Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The virtue of incoherence

A recent report on housing found that:
immigration was ''the most significant driver of underlying demand for additional housing stock''.
Housing land and development regulation has created a serious housing shortage and consequent inflation of housing prices that hits low income earners hardest. In the time Victoria’s population has gone up 30%, no new major dams have been built. No new power stations have been built.

But if you are against immigration, you are racist. If you do not want to help low income people, you are heartless. While if you are in favour of allowing landowners to build houses in response to demand, of building new power stations, of building a new dam, you are an “environmental vandal”.

This is a completely incoherent set of policies. Yet, you have to be “on board” with all of them to be one of the virtuous, to be a “good person”. [Since they all celebrate "good intentions" and "good intentions" maketh one virtuous: worrying about actual consequences, not so much.]

But, far from the incoherence being a difficulty, it is an advantage. A feature, not a bug.

How can it be an advantage? Because of its value as a status marker.

It is very simple. If you notice and question the incoherence, you are showing that something is more important to you than being a “good person”, being one of the conspicuously compassionate, the ostentatiously virtuous. If something is more important than that, then you are not reliable. In particular, you are demonstrating that something is more important than you than supporting the mutual status game.

Which makes you very “unreliable” indeed.

For if these policies can be legitimately questioned, then they are not reliable status markers. Your failure to “play the game” undermines the value of these status markers as common assets. So you have to be cast out of the realm of the “properly moral” in order to preserve the value of these public positions as status markers.

Conversely, by “buying” the incoherence—particularly by seeing anyone who raises the incoherence as morally retrograde—you are compromising your intellectual consistency, even your intellectual honesty. That makes you even more of a “co-conspirator” than you would be by simply agreeing.

I once read comments by an ex-communist that, on joining the Party, he had declared himself willing to give everything up for the Party except his once-a-week music recitals. Years later, he found out that the Party had marked him down as not fully reliable, as he had demonstrated something mattered more to him than the Party and the Cause.

Accepting incoherence in display virtue works similarly. Moreover, a shared morally compromising or taboo-breaking act can be very binding. It marks you off from others and creates a bigger gulf to step over to change. So much so, that changing your beliefs can be, in effect, a change of identity, making it that much harder to change, thereby protecting the power of the markers of membership.

For many decades after the consolidation of the Leninist regime, in academic, intellectual, literary and artistic circles in the West, if you stated the truth—that the Soviet regime was murderous and oppressive, that it killed wholesale to violently extract a surplus from workers and peasants, that it had revived slavery with its labour camp system—you were something of a pariah. It was not the relatively small number of people who told complete bollocks about the virtues of the Soviet regime who were the problem. It was the much larger number who felt that to seriously attack the Soviet regime put you on the “wrong side of history” who allowed such support for the Soviet regime to have resonance in academic, literary, artistic and cultural circles and awkward truths against the Soviet Union to lack them. For to accept and promulgate such awkward truths and their profoundly negative moral implications about the Soviet regime declared you to be someone who was not morally and intellectually kosher. In other words, that you were not, in an important sense, a “good person”. It was a sign of being intellectually and morally serious that you “understood” that.

Even more insidious was the notion that it was not even acknowledging some of those truths that was the issue: it was drawing the negative moral implications which really marked you out as morally and intellectually "not kosher". To failing to keep to the requisite intellectual taboos to be one of the virtuous.

It was that sense of being one of the moral-cognitive elite required you to accept that making those criticisms showed a lack of “soundness” that shielded the Soviet regime in Western intellectual, literary, artistic and cultural circles.

The markers change, but the pattern of behaviour continues. For the sense of virtue being sold thereby is so re-assuring in its sense of shared identity, with all its consoling sense of moral and intellectual superiority.

Hence the virtue of incoherence: it really does make a sense of mutual “soundness”—of shared moral and intellectual superiority—the most important thing, so all the stronger and better protected.


  1. Housing land and development regulation has created a serious housing shortage

    Of course, there are those who make a cogent argument that this view is incoherent in its own right: Steve Keen, for example. In fact, he makes the point that this view is accepted groupthink with little evidence for it, besides ‘common sense’.

    But then, your views are all entirely rational with no hint of groupthink or moral and intellectual superiority at all, right? It certainly couldn't be the case that you have fallen into exactly the behaviour you describe, only with a different ‘moral-cognitive elite’ than the one you declaim...

  2. The claim is not that there are some set of perfect thinkers out there. The claim is that these policies are patently incoherent (which they are: a 30% increase in Victoria's population with no significant new dam while encouraging rainwater tanks, for example) and that this incoherence has value.

    Steve Keen's analysis is ultimately silly. One merely has to examine other housing markets (and, for that matter, the market for taxi plates) to see the underlying dynamic is ultimately grounded in official discretion over market entry. Keen points to ancillary features and fails to grapple with the underlying supply and demand realities.

    (Also, trying to turn all such debate into status claims is not really rebutting the point about how a specific set of status claims operates.)

  3. Lorenzo

    There are quite a number - and growing - of sordid, opportunistic media and academic types, who can't help but see 'racism' behind an amazing number of tendentious policy ideas. Tellingly they are invariably upper middle class white people. One particularly obnoxious offender is Crikey and one correspondent in particular.

    Tony Abbott’s attempt to exploit xenophobic fears about high immigration would cost Australia over $200 billion in lost GDP over the next four decades, and significantly reduce GDP per capita, Treasury data shows

    What he is basically saying is that Tony Abbott is a racist because he considers GDP per capita as a better metric for economic performance than nominal GDP.

    Now, putting aside the very sound arguments against this fetishizing of GDP growth, BK's argument, apart from being an analytical and arithmetic disaster, it reveals a real anxiety in himself about the whole race issue.

    Me thinks the journalist does protest too much. ;)

  4. That is indeed a deeply silly article at so many levels. Particularly given Tony Abbott was merely suggesting a lower rate of immigration, but still quite a substantial one.