Friday, February 23, 2018

A misconceived attack on libertarianism

Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay have produced a Manifesto Against the Enemies of Modernity. There is much to agree with in it but at least one part is thoroughly misconceived, which is the attack on libertarianism.

Such an attack is a strange thing to read in such a manifesto, for if any ideology seems a product of modernity it is libertarianism, an intense form of liberalism. The heroes of libertarianism are very much modern figures, with the earliest thinker being regularly invoked being C17th philosopher John Locke. Some of the more historically minded might cite the Salamanca School, but for their economic reasoning, and perhaps some of their natural law reasoning, not their Catholicism.

Indeed, the most potentially fruitful lines of attack on libertarianism would be to accuse it of being a particularly autistic manifestation of modernity. "Dissident right" blogger Zman let's loose with a blast along those lines here.

Yet Pluckrose and Lindsay line up the libertarians (or at least a significant strain of such thought) with the premodern right:
Premodernism valorizes simplicity and purity that it imagines in terms of Natural roles, Laws, and Rights. It feels these have been subverted by the growth of institutions and complex social structures. It also deeply distrusts expertise for a wide variety of complicated reasons, including a certain self-assured and yet self-pitying resentment of sociocultural betterment, the undermining of “Natural” roles, the questioning and challenging of traditional values, and engineering in the social, cultural, and political spheres.
In the case of libertarians, particularly, a major influence is the political theory of Friedrich Hayek, who saw the increasing centralized regulation by government in the more recent Modern period as a gradual return to serfdom which threatens to bring about totalitarianism. In The Road to Serfdom, he argues, mirroring the postmodernists, that knowledge and truth is, in this way, inextricably linked to and constructed by power structures. Here and in The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek levied influential but profoundly dubious criticisms of rationalism in the forms of the expertise used in the planning and organization of socio-economic programs because, he argued, man’s knowledge is always limited. He warned that rationalism pushes a form of destructive perfectionism which disregards older traditions and values and restricts individual liberty.
The Road to Serfdom is not a very long book, yet remarkably often gets misrepresented. It is not a screed against regulation, still less against the welfare state, but against centralised economic planning. And if you think there is something wrong with the thesis that command economies and free societies (including democracy) are incompatible, I refer you to the right-in-front-of-our-eyes case of Venezuela.

It is many years since I read the book, but I do not remember any "mirroring the postmodernists" about knowledge and truth. Hayek's point was that command economies, by their nature, suppress and distort information, a key claim in the economic calculation debate.

The dispersed nature of knowledge was a key part of his thinking, distilled in his classic (and highly influential) 1945 essay The Use of Knowledge in Society.  Hayek's point about the limitations of states as users and shapers of information have since been revisited by James C. Scott (no libertarian he) in his contemporary classic Seeing Like A State.

Modernity or modernism?
It is useful to distinguish between modernity, well characterised by Pluckrose and Lindsay, and modernism which can be distilled down to the presumption that new is always better. That before the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, before the rise of modernity, humanity had failed to discover any useful about the human condition or human societies, it was all a fog of ignorance and superstition which needs to be rejected root-and-branch. It is an arrogant vice of modernity, which has been at times highly destructive and given us the recurring horrors of modern architecture.

To point out that our ancestors were not morons and failures just because they lived before modernity got underway is not to reject modernity. As some of those pre-modern legacies include Roman Law, the common law and Parliaments, not to mention Euclidean geometry and the Pythagorean scale, we are not entitled to such arrogance. Indeed, the Enlightenment itself was yet another dipping into the memory well of the Classical legacy, a feature less than entirely absent from the Scientific Revolution itself.

Limits and confidence
To explore the limits of reason and knowledge, and the limits of the human, is not to reject reason or knowledge. And there clearly are information limits on what states can manage to effectively do. The entire history of command economies is a lesson in that, which is precisely why the Beijing and Hanoi regimes have so profoundly wound back their command economies, to the great benefit of their citizens. 

One of the reasons libertarianism attracts such animus is precisely because it casts doubt on the capacities of the state, which threatens confidence in many people's favourite social transformation toy. That does not remotely put libertarianism outside the realm of modernity, still less make it premodern.

Lindsay and Pluckrose continue their attack on libertarianism:
This dim right-leaning view of individual liberty is paradoxically shared in considerable degree by the more culturally permissive premodern branch of anti-modern libertarians. Libertarians, particularly American ones, are distinguished by their insistences upon individual liberty being an unrivaled good. Yet theirs is a peculiar view of liberty that, despite being based in many of Modernity’s values, is overly narrow in its focus only upon restrictions of liberty issued by the state and thus rapidly ceases to be compatible with the institutions that enable Modernity. The oft-quoted epigram on the rattlesnake-bearing Gadsden Flag, “don’t tread on me,” is a good summary of their naively optimistic view of society: just leave them alone and everything will be fine. A similar mentality is found in the kind of Brexiter who focuses on the big themes of “independence” and “sovereignty” (going light on the details), whilst accusing everyone still unhappy about it of being undemocratic.
Which may make such folk wrong or misguided, but does not remotely make them enemies of modernity. Trying to insist that everyone line up in the "right sort" of modernity is quite different from a broad-based defence of modernity and is, in fact, somewhat antithetical to such a defence.

Modernity grew up in a period when states did far less than they currently do; in fact less than most contemporary libertarians (and certainly less than Hayek himself) would be comfortable with them doing. The claim that libertarian's "peculiar view of liberty"  "rapidly ceases to be compatible with the institutions that enable Modernity" is a deeply dubious one. The notion of spontaneous order that such view of liberty typically rest on may well be overstated, but is not remotely an anti-modernity idea: on the contrary, it is one of the ornaments of the Enlightenment. Yes, it has some premodern precursors, most obviously in the Tao, but only those suffering from the modernist arrogance would see that has somehow disabling. 

Antipathy to commerce
There is a long tradition of academics and intellectuals being antithetical to commerce. The superficial forms of the complaints change according to prevailing intellectual fashions, but the underlying complaints are remarkably consistent -- merchants are amoral, they make outrageously more money than decent moral folk (such as academics and intellectuals), they get in the way of (the current scheme for) social harmony. 

Commerce is indeed dynamic, risky and generates high income variance as a result. But it would be nice if intellectuals and academics could get over their angst about it: though, at two-and-half-millennia and counting, they probably won't. But that angst spills over into denunciations of that dreaded contemporary bug-bear neoliberalism and, in this case, libertarianism.

Reading Lindsay and Pluckrose's critique, I fail to see characteristics of actual libertarianism. One can read magazines such as Regulation, and the other publications of the Cato Institute, or Reason magazine (note the title) in vain for some attack on, or rejection of, modernity. To contest the direction of public policy, even profoundly, is not to reject modernity. Indeed, contesting the direction of public policy is almost a defining aspect of modernity.

About that state
What makes Pluckrose and Lindsay's attack on libertarianism even more misconceived is that they complain that postmodernists are a "tiny minority" yet wield disproportionate power. Indeed, and how do they do that? Primarily through the ever-expanding organs and networks of the diversity state, notably hitchhiking on "diversity" operating as a managerial ideology.

The recent memo from the US National Labor Relations Board that stated that referring to psychometric literature on sex differences is "discriminatory and sexual harassment" is a direct attack on use of scientific evidence in debate from within the bowels of the diversity state. The attack on due process in campuses Laura Kipnis so amusingly skewers came directly from the famous US Department of Education Title IX "Dear Colleague" letter.

Where do the indoctrinated products of PoMo social constructionist university education go? Into University administration, the organs of the administrative state, and corporate HR departments working off legal mandates. All those mid-level bureaucratic positions that the administrative state multiplies so steadily. Are Pluckrose and Lindsay still going to imply that modernity requires confidence, apparently expanding confidence, in the capacities of the state for social betterment?

Having made these way-overplayed critiques of libertarianism, that critique subsequently disappears from the essay. Libertarians have nothing to do with the patterns critiqued in the rest of the essay.

This is hardly surprising, as libertarians are something of an “in between” group, tending to be economic and social liberalisers. Pro-migration, pro-free trade, pro same-sex marriage, pro drug legalisation, police-power-sceptical: in terms of the left/right divide, this is something of an “offshore balancer” role. It clearly does not intensify the left-right debate and there is nothing in this list which is, in any way, anti-modernity.

Pluckrose and Lindsay's critique of libertarianism smacks of a lack of genuine familiarity with what is being critiqued intermixed with ideological antipathy that sits poorly with underlying message and intent of the essay which, in its own terms, is to encourage a broad coalition in defence of modernity. Sounds good to me, but let's include libertarians in, where they belong.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Friday, February 16, 2018

The dissident right and the race thing

The blogger Zman provides a very useful summary of the dissident right:
If you were trying to reduce the main points of the Dissident Right with a few bullet points, it would be:
  • The people in charge have dangerous fantasies about the future of society and the nature of man
  • The mass media is just propaganda for those fantasies and can never be taken at face value
  • Race is real, ethnicity is real and evolution is real. In the main, humans prefer to live with their own kind. Diversity leads to conflict.
There is a more to it, but those are the three main items that come up over and over among writers in the Dissident Right. The people in charge, of course, dispute these and consider them to be ignorant, paranoid and immoral. Question the browning of America and you’re a dumb racist. Notice that mass media often looks like a coordinated public relations campaign and you’re branded as a paranoid. Of course, anyone mentioning the realities of race and sex is the branded a Nazi or white supremacist.
A useful summary, because pithy summaries of positions from the inside are almost always a helpful addition to understanding and debate. One of the ways, for example, you can tell that much academic writing about "neoliberalism" is worthless is the lack of forensic analysis of what alleged neoliberals write. 

Pithy summaries tend not to be the places for nuance. But what I found useful in Zman's summary is it pinpointed for me why I read a lot of "dissident right" stuff but do not identify with it.

I read a lot of it in part because they often are willing to consider facts and concerns which conflict with the progressivist piety display politics that dominate so much of the media and elsewhere (and help provide strong coordinating effects). Also because I do think said politics include some dangerous fantasies about the future of society and human nature. And because I do think that ethnicity is real and evolution is real.

Against social constructionism
Continuing with points of agreement, evolutionary psychology tends to have not nearly enough history or comparative anthropology in it (see a useful discussion here), but social constructionist viewpoints (which have been widely adopted in much of the humanities and social sciences) are both false and toxic. False because there are inherent structures which cannot be wished away by human will and action. Such as an inherited cognitive architecture, as famously put by biologist E.O.Wilson (pdf):
What I like to say is that Karl Marx was right, socialism works, it is just that he had the wrong species. Why doesn't it work in humans? Because we have reproductive independence, and we get maximum Darwinian fitness by looking after our own survival and having our own offspring. 
(Often paraphrased as "wonderful idea, wrong species".)

This inherited cognitive architecture (a result of the biology required in order to have big brains so anything can be socially constructed in the first place) extends to differences in the distribution of cognitive traits between men and women, differences which are actually larger in prosperous, developed societies (pdf), likely because less social constraint means underlying biological differences are more directly manifested. 

Another structural constraint is the limitations on knowledge, as discussed by economist-philosopher Friedrich Hayek in The Use of Knowledge in Society and by historical anthropologist James C. Scott in Seeing Like A State. Which, combined with the incentive issues, generates the economic calculation problem.

Because toxic
Social constructionist views tends to be toxic because they have a powerful tendency towards manichaean views of human society and action. If social structures are fully plastic to human action, then all bad outcomes are the result of human action (typically, someone else's human action) and could be eliminated by correct human action.

So, the evils and problems of the world gets analysed in terms of malign human action and are deemed to be soluble by unified human action. Hence the tendency to talk as if all the problems of the world as are the result of malign human action-and-feeling (racism, sexism, etc) which require unified action to eliminate, including the convergence of all forms of social action towards proper social harmony. Hence there is no part of human society that should be outside the convergence towards harmony, or the elimination of alienation, or whatever the end goal is that will, as the saying goes, immanentize the eschaton.

If one wants to know where the contemporary drive to find "sin" in everything (sinful jokes, sinful games, sinful shirts, sinful words, sinful statues, sinful opinions, etc) comes from, the widespread adoption of social constructionist ideas is a key element. Particularly coming out of feminism, which has become a central driver of progressivism; hence the shift from talking of sexism to talking of misogyny: criticising men is feminism, criticising women is misogyny.

For those interested in historical patterns, the first great success of the women's movement (women's suffrage) was, in the US, followed by their next great success, Prohibition, the war against the (mostly male) demon drink (see an amusing essay here). In our time, the massive expansion in opportunities for women in recent decades (essentially, since the pill [pdf]) has been followed by the campaign against the (very male) demon domination (and who, unlike the demon drink, also has a race and a sexuality). As was the case with the war against the demon drink, the "cure" for the demon domination is proving to be much worse than the actual extent of the problem in Western societies.

Needless to say, analysing all human and social ills in terms of malign will and bad feelings is toxic to open debate, or even elementary civility. Given that Stalinism was intensely social constructionist, and that, especially in France, there was not much temporal gap between adhering to Stalinism and jumping into postmodernism and post-structuralism, it is not surprising that we are seeing a revival of Stalinist rhetorical constructs, such as hate speech and massive over-use of the "Fascist!" label, and of neo-Lysenkoist biological denialism. 

As an aside, while I disagree on a couple of points (patriarchy is not in the interest of every man, for example, particularly not in its polygynous form) what the authors of this analysis call their biosocial theory is an analytical approach I heartily agree with. 

But about that race thing
Where I fail to get on board with the dissident right is the race thing. Yes, race is real in a (fuzzy boundary) sense, it is just not real in the sense they mean. That is, race does not usefully aggregate causal factors together, it is not a causal unit. Ethnicity does: ethnicity reaches back deep into our evolutionary history. Ethnicity was how we scaled up beyond foraging bands. Judges 12, the story of shibboleth, is an ethnic cues story. We are the cultural species, so of course ethnicity matters.

From the C18th onwards, race was basically constructed within Western thought as a meta-ethnicity. The analytical trouble with that is, doing that takes us further away from actual causal factors. To the extent that white means anything analytically useful it means of European origin: referring to civilisational and ethnic traits, not racial ones. And, even there, it often makes a major difference which Europeans. To put it another way, even if the US was "lily-white", it would be unavoidably diverse, and unavoidably ethnically diverse.

Terms such as white and black abstract away from people's cultural and civilisational heritage. In the hands of the fighters against the demon domination, that is often the point, as it helps with the malign-feelings-and-will social constructionist shtick. But no-one who takes the heritage of Western civilisation seriously should play that game for a moment.

Nor, even in the US context, is the term black any better than white. Do you mean recent African immigrants, who tend to be well-educated, have intact families and do well in the US? Do you mean Afro-Caribbean immigrants, who achieved their freedom from slavery a generation earlier and whose ancestors live and voted in polities where they were fully integrated into local politics? Or do you mean Ebonic-Americans, the descendants of slaves whose ancestors went through the oppressions of Jim Crow? Because they are quite different groups. And the last are very much an ethnic group, an American nation, and can only be understood through the prism of ethnicity, not race.

Diversity: it depends
As for the problems of diversity, they are not generic or automatic. I seriously doubt that the importing of highly educated East Asians or South Asians is any threat to the fabric of American society. Nor are the various minority strains of Islam (Ismailis, Ibadis, Alevis, Ahmadis) likely to be a problem. Their permanent minority status means that aspiring to domination (see below) is suicidal, and has long since been adapted out of their varieties of Islam.

Hispanics in the US are a little more complex, but mainly because of the consequences of illegal immigration in creating black markets in labour and of blocking voter control over migration policy. Have effective border control plus explicit selection and the problem largely goes away. How am I so confident? Because Australia and Canada manage much higher rates of immigration than the US with far less social and political angst. (Though Australian states continuing to restrict land supply to drive up tax revenue while failing to provide adequate infrastructure, leading to mounting congestion issues, is putting that under some pressure.)

Hispanic migration in the US is, by the way, not a crime problem. Indeed, a plausible interpretation of urban progressive support for Hispanic migration, legal or otherwise, is not only because it provides cheap labour, but because if Hispanics replace Ebonic-Americans in an urban area, the crime rate plummets.

The serious problems with diversity in the US largely comes down to two things: Ebonic-American crime and [though the problem is much larger in Europe] mainstream Sunni Islam.  (Twelver Shia Islam also, but that is a somewhat more complex story as much of the difficulty with that diaspora is the Iranian regime using it as a base for its violence.)

Due to progressivist piety displays, it is very difficult have any sort of public conversation about the realities of Ebonic-American crime (that, for example, African-Americans are about 13% of the US population and generate about half its homicides), even though such crime has been a major element in urban dynamics in the US for decades. The dissident right will at least talk about it, if often not in a very analytically useful way.

The problem with mainstream Islam is simple: mainstream Islam is a religion of domination (men over women, believers over non-believers) and the problems generated by Islam and Muslims around the world are overwhelmingly rooted in that. It is why the difficulties with mainstream Islam are orders of magnitude greater than those with Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, etc. But progressivist piety display makes it almost impossible to have any sort of public conversation about the difficulties that mainstream Islam being a religion of domination generates. And so back again to why I read the dissident right.

Steep status hierarchies
The irony is, that Ebonic-American crime and the problems with mainstream Islam likely have overlapping causes. In both cases, as is normal in human societies, the crime and violence problem is overwhelmingly concentrated in young males.

Poverty has less to do with crime than is often thought, but income inequality has quite a lot (pdf). Moreover, if one thinks in terms of status or dominance hierarchies (which are connected to income inequality but not limited to it) the patterns begin to make more sense. (Effectiveness of police and criminal justice systems make a major difference--see the New York success--but I am ignoring that for the moment.)

Confront young males with a steep (i.e. hard to climb) dominance/status hierarchy and violent behaviour becomes far more likely as it shifts the threshold where aggression turns into violence. This is a major generator of violence in polygynous societies, for example, where elite male acquisition of extra wives and concubines massively reduce the prospects of young, low status males for sex and marriage. Islam's preferred solution was to export the problem, as ghazis fighting the infidel, degrading infidel border regions and taking infidel women. Hence Islamic martyrdom is dying while killing infidels and promises houris in Paradise.

The contemporary polygyny of the Arab oil-rich states, reducing the number of marriageable women in other Arab societies (i.e. importing extra wives and exporting any resultant violence problem, a different way of exporting the problem), likely has rather more to do with endemic instability in the Middle East than the Israel-Palestine conflict, which has dwindled to a tedious border dispute. But, thanks to the Christian sanctification of Roman marriage patterns, European cultures have been monogamous for over a millennia (or, in the Graeco-Roman Mediterranean littoral, for over two millennia), so even considering that the dynamics of polygyny might matter does not occur to most Western folk, while "blame the Jews" is practically programmed in.

Alas, the notion that Muslim men should be able to sexually exploit infidel women is a religious-cultural script that continues to be regularly activated: such as in the "grooming gangs" of Britain where the British state has racked up decades of failure because progressivist multiculturalism and anti-racist pieties were much more important than protecting thousands of indigenous British girls and some Sikh girls from rape, abuse and systematic enslavement for the purposes of prostitution. Even when the issue began to be broached, much of the media, led by the BBC, continued to talk "Asian gangs", thereby slandering Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs to avoid identifying that those convicted are at least 90% Muslim, though recent reporting is a bit more informative. (In the Netherlands, such human trafficking, also primarily of underage girls, is known as the loverboy phenomenon, with the perpetrators tending to be Moroccans, rather than Pakistanis; though in both the UK and Netherlands Muslim men of a variety of ethnic backgrounds have been convicted.)

[Criminals normally prey on victims within their communities. To systematically prey on victims outside their communities is highly unusual.]

Given the range of difficulties with Muslim migration, that even in Australia, voters are not keen on (pdf) Muslim migration, and European voters tend to be against it, is not surprising.

Continuing on the status/hierarchy issue, it is not hard to see that the post-slavery history of young Ebonic-American male violence might have something to do with the very steep status hierarchies they have faced in US society. Nor that significantly lower average IQ as social rewards to education and cognitive capacity have increased might sharpen that effective steepness of status/dominance hierarchies even though overt, and particularly institutional, racism were massively declining. With the male status-seeking of gangs and the income opportunities of black market narcotics (and the inherent violence of [pdf] black markets) adding to the mix.

Similarly, young Muslim men, raised as "golden sons" in Muslim families within the culture of a religion of dominance (men over women, believers over non-believers) might confront the gap between that and how status hierarchies in Western societies actually work and become potential ticking time-bombs.

But to even consider these possibilities involves committing a plethora of thought crimes against progressivist pieties. So, back to reading the dissent right but not identifying with them.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

ADDENDA Short version: as I say here, as soon as a social issue is framed in terms of race, one has dumbed down the discussion.