People in ancient societies thought their societies were obviously great. The imperial Chinese thought nothing could beat imperial China, the medieval Spaniards thought medieval Spain was a singularly impressive example of perfection, and Communist Soviets were pretty big on Soviet Communism. Meanwhile, we think 21st-century Western civilization, with its democracy, secularism, and ethnic tolerance is pretty neat. Since the first three examples now seem laughably wrong, we should be suspicious of the hypothesis that we finally live in the one era whose claim to have gotten political philosophy right is totally justified.
But it seems like we have an advantage they don’t. Speak out against the Chinese Empire and you lose your head. Speak out against the King of Spain and you face the Inquisition. Speak out against Comrade Stalin and you get sent to Siberia. The great thing about western liberal democracy is that it has a free marketplace of ideas. Everybody criticizes some aspect of our society. Noam Chomsky made a career of criticizing our society and became rich and famous and got a cushy professorship. So our advantage is that we admit our society’s imperfections, reward those who point them out, and so keep inching closer and closer to this ideal of perfect government.
Okay, back up. Suppose you went back to Stalinist Russia and you said “You know, people just don’t respect Comrade Stalin enough. There isn’t enough Stalinism in this country! I say we need two Stalins! No, fifty Stalins!”
Congratulations. You have found a way to criticize the government in Stalinist Russia and totally get away with it. Who knows, you might even get that cushy professorship.
If you “criticize” society by telling it to keep doing exactly what it’s doing only much much more so, society recognizes you as an ally and rewards you for being a “bold iconoclast” or “having brave and revolutionary new ideas” or whatever. It’s only when you tell them something they actually don’t want to hear that you get in trouble.
Western society has been moving gradually further to the left for the past several hundred years at least. It went from divine right of kings to constutitional monarchy to libertarian democracy to federal democracy to New Deal democracy through the civil rights movement to social democracy to ???. If you catch up to society as it’s pushing leftward and say “Hey guys, I think we should go leftward even faster! Two times faster! No, fifty times faster!”, society will call you a bold revolutionary iconoclast and give you a professorship.
If you start suggesting maybe it should switch directions and move the direction opposite the one the engine is pointed, then you might have a bad time.
Scott Alexander, “Reactionary Philosophy In An Enormous, Planet-Sized Nutshell”, Slate Star Codex, 2013-03-03.
November 6, 2014
November 5, 2014
Jacob Sullum on the success of two more state legalization campaigns (oh, and the imperial capital, too):
Yesterday Alaska became the fourth state to legalize marijuana for recreational use. With 74 percent of precincts reporting, 52 percent of voters favored legalization. Alaska joins Oregon and Washington, D.C., which legalized marijuana on the same day, and Colorado and Washington state, where voters approved legalization in 2012.
Alaska has taken a unique approach to marijuana since 1975, when the Alaska Supreme Court decided that the state constitution’s privacy clause allows people to possess small amounts of cannabis at home for personal use without fear of arrest or punishment. But that ruling raised an obvious question: Where are people supposed to get the pot they are allowed to use?
Measure 2 answers that question with a system similar to Colorado’s. It allows adults 21 or older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana at a time, grow up to six plants at home, and transfer up to an ounce at a time to other adults “without remuneration.” It authorizes state-licensed growers, cannabis product manufacturers, and retailers, to be regulated by Alaska’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board or a separate agency created by the state legislature.
As I’ve said in posts during the election campaign, I probably wouldn’t have voted for either of the Ford brothers were I still living in Toronto, but I understand why a lot of Toronto voters feel differently. That much being acknowledged … I don’t think a Doug Ford campaign for leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party would be a good idea (and not just because the front-runner in the race is my MPP). Richard Anderson seems to feel the same way, but he bases his objections on reality rather than just inchoate feelings:
At the final tally Doug Ford captured 34% of the popular vote in the recent Toronto election. With more time he would likely have captured another 5% to 10% of the vote. It’s unlikely that any member of the Ford family would reach 50% in a three way race. In a two way race, against a half-way competent moderate, they’d almost certainly lose. But Toronto is not Ontario. Not even close.
While the Imperial Capital is certainly more Leftist than the rest of the province, it’s also more working class. That’s the Ford base, the low and semi-skilled workforce that can really only exist in a large dense city. In the vast sprawl lands of Mississauga and Markham the Fords are incredibly toxic.
A provincial premier is not a mayor. The Premier of Ontario is the second most powerful individual in the country. In a real and practical sense it is the ruler of Queen’s Park who acts as the Leader of the Official Opposition of Canada. The only thing Tom Mulcair can do is rant and rave at Stephen Harper. Kathleen Wynne can thwart a whole range of federal policy initiatives. That’s the power that comes from leading a province with 40% of the population and nearly half the national economic output.
Now imagine Doug Ford negotiating with Stephen Harper or Jim Prentice. You can’t really. Even if there is a bit of ideological overlap their styles are so radically different. For all his faults Harper is loaded to the rafters with gravitas and intelligence. Jim Prentice is a smooth old political operator. Either man can move with ease through the Petroleum Club or the Empire Club. They can deal with Obama, Cameron, Putin and whatever animatronic robot is currently ruling China.
November 4, 2014
In the New Statesman, Sarah Ditum seemed befuddled that the ‘No Platform’ movement — a vigorous effort to deny public platforms to the British National party and the English Defence League — has mysteriously advanced from silencing ‘violent fascists’ to silencing all kinds of other people, like a Guardian feminist who ventured some insufficiently affirming observations about trans-women and is now unfit for polite society. But, once you get a taste for shutting people up, it’s hard to stop. Why bother winning the debate when it’s easier to close it down?
Nick Lowles defined the ‘No Platform’ philosophy as ‘the position where we refuse to allow fascists an opportunity to act like normal political parties’. But free speech is essential to a free society because, when you deny people ‘an opportunity to act like normal political parties’, there’s nothing left for them to do but punch your lights out. Free speech, wrote the Washington Post’s Robert Samuelson last week, ‘buttresses the political system’s legitimacy. It helps losers, in the struggle for public opinion and electoral success, to accept their fates. It helps keep them loyal to the system, even though it has disappointed them. They will accept the outcomes, because they believe they’ve had a fair opportunity to express and advance their views. There’s always the next election. Free speech underpins our larger concept of freedom.’
Mark Steyn, “The slow death of free speech”, The Spectator, 2014-04-19
November 1, 2014
The politician … is the courtier of democracy … it was of the essence of the courtier’s art and mystery that he flattered his employer in order to victimize him, yielded to him in order to rule him. The politician under democracy does precisely the same thing.
H.L. Mencken, Notes on Democracy, 1926.
October 29, 2014
Charles Stross wanders in a Britain of today in a world where Stalin won World War 2, taking all of western Europe into the control of the Soviet Union in the early 1940s:
Here’s a brief thought-experiment for you: imagine what the UK would look like today if the outcome of the second world war had taken a left turn early in 1940, and the whole of western Europe somehow ended up under Soviet control by 1946. (No nuclear weapons or gas attacks need apply: this speculation is about outcomes, not processes — so discussion of precisely how the British People’s Democratic Republic comes about is left as an exercise for the reader (and is not to be explored in comments)).
Let us further postulate that Stalinism passes with its creator, much as happened in our own experience of history: that the Soviet empire eventually undergoes the same fiscal crisis and collapse (alternative discussion of the same process by a former Soviet minister — you can forget the urban legend that Ronald Reagan did it) much as we remember, except possibly somewhat later — as late as the early 21st century, perhaps.
What interests me, in view of recent revelations about police spying and the extent of the British surveillance state is: How would the practice of internal suppression of dissent and state surveillance have differed in a post-Soviet Britain from what we appear to be living with right now?
“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”: as we have no way of knowing when the regime of the British Democratic People’s Republic fell, or what level of technology was available to them, purely technical aspects of the Communist surveillance state of the British Isles must be excluded.
However, we know the general shape of the ideological envelope within which Warsaw Pact regimes operated (or were allowed to operate, before the Kremlin jerked their choke-chain), and so we can speculate as to the structure and objectives of the British regime under Actually Existing Socialism.
His business is never what it pretends to be. Ostensibly he is an altruist devoted whole-heartedly to the service of his fellow men, and so abjectly public-spirited that his private interest is nothing to him. Actually he is a sturdy rogue whose principal, and often sole, aim in life is to butter his parsnips. His technical equipment consists simply of an armamentarium of deceits.
H.L. Mencken, Notes on Democracy, 1926.
October 28, 2014
It is interesting to observe — in oneself — the power of media to implant false impressions on a lazy mind. I noticed this from listening to a television speech by Stephen Harper, after the terrorist event in Ottawa, yesterday. (Harper has now been Canada’s prime minister for almost nine years.) He was described as “shaken” by several of the websites I had consulted for news, and in quickly reviewing the tape of his short talk, I formed that impression myself. It was only when an American correspondent, who had perhaps missed this Canadian media prep, told me Harper did not look shaken to him, that I went back and watched the video again, this time paying close attention to his delivery in both English and French. I realized he was not shaken at all; that his pauses and swallows were characteristic, and would not have been noticed by anyone had he been speaking on any other subject.
What impressed me, was how easily I fell for the “media narrative” on Harper’s speech, simply by paying insufficient attention. At the back of my mind I was assuming there must be some truth in it, when I ought to be aware that the media specialize in analyses which contain no truth at all. When I am paying attention, with the benefit of my own long experience within the media, I am able to identify the game, and understand what the players are up to.
David Warren, “Ottawa in the news”, Essays in Idleness, 2014-10-23.
October 27, 2014
I haven’t lived in Toronto for a couple of decades — and when I did, the city hadn’t been amalgamated so the role of the mayor was much more symbolic than real: the mayor had peers in North York, Scarborough, Etobicoke, East York and York. Now, the psychological stakes are higher even though the role of the mayor hasn’t changed all that much — still only one vote on council, but the advantage of the bully pulpit. That said, the voters in the former city of Toronto often feel that the mayor should “really” represent them more than those uncultured swine in the former satellite municipalities. The place is still called Toronto, but the sensibilities of former city of Toronto voters are affronted that the barbarians in the suburbs inflicted the Ford brothers on them. In a sense, Rob Ford was an over-sized middle finger gesture by the rest of Toronto directed toward those effete downtown snobs.
At Gods of the Copybook Headings, Richard Anderson mulls who Torontonians should be voting for (or against):
With days to go we are confronted with two choices here in the Imperial Capital: The polished millionaire non-entity or the white trash millionaire bruiser. It is in moments like these that the vasty fields of Saskatchewan beckon with unusual strength. What are housing prices like in Regina anyway? What’s the price for a Toronto-sized shoe box without the Toronto sized traffic and political idiocy? This used to be a boring city placed within a boring province. It’s gotten very interesting of late and in the very worst way. I miss Mel Lastman. Heck I miss Art Eggleton, if such an emotion is even possible.
The Toronto Sun, a usual bastion of populist common sense, has decided to endorse John Tory. Given the farce that has dominated municipal politics these last twelve months I can’t blame them. The Fords have become so terribly embarrassing. Vulgar, crude and probably violent as well. Respectable people can no longer abide by the Fords’ antics. John Tory could not be more respectable. He says all the right things in all the right ways. The Right respects him, the Left respects him and the Centre looks upon him as a long-lost lover miraculously returned. Who are we to oppose?
Then there is Team Ford. Rob, Doug and whichever brother is currently running the family business. I don’t think I’d ever invite any of them over for tea. They have a natural ability to alienate those around them. It’s almost a talent. They have a flare for screwing things up. Toronto has never seen anything quite like them and will likely never again. A god awful mess. They are, however, the only conservatives running in this election. A house trained Doug Ford would likely do more to trim municipal government than John Tory. The latter needs to be liked but the former doesn’t give a damn. Therein lies the difference. One is a carefully managed artifice and the other is a sincere disaster.
What I like most about the Fords is their lying. They lie like children. Attempts at deception, misdirection and deflection are so obvious they have a kind of charm. Beneath the trailer trash manners and the millionaire bank accounts they are actual, albeit deeply flawed, human beings. These are rare enough traits that they should be encouraged.
I don’t want a smooth mediocrity bankrupting Toronto, or striking half-baked compromises with the Left. If the Imperial Capital is going to go, let it go with a bang and not a well-heeled whimper. Let’s have Doug Ford’s fat blond figure standing right in the middle of municipal politics for the next few years. For sheer obstructionism he can’t be beat. A clear message to the great and good that there is a mass of people in this city who no have interest in being patronized to.
October 24, 2014
Myron Magnet is quite enthusiastic about Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln by Richard Brookhiser:
Unlike those mega-biographies that bury their subject’s chief accomplishments under 900 pages of undigested detail, Richard Brookhiser’s compact, profound, and utterly absorbing new life of Abraham Lincoln, Founders’ Son, leaps straight to the heart of the matter. With searchlight intensity, it dazzlingly illuminates the great president’s evolving views of slavery and the extraordinary speeches in which he unfolded that vision, molding the American mind on the central conflict in American history and resolving, at heroic and tragic cost to the nation and himself, the contradiction that the Founding Fathers themselves could not resolve.
Lincoln did not start out an abolitionist. As early as 1837, he showed ambivalence on the subject. When the Illinois legislature voted to condemn abolition societies as unnecessarily provocative that year, legislator Lincoln and a colleague voted yes but entered a protest, declaring for the record “that the institution of slavery is founded on both injustice and bad policy.” Even so, as a campaigner for Whig candidate William Henry Harrison in the election of 1840, Lincoln, in a debate with Martin Van Buren supporter Stephen Douglas, “was not above slyly trafficking in prejudice,” Brookhiser notes, attacking Van Buren for supporting voting rights for New York State’s free blacks. But as his congressional term drew to an end in 1849, he proposed (unsuccessfully) a plan for ending slavery in the District of Columbia, and the next year, when the three-decade-long era of trying to find a compromise on the issue of slavery came to a climax with the Compromise of 1850, Lincoln knew that the choice between slavery and abolition was inevitable for the nation—and he knew that he would stand against slavery. “When the time comes my mind is made up,” he told a friend, “for I believe the slavery question can never be successfully compromised.”
The time came soon enough, with the infamous Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. In effect, the act repealed the 1820 Missouri Compromise, which, in admitting Missouri as a slave state, had barred slavery from the rest of the Louisiana Territory lying north of the 36° 30’ parallel. By the terms of the new act, however, settlers pouring into the vast, hitherto empty territories of Kansas and Nebraska, which mostly lay north of the 1820 line, could choose whether to admit or bar slavery by “popular sovereignty,” the term used by Democratic senate leader Stephen Douglas, who boasted of having “passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act myself. . . . I had the authority and power of a dictator throughout the whole controversy.”
Though what we call the Lincoln-Douglas debates occurred in their Illinois senatorial contest of 1858, the “six years from 1854 to 1860 were one long Lincoln-Douglas debate,” writes Brookhiser, as Douglas went around the state defending the act and an indignant Lincoln pursued him, rebutting his emollient arguments in a string of immortal speeches. In Peoria in October 1854, Lincoln condemned Douglas for reopening an already scabbed-over wound. “Every inch of territory we owned already had a definite settlement of the slavery question,” he observed; but thanks to Douglas, “here we are in the midst of a new slavery agitation.” Douglas wants the people of the territories to decide? Fine. But who the people are “depends on whether a Negro is not or is a man.” If he is, then isn’t it “a total destruction of self-government, to say that he too shall not govern himself?” When a white man “governs himself, and also governs another man, that is more than self-government — that is despotism.”
Lincoln appealed to the authority of his beloved Founding Fathers — a subject Brookhiser, biographer of several of them, knows better than most. These great men found slavery already existing in the colonies, and to forge a new nation that the slave states would agree to join, they had to accept the evil out of necessity, not principle. They clearly knew that it was wrong, as is evident in the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, by which the Continental Congress strove to prevent slavery’s spread to unsettled territories; in the Declaration of Independence—“the sheet anchor of American republicanism,” said Lincoln, “that teaches me that ‘all men are created equal,’” including blacks, who are emphatically men; and in the Constitution itself, which accepted slavery so reluctantly that it wouldn’t even name it, Lincoln noted, “just as an afflicted man hides away a wen or cancer, which he dares not cut out at once, lest he bleed to death.” So let’s not go beyond where the Founders felt themselves forced to go. Let’s not metastasize slavery further.
October 23, 2014
Warren Meyer explains why Republicans are still seen as the Evil Party by younger Americans:
Good: A judge has ruled that Arizona’s same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional. I suppose I am a little torn over judicial overreach here, but enough freedom-robbing stuff happens through judicial overreach that I will accept it here in my favor.
Republicans should rejoice this, at least in private. From my interactions with young people, there is nothing killing the R’s more than the gay marriage issue. Young people don’t understand squat about economics, but they are pretty sure that people fighting gay marriage are misguided (they would probably use harsher language). Given that R’s hold a position they are sure is evil (anti-gay-marriage) they assume that Progressive attacks that R’s are evil on economics must be right too, without actually understanding the issue. In short, young people reject the free market because its proponents hold what they believe to be demonstratively bad opinions on social issues.
October 22, 2014
David Friedman, who we can safely assume has a better sense of the late Milton Friedman’s thoughts and beliefs than most people, disagrees with a recent Forbes article asking WWMFD:
A recent Forbes article is headlined “What Would Milton Friedman Do About Climate Change? Tax Carbon.” It reports on a forum at the University of Chicago at which several economists, including Michael Greenstone, described as the “Milton Friedman Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago,” argued that Friedman would have supported a carbon tax. The evidence for that claim was a 1979 clip from the Phil Donahue show where Milton Friedman argued that if the government is going to do something about emissions, they should use an effluent tax rather than direct regulation. He does not actually say that government should do something about emissions, only that there is a case for doing so and, if it is done, the best way to do it is by a tax on emissions.
To get from there to the conclusion that he would have favored a carbon tax requires at least one further step, a reason to think that he would have believed that global warming due to CO2 emissions produced net negative externalities large enough to justify doing something about them. The problem with that claim is that warming can be expected to produce both negative externalities such as sea level rise and hotter summers and positive ones such as longer growing seasons and milder winters. The effects will be spread out over a long and uncertain future, making their size difficult to estimate. My own conclusion, defended in past posts here (one example), is that the uncertainties are large enough so that one cannot sign the sum, cannot say whether the net effect will be positive or negative.
I do not know if my father would have agreed but I have at least a little evidence on the subject, more than offered in the Forbes article. The same issue arose in the earlier controversy over population. Just as it is now routinely assumed that warming is bad, it was then routinely assumed that population increase was bad. Forty years ago I wrote a piece on the subject for the Population Council in which I attempted to estimate the externalities associated with population. I concluded that they were too uncertain for me to tell whether the net effect was good or bad. My father read the piece and commented on it. If he had disagreed he would have said so, and he did not. It is possible that he would have felt differently in the case of climate change, but I can see no reason to expect it.
October 21, 2014
I’ve been a bit busy to pay much attention to the by-election going on here in Whitby-Oshawa for the seat of the late Jim Flaherty, but I was delighted to get this bit of news:
— Andrew Echevarria (@AndrewLibertyCA) October 21, 2014
At least I know I’ve got someone I can vote for without having to hold my nose.
October 17, 2014
In sp!ked, Allum Bokhari looks at #GamerGate:
The gaming community is no stranger to cultural warfare and moral panic. In the 1990s, a cohort of censorious, ‘family values’ politicians waged a ceaseless campaign to regulate the gaming industry, following a series of panics over the ultra-violent Mortal Kombat series. In the early 2000s, the socially conservative activist Jack Thompson gained notoriety for engaging in a stream of litigation against video-game companies, arguing that they were responsible for everything from gang violence to school shootings.
The tenor of moral panic has changed since then. Now, the main source of fear, loathing and general misanthropy in the gaming industry stems from the cultural left rather than the socially conservative right. Similar to the old right, the new cultural warriors argue that games promote violence and reinforce so-called rape culture. Arguments that games perpetuate sexism and racism are also fairly common. Instead of being seen as mere escapism, the tastes of modern gamers are portrayed as dangerous and subversive, a threat to right-on values. Gamers ought to be feared and shunned. In this remarkable video, a cultural warrior goes on a tirade against mainstream gamers, culminating in the destruction of a copy of the controversial video-game Grand Theft Auto V before a cheering crowd. The misanthropic disgust with ordinary gamers is palpable.
The growing contempt of the games-industry elite for the preferences of gamers has accelerated in recent months. Following a major confrontation between gamers and activists last August over allegations of journalistic favouritism, article after article has been published decrying the gaming community for its alleged bigotry, sexism and narrow-mindedness. The worst examples of ‘social-media harassment’ were used as an excuse to present gamers as a mass of hateful savages. To those familiar with the regular and sometimes absurd panics over football fans, this language will sound familiar.
You may well ask how these activists are able to sustain these bizarre beliefs, particularly given the mounting evidence that gamers are actually a pretty diverse and welcoming group of people after all. One explanation is their fondness for echo-chambers, maintained through exclusive email groups, social media blocklists and mass deletions of user comments on open forums. The extent to which the new cultural warriors will go to remove uncomfortable opinions from view is quite extraordinary. Reinforcing, rather than challenging, one’s own biases has become the norm.
October 15, 2014
Having taken a stab at sociology and political science, let me wrap up economics while I’m at it. Economics is a highly sophisticated field of thought that is superb at explaining to policymakers precisely why the choices they made in the past were wrong. About the future, not so much. However, careful economic analysis does have one important benefit, which is that it can help kill ideas that are completely logically inconsistent or wildly at variance with the data. This insight covers at least 90 percent of proposed economic policies.
Ben Bernanke “The Ten Suggestions”, speech at the Baccalaureate Ceremony at Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey. June 2, 2013.