Dominance: Material vs. Rhetorical

Do the rich dominate our society?

In one sense, they obviously do.  Rich people run most of the business world, own most of the wealth, and are vastly more likely to be powerful politicians.

In another sense, however, the rich aren’t dominant at all.  If you get in public and loudly say, “Rich people are great.  We owe them everything.  They deserve every penny they’ve got – and more.  People who criticize the rich are just jealous failures,” almost everyone will recoil in horror.

Do males dominate our society?

In one sense, they obviously do.  Males run most of the business world, hold most of the top political offices, hold a supermajority of the most prestigious jobs, and make a lot more money on average.

In another sense, however, males aren’t dominant at all.  If you get in public and loudly say, “Males are the superior sex.  We owe them everything.  We need to protect males from women’s emotional abuse and financial exploitation, and show them the great deference they deserve,” almost everyone will recoil in horror.

Do whites dominate our society?

In one sense, they obviously do.  Whites run most of the business world, hold most of the top political offices, hold a clear majority of the most prestigious jobs, and earn above-average incomes.

In another sense, however, whites aren’t dominant at all.  If you get in public and loudly say, “Whites have built Western civilization, the glory of the modern world.  Almost everything good in the modern world builds on white Europeans’ efforts.  The people of the world need to acknowledge how much they owe to the white race, and apologize for their many insults fueled by their own sense of inferiority,” almost everyone will recoil in horror.

My point: There are two very distinct kinds of dominance.*  There is material dominance – control of economic wealth and political power.  And there is rhetorical dominance – control of words and ideas.  Intuitively, you would expect the two to correlate highly.  At least in the modern world, however, they don’t.  Indeed, the correlation is plausibly negative: The groups with high material dominance now tend to have low rhetorical dominance.

Isn’t material dominance clearly more enviable than mere rhetorical dominance?  On balance, I suspect so.  Still, many people who could have won material dominance invest their lives in acquiring rhetorical dominance instead: intellectuals, activists, and religious leaders are all prime examples.  Why do they bother?  Because man does not live by bread alone.  Material dominance gives you luxuries, but rhetorical dominance makes you feel like you’re on top of the world: “I can loudly praise what I like and blame what I dislike – and expect the people who demur to meekly keep their objections to themselves.  Or even feign agreement!”

Conflation of material and rhetorical dominance helps explain why liberals and conservatives so often talk past each.  Liberals feel like conservatives dominate the world, because conservatives run the government half the time, and conservative-leaning groups – the rich, males, whites – have disproportionate influence over the economy.  Conservatives feel like liberals dominate the world, because liberals run the media, schools, and human resources departments.  In a sense, both groups are right.  Conservatives have the lion’s share of material dominance; liberals have more than the lion’s share of rhetorical dominance.  In another sense, though, both groups are wrong.  In the contest for overall dominance, both groups are roughly tied.  Both groups feel like underdogs because both yearn from the kind of dominance they lack.

Due to the endowment effect, moreover, both sides get angry when the other intrudes on “their” territory.  Thus, even though leftists have a near-stranglehold over research universities, the rare academic center that promotes free markets or social conservatism blinds them with rage.  99% rhetorical dominance?  We’re supposed to have 100% rhetorical dominance!  Conservatives have a similar, though less hyperbolic, reaction when business adopts liberal causes.  “Sensitivity training?!  Give me a break.”

The dream of both movements, naturally, is to hold all the dominances.  The conservative dream is a world where they consolidate their lead in the world of business and take over the whole culture.  The liberal dream is a world where they purge the last vestiges of conservative culture and bring business and the rich to their knees.  (The latter rarely means outright expropriation; I think even America’s far left would be satisfied if they could sharply increase regulation and regulation – and hear business and the rich repeatedly shout, “Thank you, may I have another?”)

When you put it this way, of course, both dreams sound like nightmares.  Neither liberals nor conservatives even dimly internalize Spiderman’s principle that “With great power comes great responsibility.” Both are epistemically vicious to the core, so habitually drunk with emotion they don’t even know what sober rationality looks like.  Frankly, I’d like to see both of these secular religions fade away like Norse mythology.  Since that’s unlikely to happen, however, I’m grateful to live in a world with an uneasy balance of power.  Or to be more precise, an uneasy balance of dominance.

* I suspect Robin Hanson will say that I’m conflating dominance and prestige.  Maybe a little, but when I picture “rhetorical dominance,” I’m picturing words and ideas that intimidate more than they inspire.  General point: You can have material prestige and rhetorical prestige as well as material dominance and rhetorical dominance.

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Social Events No Place For Politics

In spite of how libertarianism is often portrayed, it’s not a middle ground between conservatism and progressivism. It’s not even on the scale with those positions. But during social gatherings libertarians can be a neutral zone between conservative and liberal disagreement.

The silliness of the political right and left is clear to libertarians, yet we have common ground with each, on those few issues where they still support individual liberty. Progressives and conservatives are more similar to each other than they’ll admit. Why should they fight over the minor details on which they disagree?

Cousin Xander might believe government should do something which Cousin Yolanda opposes, while Yolanda wants government to do something Xander feels would be the end of civilization. The libertarian in the room knows that neither cousin’s wish excuses government violence. Pointing this out can distract the factions from being at each other’s throats by giving them a common enemy.

Expressing skepticism about the importance of the issue they value enough to fight over can make them unite against you.

Grandpa Al and Grandpa Bill may revere different presidents and hate the presidents revered by the other. Their libertarian grandkid can see the flaws of both politicians and the ridiculousness inherent in the office of president. To explain there’s no substantive difference between their respective heroes is a sure way to help them forget their disagreement with each other for a moment.

Once you understand that all politics is the search to justify government violence against those who are looking for an excuse to use government violence against you, it’s easy to see why politics doesn’t belong in society. It also helps you understand why those who are arguing aren’t nearly as different as they imagine.

If you find yourself under the boot of government violence you won’t care whether it’s a right boot or a left boot. Libertarians decry the boot while progressives and conservatives argue over which foot ought to be wearing it. Consistent libertarianism is non-political, which is why the Libertarian Party — being political — has such a hard time gaining traction among libertarians.

Personally, I don’t think social occasions are any place for politics. Yet politics will crop up in the most devious ways and in the least appropriate places. Having a libertarian in the mix helps unite all the pro-government people against the one who can’t embrace their government extremism. It’s our sacrifice for the cause of world peace. Happy New Year!

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Why I am Grateful to George Herbert Walker Bush

Unless you live under a rock (and probably even if you do), you’ve noticed the death of George Herbert Walker Bush, 41st President of the United States, on November 30, at age 94.

You’ve probably also suffered through multiple personal remembrances of the man and his presidency — some positive, some negative, some mixed. Mine, which you may read below if you’re not already worn out on the topic, is of the latter variety.

I am grateful for Bush and for his presidency for two major and positive changes in my life for which he deserves at least partial credit (or, if you prefer, bears at least partial responsibility).

First, Bush made it inevitable that I would leave the armed forces rather than serving 20 years and retiring. He did so by kicking off a post-Cold-War round of cuts in military spending that continued into the Clinton era.

Those cuts, in addition to being a darn fine idea that I wish the current administration would emulate, led to a situation in which, instead of signing a new enlistment contract with the Marine Corps reserve, I received several six-month “extensions.” When I got tired of piles of new paperwork every six months, I took my honorable discharge (in 1995) and moved on to new and different pursuits. I did and do love the Marine Corps.  I suspect I love it more than I would have loved it if I’d remained in it into his son’s presidency. So thank you, President Bush.

Secondly, Bush’s presidency caused me to reconsider my (fairly short as such things go — I was young and still malleable) commitment to “conservatism” and to the Republican Party. It’s entirely possible that, had he not reneged on his “read my lips — no new taxes” pledge, I would have voted for him in 1992 and have remained a Republican voter to this day.

I told myself that if Bush kept his word on taxes, I’d support him for re-election; if he didn’t, I wouldn’t. He didn’t, and I didn’t … but I wasn’t going to vote for Bill Clinton, either. I carried ballot access petitions for, and voted for, Ross Perot in 1992. Then I conducted an agonizing reappraisal of my convictions and went looking for a movement and a party to match them. I became an ideological libertarian circa 1993 and a Libertarian Party member in 1996. So thank you again, President Bush.

American politics has changed since Bush’s presidency, and mostly not for the better. It seems reasonable to lay at least partial responsibility for some very bad things — in particular, the extension of his feud with Saddam Hussein into a series of foreign policy fiascoes that plague us to this day — at his feet. There were plenty of ugly things about the man and about his presidency, and I have no problem with those who ignore the old admonition to speak not ill of the dead.

But I’m still grateful to the president of my early adulthood for shaping my life in ways he almost certainly didn’t intend.

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It’s The Golden Mean, Not the Golden Median

I used to think that Aristotle’s idea of the Golden Mean was bullshit, likely because I encountered the idea from people who weren’t Aristotle.

To some of the people who articulated the line of thinking to me, the idea of the Golden Mean was sort of a tepid middle ground between opposing principles.

  • Don’t be too conservative or too liberal
  • Don’t be too self-controlled or too free
  • Don’t be too assertive or too loving

As one journalism course site puts it:

Moral behavior is the mean between two extremes – at one end is excess, at the other deficiency. Find a moderate position between those two extremes, and you will be acting morally.

This is unhelpful at best. Virtuous behavior doesn’t exist halfway between the two extremes of murder vs. non-murder, or slavery vs. non-slavery. In most major decisions, we wouldn’t rely on that (likely flawed, but I’m no Aristotle scholar) expression of the Aristotelian rule. The way this is expressed, it’s much more of a golden median (a midpoint in a data set) than a mean.

It’s much more helpful to understand things in terms of actual arithmetic means. In a set of numbers, it’s the most distinct extreme examples that will most shape the (non-weighted) average or mean. You do end up with a number that is average – at or around the median – but the way it’s actually arrived at is through a consideration of the whole set and not just the midpoints.

In the same way, we should determine virtuous action and become virtuous persons not by ignoring the extremes (the “golden median approach”) but in incorporating them in a dynamic balance.

Should you be conservative or liberal? The golden medians would tell you to be a moderate, on the fence or in the middle. I would tell you to combine the best of both perspectives in ways no one would expect. Include and transcend the content of liberalism and conservatism.

Should you be self-controlled or free? The golden medians would tell you to give yourself some choice, but not too much. I would tell you that to be fully self-controlled requires being fully free, and vice versa. You must be both, to the nth degree.

Should you be assertive or loving? The golden medians would tell you to be somewhere in between – not too loving but also not too assertive. I would tell you to be as assertive and as loving as you can be, at the same time.

Yes, these are paradoxes. But the dichotomies between the two extremes are generally false. And to accept them as real (and thus of requiring the tepid Golden Median compromise) is a failure.

To accept the two extremes and incorporate them is the real challenge. If you do that successfully, you will transcend both, and you’ll find a third way of being that includes both extremes without compromising them. In other words, you’ll have found the mean.

Most mystical traditions (and, of course, the Jedi) know that Being is underlaid with a dynamic balance (and battle of opposites). The Taoists represent that state of Being with black and white symbols called Yin and Yang, which are constantly clashing and flowing into each other.

To the Taoists, the ideal is not the gray of fusion or the gray of median. As psychologist and Being-popularizer Jordan Peterson puts it:

For the Taoists, meaning is to be found on the border between the ever-entwined pair [of the Yin and Yang]. To walk that border is to stay on the path of life, the divine Way.

12 Rules of Life: An Antidote to Chaos, by Jordan Peterson

I like to think that’s what Aristotle meant. After all, being hot and cold, is much better than being tepid. I would much rather go all the way into the various ways of being – and find dynamic balance there – than hold back for some imagined static zone of comfort in the middle.

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Rothbard #18 — Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?

This time Murray Rothbard makes his point by citing Edmund Burke:

In 1756 Edmund Burke published his first work: Vindication of Natural Society. Curiously enough it has been almost completely ignored in the current Burke revival. This work contrasts sharply with Burke’s other writings, for it is hardly in keeping with the current image of the Father of the New Conservatism. A less conservative work could hardly be imagined; in fact, Burke’s Vindication was perhaps the first modern expression of rationalistic and individualistic anarchism. … “Anarchism” is an extreme term, but no other can adequately describe Burke’s thesis. Again and again, he emphatically denounces any and all government, and not just specific forms of government. … All government, Burke adds, is founded on one “grand error.” It was observed that men sometimes commit violence against one another, and that it is therefore necessary to guard against such violence. As a result, men appoint governors among them. But who is to defend the people against the governors?

Rothbard’s major point seems to be “[b]ut who is to defend the people against the governors?”  But his secondary point may be that Burke was much more profound than just being the “Father of the New Conservatism.”  Let’s examine both points.

Who shall guard the guard?  This question goes back at least to the Roman Empire when Juvenal wrote, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”  I am sure it goes back even further, maybe into the mists of prehistoric time.  What makes one man legitimately able to stand above any man, woman, or child.  The question rings out almost anytime one schlemiel says “I’m in charge here!” another will pipe up with “Who died and made you King?”  The question occurs whenever a voluntary arrangement begins to slip into a declared authoritarian arrangement.  The question arises on every occasion where one seeks to impose will upon others through violence.  One may be reasonably certain that the question arose among the congregation of the church in Sutherland Springs, Texas when a gunman took it upon himself to kill 26 members of the churchgoers.  Where does authority come from, and once ceded who will assure that it is not abused.  The question of authority and legitimacy is ancient.  If there were a thoroughgoing guardianship for all humans, half would have to watch the other half, but then who would watch the first half to make sure each of them was discharging her duty faithfully.  People who are comforted by the posting of a guard do not understand the dynamic.  People who are skeptical about the guard can never have their cares laid to rest.  Who shall guard the guard is a conundrum.

Now we can address the idea of Burke’s place in history.  I commend the Rothbard article, Edmund Burke, Anarchist, by Murray Rothbard at  I am a big fan of Edmund Burke, but I must admit that I feel much warmer toward him, now that I have read Rothbard’s view, which includes

He upholds that noble tenet of eighteenth-century rationalism: that happiness, in the long run, rests on truth and truth alone. And that truth is the natural law of human activity and human relations. Positive law imposed by the State injures man whenever it strays from the path that we know to be the law of man’s nature. How is the natural law to be discovered? Not by Revelation, but by the use of man’s reason.

I have always taken a larger view of Burke, because he is a fellow Irishman.  Most of his conservatism was shaped by his life and background.  He was an Irish Catholic.  His preference for older institutions was influenced by his religion as well as his respect for property.  Although he took the side of aristocracy in France, it was mostly having to do with a Catholic aristocracy.  In Ireland, the Catholics had been usurped.  And the property of Irish Catholics had been ripped from them by the worst of the Church of England tyrants.  My personal preference for Ireland over England is not based much on the religious question (I come from a half Catholic, half Protestant ancestry), but the propertarian question.  But Burke was a staunch propertarian as he appeared to believe that the properties of the Irish had been wrongfully purloined.  It may have been for that reason, as well, that he took the side of the Americans when he was a Member of British Parliament — although it is clear that he didn’t go so far as to favor American Independence.

As to the continuing debate on whether Burke meant Vindication of Natural Society to be satire, I would argue that he would not have asserted that governments were the principle murderers of human beings in the years leading up to his work.

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Will the Real Populism Please Stand Up?

Writing at The American Conservative, Mike Lofgren tears into the guts of Billionaire at the Barricades: The Populist Revolution from Reagan to Trump, the latest book by Republican political commentator Laura Ingraham.

Lofgren’s two key points — that Donald Trump is no populist, and that conservatism is not populism  — are well-made. “A cynic,” he writes, “would conclude that the term populism, when applied to Republican politics in 2017, means this: keep the rich up, the poor down, foreigners out, and everybody else distracted by scapegoats. Meanwhile, line your pockets at the public trough … and fill your top posts with enough billionaires to make George W. Bush’s cabinet look like a Soviet Workers’ Council.” The piece is a rewarding read.

Despite his best efforts, however, Lofgren misfires on the most basic question involved. What is populism? He surrenders — it’s “hard to define” — citing various figures left and right to whom the label has been applied but whose ideologies are wildly incompatible one with another.

In fact, populism is quite easy to define. It is the separation of people into two warring classes. Let’s call them “the righteous masses” and “the power elites.” The populist, of course, sides with the righteous masses. It’s as simple as that. But the devil is in the details of defining those two classes.

“Right-wing populism” defines the classes mendaciously. It attempts to split the righteous masses against themselves by defining (as per Lofgren above) civic, ethnic, sexual and gender minorities out of the group and the politically connected wealthy in. It’s the righteous white working class and Donald Trump versus immigrants, blacks, Latinos, and the LGBTQ community.

Since it’s difficult to make a case that traditionally oppressed out groups are the “power elite,” they’re instead portrayed as mere pawns, robots in harness to the real villains. The media. Academia. And, although the message is usually offered in dog whistle code (“the bankers,” “Wall Street”), Jews.

It’s a jalopy held together with intellectual baling wire and running on fear and bigotry, but Trump’s presidency is far from the first time it’s carried a right-wing “populist” where he wants to go.

What would a real populism look like? French writers Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer answered that question in the 19th century. The two classes that matter are the productive class (the “righteous masses” who earn their livings through voluntary labor and exchange) and the political class (the “power elites” who steal their livings through control of, or favors from, the organization of plunder, aka the state).

Race, national origin, language, sexual orientation, gender identity — none of these personal characteristics are relevant to a true populist orientation. The only truly meaningful class distinction is the state and its hangers-on versus the rest of us. Even Karl Marx (who stole class theory from Comte and Dunoyer then mutilated into a form that murdered millions) understood that the state is “the executive committee of the ruling class.”

Real populism is two things: It is left-wing, and it is libertarian. Trump is neither.

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