A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Various splurges on localism, devolution, state-building, and standardisation

NB: quite possibly conflating issues which are superficially related but really ought to be kept separate. Anecdotal evidence and guys with blogs remain anecdotal evidence and guys with blogs, and should be treated as such.
Also, names have been changed.

Back for Christmas, I've recently been catching up with various people I grew up with. In particular, the half a dozen or so lads who are my age or slightly older at the church in which I grew up. Lucias is my oldest friend, who was my best friend in primary school. He studied Maths at Bristol, did a one-year Masters, and is now doing a Ministry Traineeship at his church there. In a few months he will be getting married to a girl he met there.

Jason and Thomas are a pair of brothers who studied Engineering at Cambridge and Geography at Durham respectively; again, I believe they both have Masters' Degrees. They are now both living in London - Jason putting his degree into direct use in designing things, while Thomas (who was a keen athlete in school, having once placed in the top 30 of the Birmingham half-marathon) is now working in sports marketing - he enthused that next year's World Athletics Championship, which he is involved in promoting, will be Usain Bolt's last race as a professional.

Simon and John are the two older siblings of their family. I can't remember exactly what Simon studies, but am fairly confident that Spanish was part of it; he now works in London. John did Geography and French at Manchester, and is now working for the council there while angling towards going for a Master's.

Finally, there's me. PPE at Manchester, then jetted off to Budapest to study for a Master's in Philosophy. Currently applying for PhD programs, with an eye on Toronto. Long-term, intending to move back to the UK and very vaguely hoping to find a job at Oxbridge.

What, apart from our Christian upbringings, do we have in common? We're all bright, well-educated young men who remember Birmingham fondly and want it to do well. But none of us see our futures here.

This is, I think, the kind of thing Tom Forth likes to go on about on Twitter. We'll come back at holidays, maybe chip in to things - my own contributions are primarily playing piano and organ at church, but people really like hearing that organ played, mind you - but in terms of the lasting contributions that any of us could make to our communities, those contributions will be made elsewhere. Thomas noted that of his friends from Durham, "like 99% of them" have also moved down to London. That's simply where the jobs are.

This doesn't seem good for Birmingham. I don't endorse brain drain as a reason to compel people to stay in the third world, and nor do I endorse it as a reason to compel people to stay in Birmingham. But we've received a lot - of the six people I describe, five of us went to schools run by the King Edwards Foundation - and it's hard to see what, if anything, our home city is getting back.



An interesting essay linked to yesterday by Byrne: "The Strange Death of Municipal England". Key claims:
-government should be doing lots of things
-however, these should be done specifically by local government
-in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this was what actually happened
-however, since WWII local authorities have increasingly had powers nationalised
-the tendency is now towards privatisation of such things, to the detriment of quality/equality of service

The essay is good and worth reading, but at the end I was left with a feeling that if you asked the author why (say) libraries should be government-run but food shops should not, you would not get any kind of a convincing answer. Most egregious is the following passage:
In truth, Britain no longer has a government, but rather a system of governance, the term political scientists use to describe ‘the relationships between governmental and non-governmental forces and how they work together’. This is another way of saying that we live in a half-democracy. 
David Schmidtz has the most articulate and developed response to this way of thinking, which is (roughly) that the fact that we aim to realise particular principles with our institutions does not mean that the institutions ought to aim specifically at the realisation of those principles. This is a line of thought going all the way back to Adam Smith, with the immortal line (and also the only line of The Wealth of Nations that I actually remember):
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, baker, or brewer that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.
That's my key point of disagreement with the essay: I don't think the changes it herald are necessarily bad. But that's not why I bring it up here. It's because of the tension it argues for between the national and the local, and the argument (which I am entirely open to, perhaps even favourable to) that nationalisation of politics is bad for most local areas.



The other evening, I had an exchange with Tom Forth on Twitter. We agreed that there are many types of policies which, in terms of total impact, are bad, but are good (or at least perceived as good) by the communities which make them. Examples include import tariffs, US cities bribing sports teams to stay in town, favouring domestic companies for fulfilling government contracts, etc. We agreed it is good that the EU prevents member governments from such practices. Our disagreement, I think, is whether the UK government should prevent localities from such practices. (I'm not certain what these would be, but let's assume that they exist and that more powerful councils would practise them). I, motivated by an overriding moral commitment to the wellbeing of individuals, think that it should. He, motivated by a belief in democracy and in particular local democracy, thinks that it should not. (At least, this is how I understand the disagreement).

If such beggar-thy-neighbour policies exist at the city level, it seems at least plausible that the success of London relative to the rest of the UK is to a fair extent due to it being the only city able to pursue them. Let us suppose that this is a good model for how the UK actually works. In that case, there are three obvious choices we could attempt:
(a) No-one, including London, gets to play beggar-thy-neighbour
(b) Everyone gets to play beggar-thy-neighbour
(c) The status quo: London, and no-one else, may play beggar-thy-neighbour

(a) and (b) have the advantages of moral consistency: (c) is desperately unfair on everywhere except London. But (a) may be entirely impossible to practice, and (b) is surrendering to the collective action problem. So (c) may well be the best option available; indeed, given this empirical model of the world, I would take (a) to be impossible and so advocate (c): in practice, clamping down on decentralisation.




A discussion of the increase in federal power, in particular since WWII, in the US. Worth reading for itself, but a real "huh, that seems obvious in retrospect" moment for me was the point that what we think of as common law bears little to no relation to law as experienced by most people for most of Anglo-American history. Rather, there was a whole mess of conflicting local norms, which in the early 20th century were standardised and codified by reformers.

On a related note, the professor in a Gender Studies course I audited this semester noted that we have records of men in 19th century England selling their wives. Clearly this wasn't a common thing, but it happened in certain places. Legal standardisation, of course, put a stop to that.



The point that I'm getting towards, I think, is an attempt at rebutting the arguments made by James Scott and Jacob Levy against centralisation of power. Or rather, I want to accept all of their claims about what High Modernism causes, and say that it was probably worth it. Or maybe it wasn't. The problem is perhaps inherently unsolvable, since it is very difficult to know what the average state of society was prior to the building of the nation-state. The standardisation which destroyed local knowledge and practice was also what made it possible, even in principle, to assess how individual people's lives were going.

Some people - including people I know personally - would argue that communities ought to be protected and preserved, even if they are what we would regard as backward. But again, I state my belief in moral individualism: people are what matters, and communities are only a means towards the flourishing of people. Perhaps they are important, even crucial means, but when society holds its members back, society is to be cast into the fire.

Does legal standardisation relate to modern devolution? I think it does, in a sense. Forcing the young men formerly of St. Stephen's Church to stay in Birmingham would have been good for Birmingham, and quite possibly good for the other people of Birmingham. But it's no way to treat individuals, it's no way to turn London into the growth engine which will eventually realise the post-scarcity society (or as near to that as possible), and... I don't know. The world is complicated, I don't know. I don't know.

A brief update

I haven't been blogging much in recent months. I thought this was a November-onwards thing, but it turns out that July was the last month in which I wrote more than three blogposts. In any case, I'll attempt to explain what I thought was the cause of my lack of blogging, and why I hope to get back to blogging more.

My writing depends upon coming up with ideas. Through October and early November, I was having ideas but they were focused on an essay which has now turned into the first half of my dissertation. (Note to self: write a post here summarising that; basically, it's a response to David Benatar's antinatalism). Then in November I stopped having ideas, at least in anything like the same quantities - partly being a bit burned out, partly by getting distracted by what turned out to be a false hope in my personal life.

This is true, but given that the lack of posts runs longer than that it's almost certainly not the true explanation. In any case, hopefully I will be blogging rather more in the future. (Of course I've said this before now, and usually it's lasted anywhere between two weeks and six months before dying off. But hope springs eternal!)

The immediate cause of this is reading Anonymous Mugwump's Weltanschauung post. Like many such posts, it fills me with feelings of inadequacy about how few books I've read. Therefore, for the first time in living memory I am making a serious and sincere New Years' Resolution, which is to read and write reviews of important non-fiction books on a regular basis. "Regular basis" is vague, but it means at least once a month and ideally closer to once a fortnight.

The first book in this will be Derek Parfit's On What Matters, largely because I promised a classmate I'd read it and we could discuss it. After that I'm open to suggestions, although my intention is to focus on ethical theory (and in particular utilitarianism: Peter Singer's Practical Ethics will make an appearance, and I have a sort-of-whim to read some Harsanyi) and the history of state-building (Seeing Like A State and The Art of Not Being Governed, rereading sections of Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom, and whatever else I find. Better Angels of our Nature I also put in this category, for reasons that should be clear from the other set of words I intend to vomit out tonight).

Generally, reading people (or at least, interesting people. Papers for class rarely have this effect) tends to provoke ideas. So if I'm lucky, this extra reading will also indirectly lead me to write more.

(Incidentally, I discussed this reading plan with José Ricon last Monday when we met up to chat and eat. One of the many opinions that he advocates and I have strong sympathies towards is that books are overrated, and most of the material in a book can be gleaned from reviews. This may be so, my intention is to test it with the first few books by reading reviews beforehand and noting what I learn from reading the book that I didn't learn from reviews. If this opinion is indeed correct, then I will attempt to focus my book-reading-and-reviews around things that other people I know have not read and would be interested in reading reviews of.)

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Wherefore Christmas Cards?

There is a familiar economistic critique of Christmas presents, arguing that the practice of spending money upon each other (as opposed to each spending money on ourselves) destroys large amounts of value. More recently, Mike Bird has launched a crusade against the various deserts that we traditionally serve at Yuletide. If these puddings were really so good as to ever be worth eating, Bird asks, why do we not eat them year-round?

Let's suppose that these arguments go through. Should we in addition to dropping present-giving and Christmas puddings also cease to exchange Christmas cards? If the average person spends £15 and an hour or two writing cards, many of which will be noted for a few seconds only and thrown into the rubbish shortly after Christmas, can this really be an efficient use of our limited time and money?

It should be noted that, as with presents, the waste is probably at a Molochian social level rather than an individual level. For an individual to unilaterally cease giving Christmas cards could invite negative social consequences, at least in cases where one has a previously established habit of sending cards. But if we could all agree not to send cards and to recognise that failure to send a card does not mean one does not care, would we be better off?

I see two possible defences of cards. The first is that they can serve as nice decorations. But if this is really the value they give, then why do we outsource the choice of cards to people who neither have to live in our houses, nor have any idea of what other cards there will be?

The second defence, and I think the much more plausible one, is to suggest that while Molochian zero-sum status games exist and showing-you-care can lead to such traps, there is also a need for, or at an advantage to having, a bare minimum standard of showing-you-care. Saying "I hope you have a good morning" to people doesn't lead to a race for the most generous greeting, ending phone conversations with "goodbye" rather than just hanging up shows basic respect without creating long-winded rituals. Perhaps abolishing Christmas cards would create a need for a new, and more costly, way of intermittently recognising and appreciating people who you like but don't often go out of your way to talk to.

(Why then would we give cards to people who we do go out of our way to see? Because if we didn't, it would be clearer to people who did receive cards that they're not in the inner circle. In many cases this wouldn't cause any offence, but in some it's better to maintain plausible deniability. Plus, the fact that you consider someone part of your inner circle doesn't mean that they think of you in the same way. Better to avoid the risk of discovering that.)

I don't know how you'd test this without actually abolishing Christmas cards. If you did, perhaps you would avert a quite considerable waste. Perhaps you would see the development of an alternative ritual for recognising people. Perhaps such an institution would be needed but fail to develop, and you would harm our valuable, valuable social trust.

Nonetheless, E-cards seem a quite significant step forward. The decorative function is lost, but we can maintain the signalling while reducing resource consumption.

More ambitiously: perhaps Christmas cards keep us trapped in an inferior recognising-others ritual? Instead of sending people cards, make more of an effort to spend time with them. Assuming you actually enjoy someone for who they are rather than what they can do for you, why would you think that a cheap-but-still-overpriced piece of paper is a good way to interact with them?

Friday, 16 December 2016

Patriarchy is the Radical Notion that Men are People

Anne has a post arguing in favour of a libertarian feminism. It's well worth reading, not least because she's right. But as a persistent contrarian and well-meaning intellectual troll, I want to express some worries, hopefully mixed in with some encouragements, about the project.

To begin with a note of important agreement: libertarians should be more feminist, and should be open to revising their notion of coercion along feminist lines. The NAP is an insufficient framework for understanding oppression, and we should recognise that ideas can contribute towards material coercion even when they are just words. If we can recognise Marxism as a harmful ideology that oppressed the people of the Soviet Union, then we ought to be able to recognise the possibility that patriarchy is a harmful ideology that oppresses women.

Second, she is right that libertarians frequently ignore non-state sources of coercion. This is an accusation which can be made in a number of contexts - nostalgia for the clan systems which states displaced, private crime, etc - but which is not made often enough with regard to the household. The suffering of a citizen compelled to pay the wages of a social worker he will never need to access, while genuine and regrettable, is pretty trivial when compared to the suffering of a woman trapped with an abusive partner. Protesting the former situation while coldly observing that the woman is bearing the consequences of her foolish choice of partner makes it hard for libertarians to be taken seriously by anyone who gives compassion a role in their politics.

My main concern with the libertarian-feminism project is not that these ideologies are incompatible, but that their motivations might be. Libertarianism goes hand-in-hand with methodological individualism, the belief that the primary (perhaps only) actors in society are individual people. This is hardly surprising: if your political theory places great weight upon the choices of the sovereign individual, then you'd better be pretty sure that that individual exists.

By contrast, Marxists view the individual as insignificant when compared to the great movers of history: the economic classes. I'm not going to go into the details of this, not least because I don't know them. These are not the only ways of viewing the world - one might think human behaviour is best explained at the level of communities, of families, of genes, and probably many other levels besides - but they are both popular ways, and they are fundamentally incompatible. Hence individualists struggle to make sense of class conflict, while Marxists view all ideology as ultimately a cover for class interest.

Feminism, it seems to me, has a tendency to view the sexes in much the same way that Marxists view the economic classes. Men collectively oppress women in the same way that the bourgeoisie collectively oppress the proletariat. If Marxism is the attempt to understand the oppression of the proletariat and to unite them for the overthrow of the ruling class, feminism is the attempt to understand the oppression of the female sex and to unite women for the overthrow of men. (This is an exaggeration of most feminists' views, but there was indeed a strain in the 1970s, connected to the Wages for Housework campaign, arguing that the only way for women to escape male oppression is to disassociate from them entirely and adopt lesbianism en masse). They even suffer from the same inconvenience of having to explain why the state, which has hitherto acted only to promote the interests of capital/patriarchy, can suddenly be turned to the advantage of the working class/women.

It's hard for me to tell how far Anne subscribes to this view. For the most part she seems to endorse it: "The sort of radical feminism I’m interested in, and that I see as fitting quite well with libertarianism, sees that society is a patriarchy in which the class of ‘men’ oppress the class of ‘women’." At the same time, she observes that "Women are of course not uniformly oppressed or exclusively victims, and most definitely not a homogenous group with unitary concerns." Perhaps the tension between the positions is smaller than I think, perhaps she has a tension in her views. I don't know.

The picture of feminism I have presented is of course not the only vision of the movement. Intersectional feminism pays a great deal of attention to how different oppressions can interact, and (from my fairly cursory knowledge of feminism) seems like the kind of thing Anne might well be interested in. There are dangers with this view: firstly, that you end up in a kind of "Oppression Olympics" in which different minorities engage in interminable arguments over who has it worst. Secondly, one may ask in what sense this actually remains feminism, rather than merely a "coalition of the oppressed". Such a coalition is unstable, relying as it does upon nebulous judgements about what is oppression and what is merely misfortune (or indeed, self-inflicted harm). It also raises the question of why one cares about the things one does: if your aim is simply to make the world a better place, it seems highly unlikely that this is most effectively achieved by feminist activism. If your aim is to promote the interests of women, it seems equally unlikely that one will achieve this by allying with groups selected for being unsympathetic to mainstream society.

Once again, I don't wish to say that libertarianism and feminism are incompatible. Methodological individualism is compatible with all sorts of theories about why people behave the way they do, including a recognition of the power that ideas, whether or not they are consciously held, can have on society (ctrl-f "idealism"). Patriarchy may just be one such (harmful) idea. But the existence of such a tension may prove a barrier both for libertarians sympathetic to the oppression of women and for feminists leery of relying upon the state for their salvation.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Notes on Slovenia


In his podcast Conversations with Tyler, Tyler Cowen always takes the opportunity to ask his interviewee for quick-fire opinions upon a range of topics. He does not ask them whether a thing is good or bad, however, but rather whether it is "underrated or overrated". In some sense there is an obvious reason for this: by declaring something either overrated or underrated, you commit yourself to disagreement with general opinion. This is an easy recipe for an interesting conversation.

In another sense, though, it is very puzzling. Why should you have to express a negative opinion of something that may genuinely be very good, merely because other people also like it? Indeed, many goods and media - Facebook being the most obvious example - a large portion of the value derived by an individual comes from the fact that others also enjoy the product. We form communal experiences around much of our culture - (most) people go to concerts and films together, and they discuss these evenings afterwards.

There is, however, at least one realm where the underrated/overrated question remains very important and that is tourism. A place that is overrated will be expensive and often disappointing; a place that is underrated will generally be cheaper and pleasantly surprising. There are advantages to famous places, of course - they tend, for example, to have rather better infrastructure for tourism (information centres, easy travel options) - but they are also more crowded.

All this is a long-winded way of expressing my opinions on Ljubljana and Lake Bled, which I was able to visit at the end of October. Both were pleasant, worth seeing, but would probably not (in my view) have merited a trip from the UK - but whereas Ljubljana is pleasant and underrated, Bled is pleasant and overrated.

That's all the summary; the rest of the post is (parts of) the trip told primarily through pictures.

We went down on a Friday, catching the train from Budapest and arriving mid-afternoon.
Some forested hills in the Slovenian countryside.
A castle, nestled into that same set of hills.
After taking our bearings and withdrawing some Euros, we headed for the Old Town. The centre of Ljubljana is Preseren Square, named after the national poet France Preseren and featuring several landmarks of the town.
A picture of Preseren Square (not by me), featuring the Triple Bridge (bottom), Statue of France Preseren (centre centre-right), and the Franciscan Church of the Anunciation (upper centre-right).
When we got there, I was amused to see some evangelical Christians. We have these in Britain of course, but in Britain they preach within an assumed Protestant context. Not so for these Christians:
"Excuse me, sir, have you heard the bad news about Mary the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ?"
After securing beds in a hostel for the night - we had a place booked via AirBnb, but this was not due to start until the next day - we went for a meal and a wonder around the Old Town.
A wind band who happened to be playing in front of the council house.

This used to be a very valuable fountain carved out of the finest marble, to the point where it became worthwhile for the city to have a permanent guard on the fountain to protect it. Nowadays the original fountain sits in a museum, while this replica has taken its place.

I'm still not certain what this building is, although I think it has something to do with the University.
The next day, we spent most of the morning wondering around the city as part of a guided tour.
One of the dragons on Dragon Bridge. This was built in 1888, partly as a celebration of 40 years that Emperor Franz-Joseph I had spent upon the throne and partly as a test of a new and experimental building material: concrete. At the time there was great uncertainty about how well it would work, hence this bridge being constructed in a relative backwater rather than in Vienna. The bridge was originally named after Franz-Joseph, but upon Slovenian independence after WWI it was renamed and the dragon statues were added.

A view of the Ljubljanica river, looking south from the Cobblers' bridge.

The very ornate cathedral.
After seeing these, we spent the early afternoon visiting the National Museum.
Apparently this brooch is supposed to be a pregnant woman.

The Divje Babe Flute. We're not entirely sure what its purpose was, but one theory is that it is a flute and therefore the world's oldest musical instrument.

Some very old jewellery.
In the evening, two of us (one of my travelling companions was running in the marathon the following day, and so wanted to avoid pushing herself) walked up to Ljubljana Castle. The castle is situated on a hill up the walk upwards is demanding, but rewarding with marvellous views of the city and the sound of music wafting up from the various clubs and bars.
Unfortunately the pictures I took up there haven't come out very well; this is the best of a bad bunch, looking out over Zvezda Park.
On the Sunday, the two of us who were not running the marathon briefly stood around to watch it start, went around the Natural History museum, and then headed off walking in the hills of Tivoli Park. My companion was astonished at the size of the park; I was less impressed at the time, but upon examining maps in retrospect it turns out to be more than twice the twice of Budapest's City Park, and perhaps eight to ten times the size of Platt Fields in Manchester, and probably a solid 30% larger than Hyde Park in London. It was the height of autumn, and the ground was crisp with golden fallen leaves.
Front runners of the marathon - unsurprisingly Kenyans #HBD

A road near the town centre, notable for the contrast between the lovely Viennese secession buildings on the left and the wor-down post-Soviet buildings on the right.

The lovely Opera House.





A hillside meadow, overlooked by a pleasant restaurant with mostly outdoor seating where we had lunch.

My lunch - the traditional Slovenian Struklji: dough rolls filled in this case with cottage cheese, spinach, walnut, and tarragon, and some blueberry brandy to wash it down. To be honest I didn't especially like these - the texture, especially, with the breadcrumb sauce on top, was unpleasantly slimy, and there was not all that much taste. Still, value of information!
Ljubljana is not a large town, and by this point we had exhausted most of the tourist destinations. Moreover, many of them would be shut for the next two days - Mondays because they always shut on that day, and Tuesday because it was the 1st November. (This extended to supermarkets, which closed unexpectedly early on Monday and did not open on Tuesday, leaving us without food for the train journey back). Therefore on Monday we caught a coach to the famous Lake Bled. The coach was overcrowded, to the point that we spent the first half of the journey sitting on the floor until some people got off.

Eventually we arrived and were greeted with some adorable views of the lake and castle.



First we walked along the lakeside. After reaching the other end and seeing that there was not much there beyond a couple of restaurants and a canoe rental, we found a path winding upwards towards the castle.

A panorama, taken from the spot where we had lunch.


At the entrance to the castle there was a Hallowe'en-themes medieval fair going on, aimed mostly at children. After a brief look round this, I went into the castle while the others, baulking at the entrance fee, decided to make their way back down.
This is some significant manuscript, or a facsimile thereof. I forget which, and also why it is significant.
 After the first half of the day being overcast, the sun came out while I was in the castle. This improved the views to be had, but made photography harder due to Bled Island lying in-between myself and the sun.


Some mountains, looking away from the lake.


 After meeting at the lakeside, we were rowed across to the island. A violinist and pianist were playing tunes, mostly Viennese, and admiring the scenery as waves lapped at the boat and the music drifted over the water was surely one of the most belle epoque experiences one can enjoy.



The first view on the island. There was relatively little there, to be honest - a chapel, a couple of shops, and a clock tower. Nevertheless, it was a pleasant enough way to spend forty minutes.


One of the buildings on the island had a display of various national costumes. Slovenia, despite its small size, has three different traditions in clothing.


After returning to the mainland and narrowly missing the 3:30pm coach back, we sat at a café where I was able to enjoy some excellent Slovenian red wine.

That was the last touristic experience of the trip - in the evening we struggled to find places to eat, I took a few photos, and the next morning we had to catch the 8:45 train, arriving in Budapest early evening.

Review: Fantastic Beast and Where to Find Them

(Warning: minor spoilers ahead)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
 originally referred to one of Harry Potter's school textbooks. For a World Book Day this was brought into reality as a slim, red little volume consisting of a fictional history of how magical creatures were hidden, followed by a bestiary of various magical creatures. Now, it is the latest installment in the financial behemoth that is the film series of Harry Potter.

Well, in a sense. Much of the background is taken from Harry Potter, and Fantastic Beasts isn't so very different in spirit from some of the later, darker Potter films. Many of the same people are involved - J. K. Rowling having written the script, David Yates returning as director, and David Heyman and Steve Kloves both serving as directors. But the characters are all new; the aesthetic has moved from a remote Scottish castle to 1920s New York; and in general, the film is very different for being an original story rather than merely the adaptation of a book.

I'll start with the good. The special effects are copious and impressive - apart from the numerous spells and explosions, Newt Scamander boasts a remarkable menagerie of magical creatures, our introduction to which is perhaps my favourite scene of the movie. The first half of the film strikes the balance between plot and light entertainment very well.

What of the problems? Ultimately, I think the film tries to do far too much. The second half of the film switches between dark drama and explosions with no rest in-between, which both makes the film less enjoyable and makes the romantic subplots less convincing. I don't object to characters falling in love, but such romances should involve actual conversations between the characters in which they get to know each other. Perhaps Newt and Tina aren't so bad on this front, but the relationship between muggle wannabe-baker Jacob Kowalski and legilimens Queenie is appalling - they begin eyeing each other up as soon as they meet, pay each other a few compliments from time to time, and then by the end of the film Queenie is declaring that she will "never meet another man like you". Perhaps being a mind-reader allows you to get to know people well in short spaces of time, but then the film could have done more to show this.

The 1920s aesthetic works well for set design. The music, however, ruins this impression. James Newton Howard's score is uninspiring, which would be OK, but also for 80% of the film utterly undistinguishable from any other film score. When the characters enter a speakeasy, and in a couple of other places, the music turns into some classic jazz, and these are the finest moments in the soundtrack; they ought to have been the rule, rather than the exception.

The final twist, a reveal in the spirit of Scooby-Doo villains, seemed unnecessary and raised more questions than it answered. Why did Grindelwald, an immensely powerful wizard capable of defeating a score of trained aurors at once, based in eastern Europe, and dedicated to taking over the world, decide to infiltrate the American magical government? How long must he have spent doing this, given that he had achieved a very senior role in this government? And why, once he was captured, was he not immediately killed? It's not like they couldn't have done so, given that several people had already been summarily executed for far lesser crimes. Instead Grindelwald proclaims that "You'll never be able to hold me!" and the American magical president, who had only two minutes earlier ordered one of these executions, mumbles back that "Well we'll do our best."

One also wonders about the differences in social morés between the magical communities of 1920s Britain and the US. The US magicians have apparently overcome both racial and sexual prejudice, to the extent that their president is a black woman. However, they retain a strict legal prohibition upon wizard-muggle relationships. (Curiously this is not matched with any sense of disgust at such relationships). Britain is sufficiently ahead on this count that Newt is able to rather bitingly refer to the American's "backwards view of relationships between magical people and muggles"; has there really not been sufficient interaction between the societies for Britain's liberalism on this subject to rub off on the other side of the Atlantic? (And indeed, where do Canadian witches and wizards stand on this? The main North American school of magic, Ilvermorny, is known to be on the upper east coast, but it is unclear on which side of the US-Canada border it lies; in either case, it seems to be the case that Ilvermorny is the most popular school of magic for both Americans and Canadians. This implies substantial interaction between the two, at a time when Canada was still merely a dominion of the British Empire).

Overall I enjoyed the film, and it was worth seeing (at least at Hungarian cinema prices, which are less than half of UK prices). But I cannot give it more than three stars out of five, and must state my opinion that while this does not plumb the depths of The Cursed Child (which I have declared to be non-canon, but rather an unusually prominent fanfic) one could miss this film, and one would not be any less of a Harry Potter fanatic for it.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Naive Moralism and Manichaeism

London, 1750

WILLIAM: Slavery is an abomination, which must be ended this instant!

CHARLES: Oh, you're on about slavery again? Why don't you just knock it off.

WILLIAM: How can I be silent about monstrous injustice? The negros are our fellow men and brothers, and their subordination goes against every law of God and man!

CHARLES: Nonsense. Slaves exist, and slaveholders are not punished, so slavery is quite clearly permitted by the law. Besides which, would you have all slaves freed? Think of the chaos that would be loosed upon England if they were all released tomorrow!

WILLIAM: If the law does not forbid slavery, then the law is unjust. And justice must be done, even though the heavens fall.

CHARLES: Justice is simply the rules that we, as a society, agree to live by. Perhaps in the future those rules will outlaw slavery. But for now, they do not and slaves are legitimate property in every sense.


The dialogue above is intended to illustrate two competing ways of thinking about morality. The first, represented by William, is what I like to call Naive Moralism. Naive Moralism consists of three apparently uncontroversial propositions:

  1. There exist moral truths independently of human-made laws.
  2. These moral truths are knowable.
  3. We ought to behave as these truths demand.
The opposing picture is much vaguer, and is united only by a single rather vague thought: "It's more complicated than that." Charles is a classic examplar of this picture, which for lack of a better term I will call anti-Manichaeism. Charles recognises that in some sense William is right, that future generations will side with William rather than Charles, but he sees no need to contribute to that change. Perhaps he personally benefits from slavery, perhaps he genuinely fears the consequences of freeing slaves en masse.

Being a naive moralist or an anti-manachaeist on one issue does not, by the way, mean that you will hold this perspective on all issues. I know a great many people who are naive moralists when it comes to making the rich pay their fair share of taxes and achieving equality within the polity, but when faced with the much bigger issue of global inequality and the suggestion that they personally might have to give up a lot of their wealth, suddenly become convinced that justice surely can't be all that demanding (see pages 3-4). Far be it from me to suggest that anti-Manichaeism is frequently motivated by self-interest, of course. With that said, people genuinely differ in their tendency to views issues in a particular light - most obviously, there is a strong negative correlation between age and naive realism. One key thesis of this essay, which I will eventually get around to explaining, is that certain ideologies naturally lend themselves towards one or the other type of moral reasoning and this can explain a lot about the far left and about feminism.

At this point, hopefully anti-Manichaeism is sounding rather unappealing. (If you don't think ending slavery was a moral imperative, then I really don't know what to say to you other than "Stop being evil!") But naive moralism causes its share of problems too, even in the cases where the cause at stake is one as worthy and just as abolitionism.

Against Doing the Right Thing

1. The problem of moral dissent

People who hold views about morality which are heavily out of step with the society in which they live tend to be viewed somewhere on a spectrum between annoyances and traitors. To take a relatively mild example, consider the conscientious objectors of the Great War. Nowadays we debate whether or not Britain was justified in intervening in the war, but we would agree that whatever reason supported going to war were hardly strong enough to justify conscription. At the time, however, conscientious objectors were viewed as cowards; 6000 of them, most famously Bertrand Russell, were imprisoned for their refusal to fight; and the public at large would shun not only the objectors but also their families, sometimes leaving wives and children destitute and unable to access charity when their husbands and fathers were imprisoned.

A more modern example is that of vegetarianism. Many people regard vegetarianism as a kind of self-indulgence: not morally wrong, but a personal preference that can be awfully inconvenient to other people. Amanda Askell wrote a recent piece incisively attacking this perspective:
I have had many conversations with people who complain about vegetarians and vegans coming to parties or restaurants, and expecting their weird tastes to be accommodated. But ethical vegetarians and vegans are not merely acting on a whim: they think that it’s morally wrong to eat meat. If you were to be told that ritual cannibalism was practiced by your friends, you would presumably say “either don’t serve me human flesh for dinner, or I’m not coming to your house” (you might even say a little more than this: e.g. “please stop eating people” or “I’m calling the police”). If it’s reasonable to want your anti-cannibalism moral beliefs to be accommodated, then why is it not reasonable for the vegetarian to want their anti-meat eating beliefs to be accommodated?
People have even thought that it’s acceptable or funny to trick vegetarians into eating meat. It’s cruel enough to trick someone into eating something they don’t like the taste of. It seems even more cruel to trick someone into doing something that they believe is wrong simply because we don’t agree that it’s wrong. After all, we’d be rightly horrified and upset if we went to our friend’s house and were tricked into eating human flesh disguised as beef or pork.
Similarly, near the all-time top of reddit.com/r/rage is people taking umbrage at the following cartoon:
To a vegetarian, meat-eating is wrong for the same reason that lynching, genocide, and domestic violence are wrong: there are innocent moral patients being harmed by these acts. The cartoon is pointing out, in a not very gentle way, that a sometimes-given defence of meat-eating sounds absolutely abominable when used to defend these other acts.

Pacifism and vegetarianism are rather progressive practices, so it is perhaps worth pointing out that naive moralists from more traditional viewpoints can cause just as much annoyance for those who do not share their principles. Abortion is one example: there are many people who oppose abortion, for the entirely respectable reason that they view foetuses as moral patients with many of the same rights as humans (e.g. the right not to be killed). In some places, there are enough people who believe foetuses have moral status that they are able to enforce this as law, causing severe inconvenience to women in those areas who want to have abortions.

Another example is Christian evangelism. Perhaps you wish that street preachers would mind their own business and stop harassing you in public; from the evangelists' perspective, however, this would be horrendously immoral of them. They earnestly believe that if you do not come to accept Jesus Christ as your saviour, you will burn in hell for eternity. For all of the annoyance they cause, if a single soul is saved as a result then their preaching will be a net benefit to humanity.

In all of these cases, it's important to note that the inconvenience exists whether or not the moral dissenters are correct. The inconvenience of having to cook separate meals for vegetarians is caused not by vegetarians being wrong (if they indeed are), but simply by their being different from society at large. It may well be that foetuses are moral patients who deserve our protection; that doesn't negate the very real suffering to women burdened with pregnancies they don't want to go through and cannot end.

2. Utopianism

In order to abolish slavery within the British Empire, it was necessary for the government to compensate every slaveholder in the Empire. With the benefit of hindsight, this was an outrage: the slaveholders were carrying out a great injustice, and yet rather than punish them for this we not only let them off scot-free, but even paid them to stop doing it! Frankly, what they deserved was to have their slaves freed whether or not the slaveholders agreed, with their lands and property confiscated and divided up among the former slaves, and the slaveholders should have been imprisoned in the same conditions to which they subjected their slaves.

From the naive moralist perspective, this is all true. But it was also impossible to implement given the powers that were. The best that could be hoped for was the marginal improvement of freeing the slaves while compensating their former owners. Similarly, there are to this day a great many dictators around the world who deserve to go the way of Saddam Hussein, but unless the West is committed to recreating the Iraq War a hundred times over, in countries far more powerful than Iraq, the hope of removing all illegitimate governments is forlorn. (And if we're honest, the governments of even the most civilised countries are rather less legitimate than we typically like to think).

3. Ends-justify-the-means reasoning

Let's go back to the 18th-century gentlemen who were debating the morality of slavery. As it so happens, Charles owns several slaves who he treats poorly - beating them, providing them with only the basics for survival, chaining them up whenever they are not working, and raping the women among them. However, he has no living family, which means that were he to die these slaves would go free. Charles is currently in good health, but William comes to you with a plan. Next month Charles will be travelling by coach to Birmingham, along a road notorious for being infested with highwaymen. You could hide along the route and murder Charles, making it look like a robbery gone awry. William, who has always been true to his word in the past, promises that he has no plans to keep any of the proceeds for himself; moreover, it's not like Charles doesn't thoroughly deserve this!

Perhaps you're still uncomfortable and would refuse to assist William, even if this makes the plan impossible to carry out. But hopefully you can see that there is a strong moral justification for it, such that a morally upstanding person could reasonably decide that they are not only morally entitled, but positively obliged to take part in this murder. Of course, such behaviour is entirely at odds with living in a peaceful and civilised society.

Similar reasoning would have been used by Stalin during his early years as a bank-robber: the money held the bank was itself stolen from the working class, and so by taking that money for the Communist Party he was not only putting the money to the best use but also preventing criminals from benefiting from their crimes. Similarly, however justified the American Revolution may have been there can be no doubt that it caused a great many deaths and injuries which could have been averted if the colonies had been willing to remain colonies rather than states.

I should be clear that this kind of reasoning does not have to be an ex post justification of thuggery. There are well-respected ethicists willing to defend future applications of this kind of behaviour; for example, Peter Unger (a professor at NYU) has argued that our obligations to the globally poor are so strong that we should not only give all that we have, but moreover that we should steal from others in order to donate. To take a less objectionable behaviour, members of the Effective Altruism movement have frequently argued that individuals should enter well-paid but morally dubious occupations such as quantitative finance in order to donate more to the third world.

4. Unwillingness to tolerate alternative viewpoints

I mentioned at the beginning my inability to comprehend people who would oppose abolition. So far as I am concerned, if you are not in favour of abolitionism then you are either a hypocrite who does wrong by your own lights, too cowardly to think through the morality of your actions in a rigorous way, or else simply you simply have evil values. Perhaps that sounds reasonable, in which case it's time to lay some more of my cards on the table.

As it happens, I am a vegetarian. I don't believe that animals have all of the same rights as humans, but I believe that they are significant enough and cruelty in the meat industry so ubiquitous that eating meat is pretty much always immoral. As such, I believe that if you eat meat, then* you are a hypocrite, a moral coward, or evil. This probably sounds profoundly unreasonable to many people, and there are good reasons why vegetarians don't tend to say such things. In general we don't like to think of our friends and family this way, but ultimately if you want to avoid this conclusion then you're going to have to engage in an awful lot of "it's more complicated than that".

If you're a generally enlightened but non-vegetarian westerner, you're probably feeling rather insulted at the moment. If that is the case, please relax while I insult much of the developing world. Another belief I hold strongly is that women ought to have the same rights as men, including but not limited to sexual autonomy. If you genuinely believe that a woman has no right to deny sex to her husband, for example, then I - along with most people in the developed world - consider you to be a barbarian.


Hopefully by this point you see that naive moralism, even when it is correct, makes social life very difficult. To a large extent the Enlightenment came about by our agreeing to drop naive moralism regarding certain topics - to agree that while it may well be in people's interest to be compelled to believe in the One True God, we would nevertheless let them continue in their sin and damnation.

Another key thing to take note of is that these problems with naive moralism exist, even when the moralism is for a genuinely righteous cause! There is a failure mode which comes about when people become Manichean in defence of evil causes, and there is a failure mode where two groups of people opposed to each other both adopt Manichaeism, but this kind of moral certainty is perfectly capable of causing problems without any need for poor moral judgement.

Why Have Naive Moralism At All?

Considerations like those above have led some people, including well-respected moral philosophers, to completely reject naive moralism and instead proclaim that morality is nothing more than the set of rules which allow us to get along with each other. This involves biting one hell of a bullet, however: it means rejecting the very notion of moral progress, and indeed any minimally satisfying form of moral realism.

In the 18th century, society was able to function despite the blight of slavery. We needed some naive moralists to recognise that slavery was inconsistent with the professed morals of the land, and to build up the social consensus necessary to abolishing slavery.

*with some very few exceptions that would be too weird to explain here.


NM and AM not personality types, but rather ways of seeing moral claims. One might be NM about domestic redistribution but AM about global redistribution, for example. (Far be it from me to suggest, of course, that AM often motivated by status quo bias and self-interest!)

Problems with NM:

inconvenience of their moralising: pacifism, vegetarianism
demands that others see things from their perspective
ends justify means
can be wrong!

BUT

they are ultimately our source of moral progress


ALSO NOTE

moral progress not necessarily in a "progressive" direction - consider abortion


Which groups tend to inspire particular kinds of moral reasoning:

anti-manichaeism inherently conservative; left (particularly the far-left) and feminists tend to be correspondingly naively moralist, hence tendency towards trashing etc
religion naive realist
israel anti-manichaeist - in some ways relies on the same racialism it is supposed to protect against

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Why Racism Against Oppressed Minorities Isn't Racism

When it comes to generating unusual and (to many people) offensive opinions about morality, scepticism about the ability of anything to affect long-run happiness truly is the gift that keeps on giving.

A relatively tame example is the idea that, since most lives are good, we should therefore devote our resources as fully as possible towards increasing the world population. The moral premises here are controversial but I think defensible - ultimately, total utilitarianism across the span of actually-or-potentially-existing moral patients.

An edgier way to take this is to observe that people from oppressed and marginalised groups are likely to be used to their subjugation due to having grown up in similar (or indeed worse) circumstances, and therefore to suffer far less from it than someone who is thrown into this situation. That is to say, the experience of a white person who suffers racial discrimination is likely to be severely more negative than the experience of a member of an ethnic minority who suffers similar discrimination. Combine this with premises about the interests of all counting equally, and you end up concluding that racism against whites is significantly worse than racism against (for example) black people.

This is a surprising conclusion, and my inclination before endorsing it even tentatively would be to go over the reasoning leading to it with a very fine-toothed comb. That said, if an SJW proclaims that racism is what occurs within a context of oppression and therefore is not significantly problematic when practised against privileged groups, it is fun to be able to argue that they are not only wrong but have precisely the opposite of the truth.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Political Fracture and the Consent of the Governed

It has been a commonplace of liberal, and in particular democratic, political rhetoric that government rests solely upon the consent of the governed. The logical conclusion of this principle, of course, is that every single individual ought to be able to determine the exact nature of the polity in which they choose to live. This is of course an utterly unachievable goal, but it is worth considering how far we can move in that direction - and whether such moves are likely to be desirable.

So far, the closest we have come to achieving this kind of choice is to allow for collective decision-making about how governance should take place. This is, however, a pale shadow of the ideal we are aiming for: collective choice may reflect the preferences of all in a group of four or five friends, but in a nation of thousands - let alone millions, or even hundreds of millions - the individual voice is a mere drop in the ocean.

Another possible way to move in the direction of individual consent is to institute a variety of polities, and allow free movement between these. There are still problems with this system (call it "Archipelago"), both in terms of individual choice and in terms of the practical problems it throws up, but it remains perhaps the closest to utopia we are ever likely to reach. I'm not going to defend it here, but section III of the linked article provides one person's attempts to expose and subsequently resolve the problems with it. As I see it, the principal differences between Archipelago and one inhabited by modern-day Europeans are few but highly significant. These differences can be bridged, but would require substantial, and highly controversial, changes to the current political set-up.

A first difference lies in the vast legal and logistical difficulties faced by anyone attempting to move from one polity to another. The EU has done a considerable amount to reduce the legal barriers, but there are nevertheless very considerable costs to moving. There are the large financial costs, the friends and family with whom you have considerably less contact, the difficulties of learning a new language (or reduced quality of life if you don't learn it), as well as all the frictional costs of adapting to a new set of cultural institutions. Some of these costs are unavoidable, but others could, I think, be much reduced.

The key step to be made here is the abolition of the nation-state. Or rather, the splitting of nations into several different states. The costs of moving from Aldershot to Bath are much smaller than the costs of moving from Austria to Belgium, and that would continue to be the case if Hampshire and Somerset were separate states. It is true that political differences can lead to cultural differences which magnify over time, but the fact remains that after more than 200 years of independence the USA remains the number-two destination for British emigrants - topped only by another former British colony, Australia. In terms of the existing stock of British expats, five of the top six destinations are Australia, the USA, Canada, the Republic of Ireland, and New Zealand. Splitting the UK into anywhere between a dozen and twenty smaller states would allow Brits a real choice of political entities in which to abide.

The second, and perhaps the biggest, difference between Archipelago and the real world is that real world states really aren't all that different from one another. There are differences, but you'll struggle to find a single first-world economy that has anything other than a welfare-state vaguely-capitalist mixed economy. Switzerland has genuine variation between its cantons, with some places such as Zug levying almost no taxes whereas Geneva will tax anything you can shake a stick at, but they are entirely the exception (and of course anyone wishing to move into Switzerland from the outside faces some of the strictest borders in Europe). Achieving Archipelago means being willing to see people recreate communism, fail, and ruin decades of their lives. It means being willing to see first-world countries where women are not allowed to vote and where homosexuals leave as soon as they can. Above all, it means trusting that there will be states like Estonia who try new, exciting and above all good ideas, who will lead the way for everyone else to follow.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Review: Sweeney Todd

Eso Theatricals is an English-language theatre company operating in Budapest, who this weekend put on a series of performances of Stephen Sondheim's classic musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. I had a passing knowledge of the musical from various sources, but this was my first time seeing it; the performance was in various ways sub-professional, but nevertheless well worth the 3000Ft ticket price and time.

We'll start with the good: Tamás Pál and Dóra Stróbel were fantastic in the lead roles of Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett. They both sang and acted well, bringing across the characters of an intelligent but haunted Sweeney and a Mrs. Lovett who is independently psycho but nevertheless driven into true depravity by her love for Sweeney. They bounced off each other magnificently, with "A Little Priest" being unsurprisingly a highlight of the show.

Similarly, Chris Hunter put on a stellar performance as Anthony, while Hans Peterson and Mario Cossu were convincing as the Judge and the Beadle respectively. The music was played well enough not to stand out, which is precisely what is wanted in musical theatre. The lighting was understated, and resisted the temptation to play up to the dramatics of the rest of the piece. (The play did in some parts feel too dramatic, but perhaps that is unavoidable when you're adapting a Victorian penny-dreadful).

The setting was well arranged. We entered to a ghostly organ piece, with various cast members standing in position around a darkened and smoky room with old-fashioned lanterns. The aesthetic of Dark Old London was well captured (though this aesthetic of course belies the fact that the London of the Victorian era was considerably safer than the London of today).

Moving on to the forgivable: the sound was in the early stages poorly balanced, but was corrected within the first ten minutes. Non of the accents even came close to cockney, but with the exception of one obnoxiously-American-accented extra this did not especially hurt the performance. Dóra Stróbel in particular came off as motherly and yet at the same time pragmatic largely as a result of her Hungarian way of speaking. Viktória Pászthy as Johanna was often difficult or even impossible to understand, but ultimately Johanna isn't really an independently interesting character so much as a Ms. McGuffin, so not understanding her hardly detracts from the rest of the play.

Overall I enjoyed the play, and would recommend going to see it were it not for this having been the last showing, and for this blog having o Hungarian readers.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Trolling Should Be Equal-Offender

A couple of weeks ago, Vox.com released an article entitled "Pokémon Go is everything that is wrong with late capitalism". The article argued that Pokémon Go will lead to greater inequality of income and wealth, even if in terms of people's quality of life it is a significant boost to many people and especially those on low incomes. The solution to this, the article continued was looser housing policy, demand management, and perhaps increased redistribution of income. The article took a fair bit of criticism at the time, including this by Rob Wiblin. At the risk of flogging a dead horse, I'm going to add my own criticism of the piece.

Let's be clear: the article is highly tongue-in-cheek. The title alone should be enough to make it clear that they are comically exaggerating the importance of and the scale of their opposition to the Pokémon game. Indeed, I think that for this reason they can shrug off some of the other criticisms. My question is: why, if this is a light-spirited article, is its conclusion identical to those of Vox's serious pieces?

When you start a political argument with an absurdity, there should be no inherent tendency to reach any particular conclusion. (Perhaps there will be a greater tendency towards extreme conclusions, but that doesn't help Vox given that they're arguing for standard centre-left positions). If you consistently reach the same end-point regardless of your premises, then the suspicion has to be that you are starting with your political preferences and then working backwards to see how they might be justified by any particular set of circumstances. What you are showing when you argue, then, is not the strength of your political position but rather your ability to make arguments sound plausible.

This has a knock-on effect for your more serious arguments, too. If I know you can convince me that anything at all is evidence for X, regardless of whether it actually is, then I should not take your arguments for X as strong evidence for its truth - if I take them as evidence at all. Moving from the meta-level to the concrete, if Vox will argue convincingly that Pokémon Go is evidence for why we need to be more left-wing, then they will do that in any situation - and hence should not be trusted in any situation.

There's actually a real lesson to be learned here, which is that if you want to make both serious and joking arguments about the same topic, and you want your serious arguments to be taken in a serious manner, the conclusions of your joking arguments (and ideally your serious arguments too) should not always be for the same conclusion. If you're going to argue that libertarians should be taxed less than leftists, you should also talk about how the UK should invade other countries and take their wealth. If you're going to talk about how Trump should be assassinated, you should also argue that women should face longer prison sentences than men for the same crime.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Anything You Can Screw, I Can Screw Better

A party question for politically moderate Anglo-Saxons: which would be worse, Corbyn as Prime Minister with a substantial majority, or Trump as President?

I'm not going to answer that here. However, a couple of remarks:

(1) Prime Ministers are much more powerful than Presidents, due to the absence of checks and balances. Obama, a reasonable and essentially centrist President, has achieved virtually nothing since 2010 due to Republican majorities in Congress. Trump is a plain and simple fascist, so one would hope will face greater opposition.

(2) Trump is also known to have a very short attention span. The idea that he would have the endurance to push major law changes through is a dubious one.

(3) For that matter, Corbyn has proven consistently unable to even produce a policy platform. Imagine what he would be like if he not only had to think of policies, but put them into legalese and defend them against some former Oxford Union debating champion.

(4) Therefore, our fear of what Trump and Corbyn would be like should be rooted less in what we think either of them would do, but rather in what they wouldn't do. (e.g. defend the Baltic Republics/Falkland Islands).

(5) This fact, combined with Trump and Corbyn being the least qualified candidates for governing their respective countries since at least 1900 and 1983 respectively, ought to raise a few questions for libertarians.

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Combating Socialistic Tendencies in Old Testament Interpretation

Having written a pro-Christianity post earlier in the month, and given the vast unlikelihood of Christianity being true, I'd better write a few trillion anti-Christianity posts to balance out the religious tone of my blog. To get started, let's just have a couple of brief riffs on a passage of text introducing the book of Isaiah:
[Isaiah] had to contend with many difficulties, for the moral and spiritual condition of the people was corrupt. The rich oppressed the poor, and revelled in wanton luxury; justice was shamelessly bought and sold.
First, I'll take note with the phrase "the rich oppressed the poor". Part of my complaint is that it is so generic: every moral and political programme that has ever existed has had a complaint of this kind (even Objectivism!), regardless of whether the poor were even literate enough to record their complaints for themselves. But more than that, it gives a misleading impression of the nature and cause of the oppression. It was definitely the case in hierarchical societies, such as that of Uzziah's monarchy in ancient Israel, that there tended to be significant oppression of the peasantry by the elite. It was also the case that the oppressors were in general much richer than the people they were oppressing. But the text I quoted gives the misleading impression that it was because of their riches that people were able to exercise oppression, rather than the oppression being the source of their wealth.

Secondly, it is complained that "justice was... bought and sold." Going all Brennan/Jaworsky: what, precisely is wrong with that? My suspicion is that the complaint refers to situations such as the following scenario: Aaron wrongs Bathsheba, so Bathsheba takes Aaron to court. However, the judge, Caleb, accepts a bribe from Aaron to pronounce wrongly, so that justice is not done.

But attributing the problem to "the buying and selling of justice" is misdiagnosing the problem. Rather, the issue is one of misallocation of rights. Let us suppose that Aaron's wrongdoing created a right of restitution, R. We would tend to assume that R is owned by Bathsheba. For Bathsheba to have the right to sell R is very useful: exercising the right may well require time or money that she does not have. Instead she might sell the case on to someone more able to pursue it, and take the proceeds of the sale as her restitution. The buying and selling of justice is not only morally acceptable, but serves a valuable purpose.

The problem, in our case, is that the right of restitution did not in practice reside with Bathsheba: it went to Caleb. Note that Aaron still ended up paying for his crime (though perhaps less than he otherwise would have had to): the problem lies less with a failure to punish Aaron than with a failure to make Bathsheba whole.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

On Terrorism Against the West

The recent rash of attacks in the West by terrorists, beginning in Nice and most recently occurring (dare I say ending?) in Saint-Éttiene-du-Rouvray, have injected a great deal of tension into political debates over multiculturalism, immigration policy, and domestic security. Some people have begun speaking of a "war" between Islamism and civilisation. These worries are not unfounded, but nor are they in proportion with those which a rational observer of the facts would entertain.

First, let's remark on the generally petty level of the violence involved. Today's attack killed one person and left another fighting for life. Sunday's bombing in Ansbach injured fifteen, but killed no-one. Nine people died in the shooting in Munich last Friday. The attack in Nice, of course, killed 81 innocents, but such attacks are rare, coming perhaps two or three times a year at their most frequent. These numbers perhaps sound bad in the abstract, but let's make some comparisons. Each year in the UK, which has the second safest roads in the world, more than 1700 people die in traffic accidents. (That itself is a massive improvement on the past: 2006 was the first year since records began, 80 years previously, that the figure was under 3000). If we can absorb 2000 deaths from traffic accidents every year, I think we can similarly absorb a couple of hundred deaths from terrorism.

Second, we could prevent most terrorist violence if we really wanted to. With the (admittedly large) exception of the Nice attack, every perpetrator of a notable terrorist attack in the West has been known to domestic intelligence (example). Why aren't the attacks stopped, then? Because doing so would mean arresting people based on suspicion that they might commit a crime, rather than evidence that they had already done so. We could stop most terrorist attacks, but this would come at a cost in civil liberties.

I don't want to say that such costs should never be paid. Going back to the traffic example, we don't ban people from driving in order to prevent traffic accidents - but we do require them to wear seatbelts. There may well be low-hanging fruit to be had: policies that will, with minimal expense or inconvenience, reduce the incidence of terrorism upon our societies (note: preventing thousands of people from entering the country they want to live in does not count as "minimal inconvenience").

At the same time, though, we should note the possibility that we have already gone too far down this route. Airport security, for example, incurs vast costs in time for gains in security which are small to non-existent, and of dubious necessity: air travel is in fact considerably safer than road travel.

Laying my cards on the table: I think we should basically just ignore terrorism. (In the first world, that is: in the Middle East it's actually a very serious problem, although what that means for our politics I don't know). It is genuinely possible that there exist low-hanging-fruit policies which we ought to implement - mandatory detention of people returning from ISIS is very plausibly one, along with state attempts to promote moderate Islam and perhaps even some censorship of violently Islamist views (although my liberal side is very worried by this last idea). But understand that there are no two ways about it: if this becomes a war, Islamism will get curb-stomped.