Farewell Gord Downie

Featured image is Grief by Josef Israels

I was never really a Tragically Hip fan, and this isn’t really about the Hip. I’m a little too young and a little too western to be fully within the demo, though cancon rules means that no Canadian could every fully escape them. You can get a taste of it here or here or here if you’re not familiar with them, but it’s a bit too late for that. Though the coverage has been ubiquitous north of the border I don’t know how much the rest of the world knows or cares, so I might as well tell you that the lead singer, Gord Downie has been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and just finished giving his (nationally televised) last concert.

On Twitter, in between the reminisces and appreciations and early eulogies was a link to Johnny Cash’s 2002 cover of Nine Inch Nail’s Hurt. It’s soulful and haunting, perhaps the best cover of my lifetime, and I mourned Johnny Cash. Part of culture is engaging with the dead, their thoughts and ideas, their arguments and art. I grew up on Shakespeare, the Everly Brothers, Beethoven, Wagner, and Monet and the rest of the dead white guys. But they died well before I was born. I don’t mourn them anymore than I mourn the great-grandparents I never met, who fled civil war, poverty and persecution to Canada and put me here. But I mourn Johnny Cash, and I mourn Terry Pratchett, and I will mourn Gord Downie whenever I hear their songs or read their books.

This is perhaps just what getting old feels like. When I was a boy I talked to the living and to the dead. Now I talk with the living, and with the dead and with those who have died. Their memories will always be tinged with sadness even in triumph, and their share of my memories is only growing. Farewell Gord Downie. We’ll miss you.

Accountability, For Good or Ill

Featured image is the Execution of Admiral Byng – anonymous

It is the nature of elites that they cannot be eliminated, but only replaced and contained. Elites compete with each other for power and influence in their sphere, and whomever has the most influence is the most elite. Those who opt not to struggle quickly find themselves on the outside looking in, as other hungrier competitors overtake them. Politics is the art of determining the rules that the competition will follow.

To the left, the triumph of the common man over distant elites, to the right distant elites trampling the common man.  In the centre – everything good and right and just. h/t Paul Fairie @paulisci

This is something we mostly grasp intuitively in the world of commerce. Businesses compete amoungst themselves for profits and market share, identifying or creating needs and filling them. When the customers care mostly about price we get business elites competing to cut costs and wring out efficiencies. When customers care mostly about quality and reliability we get competitions around warranties and MTBF. When customers care about novelty or function we get competitions around product development and research. Mostly we get competitions involving trade-offs between all three and more besides. The world is full of stories of firms who let themselves get flabby and were overtaken by lower cost competitors, or became sloppy and lost business to more careful enemies, or made bad bets about what customers really wanted and found themselves cut down by more responsive firms.

When the system works well we get benefits for everyone, as some of the smartest hardest working people in the world turn all their brainpower and organisational know-how into shaving 3% off the cost of widget by reorganising the work floor, or the best algorithm builders in the world compete with each other to fine tune music recommendations for the masses. But not all the competitions are socially beneficial, and so we have developed rules which ensure that the competitions are contained within socially beneficial channels. You can’t shave costs by dumping your untreated waste into rivers or water basins, or by not paying your workers, or refusing to make reasonable changes to improve their safety.

An executive at an pipeline firm wants to be environmentally responsible and build his pipelines in a manner that keeps product from leaching into groundwater, but the cost of upgrading is higher than the cost of lost product and the resulting price increase in transport fees will drive business to his less scrupulous neighbour who runs an even leakier operation, and so the executive does nothing. His leakier neighbour also wants to run a leaner operation, but he has activist shareholders who won’t let him make such a large capital expenditure with no prospect of return. A tax on leaked petroleum or a rules about maximum leakage means that though they will still compete on price, that competition won’t be in the form of indifference to the environment, which neither of them really want to compete on anyway.

The danger is that there’s lots of things the executives don’t really want to compete on, many of which are actually socially beneficial. The market forces them to compete on cost, but they would much rather keep prices relatively high. The market forces them to compete on quality, but they would much rather force their customers to buy a replacement regularly. Absent some accountability, rules quickly come to serve the elites instead of the customers.

Now this is a very familiar story to a largely libertarian audience, but of course governance is largely the same. One function of democracy is to tie the game of power to the interests, goals and expectations of the body politic. An electorate that cares mostly about inequality, and which votes accordingly, will produce a politic class obsessed with inequality. An electorate that cares about the state of the economy, or crime, or protecting the culture against outside influence will result in a political class obsessed with being seen to do the same, or again a mix of all those and more.

Ultimately however, many of these competitions will not be socially beneficial. Two politicians, both fully aware of the costs of tariffs will none-the-less be forced to campaign for high tariffs by an electorate that falsely believes helping incumbent firms is the same as helping the economy. Despite knowing the electorate is giving in to dark impulses they would do better to avoid, they none-the-less are forced by the logic of zero sum competition to try to out do each other in denouncing an unpopular ethnic minority, or people with disfavoured religious beliefs. Perhaps fully aware that the public does not possess the expertise to assess the technical aspects of monetary policy, they are none-the-less forced to campaign for crank gold bug schemes, or below (or above) socially optimum interest rates. The solution, from the perspective of the elites, is, by norm or law to effectively prohibit certain kinds of competition that they would rather not be doing in any case.

Instead of setting tariffs in congress or parliament on a country by country basis they sign treaties that bind themselves to the level they wanted anyway. Instead of seeking to crush faiths that their constituents find unsettling, they invent a right to worship, enforced by a third a party, which effectively allows them to ignore faith in practice. Instead of setting monetary policy amoung themselves they give a mandate to an independent third party, which again allows them to compete along axes they find more amenable. Once again of course, it is often the case that elites will bind themselves in ways that serve themselves and not any greater social purpose. The practical effect is that elites can launder their preferences, good and bad, through a judicial and legislative system which insulates them from accountability for the decisions made.

This is the key, to the extent possible to ensure that competition happens on issues where elites should be competing, with enough democracy (and intra-elite accountability mechanisms) to hold elites accountable for the outcomes of their decisions. The problem is that, above a low baseline, calls for more democracy almost always have the opposite effect. A politician who runs and is elected on a platform cannot be held accountable for implementing the contents of the platform, no matter how poorly thought out – it is after all the will of the voters, whether the voters voted the way they did because of or in spite of or indifference to that particular plank. Trump, being elected directly by the primary voters, cannot be held accountable by official party organs for his performance. Jeremy Corbyn, being directly elected by the party members, and so owing nothing to his caucus, cannot be held accountable by them for his failures of leadership. Rather than risk the direct fallout of a decision to leave the EU, or the continued damage of a refusal to do so, David Cameron calls a referendum so that he cannot be held directly responsible for the decision to stay or leave. It is this shirking of responsibility for the governance of the nation that leads to an elite culture devoid of consequence for failure, and complete disconnect between the governors and the governed.

Jean-Claude Juncker
I assure you the people responsible are over there, I had nothing at all to do with the disintegration of my political union

What’s More Immediate Than Falling Off A Bike?

Featured image is Children on Bicycle by Ernest Zacharevic

You have, in your head, a model of a bicycle. Two wheels, a frame, handle bars, pedals. If you’re like me your model includes some extras that aren’t strictly necessary to a bike, like gears, a chain, a gear shift and brakes, but we can leave that aside. You might even have a particular bike in mind, with a particular colour, a particular number of wheel spokes, with a particular rider, in a particular place going to a particular location.

If you have some basic dynamics training you can even make a bit of an explicit model of how that person would ride a bike, using the force of the legs as applied to the pedals, the friction with the ground, the various moments of inertia of the wheels and frame, and the center mass and center of volume of the rider/bike combo. Perhaps you have even heard some stories about more exotic varieties, tandem bicycles or pennyfarthings or butcher’s bikes and the like, which follow the same basic models, though with completely different parameters.

It’s a mistake to think this has anything at all to do with the model you actually use to ride a bike. That model doesn’t have colours, or chains, or even wheels. The bike is stripped down to the most basic elements needed to control it, the handle bars and the pedals (depending on the bike there may also be a handbrake and a gear shift, but these aren’t essential). Your brain does a complex calculation on the senses available to it, of the stresses on muscles, the fluid in your inner ear and the relative angles and motion of nearby objects which it combines to form a sense of balance. Riding a bike is a complex mapping of this sense of balance to action, a negative feedback loop between your hands, the handlebars, your body’s position on the bike and the feeling of imbalance.

You may understand on some level that the handlebars are attached to the front wheel, and turning the handlebars causes the wheel to turn, which causes the bike to turn which results in a centrifugal force restoring your balance, but that kind of formal chain is utterly unnecessary to the learning. When you feel such and such and imbalance, you turn the handlebars so far, which restores the balance. You turn the bars to turn the bike, which produces a centrifugal force, and so you shift your weight to restore the sense of balance. Similarly, you are going too slow, you push harder on the pedals, you are going too fast, you ease up on the pedals.

The exact mechanics by which a bike works might be of interest, depending on what you want to do. Understanding the mechanics of angular momentum can let you build gyroscopic self balancing bikes for use by the disabled for example. Understanding gearing allows both more torque or more speed depending on the situation. Understanding how a wheel works, while non-essential to control, can help anticipate the ways in which you will be required to react to a mud puddle, or a patch of gravel. But none of these extra elements will make their way back into the riding model. What use would they be?

The vast majority of our mental models work in this way. It is thoroughly a calculation, a learned series of simultaneous equations and feedback loops that don’t produce a thought, but a feeling and (unless you can consciously suppress it) an action. The model you require to explain exactly how many degrees you would need to turn the bike handles to stay upright is fairly complex, and knowing how to perform it wouldn’t help you not fall down next time. You probably haven’t the slightest clue what the moment of inertia around the relevant axis is, and unless you’re a civil or mechanical engineer probably don’t even know how you would go about calculating it. You just felt like you were falling over and turned the handlebars until you didn’t feel that way anymore.

Black Crow Events


Featured image is the End of the World, by John Martin

Fellow sweet talker Sam has pointed out the surface similarity between the case for space exploration and the case for anti-globalisation.

That is, earth, being our only planet, is vulnerable to certain extinction level events, thermonuclear war, environmental degradation , super-AIDS and the always popular death from the skies, and given that it would be nice for the species to continue existing we should seek out an alternate planet to live on to double the chances of at least some humans surviving. Similarly, given that there is increasingly only one, global economy on which we all depend for meaning and sustenance, it might perhaps make sense to erect some barriers, so that, to give a hypothetical, dodgy securitisation practices in the United States doesn’t obliterate the seemingly unrelated economy of a small island nation. However these risks interact with the rest of the world in fundamentally different ways, and need to be managed differently.

While in school I did an internship at a local electrical utility. Most major urban networks at that time were radial, isolated, and manually redundant, that is power comes from a central distribution transformer and is distributed outwards like spokes on a wheel. Under normal operation there is no active connection between these different islands, however the infrastructure exists and is in place to connect them with the throw of a switch by the operator or command centre.

The advantage of linking the networks together is that when something goes wrong in one network, the other networks can pick up the slack. If a tree hits a major line, and causes a blackout the operator can flip a few switches and get power restored to many of the affected houses in a short period of time. Power to critical infrastructure, like telephones, will be connected to batteries so that if primary power is lost, the batteries will automatically kick in and the system as a whole still works. Telecoms even started installing battery packs at the customer locations, as fibre has overtaken copper as the technology of telecommunications and it was no longer possible to use the telephone wire to power the telephone if your house loses power. This is redundancy, and it is the primary tool we use to keep networks resilient to failures.

The increasing linkages that come with globalisation often operate in the same manner. If there a drought in Florida, oranges can be imported from a different area of the globe. If a major flood destroys the garment industry in Bangladesh other workshops in Africa and Indonesia can be found. Further, since expertise and equipment can be deployed globally, if a disaster destroys a major or sole supplier of a particular good the nexus can be reconstituted elsewhere. It also allows a greater variety of substitution goods, so that if a blight destroys most of a year’s cotton crop, even in all areas, we can substitute linen, or silk, or synthetics and still produce a workable garment.

So given the advantages of linking these networks together, why didn’t we make the links in our power network? There are two good reasons. The first is that when you want to take a particular area down you only need to throw one switch to do it, so that an operator wouldn’t throw a switch and assume that the network was down, only for power from another source to come back in without their knowledge, potentially fatally. The second is that it limits the damage done by any individual fault. If a crow lands on your transformer, only the transformer, and the things downstream of the transformer will be taken down, the rest of the network is oblivious. (The crow is also oblivious, as his internal organs are plasma. RIP crow, I didn’t want to save that report anyway).

It’s the second point that is most relevant here. Near the beginning of my term at the utility we had planned for one of the transformers to go down while we did maintenance on it. The linesmen closed the relevant switches, linking the two networks together, and then got in the truck to open the switches that isolated the transformer to be taken out of service. While they were driving, a tree hit a major line, blowing protective devices on both transformers and melting the wire. What would have been an isolated fault taking out about a third of the city now took out the entire city for the better part of a half a day.

The increasing interlinkage of the global economy leaves it vulnerable to these kinds of events. A problem that wipes out the banking sector will affect the global banking sector instead of being contained in a national banking sector. A pest that destroys a particular tree will spread across the globe, destroying trees all over the globe instead of just on one continent. So why not maintain the same barriers that other networks do for their safety?

First, the networks had certain barriers, but were never actually islands. The linkages between the networks were all in place, waiting for the right moment to be activated. But the global system is closer to a biological than a mechanical system. Linkages have to be grown, and having grown be used to be strengthened. There isn’t a standby export infrastructure waiting for the command centre to throw the switch, there are actual exporters and actual ports and actual longshoremen and truckers and roads that need to be maintained trained and built, and can only be built by being used. Movies need distribution channels and rightsholders working in concert which takes time and skill. The redundancy required for resilience needs to already be in place and operational.

Second, it is easier to cut a connection than to make a new one. The vast majority of systemic faults don’t begin as systemic faults. They begin as relatively minor, localised faults which, when not handled appropriately, escalate into larger faults and sometimes spread, what engineers would call failure cascades, but in finance is usually called contagions. Handling these problems properly means acting quickly to contain them to as small an area as possible while they are still small, or limiting their ability to grow. This doesn’t mean the creation of barriers, but retaining the ability to create barriers quickly. Figuring out how to detect small problems and handle them before they become big problems, and making sure the disease is worse than the cure, is the majority of modern engineering work, and an essential part of any regulatory apparatus. When done well it can be accomplished in a way that the remaining equipment doesn’t even notice, and with minimal downtime for the affected equipment.

Finally there are some kinds of problems that simply can’t be dealt with internally. A well designed, fully parallel battery back-up won’t save you when the operator comes in drunk and runs over it with a forklift, or when a rattle snake decides to make its home inside and the groundskeeper, being a good west Texas boy decides this is a problem that should be solved with a shotgun. (The snake was reportedly delicious).

Or when nearby equipment explodes

The only way to deal with this is reduce, as far as possible, the number of systems that will act as single points of failure, by creating parallel systems as far away as practicable. It is these sorts of cases that earth 2 is designed to protect against, and in which the logic of anti-globalisation is strongest. There is one major difference. Earth 2, by its distance, can’t help you when something goes wrong. The species survives, you’re still screwed. By contrast access to rice grown in Thailand can help you, and cutting yourself off from it can decrease global systemic risk only by increasing the chances that a local survivable risk is turned into a local catastrophic one.

Does Ethical Theory Still Exist?

Featured image : philosophy is like a radiant sun that,
from time to time, throws off portions of itself -Isaiah Berlin, Does Political Philosophy Still Exist

There are two types of questions that we know have clear, real answers. The first type of question is empirical, which is to say it can be answered by systematic observation. How much money is in my bank account, how much weight can a particular bridge support and how much money will this tax raise bring to the treasury are all examples. The second type of question is formal. Given certain axioms, and rules for manipulating them, we can get an answer through pure calculation. This kind of question cannot answer questions about the world, except in so far as the axioms and the rules for manipulating them resemble the world as it exists. Taxonomy, logic, and math are all good examples of the second type of question.

For a well formed question of these sorts, even if we do not know the answer, we do know roughly what form an answer would take, that is we can determine whether a particular answer is a possible answer even if we can’t tell if it is a correct answer. We should be able to determine what sort of reasoning, what sort of demonstration, what sort of arguments would be relevant, and which would not.

Where the concepts are clear and their shape is generally accepted, and where the appropriate shape of reasoning is agreed on, only there is it possible to construct something resembling universal knowledge, of whatever kind. Where the questions are not clear, where a concept is not well defined, and no one can agree on what an answer would look like, and the methods and qualifications to answer the questions are entirely in dispute, then we can construct only a pseudoscience, or if we are lucky, a protoscience.

There is however a third category of questions, those which cannot be formulated in either of the two categories which have well defined answers. Does free will exist? What is justice? How can I know whether an action is just? Why should I obey another? We discover that we are not sure, from the very outset, what a clear answer to these questions would look like, whether inductive or deductive. These are the philosophical questions.

Now the history of human knowledge has been the gradual shifting of the philosophical questions into one or the other of these two compartments. The nature and composition of the stars was once a philosophical question, and it could not be clear ahead of time what part should be played by observation and what by a priori teleological notions, and the questions asked could not be neatly divided into formal and inductive categories. As methods competed and technologies of observation and technique advanced, the questions became well formed, and the science of astronomy was born. You can begin to see the outlines of the death of philosophy of mind and the birth of a science of mind already, or hedonic philosophy being transformed into a science of happiness. For studies at this boundary, not quite science and not quite philosophy, meaningful dialogue can take place. A philosopher who attempts to answer an empirical question, without using an empirical method, is sure to be spouting nonsense, and a scientist who attempts to answer a non-empirical question using an empirical method will be answering a different question than she thinks.

There is however also a category of philosophical questions which stubbornly resist resolution into well behaved categories. The efforts at least from Plato onwards to found a systematic scientific account of ethics or aesthetics has repeatedly failed. Relativism, emotivism, skepticism always break back in. Ryan condemns all of philosophy, however his particular concerns seem to be with what is broadly politics, that is how we should treat others and what the ultimate aim of our actions should be. But this is not an empirical question, like how we *do* treat people or more specifically who treats whom in what way, when and where and under what circumstances. It is not a clearly deductive question either, like whether a particular action violated custom or law.

What makes such questions as justice and ethics properly philosophical is precisely that there is such widespread disagreement about what kind of reasons are valid, and what the shape of a valid argument looks like. The methods of answering look very different for theists and atheists, reductive materialists and Christians, Romantics, Marxists, Feminists and Nihilists. The differences between them are not empirical disagreements, nor are there a set of axioms to which we can garner universal consent, nor even a process for generating axioms. The reason why philosophy is necessary, the reason why it arose in the first place, is precisely because of this disagreement.

If everyone agreed on ultimate ends, the questions that are supposed to arise out of political and ethical philosophy would reduce to a inductive problem of what sort of actions increased utility, or a statistical analysis of what actions in what situations increased happiness. If everyone agreed on axioms, or agreed on the process for generating axioms, then politics and ethics would reduce to calculation based on the ten commandments or the categorical imperative. It is precisely that persistent disagreements, systematic disagreements, continue to exist, that the chain of arguments do not follow the same family of paths, that the form of solutions is fundamentally unresolved, that requires the answer remain philosophical.

It is entirely legitimate, and possibly correct, to argue that philosophical methods cannot produce truthful knowledge about the world or ourselves, and is at best rationalizations of deeper processes. Prior to the 18th century or so slavery was an accepted part of the social order, and ethics was concerned mainly with the appropriate manner in which slaves should be treated. People with as contradictory ethical systems as the Epicureans and the Stoics neverless agreed that slavery was acceptable, as did the medieval Christians and Muslims and Hindus. By the end of the twentieth century, neo-stoics, neo-Epicureans, Utilitarians and Deontologists, no matter their other substantial disagreements all agree that slave holding is impermissible. It was not new knowledge, but new social convention that changed the ethical theory. By contrast stoic logic, though incomplete, is as valid now as when it was formulated, and the Greek proofs that the world is round are as acceptable today as when they were first observed. Answers to philosophical questions are genuinely different than answers to well formulated questions.

Nevertheless, to argue that everyone knows what actions will increase happiness, and further that everyone wants to increase their own happiness and that of others is a well formulated empirical question, and one need only look at the contrast between the actions of the average person compared the findings, such as they are, from happiness research to indicate that either people do not know what makes them and others happy, or else that they do not think that happiness is the meaning of life and basis of ethics. However humans are social, and so the game of giving and asking for reasons must continue. The problem of competing ethical systems is not that different people might disagree about the best way to achieve identical ends, but that different people will do different things for reasons that others will find unacceptable, or towards ends that they find incomprehensible. To argue that it does not matter why a person gives money to the homeless so long as he does so, is only a gracious concession that it does not matter why someone agrees with you, so long as they do.

Questions About A Better Foundation

Ryan suggests a new foundation for moral judgements

Actions that serve to augment or support the mental health of moral agents are moral, actions that serve to diminish their mental health are immoral, and actions that have no impact on mental health are morally neutral. Applying this evaluative criterion to moral decision-making seems to yield consistently good results.

Certain parts of this formulation are left ambiguous, so in the spirit of inquiry, lets kick the tires a bit

  1. Is this fundamentally agent based? Which is to ask, is our hypothetical moral agent working to maximize the total global mental health, the average mental health, or only their own mental health?
  2. If agent based, what advantages do you think Mental Health has over eudamonia in answering giving moral guidance? Is there any circumstance in which self-sacrifice is a virtuous act? Is there any cause or action which you would be justified in taking on behalf of another, even at the expense of your own sanity? To save their life?
  3. If maximizing an external quality, don’t you run into the same Omelas problem?
  4. Are there any moral dilemmas you think Mental Health can answer, which any of the existing big three frameworks cannot?
  5. There are stories of well off, educated classical greeks selling themselves into Roman slavery as a tutor or scribe, so that after a period of time they would be able to buy their freedom, and with it a Roman citizenship.  Was this an immoral act, and if so, why?
  6. Aristotle believed some people, due to circumstance and upbringing, were incapable of virtue. Is a sociopath capable of being a moral agent? If so, is it immoral for a sociopath not to seek to become neurotypical? If not, by what standard should they live?

Fantasy, Myth, Ritual

The Roman world, when the early Christians exploded onto the scene, was a world awash in myth and ritual. When Christians came proclaiming that they had one additional god to which they prayed, it was natural for the Romans at the time to ask exactly which one they had in mind. Jupiter perhaps, or Apollo, or one of the mystery cults like Dionysus, or some other God, like the God of the Persians or of the Egyptians. The Romans were entirely used to new myths coming along, or new sub-cults seeking to elevate one of the deities above the rest. The pagans dealt with this tension, these competing cosmologies, by separating truth from religion, from rituals. The philosophers, lovers of truth, wanted to encounter the divine through reason, and therefore rejected the myths, even as they demanded duty to the God their reason identified.

The paradox of ancient philosophy is that intellectually it destroyed myth, but also tried to legitimize it as religion, as ritual. If you could pay homage to the cult of the emperor it didn’t really matter whether you actually believed that the emperor was divine, and fulfilling your duty to Neptune demanded sacrifices, not anything so prosaic as intellectual assent to his creation myth. This uneasy balance was destroyed by the early Church, who insisted that the God they worshiped was not a God of myth, but Being itself, the God that the philosophers had begun to apprehend. That their God demanded, not sacrifice but belief. That true religion was not empty ritual, not merely a useful custom that must be performed for the sake of edification, but was actually true. As Tertuallian formulated it, “Christ called himself Truth, not Custom”.

This reconciliation between truth and myth was always fraught, as a faith that professed itself as Truth needed to carefully ensure that reason was never entirely unbounded by myth, and once myth could no longer constrain truth, to change the myth to fit the new truth. But there is only so many times that the myth can change, and only so quickly, only so many parts that can be hived off before the whole myth is called into question, and the ritual stands empty once more. A culture that was not prepared to entirely sacrifice the idea that myth and Truth should be at cross purposes created a new myth, which subsumed the old and imbued the traditional rituals with new meaning. The old God of the philosophers was replaced with a new telos, Reason, Liberty, Equality, Progress. But the new gods were as austere, only slightly more atheistic than the pagans found the Christian god. One can provide their assent to mystical Equality, but that mystical union that accompanies the dissolution of self and submersion into a larger whole must come from rituals that involve other personalities, and the God of Equality is not personified. Ritual union, if it is to occur, must be union with a community, not union with an ideal.

The new gods require new myths, but as the new gods are social gods, the new myths no longer need to be true. The new myths are created rather self-consciously to serve as myth, intially by Christians seeking to preserve what wisdom they could by implanting some of the old myths into the new, what JRR Tolkien called Mythopoeia, but the myths that survive are ones that serve the appropriate social function of bringing together a community to engage the ritual and propagate the myth. This can be political, like the myth of class solidarity or natural rights, or the apotheosis of founding fathers into paragons of virtue, like George Washington and the cherry tree, but just as often is not explicitly so. The most popular myths and rituals are cribbed from Germanic pagans, Christmas trees, Easter Eggs, the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus. Liberated from the need to be true, and from the need to appear true, the new myths are instead selected for their role in ritual, until the ritual and myth become entirely severed from any tether to any teleological end, a self-sustaining ritual cosmology, protected from collapse by the complete lack of any expectation of coherence.

One of the functions of ritual is to bridge the gap between the fact of continued inequality in an egalitarian age, and the yearning for unity, of the kind which can only be found amoung equals. It is in this context that the new myths thrive, by creating a world so alien to our experience, that they can be encountered without our baggage. The triumph of the new myths is to make the characters so archetypal, the story so uncomplicated, that a vast swath of people with widely varying backgrounds and experience can immediately identify and lose themselves inside the story unreflectively, providing a common experience that can be shared across lines of gender, class, occupation, generation or race otherwise unavailable. A world where lawyers, doctors and engineers cosplay cheek by jowl with installers and plumbers, retail workers and draughtswomen, lost together in a fantasy of power and triumph which transcends them.

Martial Culture and Gun Culture, A Response to Tyler Cowen

This morning Tyler Cowen proposed a link between martial culture and the rate of gun ownership in American society.

I don’t myself so often ask “should Americans have fewer guns?”, as that begs the question of how one might ever get there, which indeed has proven daunting by all accounts.  But I do often ask myself “should America be a less martial country in in its ideological orientation?”

Note that the parts of the country with the most guns, namely the South, are especially prominent in the military and support for the military.

More importantly, if America is going to be the world’s policeman, on some scale or another, that has to be backed by a supportive culture among the citizenry.  And that culture is not going to be “Hans Morgenthau’s foreign policy realism,” or “George Kennan’s Letter X,” or even Clausewitz’s treatise On War.  Believe it or not, those are too intellectual for the American public.  And so it must be backed by…a fairly martial culture amongst the American citizenry.  And that probably will mean a fairly high level of gun ownership and a fairly high degree of skepticism about gun control.

If you think America can sustain its foreign policy interventionism, or threat of such, without a fairly martial culture at home, by all means make your case.  But I am skeptical.  I think it is far more likely that if you brought about gun control, and the cultural preconditions for successful gun control, America’s world role would fundamentally change and America’s would no longer play a global policeman role, for better or worse.

It seems to me a martial culture would be hard to measure (at least for the 0 dollars I plan to spend measuring it), however we have what seems like a decent proxy (one Tyler himself proposed) in military membership.  This was intuitively plausible, Switzerland and Finland for example have both relatively large reserve forces and high civilian gun ownership rates, so I went and checked whether there was a link.

All Countries All Duty

That’s pretty underwhelming. Now there are some differences in how different countries deal with paramilitary forces and reserves, so lets restrict it to active duty armed forces

All Countries Active Duty

That’s actually impressively uncorrelated. Just OECD countries this time
OECD All Duty

OECD active duty armed forces, for thoroughness

OECD Active Duty

Colour me skeptical.

P.S. I would love to re-run this with veterans instead of the currently serving, so if you happen to know of a decent dataset feel free to pass it on, or do the work yourself and let us know

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?

Alphabet Soup and the Neo-Kleinstaaterei

The history of human civilization is a history with a clear tendency towards the larger and more complex entities. From Families to Bands to Tribes to Chiefdoms to Kingdoms to States. It is one in which the number of relevant political entities has gone from more to less. Thus in Germania circa 15AD there was a patchwork of a few hundred tribes and tribal confederations, in 1015AD there were multiple competing lines of authority involving the Emporer, the Pope and about twenty Imperial principalities, plus a plethora of free cities, bishoprics, monasteries and estates, which would evolve into the tiny states, the kleinstaaterei, and in 2015AD that same bit of territory is controlled by only thirteen states, plus the EU. Indeed, we now have an extra layer of supranational governance and an alphabet soup of regional coordination agencies – NATO, NAFTA, NORAD, CCTS, ASEAN, WTO and OAS to name but a few. Despite the historical trend we are actually in anti-consolidation phase. In 1915 there were only sixty some sovereign states. Today, nearly two hundred. What accounts for these dual trends, the consolidation of governance in international agencies with a multiplication of the number of sovereign states? The UN identifies ten major government functions. Some of these, like Recreation, Culture and Religion, will, on average, be best served by smaller states, with a cohesive culture, unified identity, and tight link between ruler and ruled. Others, like Defence, will tend, on average, to be best accomplished by larger states, either due to greater and more diverse resources, or more effective rule making powers. The migration of governance functions to supranational institutions has, unsurprisingly, focused on those functions best accomplished by larger entities, and thus, increasingly, has made it unnecessary for small nations or proto-nations to subsume themselves in a larger state. There are six main functions which, I argue, have, in the more distant past, worked to drive territorial consolidation, and which now are either attenuated, or have in fact reversed their salience.

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