Ethics, Estonia & E-Government

Deirdre McCloskey advances a relatively controversial theory about the cause of the industrial revolution. She argues that the institutional or technological factors usually put forwarded are insufficient — that in addition, a new conception of bourgeois dignity was required. While I personally tend to lean toward more conventional causes, it’s impossible to deny that McCloskey has a point. At a sui generis level, the prevailing ethic influences both what is literally possible (in terms of production possibility sets) and what is perceived to be possible — if not necessary — by the broader public.

A good case study supporting McCloskey’s thesis is the development of e-government in Estonia. Estonia has the world’s most digitized public service. It is truly remarkable: with more than 2500 e-government services available and counting, Estonia is slowly automating the majority of its public sector.

How did Estonia get here? Any inquiry into the nature and causes of its digital wealth of nations turns up a potpourri of institutional factors and theories. Perhaps the most important was the relative lack of legacy architecture following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet this was true of other baltic states as well. The accumulation of this and other institutional factors thus leaves me vaguely unsatisfied.

But perhaps, a la McCloskey, the missing ingredient in explaining their success is related to ethics. In this case, a hacker ethic, which motivated young civil servants to take on an ambitious and risky reform agenda, letting development guide policy rather than the other way around. Early successes captured the minds of the public, and suddenly broke open perceptions about what lay within the realm of possibility.

If this is accurate, it strongly cautions against superficial policy emulation without adjusting for the enthusiasm and competency of whoever is actually enacting the policy. And it also serves as a template for social reform movements more generally. Truly innovative reform requires not just visionary leaders or well read technocrats, but an energized core driven by a sense of possibility (and a willingness to “hack” the old regime) that has yet to penetrate the broader social imaginary.

Food for thought. You can read more on Estonia’s e-government in Tarmo Kalvet, Innovation: a factor explaining e-government success in Estonia

estonia ethics

Beauty grows on trees

I just recently returned from France to my home in Atlantic Canada. It was my first time in the country, and I was glad to have spent it within the lush, rolling pastures of Normandy, made famous through the artwork of impressionist par excellence, Claude Monet, during his years in Giverny, long before the Allied liberation I was there to commemorate.

Impressionism happens to be one of my favourite genres of art due its resonance with my philosophical appreciation for David Hume. Hume believed that our aesthetic standards, much like our moral ones, derive from inner sentiments that project approbations on our “sensory impressions”.  The snap-shot framing common in impressionism even mirrors Hume’s empiricism, with each short, thick brush stroke as a ray of light, a sense datum within our kaleidoscopic perception.


Beauty, Hume maintained, does not realize itself by ideas, but by a conformity between the object and our inner sense. As he wrote in the Standards of Taste, “beauty and deformity, more than sweet and bitter, are not qualities in objects, but belong entirely to the sentiment, internal or external; it must be allowed, that there are certain qualities in objects, which are fitted by nature to produce those particular feelings.” That “nature” we know to be biological evolution, which cross cultural surveys suggest has predisposed us to relish, among other things, the sight of an evergreen landscape, presumably for its signal of hydration and plenty.

Beauty, then, really does grow on trees. But how do we reconcile this with Adam’s point in his discussion with David that all art is a conversation which necessarily requires a group with shared concepts and ideas?

The difference lies in the distinction between aesthetics on the one hand and art on the other, a distinction that leads to an abyss of confusion if not addressed head on. The late David Best gives an excellent example of this in his 1985 book, Feeling and Reason in the Arts. Drawing on Wittgenstein’s argument against the possibility of a private language, Best sees art, unlike aesthetics, as a type of language game, whereby “individual creativity depends upon the existence and grasp of a social practice.” A philosopher of rhythm and movement, he gives the following excellent example, which I’ve pulled from this review:

Some years ago I was privileged to attend a performance by Ram Gopal, the great Indian classical dancer, and I was quite captivated by the exhilarating and exquisite quality of his movements. Yet I was unable to appreciate his dance artistically since I could not understand it. For instance, there is a great and varied range of subtle hand gestures in Indian classical dance, each with a quite precise meaning, of which I knew none. It is clear that my appreciation was aesthetic, not artistic.

This formulation isn’t only applicable to humans. If you’re ambitious, try to imagine the wonderful aesthetic sensations honey bees must experience upon receiving the ultraviolet sense impressions of a pollen laden Golden crocus, before returning to the hive, and transmitting said beauty through the artistic medium of the waggle dance.  While the sentiment produced by the flower may be immediate and personal, the dance only works to communicate because each specie of bee has a genetic understanding of their particular waggle dance rules.

Humans have the capacity to learn the rules of a particular art and then bend them, inventing new forms of artistic media and waggle dances all our own. But it is important to bear in mind that the rules would cease to exist without the aesthetics underlying them. Even in Manga, another captivating form for which I (like Indian classical dance was for Best) have no artistic appreciation, the unique and extremely idiosyncratic iconography Adam highlights are all conspicuously exploiting a Pleistocene aesthetic, in the same way cheesecake exploits our adaptive sweet tooth. Namely, Manga hits on the sentimental fondness for cutesy and wide eye child-like facial features that one would expect in a species that protects and invests as heavily in their kin as humans do.

So in some sense David and Adam are both right. Adam is right that art can never be a private affair — it, by its very nature, is a social practice. Yet David wasn’t deluded when he reported experiencing aesthetic delight upon his introduction to anime, because the latter feeds up into the former. For without that shared evolutionary heritage, the conversation could never begin.

I’m Samuel by the way, and am pleased to be joining the Sweet Talk team. You can follow me on twitter @hamandcheese and I run an independent blog called Abstract Minutiae, where I try to bridge the conceptually near and far from using the ideas of Quine and Hayek. I’m also an economics student, commencing my MA in the fall. Cheers.


Man is born free and poor

… and Matt Bruenig wants us to stay that way.

Adam Gurri asks:

Is a “no” from a private property owner truly different in kind than a “no” from a government official? Why?

But before we get an answer, first we have a digression …

I think of man’s nature as a fixed constant, and our cultural institutions a multiplier. The multiplier can be positive or fractional, but not negative.

The fixed constant of man’s nature is the amount of wealth and prosperity that a man could produce living entirely on his own, free from trade but also free from banditry. He has complete control over his own consumption and savings rate, and is totally free to decide for himself whether to accumulate capital or eat all the corn. 

Make no mistake – this is not a romantic view. The above life would consist of hunting and gathering, with maybe a bit of subsistence farming (at best), and guarantee grinding, inescapable poverty by any modern standard. But at least you don’t have to worry about Matt Bruenig grabbing all your fresh-picked strawberries while you’re not looking.

Of course we live in a much wealthier society than the one described above. Our current institutions are a very large multiplier. And key among those institutions is private property. I won’t spend any time defending that thesis, others have done so ably and I’d be preaching to the choir on this blog anyway.

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”. Even the ability to say “No” to having your person touched against your consent is also publicly protected by laws against assault, and the affirmative defense of self-defense against criminal charges. Almost every “No” we have is some mix of private action and public support, with the exceptions proving the rule. Our institutions are greater than the sum of their parts, and we make case by case decisions as to whether to entrust a certain kind of decision to the public or the G-men based on whether it moves the multiplier up or down.

So to conclude, I agree with Matt Bruenig that the private “No” is harsh, but I strongly disagree that this leads us away from our current arrangements. A “Grab what you can society” would be far worse than the one we have. All his ideas do is reinforce in me why charity is a virtue. It is our duty to give what we can afford when others are in need, but is our right to decide what we can afford – a right enforced by law. This is the arrangement that maximizes our humanity, as it also creates great prosperity that can be shared.