Monday, May 31, 2010

The housing price madness of restrictive land zoning

This extends a comment I made here.

If you want to see the effects of restrictive zoning of landing, compare the UK with Germany. Under the German federal constitution, there is a "right to build". It is almost impossible for officials to interfere with property owners building on their property. So housing supply responds to housing demand and German house prices move at about the rate of inflation.

In the UK, just about everywhere land use is subject to official discretionary control over market entry. The result is ridiculous housing (land) prices and a boom-and-bust cycle.

The suggestion that Germany (593 people per square mile) has some profound geographical and population density advantage over the UK (660 people per square mile) is not exactly plausible.

Another comparison is Texas (80 people per square mile) and Australia (7 people per square mile). Texas has a higher population, higher population growth, higher average income and crams more of its population in its five largest cities than Australia does. Yet Texan houses are a half or a third of the price of Australian metropolitan housing. That median houses in Sydney and Melbourne are 9 or 8 times median household income, more expensive than houses in London or New York (both median houses 7 times median household income) while in Dallas and Houston they are less than 3 times median household income is pure regulatory madness.

The national average ration of median (metropolitan) houses to median household income is 2.9 in the US and 6.8 in Australia. We have 22 million people in the area of the continental US. We do not lack space: what we lack is Texan/German land management. Instead, with have adopted California/British-style land management, with California/British-style problems such that houses in Sydney are now more expensive than those in London or New York.

Giving officials discretionary control over market entry encourages inflated asset prices due to impeding the ability of supply to respond to demand, so as to reward incumbent asset holders with inflated asset values. If you doubt that, just look at the price of taxi plates in any jurisdiction where numbers are controlled. (In Melbourne, taxi plates are currently about the same as the median house price.)

The geographical concentration of housing bubbles in the US is not a result of geography (except in the sense that geography creates positional goods—hilltop views, ocean views, beach fronts, etc—which encourage the adoption of restrictive zoning), it is the result of restrictive zoning.

There is a simple rule about giving officials discretionary control over market entry: don’t!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Grasping the past (6): Marriage

This extends a comment I made here.

If one is familiar with the history of marriage, contemporary debates over marriage can be a bit odd. The Church got into marriage law because there was pressure (particularly from landholders) to regularise marriage rights and law to help smooth transfer of property. There is a transaction costs argument in favour of a standard contract that I suspect would recur rapidly if marriage was "disestablished" (i.e., the state withdrew from regulating marriage: which it only got into in Latin Christendom during the Reformation).

The notion that marriage "has to be" sacralised is also deeply odd. In Latin Christendom, marriage did not become a sacrament until the C11th. The Catholic Church did not require the presence of a priest until the Council of Trent in the C16th. But contractual marriage is, in fact, older in Western traditions (in Judaism, Roman, Celtic and Germanic law).

The notion that the Church has "intellectual property (IP)" in marriage is simply stupid, showing a crass ignorance about the history of marriage. But it is consistent with the pattern of social movements vis-à-vis the family: they start off being against it as distraction from the Great Purpose, make some sort of accord with it when social reality proves too strong and end up claiming that they were always in favour of it really.

The only thing anthropologists have been able to find that is common and distinctive about marriage—it creates in-laws. There has been at least one society (in Southern China) that did not have marriage at all (a woman’s brothers helped raised her children) and many societies (notably Amerindian societies, but African, Asian and Middle Eastern ones as well) have had same-sex marriages of various types.

As for its origins, that is not remotely tied to any particular religion. Indeed, religions typically seek authority from supporting and ritualising marriage, rather than marriage requiring religious authority. Marriage itself has origins in human needs and conveniences. In Stephanie Coontz's —words:
... having a flexible, gender-based division of labor within a mated pair was an important tool of human survival.
Children, property and companionship sustain marriage as an institution: so much so that any two of them seem to be enough to keep it going.

ADDENDA: The Israeli state has no role in marriage except registering the marriage, which has it own problems given marriage is treated as an entirely religious institution. (The Israeli state does enforce some residency restrictions however.)

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Grasping the past (5): Slavery

This extends a comment I made here.

The comment was made that:
The transatlantic slave trade was unique because it made a slave into an inescapable caste. Slaves in Africa or the Arab world would within a generation or two often be no different than the rest of society. In the New World, slavery meant Blackness (even if one intermarried), giving one permanent second class status. Its effects, in the inequality between Black and White in societies across the Americas, persist to this day, a legacy not present in African or Arab slavery.
This is a less than adequate depiction of reality.

(1) The first anti-black discourse was a North African Arab-Muslim one, justifying enslaving blacks en masse rather than converting them to Islam.

(2) A major factor in the lack of a black underclass in Islam was that so many male slaves were turned into eunuchs, a process that had a horrific death rate.

(3) The Muslim world slaved wherever it could, which did indeed limit the association of skin colour with slavery. White slaves, however, always had higher status and higher prices: due to a mixture of greater scarcity and higher skills. So, even within slaves, blacks were looked down on.

(4) The death toll from Muslim slavery was, almost certainly, much greater than the Transatlantic slave trade: it was at least comparable.

(5) The Transatlantic slave trade "piggy-backed" off the already existing slave-taking-and-selling infrastructure from the Muslim slave trade.

(6) That only blacks were slaves in the Americas did, indeed, lead to noxious racism. But that was in large part because it was such an affront to "all equal in the sight of God" and "All men were created equal" that the humanity of the blacks had to be attacked to justify their exceptional treatment.

(7) There were free blacks in the American South, even at the height of slavery. It was always possible to manumit slaves: this was done on occasion. So it was not an “inescapable caste”.

(8) The first countries to permanently abolish slavery were all European. The last countries to abolish slavery were all Muslim.

(9) There is evidence that mass slavery does undermine social capital in a society for generations: but this is true regardless of whether the slaves are of a different ethnicity or race or not. Indeed, it can be argued that the American South is actually making a faster recovery from the curse of slavery than other regions did historically.

It is important to acknowledge all the past, not create selective fairy stories about it. Racism is not even remotely the worst of the horror of slavery. It is particularly perverse to, in effect, give the Muslim world a “pass” for the horrors of the market for eunuchs.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Typical failures

This is based on a comment I made here.

Conservatives are typically bad (sometimes very bad) on how existing structures fail for particular groups: particularly groups that it is “traditional” they fail for. That is, conservatives typically have a much stronger sense of achievement for existing structures than their sense of failures of the same.

Progressivists are typically bad on how existing structures work well. That is, they have a sense of failures but a typically flawed sense of achievement.

Libertarians typically fail to consider what might be called “second order” social dynamics: that we are not random individuals but members of wider collectivities that have their own dynamics and demands.

Goldwater and Rand Paul in their attitudes to the 1964 Civil Rights Act seem to be typifying the way libertarians of conservative bent (or conservatives of libertarian bent) fail. Particularly given how much the African-American experience gets in the way of a triumphal view of the American project.

On the notion of Goldwater as hero, personally, I do not understand why people need “heroes” in the unblemished sense. You can admire some aspects of a person and not others. (It is worth reading the comments thread on Yglesias's post on Goldwater to see just how screwed up Americans get over race.)

As for morally judging the past, we cannot “unwind” how people’s sense of right and wrong has evolved since whenever, but we can consider whether there were people at the time who called the issue correctly. If there were, then that puts those who did not in a poorer light.

On the conservative/liberal split in the context of US politics, Scott Sumner puts it like this:
Conservatives tend to be nationalistic, which makes them over-rate America. Liberals know more about American sins than they do about the sins of others during earlier centuries (including our victims) which is why they under-rate America.
A point which has wider application.

ADDENDA: A friend has sent the following comment:
Reading the intro to your post reminded me of Ambrose Bierce's definition in The Devil's Dictionary:
"Conservative - one who is enamoured of existing evils, as opposed to the liberal, who wishes to replace them with others."

Bierce's primary definition of politics - "a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles" - is deservedly well-known, but his secondary definition deserves to be better known than it is: "the conduct of public affairs for private advantage". Plus ça change ...

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Texts on Dark Ages

My talk on Dark Ages critiquing the Pirenne thesis, and modern variations thereon, went well, with about 30 or so people attending and lots of good questions.

A request was put that I provide details on the books I mentioned. These follow.

The obvious starting point is Henri Pirenne's posthumous work Mohammed and Charlemagne (1937, English language version 1954) followed by Hodges and Whitehouse's examination of the thesis in the light of the archaeological evidence Mohammed, Charlemagne & the Origins of Europe (1983). I review both books here.

Relevant to the notion of ‘barbarians’ is Christopher I. Beckwith’s Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present (2009) whose analysis of modernism I discuss here.

Peter Heather teaches at Worcester College, University of Oxford. He has written a very thoughtful and informative account of the fall of Rome, The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians (2006) which I review here.

Ramsay MacMullen’s book on the Christianisation of the Empire Christianity & Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries (1999) includes some very useful analysis of its internal workings, which I review here.

Bryan Ward-Perkins, fellow of Trinity College, Oxford wrote The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilisation (2005) which I review here.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Grasping the past (4): What government wrought

The New York Times has editorialised on the limits of libertarianism (via), in response to comments by Rand Paul on civil rights and racial matters.

Now, there are some perfectly reasonable criticisms to be made of Rand Paul's comments on race. Scott Sumner makes some of them here. Nevertheless, the New York Times editorial makes some deeply stupid comments:
It was only government power that ended slavery and abolished Jim Crow, neither of which would have been eliminated by a purely free market.
American slavery was created by government. The common law did not recognise slavery: only statutory acts by colonial government's created slavery in British possessions, as Lord Mansfield ruled in the famous Somersett's Case of 1772.

Similarly, Jim Crow was an act of US state governments. Jim Crow were the Jim Crow laws. Government as an institution is hardly to be credited with abolishing what it had created in the first place. As I have pointed out before, commerce generally has a better record in its treatment of minority and disadvantaged groups than government or religion. For example, in the US, commerce still treats gay folks better than governments do.

The stupidity continues:
It was government that rescued the economy from the Depression
There is an excellent case that government policy turned an otherwise normal cyclical downturn into the Great Depression and that FDR's policies as much hampered recovery as helped it.

As for:
... and promoted safety and equality in the workplace.
Leaving aside all the ways government promoted inequality in the workplace, insurance premiums had at least as much positive effect on workplace safety as anything the governments did.

Now, the New York Times's comments on the Depression and workplace safety are nowhere near as stupid as its comments on slavery and Jim Crow, but nor is the editorial spouting the "obvious truths" it thinks it is. What is on show is the progressivist mindset, where government failure is turned into market failure and so becomes invisible.

There are reasonable criticisms to be made of Rand Paul's comments. Pity the New York Times does not make them: instead, it puts on blatant display its own historical ignorance and ideological insularity leading to comments of breathtaking stupidity.

ADDENDA There is also the question of how libertarian Rand Paul is actually.

FURTHER: Jeffrey Ellis has gone into more detail about why the NYT editorial is nonsense.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Shedding light on Dark Ages

For those readers in Melbourne, on Monday 24th at the Hollywood Palace, Bridge Rd, Richmond, I will giving a talk (starting at 7.30) on Shedding light on Dark Ages, where I will be looking at the Dark Age in Western Europe after the fall of the Western Roman Empire (476 – 1050) and comparing it to the Dark Age in the Eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Bronze Age (1210 BC – 800 BC).

The “blurb” for the talk is:

Dark Ages! Barbarians raging around looting and pillaging. Chroniclers wailing about death and destruction. Violence, mayhem, murder and the collapse of civilisation as they knew it.

For centuries, the received historical wisdom was the collapse of the Western Roman Empire under the barbarian invasions was a disaster that ushered in a Dark Age that Europe took centuries to recover from.

Then the great Belgian medievalist Henri Pirenne's (1862-1935) Mohammad and Charlemagne (1937) claimed that the new barbarian rulers changed little, that it was actually the Arab conquests of half the Mediterranean that so disrupted the Mediterranean world as to create the true collapse.

This thesis was extended so that, particularly as the European project (and mass migration to--rather than merely within--the West) took off, historians, began to dispute that one could talk of the "Fall" of Rome or a "Dark Age".

Was there a Dark Age in Western Europe? Did the Muslims do it really? Lorenzo will explain the concept of a "Dark Age" and look at the evidence.

Grasping the past (3): Western imperialism

This extends a comment I made here.

Something the world has not lacked over the last x decades, is Western intellectuals denouncing Western imperialism.

I have no objection to acknowledging the past, as long as it is acknowledging all the past.

One of which is imperialism is what rulership does: indeed, has done since rulership first began. The West conquered most of the world because it could (though the highpoint of Western imperialism was relatively brief: 1878-1939). Then it decided that was a bad idea and let the colonies go. Sometimes peacefully, sometimes not, leaving behind very mixed legacies. (It is generally much better to have be a former British colony than a former Spanish or Portugese one, for example.)

One of the reasons imperialism got discredited is so much of Europe was subject to the Nazi version.

Imperialism is not even remotely some uniquely Western sin and, as the decades pass, Western imperialism is less and less relevant to talk about it when considering contemporary issues. Afghanistan, for example, suffers all the problems of the Middle East to the nth degree but was never a European colony: at least not prior to being a victim of Soviet imperialism.

The other side of imperialism is that Western imperialism was so successful because Western societies had become dramatically more effective than other societies. So successful that it is, in many ways, more disastrous to acknowledge the failings, but not the strengths, of Western societies than to do the reverse: since if you define virtue against success, you are going to end up promoting a lot of failure.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Australia’s Education Revolution

Kevin Donnelly’s Australia’s Education Revolution is a collection of previously published newspaper articles loosely organised around the theme of the approach of the Rudd Opposition, and subsequent Rudd Government, to education (mostly schooling) matters.

The Australian Constitution gives no legislative power to the Commonwealth government over education. The Commonwealth role in education outside the Territories is entirely a result of the power of the purse. But since State and Territory governments (not to mention various educational institutions from universities on down) have long since decided that they prefer to spend money they do not suffer the burden of having raised, that is a very considerable power indeed.

There is an advantage in the Commonwealth having no constitutional responsibility: it does not run educational institutions directly, so does suffer the egregious conflict of interest that afflicts State and Territory governments of regulating schools most of which they run themselves.

Funding yes: provision, not so much
The case for government funding of schooling is very strong. First, there is the argument from opportunity: that children should not be bound in their opportunities to acquire basic skills and knowledge by the capacity or willingness of their parents to pay for their schooling. Then there is the argument from common benefit: we all gain from having a literate and numerate fellow citizenry. The former appeals to our sense of fairness, the second to our (mutual) benefit.

While much rhetoric invokes the former justification, we can be confident that the latter has been the historically more powerful reason for government funding of schools: notably the creation of better workers (and soldiers). The hope such funding invokes that the schooling of one’s own children can be, in part, paid for by others is justified by said others receiving significant indirect benefit from being able to anticipate a certain basic level of literacy and numeracy among those we interact with. Indeed, this justification has been extended to all other manner of allegedly beneficial skills and understandings that schools are claimed to be able to usefully inculcate in the students placed in their care.

But just because a powerful case can be made for the government funding of schooling, it does not follow that such schooling should be provided by government, that government should run schools. On the contrary, if our concern is with the quality of the acquisition of skills and knowledge, there are powerful arguments against governments running schools.

The first is the obvious conflict of interest involved in having the regulator also be the (main) provider of the service being regulated. If the head of a football club announced that they had a great idea: the club Board should take over the football code, set the rules, appoint the umpires and administer the entire sporting code; people would wonder what he had been smoking. This is obviously a completely daft way to run a football, or indeed any sporting, code. The conflict of interest is massive and obvious.

Yet, that is precisely how most children are schooled: in schools governed by the politicians and bureaucrats who themselves are responsible for regulating schools. We apparently are expected to take it on trust that they do a good job of regulating themselves, honest. (It is revealing that, in the US, charter schools appear to do best in jurisdictions with strong regulatory oversight [via].)

Given the much higher growth in student numbers in private rather than government schools in Australia, clearly many parents do not trust said regulating-providers to do a good enough job, and for very good reason. The notion that the magic of elections somehow makes the patent, endless, conflict of interest go away is, indeed, nonsense. Neither Ministers for Education, nor their public servants, are magical. That governments are periodically elected may ameliorate the conflict of interest somewhat, but it most emphatically does not abolish it. That many parents clearly expect more congruence for what they want for their children with what private, as distinct from government, schools provide—and are willing to pay a premium for the difference—itself indicates what a weak reed electing a government to preside over such a powerful and pervasive conflict of interest is.

Australia’s shameful history of failure to provide clear, public indicators of student (and thus school) performance in literacy and numeracy comparable in skills achieved from year to year is, in itself, a manifestation of the conflict of interest in the regulator also being the main provider. A regulator seriously concerned with quality of schooling would ensure such things existed as a matter of course.

This inherent conflict of interest in the provider also being the regulator is central to the general problems of public provision. If, for example, one wants to understand the notorious problems of government schooling in, for example, the United Kingdom, identifying why British Leyland was a failure is, in fact, very useful. There has been a general retreat around the globe from government-run production for very good reasons. Reasons that do not magically fail to apply to schooling.
Problematic pedagogy
But education is often treated as something that somehow more general patterns do not apply to. Australia’s Education Revolution is arranged in four chapters, with an introduction, conclusion plus a preface by Colin Black, former headmaster of Camberwell Grammar School. This preface has some very trenchant things to say about the effect progressivists have had on schooling:
It is a sad irony that the legacy of the social democratic/progressive consensus is that for so many children born into the lower echelons of society, the state school as a vehicle for social mobility and intellectual development has been rendered impotent (p.4).
An effect that the conspicuously compassionate shield their children as they:
… send their own children to independent schools or to schools open to them only because of their privileged knowledge of how the system works or because they can afford to buy a house in a favoured area (p.4).
A process that reached its peak in the elite schools for the children of top cadres in Leninist countries. There is a vast difference from living in a Leninist tyranny compared to a liberal capitalist democracy, but rather less difference in the patterns of thought and behaviour of progressivist apparatchiks. Western societies have their own nomenklatura.

There has also been much activity marked by ideological intensity but of rather less (indeed often negative) social benefit, with teachers bearing the brunt:
… the education class’s obsession with change and innovation, the insistent revising and re-revising of curricula, the plethora of critiques of current pedagogical practice, the addictive quest for new and arcane terminology, the eagerness to leap upon the latest bandwagon which so often turns out to be tumbrel. Little wonder is it that teachers are exhausted and perplexed by all they are asked to do. The loss of deference in our society and authority in our schools means that they are among the few people who actually go to work in the morning with a sense of dread, dread of what some child may say or do to them in the course of the day (p.5).
One’s sympathy for teachers is somewhat ameliorated by the reality that, individually and collectively, through their education unions, they are prime defenders and (in employment protections) beneficiaries of structures which produce these outcomes. In few fields is the virtue of incoherence more marked than education, where the need to be protect one’s individual and collective status as a “good person”, requires acquiescing to all sorts of disastrous notions whose patent effects progressive theory operates to deny, obfusticate or ignore. But the more general patterns of “ostentatious virtue” are largely hegemonic among teachers: as, indeed, is the pedagogy of “ostentatious virtue”.

After a brief Introduction setting the scene, the first chapter is a collection of pieces on how the Rudd-led ALP won the education “wars”. The burden of these pieces is that surface rhetoric did not match underlying policy realities. Chapter 2, Australian Education: Dumbed down and politically correct is rather longer. It starts with a statement of the battlelines as being between:
… a liberal/humanist view of education based on the disinterested pursuit of truth and those committed to overthrowing the status quo and turning students into politically correct, new age warriors (p.40).
With Wayne Sawyer, President of the NSW Teacher’s Association and Chair of the NSW Board of Studies English Curriculum Committee, providing much grist for Donnelly’s mill in his statements treating the election of the Howard Government has a sign of a failure of education (Pp41ff). The notion that the purpose of government-run education is the inculcation of “correct” belief (pdf) on conspicuous display.

But if that is the real reason for government run schools (and why religious bodies are the next largest provider of schooling) then the question who captures the structures of belief dissemination. Donnelly is clear on who has:
Has education in Australia been captured by the left? Evidenced by students being made to deconstruct the classics in terms of gender, ethnicity and class, Australian history being taught from a black armband view and geography being redefined in terms of peace studies, deep environmentalism and multiculturalism, the answer is ‘yes’ (p.67).
He identifies Antonio Gramsci and Pierre Bourdieu as important thinkers in this process.

Chapter 3, English lite, is a series of pieces attacking modern relativism and defending the notion of literature as a vehicle of quality and enlightenment. Donnelly approvingly quotes Christopher Lasch from The Culture of Narcissism on those argue literature is not for all:
In the name of egalitarianism, they preserve the most insidious form of elitism, which in one guise or another holds the masses incapable ofr intellectual exertion (p.85).
The experience of decades of ostentatious egalitarianism in public schooling, notably in the US (via) and the UK, is that it undermines (both via) rather than encourages social mobility. Australia does better in terms of educational mobility, but it has a much larger and more broadly-based private school sector than either the US or the US.

Chapter 4, Dumbed down standards, begins with an attack on outcomes-based education (OBE) noting that international comparisons show Australian students being outperformed by countries with syllabus approach to curriculum (p.116). Donnelly defines the latter as:
A syllabus approach is one where teachers are given a clear, succinct and manageable road map at the start of the year detailing what is to be taught. There is a syllabus for each year level, teachers are expected to teach, not facilitate, there is regular testing to monitor standards and the focus is on essential learning (p.107).
One of the features of the syllabus approach is that it gives more status and authority to teachers than OBE and allows learning to be built up in clear stages (p.108).

If standards are set, they need to be worth achieving:
With the Australian national literacy and numeracy benchmark tests at years 3, 5 and 7, the bar is set so low and the expectations are so minimal that everyone succeeds (p.109).
But then, who is potentially embarrassed by poor results? The Education departments who are setting the standards for schools they mostly run themselves.

Donnelly points to evidence teachers vary widely in effectiveness and that merit pay systems can work (Pp112-3). Incentives clearly matter, in schooling as in other spheres of life. The trick is to working out what the real incentives are: not the ones that wishful thinking (even if dressed up as theoretical preconceptions) hopes operate.

Donnelly cites scholarly research that centralised examinations lead to higher levels of student achievement. American academic John H. Bishop argues that (in Donnelly's summary of his research, such as this paper and this paper):
… to be successful, that examinations must be discipline based, externally assessed, rank students in terms of multiple levels of achievement and be high stakes in terms of consequences (p.119).
In other words, force accountability through effective incentives.

Donnelly strongly argues that international comparisons provide a basis from which to learn what works and what does not: for example, “student-based learning” is clearly outperformed by more directed systems (Pp122-3). Though testing is not a panacea: it can be done badly or too often (Pp124ff). Once again, working out the actually operating incentives and effects are is crucial.

Donnelly points to the (considerable) evidence that outcomes in schooling do not flow directly from expenditure (Pp128-9). It is a fairly childish form of analysis to think that it does or would, but it is, of course, the perennial claim of defenders of government schooling that the problem is “lack of funding”. Bad incentives create waste and ineffectiveness that ends up looking like inadequate funding but is actually something quite different—something that will neither be changed nor fixed merely by more money. On the contrary, studies suggest that increased spending is largely soaked up in waste and ineffectiveness, with increases in spending going with declines in school productivity (pdf).

Chapter 5, The Way Forward, strongly pushes school choice. Donnelly notes that:
… those associated with the Cultural-left side of politics are strong opponents of freeing up schools and increased parental choice (p.142).
Naturally: since inducing “correct belief” is what they are about in education (and shielding their people and notions from accountability). The argument they typically mount is on grounds of social cohesion (Pp142-3). This is mostly bunk. Private schools integrate at least as well (or better) than government schools. Government schools are at least as stratified by socio-economic status, for example. Moreover, a regulatory body not compromised by also being responsible for schools would, in fact, be in a stronger place to insist on educational standards (such as, for example, in science and civics: to take two areas where religious education can be problematic).

Not that Australia is without its successes: immigrant children in Australia perform as well as native-born children (p.157), which dramatically undermines the “migrant disadvantage” argument for more “social justice” pedagogy in schools.

In his Conclusion, Donnelly draws together his threads to warn of the dangers of increasing “centralised, top down, one-size fits all” approaches, against a utilitarian “improve productivity” notion of education, for a tempered approach to testing to improve accountability an awareness of what happens in schools matters that continuity matters as well as change, that Australia is a highly successful society with a rich cultural heritage that we have an obligation to pass onto our children. That learning has value for its own sake and educational outcomes are improved by empowering parental choice, by allowing diverse students to be taught in diverse ways so that the system itself continues to learn.

Kevin Donnelly is a very informed contributor to the debate over education in Australia. His arguments are often a great deal more “reality-based” than those of his critics. Australia’s Education Revolution is a useful and informative contribution to the fight for better schooling for Australia’s children.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Grasping the past (2): Counterfactuals

This extends a comment I made here.

I agree with Geoffrey Blainey, Australia's premier historian: a sense of counterfactual possibilities is an aid to historical analysis. Without a sense of possible alternatives, how can you see the importance of causal factors?

Those who argue that even without Lenin one would get Hitler anyway are missing some big factors.
(1) Without Lenin's model of totalist politics, it is very unlikely that Mussolini or Hitler would have had a model of politics to adapt to their nationalist (Mussolini) and racist (Hitler) projects.
(2) Without the fear of Leninism, Mussolini and Hitler would have had far less to work off.
(3) Without Leninism, the socialist movement in Western Europe would very likely not have split into revolutionary and evolutionary wings.

This is not to suggest that democracy would have had smooth sailing across Europe if Lenin had not consolidated power. But Leninism hugely raised the stakes of politics: Leninist victory threatened life, liberty, property, culture, religion. This patently made a difference to political calculations, creating more tolerance for more extreme responses in crisis situations. Just as Lenin’s success and mode of operation created a model for use of modern technology and organisational capacity for very high levels of political mobilization of society.

The issue of the history of anti-Semitism if Lenin had not consolidated Bolshevik rule is much trickier. Anti-Semitism in Russia was violent, murderous and virulent. If the Whites had won the Civil War, I have little doubt that a mini-Holocaust was a distinct possibility. The question is whether Russia could have avoided a Civil War. This was certainly much more likely without a Bolshevik coup.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

It is not a Reformation that Islam needs

This extends a comment I made here.

The process of local cultures invading Christianity has also occurred in Islam. The Sufi traditions were full of that. But the effect is far more limited in Islam than in Chrisitianity, as Islamic reformers come through periodically and "purify" Islam by returning to the texts. When people say "Islam needs a Reformation" it shows they understand neither Islam nor the Reformation. Getting rid of "pagan" accretions and going back to the original texts WAS precisely what the Reformation was about and occurs in Islam regularly.

As Mark Durie points out about the Protestant Reformation:
Throughout the whole medieval period the idea of reformation (reformatio) was prestigious, and many reform movements chased after this ideal. Reformation meant going back to one's roots, and just about everyone agreed that this was a Good Thing. For medieval Christians, a reformed Christianity meant being more Christ-like, more apostolic, and more Pauline. …
The European Reformation - so often invoked in comparisons with Islam today - was driven by a desire to re-form Christianity a second time, taking it back to its roots. It sought to move ahead by going backwards. Its inner logic had nothing to do with the modern idea of progress or the Darwinian concept of 'evolution'. The Reformation was not a 'progressive' movement in the modern sense, but one which sought to 'regress', renewing the example of Christ and his apostles.
This is why Luther and other reformers encouraged believers to read their Bibles for themselves, in their own native tongue. Luther regarded it as the duty of every Christian to be constantly renewing their own faith from the original sources.
What Islam lacks is not Protestant belief in the primacy of scripture—on the contrary, Islam holds to that more strongly than the most fervid Protestant—but the Orthodox/Catholic notion of scripture as a product of the Church (the body of believers) and the world, as the direction creation of God, trumping Scriptures, as the indirect creation of God.

Conversely, Islam entirely lacks the Protestant notion of final interpreting authority residing in the believers and their consciences. Instead, it has a more "Catholic/Orthodox" view of final interpreting authority residing in the scholars, the ulema.

To put it another way, Islam combines the worst features of the Christian traditions (textual literalism and trumping clerical authority) and lacks the best features (this-world-based reasoning and individual conscience: the modern Western synthesis).

It is precisely because modern Western civilisation has largely dropped the authority of scripture and of priests while marrying Protestant notions of governance to Catholic/Orthodox notions of reasoning-grounded-in-this-world being not merely a but the source of truth, that the gap between Western civilisation and Islam is, in crucial respects, wider than it was between Christendom and Islam. At the same time, the capacity of Western examples and ideas has—due to communication and transport technology—to intrude into Islam greatly magnified.

Clash of civilisations (and other frictions) anyone?

This gap also makes it harder for Muslims to integrate into Western society: particularly if multiculturalist welfarism operates to systematically undermine any incentive to do so. As the work of Danish psychologist Nicolai Sennels (long interview here, another here and another here) brings out rather starkly:
A French survey in Le Figaro showed that only 14 percent of the country's estimated five million Muslims see themselves as "more French than Muslim." Research (pdf) made by the German Ministry of Interior shows that only 12 percent of Muslims living in Germany see themselves as more German than Muslim. A Danish survey published by the pro-Muslim pro-democratic organization Democratic Muslims led by the Danish PM and Muslim Naser Khader showed that only 14 percent of Muslims living in Denmark could identify themselves as "Democratic and Danish."
A major sign of the failure of such integration in Europe is that younger generations of Muslims are generally more committed to their Muslim identity—one typically manifested against the surrounding Western societies—than their parents.

A poll published in February 2006 of British Muslims found that 40% supported the introduction of Shar’ia in parts of the UK while 41% opposed that: a December 2006 poll found support for Shar’ia was much stronger among British Muslims aged 16-24 [37%] than those over 55 [15%].) The latter poll also found that British Muslims over 55 were more likely to agree (56%) than to disagree (28%) that people in their area were more religious than 10 years ago. While those aged 16-24 were significantly more likely to rate religion as the most important thing in their life (90%) than those over 55 (76%); much more likely to support Muslim women wearing veils (74% to 28%), more likely to support making homosexuality illegal (71% to 50%), to think apostasy should be punished by death (36% to 19%), to support polygamy for Muslim men (52% to 18%), to think a Muslim woman should not marry without consent of her guardian (57% to 33%) and to admire organizations such as al-Qaeda that fight against the West (13% to 3%). (It is worth noting that 80% of 16-24 year old and 92% of over 55 British Muslims in the poll disagreed that al-Qaeda was to be admired.)

What generates these differences is not the lack of a Reformation, the lack of going back to Scriptures, but precisely the process of doing exactly that, of seeing the Qur’an, the hadith and the life of Muhammad as the source of moral knowledge and guidance. Of going back to the “roots” of Islam, precisely as the Reformation sought to do with Christianity.

Consider the comments of a prominent American Muslim, quoted here:
Dr. Ingrid Mattson, the woman who was invited by Hussein Obama to represent Muslims in the interfaith prayer of the Democrats Presidential convention, and who is the president of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), when asked whether Wahhabism is an extreme right wing sect of Islam, responded:
No it’s not true to characterize ‘Wahhabism’ that way. This is not a sect. It is the name of a reform movement that began 200 years ago to rid Islamic societies of cultural practices and rigid interpretation that had acquired over the centuries. It really was analogous to the European protestant reformation.
Mark Durie again:
Australian Muslim Waleed Aly was entirely correct when he said Islam has already had its Reformation, and the outcome has been Islamic radicalism:
"Still, Western calls for an Islamic Reformation grow predictably and irrepressibly stronger, while those familiar with the Islamic tradition easily observe that radical and terrorist groups such as al-Qa'ida and the Taliban, cannot be cured by Reformation for the very simple fact that they are the Reformation." [People like us: how arrogance is dividing Islam and the West, p.xv].
For those today whose world view is shaped by the ideal of progress, and look out upon Islam peering through the frame of Western assumptions about 'backwardness', 'progress' and 'evolution', Waleed Aly's insight can be difficult to grasp. Yet it is essential that it be understood and appreciated.
In today's world, if what is needed is more moderate manifestation of Islam, then the very last thing that could ever accomplish this would be an Islamic Reformation.
When Westerners say “Islam needs a Reformation”, what they typically mean is that they want Islam to go through an Enlightenment, to turn into something like post-Enlightenment Western religion. But they typically forget what Europe went through that “tamed” religion and religious claims. Worse, they fail to understand that the strands in Christianity that the modern Western synthesis is based on are absent from Islam. Worse still, they often lack any serious commitment to the virtues of the (sceptical) Enlightenment, and to (sceptical) Enlightenment values, while opposing the creation of serious incentives to encourage Muslim integration and Islamic adjustment.

They typically suffer under the cognitive flaws that George Santayana found in Bertrand Russell, of whom Santayana wrote:
His outlook was universal, but his presuppositions were insular.
It is a great foolishness, to burble on about the values of different cultures and then not take cultural (indeed, civilisational) differences seriously, as if somehow your particular presuppositions are some incipient human universal, just waiting to burst forth in all folk. As if you are not a product of specific history, while others are products of very different histories: differences that cannot be simply assumed to be inherently reconcilable. It is one thing to think a variety of cognitive perspectives aid decision-making (which, up to a point at least, the evidence is they do): it is another to presume they all embody some deep, ultimately conforming, unity.

It is not a Reformation that Islam lacks: Islam is experiencing an imported modernity while lacking much of what modernity grew out of in the West, making modernity an even more alien experience. Islam is the other universalist civilization, and operates on very different premises. Those different premises need to be taken seriously: to be not either wished away or treated as immutable features of human reality. For they matter to the extent that people act on them, so it is how people think about them that drives their significance.

As Muslim apostate Ali Sina points out, the difference between the Reformation in Christianity and Reformation in Islam is that there are some very real differences in the messages of the Gospels, New Testament and life of Jesus compared to the Qur’an, the hadith and the life of Muhammad:
What is the essence of the reformation in Islam? The essence of the Wahhabi belief is that man is not free but a slave of Allah. People are Ibad. (slaves)
This is diametrically a different discourse from the discourse of Protestantism and here is the essential difference between Christianity and Islam.
On the surface, there are many similarities between Christianity and Islam. Both believe in a God, both rely on an intermediary between man and God, both faiths are eschatological - have a hell, a heaven and an afterlife, etc. However, in their core, they are very different, in fact opposite to one another. The reformatio of both these faiths took the same road, but seaking [sic] the origin of their faith, they went opposite directions. Islam is not a continuation of Christianity, as Muhammad and Muhammadns claim, but it is an anti Christian belief in its core. Christianity advocates freedom of man, Islam, his slavery. One brings the message of liberation, the other, of submission.
(Ali Sina also argues there is not such thing as moderate Islam, only Muslims who do not wish to buy the whole package.)

I understand the temptation to try and “re-imagine” Islam, but such “re-imagining” is potentially disastrous if it is based on wishful thinking rather than accurate understanding.

ADDENDA Mark Durie has a post on the problems of reformation in Islam, particularly for women.

Eclectic useful links

A post to put some links: it will get added to over time.

John Kilcullen on medieval natural rights. Page of links to a wide range of his publications.
Jonathan Haidt’s home page.
Structured procrastination essays.

Books and Writers
The book depository.
Links to collected writings of Lorna Salzman.

Economics and public policy
About the lack of a common analytical language in monetary economics.
The Agenda website.
Chicago economist John Cochrane’s recent pieces page.
John H. Bishop's publications on education and learning.

Film and TV
Box office mojo.
Pierre Rehov’s documentaries.
Battlestar Galactica wiki

The water cure.
Whole health source blog.
Is there such a thing as fat free eating? From the free the animal blog.
About the connection between the flexibility of your body and the flexibility of your arteries.
About stress and health. About “ultra wellness”.

The cliodynamics website (Peter Turchin).
The crusades encyclopedia. Entry on Karen Armstrong.
Michael Z Williamson on bows.

Mark Durie’s website.
Raymond Ibrahim on Islam’s doctrine of deception.

The Encyclopedia of Homosexuality.
Prof. Joan Roughgarden on Nature Abhors a Category
The gay and Christian website.
The God-the-exterminator nativity story from The Golden Legend.
Vatican on homosexuals as metaphysically deformed.
Burning alive participants in same-sex marriage ceremony in C16th Rome.

Vic Info
Victorian weather forecasts.
Vipassana meditation courses.

Free file hosting made simple.

Economic history

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.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The enduring appeal of Marxism

Reading Helen Epstein’s essay on Meles Zenawi’s dictatorial regime in Ethiopia, one is treated to a double dose of what an utter moral disaster Marxism has been.

The first is recalling Mengistu’s appalling regime and the collectivisation famine it created, aggravated by its food-denial strategy against its opponents. (Epstein identifies the second factor but not the first.)

The second is the way Epstein’s account makes it quite clear that Zenawi’s policies of control flow quite directly from his schooling in Marxist politics. She writes:
During the early 1970s, when Meles was a medical student in Addis Ababa, he joined a Marxist study group that eventually became the TPLF. Meles’s military performance was undistinguished, but he had a talent for speech-making, and was appointed head of the TPLF’s political wing. In the training courses he ran for recruits, he celebrated Stalin’s achievement in modernizing Russia, but didn’t dwell on the blood that was shed in the process.

In 1985, Meles founded a unit within the TPLF known as the Marxist-Leninist League of Tigray, which was guided by the Leninist principle of “Democratic Centralism.” In pursuit of revolutionary socialist goals, the peasants were to be mobilized by a “vanguard elite,” which would exert total ideological and economic control over society. But after taking office in 1991, Meles downplayed his Marxist past and even enrolled in a correspondence course in business administration at Britain’s Open University. In discussions with US officials and journalists, he indicated that his Marxism extended to antifeudalism, equality, land reform, and teaching farming skills to women, but not to the nationalization of private enterprises or one-party rule.

At first, Meles’s government allowed a degree of press freedom, multiparty democracy, and privatization of some state-owned enterprises. But as rigged elections and arrests of journalists continued, some observers wondered whether Meles’s political change of heart was genuine. In official English-language documents written for the World Bank and other agencies, his government expressed a commitment to human rights and democracy: but Ethiopian-language documents intended for internal government or EPRDF consumption told a different story. These documents outlined a policy known as “Revolutionary Democracy”—essentially the same Leninist program that Meles taught to his TPLF cadres in the 1980s, involving top-down decision-making, regular sessions of “self-criticism,” and single-party rule for generations. Revolutionary Democracy would be promoted through the gradual EPRDF takeover of all organs of “propaganda,” including schools, the civil service, the press, and religious institutions. “When ‘Revolutionary Democracy’ permeates the entire [Ethiopian] society,” Meles wrote in 2001,
individuals will start to think alike and all persons will cease having their own independent outlook. In this order, individual thinking becomes simply part of collective thinking because the individual will not be in a position to reflect on concepts that have not been prescribed by “Revolutionary Democracy.”

Consistent with this aim, the EPRDF has used World Bank funds to purge much of the senior civil service of opposition supporters and replaced the independent Ethiopian Teachers Association with a party-affiliated body. Meles concedes that a Leninist economic program would not be possible as long as Ethiopia is dependent on foreign aid from capitalist countries, but his government still controls all land and telecommunications, and much of the banking and rural credit sectors. According to the World Bank, roughly half of the rest of the national economy is accounted for by companies held by an EPRDF-affiliated business group called the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT). EFFORT’s freight transport, construction, pharmaceutical, and cement firms receive lucrative foreign aid contracts and highly favorable terms on loans from government banks. Ethiopia is not a typical African kleptocracy, and there is no evidence that Meles personally benefits from these businesses. Rather, they are part of a rigid system of control that aid agency officials, beguiled by Meles’s apparently pro-Western exterior, have only recently begun to recognize.

People frequently attempt to differentiate Leninism from Marxism, but Leninism is simply a way of operationalising Marxism. The notion that history has a goal, that this goal is morally trumping, that people are to be graded according to whether they are facilitators or barriers to this goal, that people suffer from mass delusions which the “enlightened” overcome, that large sections of humanity are dispensable, all come straight from Marxism and are all profoundly tyrannical in their implications.

Bu such views are also convenient, since they justify massive concentration of power and provide grounds to de-legitimise opposition. As Epstein’s concluding paragraph expresses:
The Western Renaissance helped to democratize “the word” so that all of us could speak of our own individual struggles, and this added new meaning and urgency to the alleviation of the suffering of others. The problem with foreign aid in Ethiopia is that both the Ethiopian government and its donors see the people of this country not as individuals with distinct needs, talents, and rights but as an undifferentiated mass, to be mobilized, decentralized, vaccinated, given primary education and pit latrines, and freed from the legacy of feudalism, imperialism, and backwardness. It is this rigid focus on the “backward masses,” rather than the unique human person, that typically justifies appalling cruelty in the name of social progress.

The notion that the history of Marxism does not reveal its logic is a deeply contemptible evasion.

The persistence of Marxism in the West is a function of its persistence in academe. Without that, it would wither and die. [Given the grotesque failures of the attempts to base societies on Marxist thought.] Why does it persistent in academe? Because Marxism satisfies three deep cognitive wants for academics:

(1) It is a complex theoretical system. There is nothing that establishes one’s bona fides as a Very Clever Person more than mastering a complex theoretical system: the denser and more jargon-heavy the prose, the better. And Marx’s writings have plenty of dense, jargon-heavy prose.

(2) It is a system of grand intent. If one lives the life of the mind, then the grander one’s intellectual projects, the grander one’s cognitive sense of self: Marxism not only “explains” human history and society, it “reveals” the final end point of human and social transformation. What could be grander than such a project?

(3) It completely de-legitimises commerce. Under Marxism, the only legitimate economic role is to supply labour. All commerce is de-legitimised and all those engaged in it—including all those people who have far more wealth and organisational significance than academics—are de-legitimised, reduced to “exploiters” who are but immoral dust beneath the heels of academics in no way “polluted” by vulgar commerce.

We can see the strength of these factors from the way they manifest in the typical attitudes of academics (particularly humanities academics) way beyond belief in Marxism (though, often, a form of decayed “vulgar Marxism” still lurks in putatively non-Marxian manifestations). Marxism simply hits these notes in a more sophisticated and coherent way than the alternatives, which are often left with a fairly superficial re-glossing of Marxian perspectives, due to the lack of a powerful alternative that is as well grounded in academic cognitive preferences.

[Marxism is a deeply flawed system of thought: for example, Marx's labour theory of value is false and Marx's notion of "exploitation" rests on playing games with the concept of 'labour'.]

Marxism is of historical interest because it has been so profoundly influential in modern history. Its continuing appeal is of sociological interest. But it is not a philosophy worthy of any moral respect and its persistence in academe is a sign of social pathology, not of intellectual or moral health.

ADDENDA: This post has been amended to add the bits in [].

Friday, May 7, 2010

Illegal immigration

Illegal immigration pushes a lot of people’s buttons negatively because:
(1) it establishes that they, as voters and citizens—unless they are happy with open borders—have no say over who comes to live in their country; and
(2) treating it as a non-issue not merely tolerates, but rewards, foreigners for breaking the law.

These are both perfectly reasonable responses. What cries out for explanation is not that illegal immigration upsets people, but that a lot of people are tone-deaf to the perfectly understandable ways in which it “pushes people’s buttons”.

A key reason for this “tone deafness” is that, if you are in favour of an expansive immigration policy, tolerating illegal immigration allows your preferred policy to get through without the tedious constraints of democratic processes. Acknowledging the reasonableness of much of the opposition to illegal immigration makes this end-run around democratic processes explicit. It is much better to find reasons to discount this anger—thereby “justifying” one’s revealed contempt for your fellow citizens having a say—than to leave that contempt “naked”. Hence the continuing efforts to diagnose angst over illegal immigration as being morally retrograde—a manifestation of racism or some other form of “lack of compassion”.

Angst over illegal immigration can exist completely independently of attitudes to immigration in general. Being dismissive of such angst is, however, likely to be associated with a strongly pro-immigration view: as, indeed, we observe.

But there is an even more basic level of differentiation. The above concerns about illegal immigration are based on a strong notion of the polity having a legitimate corporate existence. That is, the country’s laws—and the processes by which they are made—have a strong legitimacy that extends to the right to regulate borders.

If you have a weak or negative view of the country’s corporate legitimacy, then such concerns will also not resonate.

Hence libertarians—if they do not accept any strong right to regulate entry—are likely to be dismissive of concerns over illegal immigration. Arguments of the “if wetbacks were greenbacks” variety will resonate with them.

Immigration and rights in the abstract and the specific
As I put in a comment here, I do not agree with this view.
After all, do we agree that people have the right to their property? That owning a house means you can say who can use it or not?

I assume yes.

Do we agree that people have a right to form common associations for common purposes?

I assume yes.

Do we grant the state is a legitimate entity?

If one is not some sort of anarchist, then yes.

Then a state has legitimacy to set and enforce rules, including rules of residency. What those rules should be, grounds for much debate. Just like rules concerning foreign trade. But the legitimacy of making them is fine. Particularly for public goods and externalities. Both of which apply to immigration, as that extends the number of people covered by the country’s public goods and imposes negative externalities on existing residents. (It may also—depending on the rules in operation—affect the provision of national club goods, such as taxpayer-paid welfare and social services.)

People may have rights in the abstract but we are not beings in the abstract. That is, we all exist in a web of particular connections. Unless those particular connections have some legitimacy, then we lack legitimacy as specific (rather than abstract) persons. Property rights in the abstract have no substance unless they apply to property in the particular. Voting rights in the abstract have no substance unless they can be exercised over specific matters. A polity is not merely a set of formal institutional structures, it is—if it is to be resilient and functional—also a structure of embracing some sense of common identity and broad patterns of behaviour and norms. It is foolish to think that there is nothing that needs to be socialized into to keep the society functional and resilient.

The “if wetbacks were greenbacks” style arguments miss the point that extra people generate a range of costs and benefits in a way extra capital does not. Adding to the national stock of capital has an upward pressure on wages and living standards. Adding to the national stock of people puts downward pressure on average living standards and on the relative price of labour (it puts upward pressure on the relative price of capital, hence owners of various types of capital—including human capital—tend to be pro-immigration). It also creates crowding, levels of social trust, crime, health, cultural change and voting power issues.

Issues that affect people more negatively the less capital they have. That the benefits of immigration tend to be greater for those up the socio-economic ladder and the costs greater for those down the socio-economic ladder makes the tendency of those who are typically net-beneficiaries to morally sneer at the concern from the more vulnerable about immigration particularly unedifying.

It is all very well to say there are benefits to immigration, but there is no guarantee these will compensate specific people for the externalities they experience. Moreover, unchosen costs are not usually held to be compensated for by unchosen benefits. Particularly if one does not necessarily match the other.

The notion that there is some general right of entry strikes me as a non-starter: a problem of fuzzy thinking, not of substance.

Regarding the interests of migrants—given it clearly does generally greatly benefit migrants to move to countries such as the Anglosphere countries—we may well decide that some people have particular claims on our consideration: hence refugee programs and rules about asylum seekers. But unless we can vote on specific rules (directly or indirectly), then our vote has no power. Which is a key issue with illegal immigration: it denies citizens the right to have a say about their own society (as noted above) if they want something other than an expansive immigration policy.

Legitimacy and diversity
Those with a negative view of the legitimacy of the polity will be even less likely to see the reasonableness of concern over illegal immigration. For then the current citizens become arbitrary beneficiaries of injustice: and who are such to deny “untainted” people the right to become … new arbitrary beneficiaries of injustice, one presumes.

This may be foolish of progressives on a couple of grounds. First, migrants from non-Western countries are unlikely to be socially liberal. Second, increasing social diversity runs the risk of decreasing social empathy, undermining the sense of the welfare state as a common enterprise. The Scandinavian model of a strong welfare state was a model developed in largely mono-cultural societies, where it is comparatively easy to sustain a sense of a common enterprise, there are good lines of communication between officials and citizens and chances of miscommunication and dysfunctional effects are greatly reduced.

Conversely, the Anglosphere societies—which have always been more culturally diverse—have tended to develop a looser “liberal” model of the state precisely because, I would argue, they were more culturally diverse: a looser public policy model coped better with diversity. Trying to drive their public policy model more in a “Scandinavian” direction is a fairly doomed exercise. Indeed, as the Scandinavian countries become more culturally diverse themselves, they will find (indeed, are finding) that the “Scandinavian model” comes under increasing stress.

There is a reason that economic liberalism developed in the Danubian Monarchy (the reductio ad absurdem of culturally diverse polities)—in the form of Austrian economics—and the United Kingdom (of English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish)—notably Manchester liberalism—and developed further in the country of E Pluribus Unum. Cultural diversity encourages the notion that people will want divergent things, and this is fine.

But if attitudes to illegal immigration are based on deep differences about the corporate identity of the polity and its level and ambit of legitimacy, they are not going to be easily resolved. What is not legitimate is to deny that there are perfectly reasonable grounds for people to have angst about illegal immigration.

ADDENDA This post has been edited to extend some points, clarify the argument and reduce repetition.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Christian origins of dhimmitude

A dhimmi is a non-Muslim “person of the book” who is treated as a legal inferior under Shar’ia. In other words, a person denied equality before the law based on a categorisation derived from religious considerations.

So, what is a modern Christian term for a “dhimmi”?

Try ‘homosexual’.

In much of the Western world (though a shrinking proportion thereof), as a gay man, I am a person denied equality before the law based on a categorisation derived from religious considerations. I am the Christian (or, if you prefer, a Judaeo-Christian) version of a dhimmi [but see the clarification below] in the sense that it is perfectly obvious that the reasons for the denial of legal equality, and the opposition to the achievement of legal equality, for the same-sex oriented are derived from religion. From the notion that to give such people legal equality is offensive to God and against God’s purposes.

In the words of Baptist pastor Daniel Y. Yearey:
Homosexuality denies the sovereignty of God. Genesis 1:27 says God created man in His own image. In God there are no disorders or confusion. He created male and female for distinct purposes. Homosexuality says we can be independent of God's direction and design.
He could be Sayyid Qutb, discoursing on Western offenses against the trumping sovereignty of God.

This is not some cute rhetorical pairing.
It is clear, when you go into the history, that the Muslim concept of dhimmi is built from preceding Christian practice. But not against the same-sex active—there the traditional Christian position was extermination: the movement of the same-sex attracted towards [and now beyond] mere “dhimmitude” represents a major social advance—but against another “people of the book”.

For the traditional Christian word for “dhimmi” was ‘Jew’.

Dhimmitude in Islam
In an article at Pajamasmedia, Andrew Bostom describes the state of dhimmitude in Islam in the following terms:
The “contract of the jizya,” or “dhimma,” encompassed other obligatory and recommended obligations for the conquered non-Muslim “dhimmi” peoples. Collectively, these “obligations” formed the discriminatory system of dhimmitude imposed upon non-Muslims — Jews and Christians, as well as Zoroastrians, Hindus, and Buddhists — subjugated by jihad. Some of the more salient features of dhimmitude include:
– The prohibition of arms for the vanquished dhimmis
– The prohibition of church bells
– Restrictions concerning the building and restoration of churches, synagogues, and temples
– Inequality between Muslims and non-Muslims with regard to taxes and penal law
– The refusal of dhimmi testimony by Muslim courts
– A requirement that Jews, Christians, and other non-Muslims, including Zoroastrians and Hindus, wear special clothes
– The overall humiliation and abasement of non-Muslims

It is important to note that these regulations and attitudes were institutionalized as permanent features of the sacred Islamic law, or Shari’a. The writings of the much lionized Sufi theologian and jurist al-Ghazali (d. 1111) highlight how the institution of dhimmitude was simply a normative and prominent feature of the Shari’a:
The dhimmi is obliged not to mention Allah or His Apostle. … Jews, Christians, and Majians must pay the jizya [poll tax on non-Muslims]. … On offering up the jizya, the dhimmi must hang his head while the official takes hold of his beard and hits [the dhimmi] on the protruberant bone beneath his ear [i.e., the mandible]. … They are not permitted to ostentatiously display their wine or church bells. … Their houses may not be higher than the Muslim’s, no matter how low that is. The dhimmi may not ride an elegant horse or mule; he may ride a donkey only if the saddle-work is of wood. He may not walk on the good part of the road. They [the dhimmis] have to wear [an identifying] patch [on their clothing], even women, and even in the [public] baths. … [Dhimmis] must hold their tongue.

The practical consequences of such a discriminatory system were summarized by S.D. Goitein in 1970 (emphasis mine):
Taxation [by the Muslim government] was merciless, and a very large section of the population must have lived permanently at the starvation level. From many Geniza letters one gets the impression that the poor were concerned more with getting money for the payment of their taxes than for food and clothing, for failure of payment usually induced cruel punishment. … The Muslim state was quite the opposite of the ideals … embedded in the constitution of the United States. An Islamic state was part of or coincided with dar al-Islam, the House of Islam. Its treasury was … the money of the Muslims. Christians and Jews were not citizens of the state, not even second class citizens. They were outsiders under the protection of the Muslim state, a status characterized by the term dhimma … They were also exposed to a great number of discriminatory and humiliating laws. … As it lies in the very nature of such restrictions, soon additional humiliations were added, and before the second century of Islam was out, a complete body of legislation in this matter was in existence. … In times and places in which they became too oppressive they lead to the dwindling or even complete extinction of the minorities.

There is some tendency in some circles to downplay the nature and role of dhimmi and dhimmitude. It is certainly true that the level of oppression of dhimmis varied from place to place and over time. Muslim rule, for example, tended to be more tolerant when Muslims were a thin ruling minority and become less tolerant the smaller proportion that non-Muslims were of the population. (In other words, there was some tendency for the level of intolerance to vary according to the costs of intolerance: a pattern one also sees in Latin Christendom.) Nevertheless, subordination of non-believers to believers is fundamental to the religious jurisprudence of Islam.

There is also some tendency for Christians to see dhimmitude as a mark of the inferiority of Islam to Christianity. Christians can cite texts such as love thy neighbour as they self, turn the other cheek, render unto Caesar and statements by Christian authorities such as Pope Paul III’s Sublimus Dei of 1537.

Christian practices of degradation
All very well, but, if one examines traditional Christian jurisprudence consigning Jews to a reviled, secondary legal status, it is clear that the same measures that Andrew Bostom lists above were applied against Jews by Christian polities. For the trouble with Christian self-congratulation is that the basic precepts of dhimmitude—apart from the requirement for distinguishing special clothing (which the Christian Church later adopted as a fine idea)—are extensions and regularisations of the laws and Church decrees of the Christian Roman Empire against Jews.
In Part Three (Constantine, Augustine and the Jews) of his Constantine’s Sword James Carroll examines what the Christianising of the Roman Empire meant for Jews and St Augustine of Hippo’s role in enunciating a theology that permitted the Jews to survive, but not to thrive with their conversion to Christianity being the ultimate aim. Which expresses quite well the aim of Islamic jurisprudence for Jews, Christians and other “peoples of the book”.

In his Anguish of the Jews, Flannery identifies the fourth century, the Constantinian century, as the crucial (and disastrous) century for Christian attitudes to the Jews. With the Christianizing of the empire, Judaism lost ground badly:
… its privileges were largely withdrawn, its proselytism was outlawed, and in 425 the patriarchate was abolished (p.47).
The centre of Jewish scholarship moved to Babylonia, in Rome’s great rival the Sassanid Empire. Within the Empire:
…the choice for Judaism was plain: either continue a losing and perilous competition or retire into the world of the Talmud. The rabbinate opted for the latter alternative, considering it the price of survival (p.48).
So, in considering Christian complaints about Muslim bars on conversion, it is well to remember that Christians did it to Jews first.

St Augustine’s notion of Jews as a “witness people”, witnesses “for the salvation of the nation but not their own” gave them a space within Christian framings of the human society, if a degraded one. St Augustine’s notion that obligation to love still applies to Jews was clearly more formal than substantive while his holding that Christians should still seek to lead them to Christ’s salvation just increases the similarity to the later Islamic notion of the dhimmi.

Various Christian Councils passed anti-Jewish decisions: forbidding Jewish-Christian marriage (unless preceded by conversion to Christianity); joint celebration of Passover; forbidding Christians to keep the Jewish Sabbath, receive gifts or bread from Jewish festivals (Anguish p.55). The Roman state was torn between its Christianisation and the previous precedent of tolerating Judaism. So it was legal in the Empire, with a range of legal consequences from that. But Christianity was clearly preferred: Jewish proselytising and conversion to Judaism was banned; converts to Judaism became intestate but Jewish parents could not disinherit their children who converted to Christianity; Jews were banned from circumcising slaves or buying Christian slaves, which had the effect of driving them out of various trades and occupations (since uncircumcised slaves brought with them the burden of ritual impurity). Construction and repair of synagogues was regulated. Jews were barred from public office. The Jewish patriarchate was abolished. The language of law often incorporated denigration of Jews and Judaism (Pp57-8).

This religious and legal tension was reflected in popular violence from both sides, with the 414 massacre and flight of the Jewish community in Alexandria after Jews had killed some Christians being the worst outbreak (Pp59ff). Attacks on synagogues were frequent.

Flannery identifies that:
… the principal source of Christian antisemitism was the Church’s theological anti-Judaism. It is apparent that there exists a certain level of theological negation or polemical intensity which, when reached, produces an effect that is no longer purely theological or polemical: ideological opposition has turned to hatred and stereotype—the life-blood of antisemitsm (Pp62-63)
Again, a point which is extendable. Though it was still better to be a Jew than a heretic (p.64). Flannery concludes that:
Christian antisemitism was rooted, finally, in the survival of a vibrant and often defiant Judaism. The refusal of the Synagogue to join the Church stood forth as a serious challenge to the Christian apologia, a scandal to the Christian faithful, and a source of worry to their pastors, alarmed by the Judaizing tendencies within their flock. Antisemitism thus was not rooted only in Christian doctrine but also in a pastoral zeal which resorted to every and any means to find … “a therapy for the Jewish disease” (p.65).
That both faiths claim exclusive election by the One True God gave them plenty to argue over: since monotheism encourages the view that not only is there a single truth, but that there is a single correct view of what is. But that Jews and Christians had a common history made Jews preferable to Christians than pagans (or heretics, since they were taken to be explicit, directly threatening, “deniers” of Christian truth).

With the collapse of the Western Empire, Jews entered a period of highly variable fortunes. In the Eastern Empire, the legal persecution of the Jews continued and tightened: they could not own a Christian slave, their property rights were narrowed, they were barred from public functions (except the decurionate) and practising law, they could not testify against Christians. Justinian’s laws even regulated the internal practices of the Jewish religion (p.68). Jewish resistance was at times violent and Jews became regular collaborators with the Empire’s enemies (Pp69-70).

In the West, Pope Leo III may have proclaimed Karl-lo-magne “Imperator”, “Commander of Romans”, but “Big Karl” ran a Germanic empire and Germanic law did not distinguish Jews from Christians. Affronted by this, the Catholic Church waged a relentless campaign against Jews having legal equality with Christians (i.e. the true believers, the true Israel) that was ultimately successful. Centuries of proselytising against Jews as “Christ-killers” and enemies of God’s purposes bore fruit, with increasing popular Jew-hatred. Over time, the laws against Jews became more and more restrictive. In 1215, the Lateran Council decreed that Jews (and Muslims) had to wear special clothing to distinguish them from Jews, bring Christian legal practise even more in line with the Muslim legal practice; the two religions learning from each other in their persecution of Jews (and each other).

As far as the Church was concerned, those who remained Jews were forever guilty of refusing to abandon their faith. Exactly the Muslim attitude to dhimmis

After their conquests, the Muslims, of course, also applied these rules against Christians. Since Christendom was generally in territorial retreat, the issue of Christian treatment of Muslim minorities rarely arose. Where it did, Christian treatment of Muslims mirrored Muslim treatment of Christians: if anything, it was worse, since the Muslim minorities of Sicily and Spain were harried into non-existence culminating in expulsion.

Treatment of pagans was comparable in the two dominant monotheisms. Islam’s single generation extirpation of paganism in Arabia was broadly matched by Karl-lo-magne’s brutal suppression of Saxon paganism. As Ramsay MacMullen sets out in his Christianity & Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries the Christian Roman Empire squeezed paganism even more than it did the Jews: suffering similar bars on public office as Jews, pagans were also forbidden to teach, their public places of worship were banned and, from 472, even having a private place of pagan worship on your property made it liable to confiscation. Paganism was not to survive even as a degraded “witness people” that the Jews were permitted to be.

Reading Mark Durie on the psychological effects of dhimmitude on dhimmis, there is a strong overlap of the effects of the legal and social degradation of Jews in Christendom as described by Flannery, Trachtenberg and others. But, why would similar treatment on similar grounds not have similar effects?

The pattern in Christendom was for restrictions on Jews to tend to get worse. Showing one’s contempt for the “enemies of Christ” was a path to virtue, so laws tended to become more and more restrictive. Indeed, the legal restrictions on Jews prior to the Enlightenment were generally harsher than they had been in medieval times—that was particularly true for Jews in the Papal States which kept the ghetto laws going (reinstating them after Napoleon abolished them) until stripped of its territories by Garibaldi. But whether against pagans, Jews, Protestants, Orthodox or queers, the Catholic Church has been a firm opponent of equality before the law, wanting to legally rank people by their belief and/or deny them legal institutional recognition, on the grounds of fulfilling God’s purposes, yielding only when forced to and putting up bitter resistance all the way. As it continues to do in the case of homosexuals.

Since law in Christendom was man-made (even canon law) it could change over time. Islam had “God’s law”, so there was far less scope for evolution in law. Rather, there was a pattern of harsher enforcement over time as dhimmi communities shrank, and so became more vulnerable and the costs of intolerance fell.

Theological subversions
If history and practice fails to distinguish Islam and Christendom for legal degradation on the grounds of belief—indeed, it is clear Islam learnt from Christendom, who then returned the favour—there is clear difference in basic theology.

In the case of Christendom, the entire structure rested on subverting the second principle of Christianity. It has always been possible to appeal to the Gospels to argue against such treatment.

The situation is very different in Islam. There is no equivalent in Islam remotely similar to Sublimus Dei, for example. The subordination of non-believers is built into the structure of Islam in the way it is not for Christianity. Christian priests, seeking authority as “gatekeepers of righteousness” policing the moral community, saying who is in and who is out, have had to develop ways of subverting the second principle of Christianity. They have proved very adept at it (citing rebellion against God’s purposes, claiming betrayal of one’s humanity, or not being proper forms of the human—various ways of stripping people of the status of being moral neighbours): nevertheless, the subversion is required.

By contrast, the entire structure of Islam is set up to create “gatekeepers of righteousness”. Muhammad himself is the ultimate example of that. The violent subordination of dhimmis comes directly from the words and example of the Prophet himself. It is not inequality but equality before the law that requires subversion of the basic logic of Islam.

Dhimmitude is how one avoids the consequences of jihad: those consequences being the killing of men, the enslaving of women and children, the confiscation of property. The dhimma is a pactum subjectionis where one subordinates oneself and alienates oneself from honour, and any authority in the wider society, for as long as one fails to “revert” to Islam ('revert' rather than 'convert' since Islam claims to be—and to have always been—the one true religion of Allah). As the sovereignty of Allah is universal, the world belongs to Him and His people, the umma, the community of believers, the Muslims.

Brutality and subordination
To seek equality is to break the dhimma pact. It is quite clear that the massacre of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire and the Armenian genocide was in part motivated by the legal equality insisted on by the Western Powers being taken to have breached the dhimma pact and so deprived dhimmis of its protection. The jizya tax was a compensation for not taking the dhimmi’s head: no tax, no acceptance of subordination, no “right” to keep one’s unbelieving head.

That dhimmitude is intimately tied to jihad and built into the basic structure of Islam makes Islam rather different from Christianity. Even here, however, one must be careful at pushing the difference. The analogy between the legal treatment of the same-sex oriented in the modern West and the Islamic dhimmitude easily covers the connection to jihad, given the traditional Christian response to same-sex activity was homicidal anathematisation. The tradition of the legal and social degradation of the same-sex oriented was established by great brutality, maintained by brutality and is now collapsing precisely because the brutality is being withdrawn (indeed, actively anathematised by law). In defending the denial of legal equality to the same-sex oriented, people are defending a tradition of brutality. Yes, the brutality was erratic, but that was also a feature of Christian treatment of Jews and Muslim treatment of dhimmis—the Hamidian massacres of Armenians had their equivalents in the pogroms against the Jews in Romanov Russia, for example.

Let us leave aside the burnings alive and the throwing to the dogs to be eaten alive. Consider the case of Jans Jansz cited by Norton. In 1741, Jan Jansz aged 17, was convicted in Amsterdam of sodomy. As a result of the authorities performing their “Christian” duty he spent the rest of his life—fifty-seven years—in solitary confinement in his cell.

It is a great hypocrisy for Christians (and Jews) to beat their breasts about how awful the Islamic notion of dhimmitude is and then be outraged by homosexuals seeking equality before the law. Dhimmitude is every bit as based on longstanding tradition and scriptural basis as is the legal degradation of the same-sex attracted: whether that degradation is in the form of brutal, public judicial murder or, in the words of philosopher Richard Mohr:
… sodomy laws are the chief systematic way that society as a whole tells gays they are scum.
Or denial of legal standing for their relationships. It is every bit as much a denial of legal equality and demand for moral degradation on the grounds of fulfilling God’s purposes.

The famous comment by Jesus on motes and beams (or specks and planks) comes to mind.

The crushing burden of the divine
In the words of William Beckford (quoted by Norton) on a 1816 hanging of a “sodomite” (since Regency England hanged “sodomites” at about the same rate as contemporary Iran does):
I should like to know what kind of deity they fancy they are placating with these shocking human sacrifices.
What sort of deity? One whose moral authority is so transcendent that it is absolutely trumping.

So trumping, it licences contempt and repression—to the point of slaughter—against the vulnerable. For the reason why contempt for Jews and queers have been so vicious is that historically they each have been small minorities, hence religious “gatekeepers of righteousness” have been able to sell “effortless virtue” against them at very little risk to the overwhelming majority while the authority of God “took away” any moral cost—indeed, “reversed” the moral cost.

Which is why monotheism has such a vicious record of slaughter and repression: because the authority of the transcendent One God is so absolutely trumping.*

Just as slaughter and repression have flowed in our time from secular philosophies that have claimed equally totally trumping moral authority: the Aryan race, the completion of history. But to claim their problem was their Godlessness is to show a highly selective historical amnesia.

On the contrary, their problem was exactly the same—belief in an utterly trumping moral authority that permitted casting people out of the moral community by category, categories that did not flow from any actual trespass they had personally committed against their fellow humans or the content of their character. On the contrary, membership of the category was taken to be the most salient feature of their “moral character”, against which there was no appeal while they remained in that category.

Utterly trumping moral authorities that created a “right” to deny people protection of the web of morality. A denial not grounded in moral reciprocity, not grounded in respect for human agency, but due to morally trumping transcendent purposes that created, and put them into, categories of people who, it was deemed, should not exist. On grounds which fundamentally denied moral reciprocity and respect for human agency.

The most distinctive role for God in moral discourse is to justify stripping vulnerable categories of people of their moral protections. The second principle of Christianity is, and has always been, urgently required to protect from the misuse of the first. The problem with Islam is precisely that its conception of the authority of God is so overwhelming and unchecked.

And while “love God” is not the same commandment as “submit to Allah”, in practice submission to God and God’s purposes (and to clerical authority as speaking for God) is precisely what subverting the second principle of Christianity invokes.

It is not surprising, therefore, that subverting the second principle of Christianity creates outcomes that both resemble those in Islam and provided models that Islam could and did use.

CLARIFICATION On reflection, there is a problem with the dhimmi/homosexual analogy which also applies to the cases of Catholic opposition to confessional equality before the law [hence my striking through some sections above]. That problem is that—leaving aside the issue of treatment of Jews, where the dhimmitude analogy holds prior to Jewish emancipation—Western legal systems had a functional equality that did not apply in Islam. That is, witnesses were witnesses, ownership was ownership, crimes were crimes. In the basic functioning of the law, there was (and is) no differentiation. Unlike Shar'ia, where inequality pervades the most basic operation of law.

To take the example of the Habsburg monarchy (and Venetian Republic) treatment of their Orthodox subjects, the Catholic Church constantly put pressure on to undermine or deny any separate institutional existence to the Orthodox Church. In that sense, the treatment was worse than under Shar'ia, which permitted full corporate identity. But—and it is a big "but"—in other respects, Orthodox subjects of both polities had the same legal standing as any other subjects. In that respect, the treatment was much better than under Shar'ia and helped account for the loyalty of their Orthodox subjects to the Habsburg Monarchy and the Serene Republic.

So, homosexual relationships may be (depending on the polity) denied any legal standing or simple legal equality but, apart from that (which still can blight lives in all sorts of ways), homosexuals have equal standing in the law.

If one goes back to when homosexual acts were illegal, the matter becomes trickier because criminialising such a basic aspect of people's lives created a pervasive vulnerability that massively undermined their legal standing. The classic example was Alan Turing being robbed by a confederate of a "trick" and, when he complained to the police, being done for indecency rather than being treated as a victim of a crime. There was also such matters as censorhip of posted material, use of obscenity laws to block positive public representations of homosexuals, and so forth.

The point about Christian decrees and laws against Jews feeding into the dhimmitude system stands but the analogy with the contemporary situation of homosexuals in countries without full equality in family law is an extremely partial one. Which just shows how easy it can be to be tripped up by basic differences in presumptions.

ADDENDA This post has also been edited slightly in the main body to improve clarity.

* It is also why monotheism—particularly the more it stresses scriptural revelation hence attention to the direct voice of God—tends to be hostile to the pleasures, distractions and achievements of this world: they get in the way of connecting to, and “respecting”, the overwhelming authority of God’s transcendence.