Compulsory Suffrage

It’s voting season in America and it’s voting season at Sweet Talk. Paul Crider has inveighed against libertarians who dismiss the value of the vote, and Samuel Hammond has declaimed the way libertarians deal with collective action problems like voting. By way of counterpoint, Nathaneal Snow chooses to let others speak, having lost faith in reform.

All speak from a libertarian tradition of one kind or another, which I suspect makes my own proposal anathema to them. I think we should force Americans to the polls.

First the proposal: the form of compulsory voting that I advocate is neither truly compulsory nor truly voting. Under the Australian model, the compulsion is in the form of a nominal fine (AUD 20 or about US$15.50) or the requirement to present a “valid and sufficient” reason for not voting. Likewise, the requirement to “vote”, while presented as such, only really extends to making it to the ballot box; from there you may spoil your ballot to your heart’s content. There are other models (some 26 around the world) but the Australian model is nearest and dearest to my heart.

Why might anyone advocate this approach? There’s a range of reasons, but my preferred ones are largely pragmatic. Voluntary voting is a sort of two-factor voting: (i) can you convince someone to show up and (ii) can you convince them to vote for you? The first roughly maps to intensity of political feeling, the second to your political inclinations. Speed and direction, if you will, which together create velocity at the polls.

The first of these–the willingness to show up–tends to be corrosive. Intensity of political feeling goes hand in hand with more radical political beliefs, and therefore voluntary voting has a structural bias towards polarization. The accompanying rhetoric, ginned up to “motivate the base”, tends to have the same effect.

For the same reasons, single issue voters in a voluntary voting system will have outsize influence in an election. Where policies result in concentrated benefits and diffuse harms (or vice versa), voluntary voting will tend to over-represent the concentrated interests, who will make the extra effort to vote. One might think of the National Rifle Association as exemplary of this tendency, given the relative concentration of gun ownership in the United States, but there are examples on the other side of politics. These effects are especially magnified in off-cycle or smaller-scale US elections (mid terms, municipal elections, school boards, etc.).

The move to compulsory voting would also inoculate the American political system against one particularly anti-democratic tendency: voter suppression. Of course, it’s still possible to argue about voter ID and ballot box fraud in a compulsory voting system, but the stakes are lower (fraud is mathematically less significant) and it cannot be a proxy for voter suppression. Sadly, it doesn’t fix gerrymandering.

It’s also more representative. In one sense that’s completely obvious, given the total expected turnout, but it’s worth remembering that the groups least likely to vote tend to be clustered, for example, among the young or poor. For this reason the move to a compulsory voting appears to result in a broader distribution of government spending (though this is, of course, legitimately contested). An incidental benefit of greater participation also appears to be a more politically informed population, in net terms. We should be cautious about such incidental conclusions–there’s no such thing as a randomized controlled trial for voting systems–but not lose sight of the core benefit: more people cast their votes.

For those who dwell on the (ir)rationality of voting, it also breaks one troubling calculus over the value of a vote. Given any meaningful practical hurdle to voting, the most disadvantaged are least likely to make it to the ballots. Since that depresses turnout among that group, it reduces the likelihood that a bloc of similarly situated voters will be decisive. In turn, the likelihood that any individual will be decisive drops further. The incentive to “defect” rises, and rises again. While in general, I am doubtful that the expected return on voting is what motivates most voters, there seems little reason to diminish it further for particular groups.

Not to mention all the practical hurdles to voting tend to fade when the entire populace is expected–and required–to vote. In Australia voting occurs on a Saturday, voting places are nearby and plentiful, and voters usually enjoy a sausage sandwich straight off the barbie (it’s called a “sausage sizzle”).

Sausages or not, many Americans are unwilling to countenance this kind of governmental compulsion. In some senses, this isn’t altogether surprising – being required to attend a certain place at a certain time (or risk a fine) in service of political goals has a whiff of autocracy about it for those who have never lived the experience. I have, and perhaps it’s correspondingly normal to me. Either way, I can’t see how it can be conceptually distinguished from even run-of-the-mill government interventions in the United States: jury duty, taxes (which, as certain libertarians are keen to remind us, is functionally the same as compelled labor), or even a visit to the DMV. Especially not when conscientious objectors would be taxed less than a parking ticket for their refusal. Australians don’t hate it (in fact, some 70% or so are in favor of continuing compulsory voting) and I see little reason to believe that Americans would ultimately feel any differently.

Would it materially favor a particular party? I am not certain. The conventional wisdom is that higher turnout favors left wing parties, and if you believe voter ID laws are stealth voter suppression by the GOP, that would seem to be vindicated by practice. However, those that have studied the application of compulsory voting to the US seem to believe that only the outcome of very close elections (2000, 2004) would be changed in one direction or the other. It’s certainly possible to change some of the compositional elements of politics (polarization, concentrated interests, etc.) without necessarily changing party-based outcomes. I’m hard-pressed to think it matters either way. In even the most basic democracy, the preferences of the populace at large should be logically prior to the benefits or costs to a given party.

Last and least, there’s the symbolism and the theory. On the governmental side, greater participation is suggestive of a more comprehensive mandate. I offer this argument a little tepidly because I am no absolutist about democracy (I favor, for example, the Westminster system), nor do I think a “mandate”–already a wispy concept–is the missing link for political authority. I do, however, think there is some expressive value to voting, even when compelled, and believe that civic engagement is a muscle that needs to be exercised to grow stronger. The most that really needs to be said in this respect is that compulsory voting is certainly no worse than voluntary voting from the standpoint of political theory.

I am skeptical that a change of this sort will happen in the United States in my lifetime, no matter how many offhand presidential comments it attracts. That said, before something become possible, you first have to believe in it, so in the spirit of reciprocity, perhaps compulsory voting should be Australia’s little light on the hill.

Selective Contraction of the Voter Supply

Steven Landsburg offers some advice to the altruist:

Every now and then, some eccentric altruist gathers up his assets and donates them to the United States Treasury. As a result, our current or future tax bills must fall. The beneficiaries are the many millions of U.S. taxpayers, each of whom experiences a tiny reduction in his tax burden. But we do not all benefit equally. Those of us in the highest tax brackets—by and large, the richest Americans—collect disproportionate shares of the gift.

An alternative strategy for the altruist would be to convert his assets to cash and, instead of giving them to the Treasury, hold a bonfire. The result is essentially the same… your share of the benefits is proportional not to your tax bill but to the quantity of cash you happen to be holding at the moment of the bonfire.

There has been some discussion about whether or not to vote. The argument in stages can be read in the pages above.

I am of the I-don’t-vote camp. That has afforded me certain ethical peace over the last year, especially when I found myself offering policy advice to hopeful politicians. I felt I could be more objective and more bold in my presentation of advice than I likely would have been had I had a dog in the fight.

I continue to dwell in my I-don’t-vote position for a few reasons. First, my vote is probabilistically indecisive. Second, the space between available platforms is not really all that big. Third, who is elected does not matter all that much, and should not matter at all.

I will add a new justification momentarily.

I am on record decrying that “all reform is a fail.”

I am utterly pessimistic about the capacity for an organization founded upon the monopoly of force to be capable of positive action, or reform that justly compensates those harmed by a change in policy. In Landsburg’s model above, I would expect the Treasury to leverage any bequeathment through some sort of multiplier into further indebting the remaining taxpayers. I agree, the bonfire is a much better idea.

And here is where I part from the bleeding heart libertarians who believe in reform. They have not as of yet been sufficiently disappointed by past reforms. It has been too easy to allow one’s perspective to be biased by only observing the survivors of past reforms. The uncompensated and other losers fall out of the data.

Similarly, I part with many religious economists. There are those who attempt to justify markets as moral from a particular theological point of view. They are really interested in defending the status quo. Those positions tend to privilege their own theological priors because the advocate is an ultimate beneficiary. I cannot remember ever having read a free-market-Anabaptist point of view other than my own. I should suspect that I am wrong.

Both parties can point to peaceful and beneficial resolution of collective action problems through private agencies and local levels of governance. They think those processes can be transferred to higher levels of governance. Often a wise or benevolent executive is presumed. Among the doctrinaire, dominionism (the idea that God’s Chosen should seek to fill every public office, and the eschaton will obtain once they do) is not uncommon.

My contention is that collective action problems resolved outside institutions founded on violence are different in kind from collective action problems resolved through voting.

My new justification for not voting is that in stark comparison to some who advocate the exclusion of particular voices from the ballot box, my abdication from that platform amplifies the voices of others. As a married white male protestant with education, it may behoove me more than anyone else not to vote.

It should be clear that when some urge libertarians to vote, they really mean libertarians like themselves, libertarians like me (though with a different attitude). They really want to amplify their own voices, and are demonstrably unwilling and uninterested in learning from other voices. They want to be libertarian dominionists.

They miss the idea that democracy is about deliberation and skip straight to decision, in the same way that mainstream economists skip straight over choice and jump to optimization, in the same way that I am prone to mansplaining, and in the same way that white churches like to be in control of racial reconciliation efforts with black churches.

The New Bondage

Adam has been mighty preachy lately. Now we are all to blame, as he puts it, “Morality is not a guide for living a blameless life. It is not a method for keeping your hands unsoiled by culpability.” Thus the malady. Later, the means: “Above all, [acceptance] is seeing everyone as well as yourself for their ugliness and their beauty and loving them for both.” Here endeth the lesson.

coexist

But we’re left without an end. Why would I want to do this? After all, we’ve been subject to several homilies whose rhetoric is designed to discourage me from doing much of anything of this nature. For example, in The Morality of Futility, Adam writes, “Our moral sphere should not be stretched beyond the scale appropriate for an individual human life.” This is early Adam Gurri, of course. What about something more recent? Here he is less than a year removed from this recent spate of moralizing: “The bigger your ambitions, the worse the consequences for your flaws.”

Ah. So we see the connecting principles, revealing that we do not have a contradiction, but an exchange, and not necessarily an exchange of one ideal for another, but an exchange of emphasis. Telescopic Morality, as a pejorative, emphasizes vocation, i.e., doing the tasks at hand, inasmuch as one is able; Culpabilitarianism, on the other hand, emphasizes accepting responsibility for the condition of the cosmic order, with the moral impulsion to do something about it. “We must,” Adam pleads. “Thou shalt.”

So Adam would bind us.


One of my best friends in the whole world informed me that he does not buy anything made in China, and, in attempt to bind me in his moral world, he implied that neither should I. He made it clear that he was not making a Buy American argument; he was making a moral argument: child slave labor is morally wrong, and any moral person would not support child slave labor. “Well, actually…” I began, followed by an explanation of world markets, noting that his slightly more expensive hecho in Mexico shoes would be exponentially more expensive were child slavery abolished, seeing as how demand for non-slave labor would drive the price of cheaply made shoes to the point where the poor could not afford shoes, just like it was before Chinese child slave labor.

Indeed, we participate in evil.

Now what? Do we close world markets? Do we shut down food factories? Do we go to war against China? And on what basis? On our moral purity? What a fanciful idea! What fantasy!

Thus we are doubly bound, both with the moral imperative to decry immorality, paired with the added moral imperative to accept culpability. And then what? What shall we do then? How do we bear in mind the rhetoric of culpability when we have no moral norm beyond solipsistic striving? How do I actually accomplish culpability? Do I work it off?

This is the impulse behind leftist ideology, and it has been for a century and a half, in its modern incarnation, namely that civilization is deeply flawed, and benefits materially from obvious evil (a term which, in a post-religious context, has been termed materialistically, but still carries the same moral freight): government policy has become primarily social policy, progressives, liberals, anarcho-fascists, leftists, Marxists, and whatever nomenclature whichever sect of the Left you can derive–policy is about forcibly righting moral wrongs; freedom is anathema because free people are culpable in evildoing. They are at fault. They must work harder at love. We will see to it.

It is no wonder that civilization developed a hankering for an all-powerful, all-seeing, personal God who could hold us accountable, ultimately. Our ancestors even developed the notion of an eschaton, at which point this personal God would judge us, each individually, those who did good going to heaven, those who did evil going to hell. Alas! What if God has caught you committing evil? Not to worry: you can buy him off, either with money, a tithe of your firstfruits, or with the blood of a common beast or the most-evolved animal.

But now we have acceptance as a choice. I accept that I am culpable. For we are convinced that neither witness nor the outcry of the human heart, nor all the evidence of good and evil, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, armies, wars, bureaucracy, legislation, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all the cold happenstance of existence, will be able to separate us from the discoverable truths. We shall identify and overcome, expunging evils one by one.

Who will accuse me? I may accept culpability, but there is now no condemnation.

We Are All To Blame

Featured Image is The Third of May 1808, by Francisco Goya

We are all to blame, we are all to blame…and if only all were convinced of it!

-Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Demons

Morality is not a guide for living a blameless life. It is not a method for keeping your hands unsoiled by culpability.

I do not know if anyone really believes that it is, but I have noticed many talk as if it were so.

The conversation goes like this: Bob talks about how Jane fell short of some exacting moral standard, and thus shares the blame for something wicked. Jill points out that Bob himself has fallen short of that or some other exacting standard, and thus shares the blame for the same thing or something else. Heather turns around and pulls the same thing on Jill.

In short, they proceed by negation.

This game can go on indefinitely; many never escape it. It takes a big leap to see that no one can be blameless. Our hands are always dirty, just by living in this world, supported by institutions which require an ocean of blood to create and maintain. As social creatures we always stand in relationship to other people, and these relationships always involve an element of domination and hurt.

Once you make this leap, only two paths remain open to you.

The first is nihilism. The blame game and the standards are both negated entirely. The players become disenchanted; everything beautiful about the world becomes entirely obscured by ugliness. Institutions become just tools of power, relationships become just relationships of domination.

The second is acceptance. Seeing the ugliness in the world and in ourselves, and taking ownership of it. Accepting responsibility for having a place in this world, and confronting your own wrongdoings. Above all, it is seeing everyone as well as yourself for their ugliness and their beauty and loving them for both. You must be able to do this in order to accept the world. If ugliness irreparably tarnishes the beautiful for you, then you will end up either rejecting the world, or falling into self-deception.

This path is much more difficult than the other, and more difficult still than the idle chatter of the blame game. It is a wonder that we ever find acceptance, even for a fleeting moment.

I don’t imagine I can convince you to seek this acceptance. But I hope that you can see that, although you are not blameless, you are worthy of love.

 

Voting as a collective action problem

A common criticism of libertarian philosophy is that it can’t handle collective action problems: That a totally voluntary society lacks the tools to build lighthouses, prevent over-fishing, or ensure we all get our vaccines.

In response, libertarians developed a branch economics dedicated to showing how collective action problems can be solved with voluntary cooperative arrangements. Elinor Ostrom’s work was particularly important for arguing that, under the right conditions, norms and civil society can evolve to govern the commons from the bottom up.

There are obviously limits to informal norms, however. For one, they are easy to undermine through appeals to rationalistic arguments. After all, norms exist to enforce cooperative arrangements that would otherwise be unstable. That suggests it is always possible for a sophist to jeopardize collective action by appealing to their peer’s individually rational, myopic reasons for action (“Just catch one more fish, no one will notice.”), and with each person who defects it becomes more tempting for everyone else to defect.

Voting represents an interesting test case for the robustness of voluntary solutions to collective action problems. After all, any single individual’s vote is mathematically insignificant, and yet they add up to be significant.

Yet many of the same libertarians who insist that norms and civil society can solve large scale collective action problems also insist that voting is individually irrational, and therefore abstain. This merely affirms the worries of many that the libertarian emphasis on individual rationalism contains the seeds of its own unravelling with respect to collective action.

Of course, that we vote in large numbers at all is in some sense a vindication of Ostrom and her school of economics. We cement the norm of voting with the help of overlapping institutions like political parties, religious congregations, unions, non-profits, membership clubs, and not to mention friends and family. We communicate voting intention to other individuals within these groups, which are small enough to reinforce a mutual expectation of follow through. Groups in turn coordinate with other groups, like when a local union coordinates with its other chapters. Pretty quickly a meagre individual vote becomes amplified into the hugely consequential endorsement of a union federation or influential political action committee.

I therefore don’t believe libertarians are totally sincere when they make the “voting is irrational” argument. Or, more to the point, I suspect it is a case of motivated reasoning. For one, it is cognitively dissonant with their optimism about voluntary collective action in other spheres (“collective action for me but not for thee”). And second, it seems to spring from their mood-aversion to electoral politics more generally, which suggests it is a kind of “technique of neutralization“—that is, a proactive way of rationalizing defection from societal norms that one finds inconvenient.

Other libertarians double down on their mood-aversion and argue that voting is inherently immoral or distasteful, possibly because it involves participating in a coercive enterprise. This view confuses me the most, especially when paired with the “voting is ineffectual” view. Which is it? An inherent vice or an astronomically insignificant form of self-expression? There is no pressing need for a new norm against voting anyway, just like there is no need for a norm for littering, overfishing or free-riding off of herd immunity. Those behaviors all fall out of individually rational human action. They are what is left in the absence of coordination.

Motivated reasoning is just the generous interpretation. The less generous one is that the average libertarian is tragically bereft of the social capital needed to leverage idiosyncratic beliefs and motivations into collective action. There may be some truth to that. If you thought it was hard to herd cats, try herding philosophical anarchists.

The even less generous view is that libertarianism represents a self-defeating memeplex, a mind virus that handicaps its host so badly that it ceases to spread. Indeed, if you wanted to actively hobble the labor movement, say, wouldn’t you want to plant agent provocateurs within their ranks to charismatically defend the game theoretic logic of being a scab? Or better yet, that being a scab is just and noble?

As a matter of fact, that is more or less what happened in the 1960s. It was called the New Left, and their congenital aversion to norm-conformity hobbled the progressive movement’s ability to influence institution change for a generation. Now the right is having it’s own countercultural moment with the alt-right, which, with some libertarian fellow travelers, is trying in vain to affect social change through various forms of culture jamming and norm subversion.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

With activists like this, maybe muh roads won’t be built after all.

 

Voting at the Edge of the Abyss

Anyone who has engaged with even a handful of libertarians in their time is familiar with their disapproval of voting. There are three kinds of reasons for this disapproval: rationalistic, moral, and the hybrid of democratic pollution. I want to admit at the outset that once upon a time I subscribed to each of these arguments. I now believe I was wrong on all counts.

Voting reductionism

The likelihood that your vote will sway any given election of more than several dozen people is vanishing. Unless the decision hinged on a single vote, then no single individual’s vote made a difference. You could have stayed home and the outcome would have been the same. So far so good. But it does not follow that you shouldn’t vote.

Libertarians make a lot of noise about how, given these quantitative probabilistic aspects of voting, your time would be spent far better doing literally anything (praying for rain, injecting heroin into your eyeball, whatever) than painstakingly adjusting your schedule to fit in the time to laboriously trudge uphill in the snow both ways to the polling station. Voting in a modern democracy isn’t some Herculean task, and voting by mail makes it quite easy for the kinds of people who read these arguments. Further, the libertarians who make this argument rarely apply the same exacting standards of efficiency for other aspects of life. Arguing with people on the Internet about how inefficient voting is on rationalistic utilitarian grounds isn’t a promising way to rack up your own utils.

This argument also implicitly assumes that the only value of voting lies in its impact on the probability of swaying the election. But this misses the point. When we talk about how we plan to vote, we are engaging in political dialogue with one another. When we explain our reasons for how we plan to vote, we’re educating ourselves about the salient arguments. Admittedly this can be done well or poorly, and our tribal instincts make it all too easy to seek out confirmation of our biases. In any case we’re potentially influencing outcomes with our reasons, not just our votes. And of course voting is a symbolic act as well. It signals to others your commitment to the civic order.

Neither ballots nor bullets

Some libertarians view voting as an act of aggression. On this view, by casting your vote for some candidate, you shoulder at least some portion of moral responsibility for that candidate’s actions in office. You consent to that candidate’s political power, and to that extent lend them legitimacy. Without such consent, whatever evils the candidate visits upon the people would be those of a common brigand or non-democratic tyrant. With your consent, you too are culpable.

This argument has some force. Voters must indeed pay attention to the consequences of their voting. If you participate in the election of a monster, and there was ample evidence for a reasonable person to predict the consequent harms, then, all else equal, you are at least partially culpable for the carnage.

But of course, how often is all else really equal? Voters are never given angels among their options, but two or more flawed candidates, one of whom will surely prevail. Moreover, candidates are not measured along a single dimension, but along numerous dimensions including character traits in addition to policy proposals. Voters must gauge those traits and policies not just on their own merits in a vacuum, but how they will likely play out in their social and political context (Will their plans be stymied by other political actors? Does the candidate’s party affiliation and the structure of the electoral system preclude the candidate’s chance at success?). And especially for high offices, a candidate should be assessed by their rhetoric and soft power. What passions might they evoke in their supporters? Will lynchings be given tacit approval, even if there isn’t an official lynching policy?

Fiat justitia ruat caelum?

This complexity doesn’t remove moral accountability from voting, but it does mean that assessing the morality of a vote is not at all straightforward. It requires assessing the reasons why you vote the way you do. The same vote may be praiseworthy or blameworthy depending on the supporting justifications. I’ll use the current pressing example. Libertarians are rightly critical of Clinton for a number of reasons, most notably her history of military hawkishness and its deadly consequences for innocent people abroad. Libertarians generally also find Trump loathsome for his clear strongman style authoritarianism and narcissism, in addition to his blatant sexism and his evocation and legitimization of rank bigotry.

Some neoconservatives will vote for Clinton at least in part because they wish to preserve American military hegemony in the world. To the extent this is their justification, I think they’re culpably wrong. So, does voting for Clinton necessarily imply bestowing your stamp of approval on ongoing campaigns of aerial drone terror? Clearly not. One might reasonably believe that, while Clinton has her problems, they’re the status quo problems we’re used to. Whereas Trump represents a “high variance” threat to our very institutions, the kind of threat that could lead to chaos and devastation impacting far more people than our current flawed system, while simultaneously crippling our best tools for improving the system.

Consider a more concrete example: a Muslim American chooses to vote for Clinton, not because she is unaware of Clinton’s hawkishness, but because she is terrified that a Trump presidency will result in pogroms and prison camps for her friends and loved ones, all while in all likelihood doing nothing to abate the bloodshed abroad. Condemning this person’s vote because “voting is an act of aggression” or because Clinton will predictably authorize actions that hurt and kill other people is implausible. Our voter has done her due diligence, and after carefully weighing the alternatives, she has reasonably concluded voting for Clinton is her best moral option.

Importantly, our voter acknowledges that her vote is not without a “moral remainder,” a degree of inevitable moral tragedy. Voting as she does is the best option available among a set of imperfect options, but that doesn’t mean she won’t feel bad for the specific Clintonian damage that proceeds. Our responsible voter is obligated to criticize the Clinton administration’s failures.

But the moral remainder is not unique to voting. The electorally abstinent anarchist suffers his own moral remainders. If Trump wins and all the predictable race- and religion-based violence, institutional corrosion, and setbacks to US-world relations ensue, then our anarchist nonvoter bears some of blame. This doesn’t change if Trump loses; in this case the anarchist will merely have enjoyed the good fortune that their abstinence (and their political dialogue running up to the election) failed to contribute to a much worse outcome. Abstaining from voting isn’t like accepting Christ’s blood. It does nothing to wash away the moral consequences of our political actions, which include acts of commission and omission.

On Gary Johnson

What I’ve said above applies to voting libertarians as well as nonvoting anarchists. There are really good reasons to vote for Gary Johnson, especially in a vacuum. On foreign policy and immigration especially, I think a Johnson administration would be far and away superior (especially if minimizing dead bodies is your thing). But we’re not in a vacuum. We’re in a two-party system where the chance of Johnson winning is infinitesimal and depends on fanciful scenarios like winning a single state (already improbable) that prevents either Trump or Clinton from getting to 270 electoral college votes (still more improbable) and then further depends on the House of Representatives (where there are no libertarians I can think of) to conclude Johnson is the best option.

Even in this case, voting for Johnson could be laudable as a protest vote—thus signaling both your dissatisfaction with the two parties and your desire to see more libertarian political options—but only if you genuinely see no substantive differences between the two major party candidates. But at the risk of imputing bad motives, if you see no substantive differences between Clinton and Trump, then you might have fallen victim to the reflexive, feel-good rational irrationality you so often decry in Republicans and Democrats.

It didn’t have to be this way. There was a window of time where it was conceivable that the anti-Trump voices within the Republican party might have loudly coalesced around Johnson/Weld as the best option for Republicans, and it might have been a very interesting three-way race where Republicans could have lost to Clinton while maintaining their dignity and libertarians could have set the stage for future campaigns as a serious political party. But this window has closed, and it’s pure fantasy to pretend otherwise. Johnson voters too will bear the moral remainder of protest-voting on the edge of the abyss.

Polluting the polls

Some libertarians aren’t hostile to democracy outright, but caution against demanding that people vote, or making voting morally mandatory. Voting is beset by problems of rational ignorance and rational irrationality. Why encourage voting when we can expect most voters to bring nothing but their biases into the booth with them? I accept this argument, and in general I don’t encourage people who aren’t otherwise inclined to go out of their way to vote. It’s far better to encourage other kinds of civic behavior. If you aren’t going to vote well, don’t vote.

That said, the libertarians I have in mind throughout this piece are politically inclined, and they are politically informed, and they’re already engaged in political dialogue. These are people who could vote well, but they choose not to. By conscientiously (sanctimoniously?) not voting, or voting for a third party candidate who can realistically only nudge the electoral outcome to one major party candidate or the other, these libertarians are themselves at risk of polluting the political process.

trust

Two kinds of trust

In pre-modern, small scale societies, trust was multi-lateral: Everyone knew everyone. This was robust to any one individual being untrustworthy, but had real trouble scaling. If someone new came to town she would have to earn the trust of every node in the network—a problem that grew in proportion to the population.

So in the modern era (and long before it as well—the modern era is just when we mastered it) we replaced multi-lateral networks of trust with bi-lateral trusted intermediaries. This was an incredible innovation from the perspective of scaling cooperation. Persons A and B could trade and borrow from one and other while being total strangers, given their mutual, bi-lateral trust of C.

trust

Who or what is C? C has represented many different things throughout history. The state. Markets. Banks. MasterCard. Uber. With the help of lots and lots of Cs we were able to scale from simple gift economies to the complex and deeply integrated society we have today.

This change occurred must faster than our brains could adapt. As apes evolved for smaller scale society we have therefore not extricated our craving for microcosms of multi-lateral trust: family, friends, community, and so forth. This seems to be what social scientists are measuring when they report some countries as “higher trust” than others. These are societies that have, to varying degrees, decentralized the bilateral institutions in order to promote greater multilateralism. In doing so, these societies trade-off some scale efficiency and assimilative capacity in exchange for greater robustness and, presumably, reduced feelings of social-alienation.

Yet if this is right it is incredibly misleading to call such societies “high trust” as if the others are not. Rather, they are high in a particular kind of trust. It’s only the bilateral model that lets two complete strangers engage in a multi-phase, high stakes project without having to trust each another one bit. Instead, each trusts the underwriting of the intermediary institutions. There is the same amount of effective trust, as manifest in productive cooperation, but it comes with much less cognitive burden. You don’t have to keep mental track of your colleague’s reputation, or whether their ideological and cultural preferences match yours. Nor do you have to worry about collecting debts or punishing bad behavior. That’s all been offloaded and outsourced. The trust, in other words, still exists, but is embodied in the environment and institutions, rather than in our heads.

Even in so-called high trust societies, this latter sort of trust is still doing most of the work in the background. We just don’t notice it by design. Conversely, many societies measured as low trust may in fact be quite high in multilateral trust, but in a way that is localized to pockets without the bilateral institutions needed for effective interfacing.

Thus when a country is described as low trust I stop and ask myself “what sort of trust?” There may be a lot of virtue in an, as measured, low trust society if it better facilitates the rapid integration of newcomers, a greater diversity of lifestyles, and larger scale cooperation. After all, impersonal interactions are not a bad thing. They’re the stuff of civilization.

Praise for the Judgmental

Featured image is a self-portrait of Joseph Ducreaux

Let’s talk about courage for a spell. Here are a few scenarios that require courage:

  • Going into a battle
  • Standing up to a bully, especially a physically larger one
  • Highballing a salary requirement for a job you are emotionally invested in getting
  • Lowballing your offer on the house you’ve fallen absolutely in love with

There are degrees, and there are qualitative differences, but it is still appropriate to speak of courage in each case.

Here are two ways you might take this:

  1. The word “courage” can mean many things—indeed, it can be used to mean just about anything, because words only mean what we use them to mean. Therefore it isn’t inappropriate, but the use in each case means something entirely different.
  2. Using “courage” across all of them points to some sense in which there is a true unity. Within this perspective, we can agree or disagree on whether a given scenario ought to be included, while still agreeing that a big plurality of types of scenarios can be unified in just this way.

Whether or not he means to, it seems to me that Akiva is committed to a version of the first one, whereas I am committed to the second. Most of the problems we see in one another’s perspectives flows from this fundamental disagreement.

Continue reading “Praise for the Judgmental”

The Greatest Country on Earth

At some point in, I think, 2003 or 2004, I was sitting on the rooftop of a quite pleasant and dirt cheap hotel in Marrakesh, as a morning of medina chaos unfurled around us. I was meeting some new American friends–North Eastern educated types (you know, the “good” kind of American)–and the hospitable Moroccans were cooking us breakfast.

“Over easy” was the request. It was met with polite, faltering confusion from our local server. “Over easy?” asked the American again, with a confused, rising inflection. While I winced, my new friend tried again. I can’t recall if they compromised on scrambled or fried, but there was ultimately a mild, but clearly palpable American irritation at the state of the eggs.

My fellow Sweet Talker, John David Duke Jr, musters a poetic defense of Americans (or, perhaps, indictment of anti-Americanism) in these pages. While I’m less poetic, I do like America. I am actually rather happy to defend it, and will on occasion do so. In fact, I like it and its denizens so much that I have spent the past seven years in the fine metropolis of New York City and, for so long as the capricious immigration bureaucracy continues to smile upon me, I will stay. It is partly for this reason I feel obliged to share with my American friends the reasons why you are disliked. Spoiler: it is not because of your freedoms.

It is because of your unshakeable belief in your exceptionalism. It is because you cannot believe you have anything to learn from other nations. On healthcare: “Single payer health care may work in those other countries, but it won’t work in America.” “Well, yes, we pay too much for healthcare, but we do have the best in the world!” On gun control: “Well, it may have worked in Australia but America is different.” Don’t even get me started on the controversy over the mere citation (citation!) of foreign legal opinions in the Supreme Court. Much like teenagers convinced that they are the first to feel heartbreak, you think you are the first to encounter issues of civic policy.

It is because of your foreign policy. The “milquetoast” George W. Bush [see correction] presided over an unjust war, built on a lie, and yet the manner in which impolitic foreigners mentioned his “evil” nature chafes on you. Sure – those foreigners are guilty of rudeness, and unfairly demand of of you penance for the actions of your government. Sure – it’s shitty synecdoche, with you standing in for your nation. But you are surprised that they have a problem they want to talk to you about? That they burn to tell an American–any American–that it’s evil?

It is because of your obliviousness. It is because, to be petty for a moment, I cannot say “fortnight” and expect to be understood. It is because Ivy-league educated lawyers have never seen the word “whilst”. It is because you cannot name foreign capitals or find other nations on a map. It is because you cannot understand people with even mildly distinct accents in English

It is because, on the rooftop of a Marrakesh hotel, you are unaware that “over easy” is a uniquely American request.

But, honestly, you are not really to blame for these things. You enjoy one of the great blessings of hegemony–blissful ignorance–while the rest of the world cannot afford to be so foolish. And, yes, that hegemony is a burden you carry too

My suspicion is that any nation, rendered into an island by the sheer gulf of power from the next nearest, wrested further into factions by its own historical struggles, and drowning in the sheer volume of its own cultural output, would bear these same features. We’re all just trying to get by, and though the European left may imagine themselves more virtuous, history does not bear out the thesis that they are uncorrupted by power.

And so, by the power vested in me by no one at all, I absolve you of any sins, and forgive your confusion. But you should no longer be surprised.

Correction: The “milquetoast” Bush to which JDD Jr referred was Bush the elder, not W (and quite clearly so, on review), which does indeed make his story all the weirder. I really do regret the error.

The Repulsive American

Not long after the needle dropped on the new Wilco record, Schmilco, I heard the pejorative lyric “Always afraid of those normal American kids.” It’s a good song, for those of us alt-rock, alt-country, noise-rock fans (which I think has now become “Dad-rock”), but I immediately reacted negatively: do we have to have another cultural critique? Jeff Tweedy is a little older than I am, a GenXer in his 40s (he’s 49), so I know he’s heard how bad America is his whole life. When it comes to American culture, I have never seen or heard anything but criticism. What cultural or popular fad, meme, or trend has there ever been, in my lifetime, that praises normal American kids? Still, it’s a great song, very appropriate, reflecting my own experiences, yada yada yada…

When I was 21, I visited my uncle, who lives in Munich, a large city in Bavaria which has its own nefarious near history. In fact, at the time, he lived in a large house, even by American standards, on the Starnberger See, very close to the Schloss Neuschwanstein, Crazy King Luey’s swan song, before he kinda sorta drowned/was drowned before he could drain all the money from all the pockets in Bavaria to build it, and which inspired Walt Disney. Before both my feet had crossed the threshold to his home, my uncle declared, in his very best broken English, “George Bush is evil.” Those were his first words to me; I’d never met him before. Here is my nephew, the son of my beloved sister. I shall greet him, I the son of two Nazis, by deeming his head of state evil. 

This is the milquetoast George H. W. Bush, by the way.

Eventually, I shrugged it off, the offense redeemed by some grilled weisswurst and enormous pretzels. Oh, and beer.

It is my great fortune to work in Canada three days a week, but Canadian cuisine is not quite enough to redeem the same offenses, which are given on a weekly basis, especially now that Trump is threatening to take over the nuclear codes, surely damning the world to a nuclear winter. But even twelve years ago, long before Trump was a national political figure, the greeting was tinged with America is evil.

A student of mine this fall, even, a gentleman from Punjab, an immigrant to Canada, one of those fellows who really is smarter than the professor (and by a long shot), but who is kind enough not to shame me, said, when I first introduced myself to him, without any context nor any provocation, “America can’t be number one. No way, not with seventeen percent literacy. American can’t be number one.” Perhaps he said seventy-six percent; I don’t remember. I shrugged, being a guest in a very nice country Nevertheless, this unprovoked outburst against America was telling, and it did fertilize a few thoughts.

Why did he instantly refer to America’s literacy rate? That was interesting. His rhetorical move, there, was reminiscent of that notorious clip from The Newsroom, in which Jeff Daniels lists off all the things that demonstrably takes America down a few pegs. How long ago was that? Five years ago? Who was expressing pride in America five years ago? When was the last time you heard anyone of any intellectual or cultural capacity uttering the jingoistic “We’re number one!”? Donald Trump’s campaign slogan assumes the exact opposite! Jeff Daniels’ speech, of course, is an American Left wet dream, filled with metrics. America can’t possibly be number one. I mean, you’ve got to watch out for those normal American kids.

I was visiting other family over there, in Germany, which put me in the working and middle class neighborhoods throughout the region of Baden-Wurttemberg, you know, Stuttgart, Karlsruhe, and Baden-Baden. Traveling back and forth to see grandparents (divorced), uncles, and cousins put me on the mass transit system many afternoons, where I could witness the behavior of normal German kids, just released from their literacy-building centers. Lookit, you’ve got to believe me when I tell you: German culture has never actually forsworn pagan culture. After seeing that unceasing cacophony day after day, I honestly don’t know how Western Civilization is going to survive, guided by those normal German kids.

Why literacy? Why did he glom onto that metric? How is literacy associated with greatness? When was America ever first in literacy? Was America ever great?

It must be discomfiting for the many non-Americans who must answer to this great nation, the United States of America, observing that it is truly ruled by stupid and superstitious people. And I know, for example, that my Punjab student, like so many who were given just a tiny advantage in birth, who took care of that advantage so that he might by careful living and hard work emigrate from a crowded, impoverished, violent hellhole to a great nation of peace and freedom like Canada, must be infuriated to see Americans laze about, scratching their full bellies, living like kings, and squealing about the unfairness of a little state redistribution, the hypocrites. There’s no way America can be number one, no way, not ruled by people like that. My God, they might even elect Donald Trump!

Is America great? It can’t be, can it? Not now, not run by those whose names appear on the first page of the Boston area phone book. It should be run by those whose names appear atop the Dean’s List at Harvard and MIT; then America would be great. In that day and at that time (may it hasten unto us!), policy would align with carefully investigated and researched university and foundation policy papers, and America could truly take its place in the pantheon of all the other run-of-the-mill social democracies, without error and with social justice. That would be greatness, greatness which can be measured according to so many delightful metrics.

As for me, I far prefer pursuing happiness, over against just about anything else. To me, true national greatness is a nation whose domestic policy is less policy, more distrust of government implementation, whose justice is worked out as locally as possible. I suppose the vestiges of that ideal are being cleaned up and swept away, regardless of whichever evil we choose this November. I think it is true now, as it was true then: “Always afraid of those normal American kids.”

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