Category: Philosophy

Simple truths about power

These are all people who are connected to the power of government.

Either physically, i.e. economically, or emotionally—power. The dream of sharing power. The gender studies professor not only gets her money eventually from government, but she dreams of being part of a world-transforming enterprise.

Here, I agree with you. There is a dream that unites progressives and bureaucrats and wealthy technologists. And where does that dream come from?

It’s a dream peculiar to this class. Other classes have been united by different dreams.

Is it a substitute for religion?

Yes.

Is that its primary emotional charge?

Well, I don’t know about primary. Look, the primary element is, as we Christians were taught, pride. That is the sin of sins. There is nothing that moves human beings quite so much as the desire to be on top of other human beings.

That is from an interview with Angelo Codevilla.

My Conversation with Henry Farrell

An excellent episode, here is the audio and transcript.  We ranged far and wide, starting with Huawei and weaponized interdependence, moving later to the Facebook supreme court, Karl Polanyi, Ireland, and Gene Wolfe and Philip K. Dick.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Arguably, dominant firms are easier to regulate. And since you seem to favor some kinds of additional regulation on the major tech companies, does this mean we’re too worried about monopoly, that we actually want to keep around a few dominant firms, and that if we split them up into many small parts, there would be more chaos or more fake news or more privacy violations?

If some parts of what they do are bad, and you get more competition in the bad, don’t we just want to put in GDPR barriers to entry, not quite public utilities, but keep them big and fat and happy and somewhat not so dynamic, yes or no?

FARRELL: It depends on what you value.

COWEN: But what you value.

FARRELL: Yeah. Let me put the tradeoff to you this way. If you value security, if the highlight is on security, then the answer is, you probably want to keep big companies around because you’re going to want to impose broad standards. You’re going to want to create collective security goods, and the only actors that can really do that in a substantial way are big businesses of one sort or another.

If, alternatively, you value things like privacy and other kinds of rights, then you probably want to move towards an equilibrium in which there are far, far fewer big firms. So that’s where I see the fight being played out. I see the fight being played out between people who value security and people who value privacy. I think they point in somewhat different directions.

COWEN: And where are you on that spectrum?

FARRELL: Well, it depends on the time of the day, and I find myself —

COWEN: It is 2:22 p.m.

And:

FARRELL: Well, I guess the question for me is — and again, this is a wide open question because we simply don’t have enough good empirical research — but what is the relationship and the broader ecology between companies like 8chan and companies like Facebook? I suspect that companies like 8chan will be far, far less successful if there weren’t much bigger platforms like Facebook that they could effectively grow upon.

So here are the arguments, something as follows. If you think about 8chan, and if you think about 4chan before it, they were basically meme factories. They were basically these places where these bored individuals hung out. You also created these memes in a kind of process of frenzied Darwinian evolution, where you desperately want to make sure that whatever you had said was on the front page because otherwise it would disappear forever. So you’ve got this survival-of-the-fittest thing, where incredibly valuable or incredibly effective memes go out and begin to populate the entire space.

But you need two things for that to work. First of all, you need a process of generation, and secondly, you need some kind of process of dissemination. You need other platforms which have far greater reach, which can then allow for these memes to propagate through the atmosphere.

I suspect that if we were in a world in which everything was at the scale of 8chan, rather than having a mixture of companies at the scale of 8chan and companies at the scale of Facebook, that the likelihood of this stuff spreading and becoming epidemic across the entire community of internet users would be far, far less. Obviously, we would have other problems then. But I think that the problems that we would face would be a very, very different set of problems from the problems that we face in the current environment.

Finally:

FARRELL: Yes. [Gene] Wolfe misleads us systematically, and clearly Severian is not a reliable narrator, but then neither is Proust’s narrator either. I think that if you really want to understand where Wolfe comes from, it really is Proust. His writing style is Proustian. His concern with time, with how it is that time works, is quintessentially Proustian.

And you don’t look to Wolfe any more than you look to other science fiction for characterization. I don’t think that’s the particular strength. What you do look for is a kind of a sense of the world. And in Wolfe, in particular, he provides this real understanding of how it is that the workings of society, and interestingly, conservative understanding of the workings of society.

I think of him almost as being Proust in reverse. Proust is describing a world in which the modern world is overtaking aristocracy. And that clearly is one of the great problems of Proust, what is happening on the social level. You have all of these aristocratic understandings: the Merovingian, all of these histories, all of these castles, all of this wonderful art, and they are being replaced by the modern world with its telephones, with its electric lighting, and so on.

And how do you think about this? How would you try to preserve what was happening in the past? What Wolfe does, which I think is an extraordinarily interesting thing, which would be impossible for anybody who is not a science fiction writer, is to take that and to reverse this and to imagine a world in which modernity has disappeared.

Recommended!

What should I ask Shaka Senghor?

I will be having a Conversation with Shaka, no associated public event.  So what should I ask him?  Here is the main part of his Wikipedia page:

Shaka Senghor is director’s fellow of the MIT Media Lab, college lecturer, author, and was convicted of murder in American courts. As of October 2015, he also teaches a class as part of the Atonement Project, a partnership between him, the University of Michigan, and the MIT Media Lab. His memoir, Writing my Wrongs, was published in March 2016. Senghor was named to Oprah’s SuperSoul 100 list of visionaries and influential leaders in 2016.

And here is Shaka’s home page.  I thank you all in advance for your suggestions.

“Let’s Play Two!”

It is always difficult to figure out what influenced you as a child, but I commonly think back on this saying of baseball great Ernie Banks.  When a doubleheader was coming up, he said “It’s a great day for a ball game — let’s play two!”  This became a very well known phrase in baseball lingo.

It always seemed to me like a very good attitude.

If, ever in life, there was a chance to do more, or take on a new project, I would always think “Let’s Play Two!”

Here is an earlier Robin Hanson post on stamina.

Tyler Cowen on meritocracy

As economist (yes, Harvard-educated ) Tyler Cowen has quipped: “The best critiques of the meritocracy have come from those with extreme merit.”  I’ll come back to this puzzle later, for it’s one that Markovits’s book, like others in the genre, doesn’t fully explore.

That is from Kay S. Hymowitz, reviewing a new book critical of meritocracy.

The ebb and flow of political correctness doctrine

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

What caused the P.C. movement to stall after the ‘90s? One theory is that it was due to two particular events. First, a Democratic president was impeached for his sexual conduct with an intern. That made the left (at least temporarily) less interested in rooting out and punishing all abuses of power. Second, the attacks of Sept. 11, and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, created a new and different focal point for activist energy: first anti-terror, then anti-war.

The history of political correctness also shows that ideas can have a long genesis, as this essay by Musa al-Gharbi illustrates. The idea of sensitivity training, for instance, was created by Kurt Lewin in 1946-47, and later popularized by Carl Rogers in 1961. The notion of “safe spaces” started in gay and lesbian bars in the mid-1960s. The term “microaggressions” comes from Chester Pierce in 1974. It is possible that the phrase “identity politics” comes from the Combahee River Collective Statement of 1977.

The lesson here is clear: If you are dealing in the world of ideas, play the long game — don’t be too discouraged by momentary setbacks. For all the talk of America having a throwaway culture that moves rapidly from one idea to the next, the history of political correctness does not support that vision. It is possible for people to promote and sustain ideas to give them resonance and influence.

Please note I am trying to learn from the history of the movement, and it is not the point of this column to condemn it excesses (which are very real).

What should I ask Ted Gioia?

I will be doing a Conversation with Ted, no associated public event.  He is a musician and most of all a music historian, above all for jazz and blues, with numerous excellent books on those topics.

Here is his home page.  Here is Ted on Twitter, one of the very best follows.  Here is his latest book Music: A Subversive History, due out next week.  And there is more:

Gioia was raised in a Sicilian-Mexican household in Hawthorne, California, a working class neighborhood in the South-Central area of Los Angeles. Gioia was valedictorian and a National Merit Scholar at Hawthorne High School, and attended Stanford University. There he received a degree in English (graduating with honors and distinction), served as editor of Stanford’s literary magazine, Sequoia, and wrote regularly for the Stanford Daily.  He was a member of Stanford’s College Bowl team, which was featured on television, and defeated Yale in the national finals. Gioia also worked extensively as a jazz pianist during this period, and designed and taught a class on jazz at Stanford while still an undergraduate.

After graduation, Gioia received a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University, where he graduated with first class honors. He then received an MBA from Stanford University.

Gioia has enjoyed successes in the worlds of music, writing and business. In the business world, Gioia has consulted to Fortune 500
companies while working for McKinsey and the Boston Consulting Group.  He helped Sola International complete an LBO and IPO on the New York Stock Exchange in the 1990s.  He has undertaken business projects in 25 countries on five continents, and has managed large businesses (up to $200 million in revenues). While working amidst the venture capital community on Sand Hill Road in Silicon Valley, Gioia stood out from the crowd as the “guy with the piano in his office.”

His knowledge of varied musical genres is virtually without parallel.  So what should I ask Ted?

*Joker*

I read so many scathing — forgive me long and thorough and scathing — reviews of this one that I figured something had to be up.  And indeed there is.  However unpleasant and disturbing this movie may be, it is excellent along all major dimensions of cinematic quality, including drama, script, characterization, performances, cinematography, color, music, and more, not to mention embedded cinematic references.

But here is the catch: it is the most anti-Leftist movie I have seen, ever.  It quite explicitly portrays the egalitarian instinct as a kind of barbaric violent atavism, and it is pointedly critical of Antifa and related movements, showing them as representing a literal end of civilization.  Only the wealthy are genteel and urbane and proper.  On crime and law and order, it is right-wing in a 1970s “Death Wish” sort of way, though anti-gun too.

I believe the critics simply could not see straight.  I hesitate to recommend such a non-entertaining and indeed reactionary movie, but I am very glad I saw it.  If you have been put off by the reviews, with this blog post I am adding my dissenting voice of reason.

Louis XIV and his motto

Louis XIV was both King of France and a global ruler with global ambitions. He founded colonies in America, Africa and India, tried to seize Siam (as Thailand was then known), sent missionaries and mathematicians to the Emperor of China and launched the struggle for France’s global markets which continues to this day.  The motto he adopted early in his reign, in 1662, expressed his hopes and desires: “Nec pluribus impar” (literally “Not unequal to more”), meaning “not incapable of ruling other dominions”, as well as “not unequal to many enemies”.

That is from the new Philip Mansel book King of the World: The Life of Louis XIV.

Which thinker from the past would you resurrect?

The Scholar’s Stage writes:

If I were to resurrect one person to comment on our current dilemmas, that person would be Hannah Arendt. 

What issue of importance today did she not ponder?  How should Western countries understand and respond to authoritarian states? What makes meaningful community possible? Does bureaucracy, technology, and settled life diminish our freedom?  Why do politicians lie—and what consequences should there be for lying in office? How do political institutions decay? Should we forgive our political enemies? When is violence justified, and when is it not? How can it be controlled or avoided? What should the ‘justice’ in phrases like ‘social justice’ actually mean? What role should guilt, rage, and fear play in our political lives? How should we translate abstract political principles into living realities?

Arendt wrote about all of these things and more. She would have the intellectual background needed to say something useful about the biggest political and social challenges we face today: America’s relationship with China, technology’s encroach upon democracy, the unsettled relation between the sexes, the collapse of American social capital and community life, the strengths and foibles of social justice campaigning, partisanship and ‘post-reality’ politics, and of course, the presidency of Donald Trump.

I wish we could hear her opinions on these things. I wish this because I honestly do not know what her opinions would be. I recognize positions she would not adopt, but I can only guess what she would make of Facebook or consider the proper political grounding for impeachment.

A case is made against several other plausible options, including the Founding Fathers.  One approach is simply to ask who would be good on television, or on social media.  Another is to pick a person whose historical reputation is so strong that he or she cannot be ignored — perhaps that would militate in favor of Abraham Lincoln or how about Jane Austen?  Perhaps attention is the true scarcity that needs to be overcome.

I believe I would revive Confucius, at least assuming everyone would accept that it is indeed the real Confucius.  He is perhaps the person most likely to have an influence in China, and there is some chance he would seek to reverse the current course of political events.

My forthcoming debate with Slavoj Žižek

We are excited to announce the program for the Dec. 7 Holberg Debate! Slavoj Žižek will give the keynote “Why I Am Still A Communist” and then be interviewed by @tylercowen

We invite everyone to watch the livestream and tweet Qs for Žižek. Use #qholberg.

https://www.facebook.com/events/2524051877814963/

Bergen, Norway — I’ll be there!

*Virtue Politics*

The author is James Hankins, and the subtitle is Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy.  Here is one excerpt:

I have sought to present the political ideas of the humanists as the expression of a movement of thought and action, similar in its physiognomy if not in its content to the movement of the philosophes of the Enlightenment.  It was a movement that was stimulated by a crisis of legitimacy in late medieval Italy and by widespread disgust with its political and religious leadership.  Its adherents were men who had wide experience — often bitter, personal experience — with tyranny.  They knew that oligarchs and even popular governments could be as tyrannical as princes.  Their movement was largely in agreement about its goals: to rebuild Europe’s depleted reserves of good character, true piety, and practical wisdom.  They also agreed widely about means: the revival of classical antiquity, which the humanists presented as an inspiring pageant, rich in examples of noble conduct, eloquent speech, selfless dedication to country, and inner moral strength, nourished by philosophy and uncorrupt Christianity.  The humanist movement yearned after greatness, moral and political.  Its most pressing historical questions were how ancient Rome had achieved her vast and enduring empire, and whether it was possible to bring that greatness to life again under modern conditions.  This led to the question of whether it was the Roman Republic or the Principate that should be emulated; and, once the humanists had learned Greek, it provoked the further question of whether Rome was the only possible ancient model to emulate, or whether Athens or Sparta, or even the Persia of Xenophon’s Cyrus, held lessons for contemporary statesmen.

An excellent book, you can order it here.

*Sontag: Her Life and Work*

That is the new biography by Benjamin Moser, along with Ingmar Bergman bios you can call this topic my soap opera equivalent.  Here are a few scattered bits:

“I’m only interested in people engaged in a project of self-transformation,” Susan wrote in 1971…she read about the University of Chicago, “which didn’t have a football team, where all people did was study, and where they talked about Plato and Aristotle and Aquinas day and night.  I thought, that’s for me.”

And:

The connection between sex and pain was so natural for her — “All relationships are essentially masochistic,” she told Burch — that she could never imagine the loving partnership of equals that Freud had posited.  Her “profoundest experience,” of her mother’s giving and then withdrawing her love, was perpetually renewed.  Harriet dribbled out her affection by the scant thimbleful, which Susan gratefully slurped down: “I suppose, with my sore heart + unused body, it doesn’t take much to make me happy.”  A couple of weeks later, she described the “total collapse” of their relationship and “blindly walking through a forest of pain.”

And:

Brodsky, after all, was the friend she dreamed of…the teacher she hoped to find in Philip Rieff; the companion she had sought all her life, an intellectual and artistic equal, and even a superior.  She never found another friend as congenial, and it was in these terms that she mourned his premature death, at fifty-five.  I’m all alone,” she told a friend.  There’s nobody with whom I can share my ideas, my thoughts.”

Recommended, for those who care.

The new Catholic illiberals

A few of you have asked me what I think of this movement, surveyed here (possibly gated for you), or try this coverage.  If you would like the whole thing in one tweet, maybe try this one from Sohrab Ahmari:

What I’d say to liberal friends who are men and women of goodwill: “Persuade your comrades to ease up and back off while there’s yet time. You don’t want to pit your ideology against forces much older and more potent than liberalism, which is thin civilizational gruel, indeed.”

Other than disagreeing with this group, here is my general impression.  They have not managed to produce a deep, compelling illiberal book comparable say to the works by James Fitzjames Stephens, Carl Schmitt, Burke (not actually an illiberal in my view, but the comparison remains relevant), Jean Bodin, or others from that tradition.  I’m not sure they could beat the arguments of Thomas Mann’s liberal caricature Settembrini in The Magic Mountain.

They have not attached themselves to any great social movement or revolution, either as leaders or followers, unless you count the Church itself, but that is hardly new news.

They do not have a signature policy proposal (at the end of the article behind the first link, the big policy proposal unveiled at the end is “restrictions on share buybacks” — Cliff Asness, telephone!  Are they kidding?)

Do they have a T.S. Eliot or an Emil Nolde or for that matter a J.S. Bach, who probably was not a Millian liberal?

So I believe they are part of the same “thin civilizational gruel” as the rest of us.  They are too embedded in liberalism and its presuppositions to get very far with their own programme.  That said, I am fine with them coexisting within the froth of a liberal order, insisting correctly that the heritage of “the Church” is essential to western civilization, in the meantime allowing their intuitions to be muddled by a confusion of rates of changes and levels when it comes to liberalism in the West today.

A few comments to close, returning to the tweet presented above:

1. Is all gruel thin?

2. Would thick gruel be better or worse?

3. Is Karachi haleem a form of thick gruel?

4. Isn’t the key word here “civilizational”?  It is liberalism that produced, nourished, and sustained the world’s first truly admirable societies.  There is nothing in the arguments of these new illiberals which seriously contradicts that.

5. Many people have longed for gruel, which I take to be underrated.

Do they object to dividends as well?

So be it!

At this point, I can picture Tyler Cowen remarking, “You’re a bigger pessimist than I am. According to you, we’re richer than we think, but riches don’t matter much for happiness, so who cares?” The whole point of optimism, though, is to say, “You may not be happy, but you should be.” If you want to meme that as, “Optimism is pessimism about the dangers of pessimism,” so be it.

File under “Bryan Caplan, pessimist.