Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Excellent thoughts by Matt Yglesias

If more folks on the left thought like this, I'd be much more likely to consider myself on the left- albeit with some serious disagreements. Call me an idiot, a reactionary, or whatever, but I still suspect that a lot of lefties are overemphasizing the importance of climate change, and tending to overlook the enormous humanitarian importance of economic development and immigration liberalization. Still, (liberal) libertarians ought to take folks like Matt Yglesias really seriously.

Monday, April 26, 2010

An email I sent to some of my students, as part of an ongoing conversation

Hey Remy, Jack, et al,
Let me explain my (tentative) position that the notion of filial piety is irrational and evil. This is pretty strong language, I realize, so I think I ought to provide some reasons for it.
I believe one of the necessary steps toward improving society is for at least some people to escape the confines of traditional, parochial morality and embrace a more universalist morality. In my reading of history, substantial moral progress has been made through a minority of people who sought to expand the sphere of who counted as morally equal or relevant. Examples include Gandhi, the civil rights movement, and the anti-war movement. Connected with this idea, for me, is the idea of individual autonomy and recognition of supremacy of reason over authority.
In contrast, parochial morality always emphasizes the moral superiority of ones particular group, and by extension, tends to endow groups leaders with higher moral authority. I take filial piety to be a parochial and authoritarian way of thinking. I believe this method of thinking and social organization has several negative effects:
It allows some people to assert broad authority over others, thus limiting their freedom and, hence, their happiness. There is no place in Confucianism to really question authority, nor any official means to remedy abuse of authority. (Always remember the famous bit from Lord Acton: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.")
It limits the moral imagination and individual reason, and thus makes people less likely to cooperate with and help more distant people, with all the benefits that can bring (expansion of trade, humanitarian work, etc.)
It tends to make people more conservative in their lifestyle and career choices (because they do what their parents tell them to), thus inhibiting economic and cultural innovation and diversification, which are key to a more prosperous, free society.
I think the forces of economic development tend to, fortunately for us, encourage more universalist and individualist morality. I think, however, that individual advocacy can still play an important role. So those of us who want to see more of this sort of morality and thinking ought to stand up for it.
I should make clear that this way of thinking in no way means that people shouldn't care at all about their families- there are many good reasons to do that, and I certainly do. The issue here is what we see morality as being, what purpose it serves, and where moral authority comes from. I suppose you could say I think we need more enlightenment morality and less Confucian morality.
To that point, it's a total falsity that the ideas of the Enlightenment are something you find only in the west. Confucianism is taken by most Chinese to represent "Chinese morality", but in Confucius' own time and thereafter there were, as you know, a many thinkers espousing a variety of ideas. It was only through the endorsement of the Han Dynasty that Confucianism became established as "Chinese morality" (though there of course was precedence in ancestor worship and other practices). I would encourage Chinese people to explore this heritage of diverse and rich ideas. Culture is a dynamic process, and just because a certain way of thinking predominated in the past does not mean that it must or ought to predominate in the future. Of course, being an anti-nationalist and individualist, I think you should take wisdom wherever you find it. :-)
Peace and Love,

Saturday, April 24, 2010

My feeble attempts to promote civil discourse

A message I sent this morning to Matthew Yglesias (or whoever looks at messages sent through his blog:
Mr. Yglesias,
I'd like to make a suggestion: You have a lot of insightful and important things to say. Do you think it's constructive to engage in as much snark as you do? It seems to me like it serves to rile up people who are on your ideological side, and I suppose I could see some constructive purpose in doing that. But I would suggest we'd all be better off if political discourse was based more on humane and rational conversation and a shared commitment to building consensus about justice and finding the truth. I see your point that the right often represents entrenched power, and it may be necessary to struggle against that. But what about people like me, basically of liberal sympathies but not allied to the left per se, who are turned off by this tone of discourse? What about thoughtful and humane conservatives that might actually be convinced to change their policy positions? I guess it seems to me like your considerable talents and moral decency might be better served in a more consensus building, persuading, and a less base-riling, partisan role. I'll keep reading your blog, but the bitterness will often leave me a bit sad, and thinking you could be doing better.
Nico Dornemann

I also attempted to submit a comment on a Connor Friedersdorf post at The American Scene, but I closed the tab before hitting "submit". I'm an idiot sometimes.

The tribalism, jingoism, and nastiness that so often characterizes political discourse makes me sad. More important, I think it serves little constructive purpose- though I understand there are coherent arguments that it does. Shall I try to summarize them? OK.

One argument for partisan tribalism is that, given human nature, it's a good way to organize people into coalitions, which allows them to collectively reach goals. If people where more inclined to individualism, questioning their assumptions, always looking for new evidence, etc. they would not form coalitions and better organized, perhaps more sinister factions would get their way.

I guess that's the only argument I can think of right now (gotta get more sleep!!!). That strikes me as a plausible argument, and I can't say that it's wrong. I'd only submit that there are obvious costs to partisanship (group think, mob mentality, etc) and that there may be a possibility for an alternative strategy for liberal-minded folks, one that, in fact, many smart people seem to follow: Make arguments in good faith, don't be nasty to people, but always try to persuade them. If you think someone is acting in bad faith, first, give them the benefit of the doubt, then, if that fails, state clearly that you believe they aren't arguing in good faith, and continue to make your arguments to receptive audiences. If your views are correct, you will persuade people, and, in a reasonably democratic system (I would count the U.S. here), people will vote according to that view.

A possible counterargument is that some people will only vote out of anger, so, in order to piece together the coalition you need to win, you need to fuel the anger of these people. Again, I can't say that's wrong. I'd reply that you can win new converts by convincing people, and you'd be contributing to a culture of more civil discourse, which would ultimately benefit us all.

I suppose ideological coalitions actually contain people engaging in both strategies. So there are lefties who are paragons of civility, and those who sling mud with relish (ditto on the right, of course). It's possible that a coalition should want to have both types. So those who want all civility and no nastiness have to make the case that our model really is better by most folks' standards. Alas, Robin Hanson is probably right that politics isn't about policy, the we may first have to get more people to actually care about policy, or convince those who don't to focus on other status-based activities, such as World or Warcraft.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Why Bryan Caplan is (mostly) wrong

...about this (followed up here). I say "mostly" because you could interpret what he says as saying that, while greater wealth and social freedom matter, from a libertarian perspective we have to define 'freedom' narrowly.

I see some merit to this argument, in so far as it's a response to the left, who, in the name of "freedom" encourage more and more government intervention, which often just benefits some at the expense of others, or worse. Still, though, I'd have to come down on the side that says that we should understand freedom broadly, and that, by such a conception, most people, certainly women, are more free than they were in 1880.

It's possible to make the case that freedom from oppressive social pressure is essential to a robust freedom, but that, in order to preserve other essential liberties, we're better off respecting freedom of speech and association in the law. At the same time, it's consistent with libertarian principles to act as a private citizen to influence the culture to make it more tolerant (indeed, my libertarian principles push me to do so). I suppose many libertarians won't go for this stance, but I also suspect, ala Will Wilkinson, that there are a lot of people with basically libertarian sensibilities who are turned off by the more conservative, rightish flavor of current "mainstream" libertarianism. As Caplan always says, truth comes first, but I'd suggest my take is closer to the truth.

P.S. I suppose Caplan could also agree with me on this- and I'm misunderstanding his point. He may just be talking about libertarian as a political agenda, and that a more limited negative rights conception of liberty is what fits into that agenda. I suppose that would make sense, though he seems to be talking about a broader, more philosophical libertarianism.

P.P.S. This makes me think about how we think about rights. I think it's only productive to think of rights in a narrow, institutional sense. That is, right are that which will maximize human flourishing if states recognize them as rights and act in the way that states normally do to protect rights (is that just obvious?). There are plenty of things that I consider essential to human flourishing, and I'd be pretty content to call them "rights" in a broad moral sense, but which we shouldn't try to enforce as institutionalized rights. In addition to freedom from certain kinds of social pressure, I'd also include a sense of one's life having meaning, and many others. Other things simply seem impossible to guarantee in a non-arbitrary way- health care comes to mind (How much health care are we entitled to? I haven't heard a satisfactory answer so far). Part of the problem is that people think of rights in terms of absolutes. But scarcity exists, so we have to think about how to allocate scarce resources at the margin to solve real problems. There is such a thing as devoting too many resources to protecting essential rights.