Saturday, August 8, 2009

Summer political philosophy update

A long, disconnected, and incomplete rant:

There are two different sorts of political disagreement among non-idiots -- disagreements about the likely consequences of policies, and disagreements about values. In practice, people tend to conflate these, esp. where there isn't an academic consensus, and adopt narratives that suggest that policies they disagree with would be disastrous regardless of values. This is usually, though not always, dishonest; few problems can be solved by dominance reasoning.

I'd describe myself as a left-wing individualist; I'm antagonistic in the abstract to most forms of communitarianism, unions, small-business-worship, homeschooling, extended families, nationalism, ethnic pride, segregation, etc. (And yes, from my perspective left-wing and right-wing communitarianism are similar phenomena.) On the other hand, I believe a fair bit of the negative communitarian case against modernity and modern liberalism: I'm not convinced that progress makes people happier; I agree with Naomi Klein (whom on the whole I dislike) that corporate interests corrupt politics, and that either politics must be insulated from big business or big business must somehow be shrunk (I'd prefer the former); I buy the conservative belief that diversity and urbanization spoils the sense of community and the real benefits that come with it (though I'd say, if so then fuck the sense of community). Etc.

I'm unsympathetic toward libertarianism largely because I don't believe libertarian arguments. The value system, on the whole, I'm not that antagonistic towards. I'm in favor of wide personal freedoms, a moderately strong system of property rights -- that is, I would like property rights to be strong enough that they are predictable, which is a pretty powerful constraint -- and flexible employment. (On the other hand, flexible employment includes people with preexisting conditions; the current system, where some people simply can't afford to lose their jobs, strikes me as intensely wrong. Similarly, I think that people in general ought to have the right to free speech de facto and not just de jure; one shouldn't be liable to starve for protesting.) Lateral mobility seems at least as important as upward mobility, esp. assuming long lives and rapid technological change; I'm in favor of a reasonably strong safety net that allows people to change jobs in mid-career. And I just don't think any of this is possible without big government and high taxes. I am quite strongly against outsourcing the safety net to families, charities, etc. because they're bound to be discriminatory in ways I disapprove of.

I tend to distinguish between liberties that I consider valuable in themselves, e.g. the right to say almost anything you like with a reasonable shot at finding an audience, the right to a fair trial, the right to a decent education, etc., and those that are administratively useful, such as most property rights, the right to leave your money to your kids when you die, the right to read Joyce to your five-year-olds, etc. I don't really have a problem with curbing the second kind of liberty if it serves any purpose and can be done predictably and systematically. (I'm a big fan of the rule of law: retroactive punishment, arbitrary seizure, etc. seem deeply wrong in themselves.) I approve of stuff like McCain-Feingold. Similarly, I don't have a problem with laws mandating that private establishments can't expel people for certain kinds of free speech, even if that seems somewhat anti-property rights.

I disagree with the linear-programming approach towards social policy, the notion that policies are best thought of as constrained optimization problems. The way I see it it's only necessary for things to work well enough, or even not terribly, while satisfying as many constraints and desiderata as one wants to impose. Arguments that some policy change would make some system less efficient tend not to move me; the relevant question is whether they would make the system intolerably less efficient. I have a similar sort of attitude toward meritocratic objections to affirmative action (though for unrelated reasons I'm ambivalent about AA itself). If the govt forces companies to employ grossly unqualified people, or makes it impossible for e.g. whites/Asians to find reasonable employment or colleges, then that's obviously a bad thing; if not, I don't much care in principle if "The Best" people don't get the best jobs. The exception to this is some areas in which there's social utility to having a rat race because it makes people work extremely long hours, which leads to socially beneficial outcomes (e.g. research/some engineering jobs); in such cases, meritocracy provides the only sensible form of organization.

In general, I don't find meritocracy (or its flip side, equality of opportunity) a useful concept. Opportunities are never going to be equal -- even if the state ran education, some kids would get the best nannies -- and in any case it's not obvious that people with better genes deserve better outcomes. (The only argument for meritocracy I believe in has to do with encouraging hard work.) Some talent will inevitably be wasted; what matters from the point of view of progress is that meaningful opportunities should exist for people with exceptional abilities, and this condition is weaker and more enforceable than equality of opportunity.

I don't think, however, that the current American educational and penal systems -- by and large -- offer meaningful opportunities even to talented poor kids in inner cities or Appalachia (never mind the third world etc.); the existence of an underclass of this kind seems to me a natural consequence of massive inequality, and also of the fact that there is, as of now, a de facto safety net for middle-class whites. If middle-class people were likelier to be locked up for trivial offences and suffered the same sorts of consequences as the urban poor habitually suffer -- if enough suburban stoners ended up with AIDS -- we might have a humane prison system. Similarly with busing and inner-city schools. The obstacle here is that it's easier for the middle class to move out, insulate itself, and use its advantage in political clout to prevent busing; and the very poor end up trapped in ghettoes. I don't see how it's possible to address this sort of thing structurally without ensuring a more even distribution of wealth -- though that is unlikely to be a sufficient condition.

One of the aspects of the communitarian critique that I find particularly interesting is the notion of the decline in the dignity of work -- in pre-industrial societies, a higher proportion of jobs required skill or strength; the fashioning of worthwhile objects gave a meaning to one's life, outside of consumption, that it is substantially harder to get out of a job at McDonald's. (As Gregory Clark points out, it seems likely that the extent of structural unemployment -- the fraction of the populace that hasn't got the skills or the ability to do any kind of job that there is the demand for -- will rise to a reasonable fraction of the populace.) This is a natural result of globalization -- there is a market for only the best books, art, and (to some extent) science; both a small community and a large one naturally sustain roughly the same number of writers, and therefore a world splintered into disconnected islands would allow for a much greater fraction of the populace to take some pleasure in their skill. What the reader gains from having access to the best stuff being done is, however, enormous [though what does that mean? I don't think it makes people objectively happier], and in the end I do believe in progress.

I started writing this down because I figured it would help me organize my thoughts; apparently it hasn't. I'll skip the bit about aesthetics for now.


a said...

You covered quite a lot there. I think I agree with most of it but don't get two things:

1) Not sure entirely where you get the "progress doesn't make people happier". I understand the Unabomber argument but yours is a bit different. Progress certainly makes the elites happier (as far as I can tell) and as for the poor - fewer people die of TB, and they have cell phones they can play games on. Your point about globalization is a good one (few actors make millions, rest are poor and wait tables) but that seems to be an issue of inequality, which we can design around with more redistribution. People are going to keep reproducing and we have the technology to increase the carrying capacity of the planet. If we can keep them fed and disease-free I'm not sure job fulfillment is that important. That to me has always just been a luxury for elites.

2) On your liberties point, many people consider property rights and home-schooling kids more important than free speech and fair trials. I mean, look at the debate over guns. Not sure where/how you draw the distinction there.


Sarang said...

In reverse order:

(2) Well, most people own property and have nothing to say; therefore their priorities are not surprising. I believe in a strong conception of kids' rights (hence a weak one of parents' rights) and as for property rights, I don't believe in them as _rights_ (i.e. intrinsically valuable) at all; they're just useful for organizing businesses. This is a value judgment of sorts; I think the marginal value gained from enabling dissidents to express their thoughts fearlessly is greater than that from not taxing businesses.

(1) As I've said I don't think longevity is esp. relevant, or that people were that unhappy in the Middle Ages. (Infant mortality is a possible exception but I don't buy the usual interpretation of recent research.) I think life is basically tragic if lightened by the occasional your mom joke, and that this is the result of most people being replaceable and dispensable, which is hard to reconcile with the desire to feel needed. Most of one's well-being comes from things like status, which can't be changed through progress, except perhaps for the worse (a la Greg Clark). I guess I disagree that keeping the masses fed and clothed will do all that much to keep them happy, unless one finds something for them to do that will keep them busy and give their lives a reasonable illusion of meaning.

I think we need fewer people, not more. As for the business with elites and progress, I think it's true that rapid technological change has winners as well as losers but I think this is more about f'(x) than f(x). Change tends to upset lives; being, in general, pro-atomization and pro-deracination, I approve of this, but I doubt that it's utilitarian for the most part.

Sarang said...

E.g. on the distinction between something being valuable and something making one happier. The electroweak theory was extremely valuable but I don't think you could argue that physicists (other than Salam and Weinberg) are on average _happier_ as a consequence.

Alan said...

Offhand, somewhat drunken thoughts, in no particular order:

1. Why isn't longevity that important? It's obviously good ceteris paribus, and presumably all rational, well-informed people would trade some average quality of life for length.

2. Things that particularly contribute to my happiness and don't really have diminishing marginal utility: music (including certain songs themselves), movies, books, nature, food, drink. Amount that progress seems to have facilitated my enjoyment of such things: a lot; I am likely to live longer, spend less time sick, have more knowledge of and access to good stuff including good means of enjoyment(e.g., speakers, Thai delivery), more opportunities to share my passions with others, and a frame of reference such that I appreciate my good fortune. And that's just what immediately comes to mind. I think you're just a melancholic. I mean, I agree that life is tragic, but I'm generally blissfully oblivious of this fact, or at least detached from it, like my impending death. Progress probably helps with this, too. Anyway, I think this "debate" is another head of the hydra that includes selective abortion and genetic modification. We're Wittgensteinian lions, poking each other.

3. When faced with hard cases, I take it you come down on the flip-the-switch-don't-push-the-fat-guy-fuck-the-system side. Fair enough; I can relate to people who reject hardcore efficiency/equity utilitarianism, even if they may simply be giving into subhuman inclinations ("chimp brain," in Will's words). But you seem to go further; you "disagree with the linear-programming approach towards social policy, the notion that policies are best thought of as constrained optimization problems. The way I see it it's only necessary for things to work well enough, or even not terribly, while satisfying as many constraints and desiderata as one wants to impose." Surely you don't disagree with the notion of cost-effectiveness; I hope you aren't suggesting that it's okay to engage in some degree of handwaving at the expense of this principle.

4. I agree about the interestingness/provocativeness of the globalization/dignity of work critique. But obviously the progress is worth it, especially in the long run with the hope of eliminating key material shortages and lowering the birth rate. The way that people come into this world -- and what to do with them -- is incredible and intractably fucked up.

Sarang said...

1. Flatly disagree. Rare to do worthwhile work after 50, and hangovers are worse in old age. Hedonic pleasure and the joy of original achievement are the two reasons life is worth living. Ergo dumb to want to live past 50.

2. Yes, some of this comes down to whether life is good, bad or neutral. I'd say neutral or bad. I tend to cast a cold eyesocket.

3. I see utilitarianism as a way of blinding the chimp brain with science; morals are ultimately chimp-brain anyway. The point about linear programming is that I see my "utility function" as being steplike rather than linear. Ceteris paribus, sure, let's do a better job of running things, but to the extent that things are run OK I'm willing to trade in efficiency gains for gains along other dimensions. Maybe I'm making this point overly general, but with e.g. jobs, as long as one is employing sufficiently competent people I'm OK with fulfilling random other criteria instead of picking the "best" people.

4/2. I have this intuition that the knowledge of (say) electroweak theory adds something to my life, but I don't think a typical pre-EW grad student was unhappier. Similarly with art, you need enough out there not to be bored (here come sufficiency principles again) but once that's out there it's unclear that adding more actually makes you happier.

(The other day I was walking to the bar when I came up with the line "There's no business like Shoah business." Later I googled it and was disappointed to find out that it wasn't original. In a smaller world it might have been and I'd have been pleased w/ myself for a day or two.)

I'm not sure globalization is worth it on (avg. rather than total) utilitarian grounds. At replacement we'd still have far too many people. What are they all supposed to do other than fart, breed, and riot? On the other hand, I do have a prior ethical commitment to progress, and would like to have enough people around to maintain a healthy number of outliers. Maybe the future is to have most people do trivial service-industry jobs and get their kicks from having others smile at them, but it's not clear how well this would work.