a few clicks away.

Continue reading “Learning as Adventure”

Socialism after Burczak

In the MacIntyre model of criticism within and between communities of rhetoric, outsiders usually fail to appreciate the critical work done by insiders to fix the problems within a community of thought. All the obvious problems have been identified and tackled with some sophistication long before you get there. So if you really want to say something new about a problem, you have to immerse yourself in the vast literature available, and come up with new approaches that can be understood in that community’s own terms. Socialism after Hayek, by Theodore Burczak, is a wonderful example of how to do this, and it’s illustrative of just how fertile this approach can be.

Burczak is a socialist. His goal is to formulate a version of socialism that can withstand valid scrutiny. He does this by combining elements from Marxian socialism, Austrian economics (especially Hayek), and the capabilities approach of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. All three of these perspectives, Burczak claims, can learn something from one another, and this mutual learning is the essence of the book. But before getting into that, I think it will be clearest if I jump to the final vision.

Burczak favors a market free from direct interference with one big exception: economic firms must be run by and for workers, rather than capitalists. Burczak supports a constitutional amendment proposed by Jaroslav Vanek that would formally ban the wage-for-labor exchange, and require that workers alone “appropriate the results of their labors, whether positive (products) or negative (costs or liabilities) and … manage democratically on the basis of equality of vote or weight the activities of their enterprise.” The workers may or may not also happen to own capital.

This economic structure is combined with a one-time “stakeholder” grant bestowed upon each citizen at the age of majority in an amount roughly equal to the price tag of a bachelor’s degree at a private college (estimated at $80K when the book was written in 2006). This would initially be funded by a new wealth tax, flat at ~2% for estates valued higher than the amount of the stakeholder grant. But it could be modified after the initial generation to be self-financing by a requiring the stakeholder grants be paid back, with interest. A further catch – and a deviation from the original proposal by Bruce Ackerman and Anne Alstott – is that the use of the stakeholder funds must be limited to “capabilities enhancing” expenses, like college, vocational training, perhaps the acquisition of property, etc.

What’s wrong with socialism

This structure of free markets plus labor control of firms plus wealth redistribution is Burczak’s response to the failings of traditional socialism. The chief of these is the knowledge problem identified by Hayek, namely, that socialist economic planning fails to incorporate the local, contingent, subjective, and often tacit nature of knowledge in the way that the price system of a free market can. Knowledge is local in that no two individuals have exactly the same information about the world, including economically relevant information. Knowledge is contingent upon ever-changing circumstances, including the subjective preferences of consumers. And knowledge is often tacit, in that we can’t necessarily articulate what is known in a way that makes sense to others. Think of all the things you do just “by feel” after years of practice (I used to align a lot of lasers in grad school and believe me, the manual gets you only so far). A freely operating price system can put some of this recalcitrant knowledge to social use by evolving in response to the decisions of economic actors. But see Steve Horwitz’s capable review of Burczak for a better discussion of Hayek’s knowledge problem.

This isn’t the only criticism Burczak levels at socialism. Private property, which is often derided as illegitimate by Marxists, is needed to facilitate free entry of new firms into the competitive marketplace. The socialist alternative of needing to petition the central planning board with your clever new idea would represent a significant bureaucratic hurdle, leading to higher prices and less innovation. The capabilities approach also provides a normative foundation for private property. Burczak quotes Sen approvingly, “We have good reasons to buy and sell, to exchange, and to seek lives that can flourish on the basis of transactions. To deny that freedom in general would be in itself a major failing of a society.” Or in Nussbaum’s language, private property is a necessary aspect of “strong separateness”, or “being able to live one’s own life in one’s very own surroundings and context.”

Burczak finds a more palatable conception of private property in David Ellerman’s theory of appropriation. Where many Marxists find the existence of private property to be exploitative as such, Ellerman contends that private property is legitimate for essentially Lockean reasons: ownership arises naturally from mixing one’s labor with material. For this same reason, Ellerman judges the capitalist appropriation of the value arising from the combination of labor and capital (and thus the labor-for-wage exchange) to be illegitimate. Workers do the labor mixing; capitalists don’t. Capitalist appropriation is exploitative because it necessarily alienates the worker from responsibility for the product of their labor. Ellerman offers the analogy that two bank robbers cannot contractually agree for only one of them to be held liable in the event of arrest (perhaps in exchange for a higher portion of the booty). Any court of law would dismiss such a contract and hold both parties fully accountable. Private property is thus permissible so long as the resultant value is appropriated by the workers, consistent with Burczak’s plan for worker-run firms.

What’s wrong with Hayek

Burczak argues the Hayekian worldview cannot stand on its own for a couple reasons. Hayek places too much faith in the common law as a reliably objective institution. Hayek attaches great significance to the fact that judges of common law are bound to precedent. Rule by precedent enables individuals to make reasonable predictions about how a given case will be decided and thus make their plans in the confidence that the rules will not be arbitrarily changed. In the case of gross injustices not resolved by the common law (which only evolves slowly with the general sentiments of the population) the democratic process can be invoked for reform.

Ironically, Burczak argues, there are essentially Hayekian reasons to suspect the common law will not be so objective as Hayek imagines. First, subjectivity enters the court in determining even the relevant facts of any given case. A judge will inevitably bring prior beliefs and biases to the case, influencing the interpretation of limited evidence presented by necessarily motivated parties. Second, the law itself, in both statute and precedent, is not a perfectly objective text but must be interpreted, introducing further subjectivity. These considerations undermine the rule of law as a stable platform for the market order, and thus weaken Hayek’s rule-utilitarian justification for the market order.

Hayek’s case for the free market rests on the notion that stable rules and the spontaneous market order will “improve the life chances of anyone chosen at random.” Acknowledging this will not be sufficient in all cases, he supported a safety net as a result. But seen in light of Hayek’s famous dismissal of “social justice” as a “mirage”, his support for a social safety net seems purely ad hoc. Burczak offers two theoretical bases for a social minimum. First, the poor are excluded from the wealth-generating possibilities of the market economy. For example, credit markets are systematically biased against the poor due to their lack of collateral, not to mention any more controversial possibilities of social prejudices against the poor. The poor are thus effectively barred from seizing most entrepreneurial opportunities they identify. A social floor could offset this bias.

Second, a safety net is intuitively justified by the capabilities approach. A safety net can ensure each individual achieves some minimum of welfare that accords with the dignity of a truly human life, meaning resources sufficient to stay fed, clothed, and sheltered, but also sufficient to be able to appear in public without shame (to borrow Adam Smith’s phrase) and to participate in the activities expected of a respected member of the community. I discussed these issues in my capabilities series here and here.

What’s wrong with Burczak

Hayekians and Marxists could both learn from capabilitarians, but Burczak argues the latter could learn from Marxism as well. Specifically, the capabilities approach offers no discussion of class exploitation by capitalist appropriation of the fruits of labor, per Ellerman’s theory of exploitation discussed above. Even if a person has all the other trappings of a flourishing existence, if they sell their labor they are necessarily alienated from both the responsibility and appropriate reward for their labor. The worker is treated as a mere means to the ends of the capitalist, and not accorded the dignity of a free and equal human being.

At least, this is the idea Burczak wants us to take seriously, but this is where he falters. While there may be some value in Marxian analysis, the idea of exploitation by capitalist appropriation of surplus value does no useful work in the marriage of Hayekian and capabilitarian liberalisms, and it actively distracts. I want to preface what follows by saying I am wholly unversed in Marxism, so I am eager to have any misconceptions corrected.

Selling a flotation device for an exorbitant price to a drowning person is exploitative. An immigrant working at below-market wages under threat of deportation is exploited. A victim of blackmail is exploited. These are all intuitive cases of exploitation, even if the exploited party may in fact be made better off by the exchange. The important qualities of an exploitative relationship seem to be callous or cruel advantage taken by the exploiter of the exploited, in the presence of gross imbalances of power and the absence of good alternatives for the exploited. Exploitative exchanges may be voluntary but they fail to be euvoluntary.

Certainly, it is possible for some instances of the wage-for-labor exchange to qualify as exploitation in this more general sense. But we violate the word to maintain that all wage-for-labor exchanges are exploitative. Suppose a prospective worker has independent resources such that the wage job isn’t sought out of need, and that the worker has reasonably good alternatives and is aware of them. Such a person is surely not exploited except in the peculiar sense of the Marxian definition. There is no obvious reason the wage-for-labor exchange cannot be one that respects the full human dignity of those involved, and indeed there seem to be abundant real world examples of just such exchanges. A socialist might retort that workers will not typically find themselves in such a fortunate position as long as capitalist appropriation of surplus labor is the norm, but this transforms the issue into an empirical question of which means are necessary to satisfy (traditional) capabilitarian ends.

As to the empirical question, the socialist must contend with some uncomfortable facts. Foremost is the Great Fact that, since the onset of the Industrial Revolution two centuries or so ago, even the poorest individuals in what is now the rich world have experienced a steady enhancement of their basic (and even not so basic) capabilities, all within economies where capitalist appropriation is the norm. Meanwhile, where anticapitalist policies have been implemented most consistently, poverty and social dysfunction have reigned. Burczak of course would argue that this is precisely why he incorporated Hayekian considerations into his theory. It is the market’s ability to solve knowledge problems, and not capitalist appropriation, that has given rise to the advances of the last two centuries.

The problem is that a ban on the very labor-capital arrangement that has been radically improving human capabilities for several generations would seem to risk that improvement by reducing rather than expanding options for workers, all for the sake of a highly contestable ideological viewpoint. It may be that labor appropriation and workplace democracy are superior employment arrangements. But such arrangements are already permitted. (I wouldn’t be surprised if there are legal rules in many places that do restrict such arrangements, and I fully support the elimination of such restrictions). Perhaps such arrangements would burgeon after implementation of the stakeholder grant plan or a universal basic income, as such policies would lessen economic need in prospective workers’ career planning. Individual level experimentation with novel labor and leisure arrangements has always been one of the selling points of such universal safety net programs. But Burczak and other socialists must persuade the rest of us that labor appropriation and worker-controlled workplaces are better, rather than forcing this singular ideal on everyone.

The Ellermanian idea that Lockean considerations of labor mixing demand worker appropriation of value is ingenious, but, again, contentious. It crashes headlong into powerful intuitions about ownership and consent. The capitalists own the productive property (acquired, for the sake of argument, legitimately). And since we’re considering whether labor appropriation is a necessary basic capability, we should assume all parties involved have the rest of their basic capabilities met. As such, the workers are fully able to consent in the normal sense, coerced neither by other actors nor by malign circumstances. They merely consent to an exchange Marxists find distasteful. Ellermanian appropriation also seems to ignore the value the capitalist brings to the labor-capital arrangement, especially in terms of risk, the generation of entrepreneurial ideas, and organization.

In short, there are good reasons one might believe capitalist appropriation is illegitimate. The viewpoint deserves a place in the marketplace of ideas, and worker-run firms deserve a place in the marketplace of stuff, if they can find willing participants. But the idea is far too contestable to count as a basic human capability. Individuals can live perfectly dignified lives while agreeing to work for capitalists in exchange for wages.

Socialists have long been agoraphobic, blind to the power of markets to propel humanity to prosperity unimaginable to our forebears, just as libertarians have all too often been blind to the many subtle though real ways people can be made unfree even in the absence of government interference. Burczak has blazed a path forward for socialism by immersing himself within the conversations of both Hayekian libertarianism and the capabilities approach, discovering the valuable ideas therein, and garbing those ideas in socialist raiment. Burczak’s contribution is a brilliant exercise in honest, productive engagement between hostile communities of thought.

Metternich Against the SJW

Klemens von Metternich had had quite enough.

“You there,” he said, pointing at me, “take notes.”

I had never met the man before, but my peasant ancestors would be ashamed if I was insubordinate to a noble. So I opened up Evernote and started a new note.

“We are faced today by an onslaught of frivolity which puts the most arrogant dandy of my day to shame in utter unlearnedness,” Metternich began.

“Should I write down this part?” I asked. He glared at me. “Should I write down this part…Prince Metternich, uh, sir?”

“Just get the spirit of the thing, the useful points,” he said with a dismissive wave of the hand, “we’re making a plan, not a speech, but I’m working up to it.”

“Yes, Prince Metternich.” I typed “frivolity”.

“The spirit of the age,” he said, attempting to return smoothly to his little meandering speech, “is frivolity. Thirty years ago or so, there was a system in place. A system of public discourse. It was not a great system. It was not a good system. But it was a system, and for the most part it did what it was supposed to.”

“But by that time, the decade of the 1980s, the cracks in the system had already begun to multiply and the fate of the thing was, in many ways, unavoidable. Alternative media became too economical, and too widespread, for their betters to effectively police.”

“Still, we might have soldiered on with something like the old way for another generation or two. But no one saw the Internet coming. We were scared enough of the desktop publishing trend, and still we were blindsided by this vast apparatus of mass discursivity.”

“Now the old way is effectively dead. The gates are not just open, they are broken. The gatekeepers sit atop the rubble of their great castles, but the siege has already happened, and they have already lost. The public conversation has escaped anyone’s control, and the resulting anarchy was entirely predictable to anyone who bothered to pay attention.”

“The old system cannot be salvaged. Even I have to admit this. This makes Napoleon and the virus of revolution that spread during my day seem tame and containable. We need a new system, though of course we must take what wisdom we can from what has come before. Nevertheless, we face fresh challenges which demand fresh responses.”

“This is the important part,” he said to me, and I started a bulleted list.

“The nation lacks a political will to solve this problem by political means, at least for now. So we must take it upon ourselves as the best of the citizenry to seize control of the situation ourselves.”

“The first great lever available to those operating outside of government is money. Currently, the biggest fomenters of disorder, those who do it professionally, are highly dependent upon automated ad networks for a substantial part of their income.”

“There is an increasing push for categorizing content by appropriateness, with several firms offering their services to do so. If this categorization could be centralized—and I suspect it ultimately will be—it could be a very useful tool for maintaining order. Those sites that are most militant in their tactics…those who produce clickbait intended to cultivate the very worst of our uncultivated selves….will be downgraded as inappropriate content, effectively barring them from the biggest spenders in advertising. There’s still direct buying, of course. But it will still be a means of applying substantial financial pressure. And the number of direct buyers are so small in number, in terms of holding agencies, that there may be a solution there as well, if we can seize control of the big industry standards groups from within.”

“The problem is the sheer openness of the web. We can cut off the professionals at the knees, but these…these…social justice warriors…largely emerge from the panoptic cults adored by the masses. Even if every great Internet company colluded with us, anyone can set up a website from anywhere, and say anything they please, no matter how reckless or irresponsible. Moreover, I suspect that the crowdfunding sites will be harder to get to see our way. If we successfully formed a political cartel with them to block the worst of these people, the SJW could very well launch their own. It might make funding harder, but these people are cockroaches; they don’t need much to survive on, and it only takes the survival of a handful to result in a full scale infestation.”

“What we need is a group dedicated to discrediting these people as soon as they crop up, if possible even sooner than that. They are invariably the young, the frivolous who think that they know everything as soon as they learn the smallest thing in a highly incomplete manner. They take to the Internet at the first opportunity to spout off their point of view. It should be predictable who is likely to be a threat long before anything they do goes viral; if we could actively discredit such people ahead of time we might just stand a chance at establishing a new order in this era of perpetual disorder, and a new set of legitimate masters in an era of illegitimacy.”

“I think that companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Reddit will be of service, to some extent.”

“Are you sure about that?” I piped in, “Uh, are you sure about that Prince Metternich? They seem highly sympathetic to the very people you’re trying to persecute.”

“Persecute!” He spat, but then decided to move on, “In my day I would rather send the petty merchants who run such businesses to the gallows than collaborate with them, but a general must go to war with the soldiers he has. These companies may superficially appear to share a common politics with our enemies, but in the end they do not want disorder or disruption. Order is much better for business. When their platforms are used as vehicles for attacking private individuals, exposing their personal information publicly, and vilifying them, it makes life more difficult for them than when such platforms are just used for gazing mindlessly at cat photos. Moreover, increasingly it is their own employees and their own management who are under attack. They will help us out of self-defense, if nothing else.”

“But if I may, Prince Metternich, they are just software companies, not political entities,” I replied.

“Oh my dear boy,” Metternich said with a humorless laugh, “where have you been? Never mind the escalating lobbying presence in Washington these companies are underwriting, they have embraced their political nature ever since the SOPA fight at the latest. Having always seen their users as leads from which to milk ad dollars, they now also see them as leads for taking specific political action, such as writing a congressman. Why, just recently a car service had a bill attempting to regulate it killed simply by inserting a message about it into their app. Wake up, child, these companies have been political entities for a very long time.”

“Well, that’s depressing.”

“Indeed. But it may be our only hope, in the end.”

“This all seems very…how shall I put it…evil,” I remarked.

“Only because you are stuck in the intellectual childishness of your era, in which it is assumed that freedom means the ability to do anything one wishes whenever one wishes to. My generation knew better. Before you can have freedom, you must have order. A disorderly freedom destroys itself, and worse, it threatens civilization itself. Freedom must be contained, kept within certain boundaries. It must play nice with authority or it must be made to.”

“It still seems pretty evil. Also quite unlikely.”

“I don’t recall asking for your opinion,” he sniffed, “if you’ll please email me your notes, your betters will take it from here.”

And so I did, and he went on his way to establish nouveau regime médiatiques.

The Sacrificial Rites of the Panopticon

At the lowest point of my ruin, I sought the council of the wisdom of the ages.

There were many ages, and so many wisdoms, and many voices which pronounced them.

When I arrived at their agora at the appointed time, they invited me to tell my tale.

“Like many of my generation,” I began, “I saw plainly that injustice was everywhere. We were sold a bag of lies as children, the Lie that the old prejudices had been put to bed. Oh there had been progress, to be sure. But mostly we had just driven the prejudices underground. No, not even underground—just out from view. The same prejudiced white patriarchs ran everything, they just called themselves feminists and colorblind now.

“Like my peers, I saw that the task of all right thinking people was to publicly unmask these frauds for what they are.

“Our community, our conspiracy of progress, rewarded the successful unmaskers with glory and—and this is where the trouble began—visibility.

“It was one thing when it was people I had no association with. My group talked frequently about those luminaries who had made their names by dragging bigots out of the shadows and into the light of the panopticon, that great leveler.

“But one day a girl, who I had known for about as long as I had taken an interest in politics and political groups online, had a photo of hers go viral. It was a picture of a man at a local Starbucks who had talked down to her the way all patriarchs do—invoking all of the little soft coercions that women have to put up with on a daily basis. She captioned the photo in a way that obscured, but did not completely hide, the man’s face. The caption explained how he had treated her as less than his equal; it was very succinct and got the message across.

“The photo spread widely, and the man’s identity was uncovered by overzealous people who wanted desperately to contribute to the cause. He lost his job, and had to get an unlisted number so that the phone calls from people sick of putting up with men like him would not reach him. He was sacrificed at the altar of the panopticon, and it launched my friend’s career in activist media.

“She had less and less time for our relatively obscure little corner of the web, and I came to envy her. I wanted to catch up with her, to go to the place she had managed to arrive at.

“I am ashamed to admit it, but in retrospect it is obvious to me that the desire for attention and popularity among right thinking people was more important to me than advancing the cause.

“It is obvious because of what I did. I took several pictures of someone who simply looked like you would imagine a bigot would. In his 50s, a bit overweight but not extremely so, a smug look on his face. I captioned the pictures with quotes attributed to him, but I made them up. He never said them.

“You have to understand, men wouldn’t treat me the way they did women. I didn’t have the same opportunities to unmask that they did. I had to make my own unmasking. How else could I contribute? How else could I advance the cause?

“Of course with the help of my friend, it got a lot of attention. And of course, it ruined this man’s life. But it got me my start, it turned me into a person of some influence. I brought this man to the panopticon, and it did not reject my offering. Doesn’t that make it OK? So many saw my pictures and had their commitment to the cause validated. Doesn’t that excuse what I did? And what of the real bigots that I used my influence against from then on—doesn’t that count for something?”

One of the youngest voices spoke up. “If you came here to find excuses, you came to the wrong place. By the mere asking of the question, it’s already obvious what the answer is.”

I was crestfallen.

An older voice chimed in, “What is worse is that it’s clear you didn’t come here to make excuses. You didn’t come here because you saw the error of your ways or began to doubt the justice of your injustice. You came here because of your own misfortune.”

They were both right.

“At the peak of my popularity, I had it down to a system. Less visible people would bring me the materials and the information, and I would use my position to expose the bigots they encountered in their lives. Surely this matters—whatever my beginnings, I helped people unmask real bigots in the end. And I helped many of them to achieve their own rise to prominence!”

“Please cease wasting our time with such feeble self-justifications,” the young voice replied with contempt. I lowered my head and continued.

“From the beginning, our enemies worked to tarnish my name and bury me. They attempted to preserve the good name of the original man I had sacrificed, and use it as proof of the cynicism in our movement. As if theirs was not the most cynical of all! Pretending that prejudice had truly been abolished, pretending that we, the unmaskers, were the prejudiced ones!

“But the movement doesn’t put stock in those people. No right thinking person would.

“My undoing was one of my own. I made a remark—an innocent one, if understood in its proper context. But an upstart within our own movement took it out of context and made it the basis of a long, vitriolic post about me. The post went viral, and was also aggressively spread by our enemies, who were too eager to see me fall. I tried to point out this fact, tried to argue that it was them who was behind it. But it wasn’t. I know it. Everyone knew it—the blogger had been active in our circles for far too long, if not very visible. The archive, their public social media history, were all there for people to see; the hoax would be far too elaborate even for those people.

“Soon, my very name became synonymous with prejudice and hypocrisy.

“Once it was clear that the damage was done, I began to withdraw from the panopticon. I deleted my social media accounts. My blog remains but an abandoned archive, with one last letter to the movement at the top, apologizing for my perceived wrongs.

“I fell into complete isolation, and in time, I found my way here.”

“And why did you come to us? What is it you want to ask us?” a much older voice asked, though his tone implied he knew the answer.

“I want to know what I should do next, but…”


“…but I also want to know if what I did had any meaning. Was I right to serve the cause by any means necessary? Was it just frivolous fame-seeking? If my heart was often in the right place, and I did a lot of good, does that mean anything?”

They were silent for a long time.

And then the oldest among them spoke.

“Those who live by the river know that it can become a rapids as quickly as it can become a gentle stream,” the wise elder intoned, “yet in time we forget, and imagine we progress only by our own paddling. In the end it is the river that carries us, one way or another.”

“You worry too much about the river,” said a younger, but still quite ancient voice, “when you should worry more about the life you have made, the state of your soul. When you imagine you can divert the river any way you please, you lose sight of yourself and you are just as likely to be swept away when the current becomes unfavorable.”

“Must you always come out and say it?” the eldest snapped.

“I don’t understand. Do you mean that I shouldn’t have lied? That the whole enterprise is invalid? And what should I do next?”

“We’ve said all we will say,” another voice said firmly but not unkindly, “we won’t hold your hand. If you have to have it spelled out for you, you couldn’t hope to understand it.”

And so I left, to ponder the fate of a vessel that was smashed upon the rocks.


What is acceptance?

(Here I can hear Heidegger chiming in something like “the word speaks to us in Latin.”)

It is best to start our investigation from its opposite, rejection.

Rejection is to deny either the existence or the legitimacy of what is rejected. The idealist rejects the argument of the economist that the optimal number of murders, rapes, thefts, and traffic accidents is greater than zero. He denies the existence of fundamentally ineradicable problems.

The economist rejects complete solutions as criteria for judging a given problem. She denies the existence of actions and choices without trade-offs, where improvement in one area does not mean taking away resources that could have been put to other uses.

The victim of a crime who sees how the sausage of justice is made, and often fails to be made, may reject the entire justice system. That is, they may deny its legitimacy, perhaps thinking simple vengeance is closer to true justice.

Acceptance is not complete acquiescence to the demands of others or to the status quo. Even the radical submission of the Amish does not mean that—they make many demands as a community, even of the larger world and its politics from which they strive to remain separate.

Let us say that we are human beings who strive for order, but also for justice, for generosity, but also for prudence. Acceptance means recognizing that there are fundamental gaps in what we can accomplish in this striving, and that those gaps are often enormous—but having a heart that is at peace, nevertheless.

The politics and the ideology of rejection are always the enterprise of a heart at war with the world. He whose heart is at war sees the cracks in our fallible human arrangements, and the ugliness that spills out of them, and thinks that ugliness must be all there is, underneath it all.

He makes demands of the world, and rejects the world even when these demands are met. For no demand that can be met can ever purify the world of all ugliness and fill in every gap and crack—or even most of them.

She whose heart is at peace extends an unconditional love and understanding to a world full of hurt and hurting. She makes demands, but her love is never predicated on having those demands met. She understands that the pursuit of justice almost always itself entails acts of injustice, but still believes that justice is what we should strive for. She understands that the compromises and trade-offs that go into maintaining order are often stained in ugliness themselves, and yet she still desires that order be maintained, even if she hopes for an order with as little ugliness as we can manage.

Acceptance is encountering the ugliness of the world without letting it stick to you. Rejection is encountering that ugliness and letting it define you.

The Violence Inherent in the System

A friend of mine in Nicaragua posted a picture on his Facebook timeline which took my breath away. Ordinarily, my timeline is filled with pictures of farm animals, babies doing cute things, insufferably saccharine-sweet religious memes, and a handful of ham-handed political advocacy of the local variety and the national. You know, harmless stuff.

News from Nicaragua is always cool because I like to see how my friends are doing, not diminishing the slightly exotic sensation that comes from participating in the lives of people in Central America, which is a long way from Alabama, and even further from Buffalo. The picture he posted reminded me of a brief, terrifying moment I experienced within the first hour of the first day of the first time I visited down there. My host was driving us from Managua to Matagalpa (pop. over 500,000), the Pearl of the North, surrounded by coffee plantations and utter poverty, and he pointed to the road ahead: a caravan of automobiles was speeding toward us.

“Look,” he said. “It’s the presidential motorcade!”

“Wow, that’s awesome!” I said, and I reached down to the floorboard of our SUV to grab my camera.

“No, no!” he shouted. “Sit up! Sit up! They’ll shoot us! They think you’re reaching for a gun!”

Dear God, and didn’t I sit up. Stupid, stupid, stupid, I was repeating to myself. Stupid gringo. It’s one of those experiences that makes sense immediately, but can’t make sense until the bullet has exited the chamber, or, luckily, in my case, when your host screams at you in order to save his own life: El Presidente is always the next guy to get assassinated, and the assassination is usually financed by foreign money, usually white foreign money. A solitary white guy being driven in an SUV by a Nicaraguan is, apparently, a candidate to be connected to a bank account stuffed with cash and a magazine full of ammunition locked and loaded. Had the presumption followed course, resulting in mine and my host’s violent deaths, a few people would have protested, and my wife and kids would have been unhappy, but, otherwise, it would have been chalked up as a tragedy due to the hazards of international travel. “He shouldn’t have reached for his camera. Was he loco?”

By my reckoning, no presidents in Nicaragua have been assassinated in the last few decades, but, while my host was pointing out volcanoes and animals he knew would delight me, he also made the effort to point out Spanish fortresses which were now owned by the Sandinistas. “There are torture chambers in there,” he said. Some measure of violence yet attends to power shifts, enough that the general population is familiar with the occasional discovery of an executed person. That is not to say that they are comfortable with brutality, but that they are familiar with it, even being afraid.

But who am I? I’m no expert on Nicaraguan affairs. I’m only an infrequent visitor, listening to stories. Perhaps my host was entertaining me through my own fears, laughing to his wife when he got home, “I got another one to believe he was nearly killed!”

Nevertheless, I was disturbed to find a picture of one of the recently murdered North American soldiers in my Facebook timeline, posted by one of my Nicaraguan friends. The dead man was curled in a fetal position, flanked by colleagues and investigators. Blood had poured onto the concrete out of two holes in his head. Whoever had originally published the picture had the courtesy to obscure the deceased’s face.

I had to delete the post from my timeline.

Amidst puppy dogs, toddlers, and birthday cakes was the terror of violent death.

Attila the Hun teaches us, I think. At one moment, there was Europe, and then, moments later, Attila blew his battle horn and there were Huns in Europe, and it was ablaze. In hindsight, we now know that there was always such a thing as “the Huns,” but before Attila, they were a subgroup of a subgroup of people, “Eurasian nomads,” invisible, unified loosely around their love for the same football team, apparently. Nobody even knows where Attila came from, but wherever there was, he was now in Europe, burning it down. At Mantua, a religious man convinced him to cease and desist.

It is quickly pointed out by the pointy-headed set that it was logical for Attila to cease and desist because of the various realities on the ground, i.e., a famine which had reduced the food supply so that it would not support a war footing, but it took Pope Leo I to point that out to Attila, and now there are no more Huns. Rome fell shortly thereafter.

Gibbon, Jr. will instruct generations who follow that they should not be surprised that we fell, but that we subsisted for so long. The victorious politician, who, in distant wars, acquired the vices of strangers and mercenaries, first oppressed the freedom of the republic, and afterwards violated the majesty of the Magna Carta Libertatum. The bureaucrats, anxious for their personal safety and the public peace, were reduced to the base expedient of corrupting the discipline which rendered them alike formidable to their sovereign and to the enemy; the vigour of the military government was relaxed, and finally dissolved, by the partial institutions of Constantine; and the Roman world was overwhelmed by a deluge of Barbarians.

The Peril of Projecting Yourself Back

It is the role of political labels to blind and to bind. By calling yourself a conservative, libertarian or label of your choice you commit yourself to certain ideals, to certain prejudices and predilections. It provides you not only with a sort of family, a sort of identity, but also allows you to place yourself in the grand history of western ideals, to give you a place in intellectual history.

So it is natural to look back at the history, to see something of yourself reflected there, and to pick sides, and then, defining ourselves as the sort of person who would become a Montagnard, or Girondist, an Optimate or Populare, we start to identify with them, to defend them, to rationalise on their behalf. And if the temptation can be transmitted over millenia, how much greater is the temptation to map the struggles of the Jacksonian Democrats and the National Republicans, or Disraeli and Gladstone , onto our own. To subsume the tensions and temporary alliances of our current coalitions into merely the latest instantiation of an ancient and eternal struggle. There is a not inconsiderable weight of genetic evidence supporting this thesis. We probably have about the same Haidtian values as our forefathers. And yet.

I generally avoid labelling myself, not out of a disdain for labels, but as a temporary disavowal of self knowledge. There is no true self, there is no authentic soul, I am only what I do, and I am better at rationalizing than recognizing the patterns of my own behaviour. When I call myself anything I call myself a Tory squish, because while I have only ever voted for a single CPC candidate, it is the party who most often speaks in a language that resonates with me; the virtues of strong family ties, of bourgeois respectability, the Crown, Decentralisation of Social Policy, and Economic Integration, even where the policy is actively counter productive to those ends. And so, reading my History, it is inevitable that I side with the Old Man over Laurier. Yes the National policy was a disaster, but, if I’m honest, I’m a free trader more because my clique is than by intuitive conviction. No doubt if my clique went the other way I would happily join them.

But, once that illusion of eternal conviction is shattered I have to ask. Would my clique really still be my clique in the 1890s? A white, male, suburban, married, catholic, middle class westerner from a conservative leaning profession, my Tory affiliation in 2015 is more cliche than conviction. But all the same demographics that make me a Tory in 2015 would almost certainly make me a Laurier Liberal in 1896. How long could a Catholic sympathise with an inveterate Orangist like Charles Tupper. Would a westerner really vote for his own National Policy exploiters? My Father’s Father was a ethnic Swabian born in Prague, his parents refugees from the Russian civil war and the bolsheviks. How much sympathy would such a person have for my Monarchism really? A non-rural professional is basically the beating demographic heart of 1890s Liberalism, would I really be the exception? My Pluralism and Decentralising impulses are probably a better fit for the Laurier Liberals anyway, and once the switch in your head has been flipped, tribal identity will do the rest.

If I could get in a time machine, with all the same values, morals and upbringing, and go not even very far back, to a society I would still basically recognize, with most of the same institutions and culture, and totally reverse my ideology, in what sense is my ideology even a meaningful expression of eternal values? And if the same values would require a completely different label, why should I find any meaning in the battles of Disraeli, or Tupper, just because we both use the same label?

Vox Populi, Vox Twitter

Back in the good old days, you know, the early 1990s, the commentariat would have to poll the people for their opinions. Polling, to the uninitiated, is a costly and arduous business.

Oh, how the winds, they are a changin.

Twitter, that rapscallion of a social network to Wall Street, has helped to alleviate that problem for both politicos and the media. No longer do you need a background in stats or need a representative sample to find out what the people think about one of the new proposals for the Greek debt crisis.  It is a coup! The hashtag told us so. Continue reading “Vox Populi, Vox Twitter”

Previous to His Career as a Prophet

Not even the nattiest turtleneck can spare old men the well-deserved accusation of lechery when waxing on the sublime beauty of the female form in the blossom of youth. Those of us courageous enough to accept the charge may also be lucky enough to have the prudence to restrict our lust to a quick sideways glance rather than the grimacing leer nature impels. “It’s rude to stare” is doubly true when the intent is baldly, nakedly, aggressively lustful.

As a younger man, I would audibly scoff at creepy old men ogling girls young enough to be their granddaughters. Yet the older I get, the more my scorn softens. My scorn softens for the simple reason that I find myself joining their ranks. I tell myself when I catch my eyes lingering a little too long on the curves of a girl not much past her second decade that I’ve done little more than develop a more refined taste for the natural beauty of woman in her prime. I’m even vain enough to pretend to rational-sounding biological or neurological justifications. But these are soothing little falsehoods, and now that the lies have been stripped mercilessly from the grim chambers of our hearts here beyond the end of the world, I find that I must confront the unkind truth that I’m no more immune to the inexorable decay into a dirty old man than I am to the thinning of my hair or the aching of my bones.

There is no pleasure in this admission, no succor. “At least I’m being honest with myself” is cold comfort weighed against the discourtesy inflicted upon others. Worse yet perhaps is that try as I might, I cannot summon so much as a tinge of guilt over my intemperance. I gaze with a clear conscience. Rationally, I know that I should be ashamed. I accept claims that unwanted stares can yield discomfort, that a lingering gaze can be aggressively unwelcome. But reason is the slave of the passions, and the older I get, the more commanding my passions become. Continue reading “Previous to His Career as a Prophet”

The Politics of Truth


Give Me That Old Time Democratic Religion

I am an American. I was born here, I grew up here. I was raised to put my faith in the American democratic religion.

From a very young age, I was taught stories about the founders, and the proper moral framework in which the Revolutionary War ought to be understood. The history that I learned in school was steeped in democratic values; it was all too easy to see American history in particular as a straight line of progress of increasing enfranchisement, abolition, women’s suffrage, and civil rights. Martin Luther King, Jr. was elevated into the same pantheon as Jefferson and Lincoln.

A citizen’s ability to participate in our national politics was depicted as both a great privilege part and parcel of being an American, and also our great responsibility.

A full exploration of this religion and its theology are well beyond either the scope of this post, or my particular expertise. But it seems to me that it is this religion, more than anything de jure, that makes America a proper group, with a true conjective existence.

Sustaining a Group

Groups are political. They require the commitment of their members to the shared set of ideas of what it means to be a member of the group.

The ideas need not be very rigid. Depending on the group, there might be a great deal of flexibility in how drastically the ideas can be revised before the group dissipates or experiences traumatic or fatal schisms. The ideas are always contestable—that is precisely what it means to say that groups are political.

The ideas get questioned, criticized, and revised continuously over the lifetime of a group. But there are certain ideas that are so central to the group’s existence that it cannot survive without them. Perhaps the Catholic church could survive if all of its members ceased to believe in God or the divinity (or historical existence) of Christ, but it seems very unlikely. Almost as unlikely is that the Catholic church would survive if all of its members ceased to recognize the authority or legitimacy of the Pope.

As Heraclitus would no doubt remind us, you’re never a member of the same group twice. What it means to be an American today is drastically different from what it meant to be an American a hundred, or two hundred years ago. Yet an important part of what sustains us as a group today is the idea that there is a continuity there. Why else would we treat the words of the Constitution as though it were a sacred text, the interpretation of which has enormous implications for our way of life?

You Can’t Handle the Politics

Those of us whose prejudices were formed largely by Enlightenment thinkers believe in the sanctity of the truth. We want the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth, to be revealed in public the moment it can be discovered.

The problem begins with the very naive idea of the truth that we inherited from this tradition. Karl Popper rightly criticized the notion, cherished from roughly the time of Bacon on, that truth is manifest. Truth is not something that is simply revealed, like a chair we can plainly see when we move all obstructions from view.

Truth is political.

This does not mean that truth is relative, or that there is no truth. That is not what is being asserted here.

What I am saying is that we only know together, never alone. Knowledge emerges as part of a conversation among specialists, with each specialists’ specific interpretation made intelligible only in the context of the general consensuses of the whole community. The beliefs of the naive early empiricists aside, one does not go out and simply gather data and make observations. Alone, we are ignorant. Together, we can arrive at understanding.

But because knowledge has this character, how you feel about what someone is asserting as truth will depend more on trust than on recognition. The perceived ethos, or character, of the one making the assertion, matters a great deal here. So does the character of the community that person is relying on in order to arrive at an understanding.

There’s a problem inherent to this fact of our nature. What if merely asking a particular question automatically made you less credible? And what if any group that systematically investigated that question, and other related ones, became similarly less credible as a result?

This is no abstract point. Asking “what should be done about the Jewish problem?” tells us a lot about who you are and the group you belong to. Anyone with an ounce of decency would not pay any attention to the claims made by the kind of person who would seriously ask and investigate that question, or the groups that would focus on it. The only attention that such people would draw would be defensive—it would be the attention we give to something we consider to be a threat.

Ethics and epistemology are not cleanly separable. Knowledge is, in fact, constituted by ethics and rhetoric.

Dangerous Ideas

Imagine, for a moment, that part of what makes the American system work, such as it does, is a belief that we as individuals make a difference when we vote. Here’s a simple model for why it might be so: if the vast majority of Americans did not believe this, they would stop voting, which would make it easier for small extremist groups to exercise an outsized influence on policy.

Now a modern libertarian, good child of the Enlightenment that they are, wants to assert the clear mathematical truth that no individual vote makes a difference. Especially at the national level. I have seen this happen many times, as a GMU econ alumni. I have done this many times myself.

The problem is that it’s never really clear to me what people hope to accomplish by doing this, other than being correct. Certainly the strong emotional backlash shows that there’s a cherished idea there. But other than casting ourselves in the role of unmasker of a manifest truth, what do we do when we insist upon this point?

A single vote does not sway an election, and therefore it follows…what? Other than undermining a cherished idea, which is indeed incorrect, what exactly is the larger value of the specific point?

This follows a larger pattern, in which libertarians, who are terrible at politics, are happy to simply undermine legitimacy without actually working to build something better. They aren’t alone in that; it is the great disease of our times, an impolitic politics, the group identity founded primarily on negation.

Consider Bryan Caplan’s highly regarded book, The Myth of the Rational Voter. Aside from holding voters to a standard of rationality I think excessively narrow, and having a very Enlightenment model of the truth, it is also a highly impolitic book. Caplan wants to argue that because voters are irrational, we should do less through democratic government, and more through markets. But the book does not make a strong case for markets; that he rests entirely on the idea that we should show deference to economists as experts. Instead, the book makes a strong case for elitism in general. From the moment I read the book, I was certain it would never provide effective political arsenal for liberty. It seems much more likely to serve those elitists seeking to install one of the many historical alternatives to democracy, none of them friendly to markets.

We want to believe that everything should be discussed out in the open so that we can sort out the facts. We want to avoid “chilling effects” even on the most heinous of ideas. But again, I think this is to take a naive view of the matter.

Groups will react defensively against ideas perceived as threats to the ideas currently sustaining the group’s existence. And with good reason. If we undermine the American democratic religion, I highly doubt that a libertarian (or socialist or social democrat or conservative) utopia will be the result. In my eyes, there are big pieces of our current political order, such as the fact that our military never threatens to break free of civilian leadership, that rely heavily on a broad acceptance of the democratic religion.

This does not mean that we should treat the ideas that sustain America as a group, or any other group, as beyond question. Far from it. It does mean that we should be prudent in how we go about it. We should consider what role those ideas play today, and how they might be either revised, or completely replaced, in a way that contributes to the common good rather than merely undermines the status quo.

Man is a political animal, and it’s time we started taking that seriously again.

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