Catallaxy Files
 

 
polymathic pontification, bleeding heart economic rationalism and liberal secularist contrarianism

email: jasonsoon AT mail.com

 
 
 

Contributors

  • Jason Soon
  • Heath Gibson
  • Jack Strocchi
  • Andrew Norton
  • Sarah Strasser
  • Teresa Fels

News/views/reviews

Intellectual heroes

Whigs

Tories

  • Centrist
  • Leftish
  • Statist quo/flaming pink
  • Sui generis
  •  
     
    Saturday, September 14, 2002
     
    Did Edmund Burke sell out?
    The statesman Edmund Burke was a fairly interesting character. He is chiefly known as a romantic, almost reactionary type of conservative who condemned the French Revolution in quite strong terms in his 'Reflections on the Revolution in France' and is usually placed as a foil to the character more favourably regarded by liberals (and libertarians), namely Thomas Paine. However it must also be remembered that he was a Whig and supportive of the American Revolution and even something of a liberal with regard to injustices in India perpetrated by the East India Company. Nonetheless overall I had followed majority academic opinion on this and pegged him as a reactionary conservative.

    However I was recently reading the anthology Liberty and the Great Libertarians and it had an abidged version of an apparently infamous essay which Burke wrote in 1756 called A Vindication of Natural Society and it was sufficiently intriguing to get me blogging about it. Not only does Burke sound like a flaming libertarian anarchist in this essay, he sounds like a flaming left-wing libertarian anarchist of some kind, almost a Chomskyite.

    If you don't take my word for it, read it yourself or alternatively read this fascinating essay by Murray Rothbard on 'A Vindication' which I found on Lew Rockwell's site (yeah, I know, I don't like Lew's paleo-lib politics but he occasionally does have good essays on intellectual history). The introduction to 'A Vindication; in the anthology I was reading states:

    This essay is little known, as he was compelled by the storm of opposition it met to withdraw it from publication. The reader will not find it in 'Burke's Complete (?) Works'

    Rothbard goes further. He writes:

    It is well known that Burke spent the rest of his career battling for views diametrically opposite to those of his Vindication. His own belated explanation was that the Vindication was a satire on the views of rationalist Deists like Lord Bolingbroke, demonstrating that a devotion to reason and an attack on revealed religion can logically eventuate in a subversive attack on the principle of government itself. Burke’s host of biographers and followers have tended to adopt his explanation uncritically. Yet they hurry on and rarely mention his Vindication in their discussions of Burke, and with good reason. For the work is a most embarrassing one. Careful reading reveals hardly a trace of irony or satire. In fact, it is a very sober and earnest treatise, written in his characteristic style. Indeed, Burke’s biographers have commented on the failure of the work as irony, without raising the fundamental question whether it was really meant to be irony at all.


    I have to say, I don't tend to agree much with Rothbard's brand of libertarianism (and even less with the dodgy Old Right alliances he formed in his later years which ironically makes him into something of a contemporary Edmund Burke himself) but I have to agree with Rothbard's reading of the essay. Having just read it myself I did not detect a trace of irony or satire in it at all, or maybe these Irishmen are just too subtle for me. It seems a more convincing explanation that as Rothbard says:

    explanation, in fact, is not a very plausible one. He was not given to satire, and rarely attempted such writing in later years. The Vindication was published anonymously when Burke was 27 years old. Nine years later, after his authorship had been discovered, Burke found himself about to embark on his famous Parliamentary career. To admit that he had seriously held such views in earlier years would have been politically disastrous. His only way out was to brush it off as a satire, thereby vindicating himself as an eternal enemy of rationalism and subversion.

    This is quite striking and raises many interesting questions. Who was the real Burke? How much of the real Burke was really against the French Revolution? Was the Burke who supported the American Revolution and wanted to be more liberal to the Indians and couched his position in terms of some organic conservatism the real Burke and did this real Burke have to use some sort of ideological subterfuge to rationalise his position to his new associates?
     
    Patriotism, not nationalism
    Razib K, the Bangladeshi-born biochemist of Gene Expression has a superb post defending his adopted country. I have in the past alluded to my disdain for nationalism and my belief that there is a distinction between a noble, liberal patriotism and ugly nationalism. I think Razib's patriotic post exemplifies this and puts quislings like Noam Chomsky who take the institutions that sustain them for granted, to shame:

    Let me be on the record on this question: though I'm sad about all the injustice in the world, I would let them be if America could stay the proud and free republic it is (was?). I'm not a Derbyshirean pessimist about European democracies, but they and other European-derived nations too often say things like "We respect free speech, but we don't worship it." Fuck that. Liberty, a means to an end, or the end? I am not a big believer in the naive pronouncements of the "proposition nation." But here on the left-hand side of Western civilization, it is plausible to be colored and say that one is American. Is it plausible to say that one is colored and German or French? I wish it were, but it seems like those on the right-hand side, even the British, still hew strongly to blood ...

    I have an uncle, he's got a goat-beard and he's a scary fucking Muslim fundamentalist. He's a nuisance to most of my family, bitching at the women to cover-up and berating their husbands for letting them walk around by themselves. We're not an island anymore, and yeah, I'd take up arms to keep people like my uncle from getting a toe-hold in this new world. Islamic theocracies, Latin American oligarchies and Asian despotisms could rot for all I care, while their best and the brightest could come to the United States and flourish. But now I feel that we can't be a splendid island in the midst of the barbarity. We have to take it to them. I thought I'd left that crap behind, but now it's flying across the ocean and crashing into buildings.
    ...
    What America is, what the West is, is special. The Rights of Man. The Rights of Woman. The Right to Believe. The Right to be free to be. Would you pick up a gun for that? Come on. Be honest. Look at yourself, hell if you're wearing a grimy t-shirt and have a pony-tail, how many fatwas have you already broken?

    I'll be straight. I don't give a damn about Arab democracies or Pakistani politics. I care about America. What we believe, we believe is best for our country. And yes, I'm sorry, but I think this country is the last best hope for liberty. That's my foundational belief, my axiom, my faith. You can disagree, but you know where I stand, you know where the vitriol comes from. I come from a land with little liberty, now that I've won it - by the grace of God, by my father's brains or by sheer dumb luck - I'm not going to watch to slide into the vast ocean of despotic human history. I was an isolationist...I thought the rest of the world could go to hell, but we'd float to safety on life-boat of liberty.

    I was stupid. I was wrong.
     
    Salma Hayek vs Friedrich Hayek
    Almost everyone who has heard of Hayek has heard of this famous scorecard but I thought I'd post the link here in light of recent controversies, for some light relief.
     
    Blog crossovers
    I have been invited to join the clever folks over at Gene Expression so you'll now occasionally read me there as well. This is not to suggest that output here will decline, no way. Since this site has become increasingly my niche to debate my fellow OzBloggers it will certainly be guaranteed that stream of output in addition to more generic stuff. However I anticipate I'll be posting some of the more generic (i.e. not just Australian-specific) stuff over at Gene Expression as well. The Gene Expression guys may be starting a new trend here of blog 'crossovers' as they also have Suman Palit of the Kolkata Libertarian blog writing for them.
     
    Quote of the day

    He who would understand baboon would do more towards metaphysics than John Locke
    ~Charles Darwin
     
    Why I am not a conservative no. 33334
    Chris Textor has a nice take-down of some Tory dimwit by the name of Ben Shapiro who seems to agree that gays, secularists and feminists bear part of the blame for S11 and that the US is headed for hell unless it changes its sinning ways. Give Shapiro a Koran and call him Amir Butler. What blatant ignorance. Does this guy not know that almost none of the US writers of the Constitution were traditional Christians? That there was a disproportionate number of Deists, agnostics and possibly closet atheists among them? Tories claim to be the more 'historically minded' but in their attempts to spin their own founding myths they are not.

    Friday, September 13, 2002
     
    Controversies in evolutionary biology
    Here are two pieces which focus on Steven Pinker's new book and an article which favours Pinker's opposite number, the late Stephen Jay Gould and laments the rise of neo-Darwinian biology.
     
    Complexity theory applied to the web
    Complexity theorist Bernado Huberman has an interesting article on patterns in the world wide web. Here's some excerpts:

    The order that one finds in the Web manifests itself in the form of lawful patterns that persist over different geographical locations, millions of pages or even the nature of electronic commerce throughout the world. I describe these lawful patterns in my book The Laws of the Web: Patterns in the Ecology of Information published by MIT Press last year. It turns out that there are many small elements contained within the Web, but few large ones. A few sites consist of millions of pages, but millions of sites only contain a handful of pages. Also, few sites contain millions of links, but many sites have one or two. Millions of users flock to a few select sites, giving little attention to millions of others. In many of these cases, these patterns can be expressed in mathematical fashion as a so-called power law, meaning that the probability of attaining a certain size x is inversely proportional to x to some power, whose numerical value is greater or equal to 1.

    The reason that power laws are interesting is that unlike the more familiar bell-shaped Gaussian distribution, a power law distribution has no 'typical' scale and is hence frequently called 'scale-free'. ....a power law distribution, which is the one that accurately describes the properties of the web, does not have a peak, and therefore most of the sites do not have a given size, but come in all sorts of sizes, with few having many pages and many having few. That is why power law distributions are called scale-free, which means that if one were to look at the distribution of site sizes, for one arbitrary range, say between 10,000 and 20,000 pages, that distribution would look the same as that for a different range, say between 10 to 100 pages...

    This result is interesting both to the economist studying the efficiency of markets in electronic commerce and to providers contemplating the number of customers the business will attract. From an economics point of view, such a disproportionate distribution of user volume among sites is characteristic of winner-take-all markets, wherein the top few contenders capture a significant part of the market share. In a winner-take-all market the rewards are proportional to relative performance rather than absolute one, and imply a very skewed distribution of income to those participating in the market.
     
    A reading list ... and we now return to regular programming
    I think I've left enough comments in comments boxes, textual analysis and Socratic questions with the other participants in the Hayek debate so I'll leave it at that until one of them comes up with a new point that for instance evaluates the system in question in the manner systems of thought are usually evaluated - that is, by actually looking at the text itself and reading it properly rather than making inferences about the content of the system based on the personal conduct of its originator.

    I do not subscribe to the Paul Johnson school of thought (Paul Johnson would make swipes at Rousseau and Marx based on their personal conduct and impute something nasty about their systems from that) so there is no meeting of minds with that debating premise. As it is, none of the other participants has pointed out how my reading is flawed. Tim Dunlop has argued that Hayek's system may overemphasise essentially the dangers to spontaneous order from unchecked markets themselves - this is a debatable point but a valid one nonetheless - but it is a separate argument from the Quiggin argument which I have taken pains to refute.

    Now a reading list for the intellectually curious lefty who wants to get to the bottom of this without reading through all of Hayek's erudite but at times tortious prose:
    1) Hayek revisited Edited by Boudewijn Bouckaert and Annette Godart-van der Kroon
    2) Hayek, coordination and evolution edited by Jack Birner and Rudy van Zijp -it includes essays by open-minded lefties like British Labour Lord Meghnad Desai and Raymond Plant as well as Hayek scholars like Jeremy Shearmur
    3) Hayek on Liberty by John Gray
    4) Marx, Hayek and Utopia by Chris Sciabarra
    5) Hayek and after: Hayekian liberalism as a research programme by Jeremy Shearmur

    Now we return to regular programming ...
     
    Response to Parish
    Ken Parish's contribution to the Hayek debate evinces an even poorer familiarity with Hayek than Tim Dunlop's (which is not deficient so far as I can tell but a rational disagreement) - which is perfectly fine except if Ken wishes to condemn a whole system to mere 'rhetoric' and 'propaganda' and compare it to Freudian nonsense he should at least have some backing evidence. Instead Ken goes on to talk about chaos theory to critique deductive reasoning of which Hayek's is a part-species and ends up using arguments of a similar nature used by Hayek to argue against central planning ! The fact that Ken does't seem to realise that Hayek's distinction between constructivist rationalism and critical rationalism is based on a broadly similar critique of what Ken calls 'Newtonian' thinking suggests he has missed the point of Hayek.

    In addition unwarranted claims are made such as the following:

    Human behaviour being so complex, chaotic and indeterminate, I suspect that an inductive or "bottom up" methodology (which legal reasoning generally applies) is likely to yield more reliable results in most situations than a pseudo-scientific deductive approach. To the extent that, like Freud, Hayek purports to derive general principles from observations of behaviour, I suppose his approach might be called inductive in a very loose sense. But to the extent that Hayek can fairly be described, as Szasz labels Freud, as rhetoric and metaphor, then it isn't logic at all. It's descriptive story-telling, albeit a powerful story that has been extraordinarily influential.

    It's all well and good to speak in generalities but Ken doesn't have a shred of evidence to demonstrate why Hayek's argument lacks logic and is mere story telling. It would be good to bring the argument to specific and one specific example of a typical argument used by Hayek is set out in the textual analysis of my previous post. This is the argument which uses traditional epistemic Millian arguments for free speech to extend to a broader argument for freedom of action based on the premise that tacit knowledge also involves ideas or hypotheses about states of the world. So far as I can see none of the critics of Hayek have even bothered to engage in the specifics of any of these arguments.

    So why is this particular argument wrong?
    1) Is it because the epistemic justification for free speech doesn't work? If so, why does Ken believe in free speech? What are his argument for free speech? And it it doesn't hold up this is as much an indictment of liberal theories of free speech (like Mill's)_ as it is of Hayek's system
    2) Is it because the effort to recruit the epistemic argument to extend to freedom of action in disposal of several property doesn't work? Why doesn't it work?
    3) It is because the idea of tacit knowledge lacks realism? Why?

    Another question
    1) Why is Hayek's picture of the 'market process' less scientific than that of the mathematical economists' market equilibrium that Ken is now suddenly so fond of? In fact I would argue that the Austrian theorists (like Hayek) view of the market as a process is more descriptively realistic than the neoclassical mainstream economic equilibrium approach - its major shortcoming is that unlike neoclassical economics there has so far been little attempt to build a tractable normative methodology for evaluating efficiency using the market process approach.

    I'm not suggesting that Ken engage in a detailed philosophical debate about liberalism with me. What I'm suggesting is his attempt to 'refute' Hayek by such generalities as equating it with Freudianism doesn't work because Ken hasn't made the effort to even engage in the specifics of one particular argument in Hayek's system.

    Let me again outline what I think is outstanding in Hayek's system.
    1) It proposes a completely fresh and quite original normative framework for evaluating social institutions and for guiding liberal thinking in the same way that concepts such as natural rights did in the past, and in fact much more compellingly than such concepts.
    2) It also adds a solid foundation to generally utilitarian arguments for liberalism by the 'Humean' spin I discussed in a previous post (i.e. the argument about justice as a precondition to welfare).
    3) It has a well integrated and coherent system of epistemology, social theory, ethics and politics with the epistemology creating implications forn the social theory, which in turn has implications for the ethics which in turn has implications for the politics.
    4) It beautifully reconciles the contributions of major liberal thinkers like Hume and Kant or at least picks and synthesises the most congenial aspects of their thought.
     
    The Hayek war continues
    Tim Dunlop now has a response to my response to Quiggin which I intend responding to when I find the time. At this stage I wish merely to say I don't think I am missing the point. Quiggin's substantive point is about the direction in which Hayek's system takes us and he made some particular allegations about Hayek's supposed tendency to downplay freedom of speech which I think are thoroughly refuted by my textual analysis. In discussing the systems of thinkers, text is not 'irrelevant' - it is indeed the most important first hand 'facts' that are to be analysed. Textual analysis is more relevant to settling this dispute than whatever spin can be put on Hayek's later stances. Systems of thought have a life of their own and implications which need not be reflected by the actions of their propagators - this is in itself a very Hayekian or perhaps Popperian observation.
     
    Quotes of the week

    For all the public education lobby hypocrites with their children in private schools, this gem from the Wall Street Journal's Best of the web (okay, its a few days old, but I've been busy)

    'My Public Spirit Stops at My Daughter'
    In a letter to the editor of the Washington Post, one April Falcon Doss explains why she chose to send her daughter to a private school:
    "For a card-carrying liberal, I was surprisingly unapologetic about our decision. Why should I sacrifice our daughter's future to an abstract principle? I wasn't up to battling the school system about class size, curriculum and extracurricular activities. And by the time any changes could be made, our daughter would have already missed out on a vibrant education"

    Here in a nutshell is the definition of an American liberal: one who is willing to sacrifice the future of other people's children to an abstract principle.

    And from Tony Blair's speech to the TUC:

    But when dealing with dictators . . . diplomacy has to be backed by the certain knowledge in the dictator's mind that behind the diplomacy is the possibility of force being used.

    If we do not deal with the threat from this international outlaw and his barbaric regime, it may not erupt and engulf us this month or next; perhaps not even this year or the next. But it will at some point.

    And I do not want it on my conscience that we knew the threat, saw it coming and did nothing.


    And for a collection of great insights, see Tom Sowell's latest column, Random Thoughts.
     
    Quote of the day
    Science offers us an explanation of how complexity (the difficult) arose out of simplicity (the easy). The hypothesis of God offers no worthwhile explanation for anything, for it simply postulates what we are trying to explain. It postulates the difficult to explain, and leaves it at that
    ~Richard Dawkins
     
    A picture is worth a thousand words
    Razib K of Gene Expression takes down Nelson Mandela's silly suggestion that the US has been dissing Iraq and Boutros-Boutros Ghali because they're 'black'. In the process he also relates his own recent experiences in this colourful world:

    On a more amusing note-the most accurate racial slurs that have been directed toward me are "sand nigger" and "camel jockey." Interestingly, I was born in a nation that gets about 80 inches of rain a year and is subject to flooding, so something like "paddy nigger" or "elephant jockey" would have been more appropriate. Also, to show that it's not only white people that are a bit confused sometimes, a Latino checkout clerk at my local supermarket, who tends to be at the express station which I use every other day, pulled me aside and told me this: "I've been seeing this Indian or Pakistani name over and over again on our Club Card's, and I was wondering if you could tell me how to pronounce it?" She wrote out the name. It was Nguyen.

    Thursday, September 12, 2002
     
    In defence of Hayek
    John Quiggin has come up with an interpretation of Hayek which is completely off-the-wall and is so thoroughly uncharitable as to be either inept or dishonest. Since I have been on good terms with John, I will presume the former.

    Rather than reproduce bits of his argument here which I respond to I suggest you read it in its entirety and then read my response.

    Firstly Hayek was born in 1899. He was born into a world (the Austro-Hungarian empire) which was generally cosmopolitan and more tolerant of minorities including Jews (with whom he freely mixed) compared to what immediately followed which he saw as an outgrowth of tribalism and collectivist ideas of self-determination. He was, like his friend, Karl Popper (whom he basically rescued from poverty and obscurity in New Zealand) appreciative of the temporary burst of stable, generally liberal order provided by the Hapsburgs which all came tumbling down later especially with the rise of nationalistic anti-semitism in Austria. His reservations about untramelled democracy are understandable for a man of his age. Hitler got in by a democratic vote. Not all liberals supported universal suffrage. His preference for a 'liberal dictatorship' over a 'democracy with no liberalism' is one I would accept too if a 'liberal dictatorship' were possible or sustaintable in principle. Think of it this way - a 'democracy with no liberalism' can give us Hitler and a 'liberal dictatorship' could be a bunch of judges in the US Supreme Court who strikes down any infringement of the constitution. Which one would you prefer? The validity of this comment is quite separate from his mistaken support of Pinochet - he was getting on in years when he said that. His last work, The Fatal Conceit was basically cobbled together by WW Bartley from notes he left around as he was no longer in a state to be able to write the book himself.

    Because his support of democracy is instrumental rather than intrinsic of course he has a more qualified view of democracy - the idea that the strongest basis for democracy is on instrumental grounds (because it's the only peaceful way of changing governments) is a widely accepted idea. He also favoured a chamber of wise elites for restricting or reviewing legislation - something like the House of Lords. Can anyone seriously contend that Britain with its traditional House of Lords was a more tyrannical place to live under than, say, Pakistan? How much less democratic is a restriction on universal suffrage compared to judicial or other constraints on legislative power when you judge it against the benchmark of voters demands being met? There are consequentialist reasons for not limiting suffrage but these are quite independent of whether universal suffrage starting from none at all is somehow sacred in that freedom of political discussion is.

    As for the idea that Hayek would support restricting freedom of speech this is a blatantly off the wall interpretation. Hayek argued that freedom was in fact less important for what it allowed the individual to do than what each individual gained from the resulting freedom of action in society that allowed for all the coordinative properties he ascribed to the market process - he purposely downplayed the 'traditional' justification for freedom because he wanted to emphasise what he saw as a counter-intuitive insight. For instance at p. 31-33 of the Constitution of Liberty he writes:

    It is because we do not know how individuals will use their freedom that it is so important. If it were otherwise the results of freedom could be achieved by the majority's deciding what should be done by individuals. ... It is therefore not necessarily freedom that I can exercise myself that is most important for me ... What is important is not what freedom I personally would like to exercise but what freedom some person may need in order to do things that are beneficial to society. This freedom we can assure to the unknown person only by giving to all ...

    The undesigned that constantly emerge in the process of adaptation will consist ... of new arrangements or patterns in which the efforts of different individuals are coordinated and of new constellations in the use of resources ...

    The process by which the new emerges is best understood in the intellectual sphere when the results are new ideas ... Because we are more aware that our advances in the intellectual sphere often spring from the unforseen and undesigned we tend to overstress the importance of freedom in this field and to ignore the importance of freedom of doing things. But the freedom of research and belief and the freedom of speech ... are significant only in the last stage of the process in which new truths are discovered ... We have new ideas to discuss, different views to adjust because those ideas and views arise from the efforts of individuals in ever new circumstances who avail themselves in their concrete tasks of the new tools and forms of action they have learned.


    I hope this long excerpt makes clear that Hayek was not suggesting freedom of speech could be safely abridged whereas freedom of action could not. His argument is at first glance counter-intuitive but very logical in keeping with the tenour of his ideas. The traditional argument for freedom of speech is an epistemic one. We need freedom of speech and thought and discussion because we can never be sure whether we are absolutely correct and therefore our views need to be exposed to other views and there needs to be a constant to and fro, with people testing out new things, adopting ideas which seem good and so on.

    What Hayek is doing here is sketching out an epistemic justification for freedom of action which resembles the traditional epistemic justification for freedom of speech. This is quite in keeping with his theme that tacit knowledge tends to be ignored by intellectuals but is just as important as the abstract ideas we use in speech and discussion. It would be inconsistent for Hayek to argur that freedom of speech was expendable since he is implicitly recruiting traditional arguments made for freedom of speech to freedom of action. In effect he was saying that 'action' is also a form of speech and has the same properties insofar as it embodies ideas.

    He would probably say these abstract ideas are in turn really foundational on tacit knowledge or second order reflections of some underlying knowledge which is ultimately tacit. In fact he does. At p. 35 he writes:

    Though the conscious manipulation of abstract thought once it has been set in train has in some measure a life of its own, it would not long continue and develop without the constant challenges that arise from the ability of people to act in a new manner, to try new ways of doing things, and to alter the whole structure of civilisation in adaptation to change. The intellectual process is in effect only a process of elaboration, selection and elimination of ideas already formed. And the flow of new ideas, to a great extent, springs from the sphere in which action, often non-rational action, and material events impinge upon each other.

    There are many interesting comparisons between the ideas enunciated above and Marx's materialism as well as Popper's theory of the three worlds.

    The institution of several property (a more accurate term than private property) is important because it facilitates such speech - it allows people to form firms, communities, civil societies which embody different ideas and subject them to 'testing'. There is something analogous to the 'speech process' which Hayek thinks can be simulated via a process of selection (e.g. through exit from particular structures and entry into other, or in the context of a firm, the growth of one type of firm compared to another), emulation and eventually 'precedent'. This does not mean that all spontaneous order are equally optimal - indeed this is precisely where Hayek reconfigures the terms of debate as his idea implies that the task of the liberal is to cultivate the sort of generic institutional setting that generates a spontaneous order in this free speech-analogous crucible of 'experimentation and debate via several property' that ensures maximal coordination of human needs and wants. Interventions in this vein were what Hayek understood as 'purpose independent' interventions and therefore allowable under his system. For instance the German ordo-liberals believed that a strong antitrust law was part of this 'generic institutional setting'.

    Furthermore it is worth noting that his argument only appeals to the notion that other peoples' freedom should be as important to you as your own even if you don't exercise the same freedoms they exercise - this provides a stronger principled footing for freedom than one based on simply listing the freedoms each person has as if it were a shopping list.

    Finally the idea that Hayek was anti-rationalist is another myth that needs to be dispelled., Hayek can only be said to be anti-rationalist insofar as Hume is anti-rationalist. Hume turned reason on itself and ended up a sceptic. Hayek's so called anti-rationalism is actually more rational than the naive rationalism of anti-naturalistic rationalists who believe there is a 'ghost in the machine'. It is only anti-rationalist insofar as Wittgenstein's idea of intrinsic limits to criticism with which his ideas about the impossibility of a 'synoptic' view of the social world has much in common is anti-rationalist. The reason Hayek sounds anti-rationalist was because he was an evolutionist (thus the hedging about whether there is such a thing as free will in The Constutution of Liberty). He believed the mind itself is an emergent order like the spontaneous order of the market (e.g. A 'beehive mind' , an idea now popular among some computer scientists and complexity theorists - see his early book on psychology The Sensory Order which has a model of a mind which basically anticipates the idea of neural networks), and it was formed in interaction with the surrounding culture. His emphasis on tradition stems from this picture of the mind which is that underlying 'ideas' there is no little homunuculus or ghost in the machine manipulating these ideas - only a nested hierarchy of feedback-response mechanisms embodying 'tacit knowledge' whether in the minds of individuals who participate in a culture, or the markets and complex of exchanges within that culture and finally the culture itself.

    Postscript:
    It is ironic that Hayek, probably the most interventionist of the major libertarian thinkers (he was certainly less of a programmatic libertarian than even Milton Friedman) is frequently the one accused of being anti-democratic when most of his proposals would not look out of place and would be palatable to a genuine liberal party contesting elections. The charge that Hayek would sacrifice freedoms of speech for economic freedom is particularly hard to digest in light of his discussion (highlighted above) of the interrelatedness of freedoms as he saw them and the interrrelatedness of their justifications.

    What is even more ludicrous is the suggestion (implied in John's argument) that someone guided by the philosophy found in The Constitution of Liberty would undertake to promote his vision of a liberal society by using political power to suppress other ideologies - when it could be better used to impose constitutional restraints on the scope of government itself to achieve the same ends. The latter is in itself not anti-democratic unless everything liberals do to advance their agenda (by constitutional reforms, etc) after winning an election is automatically condemned as anti-democratic.

    This is really the crux of it - by the very nature of their philosophical allegiances, all classical liberals of varying degrees of moderation or extremism are against untramelled majoritarianism and untramelled legislative power and favour checks and balances on power including constitutional and judicial restraints to limit the scope of majoritarianism and legislative power - this is the nature of their difference with people who merely call themselves democrats (unhyphenated). And this is as it should be. Liberal-constitutionalist-democracy is a completely different beast from mere 'democracy' and arguably when people of the common Anglo-American civilisation to which Australians belong refer to democracy they mean democracy within the context of various constitutional constraints (whether spelt out explicitly in a US Bill of Rights or implicitly in some 'invisible constitution' as per the British tradition) and as understood by liberal-democrats. Hayek belonged to this liberal-democratic tradition (and in fact self-consciously identified with it in his Anglophilia) and his qualifications regarding democracy have to be evaluated in that light, as if he were an English liberal, albeit of an older generation when the concept of universal suffrage was not in fact taken for granted.
     
    Open societies and closed societies
    An interesting if controversial-sounding post over at Steve Sailer's blog (incidentally I would also regard Sailer as among the unsung best blogs on the web - certainly not your standard fare):

    It's not uncommon for 30%-50% of marriages in the Middle East to be between first cousins. That's much higher than the rate found among Kentucky hillbillies in 1942. Individuals in the Arab countries tend to be about 250 times more inbred than in America. This must have a huge impact on why Arab societies are so fractious along clan lines and why the degree of trust is so low outside of extended families. Arabs are just much more related to their relatives than we are.


    Now let me get this straight for all you politically correct people out there - this is a verifiable fact that can be checked over at this website cited by Sailer. Facts speak for themselves and are neither racist or non-racist. And there is no genetic prospensity towards inbreeding (I certainly hope not) so no one is implying people (such as the white Kentucky hilllbillies Sailer refers to) can't stop such practices.
     
    What's happened to Whacking day?

    An e-mail from Tex:

    If I could grovel and beg for a favour: a brief mention on your blogspace
    that my site is down, and I don't know when it will be back up.

    I had the misfortune to give my business to the world's most incompetent
    webhosting company. They're near the point of collapse...they've been bought
    out by another band of idiots who are moving all their servers to Houston.
    Needless to say...nothing is working properly and everything is behind
    schedule. I can't even put up a "be back soon" message

    Whackingday.com could be back online tomorrow, or in a month for all I know.
    All permalinked articles can still be accessed but the intro page is dead as
    a doorknob. Of course, this *had* to happen on Sep.10.......

    Regards,
    Tex




    Wednesday, September 11, 2002
     
    Are the Bushies out of their minds?
    From the SMH:

    Iraq, they argue, is just the first piece of the puzzle. After ousting Saddam the US will have more leverage to act against Syria and Iran, be in a better position to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and rely less on Saudi oil. Although the thinking does not represent official US policy, it has increasingly served as a justification for a military attack against Iraq, and elements of the strategy have emerged in speeches by US officials, particularly the Vice-President, Dick Cheney.

    "The goal is not just a new regime in Iraq; the goal is a new Middle East," said Raad Alkadiri, an Iraq analyst with PFC, a Washington-based energy consulting organisation.


    I sympathise with liberal imperialism in theory but in practice we are talking about 1001 things that can go wrong.

    I hereby retract all I said to my anti-Bush friends in the past when I defended Dubya on the grounds that 'IQ doesn't matter because he has such smart advisers'. Dubya is surrounded by smart people but some of them are clearly crazed ideologues with not a contingency plan in mind or a feel for the nitty gritty whatsoever. And because he really isn't that smart he has as much probability of listening to the crazed ideologues as the 'feet on the ground' advisers. Come back, Bill Clinton, all is forgiven!
     
    The Islamist version of Fisking
    In July in a post entitled Amir Butler is not always wrong I linked to Butler's take-down of a piece by Janet Albrechtsen on the Lebanese gang-rapes. In that post I grudglingly conceded that he seemed to have done a well-researched piece pointing out that certain parts of Albrechtsen's article misrepresented (whether intentionally or unintentionally) the sources quoted. He even went as far as to contact one of the primary researchers in the sources cited. In my mind at least his piece was quite devastating and certainly reduced my opinion of Albrechtsen insofar as her research skills go. I remain his philosophical enemy (as one must of a man who claims the Taliban were good for Afghans) but if we are to congratulate each other on Fisking and investigative blog journalism then we have to concede that Butler's was a good example of the latter and certainly was the Islamist version of Fisking, whatever that is.

    Now it seems that Mullah Butler's chickens have come home to roost and as Don Arthur has pointed out, Butler's piece has now been picked up by MediaWatch and used in their critique of the Gang of Three - Albrechtsen, Devine and Ackerman (there was a time when I would have hesitated in putting Miranda in the same compass as Ackerman but given her recent rant against gays I can't say that anymore). Surely a victory of sorts for blogging over the mainstream media, one must concede? After all isn't this precisely the sort of thing that bloggers get excited about?

    Now, one caveat. I do not think that Butler's piece does go so far as to weaken the hypothesis of a nexus between the sort of behaviour exhibited in the recent gang rapes and problems in particular communities. As many other blogs will tell you, Australia is not the only country facing this sort of problem with a second generation of Arab Muslim migrants - similar problems have been recorded in France and the Scandinavian countries. Anyone with a pair of eyes and a brain can see there is some sort of problem of dysfunction among the younger generation of some segments of the Lebanese Muslim community of lower socio-economic backgrounds. For want of a better word it may be a problem of heightened 'anomie', people straddling two cultures and ending up with a bastardised version of each which does no justice to either. To suggest this is not to be involved in 'scapegoating' anymore than does warning someone that their house is on fire.

    Tuesday, September 10, 2002
     
    Dunlop on Hayek
    Tim Dunlop leaps into the fray on the Hayek discussion I instigated before. And to be honest I can't say I diagree with him in principle - and he even agrees with me on two other postings. This is getting creepy!

    No, let me correct myself. One short note of dissent. Tim seems to agree with Gray's assessment that:

    Hayek's demonstration of the epistemic impossibilities of successful economic planning...is the only deep explanation ever advanced of the universal systemic failures of socialist economies...It is not an argument, however, that supports any of the larger claims of Hayek's political philosophy. It does not provide a foundation for liberalism, or justify the enormous claims Hayek makes for free markets. It has little, if any normative content, and contains nothing to assist the choice between diverse regimes, liberal and non-liberal, that are found in the world in the wake of socialism. It works only as an impossibility theorem against the most hubristic types of economic planning. It demonstrates that a powerful twentieth century project--the Marxian project of replacing market processes by central planning--is unachievable. It tells us little else (p.150).


    I think this is taking too narrow a reading of Hayek. I would contend that Hayek's ideas are more than just an impossibility theorem, that they contain the most promising ideas for developing liberal philosophy further and provide a stronger foundation for liberalism than past approaches, that fully developed they do narrow down the choices of 'best' systems to live under to liberal-constitutionalist-democratic ones (and thus strongly narrows down the choices) and that with further development they do narrow down the feasible choices even further. What this narrowing down leads to is the precise point of departure between classical liberals and social democrats and it is not surprising that both groups have attempted to explore these ideas and take them further. The definitive evidence? Of course there isn't any yet because his ideas are yet to be fully developed. One recent example (and by an Australian philosopher at that) - see this book.

    Clarification: If all Gray is saying in his postscript as reproduced by Tim and by me above is that Hayek's most famous idea - of the 'knowledge problem' - and his use of it to critique central planning has few other implications then he is correct. This is no different from my argument with Mark Harrison over whether more moderate notions of social democracy are compatible with a capitalist economy - I think so, but he doesn't. However the scope of Hayek's thought goes beyond just that one contribution (which in itself is really an elaboration of an earlier argument by Mises). Thus I do find it surprising that Gray, Hayek's interpreter, manages to reduce his idea to an 'impossibility theorem'. The epistemic approach more generally has far reaching implications and not just for political/social theory but also economics - for instance it would taken further develop the idea of firms in a market economy as embodying hypotheses about consumer preferences which are subsequently confirmed or refuted in light of market feedbacks. It would subsequently imply a theory of the firm which sees the boundaries of the firm reflecting tradeoffs based on such informational considerations. Indeed all this and related work has been pursued by the likes of Nelson, Winter, Langlois, etc sometimes with or without awareness of Hayek's ideas.
     
    Sexism in the blogosphere 2
    Lower female participation rates can partially be explained by the fact that women are put off by the testoterone-driven manner in which a lot of these debates are carried on. Play the ball not the woman!
     
    I am (predictably)

    What revolution are You?
    Made by altern_active

    I suppose I am (unlike Jason) against lobby groups (as were the rationalists)
     
    Sexism in the blogosphere?
    Over at Gene Expression a debate has erupted over charges of sexism in the blogosphere. The general complaint is that among 'serious' blogs, both men and women have a low female to male blogroll ratio even though there is an increasing number of female surfers and female bloggers. Does this reflect sexism or simply the fact that people tend to link to blogs that reflect their own interests? You decide. After all, the complaint is being directed against 'serious' bloggers (e.g. those that don't write solely about their personal lives). Insofar as there is a low female to male blogroll ratio it is because disproportionately more men than women are into the whole policy wonk-politilog-philosoblog-warblog business even if the numbers of women into these things is increasing. Nothing to do with the commentator, and everything to do with the content, as GeneExp blogger Godless Capitalist puts it.

    One recent complainant is Dawn Olsen who writes:

    The biggest bloggers (those with the most influence and traffic) do what they do and link who they feel support their beliefs and arguments. If you aren't a war-blogger then there seems to be no reason to pay attention to you. And even if you do include politics and war-blogging in your material, but focus mainly on micro/personal issues, say someone like Shell, you are still overlooked by the mainstream people.


    Now it seems to me that what Dawn has admitted here undermines her case and the general charges of sexism completely. She is basically saying 'No fair. People are discriminating against me because of my content.I'll treat that as a discrimination on the basis of gender" As the female blogger, Elizabeth on Gene Expression puts it:

    The section of the blogosphere to which she's referring - i.e., the people Glenn Reynolds links - is largely politically-oriented and I just don't think there are as many female political bloggers out there. This logically means fewer blogs to link to and consequently, fewer links. That little microcosm is really a small part of the blogosphere at large and it gets overhyped because of the media coverage, which I'd argue is also the result of topical focus and not gender ratio. If she took inventory of the blogosphere at large, I think she'd find it a lot more proportionate. I don't have data points, but I'd wager that the livejournal community is probably disproportionately female and their blogrolls probably reflect that.

    Most of my links are male and most of the people that link to me are male, but I don't think that's indicative of sexism on their part and certainly not on mine. My interests happen to be politics, business, and several other topics that more men than women would probably find interesting. Most of the female bloggers I know do journal-style blogs about everyday things - i.e., dating, cooking, etc. Unless the person's a really prolific or funny writer (and some are - see Fish, for example.) I rarely find those interesting and the links on Capital Influx tend to be disproportionately male as a result.

    It's not a gender-based decision. For the same reason I'm more likely to pick up something by John Arquilla than something by Candace Bushnell at the bookstore, I'm more likely to link a male blogger than a female blogger. I'm more interested in wargames, corporate raiders, and basketball than I am shopping at Barney's, swapping stories about dating, or why Pilates is the next big thing. I'm sure there are men that prefer talking about the latter and women that prefer to talk about the former, but I think they're minorities. If interests coincide I don't think men hesitate to link to female bloggers. (Try to find a major warblogger that *doesn't* link to Megan.)


    Exactly. And try to find a major "serious" US blogger who doesn't link to Virginia Postrel, who is on my list of my top 5 favourite bloggers.

    It would seem to me that the people alleging sexism only have a case if it is an unalterable fact that most women prefer to blog about 'Livejournal' sort of stuff. Is it sexist that issues of public affairs and so on are privileged as being more important? Well, no. Women are socialised into certain roles, even in today's society. The sorts of things they manifest an interest in then reflects this socialisation process and leads to disproportionately less women writing the sort of policy wonkish blogs that 'serious' bloggers link to. There is nothing inherently 'womanish' about this and it would be genuinely sexist to argue that 'male' affairs are being privileged above 'female' affairs in the 'serious' blogworld. If the likes of Dawn Olsen, one of the biggest 'sexploitation' practitioners on the web (Virginia Postrel never had to show off her butt to attract hits, 'cos intelligence is sexy) want to identify female identity with the sorts of stuff she tends to disproportionately write about on her blog that is her prerogative. But she will have to excuse me for calling her sexist.

    PS: It should be noted that I have far from a vested interest in this. Of the US milieu, none of the 'big boys' that Dawn Olsen complains about has me on their blogroll either (with the exception of USS Clueless who has me on his Manifesto page), though I'd like to think that the 'serious' US bloggers who do link to me are some of the best around (e.g. Virginia Postrel, Gene Expression, Kathy Kinsley - notice those two female names btw?). Maybe my content is too esoteric, maybe I'm not enough of a warblogger. So what? To each their own. No one's going to be a crybaby over this and scream proportional representation.
     
    The case for invading Iraq

    A good statement of the case for invading Iraq by George Shultz is here.

    Personally I think whether or not it is a good idea to invade Iraq, it is certainly a good idea to threaten to do so. I don't see any other way to get the weapons inspectors back in.
     
    Moral equivalence idiocy of the week

    Depressed at the sheer silliness of most of the opinions in the Sydney Morning Herald’s letters page on Monday I turned to the TV guide to have a look on what is on TV on September 11. I find the following written by TV critic Bruce Elder (no link available)

    “Just remember that while terrorists killed more than 3000 people in the events of 9/11 that 150,000 people die each year (that’s nearly 3000 a week) because of drunk driving throughout the United States. Perspective. That is what is needed most”

    I’m sure on the first anniversary of the Port Arthur massacre he was there pointing out ‘only’ 35 people were killed – about the same as an average week on Australian roads and urging a sense of perspective.

    Next you know the rotten fascist US government will be threatening drunk drivers who kill others (intentionally or not) with imprisonment, fines and taking away their right to drive. Why those right wing hawks might even declare a war on drunk driving and take preventative measures like high taxes on alcohol and randomly breathalysing all drivers who come through a particular spot and punishing the drunk ones (1.5 million DUI arrests in the US in 2001). They may even drinker profile by setting up near pubs and clubs

    I guess if Bruce had his way we would instead try to understand why they drink and tackle the ‘root causes’ of drinking. Many drink drivers come from backgrounds of poverty and hopelessness – who knows what grievances and alienation drives them to drink. Perhaps we are still ‘paying a price’ for the unfair treatment of drunks back in Prohibition. And some were taught to drive in government schools. The government itself help create the problem and so must accept some of the blame. Further, we should fix the drug problem before we tackle drinkers. Using the police to punish drunk drivers is just a band-aid solution. We should be providing free taxis so they are not forced to drive home.

    Not that it matters, but 150,000 people killed by drunk drivers each year seemed a bit steep to me. I spent 10 seconds searching on google and found US road accident death statistics at this site.

    Actually, 42,116 people in total were killed in motor vehicle accidents in the US in 2001 and 41,821 in 2000.

    The statistics on drunk drivers only appear for 2000. Of the 41,821 killed on US roads, 16,653 deaths were alcohol related (either the driver or a non-occupant had a blood alcohol level of 0.01 or more) and 12,892 were killed in accidents in which either the driver or non-occupant was intoxicated (BAC of 0.1 or more).

    So Bruce is out by a factor of 10, sort of distorts your perspective. But even that is an exaggeration of the number of people killed by drink drivers. Of these deaths, 8,920 were either drivers or non-occupants who were themselves intoxicated. So drunk drivers really ‘only’ killed 3,972 others.

    Guess with Bruce’s perspective we should abandon the war on drink drivers (especially as it must stigmatise all the peaceful drinkers out there – why it may cause a backlash against them).


    Monday, September 09, 2002
     
    This is madness
    Enough is enough. I strongly supported the attack on Al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan. But the Bush Administration's threat to "go it alone" on Iraq gives me the creeps. Of course by alone it meets sucking in the UK and Australia with them. And for what? The Middle East is a whole other ballgame from Central Asia. Afghanistan has always been a basket case. The fall of one government in Afghanistan would not and did not destabilise Central Asia. The fall of Iraq would unleash a domino effect in the Middle East with God knows what happening at the end of the process. Kurds and Shiite Muslims fighting for their share of the spoils (and what happens to the weapons of mass destruction then if the US can't secure the territory - or if it can, only at immense loss of life), the Iranian theocracy extending its influence, 'moderate' governments collapsing under their radicalised populations, Israel being fired on as retalitation. The carnage to come will make the Cold War seem like a sweet dream.

    Quite frankly, if the Christian Fundamentalist Right wanted to bring on the End Times it couldn't ask for a better opportunity than the way the Bush Administration seems intent to muddle into Iraq. Until a more than tenous link is established between Al Qaeda and Iraq I will continue to regard the Bush gambit as pure madness.
     
    Gittins on Kyoto, greens and the Australian media

    Gittins redeems himself.
     
    Hayek, deriving universalist morality from rationality and other attempts at squaring the circle
    I and lefty blogger Don Arthur have been exchanging friendly emails about our differences regarding moral and political theory. I recently referred Don to the following passage from John Gray (whom I still regard as one of the best interpreters of Hayek notwithdtanding his recent descent into a shade of Deep Green) in his book Hayek on Liberty. Since I went to the trouble of typing out the relevant passage for Don I thought I'd post it here and follow it up later when I find the time with my own thoughts and annotations on Gray's description of Hayek's ideas as essentially contractarian and indirectly utilitarian which I find spot-on.

    "Hayek follows Hume in supposing that in virtue of certain facts about the human predicament, the moral conventions which spring up spontaneously among all men have certain features in common ...limited generosity and intellectual imperfection and unalterable scarcity of the means of satisfying human needs ...gives rise to the "three fundamental laws of nature" .. "stability of possessions, of its transference by consent, and of the performance of promises" ... There is in Hayek as in Hume a fundamental utilitarian commitment in their theories of morality. It is a very indirect utilitarianism that they espouse .. The utilitarian component of Hayek's conception of morality is indirect in that it is never supposed by him that we ought to or could invoke a utilitarian principle in order to settle practical questions: for given the greater partiality and fallibility of our understanding, we are in general better advised to follow the code of behaviour accepted in our own society ...That code can in turn ... be only reformed piecemeal and slowly...

    What is distinctive in Hayek's Kantian ethics is his insight that the demands of justice need not be competitive with the claims of general welfare: rather a framework of justice is an indispensable condition of the successful achievement of general welfare ... the utility of rules depended on their not being liable to abridgement for the sake of an apparent gain in welfare .. Just how are we to assess different systems of rules in regard to their welfare promoting effects? Here Hayek comes close to modern preference-utilitarianism but gives that view an original formulation, in arguing that the test of any system of rules is whether it maximises an anonymous individual's chance of achieving his unknown purposes In Hayek's conception we are not bound to accept the historical body of social rules just as we find it; it may be reformed in order to achieve the unknown man's achieving his goals. It will be seen that this is a maximising conception, but not one that represents utility as a sort of neutral stuff, a container of intrinsic value whose magnitude may vary. Indeed in taking as the point of comparison an hypothesised unknown individual, Hayek's conception parallels John Rawls' model of rational choice behind a veil of ignorance".


    Notice that the objection to evaluating whole systems on preference-utilitarian grounds is on the basis that this ignores the problems of partiality, fallibility, etc because *tackling these problems is a necessity for a feasible system* - but once we have such a system in place which takes these into account we can then in fact tamper with the details and even start making exceptions in particular cases to the '3 fundamental laws'. There may be a thin line between what would on Hayekian grounds be condemned as "transcendental" reform of the system from some epistemologically unattinable synoptic perspective and "piecemeal" reform but nonetheless there is a line. In any case I would argue that what is important about a system are its presumptions rather than prescriptions.


    Needless to say I regard the line of thought opened up by Hayek (and another of his critical interpreters, James Buchanan) as quite important in grounding ideas about a universalist morality and a political system (namely constitutionalist liberal democracy) in some unalterable facts of human existence. I'd even go so far as to say that the approach suggested in these lines of argument if better developed blow the fact-value distinction to pieces. This is not to suggest that there is no time and place for distinguishing between positive and normative analysis - I do it all the time - but rather that it is possible to reduce debates over values to debates which can be settled by positive analysis which is inter-subjective in the sense of being able to command the assent of rational parties. I should note that I do not think that the picture of the 'best' political system that ultimately emerges is necessarily that of a minimal state as there are many possible models of a constitutionalist liberal democracy that differ in their details.This is for liberals (i.e. classical liberals and left liberals or social democrats) to argue over. The devil, as they say, is in the details.For the record I do regard Swedish welfare-state capitalism as a variant of constitutionalist liberal democracy. Hayek's most important arguments which revolve around the importance of rules and custom in addressing limited knowledge in societies, are genuinely open-ended in conclusion.

     

     
       
       

     

    < Home  |  Archives