Trump is My Doing

We all knew that the fix was in for Hillary, over on that side (poor Bernie!): she’s been siphoning money from corporate America and the world’s glitterati to bribe as many of her party’s potentates so that she could finally make a legitimate run for the top administrative post in the land, without any upstart usurpers from Illinois, the most corrupt state in the Union.

But what to do about the other side? The early 2010s showed a disturbing tendency towards earnest patriotism over there: Tea Party, Libertarians, and outright Conservatives. Dear God!

I fixed it in my heart, and it has been the soul of my mind ever since, that the Millennials would not inherit anything in the way of a functioning government or society, not if I had anything to say about it.

Now, I know that there are rational theories and punditry theories, even wonderful conspiracy theories to explain Trump’s provenance, my favorite being that every time a Clinton makes a play for the presidency, a kooky billionaire shows up to run interference against the GOP and split the populist vote from the conservative vote. Nice try, conspiracy theorists.

No, it’s much easier than that: I produced Trump. It wasn’t that hard to do, really, and any megalomaniac would have done. The real genius was in picking Trump, having him tell absolute whoppers that not even children would believe, lies of a disturbing pathology, and having him demonstrate reasoning of the most tortuous depravity, but also having him who was born of USA’s toilet, Manhattan, pass himself off as Middle America.

I drank a lot of scotch Tuesday night, celebrating what I had done.

If Generation X is going to be the perpetual Middle Child of America, the Meh Generation pinned between the Me Generation and the Millennials, then it is obvious that we’re going to be passed over for our turn at leadership, with the inevitable doom of becoming the Fredo of America, the World’s Cosa Nostra. Why not do what we can to sabotage little brother, whose mind is bent toward pulling the strings with so many time-series graphs? Why leave them with a trajectory leftward or rightward when we can leave them with higgledy-piggledy?

So, yes, Millennials, Trump is a gift from me, personally, to you, to bring you the rot of the greediest, most immoral, undisciplined, perpetually adolescent generation in the history of mankind–to bring that filth, which we grew up in, right into your nice, clean policy advocacy, designed especially by your sterile, unemotional robots, controlled by nearly perfect, lightning-fast algorithms. You think you’re so smart: fix this, why don’t you?

Heh.

Heh heh.

Heh heh heh heh heh..

The Arc of Cataclysm

Adam brushes off the present breaking of one of the Great Seals of the Apocalypse, writing, in effect, “Meh, we might be doomed, but we’re not that doomed, and we have no idea of knowing how or when our doom will befall us.” After presenting a couple of helpful and comforting metaphors, he likens our present condition, under the avenging thumb of Obama and faced with the choice of leadership between the Power Monger and the Buffoon, to that of Rome, which was always breaking apart, but did not ever do so, not until she finally fell.

If we actually fall, he intimates, it will be a historical anomaly: see how Rome swayed and cracked before she capitulated! See how she prospered and grew nevertheless!

When I recently plied the same tired saw as many have before me, namely that Gibbon, Jr. will also liken the impending doom of America to that of Rome, hoots and catcalls were tweeted my way to the same effect as Adam here comforts; more than that: look at the enduring influence of Rome even to this very day! Sarcasm wafted into my nostrils like so much sophomoric filth: what a horrible fate, to dominate the world for two thousand years!

Here I must hold up my hand in protest: shall we make distinctions? It is not likely that, while Alaric was laying siege to and finally sacking the city of Rome, the denizens therein comforted each other with the knowledge that they were only part of a process, the decay half of inevitable renewal. No, indeed, the three sieges of the Visigoths, the toppling of the Eternal City and many of its institutions, the ten-year brutality of their bloodthirsty presence, and the World War II body count brought the chaos to Europe which a single generation later yielded to Attila the Hun’s invasion.

So, yes, the ruins of the Roman Empire still smolder to our benefit.

It is an article of faith, because America has already been so tested, and the institutions of the West are laid on such massive foundations, that no violence of such magnitude will come to bring us to a similar state of renewal.

 

Minding the Overton Door

It’s often said that public advocacy of radical reform, such as that of ‘open borders’, is good because it can create space for public advocacy of less radical reform. In smartypants terms, the advocate for radical reform is thought to serve the purpose of opening wider the “Overton window,” which contains the range of policy ideas deemed currently reasonable or acceptable.

I’m not aware, though, that any hip jargon exists for conveying the following possible downside of advocating radical reform: When one steps out to advocate a very radical reform, any ensuing public debate will necessarily pit many supporters of incremental reform against the advocates of radical reform. And it seems very plausible that such a debate, in which the radical reform is soundly rejected, might displace a debate over an incremental reform. And what if the would-have-been debate over incremental reform could have been won by the pro-reform side? The initial advocacy of radical reform might then be interpreted as a counterproductive distraction.

Certainly, whatever it is that is displaced by radical advocacy in a given situation might not be a healthy and winnable debate over incremental reform. The point here is not to dispute that radical advocacy can sometimes valuably open a window, but to say it ideally would be wielded carefully enough so that shifting air pressure ‘in the room’ does not cause a good door to shut.

DoorsClosing

The Appeal of Fascism

Or: It’s Going To Be All Right

When we call Trump a fascist, we mean something bad, but we don’t mean fascism. If you look at it the right way, the numbers are kind of comforting: About 30% of Republican primary voters, in some states, are all in on Trumpscism, or whatever you want to call the Trump brand of fascism. Populascism? I don’t know. It’s such a fun thing to watch, regardless.

The numbers, not too long ago, were much more disturbing, back when everyone went in for fascism, properly speaking; the entire Western world went all-in for fascism, right before all the homosexuals, blacks, Jews, and other undesirables were cleared off the streets and disappeared. The difficult truth about disappearing the undesirables made fascism itself undesirable, so it fell out of favor as a term with the university class. Now fascism is a moniker for something else, a name for the perversion of conservative political doctrine.

We ought to be careful about calling Trump a fascist and a racist, despite the elements of fascism and racism attached to his message and persona, and despite the fact that he’s running in the GOP, which is also the home of conservatives, mainly because that’s an awfully broad brush which covers people who aren’t fascists, while it leaves unpainted actual fascists, who probably don’t have any party affiliation.

When you offer a general population the following planks in a campaign platform: strong national identity, strong central government, (un)willing participation of corporate entities, high taxes paying for universal services, while also demonizing opposition (and even sabotaging the opposition’s efforts), well, you’re going to get some votes. Wiser politicians than Trump have long known how to offer fascism without the nasty side-effect of attracting an openly racist voter bloc, that which is the final plank in the platform known as fascism. Without racism, it’s an appealing political doctrine today, and it held the world in sway, once upon a time, when history was still in black and white.

The conservative argument against the appeal of fascism, whatever its actual name today, is that it can’t really be done without a great deal of disruption. The characteristics necessary to create a leader who will implement that platform is unlikely to produce a leader who will observe the pleasanter traditions of constitutional democracy. Liberal and Leftist pundits will be wise to note that the conservative movement in the United States has vociferously rejected Trump (see National Review), especially where his doctrine (such as it is) overlaps with a properly defined fascism. Those conservative voices in popular media who actually have endorsed Trump are hardly making a conservative case for him–because it’s impossible.

Now, as for the name fascism, and its application to perversions of conservative doctrines: well, it’s a tough cruel world, and conservatives are going to just have to get over it, continuing to argue for free markets, smaller federal governments, the Western canon, inter alia, acknowledging weakness and pointing out strength.

No worries.

Keynesianism in Democracy

Two years ago, semiconservative pundit Josh Barro declared that “Conservatives Have No Idea What to Do About Recessions.” The eminent progressive economist Paul Krugman agreed, then tweaked crotchety Josh by saying this idea-less condition afflicts not only “anti-intellectual and doctrinaire” Republican policymakers but also “prestigious conservative economists” such as, um, Barro’s father Robert.

Conservative intellectuals like Robert Barro, Krugman suggested, have rejected the economists’ notion of aggregate demand, and in so doing they have rejected not only Keynesian economics but also the wrong-yet-acceptable monetarist alternative and its very great avatar Milton Friedman. Why? Because politics: Krugman sees Barro père as having “the sense that acknowledging that markets fail, ever, would be the thin edge of the wedge for liberal policies.”

With apologies to Alex Pareene’s version of Malcolm Gladwell: Say that Krugman is right about Robert Barro’s motivations. Could Barro still be right in rejecting Keynesian economics? What if Keynesian economics contains a lot of truth, though? Surely then Barro would be wrong in refusing to advance those true Keynesian ideas.

Or would he?

In 1977, the classical liberal economists James Buchanan and Richard E. Wagner argued that the advancement of Keynesian economic ideas is counterproductive in a mass democracy. Buchanan and Wagner allowed that there could be some ‘truth’ in Keynesianism but said that intellectual economists—few in number and limited in influence—can no longer assert the consistent level of control over economic policy that would be necessary to deliver results. Why not?

John Maynard Keynes, as evidenced in material cited by Buchanan and Wagner, tended to think of policy in his Britain as being handed down by an intellectual aristocracy that would not soon be displaced. Keynes believed that sway over the economic levers could and would be maintained by smart folks, whatever else may transpire. But in America now, as Paul Krugman and Josh Barro both know, that ain’t so. The columns and tweets of today’s smarties, whoever they are, are just an input into the roiling democratic processes that determine policy.

So what should that input be? Krugman’s answer is twofold: Keynesian economics and Democratic Party politics. We are fortunately blessed to have with us a party of politicians who take their cues from sensible people. The Democrats are smartly Keynesian, and so if they remain in power then countercyclical policy is guaranteed. Stimulate the economy when it busts, then use boom times to control inflation and reduce debts.

But Buchanan and Wagner pointed out that since the boom-time Keynesian policies of tighter money, lower spending, and higher taxes are never popular with voters, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to bet on continuous Democratic victories. An opportunistic opposition party could put forward pseudo-Keynesian ideas designed to win elections: Say, if tax cuts are stimulating during recessions, then shouldn’t they be stimulating all the time? A voter who really understands Keynesianism, who learned what she was taught in intermediate macro, wouldn’t be suckered by such an opposition. But in a mass polity dominated by noneconomists, vague notions about the benefits of ever-lower taxes can sink in. Sometimes the Republicans win, and who knows what they end up doing.

So Buchanan and Wagner’s answer was this: Mass democracy requires a wiser brand of economist, one who understands Keynesian economics but refrains from offering the Keynesian policy prescription. Economics professors shouldn’t, in their classrooms, push their smart kids to advocate for strongly countercyclical budgeting. Teach them about the idea, yes, but teach them too about the politics that are likely to frustrate its successful implementation, and remind Timmy in the front row that he’ll never chair Ways and Means.

Buchanan and Wagner thought a better result would obtain if the economists and their sharp students hold that politicians should consider the government to be broadly constrained by its budget. Then less nuttiness gets around. The idea of ever-lower taxes, dumb on its face, is affirmed as dumb. And some of the less defensible Gladwellism in politics is stymied. A crotchety man or two might be happy about that much.

They would be, right?

The Paradox of Commenting

There is a literature, or at least a batch of memes, holding that voting is not an ‘instrumentally rational’ activity, since casting a ballot is costly and one’s vote is unlikely to decide an election. The expected ‘instrumental value’ of voting is thus held to be low, very low, surely less than the value of a free half an hour. The supposed implication is that a sane person should vote only if it’s fun, like Candy Crush is.

The other day I saw a philosophy professor berating a professed voter in a Facebook thread. The philosopher banged on at length, making comment after comment, editing some of them, over the course of an hour. “If you view voting as a consumption good, like eating a candy bar or wave a flag for fun [sic], then it might not be a waste of time,” said the good prof, appropriately citing “the entire ‘paradox of voting’ literature.”

Say I were to add my two cents, as it were, to this established thicket of ideas. My slice of discourse might be, say, the 10,000th piece of writing that has appeared in the greater literature area.

Probably there is a conventionally diminishing marginal product of additional takes on the matter. While it’s remotely possible my piece will discourage a lot of voting, odds are it will affect no one and deter zero votes. Perhaps it will affect a few folks, though it’s not even certain what effect it would have on them. (Possibly my argument would be so facile and my style so repulsive that readers resolve to vote more often out of spite.)

What is the expected instrumental value of me making my argument? With some probability it causes a few votes not to be cast, saving a few half-hours, though losing the supposedly very low instrumental value of the votes.

The probability that my argument converts a few votes to non-votes might be higher than the probability that a vote swings an election, but that would have to be established. The value of a few half-hours saved is a great deal lower than the value of deciding an election. Also, the half-hour spent casting a ballot entails voting in several contested elections, not just one.

If sane voters can only be getting themselves off, what are sane contributors to the “paradox of voting” literature, as it carries forward in isolated corners of social media, doing? Their refinements, it would seem, are not helping society in an appreciable way. Nor is it likely that one’s latest comment, sentence, correctly spelled word, or well-chosen punctuation mark noticeably furthers one’s career. It’s also not clear that the world is any better off if the careers of “paradox of voting” aficionados do advance.

May it all be irrationality, or a ploy to sell books, or clawing for status. Hopefully no one views the hurling of insults as a consumption good.

So You Live In A Rape Culture: Now What?

Paul’s recently proposed definition of the term “rape culture” is a worthy attempt at explaining to those who require such an explanation that the cards are stacked against rape victims in today’s society.

One challenge with his definition, however, is that it seems to indicate that if you are a human being, you are someone who lives in a rape culture. Any difference between the cult-like sexual mutilations that occurred during Rwanda’s genocide, India’s ability to produce horrific gang rapes on public transportation (in addition to thousands-a-day public gropings), and jokes about prison in the United States is not a difference in kind, according to Paul, only one of degree. Welcome to Planet Earth: Rape Culture.

I think Paul’s hope is that it will dawn on some how bad things are for rape victims, even right here “at home,” so to speak. I he hopes that his audience, upon consideration of his definition, will be moved to alter their behavior. However, there are a few reasons why I don’t think this is likely.

The first reason is that there is probably a category difference between “people who would use the phrase ‘rape culture'” and “people whose behavior needs to change.” To the extent that I am right about this, then the phrase “rape culture” provides no benefit that the phrase “your behavior needs to change” does not already provide. (It’s unlikely to me that a person who regularly engages in the behaviors that comprise Paul’s definition will change his mind solely because his behaviors have now been identified as “rape culture.”)

A second reason I don’t think Paul’s proposed definition will sway people is that there is cry-wolf effect involved. What I mean is, despite the fact that there is lots of room for improvement, life in the Western world is pretty good – even, or perhaps especially, by comparative rape culture standards. If someone lives in a pretty-good culture, but is told that they live in a rape culture, it’s possible that they will become desensitized to Paul’s claim. A phrase, once used for shock value, cannot be reused for shock value; we can only be shocked by it once. Afterward, it becomes “another one of those aggressive terms social justice warriors use,” like “greed culture,” “victimhood culture,” or essentially, Anything-That-Needs-To-Change Culture. It blends in with the other things being shouted at us and we no longer give it specific attention, even though it is indeed a matter that deserves our attention.

A third reason I don’t think Paul’s definition will persuade people to change their mind is because ordinary people – especially those most likely to be unwittingly misogynistic – don’t tend to think in the terminology of academic philosophy or feminism. So, to them, being told that they live in, and might be passively propagating, a “rape culture” feels like they are being accuse of something. If there is anything less effective at changing someone’s mind than immediately putting them on the defensive, it’s seemingly accusing them of one of mankind’s most heinous crimes.

As an important side-note to this third point, there is a growing body of journalism that seeks to call attention to false accusations of rape. Imagine what impact it must have on Average Joe when he sees victims advocates calling his culture a “rape culture” in one place, and making actually false allegations of rape elsewhere. Needless to say, Joe would not be convinced.

What Paul has managed to do, however, is provide a list of serious grievances that any sufficiently introspective person will find non-contentious. The content of Paul’s list is basically indisputable, as his many citations ably demonstrate. I believe his list functions as an excellent starting point for identifying problematic aspects of cultural behavior and attempting to correct them. To that end, I feel his invocation of the term “rape culture” works against his objective – an objective with which I most assuredly agree.

Scattered Thoughts on the American Experiment

America is a strange country. Whatever else you have the urge to say about it, you must concede that it is unusual. And our stories about it grasp at little pieces of what it is but never seem to add up.

I have become increasingly convinced that traditionalism for traditionalism’s sake is simply an absurd proposition, as the notion of a tradition cannot be separated from its content. One can be a royalist, or republican, or even a believer that the American republic works for contingent historic and cultural reasons—but these are arguments in their own right, not some black-box “traditionalism”.

But traditionalism in America is an even more absurd proposition than usual. America is young. If you stretch out to the most distant reaches of the colonial period—a question begging approach given the state of the early colonies—it still gets you to only about 400 years. The war of independence (which for reasons of rhetoric we call a revolution) began only 250 some years ago and ended about twenty years later. We had about 12 years under the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution was ratified less than 230 years ago. We had a protracted and bloody civil war less than a century after the ratification of the Constitution. A few decades later, reformers were building out the modern administrative state, which arguably characterizes our system of government far more than the three-branch structure we force our students to memorize in their civics classes. That character itself is hardly a century old, and many changes have been made in the meantime.

Whither traditionalism? Not two years ago I was arguing on behalf of an American traditionalism, and my opponents asked: how long must something be around before it is a tradition? Good question. Most of the time, it seems both left and right consider American traditionalism to be what we had in the immediate period following the second World War, a period I would consider highly unusual even for our unusual country.

The relationship between our form of government and philosophy is also an open question to me. I’ve taken a stab at answering it before. But it comes back to the relationship between theory and practice, something that simply eludes me. Superficially, the founders were certainly sophisticated in their philosophy and their reading of history. They wrote highly philosophical essays. But they were not philosophers; they were political practitioners in the colonial, revolutionary, and post-revolutionary governments. This is something I feel we often overlook—they were not theorists, but practitioners who were highly educated in the theory of their day.

When I see people invoking the founders, the Constitution, and our political traditions, I find that few seem to provide a picture that adds any of this up in a satisfactory way. The critics and the apologists suffer from this problem to an equal degree, at least that I have seen.

The more I examine the pieces of where we have been, the more I wonder at people who can be so confident in where we are headed. I find arguments that we are in a transition moment persuasive, but the nature of that transition appears, from my limited vantage point, entirely opaque.

Previous Posts in This Thread:

The System and the Situation

Maintaining cognitive biases and willful illusions isn’t just problematic for our ability to reason – it’s morally wrong. A simple example can illustrate what I mean:

At the age of 9, Ethan Couch was still sleeping with his mother even though he had his own bedroom.

“Tonya has [Ethan’s] bed in her room and considers Ethan to be her protector.Very unusual,” Flynn said of that arrangement. “Very unusual, and highly questionable.”

The term “adultified” was used to explain that Ethan was treated as an equal, rather than as a child.

“This was a very dysfunctional family,” Flynn said. “Did not prepare Ethan for adulthood. It doesn’t surprise me at all that it has run its course this way.”

No matter what you happen to personally believe about Ethan Couch and his infamous “affluenza” defense, the fact of the matter is that his having been raised by a woman who wanted to maintain severe (possibly drug-induced) delusions rather than raise him properly clearly ruined his life. Ultimately, this ended the lives of four innocent motorists.

I’m not suggesting that their deaths were inevitable in light of Couch’s upbringing, I’m simply highlighting the fact that when we sustain self-delusions at the expense of other people, we’re acting immorally.

Of course, the matter of Ethan Couch’s dysfunctional family is cut-and-dry, and we don’t learn anything from stating the obvious. The real question, to what extent do we ourselves play the role of Tonya or Ethan Couch in our own lives, and who ultimately pays the price for this?

*        *        *

By now, readers must surely be aware of the recent allegations of sexual abuse by United Nations “peacekeepers” in the Central African Republic. At least seven women and little girls claim to have been raped, an allegation serious enough, and numerous enough, to lead us to believe that it is highly unlikely that these allegations are not true.

On some level, no one is really surprised by this. On some level, we all understand that “war is hell” and that the conditions of war almost always (or simply always) enable a rash of sexual abuse. This tragic phenomenon is thousands of years old, maybe as old as human civilization itself. It’s fair to say that the Situation of war is a direct cause of sexual abuse; meaning, if we want to guarantee that sexual abuse occurs, all we have to do is start a war. Period.

It’s important to note that sexual abuse has nothing to do with the reasons people or nations or groups wage war. That is, there’s nothing inherent in the politics of war that causes rape. In modern warfare, rape is not a strategic decision made by generals. It is not a planned and coordinated action by the military.

On the contrary, it is an emergent phenomenon of wartime social psychology. It happens in every war. The sexual abuse is committed, not by rogue scoundrels seeking to exploit a volatile background scenario, but normal, healthy boys and girls you personally know and grew up with. But for your decision not to enlist – or someone else’s decision not to deploy you to that particular war zone – the person committing these atrocities not only could have been you, but probably would have been you.

This is the profoundly important lesson of social psychology. The abusers went into the Situation as psychologically normal, moral human beings. In the Situation, they became monsters. Once removed from the Situation, they reverted back to their previous state, plus or minus the impacts of having experienced war firsthand.

*        *        *

Many well-meaning people will react to this information in a natural, but in my opinion, ineffectual way: They’ll call for rules and procedures to be put in place. These rules and procedures will help prevent the people in a bad Situation from falling victim to situational influence, and thus preempt them from committing sexual abuse.

What these people fail to understand is that rules and procedures are already in place (emphasis added):

“I will not rest until these heinous acts are uncovered, perpetrators are punished, and incidents cease,” the U.N envoy for Central African Republic and head of the U.N. mission Parfait Onanga-Anyanga said during a visit to Bambari, as Reuters reports.

He reminded the troops that “sexual abuse and exploitation is a serious breach of the U.N. regulations and a human rights violation; a double crime that affects the vulnerable women and children you were sent here to protect.”

But:

Anthony Banbury, assistant secretary general to the U.N., said that there are around 69 confirmed allegations of sexual abuse or exploitation among the U.N.’s 16 international peacekeeping missions, for the whole of 2015, as reported by The Globe and Mail.

Peacekeeping missions are not anarchy. Rules and procedures designed to prevent chaos exist and have been implemented. These crimes are not a lapse in the execution of a perfectly designed process.

The process itself serves as a self-delusion. Its mere existence convinces us that

  • If we commit a crime against humanity, we were just following orders;
  • If we observe a crime against humanity, procedures were violated and transgressors must be brought to justice;
  • Their thus having been punished, justice is served and world is normal again.

In reality, nothing about this serves to actually prevent sexual abuse. This is just system we’ve cooked-up ex post facto to prevent an existential vacuum from opening up every time rapes occur on UN peacekeeping missions (or US wars, or sectarian uprisings, or etc., etc.); which is to say, every single time war is waged and/or peace is “kept.”

Every. Single. Time.

I’m beating a dead horse here because it’s important to understand that (once again, shout it from the rooftops) rape is an inevitable and predictable byproduct of war.

Once we understand that – I mean really understand it – that means we are no longer entitled to be surprised by allegations of sexual abuse. We are no longer entitled to believe that it was the bad behavior of a few bad apples. We are no longer entitled to believe that we had nothing to do with it or that our procedures are well-conceived and capable of addressing the problem.

As Philip Zimbardo has said, Situational psychology does not excuse evil, it democratizes it. It’s easy to believe that a U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic, or a torture chamber in Cuba, or an insane-asylum-cum-torture-chamber in Iraq, or the total eradication of life as we know it in Syria, has nothing to do with us.

It’s easy to believe that these situations are just too complex to easily solve, and that the best we can do is vote for the right people, who will implement the right procedures, which will solve the problem.

But, no. That’s just our delusion talking. That’s just the part of our brain that doesn’t want to acknowledge that the crime is a direct result of the Situation, and the Situation is a direct result of the System that enables it. To prevent these and other atrocities, we don’t need better rules written by better philosopher-kings.

Instead, we need to dispense with the delusion and confront the existential vacuum. We need to admit to ourselves that things like this don’t magically stop happening after election season is over. We need to acknowledge that Good Guy Candidate A was still powerless to prevent the Situation, which means our belief that he could is also delusional. We need to admit to ourselves that the System enabling this terror is the delusion we carry with us, the one that tells us that the rules can work, if only they’re properly implemented.

Then, and only then, will we be ready to make a real and productive change.

The essential heresy of freedom

It is thus tolerance that is the source of peace, and intolerance that is the source of disorder and squabbling.

Pierre Bayle

In the history of human civilization, no large society has ever come close to achieving consensus, be it on values, life styles, or standards of taste. Yet there have been many that have tried. Today, they are known as theocracies.

By theocracy I do not mean a strict religious society, at least not in the usual sense of religious. Rather, I define theocracy as any society with a strong commitment to moral and political perfectionism. Perfectionism is a term that refers to any attempt to prescribe a theory of what constitutes “the good life,” as it was known by Aristotle. Perfectionism comes in many shapes and sizes, from suppression of so-called sexual deviants, to the soft paternalism of Michael Bloomberg.

Classical liberalism is in essence the repudiation of perfectionism. That’s why advocates of “libertarian paternalism” are still properly understood as illiberal even though they abstain from direct coercion. When policy has the aim of shaping our lives based on a bystander’s substantive theory of how one ought to live, be it who to love or how much soda to drink, it runs the principle of liberal neutrality through the shredder.

Liberal neutrality is essential for ensuring legitimate laws don’t discriminate against adherents with irreconcilable conceptions of the good life. This does not mean liberal neutrality is itself value neutral, in the sense of amoral. Rather, liberal neutrality is better thought of as embodying a Paretian or win-win standard—a norm which transcends the depths of human particularity—and in turn makes classical liberal constitutions minimally controversial. As Joseph Heath puts it:

The normative intuition underlying the Pareto standard is essentially contractual. Pareto improvements are changes that no one has any reason to reject. Making these improvements therefore means making some people better off, under conditions that everyone can accept. Recalling that the purpose of these normative standards is to permit cooperation, efficiency as a value permits social integration while requiring very little in the way of consensus about basic questions of value.

The alternative is a world with perpetual unanimity around inscrutable disputes, and the imperative that any deviation in the form of dissent be crushed. In that sense, free expression in theocracies is despised not due to the particular content of the speech, but due to the subversiveness embodied in the volitional act itself—what G.L.S. Shackle referred to as the “cause uncaused.”

This is why striving for perfect consensus around the good life leads invariably to moral and cultural stagnation. Without a “cause uncaused” the pursuit of happiness comes to resemble seminary. Theocracies are like a static equilibrium, a Walrasian box from which there’s no escape. That includes Saudi Arabia and Iran, but also the Stalinist regimes of Cuba and North Korea which, without irony, enforce their impoverished status quo by banning unsolicited expression as “counter-revolutionary.”

New ideas are transmitted by equally novel acts of speech. When speech is unbounded and permissionless, new ideas can diffuse, ear by ear, through the rest of society, disrupting a closed system from within. Take the free thinking Athens of ancient Greece, and then contrast it with its monolithic and Spartan neighbor. One fostered innovations in philosophy, mathematics, science, arts and culture.  The other is synonymous with militarized asceticism, and a laconic rationing of thought.

Freedom of thought and life-pursuit are therefore engines of creative destruction as well as inescapably heretic. Today, however, we are forgetting how tightly the two roles are entwined. We desire the benefits of a flourishing society without exposure to words and concepts that challenge our eudaemonic preconceptions.

That’s why the Enlightenment concept of toleration did not require one man or woman to endorse the views of another. On the contrary, classical liberals defended free expression as a matter of mutual respect, not mutual acceptance. Toleration contains the seeds of disagreement and argumentation, and doesn’t sacrifice human flourishing for false consensus.

Modern proponents of universal acceptance have a natural affinity with traditional theocrats. Both prove themselves by their piety to an immutable creed, conveyed through zealous displays of righteousness. And both endeavor to inquisition any who depart from the flock.

The culture war demonstrates how much the ink on our Paretian contract has faded. But if traditional theocrats continue in their attempts to regulate virtue they cannot justly complain when proponents of universal acceptance force them to acquiesce in other settings, and vice versa. Defection from liberal neutrality opens a perfectionist Pandora’s Box that cuts in both directions.

There is no way around it. The essential heresy of freedom means we either live with imperfection or all burn at the stake.

burned at the stake

( PS: This is apparently Sweet Talk’s 500th post. Here’s to 500 more. )