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Wednesday
Dec122012

Reclaiming Education

James Tooley is Professor of Education Policy at the University of Newcastle. In his excellent book Reclaiming Education, he makes a powerful case for reclaiming education from the state and giving it back to the private sector, to markets and civil society. Tooley argues for this, not from some narrow ideological perspective, nor on the basis of some controversial evaluative premises such as that choice is always valuable in itself, or that parents have the unconditional moral right to decide for their own children. Instead, he argues this from premises that ought to be acceptable even to his opponents. He claims to give his opponents what they say they want, but without relying on the government they mistakenly think is necessary to achieve it. Many supposed justifications for state intervention in education are carefully dissected here and found wanting; government is not needed, Tooley concludes, either in provision, funding, or regulation of education. Not everybody will be convinced by his argument, of course, but there certainly can be no valid excuse for not taking it seriously.

 

But Tooley also wants to reclaim education in a second sense: to reclaim it from what he calls “the tyranny of schooling”. We need to realize, he argues, that education is so much more than what is going on in schools. He asks the fundamental questions about what education is, what it is that we ultimately want from it as individuals and as a society, and he attempts to “probe behind surface policies and ask the philosophical questions about whether any of what we do now is morally justified and, if not, how we can put it right”. His case is heavily informed by recent and historical evidence from the developing as well as the developed world, which provides us with radical new ways of thinking about the way education is provided for in society.

 

It is almost universally agreed that present day systems of state education are not without their problems. Sadly, the solution is always presumed to be the same the world over: "What can the government do about it?" But why, asks Tooley, do we assume we need government here? “The private alternative”, he argues, can meet the local and global challenges facing education today and in the future. Markets in education, in combination with other agents of civil society, most notably the family and philanthropy, can satisfy educational demand, and it has done so historically (before the state got involved in education in the first place).

 

Tooley presents historical data from several countries indicating that “before the state got involved in compulsory schooling or even funding, we did have almost universal schooling provision – and that the progress was such that universal provision was just around the corner”. Data on literacy rates back this up. Tooley cites E.G. West, who once remarked that “when government [in England and Wales] made its debut in education in 1833 mainly in the role of subsidizer it was as if it jumped into the saddle of a horse that was already galloping”. And one can infer from the figures Tooley presents in the book, that there were similar jumps into saddles of galloping horses by other governments throughout the world. He further suggests that without government, private education would have continued to gallop, and thus that universal education could easily have been achieved without the state, if the state had not suppressed and supplanted the private educational opportunities that were prospering in its absence. The real motivation behind states getting involved in education was not to make sure that every child would be given an education, but (at least partly) to use schooling as an instrument of social control.   

 

As Tooley notes, equality and democracy are among the key concerns that lead people to want the state to intervene in education. Others are worried about social cohesion, or crime, or economic growth. "Without the government being involved in these areas, we are told, we will never achieve equality of opportunity or equity. Or we will never achieve real democracy. Or society will disintegrate. The main thrust of this book is to challenge these assumptions. It considers whether these ideals, sincerely held by many, can be satisfied by government, or whether they are aspirations better met outside the state." But as Tooley points out, no government has ever been able to achieve genuinely universal education, not to speak of equal education for all. Given their record to date, he finds the belief that governments could provide equity in education a “touching faith”. Compulsory state schooling simply doesn’t achieve the objectives it has set for itself, and reforms will not be enough to change this, it is a fundamental design flaw.

 

Reclaiming Education is divided into five “sessions” (instead of chapters) and each session is concluded with a “focus group” discussion taking place behind a Rawlsian “veil of ignorance”. It is an inspiring book, written by someone who obviously cares deeply about education at every level from the philosophical to the practical, and from the local to the global.

Saturday
Nov102012

Huemer on the psychology of authority

In a very interesting chapter of Michael Huemer's new book The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey, the topic of the psychology of authority is discussed. In this chapter, Huemer cites a number of studies and well-documented psychological phenomena on the basis of which he argues that "human beings come equipped with strong and pervasive pro-authority biases that operate even when an authority is illegitimate or issues illegitimate and indefensible commands". At the end of the chapter, he sums up:

 

... individuals confronted with the demands of authority figures are liable to feel an almost unconditional compulsion to obey, and this may prompt them to look for explanations for why the authority is legitimate and why they are morally required to obey. People often defer instinctively to those who wield power, and there are even cases [of the so-called "Stockholm Syndrome"] in which people emotionally bond with others (such as kidnappers) who hold great but completely unjustified power over them, adopting the perspectives and goals of those who hold the power. Once a pattern of obedience has started, the need to minimize cognitive dissonance favors continued obedience and the adoption of beliefs that rationalize the authority's commands and one's own obedience to them. Due to a general status quo bias, once a practice or institution becomes established in some society, that practice is likely to be viewed by the members of that society, almost automatically, as normal, right, and good. 

 

He points out that none of this by itself shows that existing political institutions are illegitimate, but it does strongly suggest that such institutions would be widely accepted as legitimate even if they were not. At the very least, this should teach us that the brute fact that most people do perceive political institutions as legitimate cannot straightforwardly be taken as evidence that these institutions are legitimate. Insofar as the widespread pro-authority beliefs and attitudes stem from non-rational sources, we ought to place little or no trust in such beliefs and attitudes as guides to truth or reasonableness. 

 

Huemer bolsters his case by citing not only psychological studies like the famous Milgram experiments and the Stanford Prison experiment, but also historical cases in which fully normal people have committed horrible atrocities that - were it not for their respect for authority - they would not have committed: 

 

The Nazis, the American soldiers at My Lai, and Milgram's subjects were clearly under no [moral] obligation of obedience - quite the contrary - and the orders they were given were clearly illegitimate. From outside these situations, we can see that. Yet when actually confronted by the demands of the authority figures, the individuals in these situations felt the need to obey. This tendency is very widespread among human beings. 

 

The widespread acceptance of political authority has been cited as evidence of the existence of (legitimate) political authority, but the psychological and historical evidence seems to undermine this appeal. Even if all governments were illegitimate, and "no one was obligated to obey their commands (except where the commands line up with preexisting moral requirements)", "it is quite likely that we would still by and large feel bound to obey our governments. That is likely, because even people who are subjected to the clearest examples of illegitimate power still typically feel bound to obey". And this is so even in cases where the authority figure in question was choses arbitrarily (as in the Stanford prison experiment where the roles of 'guard' and 'prisoner' was assigned by a lottery and the participants all knew this)! Because of this, the mere fact that we very often feel bound to obey authority figures cannot plausibly be taken as a reason to think that governments are legitimate and that we are obligated to obey our governments.  

 

Huemer further suggests that theories of authority devised by political philosophers can "plausibly be viewed as attempts to rationalize common intuitions about the need for obedience, where these intuitions are the product of systematic biases". When we feel a requirement to obey (whether this requirement is legitimate or not),

 

... it is likely that this would lead us to think and say that we are obliged to obey and then - in the case of the more philosophically minded among us - to devise theories to explain why we have this obligation. Thus, the widespread belief in political authority does not provide strong evidence for the reality of political authority, since that belief can be explained as the product of systematic bias. 

 

This seems to be an instance of the more general phenomenon described by (among others) Michael Shermer in The Believing Brain (we form our beliefs first, for various non-rational reasons, and then we attempt to rationalize the beliefs we already hold); and Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind (intuition comes first, strategic reasoning comes second). Our minds manifest a host of cognitive biases that continually confirm our beliefs as "true". Many philosophical doctrines can be seen as elaborate and sophisticated systematizations and rationalizations of intuitions that themselves lack rational basis (I suspect that Huemer in not as willing as I am to apply this insight to his theory of "Ethical intuitionism"). 

 

Now, I'm sure the above sketch of Huemer's argument from psychology will leave many people unconvinced. Is it plausible that the widespread belief in the legitimacy of political authority is a result of bias and illusion? Is it really plausible to claim that vast majorities of ordinary citizens of modern, western, democratic states suffer from something like the Stockholm syndrome? Let's briefly look more closely on a few of the components of the argument in turn.   

 

Cognitive dissonance

"Cognitive dissonance" is used in modern psychology to describe the feeling of uneasiness when holding two or more conflicting cognitions (ideas, beliefs, values, emotional reactions) simultaneously. In a state of cognitive dissonance, people may sometimes feel surprise, dread, guilt, anger, or embarrassment. What the political scientist James L. Payne (in his book Six Political Illusionscalls "the voluntary illusion" ("the impulse to want to believe that government action is not based on the use of force") is a good example. Payne invites his readers to ask friends and neighbours if government is based on force. Many people will flatly say "No", others will exhibit evasion, confusion, or even embarrassment, and yet others will say that government's use of force - armies, police, prisons, etc. - is not "really" force. Payne exemplifies with his friend Nancy. When asked "Is government based on force?" she replied "Well, it shouldn't be" and added "I suppose that's dodging the question". Payne's analysis:

 

She knows in one corner of her mind that government is based on force, which she deplores. Yet she looks to government to fix society's problems. She feels that Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, public education, and so on, are desirable programs. Hence, she is conflicted. She doesn't want to disparage the big government she likes by recognizing its distasteful foundation in brute physical force. 

 

There is no denying that government is ultimately based on force, but as Payne notes, people "see some special character about government that transmutes its violence into something else, something nicer that they can approve of". People naturally dislike force and this "creates a powerful psychological pressure to repress the recognition of government's coercive nature".

 

The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by altering existing cognitions, adding new ones to try to create a consistent belief system, or alternatively by reducing the importance of any one of the dissonant elements. Many studies show that people tend to adjust their beliefs and values to make themselves and their choices and behaviour look better to themselves and to others. Huemer argues that cognitive dissonance generates a bias in favour of political authority:

 

Almost all members of modern societies have frequently submitted to the demands of their governments, even when those demands required actions that they would otherwise be strongly disinclined to perform. [...] How do we explain to ourselves why we obey? We could explain our behaviour by citing fear of punishment, habit, the drive toward social conformity, or a general emotional drive to obey whoever holds power. But none of those explanations is emotionally satisfying. Much more pleasing is the explanation that we obey because we are conscientious and caring citizens, and we thus make great sacrifices to do our duty and serve our society. Philosophical accounts of political authority seem designed to bolster just that image. [...] whether or not our behaviour is motivated by compassion and a sense of duty, it is likely that we would generally wish to believe that it is. To believe this, we must accept a basic doctrine of political obligation, and we must accept the legitimacy of our government. 

 

Of course, this does nothing to show that no such doctrine is true, but it seems to undermine one set of powerful reasons for thinking that such doctrines are true.

 

"Social proof" and status quo bias

Other experiments mentioned by Huemer shows a high level of conformity to the beliefs and attitudes of others ("social proof"), and a general bias in favour of the status quo: "Social proof convinces us that what others believe must be true. Status quo bias convinces us that what our society practices must be good." For example, many of the world's cultures (and our own in the past) include beliefs and practices that strike us as bizarre, absurd, or horrible, but the members of these societies generally embrace their own cultures' beliefs and regard their practices as obviously correct, and vice versa. The conclusion to be drawn is that humans have a powerful tendency to see the beliefs of their own society as obviously true and their common practices as obviously right and good. In A History of Force, Payne applies this simple observation specifically to coercive practices:

 

If we had been alive in times past, we say, we would have condemned human sacrifice, the torturing of criminal suspects, the slaying of religious heretics, and so on. How - we ask in disbelief - could anyone have endorsed these practices? This attitude of superiority blinds us to the real complexity of the evolution that operates against force-based institutions. When a coercive practice is ascendant, it is not condemned. To the contrary, it is seen as essential for the health of civilization. It is endorsed by the best citizens, and its critics, if it has any, tend to be society's deviants and outsiders.

 

What does this tell us about the belief in the legitimacy of political authority? Huemer answers:

 

Government is an extremely prominent and fundamental feature of the structure of our society. We know that people tend to have a powerful bias in favour of the existing arrangements of their own societies. It therefore stands to reason that, whether or not any governments were legitimate, most of us would have a strong tendency to believe that some governments are legitimate, especially our own and others like it. 

 

Again, this does nothing by itself to show that any government is illegitimate. But it provides reasons to view the common belief in (the legitimacy of) political authority with suspicion.

 

Stockholm syndrome

Stockholm syndrome is a kind of psychological defence mechanism that can occur when one is under the power of a dangerous person and one's survival chances depend on developing traits that are pleasing to one's captor, including sympathy for the captor. Huemer points out that victims do not consciously choose to adopt these traits, and nor do they merely pretend to adopt them. They simply find themselves with these emotions and attitudes. The existence of such a defence mechanism can be explained in evolutionary terms. Huemer writes

 

[D]uring the history of our species, it has been common for a person or group to hold a great deal of power over others. Those who displeased the powerful person or group were likely to be killed or otherwise harmed. Those who pleased the powerful were more likely to survive and prosper from the powerful person's favor [and thus more likely to be able to propagate their genes]. It is plausible to suppose that Stockholm-like characteristics would be pleasing to powerful persons. Therefore, evolution may have selected for a tendency to develop such traits in appropriate circumstances. 

 

Huemer cites empirical evidence that those who develop Stockholm syndrome in hostage situations and the like are in fact more likely to survive. This supports the idea that Stockholm syndrome is an effective survival mechanism. But does it apply to subjects of political power? Huemer lists five conditions under which Stockholm syndrome is most likely to develop: (1) The aggressor poses a credible threat to the victim, (2) The victim perceives himself as unable to escape, (3) The victim is unable to overpower the aggressor or to effectively defend himself against the aggressor, (4) The victim perceives some kindness from the aggressor, even if only in the form of lack of abuse, and (5) The victim is isolated from the outside world. Huemer then argues that these conditions do in fact apply to a considerable degree to citizens of well-established governments. 

 

 

  1. Governments do control their populations through credible threats of violence. They possess an impressive apparatus for imprisoning individuals; and for those who resist, governments have impressive tools of physical force, up to and including deadly force.   
  2. "Escape from one's government tends to be difficult and costly, typically requiring an abandonment of one's family and friends, one's job, and one's entire society. Even those willing to undertake such costs will generally then only become subject to another government. Escape from government in general is virtually impossible."
  3. "It is virtually impossible for any individual to defend himself against most modern governments, to say nothing of overpowering them."
  4. "Most citizens perceive their government as beneficent in light of the social services that it provides. Some also feel that their government is good because it does not abuse its power as much as most other governments throughout history."
  5. Citizens of modern, western nation-states have access to information from other countries, but most people obtain the great majority of their information from within their own country, and the "outside sources" are all in a similar political situation: "It is as though the hostages had access only to the 'outside perspectives' of hostages and hostage takers in other places. In such a situation, it is not clear that access to these perspectives would retard the development of Stockholm syndrome.

 

 

Does this mean that most people suffer from Stockholm syndrome? I don't know. It's a fascinating thought. Taken by itself it is bound to strike many people as far-fetched, but in combination with other explanations it might well describe a genuine aspect of our situation.

 

There is, of course, much, much more to be said on the very interesting topic of the psychology of authority. Steven Pinker's discussion in chapters 8 through 10 of The Better Angels of our Nature is excellent. But Huemer's treatment of the topic is a valuable contribution.

Tuesday
Oct092012

The Ethics of Voting

Many people approach democracy, and voting especially, with a quasi-religious reverence. This means that people tend to have firm opinions about when and how people should vote. They tend to think the answers to the questions of voting ethics are obvious. They treat their views on voting as sacred doctrine. They dislike having their views challenged.

 

In his book on "voting ethics", philosopher Jason Brennan attacks what he calls the "folk theory" of voting that everyone has a duty to vote, and that any "good faith" vote is morally acceptable. Even many philosophers and political theorists endorse some version of this folk theory. Brennan argues, to the contrary, that there is no moral duty to vote (except in extraordinary circumstances), but if one votes one does have a moral duty to vote well, otherwise one ought to abstain from voting. People who lack the right motive, knowledge, rationality, or ability to vote well should not vote. 

 

By voting "well" Brennan means to vote for what one justifiably believes to be in the common good. If one votes, one should vote on the basis of sound evidence for what is likely to promote the common good. One's reasons for voting the way one does should be epistemically justified. And it is not enough to be informed about the candidates' respective election promises. Much more important is to be reasonably well informed about the social-scientific evidence - from economics, sociology, and history, etc. - about how institutions and policies work. Good voters are "self-critical and use reliable methods of reasoning in forming their policy preferences. They actively engage contrary points of view and work hard to overcome their own biases". Sadly, most voters form policy preferences on the basis of what they find emotionally appealing.

 

They believe various economic or sociological theories (about how economies, governments, institutions, and the like function) because they find these theories comforting or flattering to their ideologies, not because the evidence supports those theories. They ignore and evade evidence, demonize the other side, and form their preferences through unreliable processes. They are unjustified in their beliefs. Their policy preferences reflect biases and nonrational or irrational bents.

 

If one votes for some candidate or policy that one believes will promote the common good, but one lacks good grounds for one's belief, then one has, on Brennan's view, acted wrongly. One might well have had good intentions, but one has acted wrongly nonetheless. Good intentions are never enough to bring about good policy.

 

[M]any politically active citizens - writers, activists, community organizers, pundits, celebrities, and the like - try to make the world better and vote with the best of intentions. They vote for what they believe will promote the common good. However, despite their best intentions, on my view, many of them are blameworthy for voting. Although they are politically engaged, they are nonetheless often ignorant of or misinformed about the relevant facts or, worse, are simply irrational. Though they intend to promote the common good, they all too often lack sufficient evidence to justify the policies they advocate. When they do vote, I argue, they pollute democracy with their votes and make it more likely that we will have to suffer from bad governance.

 

Brennan guards against an interpretation of him as "anti-democratic". He states that he supports democracy. But he stresses that democracy is not an "end in itself" and that it is not true that the more democratic something is the better it is. We should avoid "democratic fetishism". He holds that "political institutions are like hammers. We judge them in the first instance by how functional they are, by how well they help us lead our lives together in peace and prosperity". He notes that "some political theorists love democracy so much that they wish to see it pervade nearly every aspect of life". But, as Brennan rightly points out, "too much and too frequent democracy threatens to rob us of our autonomy".

 

In politics, democracy is a method for deciding when and how to coerce people into doing things they do not wish to do. Political democracy is a method for deciding (directly or indirectly) when, how, and in what ways a government will threaten people with violence. The symbol of democracy is not just the ballot - it is the ballot connected to a gun.

 

After having argued for a normative standard to which votes can be held, Brennan considers how well actual voters behave. He follows Bryan Caplan, who in The Myth of the Rational Voter (my review) argued that voters are not only rationally ignorant, but "rationally irrational". A person is said to exhibit rational irrationality when it is instrumentally rational for him to be epistemically irrational. An epistemically irrational person holds beliefs without evidence, ignores and evades evidence against her favoured beliefs, employs logical fallacies, and accepts contradictions in her thinking, etc. The idea is that for the individual voter, the expected cost of maintaining her epistemic rationality in the sphere of politics is greater than the expected benefit. The cost to the typical voter of voting in epistemically irrational ways is very close to zero. The cost of overcoming bias and epistemic irrationality is, on the other hand, often high. The psychological benefit of such irrationality is significant: "Epistemically irrational political beliefs can reinforce one’s self-image, boost one’s self-esteem; make one feel noble, smart, superior, safe, or comfortable; and can help achieve conformity with the group and thus facilitate social acceptance."

 

... human beings are wired not to seek truth and justice but to seek consensus. They are shackled by social pressure. They are overly deferential to authority. They cower before uniform opinion. They are swayed not so much by reason but by a desire to belong, by emotional appeal, and by sex appeal. We evolved as social primates who depended on tight in-group cooperative behavior. Unfortunately, this leaves us with a deep bent toward tribalism and conformity.

 

The Ethics of Voting is a very welcome book that makes a perfect companion to Caplan's aforementioned book. It is a well argued and insightful book. The first chapter is available for free on the authors' website. 

Sunday
Aug122012

The tyranny of the majority: quotes on democracy

It was observed, that Men had ungovernable Passions, which made it necessary to guard against the Violence they might offer to each other. They appointed Governors over them for this Reason; but a worse and more perplexing Difficulty arises, how to be defended against the Governors? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Invain they change from a single Person to a few. These few have the Passions of the one, and they unite to strengthen themselves, and to secure the Gratification of their lawless Passions at the Expence of the general Good. In vain do we fly to the Many. The Case is worse; their Passions are less under the Government of Reason, they are augmented by the Contagion, and defended against all Attacks by their Multitude. 

Edmund Burke in A Vindication of Natural Society (1756)


... democracy is, properly speaking, necessarily a despotism, because it establishes an executive power in which "all" decide for or even against one who does not agree; that is, "all," who are not quite all, decide, and this is a contradiction of the general will with itself and with freedom.

 Immanuel Kant in Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch (1795)


The "people" who exercise the power, are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised, and the "self-government" spoken of, is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means, the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority; the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this, as against any other abuse of power. The limitation, therefore, of the power of government over individuals, loses none of its importance when the holders of power are regularly accountable to the community, that is, to the strongest party therein.

 John Stuart Mill (on "the tyranny of the majority") in On Liberty (1860)

 

... the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule, is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest. But a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice.

Henry David Thoreau in Civil Disobedience (1849)

 

In affirming that a man may not be taxed unless he has directly or indirectly given his consent, it affirms that he may refuse to be so taxed; and to refuse to be taxed, is to cut all connection with the state. Perhaps it will be said that this consent is not a specific, but a general one, and that the citizen is understood to have assented to every thing his representative may do, when he voted for him. But suppose he did not vote for him; and on the contrary did all in his power to get elected someone holding opposite views — what then? The reply will probably be that, by taking part in such an election, he tacitly agreed to abide by the decision of the majority. And how if he did not vote at all? Why then he cannot justly complain of any tax, seeing that he made no protest against its imposition. So, curiously enough, it seems that he gave his consent in whatever way he acted — whether he said yes, whether he said no, or whether he remained neuter! A rather awkward doctrine this. Here stands an unfortunate citizen who is asked if he will pay money for a certain proffered advantage; and whether he employs the only means of expressing his refusal or does not employ it, we are told that he practically agrees; if only the number of others who agree is greater than the number of those who dissent. And thus we are introduced to the novel principle that A's consent to a thing is not determined by what A says, but by what B may happen to say!

Herbert Spencer in The Right to Ignore the State (1851)  

 

The superstitions to be feared in the present day are much less religious than political; and of all the forms of idolatry I know none more irrational and ignoble than this worship of mere numbers.

William Lecky in Democracy and Liberty (1896)

 

The dogma of the sovereignty of crowds is as little defensible, from the philosophical point of view, as the religious dogmas of the Middle Ages, but it enjoys at present the same absolute power they formerly enjoyed.

Gustave Le Bon in The Crowd (1896)

 

To rob the public, it is necessary to deceive it. To deceive it is to persuade it that it is being robbed for its own benefit, and to induce it to accept, in exchange for its property, services that are fictitious or often even worse. This is the purpose of sophistry, whether it be theocratic, economic, political, or monetary. Thus, even since brute force has been held in check, the sophism has been not merely a species of evil, but the very essence of evil. It must, in its turn, be held in check. And to this end, the public must be made more subtle than the subtle, just as it has already become stronger than the strong.

 Frédéric Bastiat in Economic Sophisms (1845)

 

Monday
Jul232012

Six Political Illusions - A Primer on Government for Idealists Fed Up with History Repeating Itself

When the untutored mind first contemplates government, fragmentary perceptions make it seem that government really is a wealthy, powerful, and effective problem-solving institution. A child just becoming aware of government and public policy will normally say that government should fix things and take care of us. His mind produces this opinion in just the way that it produces the opinion that the world is flat. As he matures, he begins to overcome the illusions. He gains more knowledge about government, and he also brings to bear his own innate “illusion-busting” cognitive abilities. This process of maturation produces, in the typical case, political views that are a mixture of the underlying illusions and more sophisticated understandings. The illusions are no longer accepted in simple, unvarnished form, but they still influence thinking about what government should do and what it can accomplish.

 

In this excellent little book, political scientist James L. Payne exposes six illusions that exert a persistent influence on the way people think about government. He begins by noting a paradox of modern politics:  disappointment, cynicism, and complaints about government seem to be ever present, but still people continue to place their hope in government; people seem to dislike how government works, but still they call for more government. This inconsistency in attitudes toward government is a world-wide pattern and prevails among all classes of people from untutored to highly educated.

 

The public in all countries is generally critical of national leaders and sceptical about government's capacity to operate successfully. Yet this same public is eager for government to take a bigger role in addressing every problem that attracts its notice, from transportation to scientific research, housing, and labor relations.  

 

The phenomenon is far from new. Payne quotes Herbert Spencer who wrote in 1853, "Take up a daily paper and you will probably find a leader [op-ed] exposing the corruption, negligence, or mismanagement of some State-department. Cast your eye down the next column, and it is not unlikely that you will read proposals for an extension of State-supervision." There are plenty of good reasons to be sceptical about government, but why doesn't this scepticism lead people to turn away from big government? Payne notes that some commentators have attempted to explain this by pointing to a school system that indoctrinates students into wanting more government or to lobbying by special-interest groups and government officials who want to ensure an ever-increasing flow of taxes into their own pockets. But while recognizing that there may be a grain of truth to this, Payne thinks that these are not the main explanations. He rightly emphasises that "schoolteachers, politicians, and pressure groups would not have succeeded in fostering big government if people in general were not already receptive to it." Payne's answer is instead that the appeal of big government is rooted in thinking that has been distorted by a set of illusions about what government is and what it is capable of accomplishing.

 

The errors I point to are not mere mistakes - errors of fact or simple misinformation. They are impressions that the naive mind has when first presented with the phenomenon of government. They are like the impression of a flat earth gained from looking across a prairie. The land does indeed look flat, and if someone tells you it's not, your mind retains the impression of flatness. But first impressions are important, and these impressions retain a hold even in the mature mind. Government is a gigantic, complicated structure that has no counterpart in our daily lives and personal experiences. As soon as we hear about it, we start forming opinions, opinions based on first impressions and naive assumptions. These opinions are illusions, ideas that are fundamentally false and misleading, but that nevertheless become embedded in our personal worldview.

 

It is becoming increasingly recognized that we form beliefs first (for non-rational reasons) and then we attempt to rationalize the beliefs we already hold. Our brains manifest a host of cognitive biases that continually confirm our beliefs as "true". Many doctrines are systematizations and rationalizations of intuitions that themselves lack rational basis and it is even worse when it comes to political doctrines as there is very little incentive for thinking rationally about politics. Six Political Illusions has six chapters, each devoted to one illusion. The introduction and the first chapter are available for free on the authors website. I comment briefly on each chapter.  

 

The philanthropic illusion: the idea that government has money of its own

Payne believes that when most young people first contemplate the political realm, they begin with the naive view that government is a rich philanthropist. From such a perspective, government payments to nice-sounding causes seem unambiguously good and helpful. If asked whether government should promote art and education, the answer would be an unhesitant "yes". The problem, of course, is that the government does not have any money of its own. Any money that it has to spend has first to be taken away from a nation's citizens. As people mature, their naive first impressions "becomes overlain by more sophisticated ideas"; they become aware that government raises money through taxes and they become aware that they themselves pay taxes. "For many people, however, the philanthropic illusion is not fully overcome and consciously discarded. It remains lodged in their thinking, giving them a falsely positive view of government spending programs."  

 

Laboring under the philanthropic illusion, politicians and the public are treating government as a source of funds. In the grip of this illusion they assume that government can always spend more for some good purpose.

 

The result of this approach is a vast vicious cycle of multiple subsidies. Government taxes homeowners to provide assistance for farmers, then taxes hospital patients to provide benefits to homeowners, and then taxes farmers to provide benefits to hospital patients, and so forth. This arrangement is not only economically self-defeating, but socially unhealthy as well. It invites everyone to try to live at the expense of everyone else by engaging in lobbying and agitation.  

 

Payne notes further that "two of the most commonly heard arguments in support of government spending are outgrowths of the philanthropic illusion": that spending "puts money in circulation" and that "it creates jobs". Both are fallacious because whatever money the government "puts in circulation" by spending is at the same time taken out of circulation through taxation. 

 

The voluntary illusion: the impulse to want to believe that government action is not based on the use of force

There is no denying that government is based on force. As Payne explained in another excellent book A History of Force (my review), the world has experienced a broad evolution against the use of violence. This evolution is reflected both in our practices and in our attitudes. In advanced cultures, force is considered a primitive, barbaric approach. Payne notes that this modern distaste toward force "creates a powerful psychological pressure to repress the recognition of government's coercive nature". This need to repress the ugly side of government's action is the basis of the voluntary illusion.

 

Payne invites the reader to test this illusion by asking friends and neighbours if government is based on force. Many people will flatly say "No", others will exhibit evasion, confusion, or even embarrassment, and yet others will say that government's use of force - armies, police, prisons, etc. - is not "really" force. "They see some special character about government that transmutes its violence into something else, something nicer that they can approve of." Payne exemplifies with his friend Nancy. When asked "Is government based on force?" she replied "Well, it shouldn't be" and added "I suppose that's dodging the question". Payne's analysis:

 

She knows in one corner of her mind that government is based on force, which she deplores. Yet she looks to government to fix society's problems. She feels that Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, public education, and so on, are desirable programs. Hence, she is conflicted. She doesn't want to disparage the big government she likes by recognizing its distasteful foundation in brute physical force. 

 

He also notes that people with radical, revolutionary political views often portray their imagined utopias as entirely voluntary, thus failing to acknowledge (to themselves and to others) the force that would be required to bring about such radical ideals and to suppress dissenters. 

 

The illusion of the frictionless state: the idea that the state can transfer resources with negligible overhead cost

Even if the first two illusions had been overcome and it would be explicitly recognized that government spending involves taking money away from other uses and that this is done by force or the threat of force, it might still be judged to be worth it. A third illusion, however, lead people to ignore the inefficiency and waste in government's system of transferring wealth from some people and delivering it to others. We fail to adequately take into account administrative costs (the expense of running the bureaucracies that redistribute tax burdens and benefits), compliance costs (the time and money spent by firms and private citizens in trying to comply with the tax system), disincentice costs (taxes weaken the incentives for constructive activities that produce income like working, increasing production, starting new businesses, etc.), misallocation costs (bureaucracy's misuse of labor and capital due to the distorted incentives of government employees), lost production costs (subsidies that encourage recipients to leave economic resources idle), and overconsumption costs (when government supplies a good or service for free or below cost, people consume more of it than they otherwise would), etc. Payne identifies a total of 14 different overhead costs that add up to a waste factor of several hundred percent! Payne has elaborated on this topic in the aptly titled book Costly Returns.

 

Payne argues that in many other areas we include known inefficiencies, obstacles, and imperfections in our thinking, but "when it comes to politics, the human mind does not function in this sober, sceptical way". "Practically no one realizes that research needs to be done on the efficiency of government transfers because the instinct to wonder about costs and waste is dulled by the illusion of the frictionless state." Perhaps the greatest victims of this illusion, Payne suggests, have been scholars and philosophers:

 

The philosopher sees his task as that of describing an ideal and considers it beneath his dignity to bother about operational details, such as costs and inefficiencies. He is like an architect who designs an aesthetically pleasing building and assumes that engineers and accountants will figure out how to construct and pay for it.

 

If one recognizes overhead costs, it becomes apparent that in a system in which "everyone pays for everyone else's goods", everyone loses - big time!

 

The materialistic illusion: the belief that money alone buys public policy results

"We should spend more money on education!" is a typical suggestion, but spending more money on something is not sufficient for improvements. Indeed, in some cases, spending more money on something can have zero effect, or worse, even exacerbate the very problem one is trying to solve. When we grapple with problems in our daily lives, we are usually rather well aware of the human factors (skill, motivation, etc.) needed to make the expenditure of money useful, but when our attention turns to public policy we tend to ignore the human factors. "National problems are treated as large, abstract blocks: 'unemployment', 'substance abuse', 'illiteracy'. The individual involved in these broad problems are lost from view - and so are their values and motivation." If we have succumbed to the materialistic illusion, we "see government as a store with social goods for sale: green energy, education, art, housing, job training, and so forth. If you want more, you simply buy more. The result is that we end up "throwing money at problems". 

 

For a more thoroughgoing analysis of this illusion, see Payne's Overcoming Welfare (my review).

 

The watchful eye illusion: the idea that government has greater knowledge and wisdom that the public

"The idea that government has superior wisdom is to some extent rooted in the tendency to view government as godlike, an impulse that goes back many millennia." Part of this tendency stems from a natural human desire for a higher authority. The world is a confusing, challenging place, often posing problems that humans cannot immediately understand. We find it reassuring to suppose that some higher, wiser person or entity has all the answers. As Payne put it in Overcoming Welfare:

 

By looking to this entity, we can believe that a world that may be outside our control is at least not out of control. For thousands of years, government has filled this yearning for a supreme entity. Men have looked to pharaohs, emperors, and kings to organize the world and to tell them what to do. This primitive impulse has been dressed up in intellectual garments by theorists who claim that central control is necessary for a just, efficient society.

 

The analogy with religion is obvious and it is not surprising that the politically ambitious throughout history often have appealed to divine powers to maintain the illusion of legitimacy. Sociologists call this the “symbolic base of power”. As Jonathan Turner and Alexandra Maryanski have pointed out in their book On the Origin of Societies by Natural Selection (my review), religious beliefs "began to legitimate power in horticultural systems, with leaders being viewed as god-like or, at a minimum, as agents of the gods whose directives must be followed because they embody the wishes of the supernatural". We can still see the traces of such practices in our modern (supposedly secular) societies.

 

But to think that government has superior wisdom is, of course, a fallacy. While it is certainly true that individuals do not always know what is best for themselves, we should not forget that governments are made up of ordinary people who are just as confused and misinformed as the rest of us can be. Indeed, there are strong reasons to believe that people are much better at making choices in the private sphere than they are at making collective choices through majority voting.  

 

The illusion of government preeminence: the belief that government is the only problem-solving institution in society

The final illusion makes people think that they face a choice between relying on government to solve society's problems or to leave these problems unsolved. This is a false dichotomy because the alternative to government is not nothing, but the problem-solving abilities of what Payne calls "the voluntary sphere".

 

Humans are a problem-solving species. Having spent millennia grappling with the challenges of existence, we have learned the lesson that there is a tool for every task. If you want to dig a hole, a shovel will solve the problem; to sew a shirt, you use needle and thread; and so on. It is therefore natural that when we contemplate social and economic problems, we assume there must be a way to fix them. [...] When we look about for the machine that's supposed to address society's problems, our gaze falls on government.   

 

It is understandable that when a national (or global) job needs to be done, people look to the big, powerful, and seemingly effective entity that looms large in their field of vision. The illusion of government preeminence makes us overlook the more elusive voluntary sphere: individuals and groups working separately or together to make the world around them a better place driven by their various private motives including generosity, compassion, desires for material gain, etc. Most problems have indeed been solved in this way, even if political institutions have often been given undeserved credit.

 

Payne notes that the dynamics of democratic elections reinforces the illusion of government preeminence.

 

Elections focus attention on what government can do. Candidates vie with each other in emphasizing the social and economic problems of the day and in promising to use government to fix them. Candidates who say government should not be used to solve problems appear negative and unsympathetic, and they tend to be weeded out of the system. [...] Electoral campaigns shortchange the mention of the voluntary sphere. It would not make much sense for a candidate to run for office by pointing out that nongovernmental groups, individuals, families, and businesses can solve social problems.  

 

Payne also notes that government weakens the voluntary sphere in three ways: (1) by seizing roles; (2) by taking resources away from it through taxation; and (3) by constraining freedom of action through its regulations. Further, when both the public and the politicians believe that government is the only problem-solving institution in society, "constitutional restraints will not keep them from turning to it to handle everything" with the result that governments can keep growing despite numerous checks and balances.

 

That governments do not have any money on their own; that its operations are based on force; that there are overhead costs involved in every government program; that throwing money at problems is not sufficient to solve them; and that governments do not have any superior knowledge, might all seem obvious when you think about it. The problem, I guess, is that most of the time a lot of people don't think. I strongly wish that the contents of this book would be taught in every high school and that every journalist would go through these six political illusions like a check-list before they comment on public policy. Though, I’m not hopeful as the news media are competing for consumers who don’t want to have their illusions shattered.

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