A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Sunday, 25 December 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A brief update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Wherefore Christmas Cards?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 16 December 2016

Patriarchy is the Radical Notion that Men are People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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