Governing Least: A Litany of Insight

Dan Moller’s Governing Least is packed with random insights and philosophic wit.  Some highlights:

Why so much political philosophy sounds desperate:

Only those already unsympathetic to utilitarianism are likely to be swayed by Rawls’s brief observations. Those who begin their political philosophy by defending the morality of rights don’t so much preach to the choir as exorcize the elect.

Why so much political philosophy sounds so blind:

The reason France does not require aid is not because some external group took pity on the French, but that they were able to generate exponential economic growth themselves. This makes it puzzling that philosophers write long books about aid without mentioning economic growth, and generally seem to imply that the path to escaping poverty lies through individual altruism. Why ignore the only mechanism that has ever succeeded in lifting millions of people out of poverty when thinking about poverty?

A great explanation of the Theory of the Second-Best:

Suppose that a company enjoys monopoly powers that we cannot immediately remove under the present regulatory regime, but that one of its upstart rivals enjoys a market- distorting state subsidy which we can remove. It is a fallacy to infer that market efficiency will be improved by at least killing the subsidy— the reverse may well be true— just as it is fallacious to reason that if our military lacks both bombs and bombers the second- best solution is at least to build the bombers.

Why predictable outcomes can co-exist with abundant opportunity:

The data on intergenerational mobility or its absence is sobering, to say the least. In the United States, sometimes this leads commentators to call into question the traditional self- conception of America as a “land of opportunity.” It’s hardly a land of opportunity if outcomes are determined at birth, runs the criticism.

Let us consider this reasoning in more detail. The critic seems to reason as follows: If there were anything like equality of opportunity, then we couldn’t predict outcomes at birth, but we can, and so the land of opportunity is a myth. Let us assume the standard to meet here isn’t exact equality of opportunity for every single citizen. Could there still be reasonably high levels of opportunity despite outcomes— including bad ones— being highly predictable from the start? The critic seems to assume the following principle:

Predictability defeats opportunity: if we are able to specify social outcomes with a high degree of accuracy in advance, then the people in question cannot enjoy much opportunity.

Why accept this principle? What is it that connects predictability and opportunity? The obvious answer is that we think we know enough about people to be confident that if they did enjoy opportunities, they wouldn’t exercise them in a way that leads to bad social outcomes. The fact that we know that Smith will end up poor in all likelihood suggests that he is powerless to avoid it, since if he were capable of influencing the outcome, then he would. This amounts to another, deeper principle:

Predictability is evidence of incapacity: the fact that we can predict poor social outcomes is evidence that those who experience them lack a capacity for avoiding them.

Another way of putting the matter is that a fixed proportion of poor outcomes might be bad, but it wouldn’t be bad for reasons of diminished opportunity, since it might be the case that there are going to be winners and losers in anything resembling a free society, and as long as everyone has a fair shot at being a winner, things aren’t so bad. (No doubt more would need to be said about what “losing” amounts to for us to feel reassured.) What is terrible about predictability is that the losers aren’t just random, but never had a chance. Because predictability is evidence of incapacity, we know that those with poor outcomes never had a chance to succeed, and a fortiori they lacked anything like an equal or reasonable opportunity for success.

The problem is that it isn’t true that predictability, in itself, is evidence of incapacity, that outcomes are beyond our control. I don’t want to deny in the end that certain forms of incapacity do play a role in social outcomes, but how much is far from settled, and by opening with the assumption that predictability implies incapacity, we go wrong from the start. The fundamental confusion is between the epistemic question of what we can say about the future and the metaphysical question of what people are able to do at a given time in given circumstances. There are various fancy examples to illustrate this in the free- will literature, but for our purposes we can stick to some everyday examples:

Rope line: at the airport, we predict with great confidence that people will walk along a particular circuitous path— the one laid out by the velvet ropes. Nevertheless, the passengers are free to step over the ropes any time they like. It’s just that hardly anyone does. Predictability here doesn’t imply incapacity, it’s just that the passengers all have reason to exercise their freedom in a certain way.
Victim-blaming is (often) question-begging:
[I]t sounds mean to claim that people generally have a capacity to influence social outcomes when thinking about the poor, a bit like victim-blaming. But such a denial would involve insisting that something like the following claims are generally true (readers are invited to imagine these in the mouths of their own children facing unfavorable social circumstances, such as a lousy school system):
• “I can’t help it that I skipped class.”
• “It wasn’t possible to do my homework.”
• “I had no control over whether I had children.”
• “There was no way I could have worked this past year.”
It is important to acknowledge that for some people, these statements will be true. Mothers have children due to rape, classes go unattended because of gunfire or violence in the school, recessions destroy employment opportunities even for those who are highly qualified and persevering and willing to accept low wages. The point isn’t that all poor social outcomes are blameworthy, but that most (not all) people can exercise an enormous amount of influence over whether they lead a decent life in the developed world, even when ignorance or other internal impediments bar the way.
Governing Least is so packed with insight that I could easily have made this post three times longer.  Read it and see for yourself!
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What If You Killed the What-Ifs?

I was talking to a friend this morning who was in a bad place. He’d forgotten to do some work over the weekend, and he wondered how to handle the inevitable let down when his supervisor found out.

He asked what he should do. I asked what his options were.

He said there were two. He could try to fake that he’d done the work and do a terrible job on his deliverables. Or he could preemptively fess up, say sorry, and ask how best to make it up this week.

I said option two sounded like it had a higher probability of limiting the damage than option one.

He responded with a series of ‘What ifs’. He was imagining all the bad things that might happen. I said okay, what about option one? Same what ifs.

I asked him if he could control what the supervisor did in response to whatever approach he chose. He said no. I said, “Then forget the what ifs. They are irrelevant. They’ll happen regardless. Focus on what you can control and pick the course of action with the highest probability for the least painful outcome. Then stop thinking about it.”

He felt paralyzed by the what ifs. Stressing over eventualities he couldn’t control froze his decision making process. He was going to default to option one, not because he thought it was better, but because he never had time to think clearly and choose due to all the worry about what might happen two steps down the road.

Kill the what ifs. Take the step in front of you based on the best evidence you have. See what happens. Take in the feedback. Adjust. Choose the next step.

That’s it. It really is that simple. But it’s hard. We worry a lot about many things out of our control, or only potentially in our control in the future based on a series of responses out of our control.

If you want less stress, think about fewer things. But think about them well.

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The History of History

It would be interesting, though very difficult, to study how history changes.

I don’t mean how the sequence of human events changes from the present into the future, I mean how the past changes. Since it exists only in memory from our present perspective, the stories we believe about the past are the past. But those stories aren’t fixed. They change all the time.

I’ve seen some books and studies that look at a few historical events and document the ways in which history textbooks dealt with them in, say, the 1950s vs today. The changes are often dramatic, but presented in a deadpan Orwellian fashion as if it has always been this way, nevermind what we used to say.

And it is of course true that history is mostly written by those on reasonably favorable terms with the dominant political powers. When those change, histories also change.

Imagine if the German army had won World War II, or the Soviet Union had won a nuclear showdown with the United States. Do you think the dominant historical narrative would be the same? Not only would the telling of those conflicts be different, but the story of all previous history would be different. There is little reason to believe our current historical story is any less biased.

And in most cases, you can’t easily go to the evidence to prove which version is true. Evidence is scant. Most of history, especially ancient history, is based on one or two fragments or artifacts that get translated by one or two people who then get referenced by others who get referenced. If you wanted to find out whether a particular ancient figure was real, you might find the best you could get was someone who wrote a story about them, and it’s unclear whether the story was intended as fiction. There is no harder evidence for many things in history.

This does not make history a scandal or conspiracy, but it ought to cause humility. It needn’t cause paranoia about being lied to. In fact, I find it thrilling. It means the world is full of so much more mystery than we assume if we simply accept dominant narratives as provably true.

It is useful to think probabilistically about history (and everything else). If you experience something firsthand, you can be certain it happened. If a trusted friend relays a story, you might be slightly less certain. By the time you’re hearing fifteenth-hand someone referencing an nineteenth century scholar’s belief about when the Sumerians built the Ziggurats based on one type of textual analysis, the probability is it totally accurate should be a lot lower.

In Orwell’s dystopia, history gets changed by the politically powerful at moments notice by changing the official story. While I do think it’s easier than most of us assume to change the dominant historical narrative, it takes a lot more than changing some government documents or publicly funded textbooks. Academics and professional historians are the easier part. Artists and novelists are the more important part.

When you think about the American West, or Ancient Egypt, or Medieval Europe, you have a lot of ideas that are pretty coherent and consistent with other people’s ideas about these things. While most are not contradicted by history books, they didn’t originate there. It’s not the source material that causes us to believe historical narratives as much as it is the fictional narratives built on top of it. Even though we know A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is a fictional narrative (built on top of another at least mostly fictional narrative of Arthur), the historical setting becomes a little more real in our brain every time a fictional story uses it as a backdrop.

A handful of movies like Jurassic Park that portray dinosaurs as predecessors to birds probably do more to make that part of the historical narrative than whatever studies or researchers they are referencing.

On the one hand, the power of art and fiction to shape our beliefs about the past is a bit troubling. I takes very little evidence from very few sources for a bunch of stories to spin up and make us believe things with higher probability than warranted, simply because it is repeated in so many stories on top of stories.

On the other hand, it’s cause for comfort. It’s empowering. I means an Orwellian regime is going to have a harder time controlling the past. Sure, they can handle the subsidy-sucking professoratti, but to control the narratives of all the artists and story-tellers? A Herculean task. In fact, the inability to control rebel creatives has brought down many a dictatorship.

History is not a fixed thing. Our knowledge is so slim. This makes probabalistic thinking important. It makes the stories we tell important. It makes the lenses through which we view the past important.

History has a history. The way it’s presented today might not be better than it once was or could be. It’s useful to think about ways it might better be told and understood.

(Bonus: Here’s a great video on ways of seeing the past.)

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We’re Undecided Now, So What’re We Gonna Do?

Nobody asked but …

Reading, er listening to another audio book as written by James Bamford, Body of Secrets (subtitle: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency, from the Cold War through the Dawn of a New Century).  This is a belated follow-through on a published citation from Radley Balko.  I recommend the book highly both for the content on the stated subject, but more importantly for me, the implications about the basic nature of the state and its bureaucracy.  Sometimes Bamford supplies a heavy load of detail, but I honestly could not omit any of them.

This is a paraphrasing of Bamford’s account of the NSA during Nixon’s years — Nixon issued a directive approving of the most aggressive delineation of the USA’s meddling powers.  Some such as the NSA were delighted because it reinforced what they were already doing, while others such as the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover were outraged because it revealed what they were already doing.  Five days later AG Mitchell talked Nixon into rescinding the directive as problematic under the Constitution.  Most in the cloak and dagger community were unaware of either directive.  Why?  Bureaucrats and their bureaus are born out of the spoils system, not out of concepts of good governance.  The ideation of any plan is to serve a special interest, to intervene where we have previously chosen, through logic or care or neglect, NOT to intervene.  Write it down!

The concern arises that 99 and 44/100ths% of the agenda of agencies are out of the control of anyone.  There is a “set it and forget it” syndrome with them all.  I have been in close proximity to the state, man and boy, for over 7 decades (haven’t we all, for varying lengths of time?), and I have never seen a bureau go out of existence.  Please tell me I am wrong, please, I beg you.  Though many instruments of the rulers are obsolete, they are no longer connected to their founding justification, and/or were never connected to their founding justification.

Obviously, the chief attribute of any society of human beings is to foul its own nest.

— Kilgore Forelle

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Awareness Often First Step Towards Liberty

People are often their own worst enemies. They listen to those they should ignore or laugh at while they ignore (or laugh at) those they should listen to. It’s always been the same.

Harriet Tubman, the 19th Century abolitionist, is quoted as saying, “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed more if only they knew they were slaves.”

It’s the libertarian’s dilemma. People don’t like to notice their chains even when that’s about all it would take to break them. It’s too painful to admit they aren’t as free as they should be, so they don’t.

No one can free you; it’s up to you to free yourself. If someone takes the chains off of you, unless you make up your mind to be free you’ll help put the chains back on the first time you get a little scared or hungry.

You’ll enslave yourself because you fear immigrants you imagine taking jobs you don’t have and don’t want.

You’ll enslave yourself to keep a neighbor from doing things they want to do but you don’t want them to do. Even when they don’t violate you in any way, you’ll violate yourself just to control them.

If it makes you angry to be told you aren’t nearly as free as you imagine; that your liberty is systematically violated every minute of your life by those who tell you how free you are, here’s another quote you need to hear; this one from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.”

Your body is yours; no one has a higher claim to it. If you can be prohibited from ingesting something — whether it’s sugar, Cannabis, or bacon — you aren’t free. If you can be forced to act against your interests when doing what you want wouldn’t violate anyone, you aren’t free.

The property you’ve gotten through mutually consensual arrangements with others is yours. If anyone else can claim your property — through such government actions as taxation, licenses, eminent domain, or even property codes — you aren’t free.

If you won’t work to be free — to throw off your chains — when it would be relatively safe and easy, what will you do when it becomes hard? Will you resign your children’s children to an intrusive, controlling police state?

If you go along to get along today, you’ve already answered the question.

You’ve chosen chains over scary liberty.

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This One Weird Trick for Legalizing Marijuana

Governor Andrew Cuomo “insisted Monday (April 1) that New York will pass a law to legalize recreational pot before the Legislature adjourns in June,” The New York Post reports. He’s been promising legalization for some time. Many New Yorkers had hoped the measure would be included in this year’s state budget.

What’s the hold-up? “You still need to control and regulate,” says Cuomo. “You don’t want 14-year-olds having access to marijuana, so how you do it is frankly the tougher part of the equation. In the rush of the budget, we couldn’t do it intelligently.”

News flash for Governor Cuomo and New York’s legislators (and for politicians in all the other states lagging the legalization trend): Those 14-year-olds already have access to marijuana. So does everyone else.

Sure, the price of “illegal” marijuana might be slightly higher than the price of “legal” marijuana (to make the profits worth the risk of going to jail), but anyone who wants a bag of weed can get one in a New York minute.

And they’ll still be able to get it after legalization, no matter what byzantine regulatory schemes the politicians come up with and no matter how solemnly they aver that those schemes are “for the chilllllldren.”

Here’s a weird trick for legalizing marijuana:

Legalize marijuana.

Yes, that’s really all there is to it.

If you feel some irrational need to “protect the children” from a plant, set an age limit. Problem solved.

Yes, they’ll ignore it.  Just like they ignore the age limits on alcohol and tobacco. They’ll ignore it even if you only allow it to be sold in licensed facilities. They’ll get fake IDs, or find helpful adults, or just buy it on the black market like they do now. They’ll ignore it, and they’ll ignore you. But hey, knock yourself out.

Confused about how to tax marijuana? Fine — DON’T tax it. Or at least don’t tax it any differently than any other similar plant. Deem it a non-taxable food, or a taxable confection, or a taxable houseplant. There, you’re done.

There’s nothing complicated about this. People have used marijuana for millennia. New Yorkers have used marijuana since there have been New Yorkers. They’re using marijuana now and they’ll be using marijuana a hundred years from now.

The only relevant question is whether or not they should go to jail for using it.

The only correct answer to that question is no, they shouldn’t.

Legalize it, New York. All you other states, too. Let’s get this silly war on a plant over with. The plant won. The plant has never not been winning. Surrender already. It’s good policy, it’s good politics, and it’s just the right thing to do.

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