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What Social Animals Owe to Each Other

Friday, January 21, 2022

TGIF: Easy Cases May Make Bad Rules

Hard cases make bad law, an adage apparently coined before 1837 tells us. In other words, "an extreme case is a poor basis for a general law that would cover a wider range of less extreme cases." Not everyone has agreed that this is the case, but we'll let that go. I just want to point out that easy cases also may make bad law, or at least bad rules.

Take the question of whether social networks should kick people off for saying things that other people find discomfiting, offensive, or "threatening" (with that word being used extremely loosely, having nothing to do with a physical threat). Leave aside that the networks are privately owned, however ominously close they may be to certain powerful politicians. I'm not talking about property rights here. That you have a right to do something does not mean that you ought to do it.

Is it generally desirable that Facebook, Twitter, and the rest don't operate on a complete "come one, come all" basis?  Many people say yes; they want to be assured that no one will enter their range of vision who will make them uncomfortable in one way or another. True, social-networking participants already can exclude participants they don't wish to see from their range of vision. But some want more than that: they want to keep everyone else from seeing the "offensive" participants.

But others think that having a very low bar, if any at all, for excluding participants undercuts the very point of social networking, the value of which lies in the easy availability of the widest range of opinions, analyses, and reporting of events. They relish free-wheeling conversation about anything while accepting the trade-off that some real jerks will make their unpleasant presence known. Those who favor a liberal admittance policy are satisfied with being able to block or ignore participants whom they find annoying or worse.

Considering the powerful practical case for free speech that John Stuart Mill put forth in On Liberty, it seems that erring on the side of liberal criteria in the social networks is the best way to go. Even jerks who are wrong about a matter can have something of value to say. A flawed criticism or an overlooked fact may prompt a worthwhile refinement of an already basically sound position.

Mill summed up his views when he wrote, "He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that." He went on:

His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion. The rational position for him would be suspension of judgment, and unless he contents himself with that, he is either led by authority, or adopts, like the generality of the world, the side to which he feels most inclination. Nor is it enough that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. That is not the way to do justice to the arguments, or bring them into real contact with his own mind. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them. He must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form; he must feel the whole force of the difficulty which the true view of the subject has to encounter and dispose of; else he will never really possess himself of the portion of truth which meets and removes that difficulty. [Emphasis added.]

I find that an unanswerable argument, though obviously I am committed to hearing the best arguments against it. Notice that Mill endorsed the principle of charity in writing that we should hear the strongest case from its own advocates and not from critics. That's called "steel-manning" these days in opposition to "straw-manning."

Now an obvious problem arises that relates to scarcity. No one has enough time to seek out and consume every bit of criticism of every position they hold. So we each have to pick and choose according to our priorities, doing the best we can with what we have.

However, none of that justifies restrictions on what a free-wheeling forum promises to be. Someone might challenge this view by asking what's wrong with excluding someone who does little more than threaten people with violence or ladle out disgusting slurs of one kind or another. To which I would respond that I wouldn't be upset if a person who presents such an easy case were excluded. (The criminal law already addresses specific threats to identifiable persons.) But caution is in order. The slippery slope is real, so it's not only easy-case people who are at risk. It's also purveyors of alleged misinformation. Of course some stuff posted deserves that label, but it has also been applied to maverick opinions and factual accounts voiced by qualified people merely because their views clash with the position of government-anointed experts (who have their own agendas). Whether the social-network bigwigs believe in what they are doing or they just want to curry favor with the powerful, who needs that? Easy cases can indeed make bad rules.

At any rate, why should we have confidence that the people in charge of the social networks or their algorithms will confine their expulsions to only the most egregious cases? We already know better. What did Lord Acton say about power again? It goes for private power too.

What we must do is oppose government intervention because the politicians and regulators will likely defer to the corporate incumbents, and that means market entry will become even more difficult than it already is for innovative upstart competitors. The ideal is a wide range of choices so people who want no-holds-barred social networking can find it and those who want tamer environments can also have their way. Since people have different tastes, the market can have many winners.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

What Is Mutual Altruism?

According to Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, theft is "selfish," while trade is "mutually altruistic." If genes and people are "selfish," as Dawkins believes, why does mutual altruism, which includes all forms of cooperation, ever happen? He replies that it happens because mutual altruism benefits the parties more than "purely selfish" behavior would. This is an astounding acknowledgment. 

If that's so -- and I believe it is -- why not call cooperation mutual selfishness, mutual self-interest, or something like that? Why introduce the idea of mutual altruism if in fact such actions are more "selfish" than what Dawkins thinks of as pure selfishness. 

I admire Dawkins a great deal, but here is a case where better philosophy would have made for better evolutionary theory. As he would have it, altruism, at least in its mutual mode, is more selfish than selfishness, and that makes little sense.

No one shed more light on the mutual self-interest of cooperation than Ludwig von Mises in Human Action. See the section titled "The Harmony of the 'Rightly Understood' Interests" in chapter 24, where he writes, "The fact that my fellow man wants to acquire shoes as I do, does not make it harder for me to get shoes, but easier." Thus in the market human beings convert competition for consumption, which is the rule in the rest of the animal kingdom, into competition for production, which benefits all people.

That doesn't sound much like the law of the jungle, does it?

Monday, January 17, 2022

I Admit It

I'm growing increasingly intolerant of intolerance.

Friday, January 14, 2022

TGIF: Utopianism May Be Hazardous to Your Health

Beware those who claim to have a detailed blueprint for the ideal society. If such a person thinks you stand in the way, you may get run over. That's how it is with utopians. They want everything just so, and woe betide those who disagree.

The repeated attempts at creating ideal societies haven't gone so well. To name just a few, see France 1789, Russia 1917, Italy 1922, Germany 1933, Eastern Europe 1945, China 1949, Cambodia 1976, Venezuela 1999.

The problem is that the architects of utopia have little tolerance for those who aren't wholeheartedly with the program. Any departure from the plan is a move away from the ideal. Dissenters must be dealt with.

In The Road to Serfdom, which still belongs on everyone's reading list, F. A. Hayek pointed out that a big problem with socialist or fascist central planning -- which is another way of saying utopianism -- is that regular people will assuredly upset the plan just by attending to their own lives -- so they cannot be left free to do so.

Hayek also noted that even if everyone agreed in principle that some kind of top-down social plan was desirable, they certainly would not agree on its details. In a world of scarcity, that would be a problem because everyone's preferences couldn't be accommodated. Moreover, Hayek went on, the endless debates over the plan could well give rise to a dictator who promised to stop the idle chatter and act decisively. So much for the promise of democratic planning.

Not everyone aspires to design their whole society. But some want to do something similar on a smaller scale. They seek to shape their local social environment (including their social-media environment) by expecting and insisting that everyone with whom they come into contact affirm their view of themselves and of how the world should be. One way to do this is to demonize and marginalize dissenters. While such micro-planning may seem largely harmless, it could have its risks as it gains momentum. Politics professor Eric Kaufmann, the author of Whiteshiftwrites that the "principal threat to liberalism today is an emergent authoritarianism, not a top-down form of the kind we find in China or Turkey."

Intolerance toward dissenters can manifest itself in demands that we use language in novel and loaded ways favored by an interest group. This is often part of a utopian strategy to change government policy in oppressive ways. These days people can lose their jobs or access to online communities for using words (or having done so years before) in a newly forbidden manner.

But controlling language, which really means language users, is like herding cats. Language is a decentralized institution under no one's control. The meanings of words can change in their own time, but meanings are not determined by diktat. Most people will continue to speak as they are accustomed to speaking regardless of the activists' strident demands that we not only say, to use Orwell's example in Nineteen Eighty-Four, that 2+2=5 but also believe it.

Today's equivalents of 2+2=5 include: "The signs of a climate disaster are all around us and beyond debate"; "Sex is changeable or nonbinary or a social construct"; "Straight-white-cis-male supremacy explains all you'll ever need to know about Western civilization and contemporary American society"; and "Those who disagree with [name a group] are deplorable."

People should be free to believe those things if they want to, but they should also be free to disbelieve them and say so without fear of harassment, physical threats, or legal penalties. Those who know that 2+2=4 should inform the utopians that they have the burden of proving why anyone should pretend otherwise. "Gaslighting" needs cooperative victims.

A society, like a language, can't really be centrally planned, although the attempt will be lethal. The contrary idea gets encouragement from a misapplication of enlightenment principles. That the hard sciences can furnish the means to control natural forces, i.e., inanimate things, for the betterment of all is no reason for thinking that the social sciences can or should furnish the means to control social forces, i.e., people. Hayek called this misguided conviction scientism. No one has put the point better than Adam Smith in his other book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

The man of system [i.e., the central planner] ... is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess–board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess–board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess–board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it.

The alternative to utopianism, then, is Smith's "system of natural liberty" with its emergent, undesigned, and bottom-up order. Or in other words: individual sovereignty, free association, cooperation, competition, and contract.

So, people, believe what you want and recognize everyone else's right to the same freedom. Replace your divots! Don't be fragile -- be antifragile; in order for someone to give offense it is necessary that someone else take it. Don't be that someone. Don't look for your identity or life's meaning in what you take offense at.

Finally, let's each of us agree not to turn to the state to support "my tribe."

Friday, January 07, 2022

TGIF: National or Enlightenment Liberal Identity?

I find much to admire about Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born Dutch-American scholar, author, and one-time politician who has drawn international attention to the violence against women and girls not only in Muslim-majority countries but also in the West at the hands of Muslim immigrants. Hirsi Ali escaped from a marriage arrangement and then became a pariah among Muslims, including her own family, and even the target of a murder conspiracy because of her public statements and writings, her break with Islam, and her collaboration with director Theo van Gough on the film Submission. As a result of the film, Van Gough was murdered in 2004.

Hirsi Ali is obviously intelligent, courageous, and nuanced. But of course that doesn't mean she doesn't get some important things wrong.

For example, while Hirsi Ali disagrees with how the U.S. government responded to what she regards as the "civilizational conflict" between the Islamic world and the West, she believes that the United States must engage in that conflict so as to "emerge out of it triumphantly."

In my view, she interprets a geopolitical conflict, which is the result of a century of Western imperialism, as a civilizational conflict. Yes, Muslim fanatics (often with the help of not-terribly-devout recruits, incidentally) have committed atrocities against innocent people, including other Muslims, and we should say so without hesitation or euphemism. But that doesn't mean we should overlook the crimes committed against innocent people in the Middle East by the U.S. government and its allies, including Israel. One thing that follows from this fact is that U.S. military intervention in Muslim-majority countries, which invariably kills innocents, is likely to drive people to more not less extreme forms of Islam. Hirsi Ali urges Muslims to undertake a reformation, but military force is a poor way to bring this about.

For the record, as a member of the Dutch parliament, Hirsi Ali voted to support the U.S.-led coalition in the war in Iraq, which she now apparently thinks was a mistake. She also says, "I think you just can't drone bad ideas out of people's heads," although she doesn't exclude drones as a means of persuasion. I urge readers to watch her Freedomfest discussion with Scott Horton and Abigail Hall Blanco of the "war on terror" in which Hirsi Ali's views on the nature of the conflict with Islam and the ability of the United States to engage morally and competently in a "war on terror" are subjected to a withering critique.

Let's move on to a related matter. In an interview on the Triggernometry program and podcast, Hirsi Ali wondered why immigrants raised in an Islamic culture, which she regards as inherently violent, would want to assimilate in a Western country that does not proudly embrace its own unique national identity. She makes a fair point when she says that the West has faltered not by acknowledging past sins such as slavery and imperialism, but by pretending that their past contains nothing but sins. The history of the West has much to admire thanks to enlightenment liberalism. Claiming otherwise seems little more than a fashionable and even nihilistic pose. Aggressive historical ignorance is never flattering.

But Hirsi Ali undercuts her point when she seems to claim that the people of Western countries ought to wear their unique national identities on their sleeves. Considering her embrace of enlightenment liberalism and its signature values -- reason, toleration, freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, private property, freedom of enterprise, privacy, etc. -- I would have thought that she'd be calling on the Western countries to stress their transcendent liberalism, not their unique local differences. I don't for a moment suggest that the unique features are unimportant, but only that for the purposes of acculturating immigrants from illiberal countries, they aren't the most important features.

National identity strikes me as identity politics writ large, grand blood-and-soil tribalism. But she doesn't see it that way. And while I favor decentralization, secession, and people's efforts to free themselves from distant and unaccountable rulers (such as Brexit), we ought to acknowledge that nationalism has a pretty poor record. (Hirsi Ali concedes this in the case of Germany.) A staunch nationalist is not likely to favor secession because the nation-state is taken at the sacred irreducible political unit. I'd guess that Hirsi Ai is a fan of Abraham Lincoln not only because he disapproved of slavery but also because he went to war, first and foremost, to prevent disunion.

While cosmopolitan enlightenment liberalism may be reconciliable conceptually with a benign, pacifistic version of nationalism (as Ludwig von Mises thought), whether it is likely in practice in our time is another matter entirely. These days nationalism -- Buy American! Protect American jobs! -- spawns trade protectionism, obsession with borders, and other measures that create friction between countries and risk the outbreak of war.

Enlightenment liberalism is appropriate to people everywhere because they are all human beings (even if incidental local customs vary from place to place). That, then, is what we in the West ought to be offering to -- but not imposing on -- non-Westerners. Meanwhile, we must undertake the reforms necessary to get the politicians to leave us alone. As for newcomers to the West, respect everyone's rights and get on with your lives.