Recently, fellow commentator cdhdropped a question for me in the comments. A really good question:
cdh 44 min ago
Hey man. I am curious how you square what I think are two kind of conflicting buckets of beliefs/mood affiliations, which I think you seem to more or less hold, with each other:
1. The kind of Caplanian/libertarian approach to economics, capitalism, and government overreach, which kind of aligns with parts of what could broadly be called the globalist/antinationalist agenda
2. The kind of anti-woke, maybe climate-skeptical, quasi-anti-elitist, pro-America, old-school cultural values that are part of the core of the nationalist/antiglobalist ethos
I guess you seem to have similar thoughts on many topics as me, and I have trouble "picking sides" given this suite of positions I seem to fall onto, as it were. Not that I need to pick sides, mind you--I just have trouble reconciling being pro-capitalism and free markets but anti- all the stupid and dirty stuff corporations seem to be up to these days, while also being kind of temperamentally aligned with the borderer/red-stater/don't tread on me crew while being against most of their nationalist tendencies and protectionist policy positions.
I want to be pro-capitalism, pro-immigration, and pro-USA without being pro-government, pro-union, pro-woke, pro-WEF, pro-Trump, and anti-market. Is this a pipe dream?
Anyway, maybe this is all nonsensical--if so, please disregard.
This strikes me as more important than the stuff I was poking at, as well as being a good question for anyone to ask themselves. We all tend to have a pile of beliefs, political positions, and mood affiliations jammed into the same big mental bucket, and it is worth picking through them periodically to see if they still make sense, individually and with regards to each other. If you think that principles are very important, like me, than doubly so.
The extremely short answer to the conundrum here is that no, it isn’t all a pipe dream, but simply requires rejecting initiating coercion as a viable method of human interaction. In other words, reject using government power to force people to behave in certain ways beyond protecting basic human rights of life, liberty and property. Many of our problems seem to stem from the fact we decided we could vote for something, anything, then force people to fall in line at gun point
Now, the really long answer!
The first thing to say, is that the world is messy. I don’t mean that in the “so ignore principles” kind of way! Rather, I mean that we are not currently given the choice between pristine society A or pristine society B, each governed by a purely implemented set of governing principles. Instead we have a long, ugly history of principle, kludge, bad ideas, straight up corruption and just overall mess that has produced the system of governance we live under, across all the sub-national to super-national levels. So there may be tension between what I might prefer or recommend in an ideal case and what I think might be the best reform given all the other structure of the US government. I am going to try and highlight where I think something is a question of principle, and where something is a question of “as close to following the principle as I can without requiring a flood for 40 days and 40 nights.”
I think understanding we live in a big mix of idealized systems that results in a very non-ideal social worldis important, because all sides of the political spectrum agree on a lot, but argue over reality and how things are run. I think in part it is because of a lack of limiting principles in their philosophy, but also a lack of applying their philosophy consistently.
So, for example, you had Occupy Wall Street people unable to make common cause with libertarians despite both groups being very much against the bailouts of commercial banks by the government. Part of that might be disliking something for different reasons, and that is legitimate and possibly non-correctable, just the way it is. On the other hand, both disliked the giving of public funds, taxed from rich and poor alike, to bail out private interests, and some of the richest private interests in human history at that. It’s odd that there wasn’t a lot of common ground there.
Now, for myself, I start from a pretty strong methodological individualism perspective. That is to say, start with individuals, what they need, how they act and interact, and work your way up. Something that is right for the group but not right for the individual stands out as a big red flag. Rules, processes, ethics, all of it needs to work from the individual up. The house can’t be fireproof if the materials to make it are not fireproof.
As third general point, I largely start with the assumption that human groups and organizations work less efficiently after a certain size. That might follow a bit of a curve, with efficiency increasing a bit with the scale, then plateauing and dropping off after a certain point. Where those points are, and what the relevant slopes are, that’s going to vary with the organization, but this pattern will always hold true. Human organizations do not scale infinitely.
Right… what was I talking about?
Oh yea, threading the needle between some sort of transhumanist, globalist one world government sort of deal and hyper-nationalist hyper traditionalism. I might be misinterpreting cdh's actual question here, but I am going to address the tensions I see as part of the American voter without a party experience. Also perhaps the "contrarian bastard who can't agree with anyone" experience.
Let’s take the example of immigration, as that hits on a lot of the awkward points of friction. I will try and steel man the two general positions, at least the arguments that appeal to me.
On the one hand, the libertarian of Caplanian stripe would point out that immigrants are generally economically good for a nation, don’t commit crime any more than natives, and when you get down to it, who are you to tell me to whom I can rent an apartment, or employ in my business? And I like foreign food, damnit!
All strong points to my mind.
On the other hand, one would point out that immigrants have very different cultural norms that might conflict with our proper principles of right and wrong. This lowers social trust, but perhaps more importantly implies that immigrants are going to make their new country more like their old country. One can point to Californians fleeing the wreckage of that state only to vote for exactly the same policies in their new home. I myself have made the point somewhere that even if we assume immigrants assimilate to their new home fairly quickly, they might not assimilate to the subculture we would like. To quote Gran Tourino "Hmong girls go to college, Hmong boys go to prison." To put it another way, we have a huge, diverse and somewhat fractured culture, with plenty of home grown criminals as well as decent folks, so it is an open question into which group immigrants will assimilate the most.
I think both arguments hold weight. We have plenty of home grown assholes I don’t want to be around, and conversely I have known quite a few immigrants I like quite well. I also have known some immigrants that were assholes in ways recognizably consistent with their native cultural norms. Lines are for other people, being first shows how important I am; ethics are for paying lip service too, what really matters is getting ahead; that sort of stuff. That's obnoxious enough, even before you get to really big issues like immigrant communities becoming no-go zones for police, mass violence between groups with historical grudges in their home countries, female genital mutilation, the view that women walking around with their heads uncovered deserve to be raped, or whatever other fresh hell one reads about going on in Europe.
The issue I see is not so much the people or where they come from, but the government. Why aren’t they able to control the crime? Why don’t they enforce the laws? Why do we have so much domestic criminal production, before considering immigrant crime? I put forward that our government, and western governments in general, have adopted a very poor set of priorities that do not include preventing crime. Law enforcement is not something our politicians and bureaucrats take seriously, both in terms of resources put towards it and what laws they choose to focus on.
It doesn’t matter where the criminals come from if the police are focused on raising revenue through speeding tickets while repeat offenders commit burglaries, thefts, rapes and murders with nary a consequence.
The cultural issue is similar: I don’t really care what my neighbors get up to so long as they don’t force it on other people. So long as they are not hurting people and forcing their preferences on others, I don’t have to like them personally.
That seems clear cut, but… forcing our preferences on each other has become something of a national pass time over the past 50 years or so. We have made every question a political one, such that everyone who can vote has the ability to force their preferences on me. Not just in the traditional realms of policy; day to day cultural norms and behaviors are all subject to legal punishment these days.
Ed West writes of immigration into the UK (emphasis mine):
In a theoretical world of open borders, Britons would be outnumbered very quickly; infrastructure would start to buckle under the strain, and governments would find it difficult to increase the necessary number of houses, schools, hospitals and other services for this expanded population, because society would now lack the social capital and cohesion to make the personal sacrifices. People would begin to lose faith in the police, a difficult role in such a transient and diverse society, and politics would become increasingly unstable and aligned along ethnic lines.
Well, there’s your problem right there, Ed: Your government is providing houses, schools, hospitals and other services. What the hell is the government doing in those businesses? Why does providing houses entail personal sacrifice? People build houses for a living, no sacrifice needed.
Oh right, that is how it works under a free market, capitalist system, not so much the socialist mixed command economy style of our European cousins. Or, for that matter, our American coastal cities. Even Americans have to ask permission from our government to engage in our economic livelihoods, to engage in the win-win interactions that let us prosper providing more things to more people. Governments got involved, and now we the people can’t build housing to meet demand, nor provide schooling, medical care or any number of things people are happy to do in exchange for money.
We see the political problem highlighted in our public schools, because they are public schools. The fights over what gets taught, how it gets taught, how much indoctrination takes place and into what, these are endless precisely because we don’t get to choose our schools, but all have to pay for whatever schools the state provides. It suddenly matters quite a bit who your neighbors are when they get to have a voice in what your kids get taught. I wouldn’t send me kids to school in a place where the majority think math is racist, or where half the students graduate barely able to read, so I would really rather a lot of Californians didn’t move in.
So, what’s then to be done? I don’t know. If I was named dictator and told to fix this situation and make it consistent with principles, I would decree we radically change the way our government behaves. We need to get government out of things like housing, schooling, and generally most of the micromanaging regulatory behavior it engages in. We need to then redirect the resources we wasted providing low quality services towards enforcing our laws that protect individual rights, actually focusing on catching and punishing criminals.
Given that apparently no political party is very serious about those things, well, I guess limiting immigration is going to be a nth best option band-aid? Maybe we can get over our identity politics stage and focus on things like education and crime as a whole instead of by race, but I am not optimistic. I think our current system breeds the problems we see, not the other way around, and until we fix it small, unpleasant patches are always going to be appealing to many, and they won’t be entirely wrong.
This general framework applies to many other problems as well:
Corporate control of government / government use of corporations to do things the government can’t do itself legally: Yes, that’s what they do. Corporations are big in large part because government regulations encourage being big; corporations lobby for exactly the kinds of laws and regulations that handicap smaller businesses that would compete with them. Governments don’t protect the people from corporations; political leaders and corporate leaders work together to extract wealth from the people. When politicians have the power to determine what is bought and sold, the first thing bought and sold are politicians.
The same applies to state funded scientific endeavors. When the National Institute for Health, the National Science Foundation, or National Institute for Co-Ordinated Experiments represents a huge percentage of funding for scientific study, what gets studied is going to be what the NIH, NSF and NICE want to be studied. What’s more, the answers that are found are going to be what answers those groups want to be found. Everyone recognizes that a study funded by General Mills that finds Lucky Charms are healthier than steak is probably not to be trusted, but many miss that a study funded by the NIH that finds more funding for health studies would save millions of lives and dollars is equally suspicious.
The world of academic science is small, and those handing out the money know their applicants’ preferred results, just as the applicants know the preferred results of the funding bodies. It is easy to get money flowing to the “scientific” researchers who will provide the results you want without ever having to speak about it openly. Any mistakes can be corrected the next time their grant applications cross your desk.
Of course, some believe the NIH, NSF and NICE are apolitical, detached from the whims of government and political parties. Some members of that group might believe the Federal Reserve is as well, and maybe the Department of Defense. Those few are at least epistemically consistent, if naïve. For those who think some large government funded agencies that control huge flows of money and power are corrupt cesspits of political motivated behavior while others are pure and independent, well, I’d love to hear why.
I’d also like to hear what that person thinks about the FDA advertising and otherwise promoting Pfizer products.
Anti-elitism is related, but different enough to be its own separate section.
Humans always have hierarchy of one sort or another. Not everyone wants to be a leader all the time, and some people are better at it than others. We are social animals who take cues from each other to a greater or lesser extent, and while some hierarchies are more flat or deep, larger or smaller, fluid or static, they always exist. Those we pay attention to within the hierarchies are the elites, and they are as certain to exist as the hierarchies themselves.
It is the sort of hierarchy that matters: prestige vs dominance.
Prestige hierarchies are based on voluntary decisions to follow. The followers choose their leader based on their perceived virtues, either in general or as they pertain the immediate situation. People look up to those who are particularly good at things, and do what they say because they think it is the best thing to do.
Dominance hierarchies are based on involuntary decisions to follow. The leader chooses the followers based on his ability to enforce cooperation with his goals. Followers do what he says, or else.
Of course these two hierarchy types often exist side by side, or even at the same time. Explorers embarking on a dangerous expedition may choose their leader based on prestige, but during the expedition are expected to follow orders or else face punishment. Workers on a shop floor might work for the manager, doing what he says or else find work elsewhere, but if there is a problem all might defer to the experienced line worker who knows how everything works. Businesses in general are run largely as dominance hierarchies, with the corrective that those run with a lack of virtue lose workers and customers to those that are better through competitive processes, resulting in a sort of prestige hierarchy overlay. Arguably all hierarchies require a bit of both to be maximally efficient, but I would argue that a very high proportion of prestige hierarchy is vastly to be preferred.
The elites, by my definition and most others, are those who are within a society and direct it in a way out of proportion to their representation in it. Government officials, academics, wealthy business owners, sport or entertainment stars etc. all represent a tiny proportion of the population but exercise an amount of influence on society far beyond their numbers. People pay attention to Kamala Harris, Kanye West, Sam Bankman-Fried, and Donald Trump exactly because they are our cultural elites.
God help us all.
There are many other elites, too, exercising their influence for good or ill, often largely unaware of their importance or status.
Now, to the extent our elites are leaders because of a prestige hierarchy, that’s not so bad. We have to have leaders, because we can’t each of us be experts in every topic, and so we need to choose leaders within the various spheres of human endeavor we don’t know a lot about. I defer to my mechanic’s recommendations when it comes to many car things, judging his knowledge and trustworthiness via my limited knowledge and what I can glean from other sources. Students seek my advice on academic and career matters, hopefully judging me in the same way.
Prestige hierarchies allow us to choose our leaders in a very fluid way. When Bryan Caplan posts an essay on a topic I read what he has to say and take it very seriously, even if I eventually disagree, in a way I don’t do with Paul Krugman. I am choosing my thought leaders, the people whose advice I take seriously, based on what I perceive as their virtues. Krugman is a political hack who doesn’t take ideas seriously and instead just spins the narrative his party requires. If Caplan starts acting like Krugman, he’s out so far as I am concerned; and I suspect he would stop being so much of an elite due to loss of prestige.
To the extent that our elites are leaders in a dominance hierarchy, however, we don’t have the option to stop following leaders who eschew virtue. Indeed, in a dominance hierarchy the only virtue is strength, measured by how well one can assert and maintain dominance. Do you think Dr. Fauci is incompetent, possibly corrupt, and totally unsuited to his position? Too bad, you still have to do what he says because he has the force of government backing him up.
So, while I am within a prestige hierarchy, I tend to be a bit of an elitist because I think some people really do know better than others what to do. Hell, you almost can’t be an economist without being a bit of an elitist, because most people just cannot grasp economic processes, including many economists. While I engage with ideas directly when I can, when in doubt I don't defer to everyone equally.
On the other hand, elites are extremely prone to hubris, exactly because they often know better than most people. Economists think they can tweak or optimize the economy, missing that understanding more about a system than most people does not mean you can make it do whatever you want. Worse are those who think that their excellence in one field implies excellence in other, entirely unrelated fields. Celebrities and sports stars are the most obviously deficient when they wax philosophical, but academics, scientists and business leaders are often no less foolish when they expound on subjects outside their realm of expertise.
This is where dominance hierarchies fall down hardest. Hubris and the power to force people to do what you want always ends in disaster, and the longer the feedback loop is the worse things get. When leaders in a prestige hierarchy make bad recommendations or otherwise fail, their followers find better leaders, possibly before the bad outcomes manifest. Leaders in a dominance hierarchy are leaders precisely because they prevent that safety valve, and so disaster is ensured.
Government is, at root, a dominance hierarchy, its defining feature a monopoly on the ability to use force with the consent of the people. Every piece of legislation and regulation is enforced in the end at gun point. That is perhaps a necessary evil, but that isn't the point I am making. The point is that every move that takes elites and puts them into roles within the government necessarily makes them elites within a dominance hierarchy. Worse, it is a dominance hierarchy that by definition does not face direct competition, so unlike businesses that must operate as a blend of prestige and dominance hierarchies or lose workers and customers, governments face only political replacement or foreign conquest, leaving them with a great deal of slack. As a result, these dominance hierarchies allow for a great deal of damage to be done by those with good intentions but flawed ideas.
I haven’t even addressed the question of corrupt or fraudulent experts.
Where does that leave us? Well, firstly, technocracy is a really bad idea, not because it is better to be ruled in all particulars by fools rather than experts, but because we should not be ruled in all particulars in general. Trying to do so is bound to fail at many points, not least of which is transferring criterion for leadership from those who can best persuade and demonstrate excellence to those who can best maintain power.
To get back to cdh: “I want to be pro-capitalism, pro-immigration, and pro-USA without being pro-government, pro-union, pro-woke, pro-WEF, pro-Trump, and anti-market. Is this a pipe dream?”
No, I don’t think it is a pipe dream. I think in many ways all those things you dislike, with the possible exception of Trump, are summed up as “pro-political/state power.” The US has the issue that both political parties are more or less in favor of government power. As Russ Roberts puts it "Both parties want to take my money and give it to their friends, they just have different friends." It seems to me that big government, taking everything under its purview, is anathema to human rights and decency. In a way, the nationalists just want a country where the government dictates things, but dictates they things they like instead of what others like. Maybe that is what it boils down to, the best humans can do is have many small countries with homogenous populations whose governments dictate behaviors the citizens would choose themselves. I tend to think, however, that if we keep the government out of people's lives, instead focused on protecting and enforcing the core negative rights, we can through voluntary association get the other benefits we seek.
The USA used to be better at that than we are now. Maybe not perfect by a long shot, but a hell of a lot better.
So is it a pipe dream? No, not at all I think, it just requires a rejection of force and coercion in human affairs.
Doc Hammer's Anvil is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Doc Hammer's Anvil is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
It feels funny referring to him/her as a reader, considering we have been commenting on the same blogs for years. Possibly fellow commentator is better.
Seriously, you might want to just skip down to the last section for that “Effort comment” length treatment.
Not that “the world” or society could be ideal; more on that later.
Most of the implications of “red flag” apply, all at once even.
For the record, I am pretty certain Bryan Caplan would not call himself a globalist. He generally favors smaller government, not larger and more expansive.
Whether this is true for all countries, or just the USA, I don’t really know. I suspect it depends a bit on the circumstances of where immigrants come from and how.
Caplan has pointed this out as a legitimate concern regarding immigration, although since he seems to down play it a bit to my mind.
Another question, rather beyond the scope here, is whether within a region it is the percentage of criminals or the absolute number of criminals within the population that matters the most. For example, say you have a small town of 2,000 people and a small city of 20,000 people. Both the town and the city discover they have a serial killer breaking into people’s houses at night and leaving their bodies on their doorsteps the next morning. Do people in the city feel 10x less concern than those in the small town?
Hell, I married one.
Or read about… nowadays identifying information and motive have disappeared from news stories.
I’ll get to schools, hold on.
Schooling could be its own post, and I should get to it later.
Complex adaptive systems are really hard to wrap your head around, especially if you don’t realize that is what you are dealing with.
Whole other conversation on whether that is legitimate, but that’s the generally accepted definition.
Unions to the extent companies are legally obliged to deal with them, and to the extent they are exempt from anti-trust laws. I don’t have a problem with unions in theory acting as a sort of employment firm, but I have a big problem with unions leveraging government power to force business owners to do what they want.
Of course, there’s the problem of what happens when you are born into the wrong nation-state for your preferences. How miserable to be the trad born into Wokestan and unable to emigrate…
Very thoughtful post, my good doctor. Let me throw a wrench through the eye of that needle ;-) If someone ever gives us the chance to reinvent immigration, I'd put a 5-yr pause on it, including college. Simultaneously, I'd like to end foreign ownership by corporations in other countries, states or counties (or by university regents in towns) and let every place be made, by its own inhabitants, into a place we'd want to go rather than leave. Those already there can develop the policies, including ownership, that work for them. THEN the question of immigration is just a matter of travel and adventure, not escaping oppression.
Open-door immigration means that whatever population that can flood into a region with better resources/ more opportunities and create a local majority will be able to rewrite the identity of that locality at will. It means basically saying there's no such thing as distinct, sustainable cultures, just a rotating cast of invasions that native populations are morally obliged to suck up but hey, look at all these restaurants, we're so cosmopolitan now.