The American Scene

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Articles filed under Politics

Will Obamacare "Destroy" America? How Would We Know?

A long, long time ago I said on Twitter that there is a 50/50 chance that Obamacare will “destroy America.”

This has been throwing Twitter maven Richard Yeselson into conniptions for literally months now so I figure some clarification is in order.

Obviously I did not mean that Obamacare will cause a destructive meteor shower, or an alien invasion, or the second coming.

So, what did I mean?

Quite simply this: I think most observers, whatever their political outlook, would agree that there is something unique or at least different to the political economy of the United States. There’s a bit of a “je ne sais quoi” to what Jim Manzi has called “the American system”, but it mainly has to do with a greater comfort with economic risk-taking, creative destruction, entrepreneurial spirit, and so on, than in most, if not all, other countries on the planet. Some might deplore that this is so, but saying that American culture is uniquely friendly to the capitalistic ethos is the most commonplace thing in the world.

I also think many people (though not enough) would agree that a political economy is a delicate and intricately complex thing. It depends not just on policy, or law, or levels of taxation, but also on the underlying culture. The rule of law, for example, which is so crucial to economic flourishing, depends not so much on what laws are on the books as in the way that they are applied.

I also think that many people (though not enough) would agree that social policy can often have unintended consequences, and that these unintended consequences can ripple out into second, and third-order differences and cause widespread social change. For example, nobody, even the most rabid opponent, would have said in the 1960’s and 1970’s that no-fault divorce laws would lead to a 50% divorce rate, and yet in hindsight that is obvious.

Now, where does that leave us with Obamacare?

Well, I think that, broadly speaking, the US political economy is in danger of losing that “special je ne sais quoi” I mentioned earlier.

The size of government, the size of the tax code, the size of government regulation, occupational licensing, all of them have increased over the past decade and a half.

Furthermore, if you count up the number of sectors where government influence is preponderant, they have increased, both in terms of the number of sectors and their relative importance. For example, the entire government contracting industry has ballooned over the past 15 years, meaning that (just with one industry) an increasing % of GDP is government-directed. More importantly, an increasing percentage of people in the workforce are in danger of having a “controlled economy” ethos rather than a “free enterprise” ethos.

That is the problem I see in France. When businesses in Sector X have a problem, the instinct is to get together and lobby the government for a fix. That is not the American Way. But it is increasingly the way in a number of sectors (finance is a very striking example). And the problem is that this phenomenon is self-sustaining, and even snowballing. Once the door is open to using lobbying to get an advantage in the marketplace, everybody floods. If your competitor is doing it, you have to do it.

With that idea in the backdrop, then, could it be the case that there could be some sort of tipping point? Some sort of point of no return, where so much of the economy’s productive activity is controlled, directly or indirectly, by the government, that the very ethos, or culture that I have been talking about dies? That, there might be a point at which so many people in the US economy are in a “controlled economy” ethos rather than a “free enterprise” ethos that the process becomes self-sustaining, irreversible, and snowballing? That at some point we head inexorably for what I have called the Francification of America? (And what Hayek in his day called the Road to Serfdom.)

Now, let us look at the healthcare sector. The first thing to note is that it is an enormous part of the US economy, and growing, and set to keep growing, both in terms of GDP % and (especially) employment. The second thing to note, is that there is a bit of a battle for the soul of the healthcare system going on, which is broader than Obamacare. On the one hand, you have a vision which is friendly to decentralized control, a la David Goldhill and the great right-of-center wonks and a bunch of smart left-of-center wonks right up until the point everybody rallied towards Obamacare. On the other hand, you have the vision of Vulgar Arrowism and central control. The US healthcare system, historically and for a very long time, has been a bizarre, even baroque mix of “free market-ish” and “government control-ish” aspects.

The question then arises: does Obamacare “tip the scales” towards the eventual centralization of healthcare in the US (as liberals dream), especially by making anything other than the comprehensive insurance model (which is the devil) unthinkable?

And if that happens, might this not in turn, given the size and significance of the healthcare sector, tip the scales for the entire political economy, towards a “Francified” direction? One in which that special “American Way” is irretrievably lost?

If so, it would certainly represent, in a real sense, the “destruction of America”—of an enormous part of what makes it both so unique and so prosperous.

Is that the most likely outcome? I don’t know. Is it a possible outcome? Is it a more likely outcome than most people think? I very much persist in thinking so.

Have I Stopped Beating My Wife?

Neoconservatives and noninterventionists look at the world from radically opposite perspectives, and unlike the realists in the middle, we have a tendency to view the world through a moralized lens.

One very unfortunate tendency of this is that each side has a tendency to impugn the other’s motives, rather than his view of reality. Neoconservatives just want Iraq’s oil, or they are just White Man’s Burden 2.0. Noninterventionists think the US should cut Israel loose because seeing Jews massacred would tickle their jollies. I think noninterventionists are somewhere in the vicinity of insane (that means not insane), but I don’t doubt that people like Daniel Larison wish as ardently as I do for a free and prosperous world—we just disagree on how to get there. I can’t say that I follow my own dictate with perfect precision, but I self-consciously try not to impugn the motives of those who disagree with me on policy, especially in this particular area.

Another very annoying feature of public debate in general is psychologization: “You support X because you really feel Y.” Which of course is both unknowable and irrelevant.

We don’t have to play this game.

Which brings me to TAS Alum (and friend!) Noah Millman, who has responded to my column envisaging a US-led invasion of North Korea.

Millman takes seriously my humanitarian concern over North Korea, and self-consciously tries to look at it from the same perspective as I do. He feels that the most practical, envisageable outcome would be a “Finlandization” of the Korean Peninsula, denuclearized, neutralized and without nuclear weapons, in order to obtain Chinese collaboration in removing the North Korean regime.

The reason I don’t envisage this outcome, Noah writes, is essentially because I am deluded and corrupt. My solution is “unconscionable”. What’s more, I don’t want to envisage a denuclearized and neutralized Peninsula, because of a psychological motive: that way, the US wouldn’t get to play the savior and “Maybe […] the actual humanitarian outcome is less important than playing the part of the savior.” So in other words I advance under false pretenses. My ostensible humanitarian motive is really straw, and is the mask for American imperialism and onanistic delusions of grandeur.

What is the problem with Noah’s thesis?

Well, there are many, but I know just the place to start. How about the fact that the outcome he envisages, that he claims my not envisaging so reveals my moral corruption, is the one I explicitly endorse in the column?

I mean, it’s right there:

If the U.S. offers the demilitarization and neutralization of the Korean Peninsula to China in exchange for helping rebuild North Korea, China would actually come out ahead by removing U.S. troops from the Peninsula.

I think that China wouldn’t come to see things this way unless it was presented with a fait accompli of a North Korean regime collapse, because status quo bias is so powerful in international affairs. Maybe I’m wrong. But my endgame is a neutral and demilitarized Korean Peninsula.

Michael Brendan Dougherty responded to my column by saying that my heart was in the right place but my plan is impossible. That’s fine. I acknowledge that it is far-fetched. Paradoxically, I think noninterventionists should have more sympathy for my wishful thinking, since the number of people who think the world would be improved by an American retreat from its historic role as global security guarantor is about the same as the number of people who think my plan is practical. Both sides see the Washington consensus as hopelessly deluded, and see things as plausible that the consensus most definitely doesn’t. If I had a tendency for psychologizing, I might say that perhaps we so detest each other because we are so alike in this way. But whatever.

(P.S. Another very annoying feature of public debate is when people pretend not to be aware of the constraints of the column format when it suits them. I can’t tell you how many times I was described as “blithe” or some such for brushing off objections to my plan. But in any column you need to gloss over complex side-issues of your main point. Of course, everyone knows this. But making an effort to presume that I am of good faith and not a complete idiot and consider that I might have considered obvious objections but might not have given them a full treatment because of length constraints would involve engaging oneself in a disinterested effort to look for truth, which starts with looking for the best arguments on the other side, rather than in a Kulturkampf where all one does is look for weaknesses on the other side to be exploited. I hope I wasn’t psychologizing just then.)

"You Can Keep Your Plan" And The Liberal Failure Of Moral Imagination

Obama lied, people lost their healthcare!

I want to put forward a more generous interpretation of the “If you like your plan, you can keep your plan” lie. Obviously in the first sense it is a lie, given that the Administration knew plans would be cancelled and pretended otherwise.

But I think there’s a well-intentioned way in which the people who conceived this lie could tell themselves that it wasn’t a lie. People have focused on the second clause “you can keep your plan”, but I think the key is the first clause: “if you like your plan.”

The entire premise of the Affordable Care Act is that the best, most awesomest form of healthcare coverage is comprehensive insurance, with an emphasis on the “comprehensive.”

Most of the plans that are getting cancelled are of the “non-comprehensive” variety (although many of them are far from the stingy, just-catastrophic, doesn’t-really-cover-anything picture of liberal propaganda). I think there’s a certain sort of White House who thought that if someone had a non-comprehensive plan, surely that person couldn’t possibly like it. And so, sure, that person’s plan would get cancelled, but the promise of “If you like your plan, you can keep your plan” would be fulfilled.

Of course, the reality is much different. There are a lot of people who really did like those non-comprehensive plans. Some of them are outraged because they have to pay more for the new plans replacing the old plans, perhaps because they’re just above the cutoff for subsidies under the ACA, and so the new status quo is a bad financial deal for them. But some of them are outraged because they don’t want comprehensive insurance. They understand that comprehensive insurance is, well, comprehensive, but that’s something they’re not interested in. Maybe they like the, ah, freedom, and control, of not having to go through an insurer for routine medical procedures. Maybe they object philosophically. Maybe they’re hubristic “Invincibles.” Whatever!

The point is that there was a failure, here, of what I can only call moral imagination. Of putting yourself in another person’s shoes. Clearly, judging by the liberal indignation since the ACA’s unraveling that no, you don’t understand, this really is better for you, a lot of the supporters of the law just cannot imagine that other people might want different things for their healthcare needs than what the law says they should have.

I found it interesting because it not only speaks to the progressive’s lack of humility in the face of complexity, but also to a certain lack of empathy. And this is interesting to me, because I happen to think, because of Christian premises, that empathy is the first and most important political virtue.

Now, this points to a contradiction, because, in a Haidtian sense, progressives as a group tend to be more empathetic than conservatives. But there is a certain kind of progressive empathy (not the only kind! But a certain kind, often present), which I can only characterize as a false empathy, because it oversimplifies the object of the empathy.

To take a grossly oversimplified example: no, actually, what poor people need isn’t just a handout, and a check. Poor people are, first, people, and they have all sorts of needs and emphases and their lives are complex, and they also need things like dignity, the self-realization and self-actualization that often comes from work, the fulfillment that comes from building a stable family, etc. In this sense, the drive that views in increased social spending a simple and obvious poverty cure is, while animated by a feeling of empathy, no real empathy at all. It can be more of a kind of “let them eat cake” moment. It can be. Which, of course, leads to frustration in some people when opposition to increased social spending is seen as a moral litmus test, and evidence of a lack of empathy.

Of course, none of what I’m saying is original.

Of course calls the liberal project into question

First of all, kudos to liberals for being reality-based. After some equivocation, most liberals have succumbed to facts and admitted that the launch is a disaster—not glitchy, but a disaster.

As sure it is that the Sun rises, conservatives have pounced on the disaster to argue that it shows that the entire liberal project is made not credible.

And as sure as it is that the Sun sets, liberals have responded with a chorus of “Nuh-huh!”

The representative example is Matt Yglesias, who makes the facile point that bad websites notwithstanding, we find that plenty of countries and plenty of locales have functioning social insurance systems, so it’s silly to say that a bad website discredits the whole liberal enterprise.

Meanwhile Josh Barro notes (sorry for lumping you with the liberals, Josh!) that some DMVs are awful, but some DMVs are not and are pretty good. The implication is that there’s nothing intrinsic to being run by government that makes a system be crappy. Some government systems are badly managed, some are well managed.

There’s an obvious sense in which this is correct, at least superficially (but not unimportantly). Yes, Germany had a social welfare state in the 19th century. Yes, empirically, we do find that reasonably well-run government services can exist. And yes, conservatives should pay particular attention to the latter point, in the Tea Party and post-Bush era, because given that the welfare state won’t go away overnight they ought to pay particular attention to managing it well, and not just pruning it.

But, in the immortal words of Cyrano de Bergerac, “That’s a bit short, young man.”

How do I put this?

My main frustration with moderates and neoliberals is that even though they’ve reconciled themselves to the idea that some sort of capitalistic system is necessary in any worthwhile society, they seem to have expended no effort in understanding why capitalism works (with “works” defined as “being the worst economic system except for all the others that have been tried”).

They seem to take that as an inexplicable fact of life, and asking why it works would be akin to asking a mountain why it decided to sit there and not somewhere else. Okay, fine, the neoliberal seems to sigh, capitalism exists, it’s the least-bad thing there is, and we ought to make our peace with it, and advance with our liberal project anyway as best we can. In a way, this is an admirable posture, made of both pragmatism and fidelity to strongly-held moral instincts. And for obvious reasons I would much rather hand the reins of government to a neoliberal or a social-democrat than to a Communist; in fact I would much rather hand them to a smart neoliberal than to a dumb libertarian.

But to some advocates of free markets, the success of capitalism is not some bizarre, inexplicable fact of nature, it is something that tells us (or ought to tell us) important things about human behavior and patterns of organization that lead to collective success.

To some of us, what the success of capitalism shows, and the reason why capitalism works, is, basically, that humans are pretty much hairless monkeys who are not just greedy and quarrelsome but not very smart. Because us monkeys are dumb and proud, we can only assimilate a little bit of information, and we are terrible at communicating with each other. This, in turn, means that us monkeys are pretty lousy at two important tasks: planning and coordinating. We really are terrible at it.

Now this happens to have some pretty significant consequences for how you might help a tribe of monkeys achieve some progress in material welfare. If your tribe of monkeys works by having one Head Monkey tell the other monkeys what to do, the problem with that is that any monkey, being bad at assimilating information, will give the other monkeys really dumb instructions. And since the head monkey (and the other monkeys) are not only dumb but craven and quarrelsome, you will soon have chaos.

Paradoxically, if you let most of the monkeys mostly just do what they want, actually, they will bumble and stumble and grope their way towards a much more advantageous state of being.

You see where I’m going with this, right?

One problem with current society is that we take many things for granted when we shouldn’t. Everyone “knows” that Communism doesn’t work and capitalism at least sorta-kinda works. But this is a superficial realization. Understanding why is actually profound.

Central planning fails, and spontaneous order arises, because central planners never have enough knowledge, never have enough insight. Meanwhile, because humans are limited in their use and transmission of information, those humans who are closest to the thing they’re doing will have a much better understanding and be able to use these resources much more effectively. And, again, because humans are dumb, we find that decentralized means of aggregating information (whether commodity markets or Wikipedia) actually work much much better than centralized means, and are very precious.

In fact, if we look around at the Universe, we find that for some reason decentralized bottom-up innovation is a very very powerful force.

One of the many lamentable consequences of the Creationist movement has been that among educated elites it has become a kind of shibboleth to not only affirm faith in evolution by natural selection but to sort of scoff at any doubt that evolution by natural selection might not be obviously, self-evidently true.

But it’s worth it for just a minute to take off our cultural blinders and note how shocking to intuition and common sense evolution by natural selection really is. When a Creationist says “How could something as intricate and complex as an eye have evolved?” our first instinct is to get angry because we might be educated monkeys but we’re still monkeys, but we really should appreciate how, on its face, it really seems absurd that you could postulate the evolution of an eye through a totally unguided, bottom-up process. How much more intuitive, how in fact extremely compelling is the idea that something as complex, as awe-inspiring, as intricate, as glorious as an eye, or a tree, or a flower, or a hummingbird just has to be the direct product of an intelligence.

But in fact, we do know that eyes come from this unguided process, because for as much as humans can build rockets to space and stuff, we basically don’t even understand what makes a cell divide. Through our top-down, knowledge-intensive monkey way, we can build a rocket, but in terms of complexity and sophistication, a rocket to Mars is basically as advanced as a flint arrow, compared to an amoeba. And it takes all of human intelligence to build a rocket, but literally zero intelligence to build an amoeba!

That’s some wild shit, man. So wild that even though we actually know this is true, we totally ignore it.

We see this superiority of bottom-up trial-and-error over central planning all over human affairs. Tim Harford wrote a whole book about this, you really should read it.

We see it in the scientific method. Aristotelian science was a kind of scientific central planning, where scientists used reason to acquire “knowledge of the ultimate causes of things.” The problem is that because we’re dumb monkeys, we can’t actually know the ultimate causes of things. And because we’re not only dumb monkeys, we’re proud monkeys, it’s very hard for us to actually convince ourselves that we can’t know these things. And so science was basically just derp for roughly two thousand years; even though, and this is crucial, early scientists were actually really intelligent people! The point isn’t that they were dumb; the point is that they weren’t. But they were still monkeys.

Then we invented the scientific method, which could really be called “knowledge for monkeys.” Don’t actually try to know very much. Just do experiments, and see what works. Keep your experiments as simple as possible. Repeat your experiments as much as possible.

Again, because of the benefit of hindsight, because its benefits are all around us and have been all our lives, we take it for granted that it’s obvious that the scientific method is superior, and it is, but it’s also worth pausing for a second to note how bizarre it is.

You’re telling me the way to know more about the causes of things in the Universe is to actually stop looking for them? That to understand natural phenomena I shouldn’t actually try to understand them? What are you, some cut-rate Zen master or some shit?

(Yes, I know that things are a little bit more complicated than that, because science evolves through experiment within theoretical paradigms and not merely by bottom-up experimentation. But the point that bottom-up experimentation is crucial is true—in fact, it’s only bottom-up experimentation that changes paradigms.)

In fact, this is so hard to understand that we still don’t understand it, or else anyone who sees a headline with the words “studies show” would instantly projectile vomit. Most people on the street think science is this weird machine that somehow produces “truths.” Heck, even scientists think that science creates capital-t Truths instead of limited, small-t, contingent truths subject to experimentation, otherwise Richard Dawkins would have taken a vow of silence. It’s a testament to the power of the scientific method that even people who don’t understand it can use it profitably.

As Feynman said, “science is the belief in the ignorance of experts”, and yet most people today believe that science is the belief in the knowledge of experts. Because we’re monkeys who are dumb and proud, and because we’re proud we refuse to acknowledge that we’re dumb. In the past, we took priests of a religion that proclaimed the value of property and turned them into wealthy princes (and monkeys that they are, they gladly obliged), and now we take priests of a religion that disregards capital-T truths and turn them into purveyors of capital-T Truths (and monkeys that they are, they gladly oblige).

Another point about monkey-knowledge (aka, science) is that the scientific method is only successful on a relative scale. The scientific method is stupendously superior to Aristotelian science, and yet most science experiments fail. Most results are highly contingent, and limited, and even the promising results turn out to be non-replicable.

But that’s the thing about bottom-up, trial-and-error experimentation: most of it fails. In fact, it’s if you don’t have failure that you have a problem. The key thing is that you have a process that identifies success (in science, replication) and that lowers the cost of failure (so that you can run more experiments).

So if you’ve been following me all around this roundabout way, you will see where it leads back to capitalism and to theories of government. It turns out that we’re dumb monkeys who are not only dumb, but too proud to admit to ourselves that we’re dumb. But it turns out that, because we’re dumb, proud monkeys, the least-bad way we’ve got to achieve some process is through bottom-up trial-and-error experimentation, because that’s the thing dumb, proud monkeys do the least bad at. And even though bottom-up experimentation will be very messy, very imperfect, very problematic, it will still be much, much superior to central planning because monkeys are even much much worse at that. But because we’re monkeys who are not only dumb but proud, we refuse to acknowledge our dumbness.

We acknowledge the superiority of the scientific method because we are forced to, but we refuse its epistemological implications. We take the success of science to mean that we can have knowledge after all, but what the success of science actually means is that we can’t.

And we acknowledge the superiority of free-market capitalism because we are forced to, but we refuse to acknowledge its human and social implications. If free markets really work better than central planning, then we really are dumb and proud monkeys and we should really start organizing as such. But because we’re dumb and proud monkeys that’s a really really hard pill to swallow.

In fact, some advocates of free market capitalism make this mistake too. Capitalism works, they say, because capitalists are (somehow) super heroes with super awesome ideas that come fully-formed out of their thigh and that, in their great generosity, they allow us to have for just $9.99. And capitalists are not just awesomer-er, some versions of this argument go, they’re better.

No! Monkeys, the lot of them! Jobs, monkey. Bezos, monkey. Musk, monkey. Edison, monkey. Ford, monkey.

So here’s what I’m driving at. It’s a reasonable generalization, I believe, to state that the liberal project rests on a (largely unspoken) assumption, which is that planning can work. Or, perhaps more accurately and charitably, that to have successful planning is only moderately difficult.

Thus the DMV argument. Sure, some DMVs are bad, but some DMVs are good, and if you put good people in charge of the DMV, then the DMV will work.

The problem with that isn’t that the DMV can’t work.

The problem with that is that the overwhelming record of history shows that it’s highly unlikely that the DMV can work in any sort of sustainable way.

The reason for that is that planning is much, much harder than we are inclined to think.

Planning is very hard because we are dumb monkeys.

And we are strongly inclined despite all evidence to the contrary to believe that planning can work because we’re not only dumb but proud monkeys and we don’t want to admit to ourselves that we’re dumb monkeys.

And when I say planning I mean planning.

I don’t mean “the market” versus “the gummit.” I mean planning.

All planning is extremely difficult.

In some sense, it’s utterly baffling that CEOs of big companies think the private sector is more efficient than the government, because boy, are big companies utterly awful. Big companies are notoriously awful at planning. If big companies were good at planning, no startup would ever succeed, and yet not only do startups succeed, they succeed all the time.

Conservatives like to grouse at the perverse incentives of tenured public school teachers, but any big corporation is a tangled mess of awful, destructive incentives.

It’s monkeys all the way down.

99.9% of science experiments fail, and yet that is still so much better than anything else.

This understanding of the role of limited information and our own limitedness is really, really, really, deeply counter-intuitive, but it is also really important. Because we are dumb, proud monkeys, we think we know a lot more than we actually know. And so we make big mistakes. We invade Middle Eastern countries. We think we can centrally plan an industry that’s 20% of GDP. And when the car ends up in the ditch, we say “Guess the plan was wrong!” No, you chimp! The plan wasn’t wrong. A plan is impossible. We’re willing to admit our plan was wrong. It is much, much, much harder to admit that planning itself is impossible.

Donald Rumsfeld is actually an extremely talented and competent guy. Just like Bob McNamara before him. Just like Cass Sunstein. Just like you-name-it. The point isn’t that these people are dumb and if we got smart people instead they would do better. The point is the opposite. The point is that these people are very smart, but you’re still asking them to do something that is impossible.

When we see a company fail, we reassure ourselves that we aren’t monkeys by declaring that the people who run the company are stupid. It’s much harder to admit the truth, which is that in most cases they’re actually very smart.

The point isn’t that a well-run DMV is a physical impossibility. The point is that if you assume a well-run DMV as a crucial part of your plan, then you are basically rowing against the laws of history and human nature. You are raising a middle finger to God in an Old Testament story where God routinely smites people who tell him to f off. But hey, you might get lucky! But “This extremely unlikely thing that basically only ever happens intermittently and in very specific circumstances just needs to happen for this extremely ambitious and far-reaching initiative to work” is a very very poor rationale for public policy. And yet it’s the rationale we always employ! We don’t put it that way of course, least of all to ourselves.

The reason why puts in question the liberal project is because you do not build something like unless you have a delusional confidence in the possibility of planning.

As Yuval Levin pointed out, is not a bad website selling a good product, is the product. There is now a non-trivial chance, acknowledged even by liberals now, that’s malfunctions could put the entire American individual insurance market on a death spiral. Whoops. If doesn’t work, all of Obamacare could implode, and with it the US healthcare system. Whoops. The overwhelming record of history shows that websites such as these are extremely extremely hard to pull off (and if you think that’s hindsight talking, talk to anyone involved in large-scale IT projects, they could’ve told you). The point isn’t that it’s impossible for any government to make a website that works. The point is that the kind of people who are so confident in their ability to make a good website that it’s a crucial part of their plan against all good judgement should not be trusted with the levers of public policy, because they are dangerously delusional. And we have a word for that kind of people, and that word is “liberal.” A prerequisite of being a liberal is having a faith in the possibility of planning that, when put together with the evidence of monkeyness, is exposed as a delusion. A highly understandable, a highly natural, delusion, precisely because our monkeyness makes us delusional. But a delusion nonetheless.

Ok, so when does planning work?

Answer A: Almost never.

Answer B: When it does, it almost only ever works in very limited and partial ways that involve a lot of bottom-up experimentation.

Ok, but what about World War II/the Manhattan Project/the Apollo Project/DARPA/that DMV that runs good?

Yglesias points to the fact that NASA can put a robot on Mars as evidence that the government can do stuff. Of course, for a country that sent a probe to the outer Solar System 45 years ago, putting a roomba on Mars is laughably pathetic.

It’s not the space equivalent of, because the roomba does get to Mars instead of crashing on the White House lawn, but it’s very much the space equivalent of right-wing-talking-point-DMV. Compare the evolution of space technology to the evolution of information technology over the past 50 years. Which one was driven by government? Riiiiight. Now read the essay A Rocket to Nowhere and have a good cry. When the space industry really gets into gear, the wretched state of what passes for space exploration will become as glaring as an internet.

But, ok, ok, the government does do cool stuff once in a while.

That being said, when you understand, actually understand, deep-down understand our monkeyness, and understand the difficulty of planning, you understand that the instances of successful government planning actually prove the case for monkeyness, just like the failures of private-sector corporations do. The point isn’t that there’s some awesome magic thing that makes the private sector efficient and gummit bad, the point is that we’re monkeys. If you think private sector good, gummit bad, you still think that there’s a place where there’s no monkeys. Monkeys everywhere, you monkey. Repeat it every time you go to bed.

As I wrote about DARPA inventing the internet, the way the government invented the internet was through bottom-up innovation. DARPA hired a bunch of hippies and gave them free rein to screw up tons of things. It was totally unbureaucratic. It was, in fact, all more than a little bit insane—the way most startups are insane.

I don’t think I’m descending into Rush Limbaugh-ism when I say that this is quite far from being the “default setting” of government. The success of DARPA calls into question the liberal project for the same reason as the failure of does, because it shows the futility of planning, and the virtues of bottom-up experimentation. It shows the futility of “markets good, gummit bad” which is another version of rejecting monkeyness. It shows the validness of embracing monkeyness. DARPA is the exception that proves the rule—not in a facile idiomatic way, but in the profound way that it stands out precisely because it is so unlike the way government normally operates.

Again, the point isn’t that there is some inherent property to government that makes it sucky, the point is that the way government is set up makes extremely unlikely that our monkey natures will be oriented towards good outcomes.

When writing about the scientific method I showed that one thing that makes these systems work, besides bottom-up experimentation, is clarity of a definition of success (in the case of science, reproducibility) and a possibility of failure leading to re-experimentation.

The Manhattan Project and the Apollo Project exhibited those traits. First, the definition of success was abundantly clear. Make a bomb make a really big boom. Put a man on the Moon and return him safely. (Compare with, say, education and healthcare, where it is quite literally impossible to define success adequately.) Second of all, the possibility of experimentation was there. Really really smart people were taken and written blank checks. (Note, again, how unlike the normal operation of government this is.) Finally, there was enough political will that failure was taken in strides. When some of the Apollo rockets blew up, Congress didn’t all of a sudden decide that NASA would be run by lawyers, because everyone was scared shitless by the Soviets’ early lead in space. Again, contrast this with the mess that NASA is today.

Tom Ricks convincingly described how, during World War II, most US Army generals failed, and were very quickly removed when they did. For all the top-down-ness that is inherent in the US Army, necessity being the mother of invention led them to, in spite of themselves, create some bottom-up innovation. Individual corps commanders who performed were rewarded, those who didn’t were culled. There was much unfairness to the system—not infrequently, genuinely talented commanders were unlucky and removed nonetheless. Just like many talented entrepreneurs experience failure. But it still made the system much healthier overall. Ricks aptly contrasts this with the ineptly bureaucratic way the US military now functions.

True fact: which was the first large organization to experiment with making employees rate their superiors? The Wehrmacht. Yep. (Source: Wikipedia, so it’s gotta be true.)

What we find is that top-down planning can kinda-sorta occasionally work under basically the following conditions: 1) clarity of objective (invade Europe; make plutonium go boom; land on the Moon; make money); 2) effective urgency, by which is meant that either necessity (kill the Germans or they’ll kill us; release a great new personal computer or go bankrupt) or a great political will (“we choose to go to the Moon”; the iPhone will be ready to ship by June) which seems to get the monkeys to be somewhat less awful at grokking and sharing information and letting their pride get into the way of collaboration; 3) extensive bottom-up experimentation within the top-down framework (and sometimes causing change/abolition of the top-down framework).

We find that these conditions quite rarely obtain, and that these conditions seem to be necessary but not sufficient. Top-down planning fails plenty even when these conditions are met.

We also find that while these conditions obtain rarely overall, they obtain vanishingly rarely in the government sector. Meanwhile they obtain less rarely in the private sector, because the private sector is by its nature more (not completely, not intrinsically, but slightly more) oriented towards bottom-up innovation, creating failure and bounceback, and providing clarity of objective.

I think this is also why founder-driven companies consistently outperform professional manager-driven companies. It’s not that they’re genuises who have this great vision, or at least it’s not just that. Yes, having a better top-down plan helps. But in the end they’re monkeys too and they screw up all the time. It’s that they provide the (2), the effective urgency which breaks down our innate, monkey tendency towards bureaucracy, and waste, and stupidity, and focuses us.

Again, I want to emphasize the extent to which the private sector is by and large an enormous engine of bureaucracy. Most large companies are only slightly more efficient than the proverbial DMV, and many may be less.

But as a prudential rule, assuming that the government can’t plan things makes a lot of sense, exceptions notwithstanding.

It’s a prudential rule, and it’s a good one. Just like when we prevent banks from having almost no capital, we’re not saying it’s impossible for a bank to have almost no capital and still succeed. But we still don’t allow that because we recognize that a) it’s still very unlikely; and b) when it fails the consequences are catastrophic. It’s possible for a financial institution to be totally reckless and succeed, even without bailouts, but the grain of the Universe goes against it. It’s possible in the same way that kayaking upstream of a torrent is I guess maybe possible sometimes? I know nothing about kayaking. It’s possible only when a bunch of stars that almost never align align. And even when it’s possible, history teaches us that it’s only possible for a time. Again, the analogy with government planning works. NASA once pushed the frontier of human exploration and knowledge, and now it’s building rockets to nowhere. And when you say we should stop building rockets to nowhere and unleash some entrepreneurial innovation, you’re accused of hating America and pissing on everything. But the Apollo Project! Precisely. Monkeyness tells us the Apollo Project is possible, and also not repeatable as such.

The law of monkeyness is to human affairs as the law of entropy is to the Universe. Once/if is up and running again, we will see plenty of longread post-mortems in our nation’s greatest journals, and plenty of earnest wonks will inweigh on the specific mistakes that were made and say: “See? If we hadn’t made specific mistakes X, Y and Z, it would have been fine!” The wiser, monkeyness-embracing realizes that by the nature of the thing mistakes will always be made. And in some complicated way that is impossible to forecast a priori, the attempt to prevent mistakes X, Y and Z will lead to mistakes A, B and C next time around. Such is the way of dumb, proud monkeys.

If you add monkeyness to the nature of modern democratic government, you quickly realize why monkeyness makes successful government planning highly unlikely not just in abstract, but now. As we’ve said, two necessary conditions for functioning central planning include tremendous political will and a tolerance for failure. These are the things that are absent from modern democratic system. And for good reason. It’s great for humanity that Steve Jobs terrorized Apple employees into making gorgeous phones, but the idea of Steve Jobs in control of the FBI makes Nixon look like a Quaker.

Democratic government is a government for monkeys, and that’s why it works. It’s a government for monkeys because monkeys get arbitrarily fired and replaced by other monkeys at regular intervals, which means there is some learning-through-failure that goes on. But it’s a government for monkeys because it’s full of checks and balances. The whole idea of checks and balances is that politicians are craven and proud and dumb and are going to spend time fighting each other instead of fighting the people. And it’s wonderful! It embraces monkeyness.

But the checks on government, particularly in the modern era, aren’t just checks of the constitutional variety. Popular opinion is also a great (perhaps the most important) check on politicians. And it’s easy to see how the influence of popular opinion makes planning impossible. Absent Sputnik scaring the crap out of the Nation, if you’re the monkey who decides to make NASA go to the Moon and your rocket blows up killing a photogenic astronaut, a Congressmonkey will give you a proctology exam on national TV. As I wrote, bottom-up experimentation is glorious over the long haul but incredibly messy up close, and the nature of politics ensures that all of the messy experimentation and failure is going to look awful and be a huge political hit. Which explains why the successful examples of government planning happened as a result of World War II or the Cold War, where the existential threat upon the nation briefly and partially suspended the normal rules of politics.

That’s the impact of broad popular opinion, but there is also the impact of narrow popular opinion, ie special interests. NASA is probably, net-net, a waste of resources at this point, but seriously reforming it is politically impossible at this point because too many entrenched interests are at play.

Now if you’re a conservative, this is okay, because monkeys are monkeys. A democracy is a regime for monkeys and this is good (or, less bad than the alternatives). A market is a regime for monkeys and this is good (or, less bad than the alternatives).

But plenty of liberals sometimes realize that the (or, more accurately, a reason) reason why it’s so hard to have Government-Planned Projects is because of this messy business of politics and checks and balances. Or, in other words, democracies. And so plenty of liberals, with the best of intentions, find themselves really really craving more power for the central government, so that we can finally get those big projects gone. Now I’m not saying all liberals are closet fascists, or even some of them (well, maybe some of them), but, again, we are proud monkeys. Proud monkeys crave power, and because they are proud, they need to reassure themselves that they are craving power for other reasons than the love of power. And I don’t think it’s unfair to say that liberals have an impulse towards increasing the power of central government.

And this is where conservatives start thinking about Second Amendment remedies. Because, of course, it’s not only deeply unwise (politics is only the proximate cause of the failure of planning; see: Soviet Union. No, really. See it. ), it’s also very dangerous and deeply morally wrong. It would be good if we could give lots of power to a benevolent non-monkey, but, again, we’re monkeys. And monkeyness means not only that we’re very awful when we get power but also that we’ll never learn to not crave it anyway, even with the best of intentions.

Meanwhile, markets, because they encourage bottom-up experimentation, because they have mechanisms for aggregating information which are necessary for our stupid monkey brains, because they provide failure-bounceback mechanisms, because they provide (some) clarity of objective, tend to be preferable to central planning whenever they can’t work. Not because they don’t suck. They do. Because they’re just an organization of monkeys. But they just suck slightly less. And that slightly less happens to make a very big difference.

Okay, so where does that leave us?

To the complicated and counterintuitive point that the overwhelming record of history is that bottom-up innovation produces the best outcomes, particularly for groups of monkeys such as ourselves. That monkeyness makes planning extremely hard. That planning should be resisted not only because it’s very unlikely to work but because proud monkeys will always overestimate their own skills at planning. That government planning in particular should be resisted because not only is it even more unlikely to work than other forms of planning, but because the consequences of failure of public sector planning are much more likely to be catastrophic than the consequences of private sector planning failure.

And if you want an example of that, look no further than

Opposition Party Opposes Majority Party's Signature Policy: Will Democracy Survive???

“The only way to understand the press, Prime Minister, is to remember that they pander to their readers’ prejudices.”

Jonathan Chait has a frankly bizarre piece in New York Magazine explaining to what must be a puzzled audience’s insistent question: why does the Republican Party persist in opposing Obamacare? I mean, I know they hate kittens and everything, but c’mon—healthcare!

Now, off the top of my head, one reason why the Republican Party might oppose Obamacare is that it remains deeply unpopular, and that politicians tend to be responsive to public opinion.

But I think there’s an even bigger reason, and I have seen time and again how shocking it remains to many liberals, but nonetheless it must be said. I may be French, but I have been taken to Rove Mountain and been inducted in the secret society that runs the Republican Party and the conservative movement, taught all the secret handshakes and passwords (“Fidelio”), and so I can report back on the TRUE reason to conservative opposition to Obamacare. And it’s pretty shocking.

Are you ready?

Wait for it…

Conservatives think Obamacare is terrible policy.

Conservatives actually, seriously, deeply, genuinely, truly, strongly, really think Obamacare is really bad no good policy.

And so they oppose it.

No, really.

That’s the reason.

I know, I’m one of them.

Most, if not all, conservatives, myself very much included, think that Obamacare will make American healthcare worse and more expensive and will be too expensive and unnecessarily (and perhaps dangerously and irreversibly) expand the size of government (I realize that for progressives this latest a feature and not a bug, but conservatives don’t see it that way). They think that it will lead to millions if not tens of millions of people being worse, not better off, and many more dying too soon.

Maybe they’re wrong! But that’s what they think! And so they oppose the law!

Forgive me for being flip, but there is something a bit absurd about reading all this concern about the opposition party of a country opposing the majority party’s signature policy. From where I sit in France, the main right-wing party used to have a majority, and they cut taxes, and the main left-wing party opposed it ; then the left won elections, and now it is raising taxes, and the right-wing party opposes that. As far as I can tell in Great Britain the Labour Party opposes the Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition’s austerity policies.

This is how democracy works. One party has some ideas about what’s good policy, the other party has other ideas, and so when one party wins the election, the other party is not happy about the policies that get implemented.

I mean, really. This is how democracy works.

Now, Chait notes that Republican opposition to Obamacare has been particularly virulent and trench-warfare-like.

Well, again, conservatives feel really strongly about Obamacare. Why, I’m almost as angry with it as I was with the Iraq War! (Which Democrats at several points tried to defund.)

And, again, Obamacare is very unpopular, which tends to put wind at politicians’ backs. (Chait notes this, but attributes it to Republicans’ well-known Dark Magick Powers Of Voter Brainwashing—you know, the ones that got Mitt Romney to sweep all 50 states.)

But it’s true that there’s another reason why conservative opposition to Obamacare has been so virulent, and it’s right there in Chait’s lede: “The Republican party has voted unanimously against establishing the Affordable Care Act in the Senate and then in the House of Representatives[.]”

Another, equally valid way to write this would be: “The Democratic party pushed the Affordable Care Act through Congress on a party-line vote in the Senate and then in the House of Representatives, in violation of the long-standing American political tradition of passing far-reaching initiatives only with bipartisan support.”

Regardless of whether reform-by-consensus is a good idea in the abstract (and as a partisan red in tooth and claw, I support it when I’m in the minority and oppose it when I’m in the majority), one reason why in the American system reform-by-consensus is advisable is because the American system includes so many checks and balances (legislatures, and courts, and states, and governors, and oh my) that if you were to just trample the Opposition, why, it just might use those checks and balances to try to block your reform anyway. You know, like the Founders intended.

If Republican opposition to the Affordable Care Act is unprecedented, then, it’s because it’s a response to unprecedented actions by the Democratic Party.

Now, when this is pointed out, liberals often respond that Republicans did nothing about healthcare when they were in power and that Something Needed To Be Done. There’s less truth to this than many liberals think but a lot more than I am happy with, but as a matter of logic this is plainly absurd: even if Alice did nothing about the roach infestation, it doesn’t mean Bob was right to burn down the house to get rid of the roaches.

Now of course, liberals don’t view Obamacare as “burning down the house.” But conservatives do!

We really do.

Bloodlust is worse than ignorance

When Christians (and smart agnostics) talk about the New Atheists, what they usually talk about is their ignorance, because it is so glaring and obvious. Ignorance about philosophy, ignorance about the world, ignorance about history, ignorance about humanity.

But really what ought to be striking about the New Atheists is what I can only call their bloodlust. These are people who quite clearly and nakedly want to see religious believers oppressed, and even eradicated. Like the European anti-Semites who don’t want to fall afoul of speech laws, they know very well where the line is, and they know very well how to walk right up to it and not cross it, but there’s little doubt where they’re headed.

Hitchens believes that religion is the main driver of war, but of course the best rebuttal of this is not a book of history or sociology, but his own history. Hitchens needed no Yahweh and no Shiva to enthusiastically call the thunder of war upon countries he deemed less civilized than his, and orgiastically luxuriate in the ensuing bloodshed. Hitchens was an enthusiastic advocate of the idea that more civilized groups should wage war on the less civilized; he was an equally enthusiastic advocate of the idea that religious belief is the mark of the uncivilized. He didn’t say “2+2=4” but the math is still straightforward.

As Damon Linker noted in the only perceptive essay I’ve seen on this, Richard Dawkins has written very clearly that bringing children up to believe in God is not only tantamount to child abuse, but actually worse than sexual abuse. Dawkins doesn’t explicitly spell out the only logical conclusion of this—that society should treat religious parents the way we treat sexual predators, with prison sentences, thorough ostracism, and perhaps “reëducation”—but he doesn’t need to.

Here’s a TED Talk by Sam Harris on science and morality. Now, normally the impulse of any Christian (or other slightly educated person) would be to note that his argument that science is a moral guide doesn’t, you know, make any sense whatsoever.

But actually, that’s missing the point. Skip to 10:15. What Harris does here is fascinating. It’s rhetorical three-card Monte so you have to put it on slow motion to break it down.

Before a picture of women wearing head-to-toe Islamic veils, here’s what Harris says:

We might not like this, we might think of this as wrong in Boston or Palo Alto. But who are we to say that the proud denizens of an ancient culture are wrong to force their wives and daughters to live in cloth bags? Who are we to say even that they’re wrong to beat their wives with steel cables, or to throw battery acid in their faces if they decline the privilege to be smothered in this way? Who are we NOT to say this? Who are we to pretend that we know so little about human well-being that we have to be non-judgmental about a practice like this? I’m not talking about voluntary wearing of a veil. Women should be able to wear whatever they want, as far as I’m concerned. But what does “voluntary” mean in a community where when a girl gets raped, her father’s first impulse, rather often, is to murder her out of shame?

Notice, first, the big straw man. Harris conflates the wearing of a veil with beating wives with steel cables or throwing battery acid in their face. I’m pretty sure “we” tolerate the former but not the latter. I’m pretty sure that “we” are quite comfortable in saying that these things are wrong. I’m pretty sure that in any advanced country if a man throws battery acid in his wife’s face and is arrested, “I am a proud denizen of an ancient culture” is not actually acceptable as a legal defense. So this is a complete straw man, but Harris gets to conflate everyday, mundane expressions of religious faith with utter atrocities, and paint a world where we are dangerously complacent and inhumane by tolerating these atrocities.

Note also how Harris talks about the supposed toleration of fundamentalist Islam in “Boston and Palo Alto” at the beginning of his paragraph but it’s pretty clear by the end that he’s talking about fundamentalist Islam wherever it may be.

But note, most importantly, the little switch at the end. This is where you lose sight of the lady.

Does Sam Harris think we ought to make the wearing of Islamic veils illegal? He quickly reassures us: “I’m not talking about voluntary wearing of a veil. Women should be able to wear whatever they want, as far as I’m concerned.”


A pause.

And then he says this. “But what does ‘voluntary’ mean in a community where when a girl gets raped, her father’s first impulse, rather often, is to murder her out of shame?”

See what just happened?

Of course, voluntary expressions of religious faith should be allowed…except that the meaning of “voluntary” is in question. Indeed, who could say it’s “voluntary” for you to belong in a cult if you’ve been brainwashed into doing so? Of course, Harris has made it clear elsewhere that he believes virtually all religious belief is brainwashing. So voluntary expressions of religious belief are fine, except that it’s an open question whether they’re really voluntary, and if they’re not “voluntary” by Harris’s definition, then they’re really fair game for the coercive powers of the state.

You really have to watch the video. Harris says the “voluntary” part softly, almost musing to himself, you could easily miss it. And then he brings up the shocking idea of a father murdering her daughter for being raped (and insists on that image) so that you quickly forget the little parenthetical about the definition of “voluntary.”

Harris knows that even though an audience like TED is probably not a big fan of religion, it’s also probably not quite yet willing to strip all religious believers of their civil rights, so you have to just push slightly at the Overton window.

If you think I’m being paranoid, Harris doesn’t hide his comfort at using the levers of state to punish religious belief.

Harris is actually refreshing among the “New” Atheists as not exactly lumping all religions together. He thinks some religions are worse than others, and has no problem contrasting them. (Sometimes you prefer a New Atheist who recognizes differences between religions to a milquetoast agnostic who thinks all religions are the same…) And he thinks the worst of them is Islam. And because when he talks about violence against religion he talks about Islam specifically and not religion in general, he is less guarded about showing his true intent.

Harris has argued against the building of the so-called Ground Zero Mosque. He has argued for the use of torture in the War on Terror—in fact he doesn’t like the expression “War on Terror”; he wants it to be replaced by a war on Islam (Pope Benedict couldn’t get invited to TED, but maybe if he’d said that…). He has argued for a nuclear first strike against Iran should the country acquire nuclear weapons, an option that even Bibi Netanyahu doesn’t contemplate. (He has noted that the prospect horrifies him, which I’m sure would be a great comfort to the good citizens of Tehran. This will hurt me more than it’ll hurt you, etc.)

So in other words, Sam Harris is wholly comfortable using civil oppression, war, torture and weapons of mass destruction against the believers of a religion. Now maybe it’s just a religion, not all religions. But Harris has also made it abundantly clear that he only feels microscopically less contemptuous of myself and fellow Christians than of Muslims. And of course once the terror machine machine gets started it needs to feed on new enemies.

Do I believe that Sam Harris is actually actively plotting to wage a global jihad on all religious believers? Well, I’m agnostic (ha) on the question.

But (yes, I’m going there) if you think of an event like the Holocaust, it didn’t happen in a vacuum. It grew from a fertile terrain of anti-Semitism, anti-Semitism which had intellectual promoters, many of whom were very well-read and well-credentialed, many of whom were good husbands and good fathers. If you’d asked one of these men, circa say 1920, whether they favored a plan to systematically murder all of the Jews on the planet, they would have scoffed—and sincerely, too (for some of them anyway). But they did help bring it about. And once it happened, of course, none of them (that I know of) turned against it, and many of them cheered it on and actively participated.

Now, I obviously don’t think the situation of Christians, or religious believers in general, in wealthy secular countries is anything like the situation of Jews in, say, Vienna or Paris in 1890, let alone Berlin in 1932. And there’s a very good chance we may never get there.

But I do think Christians in the West are much too complacent about it, and this complacency is reflected in our response to the “New” Atheists, which gave them a heck of a lot of credit. In a sense, this is admirable. Very Christian. These guys are one shot of vodka too many away from calling for all our heads on pikes, and we’re patiently explaining Philosophy 101 to them.

The problem is that while this is going on, Sam Harris goes to TED and gets a standing ovation. And a slightly-less-strident (at least in public) version of “New” Atheism is increasingly taking over the elites of our culture. (If you’re wondering why I’m writing about “New” Atheism now when no one’s talking about it, it’s because of this Buzzfeed post.) There’s more than one kind of atheism, and because it’s the worst, we’re assuming it’s going to stay the minority. But there’s nothing in either past or recent history to suggest that that’s true.

Mainstream Christians and run-of-the-mill agnostic liberals are united in their belief that “it couldn’t happen here.” But the French Republic kicked religious orders out of the country and banned religious schools just a short century ago, in a democratic country where there were devout Christians were a significant minority with significant political clout. Again, I’m not saying it’s going to happen in the US. I’m saying it makes no sense to be complacent about it, something the Founding Fathers would wholly agree with.

And one thing I’d like would be for people who talk about these guys to be clear with what we’re dealing here—religious people, but particularly non-believers. These are not people who are “extreme” because their ideas are too simplistic, or because they’re not civil, or not nice (we believers can handle ourselves on the tough streets of ideas, thanks)—though all these things are true. These are people who are extreme because they don’t really think religious believers deserve civil rights. This is something I hadn’t realized until looking into them many years after their books came out and many years after I’d read the reviews of them. I wish we’d had said it.

The Case Against The Case Against National Service

I probably wouldn’t support any actually existing proposal for national service, whether in the US or in France.

There are plenty of good practical arguments against national service: it’s expensive; it’s social engineering with a low likelihood of success; it’s feel-good paternalism; it’s a waste of time. If your idea of national service is military service, you can add that good 21st century militaries are highly professional outfits, not mass conscript armies, that social engineering is not the military’s job, and so on.

Those are all good arguments. They are also not the arguments that most libertarians make. And the libertarian arguments are not only ridiculous, and not only as ridiculous as they are strongly-held, they are ridiculous in a specifically pernicious way that perfectly encapsulates why I’m not a libertarian.

I remember being so shocked that I committed the event to memory: many many years ago Rep Rangel introduced a bill to reinstate the military draft as a protest against the Iraq War. One of the writers at the Volokh Conspiracy wrote (and this so shocked me that I committed this quote to memory) that military service is “a heinous institution that presupposes that people are the property of the state.”

I don’t remember which of the Volokh writers wrote this but if I’m not mistaken all of them are legal scholars, and this idea which ought to embarrass a first-year law student shows the extent to which libertarian brains shut down with a mention of the draft. The state is entitled to demand military service of you for the same reason that it’s entitled to demand that you pay a portion of your wages: military service is a form of taxation paid in kind. Military service is like slavery in the same way that taxation is theft. (And if you read this and pumped up your fist and went “Well, yeah!” you need to read more books.)

I’m the most quasi-libertarian non-libertarian you’ll ever meet. Milton Friedman is one of my all-time personal heroes—I even named my cat after him! Free to Choose will be mandatory (gasp!) viewing for my kids.

Here’s the thing, though.

My great-grandfather was a major in the French Army. When the Battle of France was lost he was one of only a handful of battalion commanders who managed to keep his unit together in the debacle, and was decorated as one of the final acts of the legitimate government of France. He was a public school teacher and administrator, because he had grown up as a stableman’s son and a public school teacher’s detection and encouragement of his precocity (something forbidden nowadays) was the only reason he was able to pursue education, and out of gratitude he dedicated his life to public service, at the end of his life watching impotently as the French public school system he loved was destroyed from the inside by Sixties radicals, and taking his granddaughter out of public schools and putting her in a private parochial school. For him serving his country entailed working in schools, but also serving in the French Army reserves, and he went to fight for his country when she needed it. After the armistice, he went home but did not stop fighting. He joined the French Resistance and ended up building and leading one of the most important maquis networks in Burgundy, which was occupied territory. He became a wanted man and his house was taken by the Nazis. If he had been found, he would almost certainly have been tortured to death as an important asset. And I shudder even more to think of what would have happened to his little daughter, also in hiding, my grandmother.

One of the greatest men of the past century, André Malraux gave this homage to one of his fellow Résistants, Jean Moulin, head of the Resistance tortured to death by the Gestapo.

You Head of the Resitance, martyred in hideous cellars, look with your blinded eyes all those black women standing watch over our companions: they mourn for France, and for you. Look as under the small oaks of Quercy, with a flag made of knotted rags, slip by the maquis that the Gestapo will never find because it only believes in tall trees. Look at the prisoner who enteers a luxurious villa and wonders why he has a bathroom—he hasn’t heard of bathtub torture. Poor tortured king of shadows, look as your people of shadows rises up in a night of June pierced by torture. Hear the rumble of German tanks rolling towards Normandy: thanks to you, the tanks will not make it in time. And when the Allied troops break through, look, Prefect, as in every town of France the Commissaries of the Republic rise up—except when they were killed. Like us, you envied Leclerc’s epic bums : look, fighter, your bums crawl out of their maquis. Their peasant hands have been trained to use bazookas, and they stop one of the foremost tank divisions of Hitler’s Empire, Das Reich. (…)

Enter here, Jean Moulin, with your terrible cohort. With those who died in basements without talking, like you; and even, which may be more awful, having talked. With the striped and shaved figures of the concentration camps. With the last stumbling, beaten body of the awful lines of Night And Fog. With the eight thousand French women who never returned from the prisons. With the last woman who died in Ravensbrück for giving asylum to one of ours. Enter here with the people born of shadows and gone with it—our brothers in the order of the night.

My ancestor risked torture and death and worse. What for? So that his children, and his countrymen’s children—so that I could enjoy a free and prosperous life.

If you won the sperm lottery and were born in a wealthy, democratic nation, you have a life whose charm is simply incommensurable and incomparable with the lived existence of the vast, vast majority of human beings who have ever lived on Earth.

You have the privilege of not dying of hunger and easily preventable disease. You have the privilege of having attended schools that, yeah, could be much better, but still taught you how to read. You have the privilege of access to technology and a standard of living that would have been simply unimaginable even to most kings of old. You have the privilege of not having to keep a spare set of clothes under your bed in case the secret police knock in the middle of the night. You have the privilege of being able to spout off whatever nonsense on the internet and not get thrown in jail for your opinions. You have the privilege of medicine which cures most ailments and is relatively available to you. You have the privilege of a relatively much much higher likelihood of having work that is not back-breaking and awful, and perhaps even meaningful and fulfilling. You have the privilege of having a life expectancy which is basically twice the life expectancy of most of the people who came before you. That’s right: you basically have A WHOLE OTHER LIFE on top of your “natural” life, as a reward for the hard work and toil of being born in the right place and the right time.

And the simple fact of the matter is that if your sperm was lucky and you were born in one of those countries, the only reason you enjoy this incredible, unimaginable privilege is because people who lived before you sacrificed, and toiled, and gave their lives so that you would have it. They fought wars and they gave their blood and their lives so that a certain political community to which you belong shall not perish from the Earth so that you could enjoy this.

We owe this incredibly charmed modern life not just to scientific progress and capitalism. We also owe it to the stubborn fact that many of our forefathers were willing to put on a uniform, swear an oath, and lay down their lives, for us, their children and their children’s children. Your blessed life is built on the blood and bones of your forefathers.

You can tell me that war is bad, and I agree. You can tell me that nationalism is bad, and I agree. You can tell me that militarism is bad, and I agree. But none of that changes the stubborn actual facts of history that wars, some of them just, were fought by your forefathers, and that your forefathers died, so that you could enjoy the positively mind-boggling privilege you do enjoy. Freedom is never free. Government is often a threat to freedom, yes, but it is also a bulwark for freedom. Maybe it doesn’t have to be this way, but it’s the way it has been.

In this context, the idea that your political community which has given you so much does not have the right to ask you to contribute just a little something back to the effort of national defense strikes me as the height of solipsistic adolescent egotism. It is spitting in your father’s face.

Through no effort of your own, being born in the right political community basically gave you forty extra years of expected life, and giving back just one or two is too much?

“Oh, but that’s slavery.” You know what’s slavery? ACTUAL SLAVERY. And you know where slavery exists? Not where you live. Slavery still exists—in places you were lucky enough not to be born in. Instead you were born into a place of unimaginable freedom, wealth and wonder which you did nothing to earn. And so yes, that place just may ask you to spend a year wearing ugly green fatigues which don’t compliment your eyes, crawling around in the muck and getting yelled at by a guy who didn’t even go to a good college. The horror.

Tell me national service is too expensive. Tell me it won’t work. Tell me you want smart ways to deal with true conscientious objectors. Tell me it’s wankery, even. Heck, tell me why as a Christian you refuse to take up arms against anybody. Tell me all these things—really.

But don’t tell me that there’s no social contract. Don’t tell me that you don’t owe anything to your country.

In the end, that’s why I’m not a libertarian. I am pro-libertarian in that I believe the libertarian critique of state overreach is critically important. I want libertarian ideas to have more purchase in our societies. I probably agree with the Cato Institute on 90% of issues. But following the logic of libertarianism leads to denying the social contract, to denying that political communities have value. Nations exist. In all of human history, people have formed political associations. It seems to me self-evident that this is necessary and good. Through a painful and long process of trial and error, we’ve stumbled upon a form of political association, the liberal democratic nation state, which is uniquely good at protecting people’s natural rights and encouraging their flourishing. But for these political associations to be successful, they require us to give as well as take, and for us to affiliate in a powerful way, and to view our destiny, at least a little bit, as a common endeavor and not just an individual one.

As Jim Manzi wrote in his book, every successful institution relies not just on the well-understood personal interest of its members but also on an emotional attachment to that institution and its well-being at the expense of our narrow personal interests. The liberal democratic nation state is the most successful, good and important institution we’ve come up with. It deserves and needs that we defend it—with words, with deeds, and sometimes, yes, with service. And it has the right to ask that of us.

Reform Conservative Manifesto TL;DR

I wrote a fairly long ‘Reform Conservative Manifesto’ post on Forbes this morning.

For those interested in skipping to the good parts, here are the key points.

1) The key problem facing America is family breakdown, which causes inequality of opportunity, economic insecurity and social dysfunction, and drives higher demand for government as private safety nets fail and human capital formation is inadequate. There are a number of policies that can address this, particularly family-friendly tax reform.

The Republican Party needs to take up this mantle of affordable family formation. If it does, it would get political victory (as starting a family makes you much more likely to vote GOP), a more vibrant America, and the political capital to truly shrink government for good.

If it doesn’t, ever-increasing social dysfunction and stratification will lead Americans to increasingly embrace big government and lead America on the path to France.

I describe the alternative scenarios this way:

Address family formation seriously -> win elections -> make it easier to start families and have kids -> more families and more kids -> a better economy, a healthier society, less demand for big government, more GOP voters -> win more elections -> shrink government, grow the economy and civil society -> win more elections -> rinse, lather, repeat.

The alternative scenario would go something like this: Don’t address middle income voters’ day-to-day concerns seriously, don’t make family formation more affordable -> concede the field to Democrats -> increase economic and social insecurity -> increase demand for government -> lose elections -> government grows bigger -> social pathologies get worse -> keep conceding the field -> increase demand for government -> etc.

2) The “Grand New Party School” of GOP Reform and the “Libertarian Populist School” have a tremendous amount in common, much more than separates them. The problem is that an austerity-plus-flat tax-plus-hard money agenda is a sure-fire political loser and terrible policy. GNPers and LPs should merge. GNPers should adopt the LP small-vs-big framing, and attendant impulses and reforms (anti-corporatism, prison reform, civil liberties) and LPs should adopt family-friendly reform and Milton Friedman-style economic policies.

Read the whole thing here →

The Radicalizing Of A Young Conservative

I like to think of myself as a pretty moderate guy. I like to think that politics is the art of the possible, and try to support policies that could get passed in the real world (while trying to shift the Overton Window a little bit with my writing). I especially like to think of myself as the kind of guy who remembers that no “side” has a monopoly on truth, and that all sides are mostly made up of well-intentioned people who want a better future for their polity. I like to think it’s important to remind myself that I’m a Christian first and a right-winger second, and that Christians in the public square should have what Catholic social doctrine calls “a preferential option for the poor” ; that while I very often disagree with the Left on how to make this option real, the Right too often forgets about it altogether in practice. On so-called social issues, I like to think of myself grandiosely first and foremost as a peacemaker, not a warrior ; when I talk about abortion I am more likely to talk about building a society that welcomes all life than about legal restrictions (and even then to talk about a gradualist approach) ; more likely to talk about strengthening all marriages than to talk about banning certain ones ; (much) more likely to view gender politics through a feminist than a traditionalist lens ; and so on.

First, let’s be honest: there’s probably a lot of affect here. Part of it is how I want to be seen by my contemporaries, which in my elite world are majority liberals: a conservative, maybe, but a Serious, Reasonable one. Not one of those Tea Party types who watch Fox and read Breitbart.

But I’m increasingly wondering if my self-conscious moderateness doesn’t also include a good deal of self-delusion. What if what’s at stake is much more fundamental than I think? What if it really is a war, and I’m too foolish to notice?

I think back on the HHS Mandate hoopla. Is this a technical issue or an other prong in a sustained, deliberate assault on religious liberty? At the time, I was openly derisive of the latter view. Sure, the Obama Administration was giving a sop to an interest group which was problematic for a bunch of reasons, but that was no threat of the Republic. My main preoccupation when thinking of the HHS Mandate was to figure some sort of compromise, not fight tooth-and-nail. As a Catholic, the idea of forcing Catholic hospitals to cover contraception makes me cringe, but is it really the end of the world? After all, I live in a country where my taxes pay for free abortions…

Then again, as Ross Douthat noted at the time in a very important column, the HHS Mandate relied on and promoted a truncated vision of religious freedom; one, which, taken to its logical course, is not just un-American, but deeply illiberal and unjust. As Megan McArdle noted, there’s a (deeply creepy) way in which lots of liberals seem to think that religious groups should consider themselves lucky to be allowed to exist as social institutions in the Grand Liberal Order. The mentality of the HHS Mandate and of many progressive reforms and wish-lists leads to a world where mediating institutions— families, religious groups, community organizations, local governments—are pared down and pared down until, as one of my Twitter followers put it, “the individual stands naked before the state” (and its conjoined twin, crony capitalism ). Is this the end game, or just collateral damage? And if the latter, it is one that progressives seem utterly unconcerned by, rendering the question rhetorical. First they came for the Catholic hospitals, and I said nothing, because I wasn’t a Catholic hospital…

I am writing this today, of course, because of Kermit Gosnell. I’m not even going to argue that there has been a black-out* by the mainstream mass media on the coverage of this horrible, horrible affair. Smart, secular, pro-choice writers like Conor Friedersdorf, Jeffrey Goldberg, Megan McArdle and Dave Weigel have seen it. If you think that it is totally normal for an editor or producer at mainstream media organization to hear about a story of a serial killer who kept a collection of feet, who was allowed to keep perpetrating for years and years, who preyed on minorities, and yawn, that this is totally normal for contemporary US mainstream media, or if you think that the story has already received plenty of coverage, you are just not, to coin a phrase, a member of the reality-based community.

(* By using the word “black-out” I am not alleging the existence of some conspiracy, just describing what effectively happened, whether through incompetence, blinders, etc.—or conspiracy.)

The near-universal vehemence with which many progressives have asserted the normalcy of the Gosnell coverage has completely baffled me. Are they completely deluded? Are they cynically lying? No doubt, on the whole, a mix of both. But who cares? If this is the mentality of the Left, if this is the extent of self-delusion and/or deceit they will go to suppress a story which might possibly give political advantage to the pro-life movement, they mustn’t be compromised with, they must be utterly defeated.

What’s all the more striking, and indeed gut-wrenching, is that the Gosnell story is also a social justice story. Gosnell preyed—was allowed to prey—on the poor and on minorities, because they were poor and minorities. It shows us in its disgusting detail not just the horrors of abortion in 21st century America but also the horrors of inequality in 21st century America. But, as a matter of fact, to the contemporary Left, the egg of calling attention to deep injustice against the poor must be broken to get the omelette of preventing any chance of any restriction on abortion whatsoever. I say as a matter of fact, because while many lefties would loudly proclaim to disagree with the previous sentence, what has actually happened is that they all collaborated, as one man, to proclaim that Gosnell must remain uncovered—thereby, of course, all-but ensuring that we will have more Gosnells —social justice be damned. If poor young women must die like dogs so that more babies—the word for viable foetus is baby—can be killed, then so be it. If this is really what the contemporary American Left stands for, any compromise with it would be shameful.

So I’m getting radicalized. I’m increasingly finding, or at least wondering, if I’m not fooling myself by trying to find a way to give half a loaf. We in Europe remember, or at least we should, the “salami tactics” by which Communist parties, by slicing off one concession after another, eventually grabbed full, totalitarian power.

Understand me: less than a week ago, I would have rolled my eyes at a comparison between the contemporary American Left and mid-century European Communist parties. If a liberal journalist had mocked it on Twitter, I would have approvingly retweeted it. Now I find myself surprising myself by making it.

Do I think that all contemporary American left-wingers consciously want to destroy liberties, mediating institutions, indeed transcendence itself, and make us all part of the Borg collective? No. But then again the self-soothing illusions of the useful idiots were no reason not to oppose Communism at every step.

I realize how crazy it sounds, what I’m writing. It sounds crazy even to me. But blind naïveté is also a form of insanity.

Welcome to the mind of a radicalizing young conservative.

Liberalism, Secularism and Political Theology

I have an essay up at Religion & Politics, a great new site that covers just what you would expect, reviewing two recent books by secular critics seeking to salvage the structure of religion for their respective projects:

If the violence of September 11, 2001, accomplished one thing, it was to force the United States, and by proxy the other Western powers who joined its military adventure in the Middle East, to drop the pretense of being secular nations. When one saw some of the most prominent atheists in American discourse calling for crusades against Muslim invaders, the supposed progressivism of our intellectuals—which still regularly and loudly proclaims its superiority to the passions of religion—looked a bit less convincing. Osama bin Laden had forced us to admit that, while the U.S. may legally separate church and state, it cannot do so intellectually. Beneath even the most ostensibly faithless of our institutions and our polemicists lie crouching religious lions, ready to devour the infidels who set themselves in opposition to the theology of the free market and the messianic march of democracy. Our god may not have a name, but we kill for him just the same.

With theologically energized political movements raising a din among both citizens and enemies of the state, the liberal paradigm—which depends on legal secularism, representative politics, and market economics to suppress deeper social conflicts—seemed more and more besieged. Though it still has its champions, the secularism that triumphed in the nineteenth century has been ill-prepared to handle the voracious economies it unleashed, and the religious currents it struggles to contain. (The riots that began across the Middle East last week are yet another illustration of how explosive the reaction can be.) But now, scattered across philosophy, religion, and literature departments, a movement of critics is working to meet the challenge of this post-secular age. As our political system depends on a shaky separation between religion and politics that has become increasingly unstable, scholars are sensing the deep disillusionment afoot and trying to chart a way out.

This piece and the ideas it discusses are very much beginnings for me, intended much more to be asking questions than providing answers. I’m sure members of the TAS mafia will have very different perspectives, so I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments at R&P.

Christianity Isn’t the Only Thing in Crisis: A Reply to Andrew Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan has written a cover story for Newsweek (disclosure: where I also work) that I think deserves attention and scrutiny. It could not be more timely, and in many ways more needed. But even as it advances some crucial criticisms of the contemporary monstrosity that presents itself as Christianity, I think there is a lot more to be said. Specifically, I’m not sure Andrew’s political framework is up to the task of diagnosing the real crisis we face as inhabitants of Western democracy. If only things were as easy as putting a mutant political Christianity back in its cage.

I have read Andrew’s bracingly honest writing about his own faith enough to know that his Christianity is deeply considered and deeply sincere. In many ways, I sympathize with where he has ended up as a believer: a follower of Christ who wants his readers to understand the purity of Jesus’ life and moral teachings before the contaminations of worldy movements and interests, even those of Jesus’ own disciples and the early Christians who authored the New Testament. The strange, countercultural liberty of the “religion of unachievement,” is what I think moves Andrew so powerfully. Despite what I’m about to argue, I understand how this can be practiced and understood as apolitical, even anti-political.

Andrew describes Jesus’ ideas as “truly radical,” for example, “love your enemy and forgive those who harm you; give up all material wealth.” His project is to convince us that these “radical” ideas are also “apolitical,” that when salvaged from the tangle of theological and political movements that have distorted them, they are something pure, spiritual and otherworldly. Like a good liberal individualist, he reads all of these virtues as a kind of private interior experience, something I’m not sure Jesus ever intended them to mean. Jesus’ ideas are not anti-worldly in the sense that they help guard one’s inner peace against the chaos of the Internet, but in the sense that they challenge the way most human societies work. This is certainly why Jesus was executed, and why the spread of Christianity was met with bloody resistance: he claimed to have a kingdom, threatened to “destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days,” and preached a kind of forgiveness and self-sacrifice that upended and undermined established Jewish law. It is almost impossible to imagine Jesus “without politics,” as Andrew would have him, or that practicing his “pure” ideas would be anything less than an affront to an established political order—as they are invariably perceived wherever they manifest themselves.

Read the full article

David Ryan On Moar Kids

Friend of The Scene (and the artist formerly known as Tony Comstock) David Ryan has a very thoughtful and touching post on our debate of the day at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen. David comes down on my side, though that’s not why his post is touching.

From a policy perspective, the meaty part is this:

What I realized is that whatever problems we face as a species, the answers are going to come out of someone’s head, and it’s very hard to know ahead of time which problem is going to emerge as the most pressing, or who is going to have the answer. And by March of 2005, and with no more stability and normalcy in our lives (less, actually) my wife was pregnant with our second child.

But you should really read the whole thing →

A Perfect Solution To The Contraception Mandate Problem That No One Will Adopt

Women’s groups (and other groups!) should raise the money to buy the contraception patents from pharmaceutical companies and release them into the public domain so that all forms of contraception become as cheap as condoms. (Some versions of the Pill are in the public domain, but not all of them and women have different needs/physiologies.)

No one is forced to buy anything. Religious groups have their conscience intact. Women have more access to contraception.

Next question!

The Case for Optimism

I suspect most will have grown tired of the kids/freedom debate so I will read my response to David’s post under the fold.

Read the full article

Yglesias on moar kids

Matt Yglesias chimes in on the moar kids debate. I endorse his post, both the general point about empirical evidence (which I actually interpret as an appeal to informed skepticism) and the point about how it does indeed make sense that having kids is costly and so if we want to encourage kids-having making it less costly would make it easier.

Yglesias writes in response to Kevin Drum whom you can read here, though I object to Drum’s take for the reasons Yglesias cites.

Yglesias doesn’t actually endorse natalist policies and I’d be curious to have more thoughts from him on the topic, but it’s nevertheless a good addition to the discussion.

Of Kids And Freedom (cont)

The discussion about kids and freedom continues.

This Noah guy is pretty smart. I think he should write for TAS. Noah Millman joins our conversation and kids and freedom. Read the whole thing.

Noah’s quarrel is mostly with Will, and in this regard I want to endorse everything he says about freedom, particularly this:

Should the state teach evolution or not? If you say yes, then you’re having the state “indoctrinate” a new generation in values that a very significant fraction of our society consider abominable. Not a rule that “more or less everyone can affirm from within their own moral perspective.” If you say no, or if you say, “teach the controversy” then, from the perspective of those who care about the integrity of science, you’re “indoctrinating” a new generation in values that they consider abominable. Not a rule that “more or less everyone can affirm from within their own moral perspective.”

And this:

Raising a child, going to college and keeping a boat are all extremely expensive propositions. For pretty much everyone I know, the decision whether or not to raise a child is life-defining. For most people I know for whom this was a choice, as opposed to a given, or who have thought about the choice at all, the decision whether or not to go to college was life-defining. Indeed, it’s not just that they are both profound choices in and of themselves; it’s that they are gateway choices. If you don’t have children, you can’t have any of the wide range of life experiences that flow from having children. If you don’t go to college, a host of options, economic and social, will be relatively unavailable to you thereafter. People who can’t afford a child experience, in a profound way, a lack of ability to take advantage of the choices life offers. Ditto those who can’t afford to go to college. People who can’t afford a boat, not so much.

So while I agree with 99% of most of Noah’s post, at the end of this post he comes to his critique of me, and (spoiler) I don’t agree. Noah writes:

As for PEG, I have to say, that perspective is historically un-French. France is notable within Europe for having a lower population density than its major neighbors (half as dense as Germany or the UK, for example). This disparity is not of recent vintage, and relates to a longstanding disparity in fertility rates. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that the historically high quality of life in France relates in part to an appreciation precisely of that quality – and to an appreciation that, contra PEG’s contention, stuff is not people; rather, people appreciate stuff, but stuff has an independent existence, and if you have lots more people some kind of stuff will be harder to appreciate, or will even cease to exist. The historic French relationship with the land is in part a product of that relatively low population density. That relationship is very different from the American relationship – which is also related to historically low population density – but it’s also very different from the relationship in, say, the Netherlands.

I live in Brooklyn. I’ve obviously got no problem with living in a very dense space. And there is a unique kind of freedom that one experiences in a big city. But it is not the only kind of freedom. India is a less-free society with over a billion people than it would be if it had only three hundred million, even if per-capita income was the same – simply because there’s less room to stretch out, which is a very basic form of freedom from constraint.

My first instinct is to say that only a non-French person could have such a disarming perspective on what seems French or not.

To start with, I would actually attribute France’s lower population density to the denominator: France is the largest country in Europe (ex-Russia) by land area. It has roughly the same population as the UK and Italy and twice the land area, so obviously its density is going to be lower.

And I attribute France’s large land area to France’s military success over the centuries, which was itself the result of France being the most populous nation in Europe. Indeed, France’s demographic slide starts after the Napoleonic War and this is when France loses its status as the preeminent Western power, a status we’ve been trying to regain since. So the French relationship with population size/growth seems to go in the other way than Noah suggests. Conversely, at least one reason why Germany is a denser country than France is because in 1945 Stalin pushed Germany’s eastern border several hundred miles to the west and deported all the ethnic Germans on the eastern side to the western side. Is this indicative of a particular historic German relationship to density?

Noah seems to be saying that France has decided to privilege its quality of life over its birth rate by deciding to have a lower density. Given that France has one of the broadest and most generous natalist policies in the world (and has had it for over a century—and as someone who just had a child, I can say it is awesome) and today has the highest fertility rate in Western Europe that seems a strange notion. After having been immersed in French culture for 25 years, it’s the first time I’ve encountered the idea.

As to the “historic French relationship to the land”, I’m not sure what to say. Terroir is certainly a part of French identity, but then again in almost every country there is an irrational romantic attachment to notions of land, farmers, etc. (with often disastrous public policy consequences). I might argue that attachment to terroir means attachment to a particular type of land as opposed to attachment to land in general. To look at another metric, rates of homeownership are lower in France than e.g. in the UK, which seems like it wouldn’t be if there were a particular “historic French relationship to the land”.

(And finally, given that I write here and have explicitly affiliated myself in the previous post as someone who identifies politically/ideologically with the American conservative movement, one might suspect than many of my perspectives are un-French. I’d been led to believe up until now that my outspoken support for natalist policies was one of the few characteristically French aspects of my outlook.)

Moving on, Noah’s second point is that more kids leads to density, and density is bad for freedom, or at least some kinds of freedom, like the freedom to live in a space that’s less dense.

I mean, I guess that’s correct. But I guess I would just say it’s like Noah’s freedom to have a boat: kind of a good idea in theory, but not something we should care too much about.

I just vehemently deny this: “India is a less-free society with over a billion people than it would be if it had only three hundred million, even if per-capita income was the same”

India is a freer society because it has more people. First of all, it wouldn’t have the same per-capita income if it had three hundred million people. But even granting this, it would have less writers, less scientists, less monuments, less teachers, less movies (and thank God for Indian cinema!) which would be unavailable to experience. It would be poorer, in every meaningful sense of the word.

And I would argue that the billions of people clustering in cities are voting with their feet for my freedom to expand their opportunities against Noah’s freedom to stretch out.

As to the important freedom to “stretch out”, well, this is the enormous density problem the Earth faces:

That’s right, the world is packed so tight that if we were all to live as densely as Paris (a city that’s not dense at all on an absolute basis, with a grand total of one skyscraper), we would merely cover three American states. (We can argue about the resource question, but Noah is talking specifically about density here.)

Relative to land area, Earth is positively deserted. In this sense, saying that if we have more kids we might have less freedom to stretch out is sort of like saying that people shouldn’t breathe in too hard or we might run out of air.

Moar kids = moar freedom

Rick Santorum recently came out with a WSJ op-ed that tries to include pro-family and pro-kids policy as part of an “economic freedom” agenda.

Predictably and intelligently, Will Wilkinson denounced this gambit in The Economist as an attempt at social engineering and, therefore, incompatible with economic freedom.

At National Review, TAS Overlord Reihan responds that, while rewarding people for having kids might not be conducive to economic freedom per se, it might still be conducive to higher economic growth and therefore might be sensible policy. Having children can be viewed as making an investment in human capital. Almost every country tries to encourage investments in other kinds of capital through tax policy, but human capital is also important.

Later at Big Think, after drawing a distinction between economic freedom and maximizing GDP growth, Will Wilkinson pursues his line of argument further.

After drawing a distinction between economic growth and economic freedom, Will tries to submit the spend-on-kids-for-growth idea to a reductio ad absurdum: if the goal of rewarding people for having kids is to boost growth, then we should reward people even more for having high-IQ kids, and punish those who have low-IQ kids. But the pro-kids people would doubtlessly be squeamish at the implications of that. And so the economic growth argument is just a fig leaf for social engineering. And so any pro-kids policy must be rejected.

On Twitter, I made several arguments in response, and Will asked me to blog them, so here I go.

First of all, while Will is right that economic freedom and economic growth are not the same thing, Will argued eloquently elsewhere that the reason why economic growth is desirable in the first place is because it expands choices. And so while the two are not the same thing, they are interrelated. One leads to the other and vice versa.

Secondly, Will’s reductio is wobbly. It’s almost impossible to know whether a kid will be a successful adult, and thank God for that. For example, from studies I’ve seen, entrepreneurial success is uncorrelated with IQ above a certain level, so subsidizing little geniuses would not necessarily subsidize the Steve Jobses of the future. And really, it’s perfectly consistent to simultaneously believe we should be subsidizing kids because they’ll boost growth but believe that subsidizing only the high-IQ (or those who pass the Marshmallow Test or whatever) ones would be morally reprehensible, and if some of the money will be wasted, so be it.

More importantly, there are (to me) obvious ways in which a pro-kids and pro-family policy can boost not just economic growth, but economic freedom and social welfare.

An important thing to note is that a market economy is made possible not only by formal rules but by the underpinning of these formal rules by a set of social norms of trust and expected behavior etc., which cannot be mandated and mysteriously accrete in a society over many generations. If you give a society without these underlying norms the institutions of a modern liberal democracy, you get Russia in 1993 or Iraq in 2005.

With that in mind, most people tend to agree that reams of studies show that generally and on the whole, stable families have better odds of producing better-adjusted, happier folks who will integrate and perpetuate such social norms better. Policies that successfully reward producing more of these sorts of outcomes would, therefore, not just promote general welfare, but also promote economic freedom over the long run by strengthening the social norms that make it possible at all to begin with.

I say this in all sympathy with Will’s argument, because I do agree with him that too often social engineering is presented under economic/budgetary fig-leafs that are really masks for value judgements. I’ve argued so about so-called sin taxes.

But just because such fig-leafs exist sometimes doesn’t mean that being pro-kids isn’t being pro-freedom. About sin taxes, I argued that it’s fine if sin taxes don’t provide all the economic benefits that boosters allege, because it’s fine to say “We disapprove of this, and therefore we’ll tax it.”

As someone who identifies most closely with American conservatism (and as a libertarian fellow-traveller), I am a proud heir of an intellectual tradition that has taught me to be highly skeptical of social engineering. But being highly skeptical is not the same thing as being always and everywhere an opponent. As Reihan notes, it’s impossible for the tax code not to be a social engineering tool, as people’s behavior will be nudged in certain ways no matter what you end up deciding to tax. (Will disagrees, but doesn’t really say why.) And so I’m fine with supporting some kinds of social engineering. So when Will says “This isn’t about economic growth/freedom at all, therefore it’s social engineering, therefore it’s bad”, I’m unmoved. I say “It is about economic growth and freedom, and it is also social engineering, and that’s fine.”

But even more broadly, and this is something I should have written up sooner, my defense of moar kids from a freedom and human welfare perspective is this: stuff is people. Not just Soylent Green. Everything. Corporations are people, my friend. Not in the sense that they have human rights. But in the sense that they are a framework through which people collaborate. Likewise, cities are not a geographical location and building, they’re people. Even stuff is people. Your iPhone is people. It’s Steve Jobs, it’s Jony Ive and it’s plenty of Foxconn workers. An iPhone is not a thing, it is a few moments of thousands of people’s time. Culture is people. Books is people. Everything we cherish, everything that makes life worth living, is people. More people means more of everything.

More kids boosts freedom, because each person is an infinite amount of new choices to be made, and it obviously boosts welfare, because the world is people and more people makes the world richer.

EDIT: Reihan has his own rejoinder to Will, which is very much worth your time. I guess Reihan is slightly less pro-kids than me, which I guess is fair enough given that I find it hard to imagine how one could be more pro-kids than me.

Uncertainty In The Wild

During the depths of the recession, a meme took hold among Republican politicians and a number of conservative wonks about “uncertainty.” The idea was that regulatory uncertainty—that the people who run businesses couldn’t tell which regulations and taxes they’d have to face in the future—was depressing business investment and therefore prolonging the recovery.

This idea was soundly and almost unanimously mocked on the Left. Aren’t our Galtian overlords supposed to be great risk-takers? Isn’t this how they derive the legitimacy of their wealth? Isn’t there always regulatory uncertainty? To many on the Left, the “uncertainty” meme was simply a whole-cloth fabrication.

At the time, I took a frustratingly middle-of-the-road view: on balance and all else being equal, I think, regulatory uncertainty can depress investment and therefore economic growth. That said, in a massive demand-driven recession like the one the US experienced, it’s highly unlikely that this is the main cause of the slough.

Now it’s Morning Again In America and so nobody’s arguing about “uncertainty” anymore. And the progress of the recovery seems to validate lefty arguments that the whole “uncertainty” thing is made up out of whole cloth.

Well, I found an example of uncertainty working as advertised in the wild.

I recently had dinner with a friend who’s an investment banker who often advises on LBOs—debt-fueled buyouts of companies by private equity funds—who tells me most if not all plans for LBOs in France have been frozen. Why? Because François Hollande, the Socialist Party’s presidential candidate and the favorite of the election, has promised a surtax on debt used to finance buyouts. So private equity funds have decided to sit on their hands until the election in May to see what exactly they’ll be socked with and plug it into their models so they can see if the deals they’re contemplating work under the new regime or not. (While presumably vigorously lobbying against any tax at all, I’m sure.)

Now this doesn’t really keep me up at night. From a business perspective, if you can’t make that deal you’re contemplating work without leverage, you probably shouldn’t do it. From a policy perspective, while the LBO boom has probably been a net positive for the economy, putting a brake on LBO activity isn’t the most damaging thing a socialist president could do. Let’s call it mostly-harmless populism. It is, of course, the wrong solution to the wrong problem: the overuse of debt by corporations is encouraged across the economy by the corporate income tax (because debt payments are deductible from the corporate tax) which should just be done away with, but that’s an idea that’s even more politically infeasible in France than it is in the US. (And, of course, one should note that Mr Hollande has an objective interest in depressing and deferring business investment until he becomes President, although I’m sure that doesn’t figure into his calculations. Really. The economy is doing crappily enough without him.)

Anyway: while this tax and the response to it aren’t going to keep me up at night, we do have here a real-life example of real regulatory uncertainty depressing real business activity and investment that would have occurred absent said uncertainty. So “uncertainty” can and does occur.

So there you go, kids: while it’s probably foolish to believe that Obama-led “uncertainty” is responsible for most of the economic morass we’ve experienced over the past few years, it’s equally foolish to dismiss out of hand the idea or the possibility of uncertainty depressing business investment.

This Is Your Head On Blog

At last! I’ve lost my Bloggingheads virginity. I want to thank Reason’s very gracious Matt Welch for doing it. And hopefully if the Bloggingheads people and/or viewers like it, I’ll be able to do more with more people.

In this one, we cover (mostly) the Eurocrisis and the US presidential election from a European perspective. Watch here.

PEG Leads, Peter Thiel Follows?

Peter Thiel has a big interview with Francis Fukuyama in The American Interest. One thing I’ve noted is that he seems to be inclined toward giving kids the vote, or at least lowering the age barrier.

As frequent readers will know, I’m a big fan of Thiel’s and giving kids the vote is one of my hobby horses so I’m feeling excited today.

The whole interview is worth reading and interesting throughout even for people already familiar with Thiel’s worldview. There’s some new stuff and illuminating reflections/explanations of the old stuff.

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