Appeasing Robin Hanson’s Critics

Appeasement is greatly underrated.  As I’ve explained before:

Didn’t the Munich Agreement prove for all time that appeasement doesn’t work?  Hardly.  Despite its well-hyped failures, appeasement is an incredibly effective social strategy for dealing with the unreasonable and the unjust… also known as 90% of mankind.  Whenever someone makes bizarre demands upon me, my default is not to argue.  Instead, I weigh the cost of compliance.  If that cost is small – and it usually is – I let the babies have their way.  If you bump into me in the grocery store, I say “Sorry.”

Doesn’t that open the floodgates to additional demands?  Not in my experience.  One symbolic gesture is enough to placate most of the unpleasant characters I encounter.  After my concession, we usually go our separate ways.  And even when I repeatedly interact with the same unreasonable, unjust person, at least my appeasement makes it hard for them to imagine that they have to get back at me for my past wrongs.

Despite their scorn, almost everyone knows that appeasement works.  How do I know this?  Because everyone appeases to cope with social realities.  Recall your day.  Did you experience some unreasonable, unjust treatment?  Probably.  If so, did you escalate the conflict until reason and justice prevailed?  Probably not.  Why not?  Because it would be a Pyrrhic victory, likely to leave you unemployed and alone.

But I have to confess: When Twitter lashed out at Robin Hanson last week for asking a perfectly reasonable question, my emotional reaction was, “These people cannot be appeased!  We must not yield a single inch to this mob!”  And it wasn’t hard to construct a superficially solid argument to support this emotional reaction.  Namely:

1. Robin’s question was reasonable.

2. His tone was not only polite, but friendly.

3. Virtually everyone who knows Robin personally vouches for his sincerity and kindness.  Several (including me) were happy to publicize this information.

4. His critics’ main reaction was still personal abuse, condemnation, publicly “taking offense,” etc.

5. Faced with people so unfair and so unreasonable, isn’t escalation the only viable option?

Could I be wrong about (1), (2), (3), or (4)?  I doubt it.  But on reflection, there is so much that (5) is missing.

First and foremost, it forgets about the audience.  In any debate, you’re officially talking to your opponents, but it’s quixotic to imagine you’re going to persuade them.  In reality, you’re trying to persuade spectators.  And as the story of Jesus so famously reveals, calmly enduring abuse, returning good for ill, looks good to spectators.  I don’t know how many people Robin persuaded, but he would have persuaded far fewer if he lost his cool and treated his opponents the way they treated him.

Second, the argument against appeasement ignores long-run persuasion.  You’re not going to persuade people when they’re upset.  But eventually, many people will calm down.  Once they do, they’re more likely to reconsider their original position if you acted nobly throughout.

Third, long-run persuasion is especially important in the face of a moral panic – and the social justice movement seems a prime example.  In such situations, (a) many people are only upset because other people are upset, and (b) many current abusers will eventually find themselves among the abused (as in “The revolution devours its young.”)  I would not be surprised if some of Robin’s more prominent critics eventually find themselves on the wrong side of “their side.”  By appeasing these critics today, returning good for ill, you raise the likelihood that when they’re unfairly treated, they’ll consider the possibility that they treated others unfairly in the past.

If that ever happens, I’ll welcome them with open arms.  Knowing Robin, he’ll do the same.  Appeasement is far from fool-proof, but commitment to it really does pay off.

P.S. Wouldn’t real appeasement just be to lie, “What I fool I was, you’re absolutely right” – or just to remain silent in the first place?  The answer, of course, is that appeasement is a continuum.  When I say appeasement is overrated, I’m not claiming that you should go to the endpoint.

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On Politics V

Politics is the use of violence in society. Which is the greater evil: 1) the vices you may oppose, such as drug use, alcohol use, sex work, praying to the wrong god, sketchy business practices, et cetera, or 2) threatening violence and imprisonment against those who engage in whatever it is you consider vice? How you answer that question will determine what kind of person you are. Are you the kind of person to consider vice the bigger evil than violence? Or are you the kind of person to recognize the myriad evils of vice, but prefer non-violent methods of eradication, methods such as persuasion, ostracism, boycott, public protest, deplatforming, and shaming? Whichever type of person you are, how willing are you to personally engage in your preferred type of eradication, violent or non-violent? Or are you too much of a coward to do it yourself? That speaks to your character as well. Think long and hard about what behaviors you dislike and what you’re willing to do about them. Then remember that as you sow, so shall you reap. Good luck. And that’s today’s two cents.

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Trump’s Foreign Policy War on Americans

Beyond any reasonable doubt, in substance if not in appearance, Donald Trump is a thoroughly conventional American politician. It’s a wonder that anyone requires proof at this late date.

This couldn’t be more clear in foreign policy. Some of us who understand the links among freedom, durable prosperity, and a noninterventionist foreign policy always doubted the sincerity of Trump’s occasional renegade soundbites during his presidential campaign. But some fantasists fell for them, and they refuse to let go of their tissue-thin hope that this execrable man will liquidate the American empire. Nothing will convince them, so efforts at persuasion are futile.

The funny thing is that Trump himself seems to be working hardest to persuade those supporters that he has no intention of changing U.S. foreign policy. He would no more liquidate America’s global empire than liquidate his global business empire. Alas, America is not going anywhere. Sure, he may hector imperial allies to spend more on their militaries (while insisting he respects their sovereignty), but that’s just a show. He’s an all-in imperialist, so we shouldn’t be fooled by the staged populism that sometimes is mistaken for come-home-Americanism. America First in practice embodies George H. W. Bush’s summation of America’s foreign policy: “What we say goes.”

As Glenn Greenwald writes about Trump’s disgusting relationship with Saudi Arabia, it’s “a perfect example — perhaps stated a little more bluntly and candidly than usual — of how the U.S. has conducted itself in the world since at least the end of World War II.”

Forgive me for repeating myself: Trump is a caricature of a conventional American politician — which is why the political establishment despises him so. He lacks the diplomatic costume that makes brutality acceptable or at least enables people to live comfortably with their heads in the sand. But he’s just another faithful defender of the empire, and as such, he needs an enemy. In fact, he has plenty; take your choice: China, Iran, — and, yes — Russia. If someone thinks North Korea is a counterexample, I can only laugh. He has friends too: Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, assorted right-wing politicians. (He is indifferent to what appears to be the barbaric state murder of Jamal Khashoggi, giving the crown prince an out by calling Khashoggi an “enemy of the state” and a Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer. He also praises the kingdom for lowering oil prices. Does he not know how stupid and naive that sounds? Or does he merely believe his fans are stupid and naive?)

Markers of his devotion to the empire include big boosts in military (please, not defense) spending; his doubling down on the endless Middle East wars; his insane withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, which Reagan and Gorbachev struck in a major step away from the Cold War; continued expansion of NATO (which he pretends to disdain), and his arming of the fascist-infested Ukrainian government.

The latest exhibit in the case confirming Trump as a conventional American politician comes from the New York Times. It reported yesterday that the current White House occupant is doing what presidents have done at least since the onset of the Cold War: insisting that countries have no choice but to side with the United States or with one of its perceived enemies, in this case, China.

“The rivalry, which has reached a new pitch and scope, is now centered on the trade war that President Trump started this year [which is actually a war on Americans],” the Times reported. “But tensions have also sharpened over a broad range of diplomatic and military issues, like Taiwan, the South China Sea and economic sanctions on North Korea and Iran.

“Across the globe the United States and China are jockeying to build alliances or partnerships and shut out the other power.”

That China plays such games is not a good reason for the Trump administration to do so. The Chinese want to sell to us, not annihilate us. However, China’s moves are easily seen as responses to Trump’s aggressive measures in its neighborhood. For every pro-detente member of the administration, there seemingly are two members who think war with China is inevitable. For Trump, trade has nothing to do with individual freedom and prosperity. It’s just part of the arsenal with which to wage war against perceived rivals and reward friends. A charge of “unfair trade practices” is one of the first refuges of scoundrels.

Viewed as a whole, Trump’s foreign policy is nothing but inimical to individual liberty, peace, long-term prosperity, and the right of Americans and others to pursue their private lives beyond the reach of meddlesome rulers. As the Jeffersonian Abraham Bishop said in 1800: “A nation that makes greatness its polestar can never be free.”

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Anarchism and Kavanaugh

Regarding Brett Kavanaugh, I’ve been wondering how I can blame the state for what we’ve endured these past weeks. I can safely say that without the state, we would have been spared the Kavanaugh episode.

Natural-law, pro-market anarchists are not utopians. To paraphrase the old hit: we beg your pardon; we never promised you a rose garden. Anarchism refers to a set of means — persuasion, consent, and voluntary cooperation — and not an end. It permits the emergence of solutions through a range of cooperative activities as opposed to the state’s imposition of one-size-fits-all alleged solutions from on high — from, say, Capitol Hill, our Mount Olympus.

But some things are less likely to occur in a stateless society than in a state-saturated one. And the Kavanaugh problem is one of those things.

Let’s start with the basics. Kavanaugh has been nominated for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. Supreme Court justices have lifetime jobs. While an impeachment process exists, it is close to impossible to remove a high official. Second, the Court’s rulings are the “supreme law of the land.” It takes just five of nine justices to set binding precedents, which lower federal and state courts obviously must apply. Third, parties who elect to take cases to the Court are stuck with whoever happens to be on the Court at the time. If a party has doubts about the character of one or more of the justices, tough luck. (This doesn’t mean the government’s courts are unavoidable for some people, as the popularity of private arbitration demonstrates.)

In light of these facts, I can’t think how a situation like the one created by Kavanaugh’s nomination could arise in a stateless society. No supreme court would exist because no monopoly legal system would exist. (See my “Of Bumblebees and Competitive Courts.”) Judges would not have guaranteed lifetime jobs. Nor would their rulings serve as binding (as opposed to persuasive) precedents. (On the emergence and downside of stare decisis, the doctrine of binding precedent, in the common law, see Todd Zywicki’s “The Rise and Fall of Efficiency in the Common Law: A Supply-Side Analysis.”)  Parties to disputes would, through mutually agreed-to procedures, choose anyone they wanted to hear their cases. This could happen ad hoc in one-off disputes, but the more common practice would likely be prospective arrangements among associations of various kinds, insurance, defense, and so on.

As I say, it’s hard to imagine how the Kavanaugh situation could arise under anarchism. Parties looking for members of an arbitration panel usually could strike from consideration anyone about whom they had any doubts whatever. Other parties who had no concern about someone under a cloud like Kavanaugh’s could choose that person, subject to the conditions agreed to with fellow disputants. But, crucially, the choice to include or exclude such a person would have implications for only the parties to the specific dispute.

Obviously, prospective arbiters’ reputations, especially for fairness and honesty but not only those traits, would matter immensely. In effect, prospective arbiters would face a confirmation review — by disputants or their representatives — every day. A Supreme Court nominee does so just once. If the Senate errs, too bad. As mentioned, under the Constitution, justices “shall hold their offices during good behavior.” But in 229 years, Congress has never removed a justice. Only one, Samuel Chase in 1804, was impeached by the House, but he was acquitted by the Senate. in the 20th century, William O. Douglas and Abe Fortas escaped House impeachment votes, though hearings were either held (twice in Douglas’s case) or almost held (Fortas). Under anarchism, no impeachment process would be necessary because no one would be appointed to any judicial role except by parties to their own particular cases or by the associations or communities with which they chose to affiliate.

So a big advantage to anarchism is that it would blessedly spare us from the sort of repulsive spectacle we’ve lived through these last weeks — repulsive in an assortment of ways. I’m thinking now of that band of self-righteous frauds called senators and that amoral boor with the “really, really large brain” who imagine themselves to be guardians of the people’s welfare when in truth they are impediments to it. Imagine a society in which, for most of us, nothing much hinged on whether Brett Kavanaugh or Christine Blasey Ford is telling the truth.

Anarchism’s looking pretty good now, isn’t it? I know that some people are frightened by that word, but they ought not to be. Rather, they ought to think of anarchism as Roderick Long presents it in his critical look at the recent exchange over anarchism that took place at Reason. Long tells us that anarchism amounts to little more than an expansion to all areas of life of the manner in which we typically deal with one another today, thereby shrinking the sphere of coercive relationships until it disappears. He draws on earlier thinkers to make the point:

Recall Gustav Landauer’s famous formulation: “The state is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behavior; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another.” And another anarchist, Paul Goodman, has noted: “A free society cannot be the substitution of a ‘new order’ for the old order; it is the extension of spheres of free action until they make up most of social life.”

So, just imagine a world where you could ignore, among many others I could name, Lindsey Graham, Jeff Flake, Dianne Feinstein, and Donald Trump. To quote Louis Armstrong, “What a wonderful world it would be.”

(For discussions of law under anarchism, see Roderick Long’s essays “Why Objective Law Requires Anarchy,” “Libertarian Anarchism: Responses to Ten Objections,” and “Market Anarchism as Constitutionalism”; John Hasnas’s “The Myth of the Rule of Law,” “The Depoliticization of Law,” “Toward a Theory of Empirical Natural Rights,” and “The Obviousness of Anarchism”; and David D. Friedman’s “A Positive Account of Rights.” Also see the chapter “The Constitution of Anarchy” in my America’s Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited. and Gary Chartier’s Anarchy and Legal Order.)

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For the Love of Reason

Far be it from me to divide humankind in two, but were I so inclined, I’d divide it into those who love reason and those who are indifferent if not outright hostile to it. Members of the first group adore the reasoning process and their own reasoning faculties. The others find the process burdensome and discomforting, something that threatens long-held beliefs and intuitions. When I say the members of the first group adore their own reasoning faculties, I do not mean that they are arrogantly confident in their intelligence or immunity from error. Quite the contrary: the love of reason contains within it humility, doubt, an awareness of one’s limits and fallibility, and a recognition of the inherently social nature of reason (and language) and the growth of knowledge.

The thing to read in this regard is John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, a paean to the free and competitive marketplace of ideas. Mill wished to establish that this marketplace was indispensable to learning or at least to approaching the truth. My favorite line, which admirably summarizes most of the little book, is this: “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.”

Taking that proposition to heart puts one in the right frame of mind to engage in argument. It’s tempting to approach an argument like a high-school debater: I have a proposition to defend, and, damn it, I intend to do just that. This need not imply a willingness to lie or to make dubious moves; rather, it merely implies an overinvestment in the proposition, a sense that, if I lose the argument, I have lost something big, something like a piece of myself. This is understandable. Beliefs form a worldview; a belief shaken is a worldview shaken, and that’s not easy to take. Losing could also mean being or feeling obligated to do things I would rather not do or stop doing things I’m fond of doing.

But, in my view, that’s a bad attitude. I try to think of argument the way I think of trade: both sides gain no matter how the interaction comes out. (Think of what John Stossel calls the “double thank you” moment that occurs at the store checkout counter.) How can that be?

Mill’s sentence tells us. If you “win” the argument — and you can do this even if the interlocutor doesn’t seem convinced — you will likely have learned more about your own position simply by hearing it criticized. Being required to answer counterarguments will prompt you to plumb the depths of the topic you’re exploring, and you are likely to think of things you might never have thought of otherwise. That’s good! You’ll know your own position better because you know at least some arguments against it. Since you don’t know whether other counterarguments exist, you can look forward to the next intellectual joust as an opportunity to find out.

On the other hand, if you “lose” the argument, you still gain because you have shed an erroneous belief and are now closer to acquiring knowledge that you lacked before the argument. That’s good too.

It’s win-win, just like trade.

I’m not saying the process is one of unmitigated joy. We human beings naturally become attached to our beliefs, intuitions, and conclusions. We can develop a proprietary interest in them. As a result, we are not eager to see them rendered worthless. The reasonable person is not one who never feels that attachment but rather one who puts the attachment aside for the sake of learning. Like an Aristotelian virtue, openness to intellectual challenge can become second nature as one strives to make a habit of it. Practice makes virtue, and discomfort fades.

It’s no coincidence that argument resembles trade: it’s a form of trade, even if it doesn’t always feel like one. The marketplace of ideas is like the marketplace of goods and services. (Of course, access to an idea can be a marketplace good.) In both cases, people assert propositions — goods embody propositions — and they’ll find out whether better alternatives are available. In the commercial marketplace, sellers present their case that their goods at the asking price offer the best way for potential buyers to accomplish their objectives. Competing sellers make counterarguments. Prospective buyers weigh the arguments, looking for flaws. Thus the epistemological case for a free market in goods and services is identical to the case for a free market in ideas. We learn important things about how to flourish that we would likely otherwise not learn. (This was Ludwig von Mises’s and F. A. Hayek’s argument against central economic planning.)

Finally, the libertarian philosophy of full individual liberty — which includes the right to justly acquired material objects — embodies the love of reason as I’ve described it. The libertarian ethic — the nonaggression principle or, as I prefer, obligation — holds that, if you deal with others, you ought to deal with them through reason, not just for their sake but for your own. Persuasion is the opposite of force, though I acknowledge that someone people’s discomfort with reason stems from their conflating the metaphorical compulsion of a good argument with the actual compulsion of a government command. The libertarian philosophy embraces Athens — reason and persuasion — over Jerusalem — revelation and commandment.

I think this provides a case for the free society that is in a sense Cartesian. Descartes of course wrote that one can doubt everything except the existence of doubt and the doubter. (I’m not saying I agree with Descartes.) Applying something like this method to ethics and politics, we may say that, while one may reasonably doubt propositions about how society ought to be constituted, one cannot reasonably doubt the value of doubt and thus the freedom to doubt.

So stated, my proposition might win something broad assent, so I’ll push it further. If one should have the freedom to doubt — call it the right to doubt — then one should also have the right to express doubt. Expressing it is necessary to ascertain if it is reasonable. And if one has the right to express doubt, one has the right to acquire the physical means of maintaining one’s life and of expressing doubt. I’m using right to mean a valid claim to be free from aggressive force and to defend against such aggression, so naturally one’s exercise of this right cannot entail the use of aggressive of force against others, who also have the right. Needless to say, respect for such rights will generate a variety of humane institutions.

Any doubters out there?

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The Law of the Instrument

What is your favorite tool? Is it so familiar or compelling that you are tempted to employ it in all contexts? The law of the instrument illustrates this tendency.

Tools are designed for specific uses.

  • Law for legal issues
  • Reason and logic for conceptual issues
  • Culture and freedom of association for values and preferences issues
  • Organizational management for governance issues
  • Philosophy for epistemological and ethical issues
  • Persuasion and service for educational and spiritual issues
  • Property rights and markets for scarcity issues
  • Power for productivity and self-defense issues
  • Measurement and statistics for information issues
  • Compassion and contribution for relationship issues
  • Technology for practical application issues

It is tempting to think “only X issues exist!” or “I can apply my favorite tool to all issues!” or “if I reframe an X issue as a Y issue, my favorite tool will be effective!”

However, power can’t solve preference problems any more than organizational management can solve spiritual problems or technology can solve relationship problems or compassion can solve scarcity problems or measurement can solve ethical problems.

Next time you encounter a problem, consider the context before you grab a hammer and start pounding away.

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