What do you want?




One day someone may offer to fulfill your wishes and dreams. The question is, are they an honest dealer, or are they concealing the cost of their help and the size of the benefits they can actually provide?

This Wish Seller may be a car salesmen, but the Wish Seller that’s most dangerous is the politician seeking power. Voting, for better or worse, does not work on a “cash on delivery” system. You vote now for the guy who promises to fulfill your wishes in the future, whether by passing a law you desire or raising a tax that will be spent for your benefit. 

In comments to my previous post, AG asks if people who are angry at institutions that fail to delivery “the goods” will moderate their expectations over time, or if people will continue to expect governments to deliver the impossible (leading to cycles of instability). 

Now we are getting into pure conjecture, but I think two things will happen.

Firstly, the violent revolutions will eventually stop. The institutions and forms of governance that are necessary to meet basic needs on Maslow’s Hierarchy are well known, globally. Only pockets of ideological resistance (such as Bolivarian Venezuela or among the crazier Islamnic cults like Boko Haram) remain (a.k.a., the “End of History” has arrived). The nations which have not caught up to the developed world (like Peru) have done so due to lazy cronies being in power, not out of ignorance of the benefits of property rights and rule of law (as Hernando de Soto proves). Eventually, enough revolutions will see all the bad actors out of power and replaced. This may take three, four or more revolutions in some of the harder case countries, but I’m fairly confident that the digital egalitarian society will keep working this problem until it’s solved.

Secondly, there’s a difference between the people who want things that can be delivered (e.g., low taxes and a tolerable administration of justice) verses people who want things that cannot be delivered (e.g., large scale socialism or government benefits that exceed the tax base). Category 1 people will eventually get what they want, and Category 2 people will eventually learn, however hard a case they are, and thus cycles of instability will eventually peter out in both cases.

Why am I confident about Category 2 eventually learning? The reason is that it’s just impossible for a Walter Duranty to exist in today’s world. Any bald-faced lie in the news is quickly debunked, and the reasons why are at least available for those willing to hear. Only systems of near-total media control (as practiced in modern China and North Korea) can produce false information faster than the digitally-egalitarian public can produce and process truth. And on a long enough time scale, I don’t see Chinese or Korean-style regimes of control lasting forever, if only because nothing lasts forever and once they collapse it’s really hard to put them back in place.

The above means that the record of success and failure will be plainly available for all to read. There will always be holdouts who, for emotional reasons, refuse to see the truth about one thing or another, but I expect that democratic majorities of people will prove open enough and morally flexible enough to judge the facts for themselves and vote accordingly. (And if you don’t believe me, you’re far too cynical. The view of the voting public obviously changes over time. Almost no one self-identifies as a Communist anymore, and just look how quickly the world has moved on acceptance of Gays. Change happens)

And hopefully, when that Wish Seller next comes along, the voting majority will know the correct response:



Smaller, Better, Faster, Stronger

My co-blogger Adam Gurri reviews his father’s new book over at the Umlaut. I haven’t read the book myself yet, so this is response is based on AG’s review (which I assume is honest and fair). I’m sure the book is great throughout and everyone should read it in its entirety, but today we are just sticking to the topic’s raised by AG.

[In this piece I’m going to refer to Adam’s dad as “Martin” in order to avoid confusion over usage of the name Gurri, and I’m going to refer to Adam as “AG” in order to avoid confusion with myself]

I want to posit that I agree with Martin that the Internet generally (and “social media” specifically, which is a term I use broadly to include wherever online identity has persistence – Twitter and Facebook of course, but also WhatsApp, message boards of all sorts, AIM, Second Life, etc.) has an erosive effect on all kinds of pre-Internet power structures. What we are seeing is a two-fold change in the rate of information flow, both of the changes feeding on each other to multiply the rate of social change. In respect, we are seeing more information flowing from “what institutions do” to “what the public knows” at a faster rate and from more directions compared to any historical free press (limited by the technology of a previous era). And second we are seeing an increase of information among the public, both on public forums like Twitter and in private peer-to-peer technologies like WhatsApp or the humble SMS message. Together these flows both increase the incentives and lower the costs to act collectively.

I further agree with Martin and AG’s belief that this is related to the soft power of “legitimacy”. It is my belief that all revolutions and wars for independence, at least since the invention of the modern firearm, are a crisis of legitimacy in the previous regime. Just look at what is going on this last week in Iraq, where a fairly small force (7,000) of ISIS fighters was able to route a force forty times its size and take over the second-largest city in Iraq. Neither the Iraqi army nor the Iraqi people in Mosul were able to organize an effective response. Does anyone believe that ISIS would have similar luck in Tel Aviv? Not in a million years, because even if the Israeli army was unable to intervene for some reason, the Israeli people themselves would resist ISIS violently and effectively. And I have no doubt the same would be true in Rome or Dallas-Forth Worth. There can be no stronger proof that the Iraqi people (both its army and its citizens) just don’t believe that their current collection of institutions is worth fighting for.

Note however that two paragraphs above I use the term erosive, rather than corrosive, and this is where I start to disagree with the tone of Martin’s book (as far as I can tell from AG’s review). Corrosive implies an acidic, damaging, eating away of useful things. Erosion is what happens when inflexible objects are caught between water and water’s desired destination. Water flows downhill, and not even the greatest mountain can stand in its way forever.

I think the effect that Martin is describing is real, but see it as very good for humanity in the long run. I also disagree that the unrest seen in places like Egypt or Tunisia (or even the United States) is united solely by a wish to negate the current regime. When that poor man in Tunisia lit himself on fire (a very impressive bit of rhetoric-by-action), the people rallied around a cause to make things better. They weren’t just against the institutions in place, they were for economic opportunity and a “better deal” than the one they had. Likewise, the protesters in Tahrir Square are not just for “anyone but Mubarak” – a fragmented majority of them were aware of the human rights available in Europe, and wanted them, while another plurality of protesters were aware of the orthodox Islamic governance available in other parts of the world, and wanted that (like ISIS does).

Are these goals vague? Some of them. But we will also see that as the process of revolution and reassessment continues to iterate, we should expect people to learn from their success or lack thereof. Another Occupy Wall St. (OWS) is incredibly unlikely precisely because the first one produced no lasting results. The lessons of OWS are also archived for anyone to read going forward, available globally, so that the lessons will spread further and remain with us longer.

Globally, egalitarian society is now moving, learning, and changing inside the OODA Loop of every pre-Internet institution, and this is the test that will reveal every reason for desertion. Only institutions with fundamentally sound practices, that genuinely meet the needs of the people within its writ, will not suffer a crisis of legitimacy in the near future. And this is a good thing indeed, as the bad passes through the meat grinder into history and only the institutions which genuinely meet our needs remain.

Just be thankful that if you’re reading this, you (probably) live in a country that will (probably) go through this process democratically.

Whence Irrationality?

Spivonomist acknowledges our ship is overcome by a fogbank, declaring, “I irrationally want people to act well of their own accord, to work towards developing excellence in themselves and within their communities without having to be bribed.” We battle-weary sailors are grateful to find our feet upon terra firma, and as soon as our sea-legs can carry us to the saloon, we commence the battle to forget our misery.

One of our crew stumbles to his next stop, and she snares him, saying, “Hello, sailor, I will love you a long time.” She is appealing to his strength, namely that a man who has been, until moments ago, interminably upon the swells, and is now soused, should need a long time for love, that is, if he can, indeed, love. They agree upon a contract for the archetypical euvoluntary exchange, and he goes into her home, emerging after ten minutes of ecstasy, now short a few drachmas and the last few fragments of his soul.

Virtue Ethics is seductive because it appeals to our strength. We sailors heady for the fray damn the torpedoes and the raging seas for a time, but soon we find ourselves under the command of a mysterious captain who is searching, ever searching, ever pursuing eudaimonia, when, all along, she is found ashore, near the saloon. If, indeed, we can love, we cannot love for a long time because we have participated in evil against our best desires, which torments us to exhaustion. A sailor can then acquire eudaimonia for a price, but makarismos is bestowed upon the weak. Not upon the evil-doers, to be sure, but to those whose battle against the seas has overcome them to the extent that they cannot even mutiny against the evil they so much despise. A wise man waits quietly for the wheel of justice to do its grinding.

The logic works, doesn’t it? Even if it’s irrational: with the bestowal of makarismos we are strengthened to raise up our heads, renewed to pursue eudaimonia into the darkest seas and in the darkness of the seashore.

Errata: Honor and Eudaimonia

PV writes:

Could honor have use value sufficient to stimulate optimal social production? Or, are there first mover advantages to an honorable person? Are there network effects to honor? If any of these questions deserves a yes (or even a maybe) then we have an economic theory as to why honor might be something that does not require external reward, i.e. honors. We have an economic theory explaining the Aristotelian intuition—honor is something you do without external reward. There are rewards internal to the behavior—especially in the long term—and no dire public good problem exists.

Important questions deserve serious answers. “Honor is its own reward” sounds nice, and it’s assuredly aspirational, but my training in economics urges me to think on the margin, so to speak. What motivates the next honorable act? So “could honor have use value sufficient to stimulate optimal social production?” For people with a natural propensity to act honorably, I reckon the answer is yes. External incentives are there for otherwise indecisive folks to behave honorably, even if honor isn’t otherwise a part of their character. 

I admit, this sticks in my craw a bit. Honorable behavior spurred by promises of acclaim are pallid, anemic. It ain’t eudaimonia. It’s makarismos. Consider DD‘s closing question ” why bother with all the labor of ethical virtuousness if I can get the same benefits without working?” The reason to bother is because sloth is a vice. It galls the sensibilities to be obliged to pay someone for virtuous behavior, even if the outcomes of the exchange are felicitous. It feels like dirty pool. Or maybe like a dirty pool. Whatever.

My complaint is chiefly aesthetic, I admit. Here I am bathed in the milk of peaceful voluntary exchange and it rankles me that there’s a market in virtue. I irrationally want people to act well of their own accord, to work towards developing excellence in themselves and within their communities without having to be bribed. I want eudaimonia. I have a hunch that the possibilities forwarded by Peter (first mover, network effects) are more likely to exist for eudaimonic honor than for makarismic “honor”, but that’s still just my own sense of right and wrong, and it’s as fallible as the garden of good and evil in which my ethics were cultivated.

Why Eudaimonia?

In an unacknowledged, but award-worthy tweet I asked, “Why is the telos of arete eudaimonia and not makarismos?” Since eudaimonia is the telos of arete (as developed since Classical times as Virtue Ethics), it has a well-known, broadly discussed definition, which you can find all over the place, starting here (I mean, ad fontes, eh?). But why not makarismos? The two words share most of the same semantic field, and any debate about what makarismos is vis-à-vis Virtue Ethics would fall along pretty much the exact same contour. I wonder, then, why the one over the other? Did they flip a drachma? Or does eudaimonia lend something to the Gestalt of Virtue Ethics that gives the term its advantage? Let’s explore just a bit. Consider the following diagram:


Except for the terms “acquired” and “bestowed,” each of the vocables within both semantic fields are read for both (I didn’t run a search on frequency distribution, but this is good enough). I have added the distinguishing terms, basically out of sense. When eudaimonia is read, generally the actor is active; when makarismos is read, generally the actor is passive. Divine beings, or those attributed as being divinities, possess eudaimonia. Naturally, those who are going about the work of ethical virtuousness are pursuing eudaimonia. Ethical virtuousness is not a requirement for the bestowal of makarismos.

A question, then, which I think is obvious: why bother with all the labor of ethical virtuousness if I can get the same benefits without working?

Before I ask, however, I pause: neither did I search for provenance. Perhaps makarismos is just a dirty, stinking, rotten Macedonian word, not fit for the sterile Athenian marketplace.



Ordinary Wisdom

Someone helped me once, when he discovered that I was looking for wisdom, by suggesting that I learn to put wisdom in some sort of taxonomic order. One is careful to observe that teasing out the characteristics of wisdom is no longer the seeking of wisdom, but a philosophical task, creating tools with which to seek wisdom. Here are the tools I developed, and I offer them here to further a conversation about wisdom. In addition, those of us within the traditions of Western Civilization may find the canon developed by the Akkadians and footnoted by all those who followed, namely the Babylonians, the Hittites, and the Phoenicians, with influence from the Egyptians, and later, the Hebrews and their west Canaanite coevals–we may find this canon, as it were, divisible into three recognizable cords.

the Great Cosmic order

a.k.a. natural law, but not quite natural law.

The first rule of wisdom is that there are no such things as rules in wisdom. There is, instead, an order which can be observed, in part, and can be attributed to a metaphysical force, or, in more secular terms, a mystical force which drives all things. The ancients observed that it would do well for the wise to create within themselves a place for an objective reality, inasmuch as an objective reality is possible under the influence of a metaphysical or mystical force. That is not to say that the ancients believed in an objective reality, but that they thought it wise to align oneself with phenomena which are observable (it is what it is).

For example, springtime is seedtime. Autumn is harvest. In between those times, the seed and the rain run their programs without any help from the farmer (except pest control, perhaps, but not contributing to the program of growth). If you get creative, you’ll starve to death, and, worse than that, you’ll be mocked and derided as a fool.

From there the concept of cosmic justice follows: if you are unjust, there will be retribution. So we have received from the ancients a few proverbs to that effect: “The wheels of justice grind slowly, but fine;” and, from the Judeo-Christian tradition: “Blood cries from the ground.”

Moreover, there is an inherent cruelty to the Great Cosmic Order. You may suffer for no particular reason and for no purpose, not because you did anything wrong, but because you are a piece in a game played by unseen authorities and powers. Eventually, however, the wheel grinds in your favor, but not before you acknowledge that “all flesh is grass” and “all is vanity.” Oh, and by the way, you may already be long dead before the wheels of justice get around to your case, but, you know, justice is still yours.

Therefore, the wise relax, trusting in the Great Cosmic Order to indicate when it might be time to sow and when it might be time to reap. Revolution is almost always a very bad idea, perhaps to overthrow a great injustice, but never to overthrow what is, no matter how cruel the evil from the Great Cosmic Order might be. Such as it is, the task distinguishing among the sources of evil and injustice is a heavy burden to the wise.

psychological wisdom

The wise are then instructed, once they have aligned themselves to the way things are, to look to themselves as individuals, finding answers to the question, “Am I up to the task of being me?” The initial answer is always, “No, but here’s some advice.”

First, and most importantly, a wise person acknowledges personal limits and attributes: you are who you are; moreover, you are a necessary component of the Great Cosmic Justice, so it is unwise to go about changing who you are. Even if you are successful in changing who you are, there will be retribution, one way or another.

For example, I (5’11”, 180 lbs., varsity letterman in high school basketball, but never elected to all-state, all-county, or all-city) greatly desired to be the next Michael Jordan (6’6″, 195 lbs., perennial NBA All-Star, driven by an extraordinary competitive will and could dunk from the top of the key). I was unhappy as long as I pursued this desire, listening to all the motivational product commercials (Just Do It) and environmental foolishness (Pain is just weakness leaving the body), in spite of good advice from coaches and my parents, who knew better, until I recognized that I am who I am, and my strengths and weaknesses are not conducive to a Hall of Fame career in the NBA. Thus I came to be wise, and the ancient proverb came to pass in my own life which says, “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.” If only I could have been like many of my peers who listened to advice before experiencing such bitter disappointment!

Thence I pursued a career in Linguistics…

Interpersonal Wisdom

The individual is next instructed to come into alignment with all those who are coming into alignment with the Great Cosmic Order and struggling with the task of being themselves. It is the most difficult task of wisdom for the easily observable eventuality that we are each situated in different dispositions all along the paths of wisdom. Much interpersonal wisdom is summarized thus: The wise keeps his mouth shut. Less breviloquent, but better: “The prudent conceals knowledge, but the heart of fools proclaims folly.”

Why? Well, who knows who is ready to listen to advice? And who knows if one is so wise as to be up to the task of giving it? One learns the answer not by giving advice, but by behaving as a guide, working out wisdom with humility: “One who is righteous is a guide to his neighbor, but the way of the wicked leads them astray.”

This last one, then, weaves together into one rope the cords of the Great Cosmic Order, the Psychological, and the Interpersonal, to form the ideal society: righteousness vs. wickedness; the righteous individual vs. the wicked ones; neighborliness vs. decadence.

Ordinary Wisdom

Wisdom is often cast as a drama taking place on the Cosmic Stage, usually a king, representing the transcendental, addressing his son(s), representing the mundane, but wisdom is also cast as a family matter, that is, father and mother addressing their children.  In my own observation, I have noted that wisdom is very rarely given as advice for good governance; it is almost always given for a happy household. A happy, content, and prosperous society is built upon the King and his sons or upon Mother and Father and their children. Even when wisdom is addressed to those who govern, it is to the heart of the individual, such as proverbs regarding bribery, usury, and favoritism, among others.

The implication is that wisdom is readily available, accessible with very little mediation from the highest heights right into the marketplace, the bedroom, and the dinner table. In fact, wisdom “shouts aloud in the marketplace” and at the crossroads for the simple, the wise, and the foolish alike. It is most certainly not a design to stratify people from one another, but to distinguish one from another as individuals valuable in small ways; it is to join them in a common endeavor of futility, which acknowledges that the end of wisdom is not in achievement, but in happiness.  Good governance is a by-product of wisdom in the household.

“Ashes to ashes;” “Be content that God gave you something to do while you wait for ashes.” “Whoever is slothful will not roast his game, but the diligent man will get precious wealth.”

“In the path of righteousness is life, and in its pathway there is no death” (Proverbs 12:28).

Why Batman Will Never Vote Tory

I read AB’s post on America’s Revolutionary past as follows:

Origin stories have power, as stories—not necessarily as factual accounts.

If Batman’s parents had been shot by Benjamin Disraeli, he would never vote Tory.

To be serious for a moment, AB points out that the ethos of America is fundamentally grounded in its Revolution, and revolutions are by definition not a conservative affair.

But could ours have been?

Let me submit to you that the Revolution was a revolution in name only, that it was really a war of independence. Wars of independence are very different from revolutions as we have come to understand the word after Paris in 1789. Countries of a fairly conservative character have fought each other over territorial disputes and to break out of the hold of a particular empire for as long as mankind has had military organization.

The American Revolution involved cutting ties with the mother country whose people had populated the colony. It did involve creating a new, federal government, but in that it was no more revolutionary than the German Unification, for instance. And no one thinks that the resulting country was particularly liberal in that case. And beyond the creation of the federal government, the American Revolution was remarkably conservative—it left most of the institutions it had inherited from the British, in the form they had come to take since colonization, intact.

The reason the Revolution seems radical to us in retrospect is because of the mythology that has grown up around it, a mythology we impart to our children from an early age. But never forget that Edmund Burke himself favored the Americans.

American Burkeans face several challenges. The first is the founding myth, as mentioned in the previous paragraph. The second is that America as a country, even including the period of the thirteen colonies, is very young. Burke and Michael Oakeshott and Benjamin Disraeli could point to institutions that had been around for thousands of years. Their roots were deep, ours are still quite shallow.

And to the extent that our institutions claim common roots with the British, our people largely do not. I may present my sacrificial offerings at the altar of Burke and Oakeshott, but my father is Cuban, and my mother’s grandparents came to this country from Russia at the turn of the 20th century.

We’ll never have a true Tory party, but I don’t see a problem. We’re not Britain, so our traditionalists are going to be of a different character from the British ones. I’ve been inculcated into largely the same institutions and traditions as all Americans; I have no trouble seeing the Burkean strand that connects me with the founders and the British settlers who first came to this land.  I can see that the founding myth, as all myths, is one part fact and five parts fiction, catalyzed with aspiration. Its character has changed over time and will continue to change; to the extent that Burkeans can participate in that process things are not quite so dire for them as AB suggests.

The limits of our dreams

I want to speak about America’s founding myth and the resulting difficulty in establishing a large faction of Burkean conservatism within American politics.

One of the stories that people tell each other most often are their own origin myths. They are told to children (frequently as “history lessons”), but also adults tell and retell them to each other to reinforce the myth and signal the teller’s membership within the tribe. 

These myths aren’t inherently bad. I think they play an important part in allowing human nations to vastly exceed Dunbar’s number in a peaceful and cooperative manner. But it must be recognized that the origin myth can become a limiting factor under certain circumstances. If an origin myth says that Tribe A is defined by its participation in X, then it’s very difficult for members of Tribe A to switch to institution Y without also rejecting their identity as A’s.

Let’s get specific – the American origin myth is the establishment of the Thirteen Colonies in pursuit of religious freedom, followed by the American Revolution. Americans have built massive shrines and obelisks for the men involved, monuments to ancestor worship, and gaze upon its founding documents as holy objects. There are also satirical versions, but that’s how the legends of Hercules probably started too.

The point is, America is about freedom, and kicking the ass of tyrants if necessary to make it happen. (and similarities between that sentence and recent foreign policy is entirely non-coincidental)

And this is why it’s so damned hard to form a faction within American politics that takes genuine conservatism (the sort of conservatism that Edmund Burke or Robert Peel might recognize) seriously. America is defined by its Revolution, and its Revolution was a very un-conservative thing to do. For an American to really accept conservative principles, and apply them consistently, he must admit that the American Revolution was a very bad idea in the outset, benefited greatly from luck in its outcomes not being terrible, and at best was probably “harmless” to the long run of history.

Let’s break down that previous sentence a bit.

The American Revolution was a bad idea: Revolutions usually don’t go well. The French Revolution led to the terror, the Russian Revolution led to Lenism and later Stalinism, and the German revolution (as I think of Hitler’s rise to power) led to Nazism. All three of these revolutions led to much bloodshed and loss within their nations, and in some cases it spilled outward quite messily. Also, the English Civil War and rule of Oliver Cromwell we no picnic either. Frankly, the list of revolutions that lead to genuine improvement for the people in revolt is fairly short. The Founders took a terrible gamble with America’s future by initiating a break from an imperfect but not terrible regime.

The American Revolution was lucky: This is tied to the previous one, but it was luck that America’s greatest General was also an incredibly enlightened and effective President. Let’s remember that Washington was offered the chance to be King, and also could have kept running for President after his second term. In both cases he turned away from power. How many men in history would have done that? If Washington had made himself King, or held onto the Presidency for as long as possible (setting a more FDR-like precedent), America would have been worse off than it was.

The American Revolution was probably pointless: Just look at Canada, Australia, and even Bermuda. Seriously, it’s hard to say how Americans today (at least in the thirteen original colonies) would be materially worse off as a member of the Commonwealth. The only argument that the Revolution was beneficial is if you believe that the Westward expansion under America’s “manifest destiny” was both good for history and wouldn’t have been largely the same under British rule. 

Are you an American? Are you bristling at the above description? I bet Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh (two leading opinion-makers in American “conservatism”) would answer “Yes” to both questions. 

At the heart of American “conservatism” is a very un-conservative thing, and this origin myth both attracts the radical-minded and repels the conservative-minded. Which is why America doesn’t really have a Conservative Party in the same manner than Canada and England have their Tories. America just has post-Christian secular radicals and Christian radicals. Yay.