16 March 2023

hyper-rationalists and their biases

• There is a category of person who believes the world would be improved if people could be made to act more rationally. Let us call such persons 'hyperrationalists'. (The prefix hyper- is not intended as pejorative.) Clearly there are many economists and psychologists working in, or associated with, the field of cognitive bias who fall into this category. The problem hyperrationalists need to deal with, but tend to avoid, is: what exactly is rational, and what is irrational? How does one (scientifically) define a 'good' or a 'better' decision, versus a 'bad' or 'worse' one?

• Hyperrationalists need to tread carefully when publicising their conclusions, especially when these come labelled as being 'expert' or 'scientific'. The insistence that some things are indisputably correct and others are not, and the ability of some group to claim authority in this matter, is one of the ingredients of totalitarianism. On a less extreme level, the belief that one is part of a group which has acquired the wisdom to see through illusions can lead to a kind of lazy arrogance. 'Oh yes, we know all about that point of view, we can safely dismiss it.' Or: 'Applying the nudge strategy is fine, because we have worked out what is in your best interests – and you don't even need to know about it!'

• Hyperrationalism is part of the post-Enlightenment programme that believes humans can be improved; and that humans can use logic, rationality, critique and science to make better decisions, improve their own lives, and improve society. But many of the assumptions of this programme have been tested and found wanting. Science and technology don't invariably improve people's lives, at least not without costs that are often not apparent initially. The belief that societies can be improved, or made perfect, has ironically led to human suffering on an appalling scale.
   The basic problem, which a long line of rationalists — culminating in the hyperrationalists — have tended to ignore, is three-fold:
(1) How do we define 'better'?
(2) Is 'improvement' going to be undertaken by individuals, or collectively? If collectively, which individuals will be making the decisions about 'improvement' on behalf of everyone else?
(3) How are differing ideas of what is 'better' to be reconciled?
Ignoring these issues leads to a kind of casual authoritarianism, where potential doubts and disagreements are dismissed or ignored, and the 'correct' answer is simply imposed on others, with or without their consent.

• As a result of the biases/irrationality research programme initiated by behavioural economists such as Daniel Kahneman (and before him Richard Thaler), and the subsequent pop-economics bandwagon (involving such books as Freakonomics and Predictably Irrational), there is now a general presumption that it has been proven that people are irrational. This is far from being the case. Yet the presumption — now habitually treated as a truism — has passed into popular intellectual mythology.
   Take an article published 2016 in online magazine Quanta, and republished by Pocket last year. Entitled 'The Neuroscience Behind Bad Decisions', with the subheading 'Irrationality may be a consequence of the brain's ravenous energy needs', the article simply takes it for granted that humans are irrational, the only thing remaining being to investigate when and why.
   To illustrate its thesis, the article cites research by Paul Glimcher, a neuroscientist at New York University. Glimcher and his colleagues "asked people to choose among a variety of candy bars, including their favorite — say, a Snickers." If offered a small number of competing candy bars along with a Snickers, participants would always choose the Snickers.
But if they were offered 20 candy bars, including a Snickers, the choice became less clear. They would sometimes pick something other than the Snickers [... However, when the experimenter removed all the candy bars] except the Snickers and the selected candy, participants would wonder why they hadn't chosen their favorite.
The results are interesting, and perhaps tell us something about human cognition and decision-making. But like all experiments of this kind they cannot tell us anything about 'irrationality', because there is no objective way of defining it.

• In the case of the NYU experiment, as in many others cited by behavioural economists, 'irrationality' or 'bad decision' is defined in terms of a person's subsequent remorse, or his/her wish to give a different answer after the event. Dan Ariely's book Predictably Irrational is peppered with examples of this kind. E.g. in the evening you make a decision about how much to drink, and the next morning you say that you definitely chose wrong. Then the next evening you repeat the whole cycle — possibly leading others (and/or yourself) to label you a fool.
   In an everyday context, there is nothing controversial about another person commenting, 'you are not acting in your best interests', or 'you are not giving sufficient weight to how you will feel in the morning', or even 'in the morning you are rational but in the evening you are irrational'. As someone being rigorously scientific one cannot make judgments of this kind, and one is not entitled to conclude anything about irrationality, or supoptimal decisions, from the data. The subject may have a good reason for recurrent heavy drinking, which he himself may not even be aware of. Even if he is aware of it he may not tell you, if he doesn't expect it to pass the reasonableness criterion of the average outside observer — let alone that of a scientific investigator.
   The phenomenon of subjects wishing they had made different decisions may tell you something about human psychology, but it cannot tell you anything about human rationality, unless you first assert norms of rationality which have no particular scientific basis. E.g. you impose the requirement that 'for a choice to be rational, one must not express regret about it later'; or: 'for a choice to be rational, it must depend only on material end results and not on the way the options are presented'.
   Of course our drinker may decide to mend his ways, and may do so by deciding his abstaining self is his more rational self. Impartial observers may opine that he has improved his life, by making better choices. What one cannot do is to assert that any of these perspectives is more rational than the one where it seems right for him to go on drinking, and to claim this assertion has scientific backing.

• Identifying one cognitive bias may be useful, as a way of expanding knowledge of psychology — though whether this knowledge can be used to 'improve' anything is a far less straightforward question than many hyperrationalists seem to assume. Collecting together several cognitive biases, and basing a grand theory on your collection, risks generating a bias of your own, given that the individual biases — and your collection — are unlikely to have been selected randomly.
   Daniel Kahneman is happy to let the biases he selects in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow lead him to the conclusion that others should, in general, be more involved in a person's decision-making. Indeed, he goes so far as to argue that rigorous respect for individual autonomy is "not tenable":*
[...] a theory that ignores what actually happens in people's lives and focuses exclusively on what they think about their life is not tenable [...]
However, the biases he chooses to include — or that have previously been picked for experimental investigation, by himself and others — mostly tend towards one particular implication. There are other biases, however, which do not. So far in my reading of his book I have not come across any mention of 'social biases' — biases that arise when people make decisions or judgments in groups, such as the bandwagon effect. It's clear that emphasising such biases would undermine the policy conclusions Kahneman seeks to draw from his data.

* In a book seeking to lecture readers about objectivity and rationality, Professor Kahneman should perhaps have avoided the phrase "not tenable", which sounds like it means "logically inconsistent and hence necessarily false" but in this case merely reflects a subjective reasonableness standard, set by him and others with the same outlook.

• Human psychology is complex. By focusing on findings of a particular kind, it's easy to generate a biased picture. There are experiments purporting to show that, in certain contexts, individuals express overconfidence about their own (erroneous) judgments, and these experiments form part of Kahneman's narrative. But this is only one side of the story. In other contexts, individuals appear unduly willing to devalue their own judgments in favour of those of another person, if that person receives reinforcement either from numbers ('there's more of them than of me') or from some accreditation that supposedly makes him more knowledgeable or otherwise authoritative ('he is a someone, I am a nobody'). The Milgram experiments, where individuals obey an instruction to administer electric shocks in spite of their own misgivings, provide a classic illustration of the latter phenomenon.
   In other words, people may be just as likely to have too little faith in their intuitive judgments (e.g. 'I felt it was wrong to give painful electric shocks to the experimental subject but the scientist from the university told me to go ahead') as too much (e.g. 'I'm certain I remember correctly what happened at the accident'). Highlighting one type of bias at the expense of another in a popular book gives readers – well, a biased perspective.

• The pop-economics bandwagon re bias/rationality can itself be seen as a grand experiment about bias, with the following hypotheses being tested.
Is it possible for the author of a popular economics or psychology book to:
— exploit an emotional bias in readers (call it 'insecurity') in favour of believing they are poorer at making judgments than they thought, and that they would be better off deferring to others, at least in some areas where they previously did not?
— invoke the image of science (experts, experiments, peer-reviewed journals etc.) to create a framing effect, in which people become less critical about what they are reading?
— present information in a way that manipulates readers, so that they believe adequate evidence has been adduced to support a radical thesis, when in fact it has not?
   The reception given to books such as Thinking, Fast and Slow and Predictably Irrational suggests the answer to all three questions is: yes.

Quotation by Daniel Kahneman is from Thinking, Fast and Slow, Farrar Straus & Giroux 2011, p.410.

30 January 2023

de Tocqueville: enervation & stupefaction

When Alexis de Tocqueville published the second volume of his Democracy in America in 1840, democracy was still in its infancy. Some of de Tocqueville's fears and predictions about what it might lead to now seem misplaced. The following extract however still strikes a chord.
Above [the multitude in a democracy] stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their fate. [...] For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness: it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances — what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living? Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range, and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. [...]

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp, and fashioned them at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform [...] The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided: men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting: such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd. *
It's not known whether Nietzsche read Democracy in America, but his reflections on the 'Last Man', written four decades later, sound a similar note.
Alas! There cometh the time when man will no longer give birth to any star. Alas! There cometh the time of the most despicable man, who can no longer despise himself.
Lo! I show you THE LAST MAN.
"What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?" — so asketh the last man and blinketh.
The earth hath then become small, and on it there hoppeth the last man who maketh everything small. His species is ineradicable like that of the ground-flea; the last man liveth longest.
"We have discovered happiness" — say the last men, and blink thereby. [...]
No shepherd, and one herd! Every one wanteth the same; every one is equal: he who hath other sentiments goeth voluntarily into the madhouse.
"Formerly all the world was insane," — say the subtlest of them, and blink thereby. They are clever and know all that hath happened: so there is no end to their raillery.

(from Thus Spoke Zarathustra, transl. Thomas Common)
While Nietzsche's version seems more poetic, and perhaps more profound, de Tocqueville's is the more politically astute. Unlike Nietzsche, who talks of "no shepherd", de Tocqueville recognises that a society in which passivity, compliance, and homogeneity have become norms provides enormous scope for some to have power over others.

* Part 4, Chapter 6, transl. Henry Reeve. Via George H. Smith & Marilyn Moore, Individualism.

08 November 2022

Kahneman: pseudoscience on a grander scale

• I thought it would be interesting to alternate our reading of Paul Collier’s The Future of Capitalism with a book by another highly decorated economist: Daniel Kahneman. Professor Kahneman is a well-known name among economics students. Research carried out by him and Amos Tversky in the 1970s highlighted some of the limitations of conventional economic analysis, by showing that choices made by the average person often fail to conform to what economic theory predicts. But in Kahneman's book Thinking, Fast and Slow, this awareness of theoretical limitations is inverted, and spun into a grand narrative about human rationality.
   The work has become hugely popular with intellectuals. "Daniel Kahneman has done us a great service" is a typical comment by a reviewer working in the humanities. Why has the book struck such a chord with intellectuals? Various explanations are possible, including that proposed by another reviewer, claiming that Kahneman is on a par with greats like Freud in advancing understanding of human psychology.
   I suspect one of the principal reasons the book has proved popular is its central thesis, according to which research shows that humans are irrational. Why does this thesis appeal to intellectuals? Because it provides ammunition for the interventionist-paternalist programme, which tacitly assumes that intellectuals should rule society (in the sense of controlling, among other things, education, medicine and cultural output — supposedly in everyone's best interests) rather than leaving things to the decisions of individuals and the markets.
   It's ironic that, having carried out research which usefully demonstrated that some of the assumptions of economic theory about how humans behave were plain wrong, Kahneman’s book assumes another theoretical model of rationality, and in effect says that where theory and practice differ with regard to behaviour, it is practice which is wrong!

• The issue hinges on the concept of rationality, and whether it is possible to define it objectively. The short answer is: no, it's not. There is no behaviour, or belief, about which it is possible to assert irrefutably "this is irrational".
   Take for example a textbook illustration from economics: you are bargaining with a buyer, who could be an employer, for the sale of an object or your own labour, and the buyer offers a choice between you getting £1000 and £1100, all other things being equal. Some would argue that you are definitely irrational if you strongly prefer the £1000 option — after all, you could (they would say) dispose of the extra £100 easily enough. But you may well have reasons for making that choice which cannot simply be dismissed. You may not even be aware of what the reasons are, but it would be impossible to disprove the proposition that ultimately, in some sense, this choice is in your interests. (All sorts of effects could be present here to complicate the picture but being left out of the equation; some of them known about, such as reputational effects; others not known about.)
   Or take a belief in something supernatural, for which (a sceptic would say) there is no good evidence. How about belief in the existence of God? Richard Dawkins has argued this belief is irrational, but that would make a lot of clever people from history irrational. In any case, the concept of God is too ill-defined to say what would constitute evidence. How conclusive would the evidence have to be? The evidence for global warming, or the carcinogenicity of tobacco, is strong, but not completely conclusive. At what level of evidence does a belief stop being irrational, and start to be rational?
   The point is: the question of what is rational is ultimately subjective. Kahneman, and the psychologists he cites, may have done experiments which comply rigorously with scientific standards and which generate interesting results, but such experiments are — and arguably always will be — incapable of yielding the sorts of conclusion that Kahneman draws.
   Conclusions such as the following; Kahneman is here referring to an experiment in which subjects are asked to express a preference between two types of experience involving mild pain (my italics):
An objective observer making the choice [on behalf of an individual] would undoubtedly choose [differently from the individual].

... The choices that people made on their own behalf are fairly described as mistakes.
Again, there's an irony in the fact that Kahneman at other points in the book criticises evaluations made on a gut basis, in ignorance of reality being more complex, yet is here guilty of the same thing. He appears to think we can obviously dismiss some judgments as being irrational or inadequately thought out, and that some preferences are just wrong. "This person says she prefers strawberry jam because it leaves a nice aftertaste, but she ought to prefer blueberry jam because it is more satisfying while it is being consumed" is a statement Kahneman does not make — but it's analogous to some of the things he does say.

• Some beliefs or preferences may strike a high percentage of ordinary people as bizarre or unjustifiable. Others may strike an even higher percentage of intellectuals as ridiculous. No doubt some intellectuals would like to have conclusive scientific support for rejecting certain beliefs or preferences. Attempts to use science to justify the decisive rejection of one preference over another, however, inevitably involve the abuse of science.
   I don't wish to de-legitimise the concept of 'irrational' as used in an everyday context, but we have to recognise that judgments about rationality are judgments, not scientific findings, and are ultimately not capable of being given irrefutable justification.
   Whether something is true or not may seem simple in some cases (is London the capital of the UK or not?) but most questions do not have easy yes-or-no answers, meaning there is little conclusive basis for assigning irrationality to one answer rather than another.
   With regard to preferences, there is certainly no adequate justification for intruding on individual choices to argue: your preference for A is wrong, our data shows you should be preferring B [*said in severe tone, by figure in lab coat carrying clipboard*]. Believing such intrusions are justified by science is not only wrong, it is dangerous.

• In the next instalment we'll take a look at the experiments on which Kahneman bases his conclusions.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2011. Quotes are from p.409.

15 September 2022

social mobility

• More on the topic of science and morality, and how getting them muddled can have bad results: a follow-up to my previous article on social mobility.

Social mobility ‘research’:
science vs normativity

• I consume a fair amount of Kindle Unlimited fiction and like to give a plug to anything particularly noteworthy. Harriet Smart's Northminster mysteries are set in Northern England during the first years of Victoria's reign, and feature a police officer and a young surgeon, both male, as the main protagonists. Some of the books could do with additional proofing and I occasionally find them a bit grisly for my taste, but there is a touch of genius in the portrayal of early-Victorian society and of the psychology of the characters, as well as in the complexity of the plots.
   Speaking of male protagonists, I recently read a contemporary sci-fi novel in which all the spaceship team were male (though from diverse alien races). Highly unusual but also highly refreshing. I used to find novels refreshing in which plucky heroines proved they were better than their stuffy male counterparts, but it has now become so monotonously regular a feature that it's getting tedious. I came to realise, in reading this unfashionably androcentric sci-fi book, the possible advantage of leaving female characters out altogether. For most contemporary writers, the moment a female principal character is introduced, there appears to be a need on the part of the writer to demonstrate that she is at least as 'good' as the males, in whatever department. (A type of virtue signalling?) She cannot be allocated a merely supportive role, since this might be taken to imply something about being female, and we cannot have that, even if the something is merely statistical. Thus in practice women in fiction are now largely confined to certain predictable roles — just as they were in the past, except that the predictable roles are now different ones. We see this in Amazon's Rings of Power, for example, where (a) it's fairly inconceivable that the position of lead character could have been assigned other than to a female character, and yet (b) a little digital tweaking of the appearance and voice of Galadriel (ably played by Morfydd Clark), and many viewers could surely be fooled into assuming, from the action and dialogue, that it was a male elf that was being represented.

     Queen Elizabeth II (1926 - 2022)     

10 August 2022

world leaders in inflation

That America has called its latest piece of pro-state legislation an "Inflation Reduction Act" may well come to be seen, in due course, as the defining irony of Joe Biden's presidency. There seems little in the Act likely to significantly impact inflation in the intended way. We know from history that once inflation hits levels where everyone feels the pinch, it tends to become self-sustaining. We also know that trying to control prices or wages under such conditions tends not to work and can make things worse.
   The time to reduce the risk of inflation was before it started, by being aware of the possibility that massive money creation might eventually — under certain triggering conditions — cause problems; and by not getting complacent, as Mario Draghi for example seems to have done, that because we had not had the triggering conditions for a long time, that could be relied on to be permanent. (Comparable to the delusion, popular a couple of decades ago, that busts had been eliminated, simply because the boom had lasted longer than usual.)
   It is unfortunate for America, and for the rest of the world, that the time when caution was, and is, particularly needed has coincided with the White House being occupied by one of the most spendthrift Presidents in US history. In sharp contrast to Donald Trump, Mr Biden's approach receives support from an army of pro-state intellectuals. There still appear to be a few financially responsible politicians in America, otherwise Mr Biden's original $4 trillion plan might have been implemented, rather than the c.$2 trillion committed so far.
   Signs of suppressed inflation have been hiding in plain sight for years, prior to the recent wake-up call. (Among other things, progressive shrinkflation and skimpflation; and consistently faster-than-headline inflation in sectors where efficiency gains from the IT revolution — an effect that will run out eventually, and may already be starting to do so — haven't exerted downward pressure on prices.) Either successive Presidents have chosen not to listen to the warnings of their economic advisers or, more likely, those advisers didn't bother with warnings, choosing instead to look the other way.
   Of course America is not unique in this respect. The UK, the rest of Europe and Japan have all adopted comparable programmes of money expansion and ballooning state expenditure. It's conceivable, however, that they might have felt a bit more restrained without the USA's example.
    Governments' best hope at this point for controlling inflation is to commit to fiscal prudence — not to engage in posturing, let alone indulging in even more state largesse.

27 July 2022

science and morality don’t mix

• We are continuing our reading of Professor Paul Collier's book The Future of Capitalism. This is proving to be a useful way of exploring a range of issues in political theory. My reason for choosing this particular book is not because it's an especially egregious example of leftist academia. Collier's brand of ideology is relatively mild, and his book shows some recognition of opposing points of view. Collier isn't fundamentally opposed to capitalism as many of his peers are. It's because the book's approach is relatively sober and unemotive — compared to similar publications by other humanities professors — that it provides a convenient springboard.
   Despite the book's relative mildness, many of its core themes are essentially the same as those of most other books on politics or society written by academics over the last forty years. Indeed, the regularity with which the same ideas recur in each new book that comes along is nothing short of remarkable, and suggests the possibility of some kind of underlying motivational bias.
   Feedback can be given via the email listed in the sidebar.

• Chapter 2 of TFOC is entitled 'The Foundations of Morality'.
   Let us start by noting that there is not, nor can there ever be, a science of morality.* Science and morality occupy different parts of the intellectual landscape. A long line of philosophers, stretching from David Hume to A.J. Ayer and beyond, have pointed out that the gulf between is and ought blocks the possibility of proving that any particular moral position is correct.
   That hasn't stopped other philosophers persisting with the search for proof. People want to know how they ought to be behave, and intellectuals of course would like to know what to tell them. This leads to the temptation to believe that, given a clever enough mind working with the latest ideas, irrefutable moral or political truth is potentially accessible. In his 1993 book How Are We to Live, for example, philosophy professor Peter Singer endorsed the view that, with further advances in academic philosophy, we could arrive at ethical propositions that are as indisputable as those of mathematics.
   Since science has now become the only generally accepted basis among intellectuals for generating objective truth, attempts to provide firm ethical or political conclusions often try to hang their arguments on some scientific finding or other, but this endeavour is doomed, and usually relies on a fudging of the issues.
   For instance, TFOC cites a study purporting to show that the regrets which people say they feel most keenly, in relation to decisions they might have made differently, are about social bonds or obligations and not about financial or other economic choices. That is interesting, but hardly enables us to say anything profound that goes much beyond the raw data. Collier treats it as evidence about "the relative psychological importance" of wants versus oughts. This is a good example of a tiny piece of data, probably highly dependent on the way the study is framed, and on how exactly the questions are put, being used to support a grand narrative about psychology or politics. Simply because some factor features larger in the conscious mind at any one time need not necessarily reveal much about how big a driver of behaviour that factor is, quite apart from the question of how honest subjects are in questionnaire studies.

• There are three tasks facing someone who wants to write a political philosophy book — at least one that seeks to offer 'solutions'. First, they need to identify 'problems'. Second, they need to identify the root of the supposed problems. Third, they need to predict what policies will attack the supposed root in such a way as to eliminate or reduce the problem.
   None of these tasks is one that is particularly amenable to science. The best that can be done is to tell a convincing story. In the process, you can adduce some research that seems supportive, but the likelihood in that case is that your conclusions are reached via a sort of 'logic lite' that can easily amount to pseudoscience. The implications of the research finding are stretched way beyond its significance. The chain of argument seems loosely scientific because you cite some peer-reviewed academic paper, the data of which the reader is unlikely to investigate for themselves. It's pseudoscience in the sense that it's made to look scientific but isn't.
   Furthermore, task (1) inevitably involves the writer's own moral biases. In identifying something as a problem, the writer will have to make assumptions about other people's preferences, those assumptions typically being based on his own preferences. Or assumptions will be made about what other people's preferences ought to be.

• Having read chapters 1 and 2, it has not yet become clear what core problem Collier sees as plaguing modern society. He complains about social engineers inspired by utilitarianism, and about populist politicians; and seems to see the former as part of the cause of the problem, and the latter as a (bad) response to the problem. But what precisely is the problem? Apparently something to do with the loss of communitarian values, but this is not spelled out in any detail. What we do get is:
(a) allusion to the well-honed idea that capitalism tends to promote selfishness, and an assertion that what is needed is to "build reciprocal obligations";
(b) the idea that there's a way to tackle the selfishness issue that is different from the old paternalist-utilitarian approach.

• By the end of chapter 2, Collier confidently asserts:
We now have a coherent picture that shows us how individual behaviour is shaped by obligations, why it matters, why it might "go wrong", and how it might be put right.
The chapter started with a discussion of the possible origins of communitarian behaviour (Collier uses the analogy of sheep — is this sending the right signals?), and ends with the claim that a coherent picture has been generated of what might "go wrong" and how it might be "put right". What logic is used in between, to get from one to the other?
   Collier proposes that a society can be wrong and yet stable, in the sense that everyone would prefer another kind of society but agreed norms mean that no one is in a position to bring about change. Though he doesn't use this as an illustration, it seems plausible for example that Soviet-style communism was unloved by the vast majority of its subjects for many decades but nevertheless remained highly stable, and that it required a revolutionary movement to flip Eastern European societies into a different configuration. Of course, this is speculation: we have no way of knowing for sure what the majority of (say) Poland wanted, and no doubt there were some Poles who preferred communism. This is the problem with getting into the position of having opinions about 'wrong' and 'right', beyond simply describing such models as theoretically possible: you need to make assumptions and/or value judgements.**
   Beyond this reference to the possibility of stable but suboptimal collective outcomes, there is nothing in chapter 2 to explain how the specific defects of "individual behaviour ... shaped by obligations" might be identified for a particular society, and nothing about how to ensure that proposed remedies will make things better rather than worse. The basic problem of how to identify right and wrong in relation to a society, in a way that is objective and not dependent on an intellectual's own preferences and prejudices, is left wholly intact.

* I am not talking about the kind of science that investigates what moral beliefs people actually hold (a question of fact); or the kind that asks why particular moral beliefs might have developed in response to particular drives or needs (a question of biological or sociological theory). Both can be illuminating but don't get us very far. One might be told that most societies commit genocide, one way or another; or that genocide is beneficial for the genes of the survivors; but one would not find either a compelling reason for regarding genocide as a good thing.

** There may be a good reason why it was not in Collier's interests to mention communism at that point, as an illustration of a suboptimal social configuration, given that TFOC is trying to promote the idea that the state can be used to change configurations to more positive ones. Communism and its collapse is too suggestive of the opposite idea: that the use of the state to improve things generates a worse (but stable) outcome, and that societal improvement may require rejection of the state as an instrument of welfare.

18 May 2022

Sir Paul's book on capitalism — part 2

I am finding Paul Collier's book The Future of Capitalism readable and thought-provoking. Unlike most other books in its subject area, it displays some sympathy for the opposition. But given that the book aims to be a blueprint for socialism, this sympathy is unlikely to run very deep. It behoves readers to remain on the alert for the standard assumptions and devices of anti-capitalist ideology.
   Readers also need to be aware that a socialist canny enough to highlight the flaws of other socialists is not necessarily going to avoid falling into the same traps. There is something irresistible about socialism for many intellectuals; the fact that Collier himself draws attention to some of the features of this phenomenon early on doesn't mean he is necessarily going to eschew the standard tropes further down the line. For example, he criticises use of victim-ideology, but is not immune himself to the temptation of representing people as the passive casualties of circumstance, desperately in need of help from the state. He talks of the less-well educated being in crisis, stigmatized as the white working class; of a collapse in the sense of a purposeful life among the American working class; and of redundant over-fifties drinking the dregs of despair.
   Crisis, incidentally, is a standard trope of socialist ideology. Well before the Great Depression, early twentieth-century socialist pioneers such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb were talking about the supposed crisis of capitalism, and the trope has remained in the intellectuals' top ten ever since — to a large extent regardless of rises and falls in economic fortunes.
   One of the standard devices of anti-capitalist ideology is to be vague about what the word 'capitalism' means, and to treat it as a bucket concept. Roughly speaking, the term refers (or ought to refer) to a society in which there is minimal state involvement beyond maintaining personal and property rights; in other words, a society where interactions between individuals depend predominantly on what those individuals agree between themselves. With advanced capitalism, the state may issue and enforce more complex rules that facilitate relatively sophisticated interactions, such as credit rules for banking, or the existence of corporate entities which are treated as legal individuals.
   We, by contrast, live in a world in which the state spends nearly half the national product. The state intervenes massively in employer-employee and consumer-vendor interactions. Most of education and medicine are provided via the state. In other words, we do not live under capitalism, but under a mixed system of 50:50 capitalism and socialism. This 50:50 condition has prevailed for many decades. Thus in talking about some supposed current problem of society, one ought to at least pause for thought before rushing to the conclusion that 'capitalism' is to blame. This, however, would complicate the narrative; hence most commentators on 'capitalism' — academic or otherwise — ignore the issue.
   It's easy to produce a knee-jerk reaction against capitalism — socialism is supposed to be about 'helping' (controlling?) other people, so it must be 'nicer' than capitalism; this reaction is readily exploited by authors who want to induce the standard head-shaking and breast-beating responses. Hence 'capitalism' becomes a bucket concept: it's the obvious villain when discussing social problems.
   This bias — that capitalism is automatically on trial, assumed to be guilty, and has to justify itself before 'we' (the elites) will allow it — already makes an appearance in the first chapter of TFOC. Collier argues that
capitalism's core credential of steadily rising living standards for all has been tarnished: it has continued to deliver for some, but has passed others by.
Having accused others of preaching ideology that deviates from normal people's values, Collier here appears to be doing the same thing. Surely only a socialist intellectual would demand that capitalism must deliver "steadily rising living standards for all" in order to avoid being ditched in favour of state control of the economy (probably involving management by socialist intellectuals).
   With further reading of chapter 1, the apparent underlying message of TFOC begins to emerge. The tone is patient, parental even. 'Dear voters, yes you have been right to resent the leftist elites, but their arrogance is not a failing of socialism per se. We need to give emphasis, not to the individual's supposed rights against the collective (such rights do not exist), but to the communitarian values that we had under the type of socialism that prevailed in the 1950s and 60s.' (my paraphrasing)
   The theme there is too much individualism, we must have more community — very popular among intellectuals of both Left and Right — appears to be another theme of TFOC. But what Collier means by 'community' may simply equate with collectivism — in the sense of control by the state, even if a state ostensibly endorsed by the majority. A nostalgia for community of the voluntary kind, perversely expressed by trying to impose 'community' from above, is another standard trope of socialist ideology. Collier seems not to understand the difference — or else he is being disingenuous. He approvingly describes the rise of cooperative societies in the nineteenth century.
Through recognizing that they had a common attachment to the place where they grew up, communities such as Sheffield's built co-operative organizations ... that reaped the benefits of reciprocity ... From its crucible in northern England, the co-operative movement rapidly spread across much of Europe.
From there the book jumps to state socialism as being similarly benign, one of those sleights-of-hand popular with political philosophers.
By banding together, these co-operatives became the foundation of the political parties of the centre-left: the parties of social democracy. The benefits of reciprocity within a community were scaled up as the community became the nation. Like the co-operatives, the new policy agenda was practical, rooted in the anxieties that beset the lives of ordinary families. In the post-war era, across Europe many of these social democrat parties came to power and used it to implement a range of pragmatic policies that effectively addressed these anxieties. Health care, pensions, education, unemployment insurance cascaded from legislation into changed lives.
There is a big difference between a genuinely cooperative movement, based on the consent of all its members, and 'cooperation' imposed by the state. Presumably some of the citizens actually want to cooperate in the way commanded from above, perhaps even the majority, but others will inevitably be coerced, giving the venture a very different character from the original voluntary communities.

13 April 2022

Sir Paul's book on capitalism

Paul Collier is Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Oxford. Browsing Amazon for books on capitalism, I came across his The Future of Capitalism. Unlike many books in this area, Collier's makes an effort to take on board the post-2010 backlash against the paternalist-interventionist approach that has been popular with intellectuals since the late 1800s. This makes the book relatively readable. We don't get the leftwing virulence of a Stiglitz tome, or the dogmatic fervour of the average American philosophy professor. The book is critical of Marxists who have failed to learn lessons from the collapse of Soviet communism.
   Left-leaning readers need not be alarmed however; Professor Collier remains firmly in the socialist camp. He hopes his book can become another socialist blueprint, along the lines of Tony Crosland's The Future of Socialism.*
   TFOC is not of course an economics book. Like others in its subject area, it is little more than informed story-telling. Collier tries to extract meaning and morality from hard data, but this requires the weaving of a subjective narrative around the data that, by necessity, is highly sensitive to the worldview of its author. A completely different narrative is possible. The success of any one narrative tends to be judged by how well it is told, and how well it fits with the preconceptions of its readers. Collier's story certainly starts well, and his first chapter hits some of the right notes.
The newly successful are ... the well educated with new skills. They have ... developed a distinctive morality, elevating characteristics such as minority ethnicity and sexual orientation into group identities as victims. On the basis of their distinctive concern for victim groups, they claim moral superiority over the less-well educated [and have] forged themselves into a new ruling class ...
One of TFOC's targets for criticism is utilitarianism. It's an attitude I broadly have sympathy with, though some of Collier's detail seems a bit skew-whiff.
The intellectuals of the left were attracted by the ideas of a nineteenth-century philosopher, Jeremy Bentham. His philosophy, Utilitarianism, detached morality from our instinctive values, deducing it from a single principle of reason: an action should be judged as moral according to whether it promoted 'the greatest happiness of the greatest number'. Because people's instinctive values fell short of this saintly standard, society would need a vanguard of morally sound technocrats who would run the state.
Bentham and J.S. Mill are credited with building utilitarianism. (J.S. Mill's father James Mill, who along with Bentham was one of the earliest appliers of utilitarianism to practical policy, is left out of Collier's equation.) Their philosophy was implemented by a vanguard of social planners, confident of their moral rightness.
The emblematic illustration of this confident paternalism was post-war policy for cities. The growing number of cars needed flyovers and the growing number of people needed housing. In response, entire streets and neighbourhoods were bulldozed, to be replaced by modernist flyovers and high-rise towers ... Bulldozing communities made sense if all that mattered was to raise the material housing standards of poor individuals. But it jeopardized the communities that actually gave meaning to people's lives.
There are two major difficulties with Collier's analysis. First, he sees part of the problem stemming from the fact that Bentham and J.S. Mill "were not latter-day moral giants, equivalent to Moses, Jesus and Muhammad; they were weirdly asocial individuals."
Bentham was so bizarre that he is now thought to have been autistic, and incapable of having a sense of community. Mill stood little chance of normality: deliberately kept away from other children, he was probably more familiar with ancient Greece that with his own society. Given such origins, it is unsurprising that the ethics of their followers are highly divergent from the rest of us.
It's always helpful for a story if you can identify one or two specific individuals on whom to hang the blame. But it's unlikely that the source of the problems Collier discusses were the personalities of Bentham and John Stuart Mill, or that things would necessarily have been very different if they had been more like Moses or Muhammad. Any philosophical idea is capable of being over-applied, and the drive for doing so came largely from the social tinkerers who came long after the initial philosophical input. Marx and Engels may have been less 'autistic' than Bentham or Mill; that didn't stop their followers from generating policies that were seriously at odds with the values of those on whom the policies were imposed.
   From a socialist point of view, Bentham should surely count as heroic rather than dodgy. He helped to reduce the barbarity of many aspects of British law, particularly with regard to sentencing and punishment.
   The second oddity is that Collier blames the excessive application of utilitarianism on economists. That doesn't chime with my understanding of the history of utilitarianist policy. It's hard to know what to make of this nostra culpa assertion. Should one respect Collier for being willing to criticise his own profession? Or is it a way of avoiding criticism of other professions such as sociology — which we know doesn't go down well within the academic community (the likely response would be: you're not qualified to comment).
The weird values of Bentham would not have had any impact had they not been incorporated into economics ... Economic man is utterly selfish and infinitely greedy, caring about nobody but himself. He became the bedrock of the economic theory of human behaviour. But for the purpose of evaluating public policy, economics needed a measure for aggregating the well-being, or 'utility', of each of these psychopathic individuals. Utilitarianism became the intellectual underpinning for this arithmetic ...
I think Professor Collier may have his history a bit askew here. It was part of nineteenth-century ideology, following on from the Enlightenment, to seek secular intellectual input into policy issues. It's how the whole -ism thing got going in Europe (ultimately culminating in disaster and disillusionment). The involvement of professional economists doesn't seem to have been an essential ingredient in this process. To give one illustration, in Uday Mehta's fascinating book Liberalism and Empire we read that James Mill was told in 1827 by the Governor-General of India:
"I am going to British India, but I shall not be Governor General. It is you that will be Governor General."
In other words, there was a definite plan to apply the utilitarian logic of philosophers to social policy in India. This suggests a British state that was already very open to input from intellectuals and their abstract systems, independently of any later detailed cost-benefit rules contributed by economists.

* Privately-educated Anthony Crosland is now best remembered as the 1960s education minister who said he was determined to destroy "every ****ing grammar school" in Britain — a quest at which he largely succeeded.