Why hasn’t the politics of immigration in Australia gone feral?

By Lorenzo

As one contemplates the rise in anti-immigration parties in Europe, and the fraught politics of immigration in the US, it is very striking how little political angst Australia’s very high level of immigration has caused. True, the nationalist One Nation Party recently scored 4 Senators in the 2016 Federal Election, but that was on 4.3% of the national vote.

With the collapse of socialism as a serious alternative to capitalism, and the consequent convergence in the economic policies of the (centre-left) ALP and the (centre-right) LNP Coalition (part of a wider pattern across Western democracies), there has been a floating “not them” vote in Australian politics which has latched on to various vehicles over the years: this is just another iteration.

The ALP and Coalition still scored almost two-thirds of the Senate vote, and over three-quarters of the House of Representatives vote: that the result was so close said much more about the Coalition campaign and incumbent PM Malcolm Turnbull‘s Premiership than something deeper.

So, the question is why does Australia’s high immigration levels (much higher than the US, for example) cause remarkably little political angst?

The why can be understood by focusing on three individuals.

Talking it out, thinking it through

The first is Arthur Calwell (1896-1973) Immigration minister from 1945-49 in the postwar Chifley Labor Government. A good Labor man, Calwell was a staunch advocate of the White Australia policy (famously saying, over a wrongful deportation case, that “two Wongs don’t make a White“).

Calwell was the primary political architect of Australia’s postwar immigration policy. The crucial element being that Australia had a serious and open debate among migration policy: it was not an ad hoc response to various pressures, but a considered (and publicly debated) national strategy.

There were considerable adjustments along the way (notably the abandonment of White Australia) but, as the original political architect of Australia’s postwar immigration policy, Calwell openly embraced the notion that Australia would deliberately look beyond the British Isles for migrants, famously coining the term New Australians. The Australian national identity was set up as something people not only could join, but were being deliberately recruited to join.

Because it was a deliberate national strategy, over time, Australian pragmatism was applied to the operation of the strategy. Including sensible things such as interpreter services and seeking to have a broad range of migrants selected by criteria that suited Australia’s national interests.

Moreover, the key elements were debated in a period when views could be much more openly expressed on such matters. One of the aspects poisoning the politics of immigration in contemporary countries is the willingness to point-and-shriek (racist! xenophobe!) at anyone who expresses any negative concerns about immigration. It inhibits many people from expressing their concerns, drives the politics of concern over immigration towards those more willing to put up with the abuse (typically, the more ideologically passionate) and seriously inhibits responding intelligently to issues about patterns and operation of migration.

It is not that Australia is entirely immune to this deeply pernicious trend, it is that much of the key issues regarding migration were thrashed out before the rise of the use of the rhetoric of denunciation (racist! xenophobe! Islamohpobe!, etc) to poison public debate. And such rhetoric, and the pointing-and-shrieking that goes with it, does poison public debate; not least because the point of said rhetoric is to block engaging with the concerns of those subject to the rhetoric of denunciation. (As, by definition, “racist” and “xenophobic” concerns are not morally legitimate.) Identifying such “moral untouchables” also identifies them as people not “fit” to take part in the national conversation, so not “fit” to have a say in public policy.

Avoiding economic stress

The second individual is Bernie Fraser, Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) 1989-96. It was while he was Governor that the RBA adopted the monetary policy of:

keeping underlying inflation between 2 and 3 per cent, on average, over the [business] cycle

which has resulted in Australia having avoided a recession (defined as two consecutive quarters of negative economic growth) since 1993. Having an economy which has produced steady economic growth without a major crisis makes it much easier to avoid immigration and migrants becoming a focus of resentment and concern.

But Australia having a thought-out migration strategy should also get credit, as importing migrants with relatively high level of human (and other) capital means that the labour/capital balance of the Australian economy has not shifted against labour, allowing (along with targeted welfare policy: indeed, the most downwardly redistributive [pdf] welfare policy in the OECD) Australians in general to share in the benefits of economic growth. This a balance that, for example, the US has spectacularly failed to achieve. (See this post on a paper on differences in average competence of migrant flows.)

Pro-migration folk often point out that migrants raise domestic demand for goods and services. That is true, but that still leaves open who supplies that demand and with what return. Importing lots of low-skill workers reduces the return to resident low skill workers (due to reduced relative scarcity) but increases the return to capital (due to increased relative scarcity). Badly structured migration flows can increase inequality in a society and adversely affect the interests of significant numbers of resident workers. (Historical demographer Peter Turchin puts together a striking model incorporating such effects here.)

Yes, increased population means a larger economy. But what matters much for political effects are the per capita effects, particularly the distribution of benefits. The US, for example, has managed a pretty stable rate of overall per capita economic growth during both high and low migration periods. But it is not likely to be entirely a coincidence that is after the post-1965 broadening in the number and sources of migration that US economic growth became increasingly decoupled from wage growth. During the later C19th, the level of migration was so large, that the average height of US-born men fell, a strong indicator of negative effects on their standard of living from mass migration.

Increasing diversity in a society also makes it harder to reach agreement over contentious issues,* hence it is important to have migration policy itself be well grounded in broad interests. Particularly as there is good reason to think that the content of the migrant intake matters for a country’s longer term prospects. It is, after all, deeply paradoxical to claim both that (1) migration has major effects on a country and (2) that any concern over those effects are somehow morally illegitimate. Pretending that all migrant inflows are wholly beneficial to everyone may make for good Virtue-signalling, but it pretty dumb as a public policy position. Just as it striking for people who tend to be obsessed with “bad ideas” to suggest that the cognitive baggage migrants bring with them doesn’t matter.

A sense of control

The third individual is John Howard, Australian PM from 1996-2007, whose government had to deal with the second wave of “boat people”.

Historically, Australia’s migrant policy has, due to Australia’s geography as an island-continent, not had to confront people coming other than by commercial travel (via ships, later also planes). While visa over-staying can be an issue, it is a not very public one and applies to people already specifically accepted for (at least temporary) entry.

There have been two significant waves of “boat people” coming by (essentially black market) transport to Australia. One was after the Vietnam War, as the victorious North Vietnamese drove the Chinese minority into the sea and others fled an oppressive (and economically-repressive) regime. The Vietnamese boat people, part of the Indochina refugee crisis, caused political friction: particularly as many folk were invested in the notion of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese as “national liberators” and the continual exodus of desperate people was, to say the least, confronting. (The boat people were often sneered at by “progressive” folk as “economic refugees”.)

Faced with a series of boat arrivals, Australia pro-actively accepted refugees, seeking to discourage the flow of boats. Moreover, it was a local regional crisis (Vietnam is closer to Darwin than is Hobart), Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War generated some sense of obligation and Australia had previously accepted many refugees from Communist rule in Europe. Australia took in 185,700 Indochinese refugees, more than any other Western countries except Canada and the USA.

The second significant wave was of boat people from the Middle East. This was not a local regional crisis (indeed, Middle Eastern boat people had to travel long distances to specifically target Australia), was generated by a region with endemic conflict and was (since Middle Eastern boat people were overwhelmingly Muslim) inevitably tainted by jihadi violence. Precisely because Australia is a high migration country, there are real dangers to social and political cohesion in migration becoming a fraught issue.

The Howard Government decided that it would do whatever was required to retain border control, using the famous line “we will decide who will come to this country”. It is worth quoting from Howard’s 2001 campaign speech:

It is also about having an uncompromising view about the fundamental right of this country to protect its borders. It’s about this nation saying to the world we are a generous open hearted people taking more refugees on a per capita basis than any nation except Canada, we have a proud record of welcoming people from 140 different nations.

But we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.

Australia would remain a high migration country, but a high migration country as a deliberate national strategy. More specifically, confronted with a populist-nationalist challenge (such as the previous One Nation surge), the trick is not to steal the insurgent’s policies, still less adopt their framings (that just suggest that they have things right); the trick is to steal their issues while incorporating them in your framings. In this case, easier to do as migration was already established as a national strategy.

An open border approach is a no-say approach–no say on the part of the existing electorate, the existing citizens. And if there is an approach which more or less guaranteed to cause politics to go feral, it is make significant numbers of voters, significant numbers of citizens, feel they have no say. An open border approach also undermines the very elements which make for a successful migration policy–keep the intake diverse (no “lumps”), keep the labour/capital balance from shifting against labour. (There is also the issue of black market transport being unsafe, leading to drownings at sea.)

Avoiding triggers

The key feature is to stop the politics of migration triggering authoritarian responses within the citizenry. The very diversity of Australia’s migration policy is helpful in this, as it is less likely to develop problematic migrant “enclaves”. Given the wide range of sources of migrants, so every migrant group is a relatively small minority, there is a much broader interest in “fitting in”.

Conversely, importing large “lumps” of particular migrants can be both more confronting to the existing residents and creates more possibility of developing oppositional cultures. Thus security forces in Canada, Australia and the US, where Muslims are still small minorities, are successful at breaking up local jihadi plots, because they get cooperation from within the Muslim communities. Security forces in Europe have less success, because the significantly larger Muslim communities provide more “cover” for jihadi networks.

In considering the politics of migration in specific countries, how prone local political cultures are to triggering such authoritarian responses will vary, as will what the local triggers are. This complicates cross-national comparisons. Generally, however, it is those pushing social change who are most likely to trigger such authoritarian responses, as their policies and rhetoric act to undermine existing social equilibria. Hence, for example, the behaviour of the local Left being so important in whether, and to what degree, authoritarian political responses were triggered in the interwar period. In our times, the penchant of the Virtuous for insisting upon great respect for other cultures, but contempt for Western ones, is very unhelpful.

More specially, considering the places where migration policy has become fraught, it is clear they violate all the above-identified general principles. There is a lack of a sense for many citizens of having a say, there are identifiably large (and problematic) “lumps” of migrants and a lack of preservation of the labour/capital balance.


Conversely, Canada, which also has a large migration policy without its migration politics going feral, has a very similar approach to Australia. The Trudeau Government’s approach to Syrian refugees–women and intact families only–is very much the policy of a country which thinks through migration policy, which takes it seriously.

But a lot of folk don’t care what works, they only care that they seem Virtuous. Worse, the politics of migration going feral suits them fine–it gives them so many more citizens to feel morally superior to and a greater sense of moral urgency for their favoured moral concerns.

If any concern about the extent and content of migration intake is subject to point-and-shriek, then migration policy is likely to tend towards the stupid (as relevant factors will not be seriously considered) and migration politics to the feral: another “triumph” of Virtue over fact and function.


* Demographer Peter Turchin’s simple model includes a “cultural” factor, using the minimum wage as a proxy. The more diverse the society, the less “social solidarity” policies are likely to operate.

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Are we heading towards peak globalisation? The ages of trade, globalisation and IT

By Lorenzo

This is based on a comment I made here.

The history of (long distance) trade can be divided into 4 eras, one of which is regional and transitional:

Continental-coastal: outside local areas, trade was limited to thin networks of high value items with some (highly fluctuating) upward tendency in the extent of such networks, but no significant link between Afro-Eurasian trade systems and American trade systems.

Oceanic-global: Europeans link the globe via exploitation of routes their explorations opened up, with silver the dominant trade item and non-local trade still limited to thin (though expanding) networks of high value items.

Atlantic-transition: Huge increases in the level of shipping (including through greatly expanded canal networks) creates an Atlantic economy on the cusp of mass trade, a matter of quantity having a quality all of its own.

Globalised: From the 1820s onwards, steam (via steamships and railways) sets off an era of mass trade, which means Rogowski factor income (pdf) dynamics come to dominate the political economy of trade.

With mass trade (without which there is not globalisation worth the name), trade seriously impacts the income of general factors of production (land, labour, capital). Outside the Atlantic economy, there is no globalisation worth the name until the 1820s (pdf) because the technology did not support the required level of mass trade. According to Angus Maddison‘s calculations (pdf), in 1800, merchandise exports were about 1% of world GDP: by 1913 they were 8%.

One can tell that the Atlantic economy (particularly Britain) was on the cusp of mass trade as wheat prices converged (pdf)–wheat prices within the Atlantic economy (expressed in silver) narrowed from a range of 6.66:1 around 1400 to a range of 1.88:1 around 1750–and, in Britain particularly, free trade v protectionism starts becoming a political issue.

Before that, the political economy of trade was about fighting over the rents from thin trade networks of high value items because trade was not “mass enough” to affect general factor incomes. Though such trade was disproportionately important for state revenues. Trade was overwhelming non-competing items, because transport costs were so high, it was very unlikely traded items could compete with local production.

(As an aside, I have suggested that the change to mass trade and cheap communication matters for the history of monetary theory: in particular why the price-specie flow mechanism made sense to David Hume but rather less so later.)

Once transport technology advances enough for mass trade, then scarce factors of production want trade protection to protect their scarcity premium from foreign competition. If an economy is importing a factor of production (or its products), then that factor of production is scarce in the local economy. So, importing food implies land is scarce, importing capital implies capital is scarce, importing labour implies labour is scarce (in the local economy).

Plentiful factors of production want free trade to get access to wider markets, increasing their income (by increasing their sales and by reducing their costs through not having to pay local scarcity premiums). If an economy is exporting a factor of production (or its products) then it is plentiful in the local economy. So exporting food implies land is plentiful, exporting capital implies capital is plentiful, exporting labour implies labour is plentiful (in the local economy).

In an era of mass politics, two out of three factors of production wins (domestic) political economy fights. Hence the broad patterns of the political economy of trade in the first globalisation era from the 1820s until the Great War. Britain exported capital and labour and imported food. Capital and labour were plentiful and imposed free trade against the wishes of (locally scarce) land. Germany imported food and capital and exported labour. Capital and land were (locally) scarce and imposed protection against the wishes of (plentiful) labour.

The Anglo settler societies (Canada, US, Australia, New Zealand) exported food (and minerals) and imported capital and labour. Capital and labour were (locally) scarce and imposed protection against the wishes of (plentiful) land. Latin America had weak states, which relied on (easily imposed and collected) tariffs for revenue but also imported labour and capital, so moved to protection whenever powerful land interests could be overcome.

Very few countries exported capital in the period before 1913, and as the combination of having both plentiful land and plentiful labour is (to say the least) odd, the general tendency was towards protection among countries able to set their own trade policies. (Which European colonies, and various countries subject to European power, generally were not.)

There was retreat from, and stagnation of, globalisation in the 1914 to 1945 period, largely due to the huge shocks to the global trade system of the two World Wars and the Great Depression. There was also some interruption to the pattern of declining sea transport costs (though vastly increased uncertainty may have been a factor in that also by affecting research and investment decisions).

Over the long term, the 1914-1945 globalisation-retreat interlude turned out to be an interruption in the process of globalisation; though a major interruption, it took until the 1970s for world trade to recover to the level it would have reached if the pre 1913 trends had continued. (The latter observation is taken, as is much of the information in this post, from an excellent history of trade over the last millennium,  Power and Plenty: Trade, War and the World Economy in the Second Millennium by economic historians Ronald Findlay and Kevin O’Rourke.)

Globalisation continued to be driven by falling transport (mainly in air transport) and communication costs.* Which, along with other aspects of technology, began to have some unexpected effects on the patterns of mass trade. (Paul Krugman’s Nobel memorial lecture is an excellent summary of that.) As factors of production became more internally differentiated, this tended to favour free trade interests by breaking up pro-protection coalitions.

As the breakdown in international trade was strongly associated with the disasters of the 1914-1945 period, this generated increased public policy commitment among the developed democracies to liberalising trade as part of  a commitment to a more stable international order. (Capital-importing countries outside the developed world generally continued to tend towards protectionism.) Just as the dominant naval power of the 1815-1913 period, Britain, supported a liberal trading order, so, after 1945 did the succeeding dominant naval power of the US.

 Also, if your income is not directly affected by trade, you will tend to favour freer trade as it broadens choices and tends to lower prices. So, electorates with large public sectors and more welfare-dependent or retired folk are likely to tend to be more favourable to freer trade.

As information technology (IT) develops, and communication costs become tiny, we start getting not merely wholesaling of films and TV but retailing of films and TV as well as huge growth in computer games. Intellectual property (IP) becomes a big deal as new forms of rents from trade become available. In the words of the post by econblogger Scott Summer that inspired this post:

Because the US is the dominant producer of intellectual property, the US government (both liberal and conservative administrations) will argue for low overseas taxes on multinational earnings, weak anti-trust laws to preserve the profits of US companies with patents, copyrights and/or large network externalities, and strong intellectual property rights, to extract money from non-American consumers of stuff developed in California.

You might wonder why even liberal American politicians would defend the robber barons of California. The answer is simple; these firms produce lots of tax revenue for the US, and for California. They don’t want to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. Nor do they want to share eggs with Europe and Asia. It doesn’t matter if our firms exploit consumers in Asia or taxpayers in Europe, as long as they share 30% of the loot with public employees in the US.

And these industries are a very big deal, particularly for the US. Computer games are a multi-billion dollar industry, apparently overtaking films for export income. It is plausible to argue that it is precisely because we have global markets, that protection of IP by states in return for taxing the income therefrom has become a feature of international politics.

On the horizon, we can see the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and 3D printing. This seems likely to make the IP issues more salient, not less; both in their use and as the two technologies may well undermine mass trade in goods and services.

Globalisation has been fundamentally driven by technology: in particular, falling transport and communication costs. Public policy certainly can affect (profoundly) how specific countries have interacted with the pressures and consequences of said falling transport and communication costs. Major breakdowns of the international political and economic order can even more so.

Nevertheless, those falling costs created pressures and expanding opportunities that public policy responded to.

If technology now starts to strongly favour localisation, then that pressure will be reversed as technology will no longer be encouraging global connections in production and distribution of goods and services. If that is so, at least in terms of mass trade in goods and services, we may be approaching peak globalisation.


* As air transport has increasingly bled off high value items (including people), this has tended to limit shifts in real sea transport rates, as technological improvement in sea transport is being applied to cheaper and cheaper (in aggregate) products.


ADDENDA. A dramatic effect of the European created Oceanic-global trade era was the Columbian Exchange; but that was, in the spreading across the globe of crops and animals, more a matter of changing local production patterns than trade as such.

One of the high value items tending towards mass trade in the Atlantic economy was the Atlantic slave trade, in itself partly a result of the population collapse in the Americas due to the importing of the Eurasian disease pool to the Americas as part of the Columbian exchange. The Atlantic slave trade manage to move across the Atlantic likely similar magnitudes of African slaves as the Saharan slave trade had across the Sahara (with likely similar death rates, particularly when the death rates from creating eunuchs are included) but in just over three centuries rather than twelve.

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

The Hugo awards and the decay of Western civilisation

By Lorenzo

The Hugos, for those unaware, are (speculative fiction/science fiction/fantasy) SF awards voted on by people at Worldcon.  Along with the Nebulas, they have long been the premier awards in SF. A few years ago, some SF writers got together and decided to push back against [what they saw as] the drift of the awards from their original function–representing excellence in SF writing, editing, etc–to concerns with demographic inclusion (and ideological exclusion) as well as a drift to stories with more literary pretension but less genre content.

HugoTrophy (12)

In other words, the replacement of questions of what (the best writing, etc) with questions of who (race, gender, sexuality, etc) while diluting the original SF focus. The drifting concern to questions of who claims to be about “inclusion” but, as is normal with modern progressivist identitarian politics, said inclusion was a basis for cognitive exclusion–excluding folk whose views were taken to be, by definition, against (the correct sort of) “inclusion”.

Thus, being a Mormon, libertarian-inclined, registered Republican who used to own a gun shop was being the wrong sort of who. Writer Sarah Hoyt has blogged about the feeling of vulnerability being of conservative or libertarian views generated for up-and-coming writers within the field. (At least, outside the specific sub-genre of military SF, which is rife with writers of such views.)

This drift towards concern with writer demography and away from genre content is classic trumping of function by Virtue. In particular, the ideology, partisan-affiliation and occupation of a writer has nothing to do with the original function of the Hugos. It can only matter if other criteria are used to trump said function.

A key element of morality is precisely that it trumps, that it claims an authority greater than alternative considerations. Such authority is inherently pervasive (it can apply to anything) and easily tied to status claims (supporting a trumping authority easily also proclaims a trumping moral status).

As we homo sapiens are moralising, status-conscious coalition builders, it is very easy for morality to generate in-groups and out-groups and to accentuate the divide between them. (As moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt says, morality both binds and blinds: a nice short discussion of which is here.) The classic Scott Alexander post (essay really) I can tolerate anything except the outgroup very much applies.


The original pushback against said demographic-concern-and-literary-elevation drift was the Sad Puppies, an attempt to widen the nomination process by suggesting to Worldcon voters writers and others felt to be more in keeping with notions of SF being very much a specific genre about stories and playing with ideas in general (rather than about who and which ideas).

There was also an issue of whether a particular publishing house (Tor books) had been gaming the system. (It has topped SF awards in general, though Gollancz has a higher author/nomination to award rate.)

As an open reaction to a drift among publishing and organisation insiders, the Sad Puppies made explicitly contentious processes that had presented as apolitical and meritocratic. That immediately made the insurgents open to charges of “politicising” and “gaming” the system. Always useful rhetoric for status quo insiders against trouble-makers. Hence also claims that the Sad Puppies campaign was just about getting awards for oneself and one’s friends. That Larry Corriera, the original Sad Puppy organiser, had recused himself from nomination was just ignored or scoffed at.

The Virtue syllogism

But the Sad Puppy pushback also ran into the trumping nature of Virtue. A standard response to concerns with preserving function against claims of moral Virtue is to wield the following (invalid) syllogism:

We are doing x because of Y.
You object to us doing x.
You are against Y.

In this case:

We are attending to questions of who-category to make the Hugos more inclusive-by-demographic category as a matter of Social Justice.
You object to the changing the criteria for the Hugos in this way.
You are against inclusion and Social Justice.

It was thus “established”, as is normal when the Virtue game gets going, that all and any objection to what the Virtuous were doing was, by definition, due to malefic motivations. There being no legitimate objection to Virtue, of course. Thus there is also no legitimate objection to having Virtue trump function.


In accordance with the status-drive (we’re moral, they’re evil/stupid/ignorant) which is so crucial to Virtue coalition-building, there was an associated Narrative, a story of Good people, who seek inclusiveness, and Bad people, who oppose it (and so, should, of course, be excluded).

As supporters of the Sad Puppies constantly point out (e.g. Larry Correira here, Brad Torgersen here), people and facts that fail to confirm this Narrative, or actively undermine it, are just ignored.

As is normal when the Virtue game gets going, not only is function trumped, so are facts.

A striking feature of the Hugos controversy, is that outlets such as The Guardian, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Wired, Salon and Slate all covered it. And they all covered it in the same way: as the heroic supporters of inclusion and social justice being opposed by those against demographic diversity in SF (and social diversity more generally). There was, apparently, no legitimate concern about function, and any facts that suggested otherwise typically just never appeared in the Narrative. Which thus became a deeply dishonest Narrative. One that undermined the alleged function of mainstream media–to report the news of what happens, not Virtuous distortions of the same. (An example of covering the issue somewhat differently is provided by Real Clear Politics and, after some corrections, the UK Telegraph.)

Amusingly, Entertainment Weekly, after enthusiastically joining in the game, managed, in its correction, to allude to what was happening:

CORRECTION: After misinterpreting reports in other news publications, EW published an unfair and inaccurate depiction of the Sad Puppies voting slate, which does, in fact, include many women and writers of color. As Sad Puppies’ Brad Torgerson explained to EW, the slate includes both women and non-caucasian writers, including Rajnar Vajra, Larry Correia, Annie Bellet, Kary English, Toni Weisskopf, Ann Sowards, Megan Gray, Sheila Gilbert, Jennifer Brozek, Cedar Sanderson, and Amanda Green.
This story has been updated to more accurately reflect this. EW regrets the error.

It does repeat the pattern of using Brad Torgersen as the go-to Sad Puppy to be quoted, since his terribly Teutonic name is just made to fit the Narrative. (His African-American wife, perhaps less so, but she can easily be ignored.)


Having designated Virtue systematically trump function and facts is not a good long-term look for any society or civilisation. But the Virtue game has become very socially pervasive.

Hence the importance of not allowing any successful push-backs. Hence the mainstream media (1) paying attention to the Hugo fuss and (2) pushing the Virtuous Narrative so relentlessly. Thereby, of course, demonstrating just how pervasive Virtuous trumping of facts and function has become.

The identity dynamic

The Sad Puppies rapidly became not the only insurgent players. The Virtuous drift was a manifestation of the identitarian progressivism that has replaced the modernist Left: the politics of who replacing the politics of what.

Fundamental to identitarian progressivism is not merely the pushing of positive Identities but also negative ones. A story of good Who’s who are oppressed by bad Who’s. Those bad Who’s being, of course, Bad White People, unrepentant possessors of White Privilege. (Who are very, very distinct from Good White People–those being the folk who spend so much time explaining how oppressed Good Who’s are by Bad White People.)

Bad White People thereby become the default social scapegoats. Thomas Sowell‘s nomination for the stupidest idea in politics:

the assumption that people would be evenly or randomly distributed in incomes, institutions, occupations or awards, in the absence of somebody doing somebody wrong.

is a very useful idea for identitarian progressivism and its Virtue game. [Including for the bureaucratised versions thereof.]


There is no good form of identity politics. But there is an inevitable dynamic to identity politics: an identity under continuing attack will begin to organise in sheer self-defence (or, at least be susceptible to political entrepreneurs who claim to speak for them). For, if being queer, coloured, female, etc are good identities, then it follows that being a heterosexual white male is a bad (i.e. morally stained aka “privileged”) identity.

One can escape from said moral stain by proclaiming very loudly how committed to Virtue (aka Social Justice) one is, thereby establishing oneself as a Good White. In the case of the Hugos, writers such as George R R Martin (e.g. here and here) and John Scalzi have perfected this. In Scalzi’s case, he is particularly keen on pushing that there is no legitimate complaint about or against Virtue (e.g. here).

Given that pushing morally-positive identities must involve creating morally-negative identities (which is why there is no good form of identity politics), the rise of progressivist identitarian politics and its constructs of bad/stained identities has, inevitably, seen the rise of antagonistic identitarian politics (aka the Alt-right).


This is very convenient to progressivist identitarian politics, because the Alt-right give someone for the Good Whites to point to and say See! See! Bad Whites! (John Scalzi plays this game here.)

The notion that only “good people” will play identity politics was always deeply stupid. But it is a convenient stupidity for the Good White game. Particularly as it is simplicity itself to push the See, Bad Whites! narrative–just completely ignore any role for progressivist identitarian politics in creating this, completely predictable, reaction.

… in wider society

As an aside, movement conservatism in the US has a decades-long history of purging right-identitarians–nicely documented in an excellent work of history and analysis, Right Wing Critics of American Conservatism by political scientist George Hawley: useful reviews of the book by the excluded are herehere and here.

The rise of progressivist identitarian politics has, however, destabilised movement conservatism’s suppression of identitarian politics on the right as the Alt-right’s fundamental claim (the interests, culture, standing, prospects and interests of white people are under attack) is now true for non-progressivist white folk, particularly the white working class, given their role as default social scapegoats. (Hence the success of The Donald.)

The US is now facing the natural dynamic of identity politics–the rise of awful candidates who folk feel compelled to vote for due to tribal self-defence. Given that Hillary is the doyen of progressivist identity politics, and the Greens’ Jill Stein is a case of the same game even more so, the only US Presidential candidate which represents any revolt against the toxic dynamics of identity politics is the Libertarian, Gary Johnson: the only candidate for (in the nice phrasing of Frederik deBoer and others) the politics of what rather than the politics of who.

Going Rabid

In the case of the Hugos, the anti-progressive identitarians are the Rabid Puppies, pushed by prominent Alt-right blogger, SF writer and publisher, Vox Day. (His politics are really not mine, but his SJWs Always Lie: Taking Down the Thought Police is a necessary read to understand the methodological dynamics of Virtue coalition politics in the wider culture.)


Vox Day’s clash with Sad Puppy supporter Sarah Hoyt provides an excellent example of how dishonest the Virtuous Narrative about the Sad Puppies is. Sarah Hoyt–woman, Portuguese immigrant–is a poster child for how objecting to changing the function of the Hugos is not about opposing diversity. Hence the mainstream media journalists “reporting” (actually selling Narrative fiction as news) have comprehensively ignored her.

Sarah Hoyt manifests the US as open society and sees herself as doing so. To the Alt-right, this is the fiction of the US as propositional nation. But the Rabid Puppy surge also shows how hard it is for non-identitarian politics to maintain itself once the identitarian dynamics of tribalism and counter-tribalism gets going.

Virtue trumping fact and function. The toxic dynamics of identity politics. The Hugos are a much bigger story than they appear because they are a revealing microcosm of destructive processes in our civilisation.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Defending openness with cognitive closure

By Lorenzo

The Economist recently had a piece claiming that the left-right divide had been overtaken by the open-closed divide. It had this to say on the Brexit vote:

So far, Britain’s decision to leave the European Union has been the anti-globalists’ biggest prize: the vote in June to abandon the world’s most successful free-trade club was won by cynically pandering to voters’ insular instincts, splitting mainstream parties down the middle.

Really? There were no legitimate concerns behind the Brexit vote?

Two-thirds of British voters voted for the EEC (i.e. the European Communities aka Common Market) in 1975, yet a 52-48% majority voted against the EU in 2016. Had British voters suddenly become more stupid or gullible in the intervening 41 years? Or had circumstances changed? Had what they were being sold changed?

No, yes and yes.

A different Europe

Immigration has accelerated, and its implications have changed. The approved model has gone from assimilation (newcomers adapt to residents) to multiculturalism (residents adapt to newcomers) along with a Muslim religious revival which accentuates visible differences in clothing (pdf) and associates it with violence. (An immigration policy which kills citizens is a problematic immigration policy: particularly when it does so into the second generation.)

The provincial working class lost political defenders as the modernist left became postmodern progressivism. Importing new voters reduces the provincial working class’s political significance further while increasing pressure on government services and redistributing the benefits of economic growth away from the indigenous working class.

The Economist tells us that Brexit was a vote against:

the world’s most successful free-trade club …

The EEC was the most successful free trade area, the EU is very much not–not a successful free trade area (thanks to the Euro, economic growth has flatlined in much of the EU) as well as not just a free trade area but something which aspires to far more. Over 40 years of experience had greatly reduced voter support for the EU-that-is compared to the EEC-that-was.

Nor did it help that the UK did not join the Euro. First, the Euro is a huge statement of future intent. Secondly, it was a dramatic demonstration of EU failure, of how not joining in the Ever Greater Union roller-coaster could be a very good idea. Just as it did not help that the UK had not opted to join the Schengen agreement, for essentially the same reasons.

Treating opposition to the actually-existing-EU as simply malefic opposition to “openness” is being remarkably obtuse. One does not defend an open society with such cognitive closure.

There is evidence that the EU continues to (on balance) continues to increase economic freedom. Faced, however, with a choice between increased accountability and increased economic freedom, I will pick increased accountability every time: it is so much the better long term bet. Indeed, it precisely the way that EU processes profoundly muddied who was responsible for what which helps explain the popular antipathy.

Undermining social bargaining

The Economist cites the EU as an example of international integration. In a phrase, institutionalised globalisation.

Economist Kevin O’Rourke (whose work with Jeffrey Williamson is necessary reading to understand the nature of globalisation) has pointed out that globalisation produces losers, that the Brexit backlash “has been a long time coming“. His immediate conclusion is that the solution to more immigration is more government services, citing economist Dani Rodrik‘s claim that markets and states are complements.

This is to misread the evidence he is citing about European states in the C19th and early C20th. Yes, more highly taxed states were more open, but this was more consequence than cause. They were able to sustain the (relatively) high tax/high openness balance by having inclusive and effective social bargaining. Which is precisely what the pomo progressivist embrace of language taboos, the rhetoric of denunciation (racist! sexist! xenophobic! etc), identity politics, judicial activism (specifically, social change by judicial decision) and internationalisation all seriously undermine.

In particular, much of the function of contemporary immigrant politics [around immigration] is precisely to strip status and positive attention from the resident (white) working class, which leads to precisely the politics of neglect O’Rourke is complaining about.

Why on earth would one think that, given the dynamics of contemporary politics, expanded government action would be to the benefit of the backlash voters? Ask the residents of Rotherham how much the Progressivist Ascendancy state is not on their side.

The historical cases that O’Rourke is citing were also not immigrant states; if anything, they were emigrant states. His suggestion that supporters of openness, in effect, tell citizens that they should pay higher taxes (either now, or in the future through greater public debt) to expand services to incorporate extra migrants just pushes the political scarcity problems to the next level.

Moreover, the more diverse the incoming migrants, the more difficult inclusive social bargaining becomes, due to increased diversity in preferences and expectations and increased difficulties in information flows. Conversely, mass emigration tends to select for more social conformity among the remaining population, as those who differ are more likely emigrate, thereby making inclusive social bargaining easier among the citizens who stay.

It is so much easier to have a high services/high openness social bargaining in overwhelmingly monocultural societies (Scandinavia) or explicitly specific-pillar societies (Netherlands) or in highly decentralised ones (Switzerland). There is a reason why the much more diverse Anglo societies tended to have lower levels of tax/openness trade-offs and why the (over-centralised) United Kingdom had and has perennial Celtic fringe problems.

It is all very well to talk of the “open v closed” divide, but not if one is going to treat concerns about openness as stupid/malefic and integration projects as simply good things. Seriously damaged processes of social bargaining are the issue to zero in on, not alleged voter stupidity or malice, nor treating increased government services as any sort of likely panacea.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Barry Goldwater is not responsible for The Donald

By Lorenzo

Blaming The Donald on Sen. Barry Goldwater is essentially the claim of this Vox piece.

Barry Goldwater (1909-1998) was the libertarian-inclined Republican Senator who won the Republican presidential nomination in 1964 and was then defeated in a 61% to 39% electoral landslide by LBJ. The strong on national security, rhetorically keen on small government strain of politics that Goldwater represented may have lost the 1964 US Presidential election, but it went on to become increasingly powerful within the Republican Party, leading to Ronald Reagan‘s nomination and successful two-term Presidency (three-term, in effect, with Bush Snr‘s 1988 win).


Sen. Goldwater famously articulated a federalist opposition to the (federal) Civil Rights Act of 1964, swapping (declining) African-American support for Republicans for the votes of (much more numerous) Southern whites. At least in the long term–it did not do much for Goldwater himself and it was not until 1994 (i.e. 30 years later) that the South finally forgave the Republican Party for the Civil War. And that on the basis of the Contract with America, which was conspicuously non-racial in its content.

Goldwater’s opting for “states rights” over civil rights, a seminal moment in the Republican Party’s Southern strategy, has long been treated by progressivists as the Original Sin of the modern Republican Party. Reagan’s success (as with Margaret Thatcher‘s in the UK) was part of a general tendency to market liberalisation that outraged many progressives, who took it as a vile de-railing of the “proper direction” of History and for whom the only proper path for the Republicans was to be a pale and compliant version of the Democrats. Whenever the “culture wars” heat up, this Origin Sin is trotted out to explain why the Republicans are wrong/evil/stupid/ignorant. With the nomination of The Donald being an excellent vehicle for revisiting this hardy perennial.

LBJ himself commented that the Civil Rights Act would mean losing the South for a generation. Actually, it took a generation for the Democrats to lose the South, at least at a Congressional level. (The Republicans did better in the South in Presidential elections from 1964 onwards.) But his underlying instinct was surely correct: by embracing civil rights so emphatically, and setting itself up as essentially the monopoly-political-provider for African-Americans, the Democrats were driving away lots of Southern whites: in a two-Party system, that meant to the Republicans.


It is obviously true that lots Southern whites went off and voted Republican, first in Presidential elections and eventually in Congressional ones (though the evidence on white racism in general is a lot more equivocal).

What precisely did they get regarding racial politics for voting Republican? (Noting that opposing policies touted as anti-racist is not the same as being racist.) A black Supreme Court Judge, a black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, two black Secretaries of State, a black RNC chair, an Indian Governor of Louisiana. Was there any rollback of civil rights? Application of pro-white racial criteria for anything? Some rhetorical winks and nods is the most one can reasonably claim. And even there, these are often over-claimed. [Though voting law shenanigans remain a hardy perennial.]

The Republican Party was where white racism (to the extent that it did) went off to be politically frustrated. White racism got far, far less from the Republican Party post-1964 than it did from the Democratic Party pre-1960. For two reasons: first, the identity as the Party of Lincoln still had rhetorical power among Republicans (as Sen. Trent Lott discovered) and, secondly, the US was becoming a far less racist society than it had been. The penalties among the wider electorate, and within the business and professional classes who provide money and staff, of open racism was much greater than the benefits, and have been getting more so all the time.


There is a parallel in the mid-C19th origins of the Republican Party, where it took over nativist sentiment and finessed into opposition to Slave Power, proceeding to preside for decades over massive immigration. The C19th Republican Party was the place that nativism went to be frustrated. In last decades of the C20th, the Republican Party repeated the performance with white Southerners (at least as regards racism), with Soviet Power playing a somewhat analogous role to Slave Power. (With the added resonance that the Soviet Union revived state slavery, with its labour camp system, and even serfdom, with its 1940-1955 ban on workers changing employment without management approval.)

Then along comes The Donald, clearly appealing to white tribalism. His appeal started off not among people the Republican Party had successfully actively engaged, but folk that it had not. Which fitted with him not actually being a Republican in any serious sense. This 52 years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, 36 years after the “Reagan Democrats” marking a long drift of white working class voters from the Democrats to the Republicans.

Clearly, something else has been going on. (What that is, is the subject of my next [a later] post). But, whatever it is, it is not Barry Goldwater’s fault.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

A Rebuke to Crony Unionism

By Lorenzo

The Country Fire Authority (CFA) of Victoria has 60,000 volunteer firefighters to fight fires, particularly bushfires, outside the area covered by the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB). CFA volunteers are deeply linked in with their local communities and represent a huge saving to the Victorian taxpayer. The CFA represents a fine example of practical social capital.

As Victoria’s urban population increases, the interactions between the CFA and the MFB increase and the number of politicians, staffers, bureaucrats and union leaders who have little or no connection or interaction with rural Victoria also increases. The MFB staff are covered by the UFU (United Firefighers Union). As part of bargaining for an enterprise agreement, the UFU has been pushing for more operational control by the MFB over the CFA.

Let’s pause here: why is this a matter for an enterprise agreement? Why is it a union demand at all? Because it elevates the standing and prospects of (urban) firefighters over (as it happens) rural volunteers? Can one see the little political problem here?

Informative outlines of the dispute are here and here. In a useful discussion of the dispute, journalist Sally Whyte tells us that:

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews was originally against the UFU when it came to the deal’s veto proposal, but he changed his mind after a meeting with UFU boss Peter Marshall without Emergency Services Minister Jane Garrett.

So, a union uses its inside track access to get political support against a volunteer based organisation. The politics of who’s in and who’s not.

One of the tricks of being a successful Labor Premier is when to say “no” to a union. Including paying attention to the optics, to how things look. Everyone knows that the Australian Labor Party is deeply connected to the union movement, which actually makes the optics more important. Particularly as said Minister has, indeed, since resigned. This goes with the Government’s sacking of the CFA Board and the resignation of its chief officer.

This looks a lot like yet again inside-the-bubble-connected urbanites not getting how important status, authority and control are to folk who live mostly outside looking in. In a sense, it doesn’t matter who is “right” (since that depends a lot on your perspective), it is that politics is about managing disputes. If you lose a Minister, sack a board and then have the chief officer resigned, this is not a well-managed dispute. If you get lots of angry volunteers from an iconic organisation agitating against your Party in a federal election, it is bad politics, no matter how you look at it.

Political costs

On which point, consider that (very close) federal election:
NSW: ALP gains 4 seat.
Queensland: ALP gains 1 seat.
WA: ALP gains 2 seats.
SA: ALP gain 1 seats.
Tasmania: ALP gains 3 seats,
NT: ALP gains 1 seat.
Victoria: Coalition gains 1 seat.

Pick the odd State/Territory out. If Victoria had performed as well as other States for the ALP in the recent Australian federal election, the Coalition would not have have achieved a Parliamentary majority: something that folk within the ALP have noticed.

As Sally Whyte noted of the CFA dispute:

It has been all over the front pages of the Herald Sun, with CFA volunteers and residents affected by Black Saturday quoted in an attempt to attack Andrews. Do people really understand the intricacies of the deal? Probably not — but when Victorians consider who they trust more, the heroic CFA or a politician, the Premier is not going to come out of this battle unscathed.

Why was this a dispute even worth having? What gain in public policy was worth this political pain? And if was a genuine gain in public policy, why couldn’t one convince volunteers who give up their time and put themselves at risk to save property and lives?

But that would take treating people outside the connected-circle seriously: something Premier Andrews has apparently, and conspicuously, failed to do. Given he was educated in Wangaratta and raised on a cattle farm, one would think he would have a bit more of a nuanced political sense on the matter. But apparently an adulthood spent entirely immersed in urban Labor politics has trumped that. Or the union was very persuasive.

Crony politics

When folk complain of crony capitalism (which the Economist magazine has constructed an index of), they mean two (related) things: people commercially advantaged by their connections to power-holders and good public policy being sacrificed to those connections. Prominent academic and Governor of the Reserve Bank of India Raghuram Rajan pithily and perceptively outlined the appeal and problems of crony capitalism and corruption in a 2014 speech. But one can also have crony unionism: union leaders gaining advantages for them and their members from their connections to power-holders and good public policy being sacrificed to those connections.

Ironically, the Western country which likely suffers most from crony unionism is the United States. The effect is concentrated in particular cities and states–dominated by the Democrats as functionally one-Party jurisdictions–where the effect of crony unionism on the cost, efficiency and effectiveness of government services has ranged from the unfortunate to the disastrous. Crony unionism was a major factor in the bankruptcy of Detroit, and its decades-long decline as a city, as it also is in the fiscal problems of California and other States.

When the Deakinite Settlement dominated Australian public policy, the arbitration system in a sense regularised crony unionism. The regularisation had the advantage of minimising corruption risks, but it still advantaged the politically-connected and imposed major distortions on (pdf) public policy and costs on the wider community.

While the Deakinite Settlement has been significantly dismantled, the arbitration system lives on, if in somewhat attenuated form, notably via the Fair Work Commission. (Pausing here: imagine how a “Fair Sell” Commission would operate–or, rather, let’s not.) Consider crony capitalism or crony unionism from the other perspective: the cronies see the aim as having the state apparatus serve their specific interests.

The Labor Party was originally created to be political face of the union movement. It has had considerable political success, though its tendency to split was a problem for decades. Up until 1972, ex-Labor politicians (Cook, Hughes, Lyons) had been in office as non-Labor PMs approaching the length of time as there had actual Labor Federal Governments (Watson, Fisher, Hughes, Scullin, Curtin, Chifley).* Since 1972, however, Labor has been in office federally about the same time as the Coalition.

The combination of a labour movement having an explicit political wing and the arbitration system in various incarnations has led to an Australian union movement that very much sees state power as a tool of protection and expansion. Which is precisely what the CFA dispute looks like.

Allegedly, there is a major public policy gain to be had. (One notices the former Minister did not agree.) But, even if there is, why not find another way to go about it? Either because your understanding of politics and management is so impoverished that does not occur to you, or because what is generating such objections is precisely what one is trying to do.

One of the issues for Western societies is expanding states undermining civil society through replacing non-state efforts and institutions. Given the long-term problems of rural towns, undermining a particularly effective form of social capital is not good for rural Victoria.

Modern progressivism has generated a plethora of techniques for discounting others, for self-congratulating blinding. Likely this is also operating here, in a rather toxic combination with crony unionism.


* Labor PM’s Watson, Fisher, Scullin, Curtin, Chifley and Hughes totalled 6,055 days as PM. Cook, Hughes and Lyons totalled 5,376 days as non-Labor PMs, or 89% of the time of actual Labor Federal Governments. Since the 1955 DLP split had a great deal to do with the longevity of Coalition government from 1949-1972, the ALP’s habit of splitting was a major political liability.

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Public policy: discovery and bargaining or applied knowing?

By Lorenzo

Is public policy a discovery process which takes into consideration the diverse interests, experiences and perspectives of the political nation (however defined–in a democracy, that is supposed to be the entire citizenry) or is it an engineering problem, an application of applied knowing?

There is, of course, a lot of engineering at the implementation level of public policy. To take some obvious examples, such things as roads, bridges, dams, etc are engineering problems in their construction. But policy in general is full of aspects where technical knowledge is important. Which can easily encourage the belief that policy problems are engineering problems all the way up. But the further up the policy process such a claim is made, then the greater the claims of knowledge, understanding and normative authority one is making for the policy makers.

Conversely, the more sceptical one is about such claims, then the more comfortable one is with the notion that public policy is embedded–and rightfully embedded–in discovery and bargaining processes. Which encourages confidence in multiple levels of government, so that such discovery and bargaining processes can take place in varying jurisdictions among varying players.

The irony of opposition to federalism is that by implying one or more levels of government are redundant, one is making strong claims about the knowledge, understanding and normative authority of the remaining level(s) of government. The implicit notion is that there is a correct policy, which is easily discovered and reliably implemented.

Thus, scepticism about government and political processes encourages belief that there should be more levels of government, not less. (Unless one is so sceptical that one believes there should be none at all: but that entails elevated confidence in non-governmental mechanisms.)

Bargaining and confidence

The more confidence one has in people in general, the more one is likely to endorse broad consent and bargaining mechanisms. The more confidence one has in a specific group of people relative to the wider population, the less so.

The more belief on has in knowledge being dispersed, the stronger sense one is likely to have that policy has to be understood as a discovery process–remembering that social bargaining is itself a discovery process. Noting also that politics is not the only discovery process, nor the only general process for achieving social ends.

The more belief one has in the level of understanding of a specific group or a specific framework of ideas, the more belief one is likely to have that policy is a process of applied knowing which bargaining gets in the way of. In this conception, diversity of policy is simply multiplying error.

Intellectuals and centralised uniformity

It is hardly surprising that intellectuals in general have a tendency to see policy as applied knowing and be impatient with social bargaining and policy diversity. Their life and identity is bound up in their sense of being the people who know more than others, with a strong tendency to also flatter themselves as folk of superior virtue–including the notion that it is their greater knowledge which leads to their superior virtue.

The long arc of history is not flattering to such pretensions, but they are so natural to the work of intellectuals, and so inherently self-flattering, that they retain a perennial appeal. Flowing from these tendencies is their recurring tendency to sneer at the profit-seeking of commerce, so lacking in grand pretensions to virtue and with its lively ordinariness so failing to apply to whatever grand moral schema intellectuals dream up. The claimed grounds and content of virtue have varied enormously, as have the grand moral schemas; but the disparaging contempt for commerce is a hardy perennial across time and space.

The (very) long arc of history has tended to favour policy as discovery-and-bargaining processes, but the temptation to retreat into “but this time we just know!” is also a hardy perennial.

Economics and public policy

The development of economics has tended to point in both directions at once. Mainstream economics tends to be favourable to markets, including markets as discovery processes. But the sense of understanding how things work can lead to deprecating political bargaining as something that gets in the way of good (i.e. economically informed) policy.

An amazing amount of nonsense has been written by academics about “neoliberalism”, typically because they never seriously interact with folk who might be in any way sympathetic to “neoliberalism”. Neoliberalism has come to mean not much more than “anything vaguely market connected that has been bad since 1980”.

If we define neoliberalism as (in the Western context) the application of mainstream economic policy so as to create a sustainable welfare state, then the neoliberal policy surge has, at times, been guilty of seeing political bargaining as “getting in the way”. Of providing an unhelpful obstruction to policy being just applied knowing. Not always–the Hawke Government, in particular, provided an excellent example of accepting that political bargaining was a necessary part of the process. Nevertheless, impatience with political bargaining has been something of a failing of the neoliberal push in policy.

Confusing projects

The polity which has done the most to give neoliberalism a bad name is the EU (European Union). Ironic, in a way, as its bureaucratic aggrandising is not what neoliberalism is supposed to be about. Still, creating a common market for the free flow of goods, services and people looks like a very neoliberal project. As does creating a common currency with a strongly anti-inflation central bank.

But looked at through the prism of political bargaining and policy as discovery process, and the European Union looks a lot less impressive–particularly compared to the European Economic Community (EEC) that proceeded it.

The EEC was a neoliberal project, and a very successful one. A particular virtue being the insistence that only democracies could join. The Common Agricultural Policy was regrettable: a form of political bargaining in a way, but one which seemed an iconic example of narrow, organised special interests triumphing over general interests. Nevertheless, the EEC had a deserved association with prosperity and international cooperation.

The EU, not so much. The EU has become a case study in policy over-reaching. Harmonising regulation has been an example of suppressing policy-as-discovery process and, at best, very narrow social bargaining. Worse, as the reach of the European Project has grown, it has had an increasingly invidious effect on policy making within the member states by becoming a means to avoid accountability for policy actions and consequences by muddying who is responsible for what and providing blaming cover for actions.

But the worst over-reaching has been in the Euro and the ECB (European Central Bank). The idea of the Euro was straightforward–a Deutsche Mark for everyone. Something with very strong appeal, particularly for those used to high inflation “soft” currencies.

The problem with the Euro is that it became a Deutsche Mark for everyone; the entire Eurozone had a monetary policy imposed on it that suited Germany first and others much less, with the greater the differences between a particular economy and the German one, the worst the consequences. The human costs of the Euro alone has made the EU a morally very dubious construction.

Between the costs of the Euro (including fiscal austerity, with the underlying problem being monetary austerity), the deep muddying of policy accountability, and the resulting adverse effects on the quality of policy and sense of popular control, the EU has managed to generate increasing levels of “angry votes”, including increasingly nationalistic political movements. How much in any particular country is still mediated by local political circumstances and levels of economic stress, but the wider pattern is clear enough.

Problematising people

Which comes back to the original sin of the EU–the original misdiagnosing of the problem of European history. The origins of the EU were based on the premise that the deep problem of European history was nationalism. This is false: Europeans have never lacked reasons to kill each other.

The deep problem of European history has been unaccountable power. Whether it was dynastically-grounded regimes using the weapon of nationalism to fight off the spectre of democracy (and then being consumed by the total war they could then not stop and failed to survive) or dictators wielding totalitarian power in megacidal projects, nationalism was a tool, not a cause.

But to make nationalism the great problem of European history is also to make the people of Europe the problem of European history, not inadequately accountable elites, given that nationalism is a sentiment among people. And if popular sentiments are the key problem, they cannot be allowed to be let loose. Hence the elite-dominated European project conceived as a restraint on the deemed problematic peoples.

Well, how has that worked out for them?

The notion of the EEC–to entangle the people of Europe so deeply with each other, and anchored in a common prosperity, that war became inconceivable–was a noble one.

The notion of the EU–to use ever-greater-union as ever-more-constraint-on-local-democracy–was not. It became a project of policy as applied knowing and (at best) very narrow bargaining. Not a project of policy-as-discovery process and broad social bargaining.

Clearly, more and more people have felt left out, ignored or worse. Moreover, as the policy reach of the EU has exceeded its actual knowledge and effectiveness, while having an invidious effect on policy accountability, it has become a mechanism for making policy worse, not better. Moreover, seeing the peoples of Europe as the problem has blocked learning anything from the resulting angry votes: treating voting patterns not as discovery process, but as confirmation of deeply problematic (indeed, profoundly counter-productive) assumptions built into the European project and oh-so-flattering to European elites.

The lack of a European demos is, of course, an advantage to evading accountability. But the consequence of that is poorer policy and more political alienation.

Entangling the people of Europe with each other should have been seen as a way of making certain sorts of politics less appealing, as a constraint on power holders, and those aspiring to the same. Not as a way to “manage” identities.

The original underlying structure of the EEC was a fine idea. The EU built on top of it, not so much. If one sees only the first while refusing to confront the second, one is going to continue to misdiagnose what is going on.

No, the peoples of Europe are not the problem. They never have been. Those who have seen them as the problem, they are the problem. What they thought they knew, they so didn’t. They urgently need to rediscover a sense of policy-as-discovery-process, one properly based in broad social bargaining, not in demonstrably overblown notions of applied knowing.

 [Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Free trade, expanding prosperity and technology dynamism are good things: but not everyone wins all the time.

By Lorenzo

The following things are very much good things: free trade, technological dynamism and expanding global prosperity. Free trade because it gives more people to sell to and buy from, to engage in gains from trade with. Technological dynamism because it allows more and more people to live longer and (in some very basic senses) freer and more prosperous lives. Expanding global prosperity, because it means living millions upon millions of people out of the grinding constraints of poverty.

But none of these good things happen without costs. Free trade expands some industries in some places and retards or destroys them in others. Technological dynamism creates new industries and devastates some existing ones. Expanding global prosperity effectively expands the global labour market (even without movement of people) and puts pressure on labour incomes in already prosperous societies–particularly at the bottom end of the skill level.

It is not enough to point to the good these things do, if that provides an excuse to ignore the costs they also create. It is true that their benefits are so great that it is easily possible to compensate losers and still make everyone materially better off. But that it is easily possible does not mean that it is actually being done.

Which where the need for attentive social policy comes in. Attentive in a range of senses: attentive to who is losing, how and why. Attentive to concerns of people disoriented by change. Attentive to how policy can make things better for those who are on the losing any of economic and technological change. Attentive to how existing policies may be getting in the way of doing that, or even exacerbating the negative effects of such changes.

Added to these waves of change has been social changes, particularly the Emancipation Sequence. This has been going on in the West for over two centuries now, but with considerable acceleration in recent decades. This adds to the disorientation, particularly through loss of previous assumptions and presumptions. Such changes take time to absorb and are not helped by folk on the side of such changes being vicious winners: that is, not showing some charity and accepting a reasonable transition period but instead insisting on full public endorsement of every possible aspect of changes by everyone while being extremely intolerant of any lingering commitment to previous patterns, no matter how deeply rooted in tradition and belief such may be.

Migrating disorientation

Part of the accelerating social change has been a broadening of migration patterns into Western countries. In some places, notably Australia and Canada, such migration has been generally well-managed and led to remarkably little social angst, despite high rates of migration. In the US less so. In Europe, immigration has generally been managed quite poorly.

Well-managed migration is diverse in its origins, involves high level of border control, and does not adversely shift the labour/capital balance (mainly by importing people with relatively high level of human capital). It also involves making the case and in terms that resonate widely with voters. Moral hectoring is not making the case, it is self-indulgent posturing in place of the effort of persuading.

Poorly managed migration involves a lack of border control (giving many people the feeling of having no say over something with the capacity to profoundly change their society), imports large lumps from particular sources (making the resident culture less obviously dominant and more challenged) of people with lower human capital (shifting the economic balance to capital and away from labour, putting more stress on labour markets and welfare systems) and fails to make the case that resonates broadly with voters. How migration is, or is not, managed makes a huge difference.

Poison and block

But if migration is turned into a Virtue signal where one has to be “for migration” to be Virtuous, then the problems are exacerbated. The complexities are flattened out–by failing to differentiate between attitudes to legal and illegal immigration; deprecating considering costs from migration; refusing to consider that different sources and selection criteria make a difference, that migrants are not, in fact, interchangeable and undifferentiated. Rather than a public debate, one ends up with a public shouting match between an undifferentiated acceptance deemed Virtuous and any concern over any aspect being Vicious (and subject to the rhetoric of denunciation: racist, nativist, xenophobic, etc). Using, as I noted in my previous post, the shouting of bigot! as a weapon of bigotry (opinion-bigotry, but still bigotry). Worse, it encourages a tendency towards poor policy by inhibiting attention to social costs and concerns.

One can see this nicely illustrated by George Soros being dismissive of voices of opposition before the Brexit vote. He, at least, is being wise after the fact about the effect of mismanaged migration. Many are so attached to their markers of Virtue that they continue to shriek after the fact: Bourbons of Virtue, who forget nothing and learn nothing–“correcting” others, not themselves.

Connected to this, supporting multiculturalism has become a particularly strong Virtue signal. But the reality is that multiculturalism is a social and policy experiment, which may not work. Nor is it remotely a morally compulsory policy for every society.

The problem with using policies as Virtue signals is not only does that poison debate, it also blocks consideration of facts deemed to be Virtue-awkward (or even Virtue-hostile). This is both potentially disastrous in terms of social outcomes (facts do not go away merely by being deemed wrong to mention) and helps further poison public debate, since ignoring facts on the ground inevitably becomes a process of ignoring, or even demonising, those concerned by said facts.

Stripping away social ballast

What also doesn’t help is systematic attacks on common identities. A sense of national and cultural belonging can provide a sense of stability and even control: such things as, in the words of a recent post on the post-Brexit problems of the British Labour Party:

tradition, a respect for settled ways of life, a sense of place and belonging, a desire for home and rootedness, the continuity of relationships at work and in one’s neighbourhood.

provide a ballast against the disorienting effects of change. Attacking such identities as irretrievably stained with past sins (but somehow not attached to past achievements) attempts to knock away a comforting and stabilising part of social order, increasing the costs of social change–particularly their disorienting effect.

Creating unfortunate opportunities

Attentive policy flows out of listening politics. A political Party relies on balancing three things–rhetoric used, policies delivered and attention to voter concerns. The US Republican Party has got itself into The Donald mess because (at least at a federal level) it failed to pay sufficient attention to actual voter concerns while failing to match rhetoric to actions and actions to rhetoric.

But the Republican Party was also operating within a wider political and policy debate dynamic: part of the problem may well have been that its cosmopolitan operatives were inhibited from seeing how things seemed to its more traditionalist voters. As economist Luigi Zingales notes, if trust has been lost, the trick is not to blame those who no longer trust you (that just exacerbates the problem), but to work to rebuilt trust.

Which requires paying attention. Using policy positions as Virtue-markers blocks bothering to pay attention to–both the listening and attending to awkward facts. The result is an increase in political and policy dysfunction and, in particular, an increase in the numbers of angry and resentful voters. Who will inevitably start looking for folk willing to pay attention and who do not sneer at, or demonise, their concerns. Given enough economic and social stress, that gives an opportunity for people who, in more normal times, with sufficiently broadly attentive politics, would not get their chance.

Once such political entrepreneurs begin to get traction, it is further gist to the Virtue-demonising mill. And so the cycle builds with another spiral of Virtue-signalling and Vicious-demonising.

Once the spiral is underway, it is easy to point to the political entrepreneurs of angry and resentful politics and say “the problem is those dreadful people”.  No, the problem is the refusal to pay attention by those whose proper role that is. Blaming others is so much easier than entertaining the problem that folk like oneself, folk with the beliefs which are so obviously Virtuous, are actually seriously problematic grit in the mechanisms of social adaptation via status-mongering and pseudo-comprehending contempt for those with different experiences and concerns.

Congenial framing as pseudo-comprehension

I say pseudo-comprehending because part of the game of Virtue is imposing a framing on folk and opinions which builds in dismissal of the opinion Other. It creates a crippled epistemology (pdf) which blocks attention and engagement with those outside the magic circle of the Virtuous. The illusion of knowing (and which deploying the rhetoric of denunciation expresses) blocks the capacity to genuinely see, let alone pay attention to: that’s how systems of bigotry work.

But framings provide comfort: they are our go-to ways of making sense of the world. The illusion of knowing is a very comforting illusion, particularly if it flatters one’s self-esteem. A British journalist’s mordant tweet:

Notice we in the press went from: “OMG we never saw this coming!!” right into “We’re experts on why they voted this way & what it means.”?

provides an illustration of the easy go-to comfort of our framings.

As journalist Damon Linker has noted, the contradiction of the secular faith of Progressivism–that history has a particular direction, which the Virtuous know and are leading their cognitive inferiors into–has taken a major knock, hence the outrage of frustrated faith. But it is a really bad idea to turn politics into your substitute religion, given how antipathetic dogmatic faith can be to the give and take of persuasion and reasoned debate. Just as it is not good to lose sight of how one’s sense of identity and attendant social experiences can be very different than other people’s: and if you are attached to your identity, why wouldn’t other people be attached to theirs?

Not everyone is a winner from the waves of globalisation and social change.  Refusing to pay attention to those who are not–demonising them for being, in effect, those disproportionately bearing the material and psychic costs of change–in itself, increases the costs to them and to the wider society. At little less smug moral self-satisfaction, and bit more open-minded attention, would go a long way to make things better.

But that would require giving up the psychic benefits of the aforementioned self-satisfaction, and its attendant sneering contempt for fellow citizens, in exchange for rather more moral humility and paying attention: thereby being better citizens and better participants in the wider society. Which requires breaking through considerable epistemic barriers and giving up considerable psychic benefits. Even incurring some social costs as one departs from (and so chips away at) the collective game of smug self-satisfaction.

And, as the song says, breaking up is hard to do.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Yelling “bigot!” as a tool of bigotry

By Lorenzo

A recent study concluded that Party and ideological animus in the US was significantly stronger than (pdf) racial animus in the US.

To put that another way, opinion-bigotry is stronger than racial bigotry in the contemporary US.

This is not all that surprising. While bigotry can extend in any direction socially (upward, downwards, laterally), the most powerful bigotry is typically the bigotry of the most powerful. Particularly, those who dominate the commanding heights of ideas and opinion.

In the US (as in other Western countries) those commanding heights (media, academe, IT, entertainment) have become increasingly dominated by a fairly narrow range of opinion. Opinion that delights in seeing itself as the embodiment of morality–particularly of understandingcompassion and inclusion–and contrary views as being ignorant, exclusory and offensive: in other words, as deeply bigoted.

A key point to remember is that bigotry is everywhere and always a moral claim: it is a claim about the (lack) of moral standing for others. Far from moral fervour being an insulation against bigotry, it is often precisely moral concern that fuels bigotry.

By this understanding-compassionate-inclusive framing of themselves and the contrary ignorant-exclusory-offensive framing of those who disagree, the accusation of bigotry has become itself an instrument of bigotry. The expanding rhetoric of denunciation (racist!, misogynist!, xenophobe!, homophobe!, Islamophobe! etc) has been wielded as a weapon to separate the Virtuous from the Vicious. And to block public debate-as-conversation and replace it with abusive self-involved collective monologues.

In the name of understanding, compassion and inclusion, there has been an ever-expanding war against “hate speech”. A deeply hypocritical war at so many levels (and pernicious in so many ways), but none more so than that using the rhetoric of denunciation is, itself, clearly hate speech when it is wielded against those who are not in fact racists, or misogynist, etc. Whether because that is simply a false characterisation of people’s views or a false generalisation from the views of some to the views of a larger category of people.

Tied in with this has become the notion of privilege, particularly white privilege. A central claim of such Virtuous identity politics is that white people should think of themselves as primarily white people: specifically, as belonging to an identity that is both privileged and stained with past oppressions and present inequalities. Now, if one is one of the Virtuous, and keeps up with Virtue’s moving moral goal posts, latest language taboos and ritual obeisances, one can functionally evade the moral burden of one’s whiteness.

Those who fail to do all this, of course, have the entire privileged oppressor identity dropped on them.

Since this is very much a game for the educated middle class, members of the working class are not likely to jump through the various hoops, leaving them with the burden of identity as white privilege oppressors.

Oh look!, an excuse for the educated middle class to sneer at working class folk as vulgar moral barbarians, we’ve never seen that before. (Sarcasm and irony alert.) Hence the return of virtue signalling, which was so very powerful in the Victorian era; the contemporary version being used by much the same sort of folk against, well, much the same sort of folk: but with whiteness as moral negative rather than moral positive.

Which leaves the white working class with so much of the blame for, well, just about anything, but very little actual social power. (Which, of course, makes them such splendid targets for status-mongering contempt.)

So, we have the white working class as bigoted privileged oppressors yet have remarkably little say and who, moreover, at clearly not entitled to any say if it involves disagreeing with their Moral Betters.  Any doubt about that, and that those moral betters typically regard the white working class with deep contempt, has been stripped away by the Virtuous outrage over the win for Brexit in the UK Referendum–especially the demands that referendum result be immediately overturned. (Though the online petition calling for same had some prank element to it.)

The rhetoric of denunciation is very attractive because it broadcasts moral concern, moral superiority and moral contempt all in one go. It is also utterly destructive of any breadth in public debate and useful engagement with those outside the Virtuous magic circle. But self-righteous sanctimony has such obvious and enduring appeal, and is such a powerful mechanism for collective epistemic blockage (pdf), that it is not likely to go away any time soon.

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Brexit and EU failure

By Lorenzo

The 52%-48% win for Brexit in the June 2016 referendum has already been framed many ways, but what should be an obvious one (though for many it will not be) is how much of a failure for the EU this represents.

In June 1975, a deeply divided Labour Government held a referendum on the UK’s membership (then 2 years old) in the European Community (EC) as it then was (known colloquially as “the Common Market”). The then recently installed Conservative Opposition Leader, Margaret Thatcher, campaigned strongly for the UK’s membership. The UK electorate voted decisively for membership, 67% to 33% with a 65% voter turnout.

In June 2016, a deeply divided Conservative Government holds a referendum on the UK’s membership of what is now the European Union, the UK now having been a member of its various incarnations for 43 years.  The recently installed Labour Opposition Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, campaigns (perhaps somewhat tepidly) for the UK’s continued membership. The UK electorate votes narrowly for leaving, 52% to 48% with a 72% turnout.

If one ignores the sort of special pleading which, for example, suggests the 1975 UK electorate was terribly wise and the 2016 UK electorate deeply stupid, then 41 years of further experience of the EU had shifted the opinion of the British electorate by 19 percentage points against the EU. That is a considerable shift in opinion.

The EU of 2016 does, and aspires to do, far more than the EC of 1975 did: clearly, more is, in fact, less; at least in terms of inspiring popular support and confidence–quite a lot less. Though that large shift in opinion will be treated as a failure of the electorate, not of the glorious European project, by many of the Great and Good who supported EU membership. Which, of course, will be an indicator of precisely why that shift in opinion has taken place. Significant majorities in provincial England and Wales has discerned that the European Project has become deeply intertwined with a deep contempt for folk like them and they have given the finger in return.

It is worth remembering that many of the same Great and Good who took the UK’s continued membership of the EU as the only proper policy were the same folk who thought it desperately important that the UK join the Euro. They were wrong on that: they will be wrong on this, and for the same reasons.

It is true that the narrowness of the result, and that Northern Ireland and Scotland voted strongly to stay in the EU, could presage problems ahead for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That immigrants seem to have voted strongly for Remain is perhaps another point of pressure. If, however, after a likely somewhat rocky transition period, the UK actually prospers, particularly relative to the EU, then the divisions will likely fade.

An outcome I am reasonably confident will occur. The reason for my confidence in this is quite simple: the UK has voted to improve the accountability of its institutions. The democratic deficit of the EU has given it a much less accountable governing structure which will continue to produce policies which reflect that lower accountability. Particularly as the EU tries to do too much with too little commonality between its societies and economies.

 The Euro has been a serial disaster because it is emblematic of all these problems — too little accountability, trying to do too much across insufficient commonality. Even just in economic terms, as Paul Krugman’s rather nice paper The Revenge of the Optimal Currency Area (pdf) points out. Nor is Britain the only EU country where popular approval of the EU is problematic.

Whatever political calculations may have been involved, David Cameron PM is to be congratulated for giving the British people a clear say on such an important issue. It is regrettable that it has also ended his Premiership, but given that the Tory electorate voted so very strongly for Brexit, and given the contestable intricacies involved in negotiating Britain’s leaving of the EU, and the difficulties of the transition, it is understandable that he has decided he is not the person who should be leading either Britain or the Conservative Party through what is to come.

We live in a time of elite echo chambers and a plethora of techniques for discounting (indeed, treating with contempt) the concerns and language of ordinary folk. So it is unlikely that many who really should will see how much a failure and condemnation of what the EU has become this result is. But that is precisely what it is.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]