Tuesday, November 24, 2020

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Politics As Religion

This post builds off my post at Daily Nous on the 2020 election. 

From a sociological standpoint, religion serves the purpose of binding groups together.  For most people in the US today, politics functions largely the way religion does.

People face the persistent problem of determining whom to trust and also ensuring that others are trustworthy. In a way, life like a series of prisoners' dilemma games; we constantly have the opportunity to secure a short-term gain by lying, cheating, and stealing. It is also like a series of public goods games; we constantly have the temptation to under-contribute or free-ride on collectively-produced goods. We need to work together to flourish, but we rationally worry about whether we can trust other people to keep their word and do their part. What we need are reliable signals that others are both trusting and trustworthy, and we need something that actually induces them to be more trusting and trustworthy. 

Religions help bind groups together by creating mechanisms for expensive signaling of loyalty and commitment to the group. Imagine an indifference curve between expensive rituals and expensive beliefs. Most religions fall somewhere along this curve. Some emphasize ritual more than belief (think contemporary Shintoism, though my understanding of it may be wrong), while others emphasize belief more than ritual (many forms of fundamentalism Protestantism), while others are sort of in-between (more orthodox forms of Judaism). "Rituals" here include: restrictions on dress, required ceremonial activities, require abstinence from various pleasures, ceremonial mutilation, and so on. "Belief" includes an emphasis on bizarre, fanciful, or absurd metaphysical claims. The fact that someone strongly sticks to the rituals and/or seems to sincerely believe in the absurd metaphysical claims helps demonstrate that they are loyal to the group, will conform to the group's expectations, and are willing to play along. The same goes for sticking to expensive rituals. As a result, we reliably repose trust in them and they in us. 

Such behavior is common even outside religions. Consider that even criminal gangs, such as MS13, have required tattoos and required rituals. These bind members of the group together and ensure loyalty within the group. 

For most people, politics is not about a sincere commitment to policy. Very few people start with an ideology and then select a political party on the basis of that party. Instead, the overwhelming majority of people join political parties for non-ideological reasons. They are themselves ideologically innocent, have few stable political opinions, don't know what their party stands for, and so on. But they nevertheless greatly benefit from being seen to be fans of whatever party their group is associated with. 

Even most more seemingly ideological voters are usually not genuine ideologues. Rather, they simply parrot whatever their party happens to be advocating today, and insist it is what they always believed. But if their party changes its mind, they will do so as well, and again claim it is what they always believed. This behavior does not result from using cognitive shortcuts or heuristics. It's about conforming to the group.

Politics produces all sorts of social rewards. Voting is like praying in public. Loudly proclaiming one's hatred of the Republicans functions, in Democratic circles, the way bashing Islam functions in certain Protestant circles (or vice versa). Straw manning and avoiding outsiders demonstrates purity and that is one is unlikely to leave the group, which in turns demonstrates commitment and trustworthiness within the group. Believing whatever mix of bullshit ideas your party masters are pushing today, and switching one's beliefs on the spot, demonstrates loyalty. A willingness to vote for the party without even knowing what it says does so as well. (Consider how many people claim to be Biblical literalists but then, when you ask them, have read very little of the Bible.) Declaring that one's side is obviously right about everything is sort of like saying of course you believe Christ is God; it's simply obvious. It is a way of signaling fidelity to the group and moral superiority within the group. After all, within any religious group, the true believers and the observant have higher status. 

If you think of politics as an attempt to realize independent political goals, it's very hard to make sense of most people's actual behavior (including their ignorance, unscientific reasoning, bias, tribalism, conformism, grandstanding, and so on). If you think of politics as a surrogate for religion; as a mechanism to bind and blind, their behavior makes lots of sense. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Left-Wing Nationalism Is a Right-Wing View

Back in the day, before Paul Krugman became a full-time pundit, he was an academic economist who published actual economics. He became famous by defending free trade and globalization. However, pundit Krugman has recently recanted some of his earlier views (not, though, by publishing papers in AER showing he was mistaken), and instead says that free trade has hurt lower-income American workers. Maybe that's why Trump won in 2016!

I think Krugman is demonstrable wrong both about voters and the supposed negative effects of trade. But let's put that aside and assume that Krugman is right.

On Krugman's new view, a view shared by Trump, Bernie Sanders and many soi-dissant (but not actually) progressives, globalization greatly increased the incomes of higher income people in the US or Europe, but lower-income people in the US and Europe saw their incomes stagnant. Instead, the gains from trade went largely to people in developing countries, who as a result have gotten much, much richer. So, on the Krugman-Sanders-Trump picture, globalization helped the very rich and the poor, but not the American/European working class. 

Remember that the "American poor" are actually quite rich. An American living at the US poverty line is well within the top 20% of world income earners in PPP-adjusted income. Indeed, as Krugman himself pointed out back in 1996, Americans near the poverty line in 1996 were on par with middle-income Americans from the 1950s.

Consider what the typical egalitarian, prioritarian, or sufficientarian would say if the supposed distributional effects of globalization happened inside a single country. Imagine that everyone lives in one giant country with massive inequality and with many people living in extreme poverty. Suppose that a new economic development takes place--call it globalization or neoliberalism or whatever word you want--which then causes the top 12% of income earners to get much richer, the next 8% of income earners to stagnate, and the bottom 80% of income earners to get much, much richer. Suppose that as a result, the number of people living in extreme poverty in this country drops from 66% to about 9%. Suppose that as a result, income equality is reduced. 

If that happened, the typical egalitarian would celebrate and call this a massive victory for social justice. They might have preferred that if one group had to stagnate, it was the very richest decile rather than the second richest, but oh well. The poor get priority. The important thing is that the bottom 80% are now much better off and inequality has fallen. 

However, oddly, when these exact same growth outcomes occur, but people live in different countries, suddenly soi-dissant progressives get upset. What happened over the past 50 years, on the Krugman-Trump-Sanders picture, is that the top 12% of world income earners got much richer, the next 8% of world income earners stagnated, and the bottom 80% got much, much richer. However, the twist is that the top 20% live in the US, Canada, Europe, Japan, Australia, South Korea, Taiwan, and New Zealand, while the Botton 80% live somewhere else. Otherwise, it's the same distributional outcome. 

Yet for some reason, when we specify the same results occur across countries rather than within a single country, people get upset. Weird.

Left-wing nationalism a la Sanders is still a right-wing view. It's a view that prioritizes the welfare of people in the same nation-state over real equality, real social justice, or alleviating severe poverty. 

UPDATE: I modified this slightly, because I realized that I don't know what Krugman thinks about trade all-things-considered. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Moralism and Disease: Someone Please Write This Book

Call "disease moralism" the thesis that disease outbreaks result from people's moral failures. Disease moralism so defined need not mean that bad behavior magically causes disease, but rather than that morally bad behavior creates the conditions which spread disease. Moralism also usually includes moral prescriptions as solutions for the disease.

Before the germ theory of disease was developed, moralism was widespread. The plague? Punishment for our sinful behavior. New York City in the 19th Century faced frequent outbreaks of cholera, usually concentrated among the poor. City elders, newspaper editorial writers, medical doctors, and others frequently blamed this on the poor's poor morals, claiming it result from intemperate drinking, gambling, overeating, or other personal vices. 

Now we know many diseases are caused by viruses, bacteria, or other microscopic infectious agents. But that does not mean moralism is behind us. Consider the moralism that accompanied the AIDS outbreak in the 1980s. And, of course, we see rampant moralism today regarding COVID-19. Many people say they would be ashamed to admit they were infected, as they expect to be judged and condemned. "Oh, you're sick? Well, I guess you weren't being careful. You probably spread it to others, too."

I'd love to read a book examining the history of disease moralism. It would be even better if it included some philosophical analysis of to what degree such moralism is warranted. It would be even better if it included analysis of how moralism perverts our thinking or renders us less able to fight disease. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Philosophers on the 2020 US Election

 See the post at Daily Nous here.

My entry is here.  Excerpt:

What these books (and the massive amounts of research undergirding them) will show you is that for most voters, politics is not about policy or ideology. Most voters do not know what their party supports. They do not subscribe to their party’s ideology. They do not support their party for ideological or policy-based reasons. Instead, people vote for who they are, not what they want, to paraphrase Appiah. Different identity groups get attached to different parties for what are essentially arbitrary historical reasons, having little to do with policy, and not even usually because particular parties are good for those groups. (Has Trump actually made Southern evangelicals lives better?)

A better metaphor for political behavior is sports fandom. Bostonians are Red Sox or Patriots fans because that’s a way of showing we’re good, loyal members of our local community. Loving Tom Brady and hating the Yankees is a way of demonstrating this loyalty, and such demonstrations help pay social benefits. (In the same way, we can get rewarded for anti-Trump hyperbole.) For most voters, voting for Donald Trump or Joe Biden is roughly equivalent to waving the Terrible Towel at a Steeler’s game. It should not taken to demonstrate genuine commitment to their candidate per se, the candidate’s ideas, or their policies. Pats fans want their team to win regardless of who’s wearing the uniform. The same goes for political fans, at least the overwhelming majority of them.

But surely, you say, having not yet read the books I mentioned, don’t lots of voters have explicit ideologies and policy preferences? Well, no, most don’t. But even most of those who do don’t hold them sincerely. What the more seemingly ideological voters generally do is learn what their party says it stands for and then say they agree. How do we know? The following example from Trump generalizes, as the research shows. Before Trump came along, most Republicans who had any consistent opinions on trade would say they were pro-free trade (as all reasonable people are). When protectionist Trump became the presumptive nominee, these same Republicans started saying they were protectionist, switching almost overnight. (Ugh.) Did Trump convince them to change their minds? No, when asked, they would say, “No, I’ve always thought this way.” In the same way, Jimmy down at the Lansdowne Pub said Tom Brady is the GOAT two years ago, but today will tell you (now that Brady left) that he always though Brady was overrated.

So, sure, there’s something terrible about the fact that so many Republicans support Trump and that Trump just got 71 million votes, more than Obama got. But the good news about this bad news is that it probably doesn’t indicate legitimate ideological support. It’s closer to the mentality that people are willing to root for their team’s quarterback during the big game, even though he’s a scumbag off the field. The typical Republican voter just wants the Republicans to win, but doesn’t actually care whether the Republicans accomplish anything on their platform.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

War and Freedom


Libertarians are known for their opposition to war. However, there is no distinctly libertarian theory of war.  As Matt Zwolinski has suggested, libertarianism is not a unified doctrine but a cluster of ideas. They include:

A commitment to private property.

A commitment to negative liberty.

Skepticism of political power and authority.

Confidence in free markets.

A commitment to normative and methodological individualism.

A belief in the significance of spontaneous order.


As we can see, war is not on this list. However, the usual libertarian arguments against war stem from these commitments. Those arguments are:


I.               War violates the prohibition to initiate force (or initiate the violation of rights).


Libertarians who make this argument are divided. Some, like the first Murray Rothbard and Bryan Caplan, are pacifists: all wars are prohibited, even defensive wars, because they kill innocent persons. Others, like Harry Browne and Ron Paul, think that only wars in defense of one’s state (individual self-defense, art 51, UN Charter) are permitted. Thus, a war defense of an ally (collective self-defense) or a war to save people from massacres (humanitarian intervention) are not. This is a form of libertarian nationalism.


II.              War interferes with the pursuit of personal projects


Michael Walzer (no libertarian himself) makes this argument. He calls it the tyranny of war. War forces men and women to fight, flee, die, and suffer, when they would rather be doing something else. This argument is quite congenial with Loren Lomasky’s idea of persons as rational project pursuers. Such view does not entail pacifism.


III.            War has multiple deleterious effects:


War fosters nationalism, a doctrine notoriously menacing to freedom.

War is at odds with the progress and prosperity that stems from unhampered movements of goods, capital, and labor that cements human progress.

War fosters collectivism and regimentation which is inconsistent with the individualism that libertarians endorse.

War inflates the power of rulers who declare that war emergency measures are necessary to counter external threats.


A commitment to libertarian ideals is consistent with either contingent pacifism or with the contrary belief that some wars are morally justified. What is inconsistent with libertarian doctrine is the militarist mentality. Such mentality infects a free society by substituting rigid, hierarchical relationships for voluntary, spontaneous exchanges. Central to the libertarian dislike of war is the conviction that persons are not to be sacrificed to the collective goals of the state, for the good reason that, for libertarians. there are no collective goals of the state. War can only be justified for the sake of individual life and liberty.







Friday, November 6, 2020

Grading the News

Many of my friends have interesting things to say about the election.  I do not.  But in the eleventh hour, I finally got into watching the news.  It’s been transfixing to me.  Here are my grades for some of the major news anchors on two dimensions: impartiality, and how much I’d like to go on a road trip with them.  I offer neither as an ideal to strive for. 

Wolf Blitzer.  Wolf Blitzer is flawlessly neutral, though his perfect impassivity makes me just slightly less impressed by the achievement.  All the same, I would be fascinated about what he would be like in person.  I imagine a Wolf Blitzer road trip as a seamless procession of descriptively accurate sentences.  “At this moment we are passing what – by all available evidence – appears to be a barn.  This is Wolf Blitzer, in North-Central Wisconsin…”

Impartiality: A+

Road Trip: A


John King.  John King has to be one of the big winners of this election cycle.  His tireless obsession with detail is already taking on its own legend.  This parody is spot on, but also reveals the absurd difficulty of his real-life job.  With a bizarrely comprehensive knowledge of county-level data seemingly anyplace in the country, John King comes off as half old-school newscaster and half lord of whispers.  “I have a contact in Cumberland County – a Republican but just a solid county official – who tells me she’s seeing more support for the President than had been expected.”  Could he keep it up all the way across Pennsylvania?  I wouldn’t bet against him.   

Impartiality: A

Road Trip: B+


Nora O’Donnell.  I’m so impressed by Nora O’Donnell.  Her impartiality is extraordinary, down to the smallest nuances of facial expression and intonational contour.  She is surrounded by people who don’t go to any great pains to conceal their perspective, which complicates things.  On election night, I heard her repeat a colleague’s impassioned comment, but somehow her restatement cancelled its normative valence.  Her verbal fluency is near perfect, yet she seems fully human.  “The president is maintaining his lead in Georgia, but it’s getting prosciutto thin.”  Does she think of this stuff in the moment? 

Impartiality: A+

Road Trip: A+


Lester Holt.  Lester Holt is the paradigm of respectability.  Every sentence, every question, every expression – no mistakes.  He could have any personality in the world, and we would never know.

Impartiality: A+

Road Trip: B+


Savannah Guthrie.  Savannah Guthrie may be the most endearing human.  Any agent that did not find Savannah Guthrie endearing I would suspect of being a zombie, which also would move my credences about whether zombies are possible.  In the long hours of election night she broke the monotony by teasing her co-anchors with great affection, highlighting exactly those parts of their performances they seemed to most value about themselves.  She’s not especially impartial, as the send up of her town hall with Donald Trump emphasized.  But in the end, she just wants Americans to get along, and believes they can.  She concludes the night with a kind of civic homily admonishing us to have faith in each other.  I don’t even go in for these values, but I’m still kind of inspired by it.  She even lent Kate MacKinnon the actual suit she wore for the town hall so that Mackinnon could wear it to make fun of her.  Maybe if we were more like Savannah Guthrie, Savannah Guthrie would be right about us?

Impartiality: B+

Road Trip: A+


Chris Cuomo.  Chris Cuomo is full of mistakes, misstatements, and bias.  Somehow it all makes him seem more relatable and genuine.  Plus, his biases aren’t exactly partisan in the Fox/MSNBC way.  He’s just against anybody punching down.  Chris Cuomo is like the American citizen’s protective brother.  “Hey, leave those vote counters alone!  Don’t you know they’re doing a civic service?!  You got a problem, take it up with your Secretary of State!”

Impartiality: B

Road Trip: A


Fox News, News Desk.  I have to say, I think Fox News did a great job.  If anything, they seemed a bit overzealous in making calls for Biden.  They may have Republican faces, but the news staff seem committed to getting it right. 

Impartiality: A+

Road Trip: B


Remaining Questions:  What would the world be like if media outlets were more civil?  Mostly that would be good, I think.  But it’s surprisingly hard to say, because sometimes in-group incivility in media actually pushes people away from their party.  Are rural voters responding differently to media?  I would like to know.  Would I purchase SG monogramed clothing to match my RF monogramed clothing?  Yes.  How would Wolf Blitzer respond to Savannah Guthrie on a road trip?  No idea.