How to Argue Like a Traditionalist

Until very recently, “traditionalist” to me meant purely “gives weight to unarticulated knowledge embedded in time-tested norms, practices, and institutions.”

As with many ideas I had held onto for a while, Deirdre McCloskey persuaded me to reconsider this. This isn’t because she discounts the value of unarticulated knowledge—to the contrary, she is a Hayekian par excellence. Unlike a lot of Hayekians—including me, until encountering her work—she simply does not discount the value of articulated knowledge, either. In fact, McCloskey’s vision of human social systems is full of talk—a very convenient thing, since the actual human experience is full of it as well.

The problem with the purely unarticulated traditionalist perspective is that people who have fully bought into most traditions do not self-consciously make reference to the tradition itself or the concept of an institution the way that someone like Burke did. This is Alasdair MacIntyre’s big critique of Burke—Burke argued on behalf of tradition but in practice his politics were on the liberal end of the spectrum for his day. Burke was clearly what we now call a classical liberal; while famous for his opposition to the French Revolution, he supported the American Revolution, and his Thoughts and Details on Scarcity put him firmly in the same camp as Adam Smith.

In short, Burke was not just a conservative who respected unarticulated norms and institutions; he also had substantive positions which he defended using the tools of those particular traditions of thought, as they were emerging at the time.

I’ve discussed elsewhere how such a McCloskeyan “traditionalism” (if that word is even appropriate) looks in practice. I’d like to take a moment to look at three fellow Sweet Talkers and what I see in them that I like and hope to emulate myself.

David Duke is very much like MacIntyre—he takes care to situate things in a history. Just see his latest post on property in ancient Mesopotamia. But like most articulate people embedded in living traditions throughout history, he also is not afraid to tell a message in the form of a myth or story, as his ongoing series on Heraclitus demonstrates.

Sam Wilson is deep, deep into the literature within economics on the subjects of importance to him.  When he speaks of property as being founded on respect, he can speak not only of Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau, but their relationship to the vast literature on the game theory of institutions. Moreover, he is expert at the structured thought experiments that economics and game theory lends itself so well to. He is, in short, very much a part of the rhetorical community of economics; he is mired in that tradition, self-consciously aware of it while also participating in and contributing to it.

Sam Hammond, meanwhile, seems to be a bottomless well of knowledge of philosophy, political science, and economics, and is skilled at tying them together. He never begins from first principles; he always situates his arguments in a literature and a living debate. Our own Drew Summitt is exactly the same way (throwing in a comparable knowledge of theology), but his forays into longform writing are few; he largely sticks to advancing points over social media and engaging in debate with groups of highly intelligent and informed people out there (among others).

History, thought experiments within established conventions, and living conversations—that’s what traditions of thought look like in practice.

I still believe the three arguments advanced here, but I do wonder if “traditionalism” is a coherent label. It seems to me that there are many perspectives (traditions of thought) that also subscribe to these arguments, including species of post-modernism (which no one would call a traditionalism).

Not the most important question to answer, but given the general reaction to my usage of the label “traditionalism” at times I’ve started contemplating whether it was more obscuring than clarifying.

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Traditionalism and Social Security

Matt isn’t satisfied with my response. He wants a substantive example—Social Security. Can a traditionalist support it or must they oppose it? And why?

What I’ve been trying to say (not very well apparently) is that my position is pluralist and pragmatist. I have substantive positions, and I haven’t tried to hide this fact. The fact that I draw on more than one little framework in the employ of my larger one is not cynical, it’s part of the framework which I have talked about openly. Traditionalism simply characterizes aspects of my position. The first aspect I discussed is simply meta-ethics; we’re all traditionalists in practice in that our ideas have a long history before they got to us and we could add our judgment to them. The third aspect is the one that Matt seems to chafe at; the idea that sometimes some communities are able to work things out among themselves without either the use or the threat of force.

The second aspect is the only one that’s of any use to me in answering Matt’s question about Social Security. That is a respect for what has lasted.

Ah, Matt says, but Social Security has been around since 1935! And apparently non-traditionalists believe that 79 years is a really long time for a policy to have lasted, so he thinks he’s got something here, as far as a challenging proposition for traditionalists goes. Of course, 79 years isn’t much longer than the entire life of the Soviet Union, an entirely ahistorical experiment in government that collapsed under its own weight in the end. I don’t mean to compare the two in substance, I’m simply interested in time horizons; to Matt the reformer 79 must appear an eternity.  To me, it tells me that Social Security is not as fragile as your typical American policy, but it’s still highly untested by time.

And let’s not forget that we’ve had to raise retirement age, increase taxes, and lower benefits before. The main problem that I see with Social Security is that it was designed to work for a specific demographic situation, and demographics fluctuate over time. “The test of time” is not just a cute phrase, it means that something has managed to survive a wide variety of scenarios and come out more or less intact. It’s no secret that Social Security is being increasingly squeezed by our aging population; the older our demographic distribution skews the more the math of Social Security simply does not add up.

Of course we can continue to increase taxes and lower benefits and move the retirement age for a while, but not for forever. Eventually you’ll have to be 200 years old and only get a dollar a year, in nominal future dollar terms.

Matt seems to think that the widespread popularity of Social Security binds me as a traditionalist to support it. But that’s just due to a persistent misunderstanding of his as to how I arrive at my substantive beliefs, as I explained at the beginning of this piece and in the previous piece.

I hope this post has answered Matt’s question to his satisfaction.

The Three Sides of Traditionalism

Back in December I began what has been a long and fruitful conversation with Matt Bruenig. I reached out to ask him a few questions in order to do justice to his assertion that the economy is a government program so that I might criticize it. Matt was kind enough to review my drafts to make sure I didn’t mischaracterize him and thus beat up on a strawman. Good thing, too—my first draft was way off the mark. I wrote about how he was a blank slate style rationalist, who just wanted to sweep away everything merely historical and build up society anew from a purely rational blueprint. Matt looked it over and said, essentially, “I have never said that and I don’t believe it.”

So I scrapped the entire piece (well, some of it was jettisoned to turn into this post) and I’m glad that I did. The resulting piece accurately represented Matt’s views, and the challenge of criticizing his actual views instead of the cartoon version I had assumed he believed was very rewarding.

Sadly, it is a cartoon version of my arguments that Matt criticizes in this post responding to my piece I have up at the Ümlaut today.

A phrase that Matt uses repeatedly in his piece to characterize my position is “I support deferring to status quo norms.” I’m afraid I’m going to have to paraphrase what Matt said to me back in December—I never have said that people should “defer to status quo norms” and that is not what I believe in.

The very framing of it is incoherent, in precisely the ways that Matt explores in his piece. As he puts it:

If everyone formed their views by deferring to the views of others (who were also in this example forming their views by deferring to the views of others), nobody could ever form any substantive views.

How true. Good thing that isn’t my position!

My position is in fact entirely consistent with self-conscious criticism of existing norms and institutions. I detail this at length here.

There are roughly three facets of my position that could be characterized as “traditionalist”. First, none of us arrive at ideas, beliefs, or habits of behavior from nowhere. All of us are brought up by parents, among family and peers, in a particular community (or communities, if you traveled in your childhood). This upbringing and the cultural artifacts (novels, poetry, movies, philosophy, whatever) we interface with form the foundation of our beliefs, habits, and articulated arguments. Given that this was Aristotle’s position with regard to moral philosophy in the Nicomachean Ethics, it’s hardly an irrationalist idea.

Second: stable, reliable practices and institutions are hard to come by. It can seem all too easy to find fault with what exists, but if it has sufficient provenance it has usually survived for a reason. That doesn’t mean that we can’t criticize. It does mean that we should be cautious about what we do away with and what we change in any drastic way. When criticizing a trio of neoreactionary thinkers, I made the point that the US has never really worried about a military coup. It seemed to me that the parts of America’s culture they wanted to do away with had a lot to do with just why we’re able to take it for granted that our military will remain comfortably under the control of a civilian government, and not the other way around.

In short, institutions and norms and culture are intertwined in ways that are not crystal clear. Going in there and trying to fix it as though it were a car and we mechanics seems, to me, to be asking for trouble. This is precisely what I accused Matt of doing to a big, dramatic extent in the first draft of my criticism of him. It’s also, incidentally, why I don’t think that things like food stamps are quite so huge a deal as some libertarians might. In fact, from what I gathered they have actually been quite effective at helping people who could use it and also quite cheap in terms of tax funding, and (importantly) they’ve been around for a while (though not by historic standards). Cutting them was thus unconscionable—if I haven’t spoken out against it, it is because there are plenty of things coming out from the capitol building that I find unconscionable.

Finally, there is a thick layer of ground level knowhow that is largely inaccessible to the theorist, and which is what really keeps human social systems going. Sam tried to give an example of this but Matt didn’t seem to really get it:

I don’t think that Sam was trying to say that divining this sort of thing is how we should determine policy, necessarily. What I think he meant, and what I believe, is that this sort of thing actually allows a lot of people to get along on their own most of the time, without the use or threat or implication of force in the background. And I think that where that is true, we should let it happen, rather than attempt to impose a theoretically designed structure upon it. I know that Matt believes this happens sometimes because he describes it eloquently here. It’s clear that he believes it is a far more limited thing than I do, and that’s OK. That’s a disagreement I’m happy to continue to have discussions around in our ongoing conversation moving forward.

If I didn’t sufficiently engage with Matt’s specific criticisms here, I apologize. It just seems to me that he has so misunderstood my position that his specific points were, for the most part, entirely irrelevant.

Intellectual Property and Commensurability

We now return from that detour to our regularly scheduled blogging.

From the trenches of the intellectual property debate, Peter planted a flag: over expansive intellectual property regime has gone from glorious property as usual to inglorious taxation by regulation as usual.

The terms of this debate are set in an economic-theoretical frame. This frame attempts to create a commensurable value scale where there isn’t one, but provides something useful in the meantime.

I’d like to suggest that copyright in particular is where the problems with this point of view become more acute.

What do we gain by allowing filmmakers to have the legal right to restrict the copying of their creation?

If enforced perfectly, it would mean that no one would view the film at all unless the filmmaker allowed it; in a market setting this would generally mean unless the filmmaker was paid. So the filmmaker can ex ante expect that if a lot of people want to see the film, he will make a lot of money. This encourages him (or more likely, a studio which is able to pool the risk across many films) to invest more in the film; hiring better known actors, creating more detailed sets, and so on.

What is the value of this extra investment? The logic of econ says that the value is equal to the extra amount that people are willing to pay. But this is the problem with forcing commensurability where there isn’t any. Say that in the absence of a mechanism for forcing people to pay if they want to access copies of a film, people would spend more time outdoors with their families (a common accusation made about the effect of TV in particular). Surely time spent with our loved ones is more valuable than time spent watching movies or TV?

The example is tongue in cheek but meant to provoke some thought about what, exactly, it is that we are seeking to protect, when we seek to protect copyright with criminal prosecution and extreme measures like civil asset forfeiture.

Now, I like Eli’s pragmatic approach taken up here—it makes use of the valuable concepts from economics, but its assumptions about value are very minimal. On the latter score, it is mostly just respectful—Eli acknowledges (implicitly) that there are people in the film industry, as well as economists and intellectuals, who value the products being created under the current copyright regime and fear that reform would threaten those products. Using some very minimal assumptions from economics, he shows that we could radically reduce copyright terms and expect only very small changes in the income of rightsholders.

What I like about this argument is that it doesn’t appeal to the authority of Economics or Truth but instead respects the values of the other side and uses the tools of economics to attempt to persuade them. Tools are meant to be used—they are not meant to be all encompassing theories of everything.

Determining What Intellectual Property is and Should Be

Peter picks up the thread with a discussion of IP-as-rent-seeking, or IP-as-regulation.

I’m actually what you might call an IP agnostic. I can see some situations where IP is having effects I like (especially giving unknown creators some leverage in negotiating with big content companies, for instance) but I definitely think that, whatever your IP ideal, we’ve gone way too far.

However I don’t think the particulars are nearly as important as the process for determining those particulars. As Thomas Sowell put it in Knowledge and Decisions:

The unifying theme of Knowledge and Decisions is that the specific mechanics of decision-making processes and institutions determine what kinds of knowledge can be brought to bear and with what effectiveness. In a world where people are preoccupied with arguing about what decision should be made on a sweeping range of issues, this book argues that the most fundamental question is not what decision to make but who is to make it–through what processes and under what incentives and constraints, and with what feedback mechanisms to correct the decision if it proves to be wrong.

Who decides, and under what circumstances, is more important than what they should decide.

The way Eli puts it is that good property institutions are more important than any specific property right.

If intellectual property had continued to evolve casuistically through common law courts, I don’t think we’d be in the situation we’re in. But the Copyright Act of 1976 ruined this centuries-old dynamic, probably forever. Now the particulars must be determined by statute, and there’s a big central law-making body vulnerable to rent-seeking from industry. As a result we get insane scenarios like copyright getting enforced as criminal law instead of civil law, and civil asset forfeiture being deployed to destroy suspected offenders before they even go to trial.

The debate should not, in my opinion, focus on what particular form we believe intellectual property should take. The debate should center on what procedural reforms should go into place in order to move us towards a healthier process of determining the particulars.

Public/Private “No”s and Permissionless Innovation.

Hi all, my apologies for not posting lately (bar review is a pain in my butt). I was wondering if I could implore you all (dear readers and dear co-bloggers) to assault—or otherwise weigh in on—my co-worker’s post about permissionless innovation and contract law. This goes back to our public v private “no” posts. I think Geoff is right on target with regard to public “no”s:

The point is, when we talk about permissionless innovation for Tesla, Uber, Airbnb, commercial drones, online data and the like, we’re talking (or should be) about ex ante government restrictions on these things — the “permission” at issue is permission from the government, it’s the “permission” required to get around regulatory roadblocks imposed via rent-seeking and baseless paternalism.

I think Geoff is right about contract:

Just about all human (commercial) activity requires interaction with others, and that means contracts and licenses. You don’t see anyone complaining about the “permission” required to rent space from a landlord.

And Net Neutrality:

Which is why net neutrality is so misguided. Instead of identifying actual, problematic impediments to innovation, it simply assumes that networks threaten edge innovation, without any corresponding benefit and with such certainty (although no actual evidence) that ex ante common carrier regulations are required.

But I think he glosses over certain issues regarding non-tangible property. I submit that expansive intellectual property is akin to a public “no.”  The weirdness about IP is that, unlike a broadband network or a landlord’s building, overbroad IP claims cannot be notoriously possessed except with costly and non-intuitive state delineation. If I have a patent on “doing escrow through a computer” — as in the recent CLS Bank case — I have no independent , private means of defining and enforcing the boundaries of my claim, none. Any attempt to go out in the world and persuade people to not use my big idea would be met with giggles, disregard, or aggression.

At least in the apartment or the fiber network there is rivalrous physical stuff to point to and say “stay off!” In the case of a patent to a vague idea, however, the only way to exert my claim against the world and put people on notice of my private “no” is to utilize a complex, legalistic regime that seeks to create, from whole cloth, the contours of a private right. The fact that this process is so divorced from the intuitive realities of day to day interaction makes expansive IP more like a public “no.”

It’s something you might accidentally tread over, something you might find standing in your way unexpectedly even if you’d no idea that the idea you are pursuing bears any relationship to some existing patent. Playing catch-up with the PTO and a multitude of private patent holders becomes just as bureaucratic and chaotic as persuading the FDA to license your new meds.  At this point the private right does seem to endanger permissionless innovation.

To be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that this is at stake in ALL intellectual property. If the right is clearly delineated and reasonably defined then licensing shouldn’t be an impediment that draws the ire of the permissionless innovation crowd. The trouble only starts when the metes and bounds of the virtual property are so amorphous as to trap would be innovators in a near endless cycle of negotiations with both the private right holder and the public right definer.  If the intellectual landscape becomes replete with these mine-like private nos, then the would-be innovator is locked into a world where inaction is preferable to the unpredictable consequences of innovating.

Those are my half baked, bar review-addled thoughts. What are yours?  I’m sure Geoff will give me an earful. Feel free to comment on his post as well.

Joint Determination and the Line between Public and Private

AB writes:

So to answer Adam’s question: I don’t care to distinguish private and public “No”s. For one thing, private property isn’t just enforced by the shopkeeper; the fuzz have his back. “Private” property is a publicly enforced “No”

Yes, the fuzz have his back, but I think it matters a great deal why the fuzz have his back. Recall Adam Smith:

The man whose public spirit is prompted altogether by humanity and benevolence, will respect the established powers and privileges even of individuals, and still more those of the great orders and societies, into which the state is divided. Though he should consider some of them as in some measure abusive, he will content himself with moderating, what he often cannot annihilate without great violence. When he cannot conquer the rooted prejudices of the people by reason and persuasion, he will not attempt to subdue them by force; but will religiously observe what, by Cicero, is justly called the divine maxim of Plato, never to use violence to his country no more than to his parents. He will accommodate, as well as he can, his public arrangements to the confirmed habits and prejudices of the people; and will remedy as well as he can, the inconveniencies which may flow from the want of those regulations which the people are averse to submit to. When he cannot establish the right, he will not disdain to ameliorate the wrong; but like Solon, when he cannot establish the best system of laws, he will endeavour to establish the best that the people can bear.

Peter encourages us to mind the Hayekian difference between law and legislation. Common law property rights enforcement is law rather than legislation: it is dutifully encumbered by the weight of ages and the close scrutiny of constituents. The many arcane apparatuses of a modern welfare state lack this sobering burden. Common property law is tempered; chamber legislation is not. A private “no” is still private, even with an implicit government guarantee. I will grant to my interlocutors that the public/private cleft may not be the most descriptive, as Adam Smith’s Man of System is probably better, but I don’t mind making a bit of a tradeoff between clarity and accessibility once in a while.

A “no” from the lips of a scarcely accountable elected official is a risky, fragile utterance. A “no” from the lips of an individual whelped in the cradle of blind Justice and embedded in the fabric of a decent society is accountable to peers, fellows, and neighbors. It is less likely to go awry.