A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Tuesday, 15 September 2020

Some Early Thoughts on The Machinery of Government

I'm enjoying Joseph Heath's latest book, The Machinery of Government. It has particular relevance to me at present, as a UK civil servant currently working on implementation of the NI Protocol, where the UK Government is currently taking what we might describe as a "high legal risk" approach.

At present I've read the first three chapters ("Taking Public administration Seriously", "A General Framework for the Ethics of Public Administration", "Liberalism: From Classical to Modern"), skipped the fourth and fifth on the welfare state and cost-benefit analysis, and am half-way through the sixth on administrative discretion. I assume that chapters four and five are more developed versions of his previous papers on these topics, but may have missed things which would rebut my criticisms below.

Some things I've enjoyed:

  • Heath makes a convincing case that the topic is under-studied: state officials wield vast vast power which really doesn't have a good democratic justification. He also, I think, provides a solid explanation of where this justification does come from.
  • I have serious disagreements with his interpretation of liberalism, but it's a very clear statement of why he believes it.
  • It's also by far the best defence I've read of the Communitarian/Habermasian idea that moral philosophy is about uncovering the principles implicit in our practices, rather than trying to divine an eternal moral law. He compares it to his business ethics, collected in the earlier volume Morality, Competition, and the Firm: "One of the major problems with traditional business ethics is that it treats morality as something entirely external to the practice of business. As a result, the pronouncements of ethicists tend to arrive like an alien imposition, which in turn gives businesspeople license to ignore them, on the grounds that the expectations are simply incompatible with the demands of running a successful business. My approach, therefore, has been to focus on the moral obligations that are already implicit in market relations, and that are advanced through commercial and competition law, as well as regulation." (page x)
  • To this end, he talks largely about an existing ethos, various written and unwritten norms which exist around civil service practice. I have been thoroughly convinced that this is the correct approach, as opposed to attempting to derive morality separately and then apply it in this case - despite my utilitarian inclinations.

Some things I've thought less of:

  • Every one of Heath's books contains a long history of the topic at hand. His defence of this is that, as a student of Habermas, he believes you can only understand our moral practices through understanding the journey by which we arrived at them. Fair enough - but do you really need 60 pages to do this in a 400 page book?
  • Moreover - it's striking that for all that he talks about the history of liberalism, he does not any attempt to give the history of Westminster-style civil services, despite the obvious relevance of this. If one is aiming to defend a particular view of the principles inherent in civil service, it's fair enough to think that John Locke is more important than the Northcote-Trevelyan Reforms, but I'd expect you to at least make the case. For example, I am not aware of any mention of the latter in The Machinery of Government. Nor is there analysis of actually-existing civil service codes beyond the (admittedly, in my experience accurate) statements that they are often vague and give little to no guidance on how to weigh different values like objectivity, neutrality, etc.
  • Going deep into history inevitably involves a great deal of historical interpretation. There are some glaringly "controversial" examples - to take one which clearly doesn't affect the main thesis, his claim that "Napoleon was able to conquer most of Europe, not because of any technological or tactical superiority, but rather because of the superior organisation capacity of the French state, not least its power to impose universal male conscription upon the population, which made it possible for Napoleon to field massive armies." (p120). He attributes this to liberalism. Conscription was clearly a boon but:
    • (a) logistical innovations which allowed French armies to travel faster, enabling things like the Ulm Maneuvre, were clearly much more important;
    • (b) Napoleon didn't exactly outnumber the Russian and Austrian armies he faced, conscription was at most an equalising force;
    • (c) this really needs a comparison to the Revolutionary Government which preceded Napoleon;
    • (d) why would you use this as your example of liberalism boosting military capacity rather than the well-known example of the UK being able to borrow at lower rates of interest?
  • That example merely raises questions of attention to detail. One which I'll admit to not exactly being expert in, but which frankly seems fatal to his thesis if my understanding is correct - the Wars of Religion were ended not by agreement for states to stay out of religion - to follow liberal neutrality - but agreeing, at the Peace of Westphalia, that each ruler would control religion in his own land, and they would not try to force religion on each others' lands. This did not prevent wars, of course, but it prevented the religious wars which Heath claims liberalism arrived to prevent.
  • His advocacy of a purely political liberalism is fine so far as it goes, but does rather take a lot of the force out of his claims that we don't recognise liberalism for the same reason fish don't recognise water.

Reflections on the Role of Battle in Warfare

Context: I intend to listen to an interview with the author of The Allure of Battle, and want to set my own views down first to note where I agree and disagree


What is the contribution a won battle makes towards victory in war? The answer may seem obvious: you kill a load of them, so there's less of them left to fight back. Actually, I don't think it's so clear.

  • change over time in what we mean by a battle - in particular, as war has turned into a process rather than a series of events
  • most battles, even decisive ones, involve relatively small casualty ratios - and frequently not all that lop-sided. 10% on each side would not be atypical
  • armies being wiped out often historically led to surrender, even when the population at large had changed little. Kill 20,000 Austrians - so what? There are millions more! Why should that lead to surrender if war is about destroying enemy strength?

  • at very small level, a fight is determined by what we may call "strength". Most obvious at the level of 1v1. Look at lion coalitions, where power is largely about how many male lions can bear to live alongside each other.
  • as fights get larger, it becomes less about overall strength and the ability to coordinate and concentrate it in one location
  • given an absence of opposition, it doesn't take all that much force to control an area and its people. See the el-Amarna letters, in which 50 men is sufficient to pacify Canaan
  • battles, then, are as much about disrupting the enemy ability to coordinate as about killing them. This can happen by scattering them, by capturing/killing their leaders
  • This is a primary reason why cavalry were important - not for fighting (horses are easily scared!) but for pursuit (and also scouting, which was key to success in battle - although my topic here is why battles were important, not how to win them)
  • total war, and war becoming a process, are fundamentally a result of state capacity - the ability to lose one army and build another, Diplomacy-style.
  • Also arguably due to the fact of generals being behind the line - meaning that defeat is less likely to mean disruption to the command structure

Thursday, 30 July 2020

Social Foundationalism in Epistemology

There is an ancient problem in philosophy known as Agrippa's Trilemma, which many parents will have encountered with inquisitive children. Ordinarily if one is asked how we can know something, we will appeal to underlying beliefs which support it. But this raises the question of why we should believe these underlying beliefs - and if there are even deeper underlying beliefs, why we should believe those. There are three responses which can be taken to this:

  • Infinitism: the idea that is possible for human knowledge to be founded upon an infinite regress of reasons, in much the same way that the earth is stacked upon an infinite column of tortoises.
  • Foundationalism: the idea that there are some beliefs which you just have to accept, and these form the foundation for other beliefs.
  • Coherentism: the idea that we operate on a "web of belief", and it doesn't matter if there is no ultimate ground to it if the beliefs are mutually supporting.
I am myself a determined coherentist: it's not that there are no beliefs which don't require further support, it's that once you've gone "I think, therefore I am" it's rather difficult to spin that up into much more. But the debate between foundationalists and coherentists continues, with the occasional "foundherentist" peacemaker like Susan Haack and the occasional infinist troll.


What strikes me, however, is how completely dominant coherentism is in the field of ethics. Under the name of "the method of reflective equilibrium" it is basically the method for trying to establish truth. We combine judgements from a range of levels - from practical judgements like "if a child is drowning in water next to them, you are morally obliged to rescue the child" to highly abstract judgements like "if states of the world A, B, and C are such that A is morally better than B, and B morally better than C, A is necessarily better than C" - to create general theories which aim to explain as much of the moral universe as possible. A couple of possibilities as to why this difference exists between fields:

  • Taking a foundationalist approach feels more respectable, and probably more likely to be successful, when the foundational judgements are highly general and widely applicable. Foundationalist epistemology, for example, would take mathematics to be foundational; whereas the most widely agreed judgements which we aim to expand from in ethics tend to be very practical and narrow in nature, e.g. "it is wrong to torture innocent children for one's own pleasure."
  • Ethics is generally accepted to be a social enterprise - it's about how we should behave, less about how I as an individual should behave. In particular, the existence of other moral agents is not generally taken to be in doubt. By comparison, epistemology is much more easily framed not as "what are the reasons for believing/doing X?" but "why should I believe X?"

I don't know that I particularly believe either of these. Maybe my initial observation is off, for that matter. If the second explanation is true, however, then given the rise in popularity of social epistemology in the last couple of decades, there's probably some mileage for a new defence of foundationalism - not that individuals should take certain beliefs as basic and unquestionable, but that societies should.


Sunday, 12 July 2020

The Rise, Fall, and Rise of Carthage

Carthage. Carthage! It was a major trading post in the ancient world, founded in the location now known as Tunis by Phoenician(1) merchants, which rose to eclipse Tyre as a major port of the Mediterranean and indeed the primary Phoenician city. At its zenith it controlled Sicily, Spain, much of North Africa, large parts of the south of the Italian peninsula, and the Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca roamed northern Italy with his army - famously with a contingent of elephants - and utterly destroyed two major Roman armies at Trasimene and Cannae. But he was unable to bring Rome itself under siege, and was forced to return to Africa to defend Carthage from invasion by the Roman general Scipio - who defeated him at Zama, forever breaking the back of Carthage as a power. In the Third Punic War, some fifty years later, Carthage was razed to the ground, and famously the Romans salted the earth there, that nothing might grow back.
The Decline of the Carthagian Empire, JMW Turner; Tate Britain

...Except that it did grow back. Not immediately of course, and only because the Romans allowed it to. The New Carthage was founded by Julius Caesar in the years before his demise. But Utica, the Roman ally which was appointed the new capital of Roman North Africa, was soon overshadowed, and the new Carthage soon became once again the greatest city in North Africa - indeed one of the greatest cities of the Western Roman Empire. What was it about this location which made it such a natural site for great cities?

The answer, I believe, comes from two things: first, a look at a map of the Mediterranean, and second, some facts about ships of the ancient world.


Carthage, as mentioned, was in what is now Tunisia - notably, near the narrowest crossing of the Mediterranean (though still a solid 100 miles across the sea from Sicily). This was in an era when sailing ships might achieve 50-60 miles on a good day of sailing. Crucially, ships of the day had to take to land every evening in order to dry out the wood. This had a number of consequences: for example, ships would not carry more than a day or two's supply of food with them, but would instead land in ports and acquire food (2).

Consider what this means for journey times and possibilities. Journeys from the north of the Med to the south are obviously greatly shortened in many cases. But this also gives opportunities to sacrifice directness for security. Someone sailing from Algeria to Egypt has the option to avoid the less-populated, less secure Libyan coast, and instead to coast around the north of the Med through well-known trading waters.



(1) This could be an interesting debate in itself. In the recent Princeton University Press sale I eventually did end up buying Josephine Quinn's In Search of the Phoenicians, which argues - as best I can tell - that the Phoenicians did not exist as such, but rather that there were various seafaring people who were all given the same label. This would be a very plausible hypothesis, and deeply appealing to me as someone who wishes to emphasise the vast diversity of past societies which has been flattened out by modernity in general and capitalism, mass media, and nationalism in particular, were it not for a book I did get: Taco Terpstra's Trade in the Ancient Mediterranean, whose second chapter argues that long-distance trade in the Ancient Med was facilitated largely by the existence of Phoenician minority communities in cities around the Med. Trade relies upon trust, which would have been very difficult to achieve in the absence of enforcement mechanisms - except that local ethic Phoenicians were able to send messages back to Tyre and to other Phoenician colonies and obtain justice - and were obviously subject to the justice and tolerance of the local majorities.

(2) Thus, towards the end of the Peloponesian War, the Athenian fleet happened to be caught on the defensive near the home-in-exile of their former general, Alcibiades, perhaps the chadliest man in all of Classical Greece. Alcibiades advised the Athenians to move their pitch closer to the town, on the grounds that their sailors would then spend less time away from the ships buying food and other supplies; this advice was ignored, and the fleet was soon lost, definitely knocking Athens out of the war.

Some Thoughts on Politicisation of the Civil Service

Trying to get back into the habit of blogging, mostly so that I'm writing more frequently. I'm not starting to write with well-formed views, or even nascent thoughts which I hope to clarify through the act of writing, so don't expect too much from this post.


One recent piece of news: the resignation of Sir Mark Sedwill, who until recently held the posts of the UK Cabinet Secretary and National Security Advisor. Significantly, his replacement as NSA will be David Frost, presently the UK Lead Negotiator in the negotiations with the EU.

For people not from the UK: the higher posts in our civil service are considered non-political: while there is ministerial involvement in the recruitment of Permanent Secretaries (the civil servants who run government departments) and Director-Generals (the next rung down, and incidentally the highest rung I've had personal contact with in my own work as a fairly junior civil servant), but this is usually more limited than the extent of involvement which is suspected here.

I'm not going to comment too much upon the circumstances of Sedwill's departure. I know very little about him - when he started as Cabinet Secretary I began but did not complete a rather tongue-in-cheek post pretending that his "Fusion Doctrine" was the latest and most damning sign yet of the authoritarian nature of the government, but besides the minimal research involved in that I know nothing of him. The suggestion I've seen was that the UK's appalling response to Coronavirus was a proximate cause, since one would expect the NSA to be on top of the UK's pandemic response. Perhaps this is true, it seems plausible, but really very few people know enough to say with great confidence and I am certainly not one of them.

I'm not going to to comment much, either, on the appointment of David Frost as the new NSA - or at least, not on him personally. He previously served as the UK Ambassador to Denmark, and has held two Director-level posts previously, so I don't think objections to his appointment should focus upon questions of competence.

The move to making the position openly political is itself interesting, however. To comment effectively on this, one requires a conception of under what circumstances a decision should be considered "political" as opposed to "operational". The standard self-conception of the civil service would be that our political ministers tell us what to do - or we distil an understanding of what they want from their public statements. We then do what they want, providing updates on what we're doing, giving options and recommendations but giving them the decision where it's not clear what they want, alerting them to risks of the proposed approach - but there are a lot of details which one simply does not need to check with ministers. Political decisions, then, are those which involve (a) a weighting of interests: as a country would we rather seek to achieve X or Y, noting that X is better for some people but worse for others, or that it carries a certain risk, or will take longer to put into place; or (b), a decision about what it is, at the more fundamental levels, that the UK government is aiming to achieve.

What are the kinds of decisions of that sort which will arise in the post of NSA? One can think of a few - e.g. what are the criteria we prioritise when deciding how significant a risk is (loss of life? loss of effective national sovereignty? do we value lives differently based on the ages of the people dying?). Where risks are brought into being or exacerbated by the actions of other governments, particularly our allies, how do we respond to that? Certainly it feels as though, given the politically neutral basis of the UK civil service, there should be some political oversight - when the NSA reports to Cabinet on risks to the UK, they are not simply "reporting the facts" - they are passing on a mixture of fact and opinion, filtered by opinions regarding what is significant enough to be worth reporting on.

Is security different to other areas, in a way that justifies a political role which we do not apply across the board? I don't know. The argument which comes to mind is that a major advantage of political appointments - and in particular of ministers appointing their friends - is that it promotes greater trust between political and operational officials, and may give operational officials more leeway to tell unpleasant or unpalatable truths. There are of course risks to this approach, so I can see an argument that it's not an approach you'd want to take generally (and in any case, there's probably only so many people who have the requisite level of trust with any given Prime Minister, so it's not something you could do across the government) but in the field of security, where such truths are more likely to abound, it's worthwhile.

I have doubts about the merits of that with regard to this particular government; going into detail on that would possibly go beyond the civil service neutrality which I would prefer to uphold whenever writing publicly. In any case, these doubts are similar to those which Stian Westlake has written about with regard to the government's strategy around procurement and the need for freedom from state aid rules.

Saturday, 22 June 2019

Tired: Amazon warehouse work is worse than being an Uber Driver. Hired: Yeah, but we should still complain about them equally


Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain is clearly intended as a 21st-century version of The Road to Wigan Pier. James Bloodworth spends six months around the country working in various low-paid occupations and providing observations and reflections from his experiences and his conversations with the people he met during the journey.

The book is divided into four sections, each covering one stage of his journey; they are neatly ordered from best to worst. As the deadline for manuscript submission creeps closer (the final section contains multiple references to him scrabbling to get this book finished on time) the quality of the prose deteriorates massively: the first section is a fizzing cocktail of inventive similes, well-chosen nods to other works, and actual substantive content, whereas the final section is poorly paced and utterly predictable. Moreover, it's not hard to notice that as his employers become more and more reasonable, his raging against them barely lets up so that the justified fury of the first section (spent working in an Amazon warehouse in Rugeley) is scarcely different from his pathetic whining about Uber in the fourth section.

The first section is also the most balanced in terms of the presentation of the people Bloodworth meets. He's clearly happier telling the story of a working-class colleague expressing support for her transgender friend than reporting on tensions between people of British descent and eastern European immigrants, but he does mention both. It is the section of the book most focused upon what he actually saw, rather than upon his personal reaction to circumstances. These circumstances are indeed grim: the job is physically exhausting, the pay (which comes not from Amazon but through an agency) is unreliable and frequently arrives late, and the bosses have considerable power to make the lives of more menial employees hell. Outside work, his flat is also pretty bad (although this is perhaps connected to the fact of him moving around the country so frequently: my own experience is that the quality of landlords varies massively, so it's easy to end up with a bad one when you first move somewhere but given time you're likely to find somewhere better.)

The second section is set in Blackpool, where he is engaged by a home care provider. A fair bit of this section is taken up by how terrible of a place Blackpool has become, and how unpleasant people get when drunk. This section also provided the only complaint in the book which was genuinely new to me: that the requirement for care providers to submit to background checks creates massive delays to starting, in particular because local police forces - who have to contribute to these - do not have the resources to respond to requests for information in an adequate time frame.

The third account was the most familiar to me, being centred around his work in a call centre. This is distinctly where the book begins to take on a less observational and more preachy tone, and where one starts to have doubts about whether any set of arrangements would be enough to satisfy Bloodworth. It is quite clear that the call centre does all it can to make the monotonous work more pleasant for its workers - certainly much more than the call centre I had the misfortune to spend six months in late 2017 and early 2018 working in - but still Bloodworth complains that the company provides the perks of its own volition, and not as a result of pressure from a trade union. The writing style which effervesced through the earlier chapters has dried up, and the literary references become more tenuous.

Finally, he moves back to London and works a while as an Uber driver. The five chapters here resemble nothing so much as a dull thread from lower case Twitter, with bog-standard leftist talking points presented as though they were utterly original. The most extreme case of this comes when he recycles the more-than-sixty-years-old arguments against grammar schools - a set of institutions which have not existed in most of the country for several decades, and which are highly unlikely to make a revival - and tries to present himself as countercultural. As mentioned above, the pacing of this section is odd, to say the least - of five chapters devoted to this period, two of them take place entirely prior to him giving his first Uber ride. There no attempt at balance or at charitable presentation of those he disagrees with - of the two other Uber drivers he quotes in the book, both are generally negative and one is a person who went so far as to take them to court. There are irrelevant rants about Objectivism and Uber's tax accounting, both of which may be worth critiquing as part of a general leftist program but neither of which has any relevance to the day-to-day lives of Uber's drivers. The best example he can give of a case in which the interests of Uber collide with those of its drivers is that "some of the drivers I spoke to did not believe the algorithm always gave the available job to the closest driver." Leaving aside the possibility that this may be perfectly reasonable - perhaps the app may try to give jobs to drivers which will take them in the direction of their home patch? - surely, if the interests of these parties are "very often antagonistic", surely he can furnish a case which does not rely on personal impressions. He also fails to consider the possibility that restrictions placed by Uber on its drivers may be representing the interests not of itself, but of the other drivers - perhaps because this would undermine his desire to present a narrative of solidarity of the oppressed.

Th value of this book lies entirely in the first 60% or so, which is genuinely excellent: the sociological observations outweigh the politics, and the politics are on occasion genuinely original or enlightening. It's a book I'd encourage you to start reading, but also to give up when you start getting bored - it's really not worth the slog through to the end.

Monday, 11 March 2019

Stability and Equality

A lot of political theorists talk about equality as a requirement for social stability, without having an explicit theory of mobs. This strikes me as a significant absence.

Social stability is not just about avoiding mobs, of course - it's also about keeping crime down, ensuring that pressure for change happens through peaceful channels, etc. But the sight of mobs rampaging through the streets is perhaps the most visible failure of states to maintain public order, and is surely a significant piece of what we ordinarily mean and care about under the banner of "stability".

(This is particularly true for theorists at the more cynical end of constructivism, who may regard society as an implicit compact between the proletariat and bourgeousie, in which the proletariat are granted certain rights and privileges in order to stave off revolution.)

I intend this not as a criticism of egalitarians, but as a debating point within egalitarianism. There are a wide range of factors which may plausibly reduce or exacerbate the risk of social disorder, and which have implications for the kind of egalitarianism one would endorse:

  • The perception that the masses have little to lose from rioting (suggesting a need for broad-based prosperity)
  • The perception that social elite possess large quantities of goods worth taking (suggesting a need for levelling down)
  • The perception that social elites acquired their wealth unfairly (suggesting a need for equality before the law, and possibly more besides)
  • The presence of intelligent and hard-working people who are unable to succeed within established institutions (suggesting a need for equality of opportunity, but not for equality of income)
  • The perception that public authorities are biased against particular groups within society (which could point in a number of directions)
...and so on. Moreover, it matters how these interact. For example, one very simple (and highly dubious) model might suggest that all five of the above factors are individually necessary for riots to start. (An uncontroversial case of this is fire, where fuel, energy, and oxygen are all individually necessary for a fire to start.) In this case, we could focus on abolishing only one of the causes - perhaps whichever was cheapest to treat, or whichever cause we find most distasteful for other reasons.

A more realistic model would seek to quantify inequality of various types, and would give them different weights for their contribution to the frequency of riots starting and to the damage caused by riots. It seems likely, then, that if the achievement of social stability requires state action this is likely to require action against multiple different notions of inequality - we cannot focus on a single form of inequality.

I think this is far more a critique of egalitarian theory rather than of practice. John Rawls may have attempted to reduce equality to "sufficient and equal civil and political liberties, and maximisation of the primary social goods available to the worst-off class within society", but actually-existing democratic states are concerned to reduce economic equality, racial inequality, inequality of access to political institutions, ensure equal treatment before the law...

Speculatively, we might also take this an argument against the idea that inequality is intrinsically bad. Theories of the importance-in-itself of equality tend to end up focussing upon one particular conception of inequality. I think we have here a strong argument that no one conception of inequality is likely to satisfy all of our intuitions about the importance of equality, and ultimately the best evidence for egalitarianism - as with all moral theories - is derived from our intuitions.