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On not seeing the Middle East

By Lorenzo

Two now well-established anti-Israel lines of rhetoric are that the Jewish State is “Nazi-like” (Zionism=Nazism) and the Jewish State is “an apartheid state“. What these lines of rhetoric have in common is that they attack Israel invoking comparisons which resonate in the West and Western political rhetoric, invoking comparisons which have no specific connection to the Middle East at all.

There is, of course, actually a political movement with an attached paramilitary wing which openly endorses genocide in its founding political Covenant and in its continuing rhetoric. That would be Hamas and it currently runs Gaza.

But the nature, methods and goals of Hamas seem to be just too hard for many Westerners to deal with. Consider this piece by former US President Jimmy Carter and former Irish President Mary Robinson. It is full of the rhetoric of conciliation and “please just be sensible” that Very Serious People use to show their Very Serious Concern. Rhetoric that is essentially completely interchangeable–swap the relevant nouns and it could be a call for peace, goodwill and conciliation about any endemic conflict anywhere around the globe.

But Hamas is not interested in peace at any price. It is interested in the establishment of Islamic rule and the obliteration of Israel: a Middle East not only free of any Jewish state, but free of Jews, that is Judenfrei. Just as ISIS is currently massacring religious minorities in pursuit of the same vision of Islamic harmony.

Grand Mufti of Jerusalem saluting Bosnian Muslim SS volunteers.

It is simply not possible for Israel to make peace with Hamas. All it can manage is truces of various duration until the next mini-war. If one cannot grasp that reality, one is engaged in acts of delusion, not understanding.

Folk in Israel grasp that reality, which is likely why Israeli opinion is hardening, widening the gap between Israeli opinion and Western opinion. Part of what is going on is that Israel is becoming a Middle Eastern state. The dynamics of conflict have been driving it towards insider-outsider ruthlessness that is so much a part of the dynamics of the region, leading to suggestions that the most recent Gaza conflict is simply an eruption of continuing enmity, with no greater underlying strategy.

Yet what has enabled Israel to survive, and even to thrive, is precisely that it is not a Middle Eastern state: that it is a liberal-democratic nation-state on the Western model, with Western levels of social cohesion and organisational effectiveness. This is perhaps the danger that the Netanyahu Government’s apparent strategy of Greater Israel does not grasp. That giving into the Middle Eastern dynamic may fatally erode Israel’s advantages in being in, but far from merely of, the Middle East. Gazing into the Middle Eastern abyss does mean that the abyss gazes into you. Indeed, the entire quote from Nietzsche is apposite:

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.

But Israel not being merely of the Middle East also feeds into its rhetorical isolation. First, Israel is judged as a Western liberal-democracy, and not as a Middle Eastern state. Second, Israel is treated as a “settler state”; a colonising and imperial intrusion into the region, thus casting the Palestinians as oppressed indigenes.  Which is again a case of not seeing the Middle East, given that about half of Israeli Jews come from the Middle East and are as every bit “indigenous” to the region as the Arabs. Indeed, in a sense more so, since their Middle Eastern identity is a great deal older than the Arab-Muslim one.

Hence the two-state solution. Recent events has thrown into very stark belief a fundamental problem with that. Arab states, they do not work so well (for reasons nicely summarised in this piece). Which raises serious issues about why would a putative Palestinian state be any more viable? (Ironically, the most hopeful answer is–because they have been observing Israel up close for 60 years.)

Which is not terribly hopeful, because it runs into the “taking on infidel models” problem that organisations such as Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS, etc are brutally committed to opposing. One of the fundamental problems of Palestinian politics is that hating Israel is both fundamental to Palestinian identity and the only common ground in Palestinian politics. It is likely why Arafat walked away from the best offer Palestine was ever likely to get: Ehud Barak‘s compensated borders proposal. He did not want to be Palestine’s Michael Collins or deal with disastrously divided “ordinary politics” toxically mixed in with frustrated hate.

The one-state “solution” would be even worse. The IDF is what makes Israeli Jews so much safer than any other Middle Eastern minority and there is no way they will voluntarily give it up. [Even French Jews are increasingly seeing the IDF as their preferred defenders.]

The problem with seeing the Middle East as it is, is that so much is so depressing. Hamas is a genocidal political movement whose only competitive advantage is well-organised hate who really was using dead Palestinians as a strategic lever. It is the real vector for Nazi-style ideas in the Middle East in a pattern that reaches back to the original leader of Palestinian rejectionism. But ideas that resonate by building on tendencies with Islam itself, including the problems of Arab society dealing with the modern world–in large part due to the dynamics of Islam.

Consider this example of Islamic jurisprudence from Sudan:

Meriam Ibrahim was born as the daughter of a Sudanese Muslim father and an Ethiopian Christian mother. The father deserted and Meriam was raised as a Christian by her mother’s family. She subsequently married Daniel Wasi, a Christian holding U.S. citizenship, with whom she had one child and was pregnant with another when she was arrested. The charge was apostasy and fornication. Under Islamic law the father’s religion determines the child’s, so Meriam is a Muslim. Unless she recants her professed Christianity she is guilty of apostasy. Marriage between a Christian man and a Muslim woman is prohibited, so her union with Wasi is fornication. She refused to recant her Christian faith. She was sentenced to death by hanging for apostasy, and for fornication to be whipped with one hundred lashes. Both sentences were to be suspended for two years after the birth.

There is no conception of an open public space where people get to make their own decisions and choose their own affinities or operate according to them. Sharia was, from its beginning, an imperial legal system, and that is still its in-built dynamic.

Seeing Hamas as the closest analogue in the Middle East to the Nazi movement gets in the way of a whole lot of comfortable Western assumptions and rhetoric. But it is hardly the only thing that does.


ISIS, ibn Khaldun and patterns in history

By Lorenzo

One of the benefits of reading Ira Lapidus’s A History of Islamic Societies (which I review here and here) is understanding how much Islamic history shows recurring patterns. For example, how conflict between modernisers (we should learn from others), traditionalists (we should practice the religion as it is handed down to us) and reformists (we need to recover the purity of original Islam) is a recurring dynamic in Islam, going back to its first centuries. Note that modernising learning does not mean mere techniques or technology–both traditionalists and reformers are up for that, where it is useful to them–it means we should adjust our understanding of reality by taking in what outsiders have discovered.

Recurring Islamic patterns
The outcome of these struggles is also a recurring pattern–the modernisers lose, the reformers win but Islam reverts into inter-generational transfer that picks up cultural accretions on the way through. (I.e. traditionalism ends up with the numbers.) In our day, the Islamists and jihadis (overlapping categories) represent the reformers, liberals and secularists represent the modernisers while most Muslims remain traditionalists. As I have noted before, Islam does not “need” a Reformation–it has them over and over again. What Islam “needs” is an Enlightenment.

The trouble is, the logic of belief embedded in mainstream Islam militates strongly against any such outcome as it largely lacks even the precursors thereto. When Westerners talk about what Islam needs, what they really mean is “in order to be good neighbours in the modern world”. (To get away from Islam having “bloody borders”.) But, of course, an alternative solution is to make the modern world conform to the dictates of Islam. Which is precisely the project of the Islamists and the jihadis. They emphatically oppose adjusting the doctrine and practice of Islam to fit in with the modern world (the modernising strategy), they want to remake the world to fit in with (their understanding of) the doctrine and practice of Islam.

Let us leave aside whether they can achieve the power necessary to do that, is that an attainable goal at all? Is it possible to create a society that lives up to their concept of a properly Islamic society? (Remembering that Islam generates very complete rules of social order, far more so than Christianity or rabbinical Judaism.) The long term pattern of Islam–particulary the regular waves of purifying reformism–suggests not. Indeed, Daniel Pipes argued, in his Slave Soldiers and Islam (pdf) (the book of his doctoral thesis), that the distinctive Islamic use of slave soldier systems (such as the mamluks and the Janissariesflowed directly from Muslim polities being unable to live up to Islamic ideals, resulting in a withdrawal of most Muslims from political participation and a search by rulers for ways to recruit reliable military forces.

Even more paradoxically, adhering to Islamic principles (other than that of submission to Muslim rule) turns out to be much more common in non-Islamic countries, at least according to an economic index (pdf), composed for that purpose (full publication is available here, behind a paywall). In the economic index, (and apparently also in the final version) Northern European Atlantic littoral states (or former British colonies) score in the top 10, while the highest ranked majority Muslim country is Malaysia (also former British colony). As measured by said index, not being ruled by Muslims can get to you “Islamic” ideals more thoroughly. (The “Great Satan”–aka the USA–ranks better than any majority-Muslim country: apparently, those Muslims who claim you can practise Islam much more safely and thoroughly in the US than in majority-Muslim countries have a point.) Muslim rule is not so clearly the path to the Islamic-principles adhering society the jihadis fondly imagine they are fighting for.

But, of course, rule by Muslims is precisely what the jihadis are fighting for, not ticking doctrinal outcome boxes. What the jihadis and Islamists are interested in us whether you tick doctrinal adherence boxes and reconfiguring the social, cultural and religious environment according to such adherence. In other words, forcing the modern world to adhere to their understanding of Islamic principles, which emphatically means rule by Muslims (as they define it and them). Whether it is the Taliban enforcing the burqa and blowing up Buddha statues, or sub-Saharan jihadis in Mali or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) destroying tombs or “heretical” mosques, and enforcing religious subordination, the pattern is very clear. (And extends back to the original Wahhabi take-over in Arabia.)

Ecological frontiers
Human history is full of patterns, both general and specific, because of commonalities of human nature (both cognitive and physical), of human experience, because of geographical constraints and enduring belief. Islam in particular generates very strong, recurring, logics of belief which result in persistent patterns.

As do the interactions of institutions and geography in the deserts-mountains-river valleys belt from Morocco to the Ganges River; the region across which Islam has been dominant for centuries. The belt Islam has also had problems expanding beyond, apart from its mercantile spread to the Malay world and Africa’s Indian Ocean coast. (These being explicable in terms of the commercial advantages of Sharia and Islam’s appeal as an oppositional identity against European colonisers. Part of the general pattern of trade networks spreading religions.)

The Taliban, ISIS and Mali jihadis are also manifestations of a pattern classically delineated by C14th historical sociologist ibn Khaldun (Abū Zayd ‘Abdu r-Raḥmān bin Muḥammad bin Khaldūn Al-Ḥaḍrami: 1132-1406). High asabiyyah (social cohesion) groups from marginal areas attacking and even overwhelming urban-based polities.

The region from Morocco to the Ganges River is riddled with ecological frontiers. That is, areas which favour very different forms of social organisation. (Such ecological frontiers tend to favour [pdf] creation of empires.) The river valleys were, using the terminology of James Scott in his Seeing Like a State and The Art of Not Being Governed, generally highly “legible” to state power. Conversely, the mountains, deserts and steppes were not.  These favoured pastoralists where lineage systems provided protection, as explained in Philip Salzman’s Culture and Conflict in the Middle East (which I review here). Because Islam provides no bar to cousin marriages (so daughters were married back into the lineage, providing sons for the same lineage, not a different one), and failed to created high trust polities, use of lineages for support and protective services was favoured throughout the region, even in the farming river valleys.

Contours of trust
[Longstanding social patterns] gave Islam a very strong competitive advantage within the region, as it provided both a means and a motive to unite pastoralist warriors across lineages. Western social scientists talk of low-trust societies, but it is more apposite to think of them as variable trust societies. They may have a lower level of general trust, but they have pockets of much higher trust. This highly differentiated levels of trust provides means for higher trust networks to flourish–either commercially (e.g. overseas Chinese in South East Asia [pdf]) or militarily. Hence the powerful recurring pattern of Islam failing to create high trust polities encouraging waves of religious reformism uniting religiously motivated warriors whose high social cohesion (i.e. mutual trust due to intense signalling of common motivation) then overwhelm urban polity-troops lacking such cohesion.

Mali jihadis destroying a tomb in Timbuktu

As we have seen with the Taliban in Afghanistan, the jihadis in Mali and now ISIS in Iraq.

As an aside, while one can point to varying specific features of, for example, Arab culture affecting levels of military success, said features can be usefully understood as manifesting wildly divergent levels of general social cohesion compared to Western societies, which explains why Western forces typically find it almost ridiculously easy to defeat regular Arab armies. (Highly motivated insurgencies are a different matter.)

The politics of worldly salvation
Tying social cohesion to a particular belief system has problems for long term stability, however, and the more so the more “worldly” the ambitions of the ideology. One of the features that Islam (particularly political Islam) and revolutionary socialism have in common is the worldly content of their ambitions: they sell the politics of worldly salvation via achievement of unparalleled social harmony and success. The trouble is that performance inevitably fails to live up to the motivating claim–which then undermines the motivation.

Which is why the Soviet regime, in the space of its 74 years of existent (1917-1991: officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics from 1922 to 1991), managed to travel through the complete cycle of ibn Khaldun’s stages of rule from rise to collapse: a pattern that can be traced through its successive leaders. First, a group bound by common feeling (asabiyyah) seizes power (Lenin 1917-1924). Then the ruler separates himself from the original group to entrench his own power (Stalin 1924-1953). Then the regime slowly decays as group solidarity fades and corruption erodes social resilience and regime power (KhruschevBrezhnevAndropovChernenko 1953-1985). Until the regime finally collapses (Gorbachev 1985-1991).

The Soviet regime can also be seen as following an accelerated version of the cycles of peak-and-decay that the three “mandarin” Chinese dynasties (Song 960-1279, Ming 1368-1644, Qing 1644-1912) went through. The three rule-by-meritocratic-bureaucracy dynasties lasted similar amounts of time (312, 276, 267 years respectively) and each went through a similar peak-and-decline cycle, which can reasonably be seen (pdf) as a specific principal-agent problem.

Another way to put it is that the mandarin dynasties relied solely on command-and-control, which greatly limited their feedback mechanisms and social levers; with even the levers they did have dissipating as collusive networks spread (applying Mancur Olson’s analysis of the Soviet command-and-control system). The difference being that, unlike the command economies, the mandarin dynasties did not attempt to command-and-control everything, so the command economies were eaten away by corruption much faster, and in much sharper contradiction to their far more hubristic claims.

Nevertheless, I would put more emphasis on the social cohesion cycle, as the Soviet regime did follow ibn Khaldun’s pattern of dynastic rise and decay much more specifically, while seeing the single-lifetime speed of the cycle as the consequences of the effects of hubristic-in-aim-and-scope command-and-control.

Russian patterns
Tsarist Russia was very much a variable trust society: even more so once the Russian Civil War (1917-1922) was underway. While societies wracked by civil war are obviously highly variable in trust during the conflict, after the conflict is over, they will, after a recovery period which will be affected by the duration and intensity of the conflict, tend to revert to their long term patterns (e.g. England after the English Civil War 1642-1651, Switzerland after the Swiss Civil War 1847, the US after the American Civil War (1861-5),  and Finland after the Finnish Civil War 1918).

Russia went into the “Leninist deep freeze” with the Bolshevik victory in the Russian Civil War, but has emerged out the other end a genuinely low trust society (that is, even family connections have limited trust value) due to the “institution-and-connection flattening” nature of Leninist rule. (Which also leads to the ironic spectacle of the officially Leninist Beijing regime pushing Confucianism, in part to revitalise family feeling.) Russia has the pretensions to the formal political mechanisms of Western societies (elections, rule of law, etc), but lacks the social cohesion to back them up, which makes the sort of authoritarian rule Vladimir Putin has established a likely social outcome. Adventurism in foreign policy to achieve a form of “success” useful for such rule is a recurring feature of such regimes. Which does much to explain the patterns of postwar Middle Eastern history.

Searching for cohesion
As does the fact that Middle Eastern state boundaries–notably Lebanon, Syria and Iraq–represent the backwash of European imperialism. Neither Syria nor Iraq have any serious common social cohesion to back them up, the states in question (currently fairly irrelevant lines on maps) being not much more than mechanisms for a dominant group to repress other groups. (Lebanon does not have any serious common social cohesion either, but the state is too weak to do much in the way of repression.) It would probably be stabilising for state boundaries to better reflect patterns of social cohesion–which suggests that breaking up both Syria and Iraq would be more likely to produce social stability.

But only up to a point. Not all significant social identities in the Middle East have territorial bases. Hence 800,000 to 1m Jews fleeing to Israel and the West from 1948 to the 1970s and the exodus of Christians from the Middle East, a pattern that has been notable for some time but has accelerated with recent conflicts. Israel has operate as a haven for Middle Eastern Jews (and Russian Jews and now French Jews). Lebanon failed to operate as a similar haven for Middle Eastern Christians.

ISIS fighters in Iraq

Nor would border re-arrangements solve the difficulties Islam has generating high trust polities. The traditional monarchies do comparatively well while Tunisia is a lonely Arab Spring (or is that Sunni Surge?) democratic success. But traditional monarchies can hardly be created ex nihilo and Tunisia has some rather specific advantages.

Relying on successful authoritarians to maintain peace and order in the Middle East was and is an entirely understandable temptation. Even more so when we contemplate what can follow the collapse or retreat of such rule (either disorder and chaos–as in Syria, Iraq and Libya–or mosque-rule–as in Iran–or the former from the attempt to get the latter–as in the Algerian Civil War) in a region which remains (outside the traditional monarchies) largely suspended between mosque and military.

But the authoritarians were never a solution (in the words of a famous essay of the same name the Shah always falls), just a holding action.  The trouble is precisely that groups such as ISIS and the Taliban are modern versions of recurring patterns that go back to the origins of Islam. Perhaps there is no solution, just various stages of the cycle: no better strategy than holding on until demographic collapse overtakes Islam. (Though that may make for even grander jihadism of desperation.)



Unhelpful dichotomies

By Lorenzo

I recently finished The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire by Kent Flannery & Joyce Marcus, a very accessible rendering for the lay audience of a huge amount of anthropological and archaeological data about the development of state societies. At the end of Chapter Twenty-Two (“Graft and Imperialism”), there is the following comment:

The rarity of laissez-faire market systems in early civilizations has fueled a long-standing debate among two kinds of economists: formalists and substantivists. Formalists believe that the laws of supply and demand usually determine what societies do. Substantivists, as exemplified by economic historian Karl Polanyi, believe that, on the contrary, the economy is embedded in society and constitutes a special form of social relations. Indeed, many substantivists would argue that economics began with the reciprocal gifts exchanged by hunters and gatherers and grew from there. …

Perhaps the best way to leave the debate is this: Substantivists can cite dozens of anecdotal cases in which cosmology, religion or cultural values restrict the interaction of supply and demand. The formalists, however, have produced all the sexy equations that might win you a Nobel Prize.

Apart from displaying the Nobel-envy of economics which is widespread among other social sciences, this is not a helpful way of thinking about such matters. Adam Smith, for example, believed that economic relations were embedded in society, but also held that analysis of supply and demand could get you a long way. Yes, there is a strong tendency and temptation towards narrow formalism in mainstream economics. But there is a wide range of mainstream economic opinion between the polarised dichotomies set out above.

What do you mean
Part of the problem is in that monumentally unhelpful construction laissez faire market systems. What does one mean by “laissez faire”. No regulation? Minimal regulation? Regulation of what? What does one mean by “market system”? Does there have to be a market system for there to be markets? (Well, no.)

The simplistic dichotomy rests on a now-backwards conceptual framework, where rhetoric from modern ideological struggles is invoked to create a simplistic analytical dichotomy. Yes, it is perfectly possible to find economic analysis which way over-simplifies–to a very misleading extent–the complexities of the past (Carl Menger on barter and money, for example). But the implied exorcism of anything resembling mainstream economic analysis as a useful tool in historical analysis is not a good way of advancing understanding of the past.

It is striking, for example, how many of the cited anecdotes turn out to be ways of dealing with risk, particularly variability in output. I would not, for example, characterise the internal economics of foraging bands as:

… reciprocal gifts exchanged by hunters and gatherers …

Admittedly, it is unclear whether the reference is to interactions within or between foraging bands. But, as the author’s themselves note in an earlier chapter, pooling hunted meat is an effective way of dealing with the high variability of hunting. Similarly, the reference to the development of a fixed price for copper in a particular set of long-distance trade arrangements strikes me, not as a “refutation” of supply-and-demand analysis, but as a risk-management device. Which, indeed, is what the author’s suggest it was. Adding in the risk-dimension enriches supply-and-demand analysis, it does not abolish it.

Harold Demsetz’s classic article on the development of property rights (pdf) makes it perfectly clear that social constraints will affect the weight given to particular problems and solutions. But his discussion of how property rights develop in response to changing possibilities and constraints is entirely compatible with the two authors’s discussion of how Mesopotamia seems to have developed the first private ownership of land. (Said discussion somewhat punctures the presentation of Mesopotamian economies in David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years.)

Having previously done considerable reading on the economics of marriage, one of the pleasures of reading The Creation of Inequality is that the narrative provides very helpful explanatory context for concepts and conclusions in the economic papers discussing family forms. A case of archaeology, anthropology and economics all providing mutually supporting enlightenment. But, then, the aforementioned economic papers took the anthropological data as their starting point, so that is less than surprising.

Come Romanticise with me
Which gets back to the real problem–theorising poorly grounded in the empirical evidence. Often for reasons of ideological comfort. The authors’s citation of Karl Polanyi is particularly apposite, since Polanyi seems to appeal in direct correlation to both ideological affinity and empirical ignorance. As Deidre McCloskey points out:

Yet when Appleby thinks a little about earlier economies, outside her specialty, she turns Polanyist. Everyone tends to, because, to repeat, Polanyi gives expression to the nineteenth-century Romantic story on which we all were raised. We all revert to fairytales when we get beyond what we actually know, especially when the tales seem to support what we believe fervently to be politically true. It’s human nature, or social psychology, or ideology, or rhetoric. We adopt stereotypes about women or black people or medieval peasants or robber barons just when we actually don’t know much about them.

The trouble with Polanyi is that he was half right, and wholly appealing:

Some very perceptive scholars have fallen for Polanyi, because a big part of what he says — that ideology and rhetoric matter — is so obviously true and important. Therefore they have believed the rest of what he says — that societies were not organized by markets until the nineteenth century. The emotional pattern seems to be something like, “Polanyi, a leftist like me, says many true things, beautifully. Therefore his tales about what happened in economic history must be true.”

Part of the problem is the dreadful term capitalism.  The term capitalism is like feudalism–it is an analytical black hole from which the complexities of actual history rarely escape. People create an “ideal type” of the “system” and then impose it on a much more complicated historical reality.

Markets, markets, all over the place
Markets turn up very early. Some civilisations (Mesopotamia, the Aztecs) used markets a lot. Some (Pharaonic Egypt, the Incas) ran something more like command economies. But even they had local markets. (Somewhat like modern command economies had black markets, except that the rulers of the ancient economies were not hubristic enough to think that all markets had to be replaced.) Once flows of goods and services get too complicated to be handled by personal connections, markets will arise.

Both Macfarlane (The Origins of English Individualism) and Braudel (in his three volume Civilization and Capitalism) attempted to find that time when England was not a land of individualist property-owners engaging in truck, barter and exchange and could not find such a time. Which, if you look at various social mechanisms as operating on continuums of reliance, is not terribly surprising. The geography and institutional history of England militates strongly against the creation of early command economies or overwhelming reliance on personal connection.

About money
Another unhelpful dichotomy, though one rather more soundly grounded in actual analytical patterns than the above, is what economist Bruce Goodhart calls (actually rather helpfully) C-theory and M-theory (pdf) on the origins and nature of money. A lot of the problem here is the difficulties of what we mean by money. To start with, should we think of it as a thing, a noun–something is, or is not, money–or should we think of it as an adjective, a quality–things have varying degrees of moneyness? In a strict analytical sense, the latter. Alas, the money we use all the time pulls us much more naturally to think of it as a thing.

Most widely used form of money, across space and time.

The reason why Goodhart’s term C-theory is helpful, is because if we take the strict chartalist notion that “money is a creation of law” (or worse, the state), then we are wrong from the start. Things which can clearly be described as money (or having a high degree of moneyness) arise in non-state societies and operate across jurisdictional boundaries. But if we take note of the network characteristics of money, then C-theory is not without its insights. It is just not remotely the whole story, for which M-theory also has to be utilised.

In both cases, the problem is that thinking of social phenomena as operating in continuums is messy and ideologically unhelpful. We like our dichotomies, they are rhetorically and analytically much more comforting. But, alas, comfort is not truth.


Equalising consumption => lowering vulnerability

By Lorenzo

A comment on a previous post expresses a common set of views among conservatives:

Darwin has the final word on sillyness. If same sex marriage was a useful thing in society, then the vast range of human societies would show us a successful society with same sex marriage as normal.

This confuses natural selection with social selection, which are very different processes. Nevertheless, this view that historical selection (either in general or in some specific set of societies) selects for what works, so gives what we inherit presumptive legitimacy, is a common view within conservative and prudential liberal circles. (Western conservatives, especially in the Anglosphere, are generally mostly prudential liberal in outlook.) The general argument goes at least as far back as Edmund Burke, but was revitalisatised by Friedrich Hayek and Michael Oakeshott.

Limitations versus limiting
As a point about the limitations of human knowledge against Adam Smith‘s “men of system” (such as, for example, the disastrous official advocates of dogmatic laissez faire during an Gorta Mór, the Great Irish Famine), the argument has real power. The failure of the command economies–including the revolutionary socialist contempt for millennia of struggling with how to make political responsive to the interests of governed–provide an even more dramatic example.

But the power of the “product of historical selection” argument is easy to exaggerate. After all, every single form of oppression you might care to mention was the result of some social selection process. Mere persistence does not stop oppressive arrangements from being oppressive. It just makes them well-entrenched. The notion that, if people like you lost out in the past, you lose out forever–that history never selects for entrenched wrongs–puts enormous moral weight on the processes of historical evolution, which are morally a very mixed bag. The above argument could be (and was) used against democracy, for example, providing another case of the “eternal now” that conservative arguments often seem to live in.

The problem comes when the argument is used, not to highlight the limits of human knowledge, but to ignore or block knowledge; to actively limit knowledge. Specifically, the experience and aspirations of those who suffer from said oppression. It was precisely to convey understanding of that sort that the famous Wedgeword anti-slavery medallion and plate had a kneeling black slave with the words “am I not a man and a brother?”.

Raising possibilities
Which is why the equalising of consumption in Western societies since the onset of the Industrial Revolution has seen a series of longstanding oppressions lose their purchase on public policy.

Part of what is going on is simply that the lowering of Adam Smith’s “immediate necessity“:

A landlord, a farmer, a master manufacturer, a merchant, though they did not employ a single workman, could generally live a year or two upon the stocks which they have already acquired. Many workmen could not subsist a week, few could subsist a month, and scarce any a year without employment. In the long run the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him; but the necessity is not so immediate.

has seen the ability to organise politically spread throughout society. The rise of the union/labour movement was quite directly based on this, but so were all the emancipation movements, starting with the anti-slavery movement. (Which was more a product of the Commercial Revolution than the Industrial Revolution, as that did not get underway seriously until the 1820s.)

This ability rests on several aspects, starting with having a buffer against immediate need which gave both time and resources to organise. But it also rests on broadening access to all the things one needs to politically organised–including the ability to compose and disseminate one’s case. To spread the experience of oppression and social restriction more widely in politically effective ways. The more one’s experience can be ignored, the more socially vulnerable you are. And vice versa.

This change in the capacity of the hard-done-by to organise against the social restrictions and exclusions imposed on them by historical processes may also have been aided by a change in social outlooks; though disentangling the two effects is a somewhat analytically fraught exercise. Stephen Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature grapples with this question, though as part of a wider question over a much wider historical ambit. Equalising consumption may also have a role here: both in the sense of making lives more alike and more accessible–so easier to empathise with–and also being associated with more potential positive-sum interactions.

Note, I am not peddling some form of historical inevitability. As uber-blogger Andrew Sullivan intimates, that is condescending to the opponents and belittling to the supporting activists of the various emancipations. What the rising equalising of consumption did was create historical possibilities; activists for the various emancipations then struggled to make the possibility of equal protection of the law real.

Which brings us back to the problem with using the “result of historical selection” argument to actively block knowledge. We cannot understand the nature of social arrangements unless we are willing to consider all aspects of those arrangements, including the experience of those oppressed by them. Hence the importance of the “your experience does not count” premise–or, even more simply, “your experience is invisible to me” or “your experience is unconsidered by me”–in upholding traditional oppressions. It is a weaker form of the crippled epistemology (pdf) that Russell Hardin argued was a feature of political extremism.

As an aside, that is precisely the problem with “moral arguments against homosexuality”: even considering such treats millions of people as if their existence as “proper” form of the human is a matter for consideration and debate. Moral arguments against homosexuality extend the morality of acts so as to strip actual people of moral (and legal) protection. Given the centrality of love and companionship to human lives, arguments against homosexual acts are always also arguments placing huge burden on, and against, homosexual people. Hence the “sexuality is a choice” nonsense (really?, tell us all about when you chose to be heterosexual)–it is a way of pretending that such is not happening, of discounting experience and the burdens being imposed.

It is one thing to caution against over-confidence in our knowledge, in our understanding. It is quite another to use that injunction against over-confidence to block knowledge, to block understanding. To buttress an impoverished epistemology which denies inconvenient human experience and aspirations status or standing. A great thing about living in a society with expanding mass consumption possibilities is precisely the expanding ability to connect to each other; to both the like-minded and to the possibly persuaded.


Marriage is about …

By Lorenzo

A common argument against same-sex marriage is that marriage is “about” children. Or that the purpose of marriage is the raising of children. Or some similar claim.

Conservative philosopher Keith Burgess-Jackson rebuts a certain class of arguments against the claim that marriage is “about” children here. But the claim he defends–that marriage is about children–strips marriage of its historical context. Marriage becomes an ahistorical entity, floating in an historically unanchored “eternal now”.

Why do we think marriage is “about” one thing? How do we work out whatever it is marriage is “about”?

If we examine marriage as a human phenomenon, then we will find that the only common defining feature of marriage across human societies is that it creates in-laws. Which suggests that marriage is about connection.

But, of course,”marriage is about” arguments typically does not do any such thing as taking such a broad, historically anchored, view. Indeed, such claims are often largely, or even completely, ignorant of the diversity of human marriage customs. What is actually meant is “in our society/civilisation, marriage is about …”.  Which then raises the question of why marriage in our society is like it is.

Because of a particular historical evolution. One of which was the deliberate suppression, on religious grounds, of same-sex marriage. Either in the pre-Christian history of the Mediterranean world or the pre-colonial history of societies subject to European settlement or conquest. In the rabbinical text the Sifra, the following appears (in Achrei Mot 9:8):

I did not say this [prohibition] except for the statutes enacted by them, their fathers, and their father’s fathers. And what would they do? A man would marry a man, a woman [would marry] a woman, a man would marry a woman and her daughter, and a woman would marry two men. Therefore it says, “and in their statutes do not follow.

Rabbinical literature included some very absolutist prohibitions on homosexual activity (between men) some of which implies (pdf) the existence of same-sex marriages. Such prohibitions fit in with the priestly and clerical interest in moral complexity and outcasting.

Nor was this rabbinical denunciation of folks same-sex marrying each other mere rhetorical invention. It is fairly clear that an early piece of Christian legislation in the Roman Empire banned (pdf) same-sex marriages (Th. C. 9.8.3):

When a man marries and is about to offer himself to men in womanly fashion (quum vir nubit in feminam viris porrecturam), what does he wish, when sex has lost all its significance; when the crime is one which it is not profitable to know; when Venus is changed to another form; when love is sought and not found? We order the statutes to arise, the laws to be armed with an avenging sword, that those infamous persons who are now, or who hereafter may be, guilty may be subjected to exquisite punishment.

This is the period when marriage laws took a very adverse turn for women (pdf): on religious grounds, but clearly about stripping women control over their fertility and shifting legal and sexual power and authority to men. Claiming that marriage is “about” children is not necessarily good for women.

Much of the contemporary “culture wars” are about reversing that Christianisation and reverting to much more Roman practices on matters of sex and gender. While retaining the moral universalism that Christianity added to the Classical heritage.

A multiply-married King greets visiting Queen.

Really, marriage is “about” what a given society collectively decides it is about. This is where the claims that marriage is “by definition” a union of a man and a woman are so silly. First, polygyny is clearly a form of marriage–the Bible says so, referring to “Solomon’s wives“. Second, polyandry is clearly a form of marriage–see the Mahabharata. Suddenly, marriage becomes “by definition” between one or more men and one or more women. The claim that it is not so in our society is true, but that is also a social choice. Marriage has been chosen to be “defined” that way.  As it can be decided to “define” it differently.

A multiply-married woman with her five husbands.

Monogamous marriage is about two people building a life together much more directly than it is about children. That is why infertile folk are allowed to marry and an intent to have children has never been a required attribute. It is also why it is a socially preferred vehicle for raising children. But it is the mutual commitment that makes it suitable, is not that having children magically creates mutual commitment.

After all, it is not as if same-sex marriages cannot also be “about” children. Once we permit adoption–accepting that conception and raising children are not the same thing, so avoiding sloppy use of the term “procreative”–then same-sex marriages can be every bit “about” children as opposite-sex marriages.

So, claims based on the alleged nature of marriage turn out to ignore a considerable amount of history. Once marriage is understood as two people building a life together, then two people of the same-sex committed to building a life together can be as thoroughly married as anyone else.

Which, presumably, is why popular sentiment has been shifting towards supporting same-sex marriage. Because that is how people actually understand marriage, they just needed to get used to the idea that same-sex attracted people are “just folks” too.  The subtitle of an excellent history of marriage is How Love Conquered Marriage. The arrival (or, more accurately, the return) of same-sex marriage is just part of that long historical process.


Modernity struggles: how priests and clerics are unreliable moral guides

By Lorenzo

Priests and clerics tend to be unreliable moral guides, because their interests are served by complexity and differentiation.

Which is not to deny that, for example, Christianity has been a major factor in the distinctive achievement of Western civilisation.

The ambivalent civilisation
The late Kenneth Minogue argued that (via) the Enlightenment saw a shift among Western intellectuals from belief that we live in a fallen world to a belief that we live in an imperfect society. Which, if we find the correct system, could be made into a more perfect society.

This is a reasonable description of the radical Enlightenment, less so of the sceptical Enlightenment. The sceptical Enlightenment believed things could be made better, but focused its notion of better on people being able to go about their own lives.

Kenneth Minogue (1930-2013)

Minogue contrasts this notion of a future perfect society with societies which sought harmony via the one-right-order. So goodness is fitting in with order, badness is not doing so. (I would call this a chaos-order dichotomy.) Minogue cited Imperial China, Islam, Hinduism as examples of such one-right-order societies.

In the West, Minogue noted that there is acceptance of the notion that people have varied conceptions of proper order. There is even something of a taste for such diversity. We are, in his words, an ambivalent society. A society also one noted for a long history of war and violent conflict and the failure of unification via empire (i.e. Europe remained divided into many states). One-right-order societies tended to experience, or at least embrace, a notion of imperial unitary. And lacked much curiosity about other societies.

Europe came to be a very curious, then innovative and creative society. As Minogue noted, he is taking bits from various centuries and assembling a picture of the West. (Medieval Europe was highly adaptive of outside ideas, but Europe really only became inventive again late in Medieval period.) He argued that humans are naturally ambivalent to almost everything, but one-right-order societies force people to adapt to that order.

Hence, he averred, one-right-order societies can only really work if people are ignorant of the alternatives. (I.e. they either don’t know about them or massively discount alternatives.)  Hence also the continuing attempts of folk to leave such societies and live in the West.

Consequently, Minogue found political idealism to be a “deep threat” to how we live because it wants to substitute one virtue (such as benevolence or compassion or equality) for the ambivalence which is basic to how we live in the West and gives the West its power and appeal.

Historical Christianity
In the Q&A after the above talk, Minogue fingered Christianity as a crucial element in making the West different. In part because it was a faith, not a certainty.

It is reasonable to argue that Christianity was and is an individual salvation religion without an associated legal order in a fallen world militated against any notion of one-right-order. As Minogue notes, there is a serious difference between a religion of a crucified saviour (Christianity) and a religion of a sword-wielding Prophet (Islam). To put it another way, Christianity elevated personal salvation and failed to fuse righteousness and social order. (Or did so at best very incompletely: much of the Emancipation sequence has been a disentangling of Christian notions of righteousness from social order.) As Minogue points out, Immanuel Kant’s

out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made

is straight Christian doctrine.

Minogue cited Australian historian John Hirst’s notion that Western civilisation was built on three propositions–from the Greeks, that the world was a realm of logic and mathematics; from the Christians, that it was a fallen world; and from the Germans, that fighting was fun. Minogue would add in Roman law, but otherwise felt it was not a bad summary of the basis of Western civilisation.

Which points to a problem in fingering Christianity–to whit, many of the features he identifies about the West can be seen in Classical Greece. Certainly politics as something other than the dynamics of being or serving a ruler was almost entirely a Greek invention. Indeed, many of the features of Christianity came from arising in a society ruled by Roman law and which publicly reasoned in the language of Greek philosophy. And Greek Philosophy arose in societies where direct, active, public bargaining was the stuff of politics, so led to the development of rhetoric, logic, analysis: of public reason as an avenue for dispute.

What Christianity did provide was a moral universalism that had been alien to Greek and Roman thought. A sense of a moral order that pervaded the universe and which we were all individually responsible for upholding even if, in some ways especially if, we were fallen beings in a fallen world.  One reason why the sceptical Enlightenment was much more accommodating of organised religion than the radical Enlightenment was that the latter’s belief in a perfectible society both contradicted fundamental Christian viewpoints and competed with religion for a sense of ultimate meaning in a way that the former’s seeking to better allow people to live out their own lives simply did not.

Complexity and difference
Which brings us back to why priests and clerics tend to be unreliable moral guides. In seeking the authority of gatekeepers of righteousness, they have a vested interest in moral complexity, in conceiving of a moral order which is so far from self-evident that one needs priestly or clerical guides to navigate. Hence food, clothing, sex, gender, etc taboos. Along with that interest in complexity, they have a vested interest in moral differentiation, in dividing society into the right-path believers and the outcast unrighteous.

Which is why the tendency in the West (and arguably more generally) has been to discard religious moral complexity and differentiation in law and understanding of people and society. Part of that broad pattern of getting along with each other better that Stephen Pinker outlines in Better Angels of Our Nature. (His TED talk on the decline of violence is here.) Not so much within Islam, of course, though the rise of Islamic fundamentalism is an attempt to turn back that modernising tendency.

Which leads to a fascinating three-way struggle. Those in revolt against the moral cosmopolitanism of modernisation, who seek to create a new version of the Godly society.  Those who seek to fulfil the radical enlightenment vision of a perfect society. And those who embrace moral cosmopolitanism as a way for people to live out their lives as they wish.  The first two have a passion/commitment advantage, the last the broader appeal. (And sometimes these divisions are within people as much as between them.)

We have been here before. The Dictators’s War was one between the Counter-Enlightenment (the Nazis), the radical Enlightenment (the Soviet Union) and the sceptical Enlightenment (the Anglosphere).  Nowadays, the jihadis and Putin’s Russia are in the Counter-Enlightenment corner while the radical and sceptical Enlightenments fight it out within Western societies.

China is a fascinating case. Notionally, a radical Enlightenment (specifically Leninist) state, its regime seeks to avoid the failures of the command economies while remaining in power. Even flirting with a Confucian revival.  The Beijing regime wants the economic success of modernity while resisting its political implications. Or some of its religious implications, showing unease over the growth of Christianity within China.

Religion remains a very live factor in world affairs. After all, moral complexity and division is not all priests and clerics have to offer. Even though going down that path makes them unreliable moral guides, at war with deep tendencies in modern societies.


Short observations 2

By Lorenzo

Smartphones slow down the restaurant experience (via). Time constraint means scarcity will always be with us. (That is scarcity in the trade-offs-have-to-be-made sense. Hunger and famine need not always be with us.)


I find the notion that people without a state cannot have money risible. They may not have their own coins, but coins are merely branded money. Transaction goods that can reasonably be called money existed for millennia before the invention of coins (around 600BC) and non-state money operated for millennia after their invention. For example, cowrie shells–by far the most widely spread form of money across time and space.


Literacy preserves ideas but it also freezes doctrine. As the authors of The Creation of Inequality point out, the religious understanding of pre-literate societies could adapt to circumstances rather more fluidly than religions with written scriptures. Calling believers in the One God people of The Book may say more than is often realised.

The implication of the printing press in this is surely mixed. It made the loss of written knowledge much less likely–in a sense printing means we are in “the” Renaissance that never ended. But it also widely disseminated scriptures, making enforcement of a single orthodoxy easier within a hierarchy but rather harder in the wider society.

Robin Hanson posts on how modern society shows signs of the re-birth of foraging patterns. Perhaps the new religions within the modern West represent a form of recovery of foraging religious fluidity.


This graph on the shift of opinion on same-sex marriage in the US by religious affiliation (via) expresses visually the obvious point–the objections to giving queer citizens equal protection of the law has always been overwhelmingly religiously based, however often allegedly secular reasoning is advanced to support it. Even the notion that there is something “unnatural” about being queer comes from monotheist re-interpeting of natural law philosophy.

Note also how US Catholics (like Western Catholics generally) increasingly largely ignore the Church on matters of sex and marriage. But the Church is about playing to its (rising) developing world flock, not its (shrinking) developed world flock.


Conservatives often either live in an endless now–this is how things have always been–or otherwise valorise the past so those who lost out in past social changes somehow should always lose out. Accepting the contingency of the past rather gets in the way of using it as a source of validation.

The notion that queer folk have no history, that they are not really part of history comes from an lack of sense of history and difference. Being ignored or written out of history is not the same thing as not having one.

Thus, to assume some “natural” antipathy to homosexuality is to mistake a long history of monotheist outcasting and brutality for some human universal. One of the things that horrified the Spanish about Amerindian cultures was the positive esteem that “third gender” persons enjoyed. “Entrenched in the culture” is not the same as “natural”, but it takes a sense of history and difference to understand that.


Journalists have to be generalists. Which is why it is unfortunate they typically no longer have generalist degrees. Leading to astonishing levels of journalist ignorance. Which is where political correctness comes to the rescue–they don’t have to know, still less understand, they merely have to sing-a-long. Political correctness provides a comforting framing without the effort of knowledge and understanding.


One of the features of Muslims becoming favoured moral mascots among many progressivists is to display how not-even-skin-deep their commitment to feminism is. People holding beliefs much milder versions of which damn evangelical Christians to the outer moral darkness get embraced while Muslim women are thrown under the respecting-other-folk’s-traditions-and-culture bus without hesitation. (Evangelical Christians being potential competitors to be defined against rather than objects of moral concern and patronage.) Yet Western feminism was built on bursting through constraints of tradition and culture–and rather milder constraints than many Muslim women still labour under.

What makes this pre-emptive abandonment in the name of “respecting others” even sadder is that it was precisely awareness that other cultures did things differently which was part of the impetus to queer emancipation.  A point that has wider application: I suspect it is no accident that it is Ghanian philosopher (Kwame Anthony Appiah) who is so articulate on the virtues of cosmopolitanism, of mix-and-match cultural globalism. Of, actually, we’d like to start doing things differently.

But a lot of political correctness is about a sense of status–specifically, a sense of superior status–and there are few things more reactionary than that.


The Arab-Israeli conflicts since 1950 are way, way down the fatality list of conflicts. They are even a tiny fraction of Muslim fatalities in conflict since that time. But the matter of Israel (and Palestine) is not about reality, but rather symbolism and scape-goating (“ignore the corrupt authoritarians ruling you, remember how much you hate the Zionist entity”). And some of that symbolism goes back a long way.


One way to characterise the Israel-Hamas conflict is that Hamas seeks, and Israel fears, publicity. That is, military factors are overwhelmingly stacked in favour of Israel, political ones rather more in favour of Hamas. There is something to that. But Hamas has little to sell other than hatred, and the well of hate works better if periodically re-filled with recently-shed Palestinian blood. Dead Palestinians are not merely an instrument of Hamas’s strategy, they are an objective in themselves. It is not has if Hamas is not up-front in its embrace of Palestinian death as a strategy, to the extent that they may be losing ground politically.

But the whole “killing Jews” strategy (whether by mob before the creation of Israel or by terror afterwards) has been one long disaster for the Palestinian cause. It provides both cover and justification for Israeli policies which would stand in much more stark relief, and have less support in Israel and elsewhere, without it. David Ben-Gurion was correct, the long occupation has distorted Israel. But that relinquished territory becomes a basis for attacks on Israel just gives the expansionist sentiment more to work with it.

Each time the Arabs or Palestinians have rejected a partition deal (1947, Camp David Summit 2000) things have got worse for the Palestinian cause. But Palestinian identity has grown up anchored in hostility to Israel, and that identity is clearly more important than peace. Which then just aids the “creating facts on the ground” expansion policy, on the grounds that Israel will never get actual peace, so it should just grab what it can.


I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the reparations-for-slavery notion for African-Americans. First, because they are clearly collectively a lot better off than West Africans. Second, because lots of Americans actually died fighting to keep the Union on a basis that ended slavery, and that counts. Third, because not all African-Americans are descended from slaves (President Obama is not, for example) or are not from American slaves (e.g. Jamaican immigrants), and trying to pick and choose would be ugly. Nor were all white Americans slave owners or participants in the slave trade, so who owes whom? Fourth, because at some stage, African-Americans have to just get over it. Fighting for fair treatment now is just fine, but the reparations push looks suspiciously like wanting others to fix things for you. Which, I am afraid, is never going to happen in any useful sense and it is not healthy to base any sort of social advancement strategy on that hope.

There is also a certain element of racism only counts if you are rich: there were a lot more Brazilian slaves, and why isn’t Brazil being asked for reparations?

ADDENDA On the matter of Brazil, apparently it is an issue. Using reparations for slavery as an excuse for land reform is a clever idea.

Short observations

By Lorenzo

Maverick Philosopher tells us that arguments don’t have testicles.  But they do have perspectives built into them. Including (in some ways especially) legal arguments. We should be wary of dismissing the importance of perspective, especially as a great deal of bigotry rests precisely on denying the legitimacy of particular perspectives.


Currently reading an excellent popularisation of social science: The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire. At the end of the first Chapter they remark:

The popular press likes to suggest that Neanderthals were simply not smart enough to compete with our more modern-looking ancestors, but that view sounds racist to us.

Maybe, but is it true? Perhaps the most destructive element in political correctness is precisely that, in the name of compassion and tolerance, it devalues truth. (The claim about relative intelligence of Neanderthals and our ancestors is in fact dubious, but that is a matter of truth and evidence.)


Not that the authors are exactly standard-bearers for PC. In the next chapter they observe that:

By the time you finish reading this page, of course, Basarwa will probably have become politically incorrect.

Status behaviour, it is such a human perennial. Including keeping up with the moral Joneses.



It would be nice to hope the dissolution of the Syrian and Iraqi states would lead to the advocates of a single-state “solution” for the Israel-Palestinian dispute reviewing their position. Of course, to the extent their views are based on hatred of Israel–or, more neutrally, on belief in the de-legitimacy of Israel–than any serious analysis of situation on the ground, it will have absolutely no effect: which is what we must expect, as it has never been a reality-based position.

Smoke rises from buildings in Gaza City following Israeli airstrikes


Of course, Israel responded to [the blamed on] Hamas kidnapping and murder, followed by rocket attacks, with air attacks of its own. As the point of the actions of Hamas is precisely to inspire such deadly retribution (hence also hiding military installations amongst civilians), perhaps Israel should turn the other cheek? But (1) that would just mean Hamas would keep ratcheting up the violence until it did get the desired civilian-killing attacks and (2) it would cast doubt on Israel’s willingness to defend itself. And so the cycle of violence continues, and will continue until the pointless and destructive hope of Israel disappearing is no longer a serious position in Palestinian politics. (Really, supporting folk whose strategy is precisely to get Israel to kill Palestinians: how screwed in the head do you have to be?)


Stephen Kirchner downplays the role of the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) in Australia’s recession-free path since 1992, on the grounds that it is an inflation targeting central bank like others. But there is a difference between narrow inflation targeting–which provides no anchor for income expectations–and broad inflation targeting, which does. The RBA does the latter, the BoJ, ECB, Fed etc the former. So, in 2008, income expectations, and so spending, collapsed in the US, the Eurozone, etc, where they were unanchored by central bank policy, and did not in Australia, where they were.  I agree with Stephen that the RBA was a bit lucky (spending was above trend when the crisis hit), but I also agree with Hayek that smoothing the flow of total spending in the economy does flatten the business cycle.


A commenter makes claim that pops up a fair bit about recent decades: Years of very very very easy money has created demand for debt and shares of stock.  Prosperity and easy money are not the same thing.  Low inflation and low interest rates are generally indicators that money has been tight, not easy. In the words of Milton Friedman:

Low interest rates are generally a sign that money has been tight, as in Japan; high interest rates, that money has been easy. … After the U.S. experience during the Great Depression, and after inflation and rising interest rates in the 1970s and disinflation and falling interest rates in the 1980s, I thought the fallacy of identifying tight money with high interest rates and easy money with low interest rates was dead. Apparently, old fallacies never die.

Besides, I find the notion that the asset booms of our time are the results of “easy money” remarkably silly. It is as if no one has studied C19th economic history, when a series of dramatic asset booms and busts occurred under the gold standard, the ultimate in “hard” money. Rising capital accumulation and technological uncertainty are easily enough on their own to explain asset booms and busts. (Remembering that one person’s debt is another person’s asset.)


Regime matters

By Lorenzo

A recurring error in Western analysis is to not take ideology (particularly religious ideology) or regime structure seriously in analysing the behaviour of other states. Historian A J P Taylor’s famous statement that:

In international affairs, there was nothing wrong with Hitler except that he was German.

is a manifestation of this. But so is the notion that if we just talk it out, a solution can be found.

Sadly, this is not even remotely always true. As freelance journalist-blogger Michael J Totten observes:

If Hamas simply wanted independence for a Palestinian state, the two sides would only have to work out the details. But Hamas wants to “liberate” and “end the occupation” not of the West Bank but of Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem. It isn’t possible to negotiate a deal with these people. They aren’t interested in negotiating anything more than a temporary cease-fire. Hamas and the entire ideology behind it must be eliminated or at least marginalized before an end to the conflict will be in sight.

Quite. Bargaining requires that the other party is accepted as a legitimate bargainer and that bargains with them are things to keep. Neither proposition is self-evident or universal.  Even if these two propositions are accepted, differing assessments of relative power can still frustrate successful bargaining. As historian Geoffrey Blainey observes in The Causes of War, it is only when the two sides have converging views of their relative power that wars end.

Limits of geopolitics
Geopolitics does matter. If you look at the triads of the UK & Ireland, US & Canada, Australia & New Zealand, size and geography does much to explain why the bigger in each pair is more militarily engaged with the world than the smaller in each pair–which can “free ride” off the efforts of its larger neighbour. But only because each does not feel threatened by its larger neighbour: on the contrary, each acts on the basis of being shielded by it.  Hence geopolitics is not determinative. Canada and the US might be neighbours, but that both are British-descended, English-speaking, common law, neo-Europe federal democracies does more than mere geography to explain their interactions.

High Seas Fleet

Regime Matters
Regime structure affects foreign policy because it affects the outlooks, fears and aspirations of the regime. Second Reich Germany pursued Weltpolitik because it was a way of using nationalism to politically mobilise the expanding middle class behind the dynastic-aristocratic regime. Leading to the most disastrous military investment in history, the Imperial German Navy or Kaiserliche Marine–large enough to make Britain feel threatened (and so to ally with traditional rivals France and Russia against Germany), not actually large enough to defeat the Royal Navy. Leading to Germany’s defeat in the Dynasts’s War and the collapse of its dynastic-aristocratic regime.  (The War also brought down the dynastic regimes of the Danubian MonarchyRomanov Russia and the Ottoman Empire.)

Just as regime structure is affecting the foreign policy of the People’s Republic of China, hence:

China’s relations with many states, especially those to its south and to its east, have spiraled downward in recent years. By now we should realize that Beijing’s troubles with the international community have little or nothing to do with others.

Instead, according to the analysis of Beijing University political scientist Shi Yinhong, they are a product of:

the nationalism promoted by the Communist Party, the beliefs of senior leaders, and the dynamics inside the People’s Liberation Army. China, in short, is trapped in dangerous currents, almost all of them attributable to the flaws inherent in its particular brand of authoritarianism.

Or, to put it another way, a rather unpleasant mixture of the features of the regime structure of Second Reich Germany prior to 1914 and of Imperial Japan prior to the start of the Pacific War. US political scientist Walter Russell Mead points out that there are some very significant differences between the strategic situations of Second Reich Germany and the People’s Republic, but the similarities are enough to be worrisome.

Regime constraints

Philip II of Spain (r. 1556-1598)

useful 2007 paper compares (pdf) C16th Habsburg Spain and C18th Great Britain as states using borrowing to finance military effort. The paper argues that Habsburg Spain (which ended up regularly repudiating debt) actually made a greater fiscal effort to sustain its borrowing than did C18th Great Britain (which never repudiated its debt). On the contrary Great Britain relied more upon fiscal repression (i.e. keeping interest rates low) to finance its, ultimately much more successful, war efforts.

Having recently read Fragile by Design (2014), that suppressing private competition for credit was part of the Bank of England bargain was perfectly clear. Especially as, once the Second Hundred Years War against France had been won, said bargain was progressively re-done to open up private access to credit.

What I found a little surprising about the 2007 paper by Mauricio Drelichman and Hans-Joachim Both is that they did not refer to a rather crucial difference in political regime between C16th Habsburg Spain and C18th Britain–that the former was a highly autocratic regime and the latter a Parliamentary regime. They do note that C16th Habsburg Spain relied largely on foreign borrowing while C18th Britain relied overwhelmingly on domestic borrowing, but do not seem to have thought through why that might have been the case.

 Autocrats find it difficult to borrow internally, because those subject to their power are not in a good position to make reliable bargains. Such as, for example, repayment of funds borrowed.

William Pitt the Younger addressing the House of Commons.

Parliamentary regimes are in a much better position to borrow domestically, because the legislature is in a position to ensure the bargains are kept (and the funds are spent congenially). It is no accident that bonds start in the mercantile Serene Republic of Venice just as its government was becoming more consultative and Parliamentary.

So, autocratic Habsburg Spain was not much able to tap into domestic funds, so had to pay whatever interest rates the foreign bankers demanded. Which rose higher and higher with each repudiation of debts. (This is called “bankruptcy”, but it is not really the same as a private–particularly not a corporate–bankruptcy, as the state continues on its way.)

Conversely, C18th Great Britain was in a great position to borrow domestically, because Parliament had the power to enforce bargains and the borrowing was for purposes that cohered with the interests of those represented in Parliament. Hence the British state could engage in “fiscal repression”, with low interest rates, while it defended and expanded the commercial possibilities of those represented in Parliament. (Habsburg Spain’s strategic aims were rather less broadly grounded.)

So, regimes matter.

Migration, history and countries as club goods

By Lorenzo

This is based on comments I made here and here.

Thin conceptions
There is a line of argument which holds that if free trade in goods and services is good for economies, if free trade in capital is good for economies, then surely free trade in labour would also be good for economies. So, just as one should have open access for goods, services and capital, one should also have it for labour. Thus, migration should not be hindered. It is basically a “maximise the gains from trade” argument.

There is a related line of argument which holds that free trade in labour would result in net improvement in the overall human condition, so should be permitted. It is much the same as the previous argument, except that there is no implied preference for existing residents of a given territory–an unbounded “maximise the gains from trade” argument.

A more robust moral argument is that open borders represents acceptance of the primacy of personal liberty. People should simply be free to live where they want.

All these arguments ultimately rest on very thin (indeed, literally incredibly thin) conceptions of society and human interactions. People are treated as completely interchangeable economic agents without histories, collective preferences or issues of loyalty and affinity. Polities are treated as utilitarian service providers. It is a world literally without history. These arguments have almost no popular resonance for exactly those reasons–that people have far “thicker” conceptions of themselves, their societies and their polities than are acknowledged in the framings on which the above arguments rest.

Thicker concerns
Looking at dysfunctional polities (of which there are many) provides a salutary corrective. Indeed, open borders libertarianism suffers from the revealing irony that libertarians typically bemoan the insufficient commitment to liberty of the freest societies on the planet but completely fail to notice how unusual any such commitment is among contemporary or historical polities. Or draw any conclusions from same. It is as if the structures and habits which create free societies are taken to magically descend on folk, rather than being painful historical evolutions.

It is true: the case against open borders is based on failing to treat people as if they were goods, services or capital because they are very much more than that. As are the connections between them.

Goods and capital don’t vote, they don’t commit crimes, they do not serve in the protection of others, they do not fight, they do not create (or destroy) communities. (Though they can be tools, instruments, for all these things.)

A society is much more than a set of transactions, a set of potential gains from trade. And migration policies change societies in all sorts of ways. For example, a society which is largely monocultural can manage much denser policy structures than a more diverse society. While migration creates costs within the host society which are not evenly distributed. Costs which are profoundly affected by who migrates, in what numbers and where.

Migration can also be a weapon of one group against another. Hence the so-called Curley Effect (pdf)–using migration to attract in folk likely to vote in a particular way and the results to drive away folk who vote differently.

Nick Rowe has posted on his excellent way of teaching comparative advantage. But if one adds in issues with costs of communications and different expectations across language, cultural and religious groups, it hardly works quite as smoothly. Especially if there is geographic clumping. Adding in history, in other words, shift the analysis some.

Policy variance
Immigration can be handled more or less well. Australia handles migration comparatively well and has a very high rate of foreign-born residents by Western standards (around 28%)–for example, migrants to Australia actually do better in school on average than locally-born, which is not a normal pattern. But Australia is a prosperous, English-speaking island-continent, so border enforcement is relatively easy and we can cherry-pick migrants (which we do quite effectively).

Australia also has diverse migrants, which helps greatly. Indeed, the most problematic migrant community are Lebanese Muslims in Sydney because:

(1) Sydney is Australia’s least socially-functional metropolis.

(2) Unlike Maronite Lebanese, they do not plug straight into well-established Catholic networks.

(3) They were brought in an unusually large “lump” with minimal selection procedures.

(4) There are specific issues for Middle East Muslims settling into Western countries.

The US has much less difficulty with Muslim migrants than Europe does because the US is set up as a settler country, its migrants are relatively diverse, its Muslim migrants are generally better educated, “God-discourse” is much more conventional part of public life while organising through your local mosque just replicates established patterns of organising through your local synagogue or church.

Varying experience
In Australia, opinion polling had become somewhat hostile to migration since the mid 1970s. The polls improved dramatically after the Howard Government (1996-2007) made a big play of “stopping the boats”, despite running a considerable migration program, the least Eurocentric in Australia’s history up to that time. The Government’s slogan of “we will decide who will come here” seriously resonated. The costs and benefits of migration are not evenly distributed, and giving voters a sense they have no say or control is not healthy. It is that sense of powerlessness which is surely a very big driver of popular responses.

Locally-born Americans

In Without Consent or Contract Robert Fogel documents the significantly adverse effects of mass migration on locally born US citizens during the C19th. The nativist movement expressed rational antipathy to mass migration. The new Republican Party brilliantly finessed that into antipathy to “the Slave Power”.  Access to resources for existing residents can be reduced by migration–this is what happened in C19th US, for example. The dysfunctional EU labour markets also share some of such features. Another way in which the “it is just about gains from trade” analysis does not work.

The sense that your rights will be under threat if a particular group gets sizable is another factor. Mass migration of Muslims into a society (or even developing world Christians) might not be good for the freedom of queer citizens. So queer folk are not likely to be keen on large scale Muslim migration, especially if the fight for equal protection of the law is not yet fully won or is otherwise precarious. Polities make rules, migrants become voters and vote. It makes a difference.

We have to take into account peoples real world preferences. The Rawlsian (behind the veil of ignorance) analysis is both not applicable and instructive. Over the longer term, the game of migration policy is about the rules as much as anything else, where rules are openly up for grabs and preferences about rules are not the same as preferences within individual transactions.

Hence, part of the “thicker” concept of country is that it is not just a mass of one-off transactions. Not even the concept of repeated transactions allows trade analysis to be “deep” enough. The rules and affinities powerfully affect not only which transactions take place, but their content and effects.

Since polities need to be able to claim the loyalty of citizens (not being able to do so is not a survival trait in a polity) and as political entrepreneurs exist (see the recent EU elections) telling large numbers of citizens that their preferences on entry to their country have no standing, no matter how important it is to them, is not conducive to political or social stability.

Increased communication costs and dispersal in preferences also affect what public policies become more or less viable. The “Scandinavian model” in public policy fairly clearly rests on high levels of communication and shared preferences. The more migration reduces such flows of communication and disperses the range of preferences, the less viable the Scandinavian model becomes. As that becomes clearer, the costs of migration may well lead to rational antipathy to said migration.

Of course, pandering to anti-immigration feeling can have other political entrepreneurial uses. It may be a lot easier than, for example, dealing with dysfunctional labour markets. Even when said dysfunctions have a great deal to do with how dysfunctional the banlieue are, for example. Regulations tend to defend social incumbents (see dysfunctional labour markets): but well organised/politically focused incumbents rather than just any incumbents.

A defender of open borders on liberty ground can claim thatThe only question is whether you believe in liberty or not. It’s about principles. In fact, the debate is about how to conceptualise human interactions and what countries are. And yes, one can “win” a debate by simply ignoring or denying those parts of the social world which are awkward for one’s own case. But that is not going to be remotely persuasive to folk who are not up for that.

I do not find any sort of anarchism persuasive, for example, as (1) state societies have achieved so much more than non-state societies and (2) a lack of a state just creates a market niche for entries to the “state” market. That, after all, is what protection rackets are: competitors to the state in extraction-via-coercion.

Conversely, using the family as an analogy for country bothers me, as I feel some connection to fellow citizens, but not that intense a one. Moreover, talking about countries as being like families is a favourite rhetorical ploy of socialists, nationalists and fascists, so has uncongenial, even dangerous, collectivist associations.

Polities as clubs
A way to think of polities in economic terms is that they are a uber-club good. A way of providing public goods. They are not fully voluntary associations, because one is born into a polity, so membership is partly “by blood”. Which makes them territorial clubs (a bit like gated communities).

The effect of new entrants on the rules is another way polities are club-like. And there are a reason clubs have membership rules and rights to exclude. Clubs want people to “fit in”, not be disruptive, hopefully be active in supporting the activities of the club.

Of course, border control can have its ugly aspects. And making unapproved migration illegal without sufficiently effective border control creates a population of “illegals” who, being isolated from normal legal protections, become vulnerable to exploitation, even labour bondage and slavery. Nevertheless, managing a successful polity is a more precarious enterprise than supporters of “let anyone in” seem to understand.

Thinking of a polity as a device for making political bargains, large and small, if anything increases the power of the club analogy. If group X rejects group Y as someone to make deals with, this is deeply disruptive to making bargains. (See Sunni and Shia in Iraq; Protestants and Catholics in Ulster.) The greater the entrenched associations of common loyalties, the more somewhat antagonistic diversity can be dealt with. The Catholic v Protestant fights in Australia could be managed through a mixture of past Britishness and future Australian aspirations. The Ulster divisions were so entrenched because which polity they should be part of was precisely what was in dispute, while “Iraq” clearly has little standing except as a useful device for whichever group is in control of the state apparatus to repress the other(s).

History matters. Really, it does. Which is why the argument for simply open borders both fails to resonate with the wider public and simply fails. It just does not take history, the requirements of effective politics or the depth of human interactions seriously enough.