Westerners have moral agency, Muslims have excuses

By Lorenzo

The recent case of a Norwegian left of centre politician who is apparently distressed that his convicted Somali rapist is likely to be deported has caused a minor online stir. I was, however, particularly struck by this statement:

But perhaps the most notable lesson Hauken says he learned is that “rapists are from a world so different from ours.”

“In his culture, sexual abuse is about power, not lust,” Hauken said. “And it’s not considered a gay action to be the one who engages in power and violence.”

“I don’t feel anger against my rapist, because I look at him as a product of an unjust world. A product of an upbringing full of war,” Hauken said.

What this all means, according to Hauken, is that refugees need our help more than ever.

The culture in which the rapist was raised plus generic injustice provided a mitigating prism through which to view what the rapist did. To state the bleeding obvious, a Western male rapist would never be granted any such excuse. The principle here is clear: Western men have moral agency, Muslim men have excuses.

Now, any contemporary postmodern progressive, if directly challenged on this point, is likely to indignantly deny that any such principle is operating. Yet, it is abundantly clear in the pattern of postmodern progressive commentary and indignation that it does.

Especially some are entirely upfront about it, such as academic Miriam Cooke, active in “Middle Eastern Women’s Studies”, who has stated:

When men are traumatized [by colonial rule], they tend to traumatize their own women.

and

Now there is a return of colonialism that we saw in the nineteenth century in the context of globalization. What is driving Islamist men is globalization.

(The great thing about the “globalization” bogey is that it means the stick of “Western imperialism” never goes away.) But Cooke’s claims are historical nonsense, since the patterns involved extend deep into Islamic doctrine and history: indeed, to when Islam was the great imperial civilisation.

When Cooke further claims that:

Polygamy can be liberating and empowering

she is showing considerable ignorance of a great deal of social science evidence to the contrary. But it is clear her claims are driven by the need to seem morally Virtuous, not anything even vaguely resembling close attention to history and evidence. One can only agree with writer Kay S. Hymowitz’s statement about the wider travails of contemporary Western feminism:

That this combination of sentimental victimhood, postcolonial relativism, and utopian overreaching has caused feminism to suffer so profound a loss of moral and political imagination that it cannot speak against the brutalization of Islamic women is an incalculable loss to women and to men.

Consider the (dreadful) term “Islamophobia” which operates to block critical examination of Islam, basically on the grounds that Muslims believe Islam, so a critical examination of Islam is unfair/hostile/the equivalent of racism (i.e. an act of collective aggression against Muslims). If Muslims were treated as full moral agents, no such argument would be entertained for a moment. How can we tell? Because any attempt to apply the same reasoning to Christianity would be dismissed with contempt. Christianity is the dominant Western religion, Westerners are moral agents, so their beliefs (particularly their religious beliefs) are completely fair game for critical examination; indeed, fair game for casual contempt. The beliefs of Muslims, on the other hand, have protected status.

So protected, that their religious beliefs are allegedly so central to the identity of Muslims that critical examination of Islam is a collective aggression against Muslims. Yet, if any particularly problematic element of Islam is raised, it is typically claimed that many/most Muslims don’t believe it. Islam becomes a religion without content–or, at least, without significant problematic content. It is, instead, an apparently no-problem-content marker of protected identity. Yet critical examination of Western culture, Western religion, Western history is de rigueur. So much so, that strong attachment to Western cultures and identities is treated as morally offensive and retrograde.

There is also a perverse numbers game played, where if something is not believed by some large number of Muslims (either all, a large majority, a majority, depending on rhetorical convenience) then it is not a basis for criticising Islam. Needless to say, no such protective numbers game is played with any other religion (particularly not Christianity) nor Western identities generally.

Philosopher Cornell West provides a nice example of the contrast between the protected and the resonsible. In the aftermath of murders in a black church, he argued for the removal of the Confederate flag, claiming that the problem is that:

the vicious legacy of white supremacy is still shot so deep in the culture

Later, reacting to comments on mass sexual assaults in Cologne (and elsewhere), Cornell West decides that, when it comes to Muslims:

every culture has good morality and bad

Flying a flag says something deep and nasty about American culture: mass sexual assaults say nothing about any Muslim culture.

In Europe, the “morally responsible” position that folk have been browbeaten and shamed into is that critical examination of Islam and the internal dynamics of Muslim communities is inherently racist, xenophobic, out of moral bounds. The locals have to adapt to the newcomers while insistence that Muslims adapt to the patterns of the (highly successful) societies they are coming to is inherently racist, colonialist, xenophobic, out of moral bounds. The Anglophone settler societies of US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are a fair way down the same path. The clear principle being that Westerners have moral agency, Muslims have excuses: hence the former must adapt to the latter.

All the sins of Western civilisation and Western states must be at the moral forefront at all times. None of the sins of Islamic civilisation have any such relevance. Indeed, are almost certainly the fault of Western imperialism in the first place. Westerners have moral agency, Muslims have excuses.

The contrast is particularly stark over hate crimes. If a non-Muslim Westerner commits a violent hate crime, then the postmodern progressive gaze is turned intensely and hostilely on the killer; indeed, on anyone who sounds, looks like or can be vaguely associated with the killer. If a Muslim commits a violent hate crime (a rather more frequent occurrence), then the postmodern progressive gaze is most emphatically not so directed: instead, the killers become moral cyphers in a narrative of Western guilt. Any number of Muslims can kill any number of people (overwhelmingly, of course, fellow Muslims: but that is a recurring historical pattern which goes deep into Islamic history) while shouting “Allah akbar!” and it is never about the shooters, or their beliefs. Hence the nonsensical claims that the Islamic State is “not Islamic”.

No one who is acquainted with Islamic doctrine and history could ever make such a claim in good faith. The problem with the Islamic state (indeed, with all the jihadists) is that they are intensely Islamic. If the Islamic State was obviously heretical, if it was obviously not-really-Islamic, it would be far less of a problem because the Muslim world would unite much more effectively against it. It is precisely because it is a manifestation of devout, Sunni literalism that it has such resonance. (On said literalism, see their online magazine Dabiq.)

Australian political scientist David Martin Jones makes an excellent (if very uncomfortable) point when he says it is highly misleading to talk of “radical Islam” and “radical Muslims”. First, because radicalism in Western history was a tradition of intense secularism. Second, because the jihadis, and those on the Caliphate curve generally, do not want to change the religion of Islam: on the contrary, they are literalists seeking to revive Islam in what they conceive of as its purist, most proper, form. They are zealots (and fanatics), they are not radicals.

Troublemaking Algerians

The true radicals of the Muslim world are the secularists; typically adherents of the modernist Left. But the modernist Left is dying in the West, taken over by the hostile parasite of postmodern progressivism. For the modernist Left was an Enlightenment project, and proud to be so. Postmodern progressivism is, by contrast, “post Enlightenment”, which turns out to be the Counter-Enlightenment re-booted. And postmodern progressives either ignore Muslim secularists or, if they become too public, denounce them.

A recent example of this being the piling on by various Western intellectuals denouncing Algerian novelist Kamel Daoud when he critiqued attitudes to women in the Arab world. Daoud was demanding that Muslim men in particular be treated as moral agents, that patterns of belief and culture in the Arab world be subject to critical examination. This heresy could clearly not be tolerated, hence the serial denunciations. (Political writer Paul Berman and philosopher Michael Walzer wrote an informative defence of Daoud.)

Algeria is something of a stronghold of the modernist Left in the Muslim world. Originally because Algeria won its independence from France by a relatively standard revolutionary insurgency established a secular, at least notionally socialist, state. The experience of the Algerian Civil War–a violent and brutal struggle between military secularists and organised Islamic zealotry–subsequently re-radicalised many Algerian intellectuals because they were literally on the firing line, subject to death threats and assassinations by said zealots. As the struggle had nothing to do with Western foreign policy,* they tend to be strongly immunized against treating political Islam as some derivative phenomenon. Algerian-American academic Karima Bennoune’s Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here is a particularly fine example of these Algerian troublemaking tendencies.

Moral panic

It is particularly revealing that a standard response of postmodern progressives to any hate crime by jihadis is to immediately start worrying about Islamophobia. Indeed, ever since 9/11, postmodern progressives have continually attempted to generate a moral panic about a backlash against Muslims. The issue that engages them far more than killing in the name of Islam is bad Westerners displaying their inherent racist/xenophobic/colonialist tendencies in treating innocent Muslims badly even though, by every empirical measure, it remains a minor issue.

Again, the contrast with Westerners engaging hate crimes is stark: there is absolutely no concern after such events that there might be a backlash against innocent Westerners (particularly not white Westerners). For Westerners have moral agency (indeed, automatically morally suspicious moral agency), Muslims have excuses.

It is now approaching 15 years since 9/11 and what is very clear is that any such backlash against Muslims resident in the West is hugely less significant than violence coming from Muslim communities in Western countries–not only jihadi violence, but attacks on Jews, attacks on queer folk and assaults on women. In the West, attacks on Jews (often by Muslims) are statistically much more sizeable than attacks on Muslims. But the violence by Westerners that doesn’t happen looms as a much larger moral bogey within the Virtuous/postmodern progressive worldview than the violence by Muslims that does happen.

It is not even a case of Westerners having moral agency and Muslims having excuses, it is much more a case of violence by Muslims being studiously ignored (particularly by much of the mainstream media) or, when that can’t be done, then treated as an exercise in Muslims having excuses.

In the case of attacks on Jews, the standard excuse is, of course, Israel: if Muslims were full moral agents Israeli policy would be absolutely no excuse for attacks on Jews as individuals, especially outside Israel; but Muslims do not have such agency, they have excuses. Yet Jew-hatred is rampant throughout the Muslim world–for example, 61% of Malaysians hold anti-Semitic attitudes compared to 13% of Thais–which is precisely why so many Jews fled Islamic countries to Israel and the West (around 850,000: they and their descendants making up a majority of Israel’s Jews).

Thus Muslim culture and experience are used as an excuse, when Western culture and experience never is: well, not at least if you are white. Which is where we came in.

Why?

Where does this blatant and deeply persistent double standard come from? (One which is particularly obvious in the tolerance of various levels of Jew-hatred, in contrast to hyper-sensitivity on other forms of racism.) Like most double standards, it comes from the defence of status. In particular, moral status as decent, concerned, compassionate persons with the proper level of intellectual sophistication.

Muslims, particularly Muslims in the West, have become what economist Thomas Sowell calls moral mascots or social psychologist Thomas Haidt calls sacred victims.

Globally, the equivalent term to Muslim is Westerner, since Islam is a civilisation in its own right, with a 1400 year history. A civilisation with some very strong recurring patterns.

Thus, in the C11th, the Al-Murābiṭūn (Almoravids), Berbers united by religious fervour, swept out of the deserts and mountains and conquered much of the Maghreb and of Al-Andalus seeking a purified, more literal version of Islam. (Sound familiar?) They were supplanted by the al-Muwaḥḥidun (Almohades), the “monotheists”; Berbers united by religious fervour who swept out of the deserts and mountains, conquered much of the Maghreb and of Al-Andalus seeking a purified, more literal version of Islam. (Again, sound familiar?) The only thing new in Islam about the Islamic State is its use of technology. Yet we see again the pattern of blaming the Islamic State on the West (because Westerners have moral agency) and not seeing it for what it is; a contemporary example of a recurring pattern in Islamic history (because Muslims have excuses).

Haan history

Despite being members of a grand (indeed, historically highly imperial) civilisation, postmodern progressivism treats Muslims purely as a minority. In many ways, they have become (along possibly with transgenders) the minority; the central minority for postmodern progressivist moral concern. Even outside the West, the global dominance of the West turns the civilisation of Islam into an “as-if” minority. A dominance which is in no way to be understood as in sense a matter of Western achievement, merely of Western sin. Based on what econblogger Noah Smith usefully labels Haan history. In his words:

What matters is not just the flow of current injustice, but the stock of past injustices.

Haan presents a vision of stasis that is different from the Malthusian version. By focusing on the accumulated weight of history instead of the current situation, and by focusing on the injustices and atrocities and negative aspects of history, it asserts that the modern age, for all its comforts and liberties and sensitivity, is inherently wrong.

Many countries and civilisations were subject to Western imperialism, while the Middle Eastern experience of Western imperial occupation was relatively brief. Indeed,  in the case of Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel, a little over three decades (c.1919-c.1956), which are now six decades ago. Yet that, in the contemporary world, only Islam produces serious religious persecution and religiously motivated mass murder, and Muslims are the only migrant communities that generate networks of the homicidally religiously enraged, becomes a non-fact. For Westerners have moral agency, Muslims have excuses.

That Islam has a much longer and more systematic history of imperialism than Latin-Christendom-cum-Western civilisation: over a thousand years of, mostly successful, jihad hugely outweighs in time and territory 170 years of ultimately failed Levantine Crusades; that the Saharan slave trade was every bit as horrible as the Atlantic slave trade (and lasted centuries longer, so was considerably greater in total scale of suffering); that Islam has Othering built into its fundamental premises: none of these burdens of history count, unlike their Western equivalents. For Westerners have moral agency, Muslims have excuses.

Full victims, excellent mascots

So why? Why the obsession with a hugely overblown “Islamophobia” while Muslim persecution Christians (much more serious) becomes a factor without significance?

We might also note in passing that the emptiness of the common progressivist excuse for not paying attention to non-Western sins–“we should concentrate on what we have control over”–is well on display, given the absolute lack of interest in looking a problems within Muslim communities in the West; the sort of “see no evil” response that was a significant factor in the years-long, massive, systematic abuse of vulnerable girls that is the Rotherham sexual exploitation scandal.

Why these patterns?

Why? Because if you grant a group full moral agency, they cannot be full sacred victims. They are no longer simple moral objects in a grand morality passion narrative, but people like other people, who act and whose acts have consequences. They cannot be “struggled for” in the nice, easy, I don’t have to think awkward thoughts, way. For, as Noah Smith says of the appeal of the Haan history narrative:

What’s important seems to be the constant struggle. In a world pervaded and defined by injustice and wrongness, the only true victory is in resistance.

A feature, not a bug

But it is more than that. Because there is actually considerable cognitive ingenuity involved. Postmodern progressivism is all about queer rights, third wave feminism, opposition to Othering, denial of religious claims within the public space. Yet Muslim migration involves importing wholesale people with near zero commitment to queer rights (indeed, often strongly of the opposite opinion), deeply pervaded by patriarchal and misogynist ideas, with a deep tendency to Other folk (particularly Jews and ex-Muslims) and strongly inclined to make religious claims on the public space; indeed, among whom presumptions of Muslim supremacism are embedded. A religion which valourises violence more than any other contemporary religion and, more to the point, a global religious community which valourises violence more than any other.

In other words, a group profoundly pervaded by ideas which appear to be the opposite of everything postmodern progressivism is supposed to be for. Ideas, moreover, that members of said community have distinct tendencies to act upon to varying degrees.

But that does not make them problematic as sacred victims, it makes them even better sacred victims, even better as moral mascots, as markers of virtue.  How so?

If we adopt Kiwi political scientist Xavier Marquez’s theory of cults of personality (useful discussion here), we can see how so. In a time, particularly in social milieus, where morality is compulsory, and ostentatious morality a marker of identity and status, how do you show you are truly Moral, truly Virtuous? By embracing contradiction. The more awkward facts you are prepared to ignore or explain away, the clearer your commitment to being one of the Virtuous is (and the less cognitive dissonance you have to deal with). And no group of potential sacred victims generates more awkward facts to ignore or explain away than Muslims.

All that apparent contradiction to what postmodern progressives are supposed to stand for? A feature, not a bug. Indeed, by not “imposing” the Enlightenment values the modernist Left was committed to, one shows how virtuous Post-Enlightenment and postmodern progressive one is. And, especially given that the post-Enlightenment is the Counter-Enlightenment rebooted, the very non-Enlightenment religious identity of Muslims fits very well.

Systematic aggression

How to get the wider community to go along (to the extent it has)? Economist Timur Kuran’s theory of preference falsification allows us to see the mechanics of that. The combination of emotional fervour (since people’s sense of status and moral identity is so bound up in this) and moral abuse of dissent imposes reputational costs that people are deterred by–they don’t want to be seen as “bad people”. Especially when becoming sufficiently informed to see through the push takes effort. It is so much easier just to go along. So folk do.

The potential power of such status-driven tribalism is particularly strikingly displayed by the perversion of nutritional science where seizing the scientific-status high ground through (what turned out to be) empirically unsupported claims and sustained assault on dissent profoundly distorted the nutritional advice given by doctors and governments for decades.

Tribalism is a powerful driver of human actions and attitudes, particularly when identity is tied to status. Doctrines themselves can be powerful markers of identity and status (which does not, however, mean the content of doctrines has no effect: ideas still have consequences).

Econblogger Arnold Kling makes a pertinent observation:

I think that progressives are more prone to using the threat of scorn or excommunication, and it is hard not to respond to that. As a thought experiment, I believe that if I were to say, “I think gay marriage is ok” in a room full of conservatives, they would not hold that against me. However, if I you were to say, “I think gay marriage is wrong” in a roomful of progressives, they would give me what-for and never let me forget it.

The Virtuous advance in part due to their greater aggression; their greater intolerance of dissent and lack of civility. Conservatives, and folk more generally, have their identity connected to the wider society they inhabit: which includes folk having varying views. The Virtuous have their identity tied to their sense of being Virtuous, and against the wider society (being “subversive”). Moreover, holding view X is the more Virtuous the more holding view not-X is evil, which makes differing views Vicious and subject to “bad people think that” attack–and without any overarching broader common-social-identity protection.

As filmmaker Jamie Palmer points out, this tribalism undermines the willingness to make elementary moral distinctions, due to:

an insufferable belief in the Left’s own moral superiority, an article of faith the Left is extremely reluctant to question. To be on the Left, it is held, is to care about others; to be on the Right is to care about nobody but oneself. This assumed monopoly of truth and virtue carries the assumption that those who contest Left-wing axioms harbor debased motives. Meanwhile, organizations on the Left—particularly those in the NGO sector—are held to be above reproach and are consequently excused from any meaningful scrutiny.

This tribal reflex has sometimes prevented the Left from making the most important and elementary moral distinction of all, which is not between the political Right and Left, but between democrats and authoritarians. It has often given Left-wing dictators the benefit of the doubt while expressing furious indignation against those on the democratic Right who point out those dictators’ shortcomings. If the Right turns out to have been correct about something, then one frequently hears the objection that this is “for the wrong reasons.”

So, where does that all end up? With Westerners having moral agency–since status only really works if it status over others; thus focusing on the wickedness and evil of the West and Westerners allows one to morally lord over all those wicked Westerners who do not follow the Path of Virtue–while Muslims have excuses, in order to be the perfect moral mascots and sacred victims.

The entire exercise of status through Virtue asserted against Western society, as well as its history, and those who embrace its achievements, thus operates to generate contempt for fellow citizens and the wider society we share: not a pattern likely to be socially adaptive in the long run.

In reality, the Virtuous typically have far more in common with Western conservatives and libertarians, as well as the working class Westerners that they are so busy despising for their unreconstructed patriotism, than with the Muslims they are so ostentatiously solicitous for. (Though not with the ex-Muslims they ignore.) Indeed, nothing that cutting edge Virtuous academics or other activists produce is likely to be treated with other than contempt by most Muslims, who have their own rich traditions of intellectual endeavour to tap into.

But the Virtuous refuse to look under the black box of Islam, and the internal dynamics of Muslim communities, so that reality is not even on their radar. If Muslims have excuses, not moral agency, they cannot be a problem, can they? But it is a recurring blindness of the smugly arrogant throughout history to think that others will be their controllable pawns. [It is one thing to engage in the Curley effect with folk like oneself, it is quite another to do so with folk very different from oneself.]

There is a further awkwardness: looking at the problems within Muslim communities and Muslim societies may put the actual difficulties postmodern progressives face as well-educated Westerners in an unfortunate perspective. The more the modernist Left objective of a prosperity-and-rights-for-all is achieved, the less actual suffering or oppression the game of status-through-subversive-Virtue has to work with: hence the creation of ever greater mountains of moral angst out of ever small molehills (e.g. micro-aggressions) and the entrepreneurial search for more (Western) things to be outraged over (cultural appropriation, anyone?). The more Western achievements are acknowledged, the more pathetic their moral grandstanding becomes. And then where would they be?

The entire game of Virtuous status-and-contempt is deeply intellectually dishonest and increasingly socially disastrous. But you can’t be truly Virtuous by worrying about consistency and consequences. For, after all, being “subversive” means never having to take serious responsibility for anything; except one’s ostentatious moral fervour, however hypocritical and overblown that may become.

 

ADDENDA: Commenter Paul raises an excellent point, regarding the surge in commentary on Indian misogyny after the particularly brutal rape of a 23-year-old medical student in Delhi. (See, for example, this Guardian piece.) What is striking is the space given to Indian women to strongly critique Indian culture: for example, this piece on CNN, this on the Huffington Post. The sort of local feminist critique that is studiously ignored when it comes to Muslim cultures (or even denounced) was given prominent platforms when non-Muslim men and social attitudes were at issue. The contrast with the reaction to mass sexual assaults in Cologne and elsewhere, the Rotherham sexual exploitation scandal, is stark.(Leaving aside whether Indian men and culture have been slandered.)  So, apparently non-Westerners can have moral agency, not excuses; if they are not Muslims and so do not reach the apex of standing as moral mascots and sacred victims.

[Cross-posted from Thinking-Out-Aloud]

* The struggle against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan intensified Islamic militancy, provided experienced and energised recruits for the Islamic insurgency, but as the US provided only about a third of the funding (the Saudis matched US contributions and private fund-raising raised a similar amount again) while much of the organising was done via Pakistan or Islamic networks blaming the West for that is drawing a long bow, to say the least. After all, the original cause was the Soviet invasion.

Can a contemporary Western country have a moral immigration policy with a reasonable risk level?

By Lorenzo

The intense, and highly moralised, debate over migration in the West is clearly based on a widespread presumption that it is obviously possible for contemporary Western societies to have a moral migration policy. That proposition, when examined, is much more dubious than it might appear.

It is obvious that people moving to the West from the Rest are likely to improve their economic (and other) prospects, as noted in economist Michael Clemens’s 2011 journal article (pdf). Hence a Gallup World Poll suggesting that about 700m people worldwide would like to move permanently to another country.

This motivation is quite obvious and the fundamental driving factor–if it was not true, there would not be such demand to move to the West and the issue would largely be moot. What is much more difficult is why prospects are so much better in the West than in most of the Rest and how robust that success is to population inflows. Though the moral issues extend beyond that.

Bleeding initiative 

Consider the epitome of a successful immigration policy–Australia. There is effective border control, so the migration debate in Australia has not gone feral, as it has in other Western democracies. Even more impressively, a high level of migration is managed with remarkably little social disruption or political angst. So, a successful policy.

But one with distinct moral downsides. First is that effective border control involves a certain amount of cruelty: this cruelty, by deterring efforts to arrive by boat, does stop people drowning at sea in black market transportation. Still, it is cruelty.

Second, a key element is that Australia cherry-picks its migrants quite successfully. This means that there is much less downward pressure on labour income within Australia, as the migrants bring a significant amount of capital (including human capital) with them. It is often pointed out that migrants increase local demand: but if they bring labour (but not much capital), then there is relatively more pressure on average labour incomes–particularly “pure” labour incomes (i.e. unskilled labour)–as the pool of those competing for labour income from the increased demand expands much more than the capital doing so.

Note, the claim is not that migrants reduce wages; wages are “sticky” downwards. (At least not cause an overall reduction in wages, though there may be significant specific effects to segments of the labour market [pdf].) The issue is the distribution of the returns to economic growth–importing large numbers of people reliant on labour income is likely to distribute more of the returns to growth to the holders of capital, and the newcomers, and less to resident providers of labour.

Hence, that Australia successfully cherry-picks is is good for Australia’s internal social cohesion, but it means that Australia (a rich country) is bleeding off people with initiative (plus persistence–measured by willingness to go through the application process) and skills from less wealthy countries. In global terms, this is a perverse redistribution of scarce resources.

As Clemens points out, an ameliorating counter-effect is to raise the return to human capital in the countries left. Nevertheless, as he also points out, this reduces the externality to the countries providing migrants, it is not likely to eliminate it.

Not that there are no domestic problems from Australia’s successful migration policy. That so many of Australia’s housing market entrants are non-voters makes it much easier to regulate to restrict housing land supply, driving up the cost of housing (and so shelter) and undermining the incentive to provide infrastructure.

The infrastructure effect occurs as restrictive regulation of land use raises the opportunity cost of land for infrastructure–both from the increase in land price plus the knock-on effects of increasing resident resistance. (Expectations of rising property values increase the NIMBY effect.) It also lowers the revenue benefit of providing infrastructure, as governments can, much more easily, tax the artificial land scarcity they create without the bother and expense of building infrastructure and then taxing increased land values therefrom. In other words, land use rationing plus taxing of the created artificial scarcity creates very similar dynamics as those which lead relying on private provision to under-provide infrastructure.

In Australia, the infrastructure and land regulation debates are also a classic example of using migration policy for other purposes–specifically, Virtue signalling. Hence the Virtuous position of no new dams, no new motorways, no new power stations, stopping urban sprawl, opposing in-fill (i.e. BANANA –NIMBY on steroids) while supporting high levels of migration: an utterly self-contradictory set of positions but whose very self-contradiction makes it an excellent pattern for Virtue signalling–embracing the contradiction makes one very Virtuous. While pointing out the contradiction is very unVirtuous (but questioning the signalling marks of Virtue is generally unVirtuous: which has an invidious effect on open debate).

As per the explanatory mechanism in political scientist Xavier Marquez’s theory of cults of personality, when moralism is compulsory, how does one signal superior morality? By accepting the costs of contradiction–it operates as an excellent sorting mechanism and is a splendid application of postmodern authenticity trumping reason.

Regarding the general regulatory effect of migration, having higher numbers of non-voters being market entrants makes it easier to regulate to benefit market incumbents (typically voters) over market entrants, increasing dysfunction across a range of markets. This is particularly notable in Europe, with labour market regulation.

A positive take on the moral difficulties, but policy success, of Australia’s migration policy is that it conforms to a point economist Thomas Sowell makes–there are no morally perfect solutions, only trade-offs

Disrupting order

To avoid the specific moral problems of Australia’s immigration policy, simply give up on effective border control (no cruelty) and stop cherry-picking (no bleeding off).

Failure to have effective border control more or less guarantees your domestic immigration debate will “go feral”, from voters resenting having no say. If there is any sea route involved, lack of effective border control increases deaths at sea. It also increases perverse market-exclusion effects, as “illegals” are then stripped of normal legal protections, creating pernicious black markets in labour.

Not cherry-picking migrants greatly increases the costs, and reduces the benefits, of migration to the host countries. As voters are likely to notice, this also increases the chance of one’s migration debate going feral.

A migration policy which degrades one’s own political and social cohesion does not look particularly moral. Nor a sensible policy choice. As Chancellor Merkel and the EU are currently discovering.

Open to catastrophe

The next alternative is simply to go for completely open borders. There would be no “illegals”, so no black markets in labour.

Given the relative ease of modern transport, there would not be much selection for persistence, or for commitment. (This is very different from the C19th.) There would be some selection for initiative and some for capital. But the greatest relative increase in income would be for labour, so overwhelmingly the selection would be for importing (massively) more labour.

Note, this is the only option that would make any serious dent in the level of global poverty (as distinct from specifically benefiting migrants). No remotely plausible level of migration to the West would otherwise have significant (positive) effect.

At which point, we confront what econblogger Nick Rowe labels, accurately, the Autism of economics. As economist Paul Krugman nicely points out, economists think in models. And models are abstractions: ceteris paribus (other things being equal) is a necessary element in making models useful by being simple enough to be tractable. Thinking of people as participants in markets abstracts away from all sorts of other aspects of being human and being part of a society. (Barry Weingast provides a nice analysis of problems with that in development economics and aid policy.) Indeed, economists abstract so completely that there managed to be a long period of not paying much attention to property rights, as they were so just assumed.

That economists are still struggling to come up with models of long-term cross-country economic growth which satisfactorily explain the patterns we actually see demonstrates that there is a great deal which matters about how societies as a whole function, even in just narrowly economic terms, that economics is still grappling with.

Which makes glib application of open market models to migration policy highly Autistic. So long as economics cannot produce a robust cross-country theory of long term economic growth compatible with the historical evidence, it cannot claim to provide any sort of reliable guide to the implications of open borders.

There is no reason to think that the factors which make Western countries stable and prosperous–and so attractive targets for migration–would be able to withstand a truly open borders policy. The current population of the West (EU, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) is about 890m. Adding 700m people to that population, or even a significant proportion thereof, would be an enormous social, economic and cultural shock.

The strain on existing physical infrastructure would be potentially huge. Then there are the social infrastructure issues. Why would existing structures of formal regulation be able to magically scale up without any significant degradation? Why would existing informal structures of social order be able to magically scale up without any significant degradation? What would be the effects of having voters being a minority of adults? If the existing institutions (formal and informal) are not robustly elastic on the scale required, would the policy not simply be one of importing social dysfunction–potentially, massive social dysfunction?

Open borders have almost infinite capacity to go catastrophically wrong in ways which would be non-reversible. Taking such risks with the lives, freedoms and prospects of citizens and their children is not a moral policy.

Nor is it a rational one for existing voters, given that the possibility of multi-generational and irreversible social catastrophe so outweighs any likely benefits to them. And it is the existing electorate which, directly or indirectly, would be making the decision.

Marriages and visitors only

A policy which would have none of the above costs would be to have effectively a no-migration policy. This is the other way of minimising black markets. There would be little cost in local social cohesion. Rich countries would not significantly bleed off initiative and human capital from poorer countries. In the circumstances of the modern world, the most moral migration policy for Western countries may well be to simply have a policy of not being a society open to further settlement.  At the very least, it is much more morally and socially defensible than many folk seem to be willing to credit.

Moral certainty on migration is very easy if you have a simplistic enough perspective, or otherwise block out awkward facts and problems. (Such as simply simply assuming that the necessary structures for social order scale up indefinitely and robustly; giving no significant positive weighting to the good functioning of Western societies; and/or using the debate for other purposes.) Taking a broader moral view may not lead where one expects at all.

 

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Post-Enlightenment is the Counter-Enlightenment rebooted

By Lorenzo

There is a clear difference between the modernist Left and the postmodern progressivism. The modernist Left was an Enlightenment project, and proud to be so. This is the stream of political analysis and commentary represented in our time by such figures as the late Christopher Hitchens and Norman Geras, by Terry Eagleton’s jeremiads against post-modernism and by the Euston Manifesto. They are the anti-fascist Left; as they will not have a bar of the Counter-Enlightenment in any form. (And can get their heads around the complicated idea that there could be brown-skinned fascists and non-Western movements which are analogues of fascism.)

Conversely, postmodern progressivism is Post-Enlightenment and proud to be so. The trouble is, the Post-Enlightenment just turns out to be the Counter-Enlightenment rebooted–whether engaging in the romanticisation of nature, emphasising emotion (particularly “compassion”), deprecating reason (especially reasoned debate) or using hierarchical identity politics (heterosexual white male has become an accusation as much as a description). All of which reboots of classic features of Counter-Enlightenment thought and movements.

Thus, what economist Thomas Sowell calls moral mascots and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt labels sacred victims are all about developing a moral caste system of status-ranked identities. While the habit of coining ever more “boo words” (racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, etc) as conversation-and-thought stoppers is classic elevation of emotion and deprecation of reason.

Dipping from a poisonous well

A friend, in conversation, called Hitler “the first postmodern dictator”: on the grounds that he was all about Will (and so Intent) trumping everything. I then came across this piece by one Aeman Ansari about minorities needing “safe” (i.e. no-whites-allowed) spaces, which is all about racial/ethnic identity being morally trumping, and I was once again struck by how much current culture wars involved postmodern progressivism dipping into the Counter-Enlightenment well. Especially when thinkers such as HeideggerPaul de Man and even Carl Schmitt, fed ideas into the postwar Left.

For losing a Big War, even a Very Big War, does not mean that your conceptions vanish–does contemporary China, for example, conform more to Mao‘s vision or Chiang Kai-shek‘s? Clearly the latter. (And the history of Nazism does tell us about the consequences of ideas, so using Godwin’s Law to block discussion actually makes it easier for noxious ideas to spring back in new forms.)

The context is sadly clear enough. The Dictator’s War (aka WWII) can be understood as a three-way Western civil war, where the liberal democracies, led by Anglo-America, represented the Sceptical Enlightenment (which applies reason to history, based on the notion that human nature is largely fixed, so lessons translate across history and societies); the Soviet Union represented the Radical Enlightenment (which apples reason to society and history but holds human nature to be transformable) and Nazi Germany represented the Counter Enlightenment (which rejects reason in favour of intent, will, emotion, passion and authenticity).

A classic Sceptical Enlightenment moment is James Madison running a failure analysis on republics throughout history before drafting the US Constitution. A classic Radical Enlightenment moment is Lenin holding that over two millennia of struggling with how to restrain political power could be completely ignored, for the Bolshevik Party had the transformative Key to History. A classic Counter Enlightenment invocation of emotion is Triumph of the Will.

The Dictator’s War started with the Radical Enlightenment Soviets allied with the Counter Enlightenment Nazis dividing Eastern Europe between them (the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) against the Sceptical Enlightenment Anglo-French and ended with the destruction of the Counter Enlightenment Nazi empire, and the Sceptical Enlightenment and Radical Enlightenment Powers dividing Europe between them (the Yalta/Potsdam Agreements). Leading to the Cold War, a global struggle between the the Sceptical Enlightenment (the Western alliance) and the Radical Enlightenment (the Soviet bloc).

Which famously ended in the victory of the Sceptical Enlightenment West, with the 1989-91 collapse of the Soviet empire. Long before that, however, it had become obvious that Leninism and the Soviet Union (or, for that matter, Leninist offshoots such as Maoist China) were not the transformative social vehicles they had claimed to be. Hence the rise of post-modernism; a way of achieving triumphs of the mind as a substitute and consolation for the failures of social transformation–a rise so incisively analysed by philosopher Stephen Hicks.

Triumphs which are only in the mind. A strong contemporary pattern is: the contemporary Western “Left” (i.e. postmodern progressives) functionally allies with the Muslim “Right” (political Islam): notably by accepting strong religious identity claims for all folk of Muslim heritage while seeking to disallow any serious critique of Islam. The other side of the pattern is that the Western “Right” (conservatives and libertarians) prefers the Muslim Left (humanists, secularists, feminists, etc of Muslim heritage: folk who are still modernist, Enlightenment folk in their thinking and so can still be treated as Left) while postmodern progressives ignore or belittle them. The cross-over pattern occurs because Western conservatives and libertarians like those who want what the West has while Western postmodern progressives prefer those who reject the West, because that is more “subversive” and morally “authentic”.

But it is also the consequence of postmodern progressivism rejecting Enlightenment values–such that, for example, feminism and queer rights are not for export; universalism being rejected in favour of “authenticity”. (Which includes criticism and ideological abuse of folk from non-Western backgrounds who speak for Enlightenment universalism.) Moreover, postmodern progressives can hardly seriously call out political Islam for its Othering on the basis of belief, given that is precisely what contemporary progressivism does so avidly. Even more so, given that postmodern progressivism and political Islam have overlapping targets for their respective Otherings.

Group identity sets moral rating

For the first and most obvious way that rejecting Enlightenment values leads to rebooting the Counter Enlightenment via the culture wars is the notion that group identity is morally trumping. Yes, it is true that progressivist ratings reverse those the former Counter-Enlightenment endorsed (or, for that matter, early C20th Progressivism)–whites on bottom instead of on top. But to merely reverse the framing is to continue the framing.

The Aeman Ansar piece cited above is dreadfully bad history; she claims that:

Segregation was imposed on people of colour by people of privilege …

I.e. all whites got together and imposed segregation on all blacks.  At this point, one wants a little more Marxism–i.e. a little more sense of varied interests in social causation. Yes, lower income whites were most certainly an audience for segregation–they were sold higher status. But Jim Crow was more complicated than that. Yes, excluding black voters increased the value of white votes: it was about creating privilege. But it was also about depressing black economic competition, including restricting their choices, to make them easer to exploit. It was not simply something “whites” collectively did to blacks–there were always whites who opposed it.

Races simply are not causal units. One becomes somewhat nostalgic for the Marxist Left–for, however crude class analysis can be, it is way better than race analysis as a causal explanation.

At all times in the Emancipation Sequence (Jewish, Catholic, Female, Black, Queer), crucial to the series of breakthroughs in political participation and social standing were that increasing numbers of people saw common humanity rather than dividing categories. Reverting back to such categories as morally trumping is not a moral advance. Thomas Sowell’s comment of some years back:

If you have always believed that everyone should play by the same rules and be judged by the same standards, that would have gotten you labeled a radical 60 years ago, a liberal 30 years ago and a racist today.

Has, sadly, acquired even more force. A product of Virtue signalling, and its spiralling upward dynamics of exclusion, it may be. But it is also a win for the Counter Enlightenment in the culture wars.

As is a certain form of multiculturalism, which SF writer Sarah Hoyt goes to town on here (and notices the win-for-Hitler–i.e. the Counter-Enlightenment–aspect of it):

I saw it in my kids homework, when they were requested to write about “your culture” but got the essay sent back when they wrote about SF/F geekdom because they wanted “your ancestral culture.”

In my kids particular case the situation quickly became tragic or funny depending on how you look at it, because I descended on them like the wrath of Sarah, demanding they explain themselves.

The explanation went something like this “Language and costumes are tied to your race. Trying to get an immigrant to learn a new language/integrate in the culture he immigrated to is aggression, since you’re supposed to keep your culture, because it’s part of your race. To want you to change is racist.”

(Note to those in SF/F this is much, much worse than the position staked out by VD, the banished one, which if I understand him correctly is that SOME characteristics are inherited and make you more/less competent for industrial civilization. Note also that I don’t even agree with his position, much less the more extreme one. Note also that for his position he is condemned as racist, but the other position makes you enlightened and possibly beautiful and full of the meanings.)

This is the point at which I broke out my broom and flew in circles around their office, pointing out their position was something Hitler would have been proud to embrace. What they are claiming in fact is that there is some ur-mythical-quality to races (and races in this case are defined in the European sense, like my dad blathering on about the “Portuguese race”) which imbues them with their own language and culture. If wanting to change that is racist, and if some of these “races” are better at life than others (understood in the whole system of Marxist reward and punishment) then what will prevent them from in the future deciding to eugenically improve the breed by eliminating the less competent? Or just, as they’re doing now, handicapping them by never teaching them the lingua franca of the age and the technological culture needed to survive?

As she points out, the entire history of human betterment is a standing case for contamination, to use the felicitous phrase of Anglo-Ghanian philosopher Kwane Anthony Appiah. To see us as being our cultural/ethnic/racial category (and even more, to see that as fixed) is not only morally retrograde, it is dreadfully bad history–and in exactly the same sense that Hitler’s sense of history was appallingly flawed: making simply false causal claims about racial groups.

Category mistaking

The reality is that cultural identity in particular can be startlingly fluid. As James C. Scott points out in his splendid The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland South East Asia, cultural identities can be chosen to fit in with ways of life (specifically: river valley farming, slash-and-burn horticulture, foraging) that can also be chosen (in the cases he considers, including to get away from rule by the river-valley agrarian states). There is no ur-identity here. Chosen identities are not an invention of modern Western sub-cultures.

For instance, in living memory, the Palestinian identity has been created. There is a line of Zionist argument which holds that Palestinian claims are illegitimate as there was no Palestinian identity before the waves of Jewish settlement. The historical claim is correct, but has no moral implications, because there certainly is a Palestinian identity now: created, as such identities so often are, in opposition (in this case, to the Zionist project).

Though there are some similarities to the dynamics of the Jim Crow American South, in that the no-compromise strain in Palestinian identity was originally an unholy alliance between clerics acting as gatekeepers of righteousness and those landlords who resented the undermining of existing structures of social control and exploitation based particularly in debt-bondage. An undermining they–perfectly correctly–blamed on the Jews, as the rise in wages was a result of the influx of Jews, and especially their accompanying capital (which raised wages), while the influx of those attracted from elsewhere in the Middle East by the increased economic activity also undermined existing social hierarchies and patterns of control.

A further similarity with the Jim Crow South is that it seems that the only consensus position among Palestinians is that, unless they get to be the equivalent of Jim Crow Southern whites, no peace agreement with Israel is acceptable.

Nor was there historically some sort of ur-racism. Not only are racial, ethnic and cultural categories more fluid than is commonly realised, but the normative weight put on them is also remarkably fluid over time. Asians have become functionally “white” in the contemporary US while medieval Christendom had little or no skin-colour racism to speak of (though it had plenty of other negative categorisations); as was also true of the Greek and Roman Classical Mediterranean.

Putting negative moral weight on (black) skin colour first arose under the Christian Roman Empire but then, rather more fully, in Muslim North Africa. In both cases, it was about justifying slavery within a universalising moral perspective (Christianity or Islam respectively). In the Muslim case, to justify the mass enslaving, rather than conversion (which would block said enslaving) of Sub-Saharan Africans. The use of mass slavery in the Christian-ruled Americas led to similar derogatory rationalisations, which got another oomph with the adoption of Enlightenment universalism. (Of course, so did opposition to slavery.)

Racism was far more of a post hoc rationalisation of oppression and exploitation than an originating cause thereof. Though, like all moral exclusions, it retains the appeal of effortless virtue, an effortless sense of superiority. (The rise of “biological” conceptions of ethnicity and race from the C18th onwards was an attempt to locate a sense of identity, for a culture of increasingly mass literacy, that wasn’t religious or dynastic yet seemed scientific.)

Even more confusingly, by far the worst manifestation of racism in world history was Europeans systematically massacring other Europeans. Given that there is non-white racism, and that the victims of the worse manifestation of racism were also white, the race-as-(inevitably hierarchical)-moral-category approach really does not work–except as a new way of selling effortless virtue. Which is precisely what the framing does, in both Hitler’s form and its “progressive” reversal. In either form, it is an ideology in Vaclav Havel‘s sense:

Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them. As the repository of something suprapersonal and objective, it enables people to deceive their conscience and conceal their true position and their inglorious modus vivendi, both from the world and from themselves.

An ideology that is simply rebutted through grasping, indeed celebrating, our common humanity.

Islam is better

In his private conversation, Hitler was not very keen on Christianity. As he says in his Table Talk,

The heaviest blow ever struck humanity was the coming of Christianity. Bolshevism is Christianity’s illtegitimate child. Both are inventions of the Jew. The deliberate lie in the matter of religion was introduced into the world by Christianity. Bolshevism practises a lie of the same nature, when it claims to bring liberty to men, whereas in reality it seeks only to enslave them. In the ancient world, the relations between men and gods were founded on instinctive respect. It was a world enlightened by the idea of tolerance. Christianity was the first creed in the world to exterminate its adversaries in the name of love. Its key-note was intolerance.

Without Christianity, we should not have had Islam. The Roman Empire, under Germanic influence, would have developed in the direction of world-domination, and humanity would not have extinguished fifteen centuries of civilisation in a single stroke.

Let it not be said that Christianity brought man the life of the soul, for that evolution was in the nature of things. (11/12th July 1941).

Nor was this a one-off comment, the Table Talk is littered with derogatory comments about Christianity and the Church. By contrast, Islam was distinctively preferable:

Had Charles Martel not been victorious at Poitiers–already, you see, the world had already fallen into the hands of the Jews, so gutless a thing Christianity!–then we should in all probability have been converted to Mohammedanism [Islam], that cult which glorifies heroism and which opens up the seventh Heaven to the bold warrior alone. Then the Germanic races would have conquered the world. Christianity alone prevented them from doing so. (28 August 1942).

When Hitler mentions Islam, it is typically to note ways in which it was preferable to Christianity. After the Nazi defeat, there was something of a trail of ex-Nazis to the Middle East–after all, they got to help fight Jews. And the elevation of Israel to the status of the state that Western progressivists and political Islam can bond over by hating has been an excellent conduit for moving from the Radical Enlightenment modernist Left to Counter-Enlightenment postmodern progressivism. Just as it has been an excellent conduit for the, now endemic, habit in so much of the mainstream media of preferring Virtue over veracity.

Maximum virtue, minimum effort

As a friend noted in conversation (and Stephen Hicks develops with clarity and intellectual depth), the explicit ideologies arising out of the Radical Enlightenment fail; so moving to a set of “compassion authentic” positions with accompanying justifying rhetoric (the latter created as necessary) works much better. Hence the rebooting of the Counter-Enlightenment–as that elevates intent, passion, sentiment, authenticity.

All of which are excellent bases for effortless, or very low cost, Virtue. Which is the other advantage of the Counter Enlightenment rebooted; it provides endless ways of signalling membership of the tribe of the Truly Virtuous. (A claim and process that postmodern progressivism and political Islam also have in common.)

Particularly if you adopt what econblogger Noah Smith calls Haan history; a vision of history very different from the hopes and aspirations of both the Sceptical and Radical Enlightenments:

… what’s clear is the anti-Whig perspective. Progress does not fix things. The fact that Jim Crow was less horrible than slavery, and that redlining was less horrible than Jim Crow, and that today’s housing policy is less horrible than redlining, does not mean that things are getting better. What matters is not just the flow of current injustice, but the stock of past injustices.

Haan presents a vision of stasis that is different from the Malthusian version. By focusing on the accumulated weight of history instead of the current situation, and by focusing on the injustices and atrocities and negative aspects of history, it asserts that the modern age, for all its comforts and liberties and sensitivity, is inherently wrong.

Western civilisation becomes defined by the weight of past sins (and ludicrous over-weighting of current ones). Other civilisations are not so defined (particularly not Islam). In internal Western status games, Haan history gives the Virtuous instant moral superiority over any of their fellow citizens who express any attachment to the society in which they were born; the society whose success and stability is the crucible for the hopes and aspirations for them and their families. Such instant moral superiority is, of course, the point of the exercise.

For the moral posturing involved is precisely that–moral posturing. The purpose is to buttress the collective normative narcissism of Tribe Virtue. Hence the patent inconsistencies in moral concern, including the endless excuse-making why Western sins (and especially Western “white” sins) get so much weight, and anyone else’s so little. It produces remarkably closed minds and, even better, easily transmittable techniques for closing minds.

Analytical insight

Kiwi political scientist Xavier Marquez’s analysis of personalities cults, and his criticism of the use of the notion of legitimacy as an empirical criteria, are both useful analytical tools for understanding what has been going on.

Regarding the former: in a situation where moralism is compulsory, how do you signal your membership of the Truly Virtuous? By embracing any required level of inconsistency–which facts count, which don’t; what sins count, which don’t; what critiques are acceptable, which aren’t. The Counter-Enlightenment’s trumping of identity and emotion are made for that; while its deprecation of reason (and especially reasoned debate) are necessary for the specific Virtue signalling strategy’s success.

To take a current salient example of embracing inconsistency to signal Virtue; any critique of Western society as “rape culture”, and Western men (such as college students) as willing, even eager, participants in said “rape culture”, is Virtuous. Conversely, any critique of Islamic societies as “rape culture”, or cases of Muslim men as active rapists (from Rotherham to Cologne to …), is to be denied, belittled, emptied of significance. Even if such critique is done by people of Muslim heritage (with formulations such as “native informant“, essentialist or orientalist being used to discount what they say). So, that the sources of Islam canonically endorsed the right of believing men to have sex with (i.e. rape) their non-believer captives, including their married captives, is a reference to be ignored, belittled, denied significance; while Western history and culture can be happily ransacked for evidence of violent misogyny.

Muslims make excellent moral mascots or sacred victims not despite the queer-hatred, Jew-hatred, misogyny, and abusive Othering which is so pervasive in Islamic cultures (flowing directly from the doctrines and long term effects of Islam on moral sensibility) but because of all that. One has to embrace so much inconsistency in embracing Muslims as moral mascots of sacred victims, that doing so becomes a perfect mechanism for signalling Virtue.

To take an extreme, but revealing, example of highly selective concern for facts, and the dominance of rhetorical convenience and Virtue signalling over logical consistency, a “white trash” young guy kills 9 African-Americans in a church in Charleston and the progressivist concern is all about the shooter, and anyone who might look in any way like the shooter, or might think in any way like the shooter, or might be attached to a flag that the shooter might or might also be attached to.

jihadi couple gun down 14 people in San Bernardino, seriously injuring another 23, and amongst progressives, it is all about not talking about the shooters, absolutely not about anyone who might look or think in any way like the shooters, or might be attached to any doctrines espoused by the shooters. In fact, any number of folk can kill any number of people while shouting “Allah akbar!” and it is never about the shooters. Except, possibly, in a “root causes” way, but the “root causes” of white racism are never considered in any way similar to the alleged “root causes” of jihadism.

Similarly, the chances of an American being killed by a terrorist are, as progressives love reminding folk, pretty remote. Probably about as remote as of an African-American being killed by a white racist. But the first observation is Virtuous, the second very much not.

Then there is the recurring attempts to create moral panics over anti-Muslim sentiment which, on the statistics of actual attacks, is a relatively minor problem. Conversely, the statistically rather more significant problem of attacks by Muslims on Jews is largely ignored. The more factual selectivity and logical inconsistency you are prepared to embrace, the more clearly you signal your Virtue, your membership of Tribe Virtue.

Marquez’s critique of legitimacy argues that signalling, and how free or blocked are information flows, are the key issues in analysing social dynamics (not cognitive commitment, which is often largely invisible). For Tribe Virtue, signalling provides coordination: and modern information technology (and particularly social media) provide excellent coordination mechanisms. Markers of Virtue can then operate to coordinate large group of people. Again, elevating “authenticity”, emotions, identity all simplify and magnify signalling effects.

Turkish-American economist Timur Kuran’s analysis of preference falsification is also useful to understand what is going on–especially the mechanisms for the creation of public acquiescence. The Virtue Game weaponises morality–it imposes genuine costs on those who fail to publicly acquiescence; especially repetitional costs (pdf). Particularly given that, since adherence to the various claims signals Virtue, contradicting or criticising them signals Viciousness. The dialectically false, but rhetorically extremely powerful, syllogism of:

X is done/advocated to stop Y

You are against/criticising X

Therefore

You are for/insufficiently against Y

Is accepted and applied to denigrate and shout down dissent and to enforce conformity. As priests and clerics have found down the ages, the ability to define Virtue is a powerful mechanism for enforcing social compliance: one always defined and applied as “true” morality. A nice contemporary example of how it works is economist Robert Frank’s experience of the resulting social pressure from using University granting athletic scholarships, and the (false) reputation of athletes as less intelligent than average, to provoke more comprehensive discussion of affirmative action.

As people’s sense of moral identity (and moral superiority) is at stake, a significant proportion of those seeking the status of being members of Tribe Virtue in good standing are willing to impose social costs on those who dissent.  Especially given their reasonable confidence that they will be backed up.

Codes of conduct (notably “speech codes) become an excellent way of entrenching and institutionalising both markers of Virtue and punishment of dissent. Violation of elementary principles of natural justice and due process (such as hidden accusers) demonstrate how much of a power play it all ultimately is.

Self-righteousness, status seeking and power plays are combined together in a noxious package. Hence the (ironic) title of Social Justice Warriors for those for whom trashing civility, freedoms and rights is paraded as some sort of moral advance, rather than the deeply self-serving, narcissistic power grab, wielding weaponised morality, it is.

There is a perennial tendency for organisations to be taken over by those who are able to mobilise and wield reputational effects, to impose reputational costs, most thoroughly. For decades, that has been the modernist Left, who have been even more successfully followed by postmodernist progressivism. Hence historian Robert Conquest‘s observation that:

Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.

The modernist Left and postmodern progressivism are both deeply controlling when they get any serious amount of power precisely because they are so normatively driven–hence profoundly inclined to adopt the deeply totalitarian principle that error has no rights. They more or less automatically commit the just-add-morality error.

They also tend to be remarkably poor at actually running organisations and institutions (as distinct from taking control of them) because they are so inclined to block information (and to heretic-hunt) while substituting normative display for practical effectiveness. Creating, for example, education systems not terribly good at imparting knowledge and skills (particularly given the resources consumed) but truly excellent at stripping people of their deeper cultural heritage.

The massive sense of moral entitlement involved–displayed currently by claiming the right to determine what people can say, how they can say it, what they can wear, what they can enjoy, what concerns are legitimate–fuels this march-through-the-institutions power grab.

The collective narcissism tango

The package parades (above all, to themselves) as being the epitome of morality. Which is precisely what it is not: neither in the overturning of elementary civility and any reasonable sense of moral proportion; nor in the weaponising of morality against both masses of fellow citizens and one’s own society; nor in the pervasive contempt for human achievement which underpins the entire outlook.

The achievements of Western civilisation are far more distinctive than its sins, and far greater. We in the West live in prosperous and profoundly decent societies, where an ordinary citizen of today lives better than a billionaire did a century ago: only a pathological moral outlook would treat confidence in, and respect for, those achievements as something contemptible. A moral outlook all the more pathological for being so ultimately self-serving: which, of course, is where it gets so much of its emotional power–the combination of sneering superiority and self-righteous moralism is very powerful. But that makes it no less contemptible.

The collapse of the Soviet Union brought to an end the Left-Right divide that had operated since the French Revolution. As philosopher Stephen Hicks has laid out, post modernism was a way to rescue a sense of moral purpose and superiority from the serial failures of the entire post-capitalism project. Let loose from any commitment to actual social achievement, the substitution of attitude rooted in nothing more than a profoundly tribal sense of the collective moral narcissism provides a profound sense of emotional self-worth, and moral superiority, without the tedious business of actually building anything worthwhile.

Rebooting the Counter-Enlightenment is not a sign of moral sense and perception, but of a commitment to nothing more than towering edifices of presumption and contempt. For nothing actually existing is, or could ever be, worthy of Tribe Virtue’s soaring sense of moral superiority. Collective narcissism parading as moral commitment–this is what the progressivist movement has become out of the ashes of socialism.

 

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Decency, righteousness and the add-more-morality error

By Lorenzo

Having what we might call a moral sense, but which is better called a normative sense, has been basic to the evolutionary success of homo sapiens. The ability to accept, and internalise, constraints on behaviour hugely expands the range of practicable social interactions. Particularly important over the longer run in “scaling up” human social interaction has been the constraint of accepting the right to control specific objects, for that allows exchange to take place. The virtue of exchange is that it permits positive social interactions in the simple swap sense–this thing I have for that thing you have–between individuals with little or no other social connection: an obvious prerequisite for significant “scaling up” of human interaction and resource use.

But the normative sense lowers the costs, and so expands the ambit of, embedded exchange between people with strong social connections, such as those which operated within foraging groups–those who hunt and those who gather sharing the fruits of their labour while shaming or excluding those who attempt to free ride. In other words, normatively constraining aggression–whether active (protection of life and person, blocking theft or deceit) or passive (taking without contributing)–hugely reduces the actual or potential costs of transacting, thereby greatly expanding the range of possible transactions. The increased intensity and extent of socially connected interactions within foraging groups was likely the key arena within which the normative sense evolved due to the high level of interaction and information (pdf) within said groups.

Normative cognition

Expanding the range of social interactions expands both cognitive demands on individuals–particularly the ability to “read others” and to communicate–and increases the return to cognitive ability. If better social cooperation means more children surviving to adulthood, then increased cognitive ability is selected for. Potentially quite strongly. It is likely not accidental that tool using (more specifically tool making) and strikingly swift (in evolutionary terms) cognitive expansion went together. Putting effort into tool making will have rather better returns the more it is embedded within constraints on action (such as accepting tool ownership) that increase the range of, and return on, social interaction.

The interactive expansion of cognition and cooperation pushed homo sapiens across the cognitive threshold of becoming a cultural species: that is, to rely far more on learning and learned patterns than on “hard wired” patterns. The normative sense is about capacities and propensities; that goes with homo sapiens being a cultural species. So it is moulded by experience, example and teaching.

Culture could be used to transmit knowledge and expectations. This also provided a mechanism to transmit norms that did not rely on specific genetic mutations: homo sapiens evolved into permitting social mutation, social diversity. We became a multi-level selection species in a very particular sense beyond that otherwise experienced (pdf) in biology. Human culture built on, directed and, via evolutionary advantage, expanded the normative sense.

Culture exists both as generalised framing (what Anglo-Indian economist Deepak Lal calls cosmological beliefs) and as transmitted techniques (what Lal calls material beliefs). The second, being far more immediately and narrowly instrumental, are more pliable to changes in information and incentives than the first, which is about creating and managing common (or at least sufficiently convergent and coherent) expectations and purposes. Such framings can be so unthinkingly basic to the way folk conceive people and the world that it can be hard to even conceive of people having, let along continuing to be committed to, seriously different framings.

Commerce (exchange) involves beneficial interaction with strangers and people with low social connections. It demonstrably fosters pro-social behaviour. “World religions” (i.e. widespread religions with strong ethical teachings) also foster cooperative norms, particularly (but not only) for fellow-believers. The two factors can work together: it is not surprising that trade routes often spread moralising religions–notably Silk Road Buddhism and Nestorian Christianity as well as Islam in the Malay world.

Norms, by positively or negatively constraining and motivating, are ways for ideas to have great social power. In particular, norms + cognitive abstraction permit generalised notions of status, setting up shared expectations. But status hierarchies can also block various forms of cooperation, as well as discouraging or blocking innovation. The more generalised notions of common status are, the greater the ambit of possible social cooperation and innovation. Shifts from highly hierarchical structures of status to much more generalised notions of status can be expected to have very positive effects on (pdf) social cooperation and innovation. Conversely, shifts in the other direction can be expected to have negative effects on both.

The ability to internalise norms which constrain anti-cooperative, and enjoin cooperative, behaviour is not some incidental side benefit of expanded cognition. It is a fundamental part of the evolutionary process which led to the evolution of (greatly) expanded cognitive capacities. Hence language, face recognition, character reading, agreement, bonding beyond kin: the evolved cognitive consequences that make homo sapiens distinctive in so many ways. Hence homo sapiens having a normative sense.

Normative variation

Though not necessarily universally so having, or to the same intensity. The genetic dice are always being thrown, and patterns of variations in underlying normative tendencies can nevertheless be sufficiently stable to persist. Different cultural and institutional contexts can also have quite different outcomes. For example, given a population of knaves (non-cooperators), saints (always cooperate) and moralists (cooperate but punish non-cooperators), blocking the capacity (pdf) to punish has strong negative effects (pdf) on cooperation as moralists withdraw in the face of unpunished free-riding. Add in churls (those who punish “excessive” cooperators) and, even with the ability to punish, the introduction of such anti-social punishment means that social cooperation plateaus. Social cooperation can clearly achieve stable social equilibria, but there is no reason to presume that such equilibria cannot be maladaptive or exclusionary (i.e. not universal): indeed, the historical records shows both are eminently possible.

Internalised norms, in order to have any effect, have a trumping capacity; that is, they override narrow self-interest: often by simply removing options from consideration. Since that creates the danger of easier exploitation by the normatively challenged, the failure of always-cooperate to become the universal normative posture is not surprising. But it also means that norms have to operate, at least to some extent, as ends-in-themselves, otherwise they are going to fall to “trump” other motives and considerations; they will fail to constrain behaviour in the required ways. It is therefore not surprising that norm fulfilment has the capacity to activate reward centres in the brain.

I have resisted calling this morality and a moral sense because it is quite obvious that homo sapiens can accept a wide range of norms, some of which can lead to dramatically immoral actions. In-group and out-group divisions are, after all, normative.

But, to the extent that we are considering morality and moral commitment, it has been what we might call everyday morality–don’t kill, steal, cheat, etc. What we could also call decency. Not what a Victorian lady might call “decency”, since that had a set of taboos embedded in it that led to treating certain vulnerable groups very badly. Just a commitment to a level of other-regarding constrained and enjoined behaviour towards people in general. This is the morality which is necessary to have any sizeable social order at all.

Generalised, such everyday framing of normative constraints can have a strong utilitarian feel to it. It is not big-U Utilitarianism, as it does not try to reduce morality to a single trumping principle. But, in its other-regarding what-do-folk-want? positively constraining practicality, it can seem very utilitarian.

We could speak of everyday norms as a more general concept extending to patterns of civility or courtesy. But systems of courtesy are a bit more like road rules–highly convenient social lubricants but whose actual content is somewhat path dependent and can be used to signal group membership. As for everyday morality, C S Lewis made a notable attempt to identify common elements across a wide range of ethical traditions. While the work of moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt and colleagues has attempted to map, via moral foundations theory, basic elements in human moral reasoning. (The current nominations are care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and purity.)

Normative exclusion

Everyday morality is also a form of morality that people can be, to a greater or lesser extent, excluded from (as they can also be excluded from courtesy). Which is to say, normatively excluded from. One does not understand bigotry (in the sense of moral exclusion) unless one understands it is always and everywhere a moral (or, at least, normative) claim. It is a claim about standing within the moral/normative order; about what behaviour is, or is not, constrained or enjoined towards members of the excluded group. It is always and everywhere a normative status claim. It arises, not from a lack of “morality”, a lack of normative concern but, in a sense, from an excess of it.

In other words, in arguments over moral exclusion, both those for and against a particular moral exclusion think the other side is betraying basic norms, is supporting immorality.

At its most extreme, moral exclusion casts the so-designated entirely outside the circle of moral protections. Alternatively, they might have a narrowed realm of protected action, movement outside of which then strips them of moral protection. They might simply have a lower level of moral protection than others. Whatever the specific pattern, such moral exclusion remains a normative claim, a claim about standing within the moral order. A claim which is, moreover, specific to the excluded group or groups, not a generalised penalty or constraint applying to everyone.

Though such exclusion can sometimes parade itself as a generalised injunction. Sexual taboos in particular can have this form. Injunctions against same-sex activity, for example, looks general but, in fact, it impose wildly divergent penalties–imposing no direct cost on the only-opposite-sex attracted majority but huge costs on the same-sex-attracted minority. (Pretending that sexual attraction is chosen is, of course, a way to evade the huge difference in normative burden.)

Moral exclusions can derive from two origins. One is simply a view that normative (including moral) constraints are based on connection–they apply to kin and tribe and otherwise to those with some personal connection but either not at all, or far less, to outsiders. We can call this limited or narrow morality (pdf). Such exclusion is more a strategy of failure to include rather than one of deliberate and specific exclusion. Tribal and strongly clannish peoples tend to have this type of normative strategy. Confucianism is a philosophically sophisticated version of this normative strategy. A particularly restrictive (even pathological) version of the normative strategy was famously described as amoral familism, though whether it was an accurate social diagnosis is doubtful (pdf).

Alternatively, groups can be actively excluded from normative protections that would otherwise cover them by a process of stigmatisation. Unlike failure to include, such active exclusion requires justification, as it is withdrawing what would otherwise operate. More specifically, it requires stigmatising justification. The more complete the exclusion, the more intense the stigmatising justification required, as the more intensive is the taking-away.

Righteous grandeur

Such deliberate exclusion requires a normative override of everyday norms by something normatively trumping, something with grander normative status. Such an over-arching normative framing we can call grand morality or righteousness.

Grand morality/righteousness is a normative framing that claims some grand, over-arching purpose and status: obedience to God, providing the path to salvation, freeing society from exploitation, or whatever. It can be religious or secular, but regardless of its grounding, such a normative framing claims the right to limit, or otherwise trump, the constraints of everyday morality. Such trumping can, and often does, extend to stigmatising particular groups with various levels of moral exclusion.

The basis for such grand morality, such righteousness, can be as simple as “God says”. It can be done on the basis of defining the “properly human” in ways which explicitly or implicitly excludes groups of humans–for example, definitions of “human flourishing” which exclude the same-sex attracted. It can be done on the basis of theories of what is required for social order. Or on the basis of what is required for a morally trumping conception of social order. Or postulating some inherent malice in the stigmatised group. Or some combination thereof.

Whatever the justification, such exclusion uses the trumping nature of morality to trump morality–to expand the cognitive reach of morality in purposeful claims but, in so doing, open up the possibility of dispensing with the constraints of everyday morality. A classic example of grand morality/righteousness trumping everyday morality/decency is found in Deuteronomy 13:6-11:

If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known,  gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other),  do not yield to them or listen to them. Show them no pity. Do not spare them or shield them.  You must certainly put them to death. Your hand must be the first in putting them to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone them to death, because they tried to turn you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no one among you will do such an evil thing again.

But human history is replete with examples, both religious and secular. Leninism, for example, is a giant exercise in grand morality trumping everyday morality. The Enlightenment, in generating streams of secular grand moralities, did not abolish righteousness, it merely secularised it.

Normative grandeur

It is not surprising that grand morality developed. It marries the ability to abstract, generalise and theorise which goes with expanded cognitive capacities with the normative sense.

Ever since philosopher Karl Jaspers proposed the concept, the Axial Age has been seen as a period of increased sophistication of abstract thought and perspectives. The period saw an upward shift in size of empires (pdf), likely due to the development of disciplined iron-weapon infantry and militarised mounted warfare in the steppes, encouraging more juxtaposition of cultures, and so perspectives. The era saw the development of coinage, which tended to disrupt old social hierarchies and create more fluid social interactions while creating a token-content distinction. Increased trade encouraged more specialisation and more urbanisation, which further encouraged juxtaposition of perspectives and created critical masses of thinkers.

In China, intense inter-state conflict, culminating in the Qin unification, encouraged abstract thought about social order–most famously Confucianism and Legalism. In India, the development of new religious perspectives encouraged abstract thought about cosmic order. In the Greek world, the development of heavy infantry city-states in Greece encouraged the development of that form of social bargaining known as citizenship, which encouraged attention to public persuasion and generated a wider range of political forms, encouraging abstract analysis.

But elements of grand morality are rather older than that. The cosmic-good-versus-cosmic-evil perspective dates back to Zoroaster, who likely lived around 1500BC, which would put him well before the Axial Age. But even older than that, we can see order-versus-chaos perspectives, such as in the Egyptian concept of Maat. With farming societies being susceptible to drought, flood, disease, etc, it is not hard to see how an order-versus-chaos perspective would make sense and frame folks’ hopes and fears.

Hierarchical grandeur

So, more complex social orders are likely to generate systems of grand morality. Particularly as, once one gets hierarchical societies, stories of justification are required–since hierarchies are normative. The constraints of hierarchy have to be internalised to have any strength or stability, so social stratification builds on the normative sense.

Note that being internalised does not require belief, in the sense of cognitive commitment, merely that they be routinised; that folk know what is expected and routinely act upon that expectation. Attempts to turn legitimacy into a descriptive characteristic typically claim too much, turning legitimacy into the analytical equivalent of phlogiston–how do we know a structure of power was regarded as legitimate? People obeyed it. How do we know that people stopped regarding it as legitimate? People stopped obeying it. Nevertheless, that justificatory stories are told in an attempt to get cognitive commitment illustrates the importance of the normative sense in socially-embedded behaviour.

One of the signs of increased social ranking is the switch from egalitarian ritual houses to hierarchical temples. And an effective source of social power and status is to be a gatekeeper of righteousness; someone who specifies what is required by the shared normative order and who is excluded from the same, why and to what degree. A role priests and clerics have taken down the ages and which secular clerisies have also adopted. A Soviet commissar was a gatekeeper of righteousness every bit as much as a Catholic priest, a rabbi or an iman. In the contemporary world, democracies can also throw up bodies that act as would-be gatekeeper’s of righteousness.

Mainstream Islam, by positing a huge moral gulf between believer and unbeliever, is a limited morality with universalist claims. The believer/unbeliever gulf profoundly limits its doctrinal commitment to everyday morality and sells a powerful status claim exulting believers while its complex, revelation-grounded, rules and taboos undermine ordinary moral judgement and reinforce the normative believer/unbeliever gap. Sharia, as the laws of God, sovereign of the universe, make Islamic religious scholars, through the process of fiqh, pervasively gatekeepers of righteousness. Whether mainstream Islam can shed the patriarchal misogyny, the queer- and Jew-hatred, the disdain for the religious “other”, the social imperialism which is so built into its traditional structure is precisely what so many people are currently killing, and being killed, over.

Christianity is grand morality via love God, but everyday-morality-on-steroids in its love thy neighbour as thy self. Hence the development of asterisk Christianity: love thy neighbour as thyself except *(Jews, queers, heretics, … )–add in excluded group as required, as has been perennially done by Christian gatekeepers of righteousness selling believer-virtue.

Normative overkill

The profound difference between everyday morality and righteousness is why adding more morality can be the opposite of a solution to social ills: the greatest crimes in the modern age have been from an excess of moral fervour, not the lack of it. It is far from silly to write of, for example, The Nazi Conscience. The Armenian genocide, the Greek-Pontic and Assyrian genocides were all built on Islamic teachings turning religious difference into a profound normative distinction. While the democides of Leninism were perpetuated by self-identified Left regimes who engaged in mass murdering tyranny in the name of a world-historically grand normative framing. They mass murdered, oppressed and tyrannised not because of a lack of moral purpose and commitment, but because of a grand-morality-trumping-everyday-morality excess of it. Indeed, the denial and excuse-making, the apologetics that occurred about the actions of such regimes within Left-circles in the West were precisely because of the shared commitment to a system of secular righteousness. A pattern which lives on with the memory-hole treatment of that bleak history within large sections of contemporary academe.

Morally deformed individuals dispense with the requirements of everyday morality if it is personally convenient for them to do so. But how do we systematically dispense with the constraints of everyday morality? By trumping it with grand morality. Bigotry is indeed a deforming of everyday morality, but it is invariably based on some sort of grand morality.

So, the grander the moral project, the more everyday morality is likely to be sacrificed in its name.

In the realm of grand morality, of righteousness, one can play a game of normative one-upmanship–our moral project is so much grander than yours. With all the implicit, or explicit, status claim that goes with that. Worse, by exulting righteousness as an all-trumping concern tied to moral status, an upward bidding process can be set in motion whereby each upward righteousness cycle dispenses with another layer of everyday morality. There can also be self-reinforcing networks of righteousness.

Minorities are easy targets for gatekeepers of righteousness, operating either as authority-holders or networks. Sexual and gender minorities particularly, as they are born as isolated individuals in overwhelmingly straight families and social milieus and the differences involved lend themselves so readily to normatively differentiating rules of righteousness that look general but in fact impose massively uneven burdens–effortless virtue for the straight majority, intense burdens on the queer minority. But religious minorities, particular occupations, ethnic minorities, belief minorities–they have all proved easy targets for gatekeepers of righteousness.

Normatively knowing

Being a gatekeeper of righteousness uses a certain form of human capital–education in the system normative framing used. And certain forms of social capital–setting the requirements and policing the membership of social networks.

Possessors of human capital have a long history of seeing themselves as the purveyors of virtue. They may even present (to themselves above all) as the purveyors of “sweetness and light” (capital). In fact, they are possessors of we-know capital, which easily becomes we-know-better-than-you capital, which easily becomes we-are-so-more-knowingly-virtuous-than-you capital. There is nothing more grand, after all, than knowing the “proper” ordering of society and the “proper” direction of history. It is particularly grand if it involves wholesale reconstruction of what currently exists.

By contrast, commerce generates no inherent tendency to care about grand morality, but operates in the realm of everyday morality. (Despite perennial claims to the contrary, market integration is actually generally a moral positive, fostering social cooperation.) Even the charity commerce finances is typically everyday morality writ somewhat larger.

Alas, commerce’s indifference is, in many ways, the worst possible insult to the proponents of self-evidently-so-important grand morality. While the dynamism of commerce threatens the inherently static nature of Virtue orders (with none being more static than income equality). Hence the millennia long disdain by “virtuous” intellectuals for “grubby” commerce.

Grounding purpose

But it is not only a delusion that adding morality is automatically a social positive, though a very useful delusion for status-building and seizing social power. There is a more basic problem–norms may have to operate as ends-in-themselves but they are not as fundamental as they present.

The point of the normative sense is to permit social cooperation in an expanded social order. Morality is not the most important thing in the world: having something to be moral about is more important.

Yes, morality is necessary to have a social order of any size or complexity—but everyday morality (don’t kill, steal, assault, etc). Grand morality (or righteousness) is often about over-riding everyday morality. In claiming to fulfil the “true” normative purpose, it often damages, limits or abolishes normative protections. In its trumping of ends, it corrupts means.

The core of morality is not about purposes, not even grand purposes, but about constraining the means we use to achieve whatever purposes we have. For our ends may never be achieved but the means we choose affect others very directly. Hence the problem with grand morality—it uses its trumping grand purpose to justifying brushing aside normative constraints: it subverts the core of morality in the name of morality.  As C S Lewis noted:

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

No, adding more morality is not an automatic social gain. Indeed, it can be very much a matter of grave harm and profound social loss.

 

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Against Austrian business cycle theory

By Lorenzo

Former Austrian school economist Bryan Caplan recently won a bet against Austrian school economist Bob Murphy on the path of US inflation. Caplan won by betting with the key market indicator (TIPS), Murphy lost by betting against it.

At first glance, that the ex-Austrian won by following the market while the Austrian lost by not doing so might seem strange, but it instances why I am deeply unpersuaded by Austrian Business Cycle theory–that it is an analysis from a tradition that very strongly favours taking markets seriously (particularly their information revealing qualities) yet strikingly stops doing so to get a congenial theoretical outcome.

Austrian Business Cycle Theory (ABCT) is a theory of the unsustainable boom. It notes that capital is highly varied (or, economist say, is heterogeneous)–in particular, has a range of durations until completion. Interest rates coordinate current expenditure versus future income expectations.

If the central bank, in order to foster economic expansion, sets the key interest rate “too low”–that is, below the level that will create a stable level of successful capital projects–then entrepreneurs are led to over-invest in projects because capital is cheaper than its actual long-term prospects justify. So, there is misallocation of capital–the profile of created capital does not fit actual expenditure patterns. This is what Austrian theory calls malinvestment. The result is a surge in failed business projects, consequently of failed or distressed firms, leading to income and expenditure cuts, leading to that transactions crash we call “recession” or, if sufficiently severe, depression.

My objections to the theory are twofold: it doesn’t fit the evidence and it is implausible even in theory.

Not fitting the evidence

The theory suggests that the long-term economic pattern should be one of a surge in economic output above trend (the unsustainable boom) and then a crash below it. This is not the pattern we see: on the contrary, what we see conforms much more to Milton Friedman‘s “plucking model” (pdf)–that is, there is a long term growth trend that recessions and depressions “pluck” the economy away from (pdf). A pattern which suggests the economy is pushed (temporarily) off its growth path by various shocks. Despite attempts to claim otherwise, I am unpersuaded that ABCT can be re-construed to fit the evidence.

Particularly as the theory also suggests that the crash should be correlated with the preceding boom–the further the capital overshoot, the worse the resulting crash. Again, this is not what we see (pdf). Recessions and depressions are not correlated with the preceding expansions, but are correlated with the subsequent expansions (pdf).  A result which led Friedman to propose his “plucking model”. Again, this conforms far better with the economy being shocked off its growth path before returning to it.

Given that industries systematically vary by both the scale and duration of their capital creation, the theory also implies that the crash should hit in sequence and to varying degrees–the shortest capital duration industries hit first, the longest capital duration industries hit later; the lower scale capital industries hit least, the bigger scale capital industries hit most. These factors are, to a significant extent, contra-indicated–i.e. short duration capital projects also tend to be low scale capital industries while long duration capital projects tend to be high scale capital industries.

Even so, there should a capital-profile sequence to industry downturns. Again, this is not what we see: transaction crashes tend to hit all industries simultaneously. Such transaction crashes are most plausible assigned to the demand side (i.e. monetary factors) as, in a monetised economy, money is the thing which is one half of all transactions in all industries. Even when there are supply shocks, (1) monetary policy can counter-balance the effects and (2) such shocks are generally a specific shock to the economy, not rolling capital project failures.

One might counter by arguing that particular projects are engaged in a rolling fashion. But that reduces the industry sequencing issue at the cost of undermining the systematic distortion effect.

The theory also assumes that central banks are biased in one direction only–in an inflationary one. Yet the historical record shows that, while there is certainly a general inflationary trend for fiat money, there was no such trend by central banks under gold standards. And ABCT was originally devised in a gold standard world. Attempts to redefine “inflation” to mean “monetary/credit expansion” simply beg the question–an alleged cause being conflated into the presumed effect.

Moreover, the historical record also shows that, in the right circumstances, central banks can be biased in a contractionary direction. This was most dramatically true in 1928-32 but also true from 2008 onwards: on both occasions, the contractionary bias was because central banks prioritised policy credibility (commitment to the gold standard; commitment to low inflation) over economic activity. In doing so, contractionary central banks created the most severe economic downturns of the C20th[last 100 years]. A business cycle theory that is so dramatically wrong about the two worst economic downturns of the C20th[last 100 years]–central bank policy in the opposite direction as predicted and economies consequently being shocked off their growth path–is not much of a business cycle theory.

Implausible in theory

So, there are severe evidentiary problems with the theory as any sort of general business cycle explanation. Even saying “but it is just a theory of the unsustainable boom” suffers from the lack of instances it accurately describes.

There are also some serious theoretical problem with the theory. The first is, ironically, not taking heterogeneity of capital seriously enough. Heterogeneity of labour and of capital leads to heterogeneity of debt and debt/equity profiles. How can there be a key singlenatural or otherwise, rate which can distort the entire structure of investment?  Including across its varying time frames, across which interest rates also vary.

What we are looking at is a schedule of interest rates varying by time and asset. It can be argued that the central bank policy rate (the interest rate used to signal policy) effectively anchors the entire schedule, as the central bank is the monopoly supplier of the monetary base. Its policy rate is really an indicator about the future path of monetary policy, and an indicator which is a function of it being said monopoly supplier and its policy credibility. But an indicator which has far more direct effects on nominal interest rates rather than real interest rates.

But to put so much emphasis on interest rates in investment decisions looks perilously like reasoning from a price change. The central bank has signalled, by cutting its policy interest rate, a more expansive path in monetary policy. But that is, for the economy, a general tendency: entrepreneurs still have to make assessments about particular assets and particular production decisions. As the localised nature of the housing market booms and busts in the US have demonstrated, housing markets experiencing the very same monetary policy can have very different dynamics.

The claim that entrepreneurs will be sufficiently homogeneous in their responses, across very heterogeneous asset and production markets, to create the bust looks suspiciously like only embracing complexity when it is convenient. (Noting that to claim more decisions to invest will be made is not the same as claiming that the structure of production will be distorted.)

More seriously, the claim runs into an information problem–as others have noted, Austrian theory apparently has access to information than none of the market participants do. The central bank knows enough to inflate the economy but none of the market participants have the knowledge to work out what the central bank is doing and the consequences thereof. There is a serious consistent expectations (i.e. rational expectations, but consistent expectations is a more accurate term) problem here.

In his (losing) bet with Bryan Caplan, Bob Murphy was being very “Austrian” in assuming his theory gave him information hidden from market participants–Austrian theory really, really believing in markets until it suddenly really, really doesn’t. Bryan Caplan was being much more consistent (dare one say rationally consistent) in his expectations by going with the market indicator.

What is more plausible–that there is enormously-important-for-future-income information lying around being ignored by everyone except by clever Austrian school folk or that economies are shocked off their growth path: an economic shock being an unanticipated change?

Austrian school, meet the Australian economy

These theoretical and empirical problems come together in the record expansion of the Australian economy since 1991. That is, Australia has not had an economic recession (in the sense of two quarters of [negative] economic growth) since 1991. It still has a business cycle, just a very flat one.

What is more plausible–that the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) got its policy interest rate essentially correct for 23 years straight, so that Australian entrepreneurs got their capital projects (on balance) continually right? Or that the RBA sufficiently anchored inflation and income expectations that the Australian economy has not been shocked enough off its growth path since RBA introduced its policy of aiming for a 2-3%pa inflation rate on average over the business cycle ?

Surely, the second option is much more plausible.

So, I do not agree with the Austrian School business cycle theory. In particular, I am very unsurprised that an Austrian economist lost by betting against the key market indicator. The Austrian Business Cycle theory presumes special knowledge against market agents and the indicators they generate: a presumption which is not a strength. Still less a reason to accept the theory.

 

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Most Muslims are non-violent

By Lorenzo

It is true: most Muslims are non-violent (in the straightforward sense that, outside defence of themselves and their immediate family, they do not engage in violence). In fact, as far as I am aware, that has true across the history of Islam, especially as Muslims includes women and children. But even if we just consider men, most Muslim men are non-violent. Again, as far as I am aware, that has also been true across the history of Islam (apart from its earliest years).

It is also irrelevant. Sadly, across the breadth of human societies through time, it is the violent who have been wildly disproportionately important in determining the trends and patterns of human history. So, with Islamic history, the key issues have far less to do with what connection it has to the non-violent majority, but what sort of connection it has to the direction, forms and patterns of violence (and violence-laden aggression) among any violent minority.

There the news is less good. We can observe among the Muslim minority (pdf) in France–including those born and raised in France, and given a secular state education–the same patterns of persecution of minority kafir as we do in Muslim majority countries.

Recurring patterns

What is striking about Islamic history is how powerful the recurring patterns are. While we currently observe violent movements claiming to purify Islam and return it to its original vision, such started not long after the death of Mohammad, with the Khwarij, and continued in medieval Islam, with the Almoravids and Almohads being perhaps the most notable examples.

In modern times, the Mahdiyya movement in Sudan, the Wahhabis of Arabia, the Deobandi of South Asia and the Salafist movements are all examples of this reformist (in the sense of returning to the origin and getting rid of later accretions) urge in Islam.  So is the Islamist movement, though it has a modernising element in its operational techniques while overlapping greatly with the aforementioned movements. Though Salafism in particular has a strong quietist stream, violent revivalism has been a notable feature of these movements.

Proselytising violence by non-state actors also has a long history in Islam, though the successful examples usually turn themselves into states. The Assassins are a colourful example of the non-state version, while the Almoravids, Almohads, Safavids, Mahdists and Wahhabis are examples of non-state actors founding states. Thus both Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have plenty of precedents in Islamic history. That Sharia is not state-based law, but is the law of Allah, the sovereign of the universe, aids and encourages the operation of non-state actors while providing the means for relatively easy evolution into states.

Modernisers and traditionalists

Just as the reformist urge is a recurring pattern within Islam, so is the modernising urge–seeking to incorporate within Islam useful thinking by non-Muslims. Again, this was an early manifestation in Islam, notably with the Mu’tazila movement.

The pattern so far in Islamic history is clear–the modernisers lose. Accepting the technology of the infidel is acceptable (with some resistance: the Ottoman Empire‘s reaction to the printing press was to ban it for believers and then license a single printing press during the C18th), but not much more than that. Seriously new thinking in Islam has tended to either give rise to minorities regarded as dubiously Muslim by the majority (e.g. IsmailisAhmadisAlawitesAlevis) or to movement out of Islam (DruzeBahai).

Which leaves traditional Islam as the dominant stream–the Islam inherited from one generation to another, taking on local accretions on the way through. A stream that nevertheless produces reformist and modernising outbreaks.

Migration to the West tends to disrupt traditional Islam by taking it out of its traditional cultural context and constraints, leaving members of Muslim communities open to the reformist or modernising urges. Unfortunately, the reformist urge has billions of Saudi petrodollars behind it. It also has the appeal of the heroic sacrifice of jihadism–to which the Islamic State has managed to add psychopathic sex-tourism (pdf).

Built for imperialism

That the adherents of traditional Islam are relatively passive and non-violent is far from meaning that mainstream Islam is unproblematic.

Generally speaking, imperialism is what states do. States are mechanisms for dominance and expropriation and tend to expand that dominance and expropriation up to when some constraint sets in (either a rival state or the benefit/cost ratio is not worth it). Latin-Christendom-cum-Western civilisation became so successfully imperialist because it evolved extremely effective states. So much more effective than anyone else’s states that they came to dominate most of the planet.

Conquests under Mohammad, the early Caliphs and the Umayyad Caliphs.

Of the existing human civilisations, only one is actually structured for imperialism, and that is Islam, and it was so structured from its calendrical origins, Mohammad’s flight to (and then taking control of) Medina. It is not some weird accident, some historical absent-mindedness, that Muhammad’s companions, and the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates that followed them, presided over the largest surge in religious conquest in history. Nor was it some weird accident that, over a thousand years after the Mohammad’s death, the largest Muslim state was still trying to advance into the heart of Europe using religious justifications and structures that had been used, in various forms, to aggress against every culture Islam came up against during those thousand years.

From 634 to 1683, the level and scale of Muslim aggression against Christendom hugely outweighed the reverse. Christian offensive efforts were counter-aggression, attempts to regain lands previously lost to Islam; the ultimately failed Crusades–or, as Muslim writers called them, the Franj wars–and the successful Reconquista.

Muslim aggression against Zoroastrian, Buddhist and Brahmin lands also hugely outweighed the reverse. Nor did Islam stop aggressing because of some change in basic ideas: it came up against the better predators the European targets of its aggression had evolved into while itself failing to adapt successfully to the increasing competition.

The features which structured Islam to aggression are:

  1. The concept of Sharia as the law of the Sovereign of the universe, to which everyone is rightfully subject to and to whose rule everyone should rightfully submit to.
  2. The centrality of the acceptance of the revelations of Mohammad to one’s moral status: in particular, that those who accept said revelations should rightfully rule those who do not, could rightfully fight to impose such rule and, in the interim, raid and enslave non-believers in lands that had not yet accepted Sharia rule. Hence the classic Islamic concept of martyrdom was do die in battle against unbelievers.
  3. The endorsement of both polygyny (creating a wife shortage among low status male believers) and sex slavery (sanctifying the normal response to [pdf] polygyny–raiding of outgroups and seizing their women).

In other words, Islam created an encompassing moral-and-religious identity that could unite people across lineages (and later, after the Abbasid Revolution, ethnic groups) while sanctifying and motivating violence, particularly proselytising violence, against those outside the identity, or its rule. The separateness of this identity can be readily extended to admonitions that believers should not be friends with non-believers and strong resistance to taking the side of a non-believer against a believer.

Zealots past and present

It is worth noting that Muslim clerics have few incentives to soften the package. They have interests in having the moral and social authority of being gatekeepers of righteousness. Restricting the moral realm to revelation that they have the knowledge of, and skill in interpreting, and emphasising the difference between believers and non-believers, increases the salience of their role as gatekeepers of righteousness.

We have been here before. The Hebrews were very unrestful subjects for the Roman Empire. Violent minorities therefrom would be periodically homicidally enraged that following God’s law was subject to the constraints imposed by mere human law. Particularly the law of the pagan Romans, who tolerated all sorts of gender and sexual identities. The sicarii sub-group stabbed Romans and Roman sympathisers. Much of the violence of the said homicidally enraged fell on fellow Hebrews.

What we now think of as Judaism is essentially the rabbinical, the religious scholars’, response to the dilemma of Roman rule–the dilemma being that they could not successfully revolt but, if they did not find a way of adjusting the deemed authority of God’s law, the Romans were going to destroy them as a people. The Roman response to revolt being severe–massacres, enslavings, deportations, salutary crucifixions.

The rabbis were building on the experience of living in Mesopotamia, and in Alexandria (their largest urban community), as minorities in foreign lands. On the way through, they caveated into oblivion the Mosaic Law’s penchant for capital punishment.

But the effect was to squeeze out–via external Roman slaughter and internal doctrinal adjustment–the homicidal opposition to human law (even non-believer human law) trumping God’s law.

The same underlying dynamic of permanent minority status drives much of the difference between mainstream Islam and the various Muslim minorities–the latter have adjusted to permanent minority status and its implications. Conversely, the mainstream have had few reasons to make similar adjustments which are sufficiently persuasive across the entire body of scholars. Considering what it took to squeeze out the violent tendency in Hebrew religious conceptions, the prospects for an end to religious violence emanating from within Islam are not good. Especially not when organised and violent religious fervour can demonstrably create (Saudi Arabia, Islamic State) or seize (Islamic Republic of Iran) states.

Christianity has its own history of religious strife. But Christianity always accepted the validity of human law, did not take revelation to be the entire moral realm, generally accepted the world as the direction creation of God so trumping Scripture (the indirect creation of God). This allowed social bargaining to become entrenched in political institutions. Reaction against the slaughter and destruction of the religious wars could also lever off appeals to classical ideas, the impact of the Scientific Revolution and the expanded horizons of the Age of Discovery to make religious identity increasingly less salient, and other aspects of identity more so.

It was only the overwhelming success of the West which allowed broad notions of social bargaining to get anywhere in Islam (though Western imperial interests also intervened to periodically sabotage or undermine the same). But even with wide acceptance of the value of democracy by Muslims, Middle Eastern Islam in particular has great difficulties taking a broad view of who to bargain with. The continuing pattern being that, if one’s ethno-religious group does not control the state, then you are oppressed.

It just does not get us very far

The point is not that any given person of Muslim heritage endorses this whole package, or even that most do. The logic of belief is not necessarily the logic of any given believer.

The point is that Islamic identity is not one without content. Nor is it one with only congenial content. And the outlooks and ideas deeply embedded in Islam perennially motivate separation between believers and non-believers and aggression against non-believers. The contemporary foreign fighters people angst about are just ghazis with aeroplane tickets, and Islam has been producing ghazis regularly for its entire history.

So yes, most Muslims are non-violent. That is true, and beside the point.

What is much more to the point is that the experience of European countries, such as France (pdf), shows that the problematic patterns within Islam kick in at remarkably low proportions of the population–more than 2%, less than 10%. In that range, the combination of problematic ideas deeply embedded in Islam, plus the development of a motivated minority of sufficient size, generates problems for the host society folk would prefer not to have to deal with. Particularly for such vulnerable minorities as Jews and queer* folk. Islamic supremacism is deeply embedded.

There are problems which are simply specific to Muslim migration because Islam really is a distinctive civilisation, with distinctive presumptions and patterns.

So, it is not inherently irrational or prejudiced to be concerned about the level and scale of Muslim migration. Such concerns can be well-grounded in the content, history and contemporary experience of Islam.

 

* I really dislike the inelegance and elasticity of the GLBTI acronym, hence using queer.

 

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Moral sensibility and modernity

By Lorenzo

Religions have rituals and doctrines: mechanisms of participation and belief. They also engender moral sensibilities that provide ways of normatively framing the world regarding people, places, social arrangements. Most Swedes, for example, are not believing or actively participating Lutherans, yet centuries of Lutheranism being the overwhelmingly dominant flavour of religion has deeply influenced Swedish moral sensibility.

When folk try and divide human societies into civilisations, it is typically done so at least partly on the basis of religion (Islam, Buddhist, Hindu, Orthodox) or some other normative philosophy (Confucianism) or combination of such and geography (Latin American) or has such religion-derived sensibilities lying behind it (Shinto-Buddhist for Japan, Judaeo-Christian for the West).

The most famous recent example of this is the taxonomy of civilisations used by political scientist Samuel Huntingdon in his “Clash of Civilisations” thesis. As I have explained before, I do not agree with Huntingdon’s overall analysis–in the international state system, cooperation and conflict are not symmetrical. But that religions generate moral sensibilities that can outlast adherence to their specific doctrines and rituals is clearly true. As is that shared religious histories can generated shared (or at least convergent) moral sensibilities.

Religions can also affect people’s attitude to time, or temporal orientation: whether people tend to be future-focused or present-focused or past-focused. Being future-focused, for example, tends to make people both more reliable, and more willing, cooperators. Protestants, and those who have Protestant-derived moral sensibilities, tend to be future-focused, for example, while Catholic-derived moral sensibilities tend to be past or present-focused; hence Protestant-majority countries tend to have lower risk premiums on their public debt than Catholic-majority countries. These differences in moral sensibilities and typical temporal orientation extend to historically Protestant countries tending to have lower rates of corruption and higher rates of trust than Catholic ones.

So, religions do not only matter as generators of rituals and doctrines, they also matter in the way they deeply influence moral sensibilities, attitudes to time, ways of looking at the world; and do so even without regular attendance to the rituals or strong adherence to doctrines. The sensibilities, temporal orientations and other framings can remain after belief and participation has departed. Anglo-Indian economist Deepak Lal makes a useful distinction:

It is useful to distinguish between two major sorts of beliefs relating to different aspects of the environment. These relate to what in my recent Ohlin lectures I labeled the material and cosmological beliefs of a particular culture. The former relate to ways of making a living and concerns beliefs about the material world, in particular about the economy. The latter are related to understanding the world around us and mankind’s place in it which determine how people view their lives-its purpose, meaning and relationship to others. There is considerable cross-cultural evidence that material beliefs are more malleable than cosmological ones. Material beliefs can alter rapidly with changes in the material environment. There is greater hysterisis in cosmological beliefs, on how, in Plato’s words, “one should live”. Moreover the cross-cultural evidence shows that rather than the environment it is the language group which influences these world-views.

What Lal calls cosmological beliefs are both persistent and derived from religion or other, deeply historically embedded, normative philosophy. Hence, for example, the World Values Survey can be used to usefully group countries.

Islam’s modernity temper tantrum

Of the existing civilisations sharing this planet, only one is prominently having an extended temper tantrum about modernity; an extended temper tantrum with a distinctly homicidal edge.

The West essentially invented modernity, Japan has long since embraced it; China et al are very much up for it (the Beijing regime would just like to indigenise a congenial-to-it version); Russia et al ditto; Latin America is trying to get there (despite an unfortunate institutional legacy and outbreaks of really bad policy ideas); sub-Saharan Africa is struggling under bad boundaries and poor institutions but is also trying.

It is only Islam that is producing significant murderous insurgencies against modernity (and especially against the egalitarian cosmopolitanism which is such a strong strain within modernity–there is nothing like attacking schoolsuniversities, cafessoccer matchesrock concerts, along with beheadingscrucifixions and killing bloggers while re-introducing slavery to say “we hate modernity”).

Which makes the jihadis the Islamic equivalent of the Nazis–a modernising (in technique) revolt against modernity that hates Jews, fetishises warriors and violence, invokes a past age of warrior conquest–as I have discussed before. (Indeed, all the totalitarianisms are somewhat atavistic.) Though the jihadis are adherents of a master belief rather than members of a would-be master race.

But Nazism was let loose by the disaster of the Great War followed by the Great Depression. In the case of Islam, it is modernity itself which is the problem; no great crisis was required to let loose the revolt-with-strong-homicidal edge against it from within Islam.

Salafism, the attempt to return to the origins of Islam by “purifying it” of subsequent accretions, is in large part a revolt against modernity by retreating further into Islam. Deobandi is the South Asian equivalent and dates back to the later C19th: Salafism outside Saudi Arabia arose in the C20th. Though the intellectual roots of both go deep into Islamic tradition and the response to the demographic and cultural disaster of the Mongol invasions, which itself reprised Mohammad’s response to the Muslim defeat at the battle of Uhud.

One needs to be aware the Salafism comes in various flavours (quietist, activist, jihadi) which overlap with Saudi Wahhabism but are not identical (pdf). Moreover, its “quietist” tradition is quite hostile (pdf) to Islamism (especially its takfiri tendencies) and its prioritisation of political engagement. While Islamism–political Islam–has Salafist versions. Islamism also comes out of the later C19th but does not reach much in the way of organised form until the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. This confusing welter of responses is itself a sign of the difficulties modernity poses for Islam as religion and as a source of normative framings.

Comparing revivalisms

Christianity also has a revivalist movement seeking to return to the origins of the religion. That is Pentecostalism which, in terms of gaining adherents, is notably more successful than Salafism. Salafism likely has around 50m adherents, and there are over 70m Deobandis, while Pentecostalism has around 270m adherents. Add in Charismatics, and Christian revivalism, attempting to re-enchant the world, has over 580m adherents.

A reasonable estimate for Islamists is about 10-15% of Muslims. There are about 1.6bn Muslims, so that suggests 160m to 240m Islamists (most of whom are Salafis, Wahhabis or Deobandis). Thus, Christian revivalist movements have considerably more adherents than Muslim revivalist movements (revivalism whether as purification or as political activism). But the Christian revivalism goes largely unremarked and un-newsworthy because Christian revivalism does not have remotely the homicidal edge Islamic revivalism does. For what one is attempting to return to, makes a difference.

The ongoing Christian revivalism has not generated any equivalent to the specifically religious political engagement of Islamism or the homicidal activism of the jihadis, both because early Christianity is very different from early Islam and because the moral sensibilities that Islam generates are very different from the moral sensibilities derived from Christianity; differences that go back to doctrine.

Christianity as it has evolved, that is. Evolution being something which is easier for Christianity to do than Islam; for, as a friend noted in conversation:

Islam has a complete, literal and authoritative source to bootstrap the original religion from. [Christianity and Judaism] don’t.

Quite. The Gospels don’t give anywhere the detailed rules and doctrines that the Quranhadith and life of the Prophet do. There is no Christian equivalent of Sharia.

Not merely because Christianity accepts the legitimacy of human law–even canon law is acknowledged to be law-making by human authority, albeit one seeking guidance from revelation–though that is a huge difference in itself. But because the defeat of Aristotelianism within Islam, with the triumph of al-Ghazali and the intellectual tradition he represented, meant rejection within mainstream Islam of the notion that there was any grounding for moral judgement apart from revelation.

This rejection continues to have force. It led Islamic states to issue their own version of the UN 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1990 Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam–not something states from any other civilisation have felt the need to do. A declaration with, as Wikipedia puts it:

provides an overview on the Islamic perspective on human rights, and affirms Islamic sharia as its sole source.

Because there is no grounding for moral judgement beyond revelation. Which creates serious difficulties if one wants to “update” Islam, for there is no widely accepted place to rest the lever to “move” the religion and civilisation other than revelation. A problem that Christianity has not had to grapple with. Thus, when Pope Paul III, in his 1537 papal bull Sublimus Dei, banned the enslaving of the inhabitants of the Americas, he was grounding the claim as much in natural law thinking as in Scripture (indeed, arguably more). Two centuries later, the Enlightenment attempt to put religious authority in a box could argue on grounds outside revelation, and look to pre-Christian (classical) thought, and not have the entire effort ruled as automatically illegitimate.

When considering how to treat non-believers, Islam presents its followers with the following words of Muhammad:

When you meet your enemies who are polytheists, invite them to three courses of action. If they respond to any one of these, you also accept it and withold yourself from doing them any harm. Invite them to (accept) Islam; if they respond to you, accept it from them and desist from fighting against them. Then invite them to migrate from their lands to the land of Muhairs and inform them that, if they do so, they shall have all the privileges and obligations of the Muhajirs. If they refuse to migrate, tell them that they will have the status of Bedouin Muslims and will be subjected to the Commands of Allah like other Muslims, but they will not get any share from the spoils of war or Fai’ except when they actually fight with the Muslims (against the disbelievers). If they refuse to accept Islam, demand from them the Jizya. If they agree to pay, accept it from them and hold off your hands. If they refuse to pay the tax, seek Allah’s help and fight them (Sahih Muslim  4924).

Christians are people of the book, but are often taken to be polytheists because of the Trinity. The contrast with Sublimus Dei is profound. Especially on the matter of slavery, taking first the words of Allah in the QuranSura 4:24:

And [also prohibited to you are all] married women except those your right hands possess. [This is] the decree of Allah upon you. And lawful to you are [all others] beyond these, [provided] that you seek them [in marriage] with [gifts from] your property, desiring chastity, not unlawful sexual intercourse. So for whatever you enjoy [of marriage] from them, give them their due compensation as an obligation. And there is no blame upon you for what you mutually agree to beyond the obligation. Indeed, Allah is ever Knowing and Wise.

The phrase “what your right hand possess” is about what the sword hand takes. There is explanatory hadith (i.e. words of Muhammad) clarifying the point:

Having overcome them and taken them captives, the Companions of Allah’s Messenger (may peace te upon him) seemed to refrain from having intercourse with captive women because of their husbands being polytheists. Then Allah, Most High, sent down regarding that:” And women already married, except those whom your right hands possess (iv. 24)” (i. e. they were lawful for them when their ‘Idda period came to an end) (Sahih Muslim 3432).

It is particularly ridiculous for non-believers to go on about Islam as a “religion of peace” because because, to the extent it has any meaning in orthodox Islamic usage, it only applied to those who had accepted Sharia rule: Islam is “the religion of peace” for territory where Islam, (specifically) Sharia, rules–including the subordinating restrictions of the Conditions of Umar for non-Muslim “people of the Book”.

Sharia is the law of Allah, the sovereign of the universe, sought by the process of fiqh undertaken by considering the Quran, the hadiths and the life of the Prophet, plus attention to other scholars’ grappling with the same. Which means the moral and social judgements of Islam are grounded in the notion that the peak of human understanding of social order was reached in C7th Arabia: a society of slavery, raiding and conquest. Again, there is no equivalent in Christianity: while the Gospels may represent the peak of moral behaviour, no Christian is going to think that the C1st Roman Empire reached the peak of social understanding, as the most significant-in-Christian-terms it did was to crucify Christ. These differences go “all the way down”, as Christianity is a religion of individual salvation, whereas is Islam about building a righteous community, correct participation in which is the path to Paradise.

All of which also means that the further modernity moves away from C7th Arabia (in every dimension, social and technological) the greater the tension with Islam-derived moral sensibilities and framings. Hence modernity creates a deep problem for Islam in a way that has no equivalent for any other civilisation. Hence the temper tantrum with serious homicidal edge that Islam is having with modernity.

Made worse by the fact that many folk of Muslim heritage have no particular problem with many aspects of modernity: it is no accident that most of the victims of the jihadis have been fellow Muslims–they are both the closest targets and those whose compromising “treachery” from their obligations to follow the laws of Allah (as defined by the jihadis: which is very much contested within Islam) is most egregious.

Zealots rather than radicals

There is also a problem with the language of “radicalisation”, as the jihadis have very little in common with the radicals of any Western tradition. They are far more like the religious “enthusiasts” of the C16th and C17th that C18th Enlightenment folk so strongly reacted against. They have even more in common with the original Jewish Zealots: true believers homicidally enraged that human law is permitted to trump God’s law and whose murderous ire falls particularly intensely on “wickedly compromising” fellow believers. As Australian political scientist David Martin Jones puts it:

Rather than being radicalised, young Western Muslims are attracted to what a more religious age than our own recognised as enthusiasm, zealotry or fanaticism.

… any analysis of jihadism’s self-confirming zealotry suggests that those labelled “radicalised” are not really radicals at all. Ideological radicalism, properly understood, requires a clear break from traditional religion, of whatever form, in order to achieve a pluralist, secular modernity.

By contrast, a scriptural literalism based on the message of the Prophet Mohammad and the hadith of his rightly guided seventh-century successors, the Rashidun, fuels Islamic State’s thought and practice. They look to past models purified by purificatory violence today to build tomorrow’s religious utopia. … Today’s jihadi is an enthusiast as defined by the Oxford Shorter English Dictionary, namely, one who is “possessed by a god” or in “receipt of divine communication”. No matter how deluded their actions appear to modern secular sensibilities, in their minds they are directly engaged in a divine mission to re-create the caliphate.

The revelation gap

The jihadis are the most dramatic manifestation of the tension between Islam and modernity, yet they are far from the only manifestation thereof. The grounding of morality so thoroughly in revelation creates a profound gulf between believers and non-believers; between those who accept the revelations which are the only true grounding of moral judgement and those who do not. This is the basis of an Islamic supremacism or triumphalism that has seeped into the moral sensibilities of Muslims over the centuries. It is why, for example, there is so much persecution of religious minorities across the Muslim world; persecution which follows recurring patterns.

Attitudes that do not magically disappear simply by migrating to the West. Particularly when migration to the West cuts people off from the various evolved mechanisms for softening the harsher elements of Islam. One woman of Muslim heritage, doctor Suraiya Simi Rahman, expresses that quite vividly:

What in the world were we doing? We were training our children to kowtow without questioning an authority that we believed would keep them safe from evil western ways. And so the community’s children went to Sunday school, wore hijab, prayed and fasted. They were enveloped in a Muslim identity that was unlike any that I had experienced before.

I was raised in a Muslim country in the Middle East and religion was something we kept in its place, somewhere after school, soccer and cartoons. Here was a more distilled, pure and, most dangerously, a context-free Islam. There were no grandmothers here to sagely tell us which parts of the Quran to turn a blind eye to. There were no older cousins here who skipped Friday prayers and goofed off with their friends instead. Oh no. This was Islam simmered in a sauce of Midwestern sincerity, and boiled down to its dark, concentrated core. This was dangerous.

This centring of all moral judgement in revelation, reducing the role of reason to supporting revelation, creates huge dilemmas. Suraiya Simi Rahman experienced that also:

I attended ISNA [Islamic Society of North America] gatherings, met with educated, professional people like myself who were also asking the same questions. They were looking to their faith for answers. And sure, there were efforts made to modernize Islam, but they were only superficial. We couldn’t do it. We couldn’t do it because there is a logical dilemma at the core of Islam. And that is, that the Quran is the last word of God, that it is perfect and unchangeable. And to even suggest such a thing is blasphemy and apostasy.

And so, to understand the moderate mind, you have to envision it on a continuum from radical to middle, but the closer you get to liberal, there is a wall. It creeps up on you, in the condemnation of homosexuality, in the unequal treatment and subjugation of women, but it’s there. Beyond that wall that they are afraid to look over, for fear of eternal hell fire and damnation, is where the answer lies though. So being a Muslim moderate these days is like running a race with a ball and chain attached to your feet. A handicap. Unless you can imagine what the world beyond that wall looks like, you can’t really navigate it. If you’re so terrified of blasphemy that you refuse to look over, you’re forever stuck. Right here. And behind you is the jihadi horde, laying claim to real Islam, practicing it to perfection, as it is laid out in the Quran. A veritable rock and a hard place.

The combination of Sharia as a civilisational legal system that does not need a state to enforce it, yet claims trumping authority over any mere human law, along with deeply embedded attitudes of Islamic supremacism, generate potential enclave problems which have no parallel for any other migrant group. Hence reports from current and former UK police officers about Islamified areas where police operations are significantly inhibited; areas which have parallels in FranceSweden and Belgium.

The US and Australia are unlikely to experience similar problems because their Muslim minorities are less than 2% of the population: at that level, it is rational for Muslim communities to cooperate with local security forces. There are still the problem of “lone wolf” attacks, as there is significant jihadi social media activity aimed as recruiting and grooming such. But, as the US in particular already has a home-grown mass shooter problem, that is a comparatively minor law-and-order issue.

Once Muslim minorities start heading towards 10% of the population, then enclave problems are much more likely to develop and cooperation with security forces is likely to be much patchier and resistance to the agents of the state is likely to develop. Accepting a Muslim minority of that sort of size is also, effectively, a decision to export one’s Jews.

Significant Muslim migration is also somewhat distressing for Middle Eastern Christian migrants, who came to the West to escape Muslim persecution and find their persecutors following them; in the case of the current refugees waves into Europe, quite literally, as there has seen a series of anti-Christian incidents by Muslim refugees, including two cases of mass drownings at sea. (There has also been a series of comments by folk from religious minorities of now Muslim majority countries of the “you will be sorry” variety.) Muslim (male) migrants are also the only migrants with any tendency to become less integrated in their host society over time.

The notion that there are no issues specific to Muslim migration is nonsense on stilts. Of course there are: it is very different, religiously-defined civilisation with very different presumptions and framings. Yelling “racism” does not change that, although it does close down debate: so is precisely the sort of shouting polarising that is not in any way helpful.

No, it is not merely a matter of Islamic doctrine, though that has plenty of problematic aspects. It is also the effects of centuries (indeed, over a millennium) of Islamic doctrine, ritual and teaching on the moral sensibilities and framings, the cosmological outlook, of Muslims, of people of Muslim heritage: the notion that their religious identity is at once terribly important to people of Muslim heritage yet has no problematic content is nonsense–it is turning people into abstractions for moral points-scoring between Westerners.

As the experiences of Europe in its various difficulties with Muslim migrants and migrant communities demonstrate, you cannot just wish that heritage away and shouting at people because you don’t wish it to be so may be satisfyingly childish but does not change anything except to make the development of intelligent, well-grounded responses that much harder and leave far more ground for political entrepreneurs to garner support from frustrated, concerned and angry voters left with nowhere else to go.

 

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

So, you want to reduce inequality … (some modest, and some practical, proposals)

By Lorenzo

Concern over rising inequality has certainly been a significant feature of recent intellectual and political discourse, particularly in the US (for example here). Let us suppose we were serious about reducing inequality, what would we do?

One thing you would not do is significantly raise top income tax rates, that would not have much effect at all. Besides, at a certain point, one runs into significant Laffer Curve effects, which is why income tax rates have remained much lower across the Western world than they were in the immediate postwar decades–governments don’t want to reduce their revenue by having tax rates too high.

Since folk who worry about inequality tend to be nostalgic for the low-inequality postwar era up to around 1970, we an easily identify a range of policies which will reduce income inequality.

(1) Massively cut back on higher education. Since higher education generates low income students in their 20s who tend to become high income professionals in their 40s, the higher the use of higher education, the greater is life cycle inequality. Also, since higher education is more expensive than primary or secondary education, and with very few positive social spillover effects (though we can identify some negative spillover effects), government support for higher education tends to be subsidising those with higher future incomes. Moreover, the higher the level of education, the higher the gap between male and female earnings and, the higher level of education, the more differentiated by ethnicity incomes are.

(2) Reverse female participation in the workforce. Surging female labour force participation reduces the scarcity of labour compared to capital, putting downward pressure on labour incomes. Moreover, high income men marrying high income women and low income men marrying low income women greatly increases household inequality. As econblogger Arnold Kling noted recently:

the period of the 1970s was a transition from marriage as production complementarity (I’ll bring home the bacon, you fry it) to consumption complementarity (let’s make sure that our leisure interests coincide). This form of marriage turns out to be much more class-selective.

Putting women back in the home would reduce household income inequality significantly while the increased general labour scarcity premium would make it easier to support families on a single income.

(3) Massively cut back on immigration except for those with high levels of compatible human and social capital. As Sweden is finding, immigration can be a great generator of income inequality. Importing low skill migrants reduces the return to labour, especially amongst low skill residents (pdf), and, as increasing the median return to labour is central to reducing income inequality, any immigration that decreases labour scarcity will tend to increase income inequality.

(4) Abolish residential zoning. Housing capital is a major source of wealth, and residential zoning increases the scarcity of land available for housing, driving up housing costs. Low rents and cheap housing reduces income inequality.

(5) Eliminate occupational licensing. Occupational licensing increases labour scarcity in a very selective (and unequal) way. Indeed, a lot of regulatory approval systems have very unequal effects on income prospects.

(6) More mass conscription wars. The broader the section of the population needed to fight, the higher the incentive to engage in broad social bargaining and the easier such bargaining becomes through a sense of urgent common purpose. Of course, there has to be that sense of urgent common purpose for the effect to operate, otherwise one just gets increased internal social division, which is not good for income inequality.

Econblogger Scott Sumner has some suggestions which overlap with mine (though he is not about invoking Jonathan Swift, unlike some of my above suggestions):

My preference would be to address the inequality issue in four ways:

1. Have a lower proportion of low skilled immigrants and a higher percentage of high skilled immigrants—there are plenty in India and China who wish to come here, but also more than you might expect from Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.

2. Weaken intellectual property rights. I don’t favor eliminating them, but I’d prefer to keep them only for entirely new inventions, not improvements of existing products. Copyrights need to be made much shorter.

3. Change zoning laws to encourage more building. This will be really hard to do; indeed I think things are likely to get worse, not better.

4. Replace income taxes with progressive consumption taxes and low wage subsidies. Eliminate cigarette taxes. Legalize drugs.

All sensible and worthy proposals.

***

In reality, those most inclined to complain about income inequality would be those who would be outraged by any attempt to implement any of the above policy agenda(s). Yet their preferred agenda of increased tax-and-spend would be very unlikely to have any equivalent effect.

First, it requires even more urgent attention to economic efficiency to pay for the increased government activity (which is why the Scandinavian states tend to rate so high on economic freedom), which tends to be antipathetic to income-flattening agendas. While wholesale adoption of the full Scandinavian package in geographically and ethnically diverse societies such as the US or Australia has other problems and is not likely to have the intended effect.

Second, a tax-and-spend agenda is precisely what has driven California into becoming ever more unequal in income, as the middle are driven out by high taxes and regulatory complexity and the welfare dependant are attracted by high spending.

***

Russian-American population biologist Peter Turchin has developed a sophisticated analysis of swings in equality and inequality based on levels of cooperation and inter-elite competition which he has applied to US history in particular (see here for a Salon article on the same). The model very much has a “good swings and bad swings” approach, where increasing cooperation and falling inequality are good and the decreasing cooperation and rising inequality are bad. So, the shift towards less income equality and less cooperation Turchin identifies as happening from the 1970s on is bad. Which naturally leads to dismissing of the entire shift in Western policy since the 1970s as a mistake.

If we take a more nuanced view of social phenomenon, we might wonder if broad movements in public policy might always be at least somewhat mixed in their characteristics. Particularly in democratic polities, where policies are subject to scrutiny and debate.

The 1970s were not a good period for Western public policy. Productivity growth fell (for reasons which are still unclear) and stagflation blighted economies. The shift towards economic liberalisation occurred for good reasons and has a broad range of clear successes. The connection between economic freedom and prosperity is very clear, empirically.

To characterise the shift in public policy as an attempt to wind back the welfare state is to characterise it as a clear failure–there was very little reduction in welfare spending or coverage. It is much more sensibly seen as policy coalitions attempting to create a sustainable welfare state (i.e. enough economic growth and efficiency to support welfare spending): at which it has been rather more successful. Particularly during the Great Moderation.

Per capita GDP and World Bank indicator of ease of doing business.

It is also important not to exaggerate how much economic liberalisation there has been. Governments are much less likely to own firms and have become much less likely to regulate quantities (except in land and taxi markets) or regulate prices (except in labour markets). But the wider regulatory burden has continued to increase (pdf); a cost which falls disproportionately on new businesses, small and medium-size businesses and other economic entrants.

Casualisation of employment is often seen as a negative development. But if more and more regulatory (and contract) complexity is loaded onto full-time employment, alternative means of employment become more attractive (for both employers and workers). Casualisation is often an indicator of the level of labour market regulation.

Then one gets interaction effects. Increased regulatory complexity increases economic rents (income not based on productive activity). Yet casualisation makes it harder for workers to capture such economic rents, which may help shift incomes within firms from labour to capital.

What has undoubtedly intensified are the culture wars. Which is the other problem with focusing on specifically income inequality; as the period since the 1970s has also seen very significant social liberalisation. Building on the 1960s ferment to be sure, but going considerably further. Whatever the virtues of that social liberalisation, it is likely harder to garner social cooperation when basic assumptions about the framework of cooperation fray–even more if they fray for very understandable reasons.

It is also analytically dubious to concentrate quite so much on the US. EU politics, for example, are showing much more signs of voter distress, anger and alienation. And doing so in countries whose economies are (generally) rather more regulated than the US economy.

The folk not in the room

Academics, journalists and IT professionals have become very narrow in their ideological range which also shows up in their pattern of political donations. This gravely handicaps their ability to promote broad social bargaining and cooperation. In fact, it tends strongly to have the opposite effect–to preach and alienate; to comprehensively not understand the concerns of people with views they almost never socialise with or have to grapple with seriously.

US political donations by industry.

Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt‘s attempt to foster intellectual diversity in the US academy is a much more hopeful attempt to increase social cooperation than buying into “the entire shift in global shift in policy since 1970s, it’s all bad!”. Particularly given that very same global shift has seen the most massive exit from mass poverty in human history.

US Academic political donations.

Broad trends in public policy, particularly in democratic polities, likely have strengths and weaknesses. Over time, the strengths can get exhausted and the weaknesses multiply. Which tends leads to a swing in a different direction, where the same thing happens. And so it goes.

Conversely, an ideologically narrow academy is very naturally inclined to see public policy trends as “bad” or “good” and point to folk not in any of their rooms and say “it’s all their fault”. Nor is merely being cross-disciplinary going to fix the problem, if it is essentially the same ideological range repeating itself across disciplines.

And yes, the US Republican Party is having a bit of a meltdown; but both US Parties have become more ideological. While conservatives in the US have been on the losing side of a series of cultural battles and, in public policy, what wins have conservative Republicans had since welfare reform after the 1994 midterm elections? If the answer is “not much”, then their anger and alienation become much more understandable.

Especially given the cultural assault goes on–attempts to control speechclothing, regulate leisure activities, attacking careers, reputations and livelihoods, and so on. After all, basic to Turchin’s theory is over-production of elites, and an excess of over-credentialed (and under-educated) university graduates is very much part of that–and given the ideological narrowness of the modern academy–their frustrations can obviously drive a highly socially combative approach. [A central difficulty with how Turchin applies his demographic analysis to the contemporary US–and, by extension, other Western democracies–is that he presumes that the corporate/business elite is “the” elite when modern mixed economies also have a public-sector/nonprofit nomenklatura who are in a much better position to systematically block social cooperation by stigmatising alternative perspectives and concerns.]

Social cooperation means precisely that, cooperation. It does not mean “you are evil, malicious and wrongheaded unless you agree with us”: demanding surrender is not cooperating. Buying into “those folk over there, they’re all wrong” is not fostering cooperation. No matter how sophisticated your underlying analysis.

ADDENDA The age-cohort demographics are also not helpful to reducing inequality.

AND ALSO  Paul Graham has a useful essay on economic inequality and another on why 1945-1973 was so different to what followed.  Dean Baker examines economic rents as a factor in increased income inequality.

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Why gold/currency ratios mattered in the interwar period

By Lorenzo

This is based on a comment I made here.

I have been enjoying Scott Sumner‘s history of the Great Depression, The Midas Paradox: Financial Markets, Government Policy Shocks, and the Great Depression. Sumner provides a key ideas summary for the book here. The book is an examination of dramatic macroeconomic instability under a gold standard.

In The Midas Paradox, Sumner gives the gold/currency ratio (the ratio of gold reserve to currency) central place in his analysis.

A gold standard sets a value in gold to the unit of account, making gold the medium of account. So, no matter how many (for instance) currency dollars are in circulation, the value of gold sets their value. If gold rises in value (relative to output of goods and services, hereafter just output), the value of money rises relative to a given level of output (so there is deflation or a falling price level). If gold falls in value (relative to output), the value of money falls relative to a given level of output (so there is inflation or a rising price level).

Hence prominent interwar Swedish monetary economist Gustav Cassel‘s post-WWI concern about the future path of gold supply not keeping up with the future path of output, for if output growth systematically outstripped gold production, that would systematically raise the output-value of gold, having a deflationary effect, i.e. driving down the price level, driving down expenditure, and so incomes, and increasing the burden of debts.

For deflation comes in three varieties; the good (falling prices due to increased productivity, such as in the IT industry), the bad (a fall in spending, relative to output, pushing down incomes, and raising debt burdens) and the ugly (such sharp shifts to holding money that expenditure collapses, so do incomes, massively increasing debt burdens, leading to a surge in bankruptcies and bad debts and so to financial crisis).

Insufficient gold production turned out not to be a problem and, while fluctuations in the relative paths of gold and output did produce inflationary and deflationary swings in the C19th, they were relatively minor. Indeed, the upsurge in demand for gold from the French/German/US switch to the gold standard in the 1870s was more important. (The French/German switch is discussed here [pdf], the US switch here [pdf].) Over the course of the C19th, the inflationary and deflationary swings from shifts in the relative path of output and gold production cancelled out.

Hard money man on horseback.

So, while the currency in circulation can fluctuate according to the “needs of trade”, gold provides the anchor for the output-value of money. (Hence, the plausibility of the “real bills” doctrine.)

Why would the gold/currency ratio matter?

(1) The plausibility of the gold-peg. If currency in circulation becomes sufficiently large that the guarantee to redeem in gold is in doubt, that could be seriously de-stabilising. Hence the gold standard constrains currency issue, hence states abandon the gold standard when they go to war. (Unless you are Napoleon; an autocrat who does not want to invoke recent dire memories of French Revolutionary hyperinflation, so you run a strict bullion–gold & silver–standard financed by looting Europe while your Parliamentary opponent–the UK–goes off the gold standard for the duration because it does not have the same credibility problems.)

(2) The output-value of gold. Having more gold in the vaults than is needed to ensure the plausibility of the peg tends to raise the value of gold relative to a given level output. And the more so, the more so. Since the central banks so dominated gold holdings in the interwar period, they dominated the output-price of gold, with the gold/currency ratio being an indicator of their “gold stance”. A factor enhanced if private folk began to also hoard gold.

Scott Sumner responded to my original description in the comment section of his blog, and the question whether it was a fair description, as follows:

Yes, central banks had a big effect on the real demand for gold, and hence the value of gold. They held a large proportion of all gold mined since the beginning of time (I think over 50%.) The real demand for gold is equal to the gold ratio times the real demand for currency. So if the public’s real demand for currency is stable, and the gold ratio rises by 9%, then the real demand for gold rises by 9%. This reduces the global price level by 9%, ceteris paribus. It’s roughly what happened between October 1929 and October 1930. After that, big rises in the real demand for currency created a higher derived demand for gold.

Which pushed the gold-standard price level down further.

Wikipedia tells us that:

The real demand for money is defined as the nominal [face value] amount of money demanded divided by the price level.

In other words, real demand is demand in terms of output, as the nominal value of total production is output x the price level, so dividing the money value of production by the price level leaves us with output. This is what statistical authorities such as the ABS do to calculate real GDP and so economic growth.  They assemble statistics on money value of production and use various price deflators to calculate shifts in actual output of goods and services.

In The Midas Paradox, Scott Sumner uses as simple model to analyse the operations of the gold standard. The nominal value of the gold stock (Gs) = the Price level (P) x the real demand for monetary gold (g).

Gs = Pg

Since, if you divide by prices, you are left with output or output-value.

Re-arranging that,

P = Gs/g

So, as Sumner points out, under a gold standard, monetary policy mainly operates through the demand side, not the supply of currency. Real demand for monetary gold (g) can be segmented into the gold reserve ratio (r)–the ratio of gold reserves to currency–and the real demand for currency (md). Giving us,

P = Gs x (1/r) x (1/md)

To quote from The Midas Paradox:

an increase in the price level [P] can be generated by one of three factors: an increase in the monetary gold stock, a decrease in the gold reserve ratio, and/or a decrease in the real demand for currency. The rate of inflation [i.e. rate of change of P] is the percentage increase in the gold stock [Gs], minus the percentage increase in the gold reserve ratio [r], minus the percentage increase in the real demand for currency [md]. At this level of abstraction the term “gold standard” simply refers to a monetary regime where the nominal price of gold is fixed. As long as the nominal price of gold is constant and the real value of gold is set in free [i.e. competitive] markets, then we can apply the gold standard model without making any further assumptions about policymakers following “the rules of the game”; that is, we do not need to assume a stable gold reserve ratio, or in fact any relationship between the monetary gold stock and the currency stock (Pp28-9).

Which does simply analysis greatly. So the model Sumner provides does what good models are supposed to do–make analysis of the phenomenon more tractable.

As central to having a gold standard is to create a stable value for money–and so a stable price level–by setting a gold value to the unit of account, shifts in the price level will reflect directly shifts in the output-value of gold. In his specific response to my original comment, Sumner is being more explicit about the mechanics and invoking the above equations and explanations from The Midas Paradox.

Chart courtesy of Marcus Nunes.

In The Midas Paradox, Scott Sumner elucidates the central story of the Great Depression as it has been developing in the economic literature. That is, a story of disastrous central bank monetary policies, particularly by the Federal Reserve (the Fed) and the Bank of France. In the case of the US, FDR actually pulled the US out of the Depression with his unconventional monetary policy and then put the US right back into economic stagnation with his National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), a strong negative supply-side policy shock to the economy. When the US Supreme Court struck down NIRA as unconstitutional, economic recovery picked up again, until further destructive monetary policies (pdf) created the severe 1937-38 downturn.

So, it was all about bad public policy, not some inherent problems with capitalism or market economies. And in The Midas Paradox, Scott Sumner takes us through the twists and turns of that.

 

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Black boxes, the rectification of names and the revival of slavery

By Lorenzo

The Chinese sage Kong Qiu (551-479 BC) (Kongzi “Master Kong”), known to the West as Confucius–which is derived from Kong Fuzi “Grand Master Kong”–had a doctrine Zhèngmíng, normally translated as “rectification of names“. There is a straightforward statement of the doctrine in the Analects:

A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect. (Book XIII, Chapter 3, verses 4-7).

Even without the current progressivist penchant to police language, there is a problem applying clear and correct naming to matters Islamic because the term Islam can apply both to a religion (submission to Allah) and a civilisation. Where we can talk of Christianity (the religion) and Christendom (the civilisation or Christian territories), there is no similar linguistic distinction available in English, despite attempts to use Islamdom and Islamicate to make a similar clear distinction between Islam the religion and Islam the civilisation.

Islam, Muslim and linguistic ambiguity

There is a similar problem with Muslim: do we mean a follower of Islam or someone raised in the civilisation of Islam? This is not a small point; the tendency to treat Muslims as if their religious identity is automatically central to their sense of identity is a besetting sin of much commentary and even public policy. It is not something that either commentary or public policy is likely to do with Jew or Christian. While Westerner essentially implies no religious identity at all, except an increasingly weak association with Christian origins. Even the coinage Judaeo-Christian is a manifestation of weakening religious associations, given the historically antagonistic identities it jumbles together. Western civilisation has, after all, pagan Graeco-Roman roots and pagan Germanic roots as well as Judaeo-Christian ones. Moreover, religious conservatives in the West have been losing cultural batters for many decades now, hence the gulf on matters regarding sex and gender which has opened up between the West and Islam.

Person of Muslim heritage is often a preferable usage to Muslim, but is inherently more linguistically cumbersome. As feminists, secularists and humanists of Muslim heritage regularly point out, treating religion as the central feature of Muslim identity plays into the hands of the most conservative elements in Muslim communities, and Islam, and even more into the hands of Salafists and Islamists, who most definitely want to insist on the centrality of religious identity, and a religious identity they wish to be able to define (or, indeed, redefine via “purification”).

Black boxing the inconvenient

Along with these elementary difficulties of linguistic usage, there is also the “black box” problem. It is a feature of ideological perspectives that they generate “black boxes”; areas of human experience which are either not opened up and considered seriously in their own terms or are considered only in superficial and convenient ways. So Western conservatives will typically not open up the “black box” of queer experience, because that will reveal perfectly ordinary folk who have been systematically treated like crap for no good reason. Failing to look seriously into the “black box” of queer experience does not remotely stop such conservatives from commenting freely and passionately about such matters. Indeed, it makes it so much easier to do so, because then said matters can be construed to fit in with congenial framings without awkward reality getting in the way.

Hence the way ideology generates “black boxes”. Thus, it is so much easier to comment passionately yet conventionally on the Palestine-Israel conflict if one does not look under the “black box” of Palestinian politics. It is so much easier to comment on current events if one does not look under the “black box” of Islam and Islamic history (including contemporary persecution of Christians in Muslim-majority countries) or the “black boxes” of Islamism or the Salafi or Deobandi movements. Hence the tendency of the “contentless identity” whereby religious identity is assumed to be central to the self-understanding of Muslims (/people of Muslim heritage) yet it is somehow illegitimate to inquire critically into Islamic doctrine or patterns or to consider them as having any awkward implications.

If, for example, one is going to seriously comment on matters Islamic, one really should do all the following:

  • Read the Quran.
  • Acquaint oneself with a collection of hadiths. (These are available online, for example here and particularly here.)
  • Read a biography of Muhammad by a believer (such as Tariq Ramadan, The Messenger), so one gets a sense of the role of Muhammad “from the inside”.
  • Read a comprehensive history of Islam (such as Ira Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies).

Clearly, it would be preferable to expand one’s reading beyond that, with various scholarly articles and useful texts. There are also useful online sources, such as the blog Ballandus (a particularly useful source) while economist David Friedman (who teaches in a law faculty) provides an excellent introduction to Sharia. Islam is a genuinely distinctive civilisation, with distinctive patterns and underlying presumptions, and it is necessary to inform oneself of said distinctive patterns and underlying presumptions before one can comment usefully (rather than propagandistically).

Alas, lots of folk comment quite passionately on matters Islamic and Muslim without bothering to do any of the above. (Yes, I have done all the above.)

But refusing to look under the “black box” of Islam then makes it so much easier to construe events and issues according to whatever framing one finds congenial. Indeed, the more passionately one is attached to one’s framing, the more that is so.

“Black boxing” also means it becomes so much easier to use morality and moral claims as a club to denigrate and dismiss dissent (no matter how much better informed such dissent may be; in some ways the more so the more such dissent is genuinely informed). Which so adds to the attraction of “black boxing” the potentially awkward.

Similarly, if one is going to comment on Islamism, Salafism and Deobandi (encompassing what is often labelled radical Islam), one should acquaint oneself with a sample of such writings. Sayyid Qutb‘s Milestones (aka Signposts) is a classic Islamist text, but there are plenty of other sources, such as the jihadi strategic “how-to manual” The Management of Savagery (available here [pdf]).

One needs also be aware the Salafism, for example, comes in various flavours which overlap with (say) Saudi Wahhabism but are not identical (pdf) and which includes a “quietist” tradition that is quite hostile (pdf) to Islamism (especially its takfiri tendencies) and its prioritisation of political engagement. While Islamism–in the general sense of political Islam–has Salafist versions.

Civilisational crisis

Political scientist Samuel Huntingdon’s famous “Clash of Civilizations” thesis, launched originally in a 1993 essay (pdf) in the magazine Foreign Affairs, was correct in identifying that Islam “has bloody borders” (and it continues to do so). But his wider thesis simply has not come to fruition; partly because cultural affinity making deeper forms of cooperation easier has turned out to be quite asymmetrical in its implications–it does not have anywhere near an equivalent effect in configuring conflict. With a conspicuous exception, the international order continues to be a state order with major and minor states interacting in terms of their interests and perceptions, which are not usefully “civilisational”. To take an obvious example, that Vietnam and China are civilisationally similar does not change a recurring constant of Vietnamese policy–to stay out of China’s control or domination. Nor does civilisational affinity draw Ukraine and Russia together. On the contrary, it drives Putin’s Russia to prey on Ukraine to stop it becoming a disturbing counter-example.

The conspicuous exception is Islam, where we are witnessing a conflict that is as much about breaking states as it is about state power. The phenomena of Islamist authoritarianism, of Salafist jihadism (and Deobandi jihadism) are, in a sense, a violent temper tantrum from within the civilisation of Islam against modernity (one historian Bernard Lewis noted 25 years ago in his 1990 essay The Roots of Muslim Rage); a temper tantrum that no other civilisation is coming close to manifesting any equivalent of. Either in its heartland or in any diaspora.

Even so, plenty of Muslims are just fine with modernity, both individually and collectively. Which, in fact, does much to drive the homicidal temper tantrum by those who are not fine with modernity. Those within Islam who are reacting with violent hostility to the social trends of modernity are particularly horrified and enraged that their fellow Muslims (/people of Muslim heritage) seem all too willing to go along for the ride. It is no accident that the victims of radical Islam in recent decades are overwhelmingly fellow Muslims (/people of Muslim heritage)–though a little less overwhelmingly than folk sometimes acknowledge, given the persistent persecution of (particularly) Christian minorities in majority-Muslim societies. Though said persecution is, in part, also a symptom of the wider religious revival within Islam that radical Islam is the “pointy end” of.

The eruptions into the West of this homicidal temper tantrum are just that–extensions into the West of programs of assassination and massacre than have been going on within Islam for decades. While the current round of massacre of religious minorities in the Middle East is a upswing of a pattern that extends back to the Hamidian massacres of the 1890s, through the ArmenianAssyrian and Pontic-Greek genocides into various interwar massacres and down to contemporary events.

Again, there are complexities: the reasons that jihadis find recruits within Iraq and Syria, for example, have continuities with why any insurgency is able to recruit–such as deep alienation from the state ruling them. (Which, given the closer one is to the Islamic State the more unfavourable the view has to be pretty powerful alienation.) The structure of the particular insurgency project they are recruited for, however, is always more specific.

Slavery, Sharia and polygyny

As it turns out, the explicit revival of slavery in the Islamic State, and the earlier, more surreptitious, revival of slavery in Islamist Sudan, provides a revealing case study of the connection between traditional Islamic jurisprudence, patterns within historical Islam and contemporary Islamic “purifying” revivalism.

Islam is a polygynous civilisation because it is a religiously defined civilisation and Sharia allows polygyny–a male believer can legally have up to four wives. As Sharia is central to so many of the patterns of Islamic history (leading to various historical patterns), it is important to understand that religious law is not a good translation of what Sharia entails or implies. David Friedman’s excellent introductory paragraph to the aforementioned chapter on Sharia sets out the matter clearly:

The first and most important thing to realize about Islamic law is that, seen in its own terms, it is the law of God not of man. No society, now or in the past, could enforce Shari’a, because no human had complete and correct knowledge of its content. Strictly speaking, what traditional Islamic courts enforced was not Shari’a, God’s law, but fiqh, jurisprudence, the imperfect human attempt to deduce from religious sources what the law ought to be. That fact helps explain how Sunni Islam was able to maintain four different but mutually orthodox schools of law. There could be only one correct answer to what God wanted humans to do, but there could be more than one reasonable guess. According to a widely accepted tradition, a Mujtahid, a legal scholar deducing the law from the Koran and the traditions of what Mohammed did and said, got one reward in heaven if he got it wrong, two if he got it right.

The key point here is law of God not of manSharia is the law of Allah, the Sovereign of the Universe. As such it covers everyone, as we are all subject to Allah’s sovereignty. Hence it seems perfectly reasonable in contemporary Islamic states to make apostasy (and blasphemy) a crime, even a capital crime. Something that the weakening of religious identity in the West has either long seen abolished or reduced (in the case of blasphemy) to a lingering dead letter.

Sharia absolutely claims to legislate for non-believers, in a most emphatic way, and has always done so. To paraphrase the aphorism commonly attributed to Trotsky, you may not be interested in Sharia, but Sharia is interested in you.

So, when jihadis kill Westerners for insulting the Prophet, they see themselves as applying Sharia to people who are already under its ambit. In terms of Sharia jurisprudence, non-believers who submit to Muslim rule are thereby acknowledging that they are under Sharia rule, but they are not changing whether Sharia properly applies to them, only how it does so.

The Islamists in particular are very specific on the rightful ambit of Sharia. In the words of Sayyid Qutb:

The defeatists should fear Allaah lest they distort this religion and cause it to become weak on the basis of the claim that it is a religion of peace. Yes, it is the religion of peace but in the sense of saving all of mankind from worshipping anything other than Allaah and submitting all of mankind to the rule of Allaah. This is the religion of Allaah, not the ideas of any person or the product of human thought, so that those who promote it should feel ashamed to state its ultimate goal, which is that all religion (worship) should be for Allaah alone. When the ideas that people follow are all produced by human beings and the systems and laws that control their lives are all made up by human beings, then in this case each idea and each system has the right to live safely within its own borders so long as it does not transgress the borders of others, so the various ideas and laws can co-exist and not try to destroy one another. But when there is a divine system and law, and alongside it there are human systems and laws, then the matter is fundamentally different, and the divine law has the right to remove the barriers and free people from enslavement to human beings …

The term religion of peace means something quite different to Islamists (and jihadis in general) than what Westerners might understand it to mean.

That Islam really is a distinctive civilisation, with distinctive underlying presumptions and patterns, is crucial. In particular, the defeat of Aristotelianism in medieval Islam with the triumph of al-Ghazali had some profound consequences. One of which is that it became firmly established in mainstream Islam that there was no moral realm beyond revelation. In Christianity and Judaism, God does things because He is good. In Islam, things are good because God does them. Sharia, as the laws of God, become the moral realm. A viewpoint that Islamism, Salafism and Deobandi all very much adhere to but still has powerful resonance in Islam more generally, intensified by the ongoing Islamic religious revival. Islamic states are the only states which felt motivated to issue their own version (1990) of the UN Declaration of Human Rights (1948); and their Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam is very much about Sharia being moral trumps. It makes it harder in Islamic societies than for post-Enlightenment Western societies to move away from legislatively imposing religious doctrine (and the latter have found it hard enough).

Sharia is a civilisational legal system: it does not require a state to operate it. Indeed, until the later C19th, typically the most significant role of any Islamic state in the legal system was to appoint the qadi, the judges who made their rulings by applying the evidence of the case to rulings (fatwas) by religious scholars. (The Ottoman state was a partial exception.) One of the roles of Sufi orders (tariqa) was to provide legal services in non-state settings, such as among pastoralists.

The nature of Sharia as civilisational law that does not require a state to operate is why Muslim immigration can pose a distinctive enclave problem, as there is a ready-to-use structure of law which can be used in opposition to the law of the local state and which claims trumping legitimacy over said law.

That trumping legitimacy is central to a network of interlocking ideas which can be characterised as Islamic supremacism; that adherence to Islam, being of Islam, puts one in a morally superior position to anyone who is not so, a superiority which is manifested in any “proper” social order. A Hamas leader angrily denying that the West has any right to preach to Hamas because it gives rights to homosexuals is a manifestation of this. The aforementioned ongoing pattern of massacres represents Muslims becoming homicidally enraged at the idea that non-believers could be the equals (particularly the legal and political equals) of believers: the cosmopolitan equality which is a clear and powerful tendency within modernity offers the insult of equality to the assumed, and deeply embedded, pattern of believer superiority.

After all, if revelation is the moral realm, of course those who adhere to the path of revelation are morally superior to those who do not. And even without necessarily adhering completely to the whole doctrinal package, a perspective is engendered that seeps into habitual, ingrained patterns of thought. Hence the persistent persecution of religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries.

The implications pervade, and lie under, so much of the dynamics of Middle Eastern politics. While the founder of the Palestinian national movement, Haj Amin al-Husseini, may have adopted a virulent version of Jew hatred partly (but only partly) based on imported European conceptions (remembering that Islam encompassed heartland genocide decades before the Holocaust), the underlying refusal of most Palestinians to seriously contemplate acceptance of Israel is profoundly based on the embedded assumptions of Islamic supremacism (hence the “right of return“), making any peace treaty impossible. Meanwhile, the response of the Swedish foreign minister to the Paris attacks (referring to the “desperate situation” of the Palestinians) shows just how Pavlovian “black boxing” “blame the Jews Israel” has become. A response that was offensively ignorant, given Islamic State forces specifically attacked the Yarmouk camp.

There is a further implication which follows from the nature of Sharia. David Friedman describes how fiqh, Islamic jurisprudence, operates:

The scholar started with the sources of revealed knowledge—the Koran and the words and acts of Mohammed and his companions as reported in hadith, traditions. From that information a sufficiently learned religious scholar, a mujtahid, deduced legal rules. Over time, the scholars separated into four schools, each consisting of multiple generations building on the work of its predecessors, each identified with the name of a particularly distinguished scholar thought of as its founder. The schools were generally similar but differed in the details of their approaches to interpretation and the rules they deduced; each regarded the others as orthodox.

The implication of which is that the definitive source for understanding the normative principles of social order is C7th Arabia. A social order that included slavery and raiding.

The dynamics of polygyny

Polygyny itself engenders persistent patterns. Sharia may permit up to 4 wives, but obviously, not every male believer can have more than one wife. Indeed, the dynamics of polygyny are quite clear. If the top 10% of males in a society have, on average, 2 wives then the bottom 10% of males do not get any. The more wives taken by elite males, the larger the group of low status males without wives. In polygynous societies, women become markers of status for intra-male competition, even if a large number of men only have one wife.

A recent comprehensive review article (pdf) on monogamy and polygyny notes that:

… the greater the percentage of unmarried men in the national population, the greater the rates of rape, murder, assault, theft and fraud, controlling for the same variables in the regression described above. The percentage of unmarried men is a highly significant predictor of all these crime rates, except assaults where it is only marginally significant. In fact, the percentage of unmarried men is the only predictor that is consistently important across all five felonies.

The article notes that monogamy (as a comprehensive marriage strategy) increases social cooperation and reduces violence: not exactly surprising results. The article also identifies a longstanding social mechanism for dealing with the wife shortage generated by polygyny:

In many non-industrialized societies, young unmarried men form groups of marauders who go on raids to steal wealth and wives, while raping and pillaging. Polygynous societies engage in more warfare, often with the goal of capturing women.

Sharia both sanctified and motivated such raiding. First, because non-believers are given three choices–(1) conversion, (2) submission to Sharia (i.e. Muslim) rule as manifested in payment of the jizya, or non-believer tax, or (3) war (including death and enslavement: though temporary truces are also permitted). The three choices come straight from a hadith and so the words of Muhammad:

When you meet your enemies who are polytheists, invite them to three courses of action. If they respond to any one of these, you also accept it and withold yourself from doing them any harm. Invite them to (accept) Islam; if they respond to you, accept it from them and desist from fighting against them. Then invite them to migrate from their lands to the land of Muhairs and inform them that, if they do so, they shall have all the privileges and obligations of the Muhajirs. If they refuse to migrate, tell them that they will have the status of Bedouin Muslims and will be subjected to the Commands of Allah like other Muslims, but they will not get any share from the spoils of war or Fai’ except when they actually fight with the Muslims (against the disbelievers). If they refuse to accept Islam, demand from them the Jizya. If they agree to pay, accept it from them and hold off your hands. If they refuse to pay the tax, seek Allah’s help and fight them (Sahih Muslim  4924).

Christians are people of the book, but are often taken to be polytheists because of the Trinity. Demands for payment of jizya are alive and well in contemporary Islam; with the update that receipt of welfare payments has been claimed as jizya (and so a sign of non-believer submission to believers).

Second, while only 4 wives were permitted, a believer could own any number of women slaves for sexual use. This comes straight from the words of Allah (as the Quran is the word of Allah, not of Muhammad) in Sura 4:24:

And [also prohibited to you are all] married women except those your right hands possess. [This is] the decree of Allah upon you. And lawful to you are [all others] beyond these, [provided] that you seek them [in marriage] with [gifts from] your property, desiring chastity, not unlawful sexual intercourse. So for whatever you enjoy [of marriage] from them, give them their due compensation as an obligation. And there is no blame upon you for what you mutually agree to beyond the obligation. Indeed, Allah is ever Knowing and Wise.

The phrase “what your right hand possess” is about what the sword hand takes. There is explanatory hadith (i.e. words of Muhammad) clarifying the point:

Having overcome them and taken them captives, the Companions of Allah’s Messenger (may peace te upon him) seemed to refrain from having intercourse with captive women because of their husbands being polytheists. Then Allah, Most High, sent down regarding that:” And women already married, except those whom your right hands possess (iv. 24)” (i. e. they were lawful for them when their ‘Idda period came to an end) (Sahih Muslim 3432).

Thus, being non-believing women captured by Muslims on jihad were not protected by their marriages to non-believers; making them as much “fair game” sexually as any other non-believer woman so captured.

Slavery as motivator

Muhammad presiding over the massacre of the men of the Banu Qurayza. (Their women and children were sold into slavery.)

So, Islam was established as a polygynous system, meaning it created a wife shortage among believers. But raiding non-believers who do not submit to Muslim rule was sanctified and taking their women for your sexual use was also sanctified. So, sexual frustration generated by Sharia marriage rules was then explicitly directed outwards towards the non-believers who have not submitted to Muslim rule. The ghazis raiding across the frontier into “the lands of unbelief” which were such a feature of the borders of Islam for over a millennia represented Islam sanctifying (and so intensifying) patterns of typical of polygyny; polygyny that it also sanctified.

The Ottomans incorporated the “holy raiders” into an effective military system. Ghazis would be incorporated into Ottoman forces as akinci, who subsisted on plunder from raids. They would degrade the (in their case Christian) society on the frontier by their constant raiding, driving people away, depressing economic activity, weakening the ability to resist. (And yes, current jihadi attacks are understood in analogous ways, specifically targeting the will to resist.) The main Ottoman army would then move in, occupy the territory, the ghazis and akinci would move to the new border, and the process would repeat. Using this basic pattern, the Ottomans chewed their way across Anatolia, through the Balkans and up to the gates of Vienna. The process was only brought to a halt by the adoption of the grenzer system of (substantially Orthodox Serb) militia farmers in the Military Frontier of the Habsburg lands. (The grenzer system was quite similar to the fubing militia system of Western WeiSui and Tang China; but they also had to deal with horse-riding raiders.)

What was old is new again

Which brings us back to the revival of slavery by the Islamist regime of Sudan and by the Islamic state. Both regimes have been endemically at war with those who do not accept their rule, including non-Muslims (whether actual non-Muslims or those defined by the regime as such). Both regimes are based on literalist ideology–that is, a “purification” of Islam by returning to its original nature and adherence to its texts. Those texts permit polygyny, slavery and war against those who do not submit to Muslim rule. More specifically, they permit sexual enslavement of women who have not submitted to Muslim rule. So, reviving slavery both shows adherence to original Islam and helps motivate (and recruit) fighters. It is an operationally rational return to original Islam; reviving a pattern that was operationally rational for Islam for centuries.

An essay by an (anonymous) official with wide Middle East experience in the New York Review of Books expressed puzzlement over the foreign fighter phenomenon:

Nor have there been any more satisfying explanations of what draws the 20,000 foreign fighters who have joined the movement. … these new foreign fighters seemed to sprout from every conceivable political or economic system. They came from very poor countries (Yemen and Afghanistan) and from the wealthiest countries in the world (Norway and Qatar). Analysts who have argued that foreign fighters are created by social exclusion, poverty, or inequality should acknowledge that they emerge as much from the social democracies of Scandinavia as from monarchies (a thousand from Morocco), military states (Egypt), authoritarian democracies (Turkey), and liberal democracies (Canada). It didn’t seem to matter whether a government had freed thousands of Islamists (Iraq), or locked them up (Egypt), whether it refused to allow an Islamist party to win an election (Algeria) or allowed an Islamist party to be elected. Tunisia, which had the most successful transition from the Arab Spring to an elected Islamist government, nevertheless produced more foreign fighters than any other country.

Nor was the surge in foreign fighters driven by some recent change in domestic politics or in Islam. Nothing fundamental had shifted in the background of culture or religious belief between 2012, when there were almost none of these foreign fighters in Iraq, and 2014, when there were 20,000. The only change is that there was suddenly a territory available to attract and house them. If the movement had not seized Raqqa and Mosul, many of these men might well have simply continued to live out their lives with varying degrees of strain—as Normandy dairy farmers or council employees in Cardiff. We are left again with tautology—ISIS exists because it can exist—they are there because they’re there.

No, actually, they are just ghazis with aeroplane tickets. Create a territory where the longstanding returns to “holy raiding”are firmly established, and they come. (Polygyny may generate systematic male sexual frustration, but modern society can do a certain amount of that too and, however powerful the sexual motivations, it hardly exhausts what being a ghazi offered.)

Islam has generated ghazis from its earliest days. And it can still do so, because those beliefs still have power. Especially if one’s unashamed literalism recreates the full range of motives.

But to understand this, one has to look under the “black box” of Islam and of Islamism.

Islam is a distinctive civilisation, with distinctive patterns resulting from distinctive presumptions. There are religious and civilisational reasons why it is the only civilisation generating such a spectacular and recurring homicidal temper tantrum against modernity, let alone a rage against modernity which has killed so many people in so many (mainly Muslim) countries.

 

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]