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An Introduction to Economics

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Economics is the study of human interaction in the production and exchange of goods and services in the context of large-scale societies.

In human interaction, our thoughts affect our behavior. Among all animal species, humans are unique in the extent to which we record information and communicate with one another. Our beliefs, and especially our shared beliefs, vary across cultures and evolve over time. This makes the causal structure in human interaction more complex than that in natural science. We are limited in our ability to predict and control human interaction, including economic behavior.

Economics is focused on human interaction in the production and exchange of goods and services. Political science explores human interaction in the exercise of government power. Sociology explores human interaction in the maintenance of status hierarchies and social norms. Psychology and anthropology explore more fundamental aspects of human interaction, often with a focus on interaction within families or isolated small groups.

Economics is most useful in studying large-scale societies, even though there are some economic concepts that can be applied to just one individual (the so-called “Robinson Crusoe economy”). A large-scale society differs from a family or a small isolated tribe in two important ways. First, it is possible in a large-scale society to have a much higher degree of specialization. Second, in a large-scale society, exchange takes place among people who do not know one another and who do not engage in repeated interactions with one another. To coordinate complex specialization and anonymous exchange, large-scale societies require mechanisms that are not needed in small groups. Economists explore these coordination mechanisms.

Many economists employ a technique in which they set up a simplified version of an economic problem, make some basic assumptions about the goals of individuals, calculate the optimal strategy for each type of individual, and arrive at a mathematical prediction for the outcome. This optimization modeling has come to dominate the research and pedagogy of economics. However, for the purpose of describing human interaction, optimization modeling is rigid, limited, and often misleading. It is best to treat optimization modeling as just one tool of economic analysis, rather than as the essence of economics.

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adamgurri
3 days ago
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Disability and Invisibility

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Ashish George’s essay on the hermeneutical injustice of disability is incredibly insightful.* Nothing I say here is intended to undermine that. That said, I contend that a “minority model” of disability—viewing disability as analogous to being female or homosexual—works for many disabled people but it is not a good fit for all disabled people. This model has some important limitations that may support or extend some of the points about hermeneutical injustice made in the original article.

The “minority model” of disability, as I understand it, frames disability as some minor to moderate inconveniences made more problematic by social prejudice. My own experience of disability doesn’t fit well into that framework, nor do I see it as a tragedy to be overcome, though given that I became disabled at 16 via chronic illness, the tragedy model fit better at that time. Disability exists on an enormous spectrum and I think it’s practically more useful to separate the issues of social stigma and how functional a disabled person is relative to “normal” as two separate but important axes.

Social stigma

Let’s start from Disability 101: What is a disabled person? The word disability is usually defined in terms of limitations on a person’s ability to function normally, but if you are disabled the important definitions of disability are social and legislative. I would argue that the limitations people experience due to health problems are a huge and complex spectrum, and “disability” is a subset of that spectrum defined by an ill-informed social consensus and political process.

Consider someone with cancer; most people have been close to at least one person with this disease. Even if you haven’t, the idea of a cancer patient, suffering, drained by chemotherapy until they struggle to function at even a fraction of their healthy capacity is a well-established and rightly sympathetic figure in our cultural consciousness. Are at least some cancer patients disabled? I would say yes, but at what point do they become disabled? What threshold do they cross that transforms them from a sick person into a disabled person? Having to give up work, or use a wheelchair, or having a terminal prognosis? What type and level of limitations do we accept as “disability” rather than “disease?”

The social definition of disability is limited because most people don’t need a sophisticated understanding of disability to live their lives effectively. Unfortunately this tends to mean that some limitations or disabilities experience much more stigma than others. My impression is that almost everyone is comfortable with the black-and-white cases where someone functionally lacks a physical ability that is considered normal. If you are unable to see (blind), or to hear (deaf), or to walk at all (paralysed), then you will be comfortably granted the label of disabled. Call this category 1. People are less comfortable with gray area cases where someone can see a little, hear a little, walk a little, or when the relevant ability is mental (category 2). They’re even less comfortable with the idea of a person being classified as disabled because they’re just bad enough at a large enough number of things to be unable to function in society while still being able to do most of the component tasks to some limited degree (category 3).

Many conditions—often called “invisible illnesses”—involving significant pain, fatigue, and/or mental health symptoms, fall into category 2 or category 3 and are especially prone to stigma. I think part of the discomfort with these kinds of conditions is that people dramatically overestimate their ability to imagine having health problems that manifest as more extreme or constant versions of common problems. Sighted people are aware they have a very limited ability to imagine what it’s like to be blind. But all healthy people experience pain, exhaustion, anxiety, and negative emotions, so they believe they understand what it’s like to have a condition that revolves around these problems. It becomes a matter of trust, and of acknowledging the limitations of your own experience and imagination, to validate such limitations. Many people are openly suspicious or hostile when faced with such conditions in both social and legislative contexts. It’s for this reason that, as having Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/Myalgic Encephalomylitis (CFS/ME), I tend to be careful to talk about “the sick and disabled” rather than just the disabled. Not explicitly claiming the label of “disabled” helps mitigate some of that hostility and encourages more thoughtfulness.

So for many people who are significantly limited by a health condition, it’s not just a matter of being stigmatised for their disability, it becomes a matter of being stigmatised both for their limitations and because they are suspected of illegitimately attempting to claim a label in order to avoid social responsibilities.

Level of functionality

High-functioning sick and disabled people are, by definition, the ones most able to take part in society and work. These are the people with milder instances of health problems, or those with disabilities that are aided significantly by relatively small and inexpensive equipment (e.g. wheelchairs, prosthetics, hearing aids, etc.) or people who can function acceptably well with small adjustments from those around them (e.g., those with less severe forms of depression, Asperger’s, or CFS). This is not to say that high-functioning sick and disabled people don’t still face significant stigma and hardship; they absolutely do. My point is that people who are able to participate fairly fully in society are a particular type of disabled and cannot be taken as representative of disabled people as a whole. High-functioning disabled people are those for whom existing support networks and adjustments work fairly well; they are the public face of disability, the ones with whom everyone else is most familiar and comfortable. If you are healthy, the chances are you’re only seeing the success stories.

There is a whole realm of disability that is not seen because the level of adjustment or equipment required to allow the disabled person to participate is too much or because no amount of adjustment or equipment would allow them to achieve a minimum or practical level of functionality. The fact that the disabled people who can’t participate in society are unlikely to be seen gives a false impression of the success of the status quo and a false sense of expertise in those who interact with high-functioning disabled people.

To use myself as a brief illustrative example of someone with mid-range functionality: One of the main symptoms of CFS/ME is essentially having a tiny capacity for mental or physical exertion when compared to a healthy person. Right now, no equipment or medication has the ability to improve my exertion capacity, and I am limited to somewhere between zero and five hours of active time each day, depending on the day. That active time must be split into chunks of no more than 30 minutes with at least 30 minutes of rest between each chunk. My capabilities are so far outside the norm that significant practical effort and adjustment is required to enable me to participate in most work or most social activities. Even if those significant adjustments were made, my ability to contribute would still be significantly below what could be assumed of a healthy person. My disability doesn’t just complicate my participation in society; it dominates and limits my ability to participate.

This skewed awareness of disability may also not necessarily be combated even if disabled people are directly involved in addressing the issues that concern them. The high-functioning disabled people are those most likely to be able to contribute, and they are correspondingly likely to be used as proxies for all disabled people. But as I’ve already argued, their needs and experiences are not representative and to a certain extent the experiences of disabled people are not strongly generalisable. Many disabled people are not physically or mentally able to be their own advocates and are forced to rely on others to seek out and communicate their needs and experiences.

Disability in the UK

Over the last seven years the UK government has been using a model of disability called the Biopsychosocial (BPS) model of disability, written by Gordon Waddell and Mansel Aylward. This model is arguably closer to the minority group model of disability than the previous system and aims to acknowledge that disability has social and psychological components as well as biological ones. While this may seem laudable, the work is heavily based on the authors’ own non-peer-reviewed papers, it has come under some extensive criticism, and it has resulted in a system rife with victim-blaming and suffering.

On this model, disability has been redefined in a way that significantly increases the level of limitation required and arguably restricts the range of limitations considered. The criteria used to judge who is considered “fit for work” have been dramatically reworked, resulting in many more people being declared fit to work, sometimes against the advice of the medical professionals caring for them. Simultaneously, the government has defunded various programs (e.g., the Independent Living Fund, Access to Work) that supported disabled people in work and absorbed additional costs to employers involved in including disabled workers. They’ve also made some questionable updates to the anti-discrimination policies and what counts as a “disability positive” employer. It is perhaps unsurprising that over this period the UN has declared that the UK government is guilty of “grave or systematic violations of the rights of persons with disabilities” and the government has made little progress towards their target of halving the disability employment gap.

Conclusion

For high-functioning disabled people who the rest of society will acknowledge as disabled, the minority model of disability works very well, especially as a first step to a more sophisticated understanding. For the rest of us, there are risks.

If the social understanding of disability becomes that disabled people only need overcome some prejudice and extra complication to function relatively normally in society there will be increased stigma and hostility for those who are unable to function and those whom society refuses to accept under the umbrella term of disabled. The legislative understanding of disability is inevitably linked to its social understanding, which may be a cause of what is happening in the UK: the definition of disability is being restricted, support is being removed, medical opinion is being discounted, and disabled people are suffering and dying as a result.

The experience of disabled people is inherently difficult to reduce to a standardised, easily absorbed set of issues because disability is so varied in its causes, presentation, and impact. Dealing with disability effectively and safely will always require a customised approach because the risks of forcing a standardised view on disabled people are so large given how vulnerable, fragile, and isolated many of us are.

I will try not to make too many recommendations for how a liberal society should best cope with the difficulties I’ve described because my own experience is no better a proxy for disabled people than any other. I will say that the Internet and the gig economy have huge potential for many people in the mid-range of functionality. For those of us who can use it, the Internet is a source of social interaction; it can also be a source of work. For more disabled people to be able to work effectively I think there will need to be a generally better integration of work, welfare, and taxation, plus an understanding that, for some people at least, standard work hours—with their associated rules and benefits—are too much now and possibly too much ever. In the UK, there are infuriating systematic barriers to low-hour contract work or self-employment if you are also on welfare. This type of work is very flexible and would allow disabled people, many of whom have never had a job, to experiment and see if they can find something they can do safely. If they do find something, it gives them the opportunity to build confidence, experience, and a body of work that can be shown to a potential employer as proof of value. The potential for anonymity in working over the Internet probably wouldn’t hurt either. For those of us who have never been well enough or functional enough to operate within the modal systems of work or never will be, that could be life-changing.

*As an aside before I get into my main argument I’d like to say that, as a fairly old-school liberal with a number of libertarian friends, I could not agree more that “the homogeneity of libertarians permits them to take for granted many assumptions about how the world works that emerge out of a lack of testimonial evidence from people of different backgrounds and an overconfidence in the ability of raw intelligence by itself to surmount all challenges”. I’m used to being the first disabled person someone has ever had a real conversation with, but libertarians seem particularly deflated whenever I explain how my intelligence doesn’t allow me to overcome all barriers presented by my disability or the social systems we live in. However, the libertarian foundational assumption that people are the experts of their own lives does, in most cases, mean they’re refreshingly open to engaging with the experiences of others even when those experiences challenge their assumptions about the world. I find that admirable.

Featured image is Its Been a Hard Day, by David Guyler.

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adamgurri
7 days ago
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Doctor Visit

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According to these blood tests, you're like 30% cereal.
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adamgurri
10 days ago
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2 public comments
Covarr
10 days ago
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I'm afraid you've only got about 30 to 40 good years left. After that, you might hang on for a decade more, but it won't be fun.
Moses Lake, WA
alt_text_bot
11 days ago
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According to these blood tests, you're like 30% cereal.

The Great Nope

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There was a time — not long ago, in fact — when Republicans could claim to be the party of ideas. This was not altogether untrue. It describes my college experience in the early aughts, for example, where I learned that talking about texts and ideas with many of my liberal professors and fellow students often amounted to navigating the conceptual spaces among pieties — questions could be raised, but not all answers could be given. Intellectual pursuits were in some sense bracketed by larger moral and political commitments to things like tolerance and consent, and these commitments had a way of reasserting themselves throughout a conversation. My conservative interlocutors, however, negotiated pieties, weighed them against each other, measured them up by the light of the great minds of the past.[1]

This was exciting. Without making any broad pronouncements about conservatism as an ideology or a movement, I can report that, from the perspective of a student, the whole thing was pretty glamorous. Its trappings were many: long nights in the library with musty old books; conversations across the ages with minds enigmatic and slow to reveal themselves; big, fat truths about beauty and love and politics — truths that would only disclose themselves to those curious and clever enough to unlock them. More than this, conservatism offered an aesthetic: it was Buckley’s affected charm; it was righteous war against communism; it was speaking French, having some Latin, reciting snatches of Shakespeare and Donne over drinks. Conservatism offered wisdom, refinement, and culture, in other words, and the chance to take pride in being as smart as one could be. I never called myself a conservative, but I subscribed to the newsletter.

But then came Fox News, and then came the war; soon after, Obama, and, finally, Trump. American conservatism moved on. Those time-worn clips of Buckley on Firing Line might as well be painted on the side of Grecian urns.

The Turn Towards Trump

Post-Trump American conservatism is unrecognizable from its previous self; it is no longer an intellectual movement; and those whose views would’ve been categorized as “conservative” as recently as twenty years ought to denounce and actively oppose the contemporary American right. This is far too much to demonstrate in the limited space I have here, so I’ll try to be economical. I’ll confine my comments to Michael Anton’s pre-election Trumpist manifesto, “The Flight 93 Election,” published in The Claremont Review of Books under the nom de plume Publius Decius Mus.

Unfair, you say. Anton’s hardly mainstream, and the piece was widely denounced by prominent conservative voices. Indeed, it takes aim at precisely those “establishment” voices. Yet there are several good reasons to take Anton’s piece as representative of a new — and still coalescing — conservative orthodoxy.[2] The first is that the “Flight 93” essay catapulted Anton from his academic home at the Claremont Institute into the Trump White House (as Deputy Assistant to the President for Strategic Communications); if the relationship between American conservative intellectuals and the Republican Party has always been essentially symbiotic, and Anton is the first notable conservative intellectual to achieve symbiosis with the party of Trump, then we should expect more to follow.[3] More importantly, however, I see no reason to think that the positions held by Anton in the “Flight 93” piece aren’t held by most conservative intellectuals of influence. Many of those who responded — some quite vociferously — disputed Anton’s views of this election, rather than his views of the political landscape more broadly. When the piece emerged, a Trump victory seemed unlikely; better to pass on Trump, Anton’s detractors wagered, and regroup for 2020 after the populist fever subsides. But few if any rejected categorically the basic ideas that animate Anton’s Trumpist appeal; indeed, while Anton’s positions in “Flight 93” are extreme, they’re pretty familiar considering.

No one would accuse “Flight 93” of subtlety. Election 2016 was, in Anton’s telling, a “Flight 93” scenario — to sit idly as Hillary Clinton assumes the presidency is to remain in your seat as terrorists crash this thing into the Capitol.  Rush the cockpit and vote for Trump, on the other hand, and there’s at least a chance you’ll steer this thing safely to Pittsburgh. Or, to “compound the metaphor,” a vote for Clinton “is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto…with Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.”[5] One might object to the inelegance of these opening lines, but one can forgive a certain coarseness if the situation calls for it — Buckley, after all, famously threatened to “sock” Gore Vidal “in the goddamn face” (on live national television, no less).[6] And if the idea here is to spur the dormant right to action, well — who was it that said philosophers too often seek to interpret the world, when the point is to change it?

But the essay that follows only confirms the initial impression: there are painfully few arguments here, no subtle workings that undergird the histrionic facade. Indeed, for an essay that purportedly blazed the Trumpist trail for wallflower conservatives to follow, it’s awfully familiar. There’s the tendency to list, in a sort of chatty way free from the spiritually taxing presence of facts, good things that are getting worse — typically some combination of communities, sexual mores, and schools; the tendency to pin this worsening on a seedy mob of lowlifes headed, in this case, by Hillary; and some catty sniping at “beltway” conservatives — Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, for example — who are, in that timeless formulation, only conservative enough to get invited to the right cocktail parties. Throw in some paint-by-numbers Straussianism (observe: virtù, mystic chords, thymos, and that ridiculous pseudonym)  for those clinging to their dignity, and add some working-class colloquialisms to match the key of conservatism’s new folksy tune (“A Hillary presidency will be pedal-to-the-metal on the entire Progressive-left agenda”!!), and what you’re left with is a hot mess. It might be read, verbatim, on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show — with pauses only long enough for Rush to insist that this, dear listener, is what he’s been saying all along.[7]

A Quagmire of Cliché and Gestures

Lionel Trilling’s famous barb — that American conservatism expressed itself “in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas” — was altogether incorrect when he made it in 1950; but, if “Flight 93” is any indication, we’re getting there. “Irritable gesturing” is an almost comically accurate description of what Anton performs in these pages. The piece has no ideas; it has what might charitably be called “themes.”

In the first place, Anton wants conservatives to wake up to the fact that they are, sadly, losers — that they’ve been “losing consistently since 1988.” Conservatives — especially the “fearful, beaten dogs” who leave the beltway only long enough to attend Davos mixers — are the “Washington Generals” of the political leagues, so used to losing they don’t even remember how to win. It’s hard to overstate just how bad things have gotten within “Conservatism, Inc.” — an enterprise that “reeks of failure.” Little wonder, then, that Anton sees such promise in Trump, who promises to “win,” to “win big,” to win so relentlessly, so vastly , that we shall all be near-collapse, so very “tired of winning.”[8]

You’d be forgiven if, after reading Anton’s tale of woe, you momentarily forgot that the Republican Party is currently faring pretty well. They hold the presidency and majorities in both houses of Congress, as well as a majority on the Supreme Court; they hold a 32-12 state legislature advantage over Democrats, as well as a 33-16 advantage in governorships.[9] Where I live in South Carolina, there is not currently, at any level of government, a jurisdiction I fall under that isn’t held by Republicans. Partisan self-identification among Republicans remains a little lower than the Democratic side, but it’s stable and doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. The dynamics of the American electoral system will keep them rich in seats no matter how badly they screw it up. In other words, it simply isn’t the case that conservatives aren’t “winning” — in fact, it’s the opposite: they’re winning, winning disproportionately, winning seemingly in spite of themselves.

Ah, but, see, Anton doesn’t count all that as winning. Anton, it seems, falls into that category of anti-establishment conservative — the kind of anti-establishment, swamp-draining conservative that spent the last few decades writing speeches for Rudy Giuliani and the Bush National Security Council, managing the Wall Street investment firm BlackRock, teaching at a tiny elite college in San Bernardino County, and writing books on men’s fashion ; you know, a real country mouse. But conservatives (but not only conservatives) never exhaust the outsider gambit. If you were going to write a movie featuring a disgraced former Speaker of the House leveraging anti-establishment fervor to get back into the game, and you gave him the slogan “Drain the Swamp!”, you wouldn’t have the cheek to name him “Newt.”

But that’s somewhat beside the point. Anton has moved beyond conventional politics. He recites some typical grievances, but his heart isn’t in it: “Illegitimacy. Crime. Massive, expensive, intrusive, out-of-control government. Politically correct McCarthyism. Ever-higher taxes and ever-deteriorating services and infrastructure. Inability to win wars against tribal, sub-Third-World foes. A disastrously awful educational system…” Many of these are just straightforwardly false — average effective tax rates haven’t changed much in thirty years; crime rates are way down; our education system is arguably stagnant but hardly “disastrously awful” — and the others can’t be put in their proper context without remembering that Americans are, as a matter of fact, wealthier, smarter, and safer than they ever have been; that church attendance rates have been pretty sticky over the past eighty years; that divorce rates have begun to decline after the no-fault explosion; that teen pregnancy is at historic lows; that abortion rates are nearing 1973 levels. Some things are getting worse, yes, but other things are getting better.

But, to be crystal clear about this, Anton is not interested in diagnosing the causes of rising opioid abuse or developing policies to address startlingly high levels of out-of-wedlock births. That is the Lilliputian world of the Douthats and Salams, where victory hinges on “another policy journal, another article about welfare reform, another half-day seminar on limited government, another tax credit proposal.” Wonks worry about issues; wonks  labor over reforms. These things aren’t “fundamental”; they don’t get “to the heart of our problems.”[10] That problem can’t be articulated through regressions and white papers; that problem is basic in nature and civilizational in scope.  Conservatives must be willing “to entertain the possibility that America and the West are on a trajectory toward something very bad,” that we are “headed off a cliff.” To paraphrase Strauss: Anton’s conservatives aren’t even Neronian, since they do not know that they fiddle, and they do not know that Rome burns.

Conservative Repudiation

Crisis isn’t new to conservative thought. Burke penned his Reflections under the threat of revolutionary fervor making its way across the channel; Tocqueville, too, wrote “under the impulse of a kind of religious dread” of the advancing democratic age: the “effort to halt democracy appears as a fight against God Himself, and nations have no alternative but to acquiesce in the social state imposed by Providence.” This “acquiescence” has always been the proper mission of conservatism: if change is coming (and it is), how can we change well? The conservatism of e.g. Burke, Tocqueville, and Oakeshott is largely a how rather than a why — its orientation towards the modern world is, in a phrase Roger Scruton uses in describing T. S. Eliot’s thought, “one not of repudiation but of reconciliation.”

But that’s just what a cuck would say. Anton’s not going gentle into the good night; he knows his enemy and he’s steeling himself to charge the cockpit. What, then, is the nature of our crisis? Well, that’s easy — so easy that it hardly needs to be articulated. What plagues us isn’t something so irresistible or foreboding as democracy or capitalism or the age of equality. Oh no, it’s just “the Left.”  Anton rages against “our left-liberal present reality and future direction [which] is incompatible with human nature and must undermine society”; he pronounces “the whole trend of the West is ever-leftward, ever further away from what we all understand as conservatism”; the Left is that against which “we’ve been losing ground for at least a century,” a veritable “tsunami of leftism that…engulfs our every—literal and figurative—shore…[that has] receded not a bit but indeed has grown.”

But who exactly is responsible for this tsunami? Again, Anton has little time here for details or distinctions. We’ve got references to globalists like Clinton and Merkel, but mostly it’s the usual gang of cultural subversives — those who “dream up inanities like 32 ‘genders,’ elective bathrooms, single-payer, Iran sycophancy, ‘Islamophobia,’ and Black Lives Matter,” those who wage “wars on ‘cis-genderism’…and on the supposed ‘white privilege’ of broke hillbillies.” In the holy culture wars, the “deck is stacked overwhelmingly against us” — conservatives are besieged by an “overwhelmingly partisan and biased” intelligentsia, by the university system and the media, “wholly corrupt and wholly opposed to everything we want, and increasingly even to our existence.”

Again, this is fairly conventional cultural politics—the kind of thing you’d hear on conservative talk radio any day of the week. What’s remarkable, however, is the extent to which cultural politics have utterly crowded out the actual politics of conservatism. When Anton warns that a Clinton presidency would bring about things “few of us have yet imagined in our darkest moments” — “a level of vindictive persecution against resistance and dissent hitherto seen in the supposedly liberal West only in the most ‘advanced’ Scandinavian countries and the most leftist corners of Germany and England” — a reasonable person would expect this persecution to be carried out by someone other than “the mainstream media,” the “Davoisie’s social media enablers,” and “Social Justice Warriors.” This is a rare and fortunate species of persecution — the kind you can escape by logging off Twitter for the afternoon.

But Anton’s cultural politics are completely in step with what currently passes for American conservatism. They are, in the first place, the cultural politics of ressentiment. Absent is any positive doctrine, any specific body of institutions or principles, any of Matthew Arnold’s “sweetness and light.”[11] In place of such things, the Antonites sound their barbaric nope — nope to the universities filled with po-mo academese; nope to the mainstream media and its fake narratives; nope to the coastal elites, with their multi-culti palettes and their gay weddings: nope, nope, nope.

The nope is not without its appeal. The nope has always served those conservatives that respond to Buckley’s famous urging to “stand athwart history and yell Stop,” and it proved politically useful in courting the Christian right, who often understand themselves as a people and a culture apart from and resistant to the slow pull of secular society. The nope has also proven politically useful in courting those who are often described as being “left behind” — for those left behind by globalization, by the rapid cultural shifts of the internet age, by automation and the incredible surge in higher education enrollments, the nope is a lifeline. So powerful and gratifying is the nope that we now conjure new and ever-more-outlandish revolutions to turn away: how about if we adopt Sharia law? Nope. What if we go ahead and ban the American flag? Nope. How about we get rid of Christmas? How about nope.

At some point, the cultural politics of nope stopped being the appetizer and became the main course. Republican politicians run, not on doing, but on undoing; they promise to “repeal,” “rein in,” “scale back,” “overturn,” and otherwise unmake whatever unpleasant things you think have been happening. It is a politics of reaction, and the Antons of the world provide the reactionary cultural framework to fill out the canvas. The Decline of American Greatness is a kind of post-lapsarian narrative with incredible explanatory power: we are locked in a Manichean struggle with our progressive Enemy who seeks to deceive us at every turn, to corrupt our way of life, and who gains ground with every passing day. This enemy deploys what Anton refers to here as “The Megaphone” — the ubiquitous drone of progressive cultural politics, which, despite your best efforts, seeps into your news, into your television programming, into your children’s schools.

It is in railing against The Megaphone that Anton and our conservatives come well and truly unhinged. The Megaphone drowns out everything; against it, the “conservative media is…barely a whisper.” The Megaphone — wielded, of course, by a sentient entity called The Left — is the force that binds together the New York Times, Beyoncé, and Starbucks; it’s Meryl Streep reading Betty Friedan to Brian Williams in a Nordstrom’s non-gender bathroom. Anton talking about the Megaphone always reminds one of Marcuse talking about “the Establishment” — it is the insensible ideological thread that stitches together a tyrannical reality, a reality that can be unmade by, in Marcuse’s words, “The Great Refusal.”  That’s not bad, but “The Great Nope” is punchier.

Contemporary Conservatism’s One Idea

 Perhaps I’m being unfair. To say Anton and those like him have no ideas is not entirely true — they have, at this moment in time, approximately one idea, and it is arguably a pretty big one. That idea, of course, is nativism. If Trump is a mix of Claremont conservatives, suburban soccer moms, and the Rust-Belt working class, then anti-immigration is the straw that stirs the drink.

Of course, even here Anton wants to cast his big idea as a reaction to the Megaphone. “The sacredness of mass immigration,” he claims, inexplicably, “is the mystic chord that unites America’s ruling and intellectual classes.” To call this notion anything but delusional would belabor the point. To jar these mystic chords, he offers “Trumpism”: “secure borders, economic nationalism, and America-first foreign policy.” More nope: “no more importing poverty, crime, and alien cultures”; no more “institutions, by leftist design, not merely abysmal at assimilation but abhorrent of the concept”; no more “invade the world, invite the world.” To point out that Clinton, Bush II, and Obama were enthusiastic deporters; to point out that net Mexican immigration is currently negative; to point out that openness to “mass immigration” is one of the few stories Americans can still proudly tell about themselves; to mention any of these things is useless and, one must realize, quite beside the point.

Anton’s rhetoric here shares much with the sort of talk that now emerges, with alarming frequency, from those currently in favor on the American right. To seize nativist attention, “immigration” is good, but “mass immigration” is better. It’s why Trump peppered his ads with images of dark-looking people pouring over the border.[12] It’s why he consistently pretended that Clinton supported “open borders” and the destruction of national boundaries. It’s why Trump chose to brand his campaign with a simple, powerful image: a giant wall.

It’s because, before you can cash in politically on nativism, you’ve got to prime and stoke nativist fears. You have to redescribe immigration as — well, as “invasion,” to quote Steve Bannon. How else to explain the sudden outbreak of fandom for a little-known 1973 novel, Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints? What used to swim only in the fever swamps of Breitbart has now slithered out in order to be glowingly featured in The Federalist, slowly and deliberately recommended by a sitting member of the House,[13] and cited repeatedly by the White House Chief Strategist as a book capable of explaining the current state of the world.

To be crystal clear: The Camp of the Saints is one of the most disgusting things you will ever read. It is not just racist; it is unbelievably, jaw-droppingly racist. It is morally repugnant in ways you’ve never imagined. It is The Turner Diaries for nativists, and it’s being bandied about by mainstream conservatives as a reasonable and even profound way of looking at non-Western populations.[14]

Now, to be clear, Anton makes no mention whatsoever of Raspail. But he captures some of the stench of this swamp when he, for example, describes America’s moderate immigration record as — direct quotation here — “the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty”; or when he recasts traditionally lukewarm conservative support for immigration as a full-throated call for “more, more, more!” — “no matter how many elections they lose, how many districts tip forever blue, how rarely (if ever) their immigrant vote cracks 40%, the answer is always the same. Just like Angela Merkel after yet another rape, shooting, bombing, or machete attack. More, more, more!” Well, once again, nope: Anton implores us to “stop digging…no more importing poverty, crime, and alien cultures.”

Few ideas capture the decline of American conservatism quite so vividly: from “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” to “I will build a great wall!” in thirty short years. Reagan’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate was perhaps his finest moment as a statesman, and it condemns our Antons now as powerfully as it did the Soviets then: “The wall cannot withstand freedom.”

But can conservatism withstand Michael Anton? “Flight 93” is hardly the cause, here; it’s the effect of a myriad of slow changes in the political and cultural forces that constitute the American right. American conservatism has always been, if not married to, then at least in a committed relationship with the Republican Party. If Trump represents a permanent split and realignment within the Republican Party, then Anton and those like him are currently engaged in a similar move within the intellectual world.

Furthermore, those committed to an open and free society should recognize the decline of intellectual conservatism as a real and, I think, tragic loss.  This is true in at least two ways.  First, to whatever extent the Antonites have lent weight to the Trumpist project, they have provided intellectual cover for those on the right who, frankly, ought to know better.  The intellectual Trumpists have sold out: they’ve sold out to the fraudulent right-wing entertainment industry and to the new, ascendant GOP, but they’ve also sold out to their own worst vice—their reflexive, spittle-flecked hatred of “the Left.”  If Trump is our first Breitbart president, then Anton is our first Breitbart intellectual, and we’re all the worse for it.

Secondly, it should be pointed out that the open society requires conservative voices.  Conservatism, properly understood, is not an ideology apart from the liberal tradition—it is an attitude woven into the very fabric of the liberal canvas. It is Hume, Smith, and Burke, reminding us that the free society must be, in the first place, a society, a world of shared meanings and habits generated by creatures of a particular, peculiar, and often quite limited nature.  As liberalism orients us towards individual liberty and greater equality—towards liberation—conservatism works to channel our efforts through established forms and conventions; conservatism reminds us that, even if the arc of history bends towards justice, it’s an awfully long arc.  In an age where populist sentiment thrives on both the right and the left, the need for conservative and moderate voices will only grow; friends of a free society would do well to listen.

 

Featured image is San Francisco Fire, 1906, by William Coulter.

 

[1] I should add that those on the “old Left” made equally lively conversation.

[2] I should point out, too, that I’m not the only one taking the piece seriously.

[3] It probably won’t take long.  The Heritage Foundation actually tweeted this out in December.

[5] Yes, you’re right, this is not a compound metaphor. I’m only a vessel, pal.

[6] Watch those clips from the ’68 election on YouTube and you’ll get where Buckley was coming from.

[7] This actually happened.

[8] Actually, here’s what he said in South Carolina in December: “…we don’t win anymore…We don’t win anymore. We’re going to win a lot — if I get elected, we’re going to win a lot. (Applause) We’re going to win so much — we’re going to win a lot. We’re going to win a lot. We’re going to win so much you’re all going to get sick and tired of winning. You’re going to say oh no, not again. I’m only kidding. You never get tired of winning, right? Never.”  Transcripts like these go a long way in explaining why Alec Baldwin’s turn as Trump on Saturday Night Live falls so flat — Trump is simply too absurd to satire. I remember reading an interview with Tina Fey where she explained, in satirizing Sarah Palin, how often she elected merely to repeat verbatim what Palin had actually said. If to satire is to make ridiculous, how much more ridiculous can you get away with?

[9] All of this, it should be noted, while receiving millions fewer votes in the popular election for President, and only 49.1% (against 48%) of the total ballots cast for Congress.

[10] I’m not even going to bore you with how bizarrely unconservative this entire approach is.  If conservatism means anything, it must refer to the wisdom to refrain from the delusional hope that there exist fundamental problems susceptible to fundamental solutions.

[11] Anton somewhat hilariously offers the following statement of his positive doctrine: “virtue, morality, religious faith, stability, character and so on.”

[12] Sure, it wasn’t the U.S.-Mexico border, but it was a border.

[13] “Slowly and deliberately,” as in, he took the time on a radio show to spell out Raspail’s name because it’s French.

[14] I haven’t begun to describe how nasty this book is. Shikha Dalmia does a better job here.

 

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adamgurri
11 days ago
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Machine Learning

5 Comments and 14 Shares
The pile gets soaked with data and starts to get mushy over time, so it's technically recurrent.
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adamgurri
12 days ago
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5 public comments
tante
12 days ago
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Actual illustration of how current machine learning (and AI systems) work
Oldenburg/Germany
growler
12 days ago
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Всё так
jimwise
12 days ago
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Lol
francisga
13 days ago
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This is actually exactly how Machine Learning works...
Lafayette, LA, USA
alt_text_bot
13 days ago
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The pile gets soaked with data and starts to get mushy over time, so it's technically recurrent.

You Were the Thought Police All Along

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Political correctness and campus speech politics are among the cultural issues keeping libertarians today from recognizing their place within the community of liberals. Libertarians see themselves as defenders of freedom of speech and expression, as well as scientific investigation, while liberals and the left take up the role of thought police. Meanwhile, liberals see themselves as simply calling out, and opposing giving a platform to, dangerous and reactionary people. The perceived stakes are erosion of liberty on the one hand, and the public acceptability of dangerous prejudices on the other. As long as the dispute continues the way it has, many who are open or loyal to liberal principles will continue to be pulled into coalition with conservatives.

The discussion has taken place well outside the traditional concerns for freedom from censorship backed by state power. And this despite the fact that some of the disputants are nominally committed to the (incorrect) view that state power is the only power that matters. Libertarians have been among those howling the loudest about censorship in instances when it seemed to be merely private citizens applying social pressure. And liberals have joined some on the left in pronouncing the dangers of certain forms of speech. What’s odd is that libertarians and conservatives often deny the power of words. Certainly when speech is equivocated with outright violence, liberals and the left have veered into hyperbole. But one need not give in to a vulgar Foucaultianism to see that speech and rhetoric are more than mere words.

The early modern and nineteenth-century liberals certainly did not underestimate the power of speech. They strongly endorsed freedom of speech nevertheless. Many of their reasons are familiar to us today. Early liberals had a basic faith that the truth would prevail under conditions of liberty. But they also were suspicious of the partiality of censors; through cynicism, through political capture, or simply because of ignorance, censors could bias public speech against the truth. Moreover, many liberals strongly believed that open criticism is a necessary precondition to arriving at the truth. Growing our knowledge is very difficult without the resources gained through critical analysis. Add on top of this the notion of discovery, which one finds running through J. S. Mill in the nineteenth century to Friedrich Hayek in the twentieth: Much of what might seem trivial or even immoral, today, we may eventually come to realize is an improvement over what came before. If we stop experimentation in ideas and rhetoric from the start, we cannot know what important resources we will deny to the future.

Arguments concerning freedom of speech are applicable beyond the realm of government censorship. For the most part, we ought to strive to give open, public discussion a very wide latitude. But in what follows, I will argue that there are cases in which it is appropriate to use the power of speech and expression to marginalize particular points of view. The standard here is not drawn from the freedom of speech tradition, but instead is more akin to simple reasonableness, or philosophical warrant, or larger moral concerns. These standards are much more fluid, less categorical, and less precise than one might desire. Different interpretations are asserted by a dizzying array of groups through the messy process of contestation that is an ongoing feature of life in a pluralist society. In a nation with freedom of association, it can be no other way.

Mere Words

Gamergate is a perfect, if fraught, example of how people can behave as if words have power even if they say otherwise. When they were not simply making death or rape threats to people they disagreed with, Gamergaters would often jeer that their feminist enemies didn’t understand that the profitability of the status quo in video gaming made the industry impervious to feminist critiques. But if profit was the sole driver of the industry, and the changes feminists wanted were unprofitable, then why did there need to be this big movement against the feminists?

The animus is better explained by their infamous call for “ethics in video games journalism.” Because one indie game developer had had a relationship with one journalist, Gamergaters latched on to the (repulsive and sexist) theory that feminists were sleeping with journalists in order to influence what they wrote. However one feels about the theory, it clearly demonstrates a respect for the power of words; video game journalists, through their words, apparently had the power to shape the video game industry.

The power of words grows ever greater if you watch “Tropes vs. Women,” a YouTube series by Anita Sarkeesian, the central target of Gamergate scorn. Upon watching these videos, one discovers that they are the most conventional—I would go so far as to say boring—recitation of standard feminist arguments, applied to video games. Each video describes one trope, explains its significance according to feminist theory, and provides numerous examples from a variety of video games. If even this can reshape an industry that dwarfs even Hollywood in revenue, as her critics accuse her of attempting to do, then words must be potent indeed.

Let us turn to a more recent and less asymmetric example: the controversy surrounding philosophy professor Rebecca Tuvel’s article in Hypatia, “In Defense of Transracialism.” In it, she drew a parallel between the arguments defending and critiquing the morality of being transgender and those of being transracial. In response, hundreds of people signed an open letter listing their grievances with the article and calling on Hypatia to pull it and apologize. After some initial pushback, the journal issued an apology.

Jesse Singal refers to this episode as a “witch hunt.” On Twitter he adds:

The implication from this and other tweets is that “online complaints” allow any set of unrepresentative wackos to drive scholarly inquiry. But the authors of the open letter view themselves as members of a community in which Hypatia plays a special role. They believed that, by publishing the article, Hypatia had failed to meet the responsibilities entailed by that role. Isn’t it natural for members of a community to organize and make their voices heard? What does it matter if they are representative or not, if they are correct? From the perspective of the authors of the open letter, Singal and others who have taken an interest since the story blew up are outsiders intruding on an internal community discussion.

But for Singal, academia itself has a special role in society at large. Its internal discussions have an influence on its overall character. If things go badly, we may end up with worse scholarship and science, a loss to all of us. Nevertheless, Singal’s specific critique lacks force. Who cares how representative an opposition group is? Peer review isn’t representative, either; self-consciously so. Reviewers are picked based on perceived expertise and willingness to give their time to the particular journal. Nor is the peer-review system so flawless that we ought to perceive it as the only legitimate venue for serious discussion. Singal didn’t suggest that we should, but his emphasis on “online complaints” as opposed to academic articles points in this direction. His article itself is a kind of online complaint, after all!

The core of his concern, of course, is the call to take the article down. And the classic defenses of free speech do apply here, in terms of the merits of critiquing the article rather than removing it. But we are not talking about state censors here, and there are definitely scenarios in which the open letter writers’ actions seem reasonable. Imagine, for example, if eugenics were to become the consensus view in social science again, with articles about the benefits of forced sterilization dominating top journals. I would favor aggressively organizing against it; online and at the universities. I would push hard to get pro-eugenics professors ousted from their jobs and marginalized in their field, and to amplify the influence and status of those who opposed them. This can only seem excessively harsh or dangerous to those who underestimate how dangerous the influence of institutions like the social sciences can be when they go awry, or for those who have an unrealistic faith in the self-correcting properties of such institutions if left alone. Their history provides ample evidence that their work is not neutral to the concerns of society at large (nor could it ever be), and that fields are capable of falling in with wicked ideas for decades at a time.

None of this would entail a renunciation of freedom of speech. I wouldn’t want to establish state censors to ban favorable discussion of eugenics; with the cozy relationship that exists between social science and government, I have no faith in which side such censors would take in any case. But to push for a change in the makeup of academia and to promote certain ideas is no more censorship than Jonathan Haidt’s Heterodox Academy project is censorship. For if the scenario I described above is censorship, then surely pushing to hire fewer professors on the basis of their liberal beliefs is, as well?

The classic defenses of freedom of speech were formulated at a time when some of the best and brightest were either proponents or agents of state censorship. The liberal critique still resonates most strongly against such censorship, and it does indeed expand beyond it into giving wide latitude to public expression and debate in general. But at the end of the day people have limited attention to give, and the voices and ideas people encounter have a highly skewed distribution. Making use of our freedom of association in order to try and knock some ideas out of the main body and into the long tail—and ushering better ideas into the mainstream—is not censorship. It is perfectly consistent with freedom of speech. This falls well short of defending Antifa and black bloc activities which veer into outright violence to achieve that end. But it does suggest that the open letter authors did not fail in their commitment to liberty. Where they failed—if they failed—is in the reasonableness of their criticism: Did they make the case that retracting Tuvel’s article was warranted?

These are inherently contested concepts, unattractive to those who might prefer the sharp, categorical lines of being for or against free speech. But they are the most appropriate standards nevertheless.

 

Featured image is a postcard of the State Penitentiary at Stateville, Joliet, Illinois, USA, from the Mary Evans/Peter Higginbotham Collection.

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adamgurri
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