Saturday, January 23, 2021

Is It Time to Boycott Niskanen? Why Jerry Taylor Must Resign

Will Wilkinson made a pretty good joke criticizing American politics. It was some of his best work at Niskanen to date. To review, a very large percentage of Republicans believe that Mike Pence is a traitor who sold out Donald Trump and betrayed America. Many of them want him arrested. Some of people who stormed the Capital intended to capture him. They tied up nooses outside the Capital. Remember that roughly half of Republicans approve of the Capitol attack, depending on which poll you look at.

In light of this--all of which is entirely common knowledge among basically everyone in the DC political scene--Wilkinson joked that Biden could rally people behind him by lynching Pence. Note that the choice of the word "lynching" is appropriate here precisely because of those aforementioned nooses hung during the Capitol attack. This was not a call to lynch Pence. It was a sharp and brutal critique of Republican hooliganism. It worked.

Wilkinson cannot be read by anyone familiar with the English language and familiar with these recent events as advocating that Pence be lynched. 

(For you pearl-clutching right-wingers who claim otherwise, frankly, I don't believe you. I think you are pretending to be offended because you want to portray the opposition as evil and unreasonable. Indeed, you can read my own work for summaries of research showing such behavior is common.)

Jerry promptly fired Will or told Will to resign. Will's presence was scrubbed from Niskanen's website that day. 

But, as I noted here simply by quoting Jerry, this is utterly hypocritical. While Will did not advocate violence, even in jest, Jerry did, and did so recently. Last summer, angry mobs (who I note were rightly angry) acted wrongly by destroying the property of innocent people and laying waste to city blocks. A group of protestors trespassed on a private street in front of a private residence owned by the McCloskeys. They may have broken down a gate to do so. The McCloskeys famously waved their guns at the protestors. One interpretation of this is that they are insensitive white racists who want to shoot protestors. Another is that they were reasonably scared that the protestors would invade and destroy their home, and they threatened them in rightful self-defense. Which interpretation--or other interpretation--is correct is reasonably contested. 

Jerry's position is unambiguous: 

Jerry would like to think that were he with the trespassing protestors, he would have attacked the McCloskeys and beat their brains in. He wouldn't apologize for it for one goddamn second. He did, however, delete this  tweet, just as Will deleted his own.

So, Jerry did condone violence and indeed seems to fantasize about beating people's brains in. Will did not.

Nevertheless, Will lost his job for condoning or seeming to condone violence, while Jerry did not.

This is of course unacceptable hypocrisy and straight up bad business ethics. You should not fire an employee for maybe sort of looking like maybe he did X, when the boss keeps his job despite straight up doing X. 

Accordingly, Jerry should step down. Any reason to remove Will is an even stronger reason to remove Jerry, both because Jerry did it more and worse, and because Jerry is the president of the organization. 

If he does not, it's time to boycott and cancel Niskanen. I hope my friends Matt Zwolinski and Kevin Vallier, among others, plus other legitimate scholars such as Jacob Levy, step away. 

If Will deserved to be fired, then Jerry deserves it even more. If Will did not deserve to be fired, then it's especially heinous, because Jerry did what he (by hypothesis) wrongly accused Will of doing, and got away with it. If Will makes Niskanen look bad, Jerry makes it look worse. 

Either way, they should take a stand against Jerry. Jerry's behavior is terrible and he has to go. If not a boycott or disassociation, then what?

Don't get me wrong. I am not saying Will should get his particular job back. I doubt Will is qualified to be the Vice President of Research of a think tank, even a small one. I recommend that Niskanen, under new leadership, hires him back in a new position for which he is better suited.  

I'll end this by commenting on my general opinion of the Niskanen Center. It's relevant because you (or at least, Henry Farrell) might wonder whether I have some hidden motive or agenda here. So I'll lay my cards on the table. 

A week ago, if you asked me about Niskanen, I would have said their senior leadership is a joke. Jerry Taylor  and Will Wilkinson's niche seems to be pandering to illiberal lefties by presenting themselves as ex-libertarians who somehow concluded that straw man caricatures of classical liberal and libertarian thought turned out to be correct. "A ha," donors gleefully think, "These apostates demonstrate my prejudices were right all along. Here's some money." Jerry and Will both spent too much time around too many smart people to actually believe these caricatures are correct. So I think the most plausible and charitable interpretation of their behavior is that they knowingly lie--or at best knowingly attack the weakest version of their old views--because that's where the money is for them. (On the other hand, if they are sincere, it is even more damning, as it indicates they spent much of their lives believing laughably stupid things for stupid reasons, and somehow failed to learn what classical liberals actually think and why.) 

Nevertheless, many of the full-time staffers at Niskanen do quality work and have intellectual integrity. Many of their affiliated and adjunct scholars are also world-class scholars who do great work. Jerry and Will's pandering, political hooliganism, and intellectual prostitution were the price we paid to get these people working and working together. Niskanen's senior leadership is and has been unworthy of its quality staff.

That's what I would have said a week ago. This week, things are worse.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Isaac Pigott, Literary Critic, Reviews the Nistaken Center Play.

Guess post by Isaac Pigott, reviewing my play here.

Having sat through the latest piece of Jason Brennan’s “Hooligan Theatre,” I feel compelled to share the following criticisms. 

First, this is advertised as a “play,” when in fact the lead characters never interact. There are hints late in the narrative that perhaps they are coworkers, or even a direct reporting relationship. However, it is entirely unclear what the enterprise is about — a feature that many with inside knowledge of Brennan’s tropes would posit is not an accident at all. 
The piece actually functions better as a pair of separate monologues, with Wilkinson serving as a more bite-sized “opening act.” The first scene is one of stark declaration, but one that is necessary to establish the payoff coming in act three. By diminishing the merits of Cancel Culture, Wilkinson is very tersely communicating a lot of things. Disdain for his audience, disdain for social norms — and most importantly, disdain for the precision of language that is required for one who ostensibly works in a field of modern persuasion. 
All at once, within three words, Wilkinson exhibits moral certitude, disdain, and a degree of flippancy that add layers to his eventual undoing. Hubris, thy Will is done. 
Wilkinson’s second part is the requisite unspooling of the noose he tied for himself. Or rather, having started the play so starkly with Chekhov’s Gun, we now take the time to watch him simultaneously load it, and carelessly discharge it. 
Some will rightly characterize the context of the second act as misleading. And they would be correct. Brennan deftly stages this production to remove the angles that would give this powerful moment proper perspective. We assume that Wilkinson may have just murdered his own career — but being on Twitter, this was bloodless, just as if he missed. 
Here is where the genius of Brennan’s narrative construction comes to bear: we literally see no more of Wilkinson for the remainder of the evening. The rest is monologue from Jerry Taylor. 
The third act, in sheer volume, is more than half of the play. And quite frankly, much of it is unnecessary. Yet, like Stoppard and Albee before him, the superficial superfluousness of Taylor’s text is indeed its own meta-commentary. When one stands for nothing, then anything can be made reasonable. 
It is also in act three, hidden beyond Taylor’s sleep-inducing rationalizations, evidence that Wilkinson is indeed alive. The words “future endeavors” indicating that Wilkinson may end up contributing to something — albeit most likely something more structured and less morally amorphous than his previous position. 
Here is where the narrative structure breaks down. We are left with Taylor’s words, but he is conspicuously absent as an uncredited narrator establishes the scene. 
The final twist takes place just after an armed confrontation inside of a gated community near St. Louis. Rest assured, Brennan has patterned this scene after real events, and he is not thematically making a statement about waving firearms around in “the Show Me State.” 
Here, Taylor is revealed to have made comments that quite viscerally communicate his bloodlust, and desires to inflict pain, injury and/or death upon a couple whose only sins are borne of fear, if at all. 
The juxtaposition of Taylor’s stated fantasy and Wilkinson’s hypothetical is more than stark. It speaks of a level of hypocrisy derived from complete moral ambiguity. 
For instance, Wilkinson’s statement — even as examined devoid of previous tweet thread context — begins as a hypothetical “if,” and results in a reductio ad absurdum. At no point is Wilkinson seeking to incite violence. 
Yet, Taylor goes beyond. Not only descending into a far more visceral bludgeoning, but doing so in a first-person manner, with zero regret or reservation. 
It is at this point that the genius of Brennan’s literary devices comes to a conclusion. We see Wilkinson as his own tragic figure, brought down by his own words — yet left to twist in the wind by a man who has murdered far more than rhetoric. What we, as an audience, take away is the simple lesson that those who float their morals upon dandelion seeds cannot be counted upon to provide root and security when the winds change direction. 
— a special reading of “The Niskanen Center, a Play in Four Twitter Quotations” will be scheduled soon at the Georgetown student union. There will be guitars and snacks, but no special accommodation for those with peanut allergies.

The Niskanen Center, a Play in Four Twitter Quotations

Will Wilkinson

     Jerry Taylor

Also Jerry Taylor

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

What Happens to Those We Rightly Cancel?

UPDATE: I'd like to clarify what I am asking here. Many people say that this scenario described below is unrealistic, as Bob will be able to get a job somewhere, or because racists will rally to support Bob. That might be true, but it's not what I'm asking. What I am asking is this: According to a popular view, if Bob is exposed as a KKK member, no one ought to hire him. No one ought to do business with him. Imagine, then, that people perfectly follow these supposed moral norms. What then happens to Bob? Does he have to starve because no one may legitimately hire him or do business with him? If you respond by saying that we should pay Bob basic income, then that seems perverse, as it means that Bob's racism results in us all working for him. 

         People use to worry that one of the supposed evils of capitalism could be that ideologically motivated employers might refuse to hire people who had beliefs or ideas they disliked. Employers might refuse to hire, say, an anarchist, and then the poor anarchist would have no recourse but to starve. 

         Of course, when genuine socialist states appeared, we saw this kind of worry realized en masse. At least in capitalism, people benefit from competition. If lots of people ostracize you for your verboten ideas, the wage you can demand becomes lower, which makes hiring you a good deal (because hiring you becomes more profitable), which in turn induces the less ideological or greedier capitalists to want to hire you. But when the Central Committee of the Communist Party owns everything and wants to ensure political uniformity, you must fall in line or not eat. 

         Oddly, though, today it is more common to hear people complaining about the opposite issue. If a university employee tweets something racist, sexist, colonialist, or whatnot in his spare time—or something that someone might take mistakenly take to be that even when it isn’t—students will often demand the person be fired. So-and-so is racist and thus should be ostracized and fired. 

        I can see the appeal of this position, even if it is often enforced in bad or excessive ways or against innocent targets. We wouldn’t want to hire some QAnon crackpot in our department. I don’t befriend KKK members. 

         Nevertheless, if you find this line of thinking appealing, I have to ask you, how far should it go? Suppose Bob works as a cashier at QwikCo Gas and has been exposed as a KKK member. Many people think it would not merely be permissible, but obligatory for Qwikco to fire him. They also think that when Bob applies to nearby FastGas for similar job, FastGas not only may but should turn him down (assuming they know about Bob’s KKK involvement). 

         Suppose Bob remains unrepentant. If you think, then, that no one should hire him, we then must ask, how should Bob eat? How can he get money to pay his mortgage? Indeed, given that you think employers should disassociate with him, you might for similar reasons hold that businesses should refuse to sell him food and clothing, issue him loans, or whatnot. 

         But now we’ve effectively given him a death sentence through market ostracism. No matter, one might think. Maybe his friends can feed and house him instead. However, if we should not do business with Bob because of his horrible beliefs, then it is unclear why his friends should continue to continue to befriend him, or offer him any such charity. Not only would feeding and housing him seem to excuse his rottenness, but that money could have been used for more deserving recipients of charity. Further, if Bob started his own business, the reasons that count in favor of refusing to hire him as an employee also count against becoming his client.


         Perhaps to avoid such problems, you might say that Bob should lose his job, and no one should hire him either. But, perhaps, you concede that he should still be able to buy food and clothing from most stores; he should not be expelled from all of market life. For money, perhaps, you say that in a just society, everyone should receive some basic, sustaining income if they cannot get a job. 

         But notice how perverse this is, in its own way. Everyone is obligated not to hire Bob, on this line of reasoning, which means we are obligated not to hire him in a mutually beneficial arrangement in which he contributes to the social surplus. But then, to keep Bob from starving, we are obligated to redirect some of that social surplus his way, all while he is effectively forbidden to work. So, now, to avoid wrongly associating with Bob, but also avoid sentencing him to death, we refuse to let him work for us but we all end up working for him. 

         So, what should we do with Bob? I admit, I don’t really know. Once you claim that QwikCo should fire him and others should refuse to hire him, it’s hard to avoid this result. This result seems unacceptable. But I see the appeal of saying that QwikCo should fire him. 

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Is Trump the Worst US President?

In terms of personal character, he may indeed be the worst in a great long time. But is he in fact the worse overall?

Nah. He's not even the worst president this century. 

Democratic theorists, ever enamored of democracy and democratic procedure, might be inclined to exaggerate the badness of Trump's recent actions. They are indeed very bad. I agree Trump should be impeached and removed; indeed, I agree Pence should have invoked the 25th to deactivate him. 

The peaceful transition of power is an extremely valuable norm. All sort of horrors follow when it disappears.

It might well be that in the coming years, we'll discover that Trump has unleashed the Kraken on the US, and we will see long-term disfunction in democratic transitions. If there's an actual coup in a few years, that would indeed be a disaster.

 (That said, in 2016 and 2017, we also saw lots of Democrats believing stupid conspiracy theories about the Russians. These Democrats also were adopting anti-democratic norms in reaction to Trump, but it wasn't Trump's fault. We must be careful not to attribute all the anti-democratic behavior we now see to Trump.)

Nevertheless, compare Trump to Bush II. Bush II started two horrible wars which not only costs tremendous amounts of money, but which lead (as expected) to the mass deaths of innocent civilians, continuous civil wars, corrupt pseudo-democratic government, and on-going bloodshed and instability. Bush II is responsible for the Patriot Act and the mass violation of American's civil rights. Bush II continued the dumb Clinton policies which lead to the Great Recession. 

If an evil demon appeared before you and said, "You must now choose either to repeat all the horrors Bush II inflicted on the world or all the horrors Trump inflicted thus far," it'd be far better to pick Trump (so far) than Bush II. 

Again, if Trump actually induces a fascist coup of the US government over the next few years, and this was indeed the equivalent of the Beer Hall Putsch, then sure, Trump way well turn out to be worse. But as of now, while Trump is a terrible human being and Bush II is in way a good guy who performed horribly, nevertheless, the Bush II presidency was far worse for the world than the Trump presidency. 

Still, Trump ought to be removed and you are right to despise him. Just remember that blowing up innocent Iraqi civilians and subjecting them to decades of horrific war is much, much worse than inducing that crowd to occupy the Capitol building. 

Update 1: P.S., one way you might argue for Trump being worse is to say something like this: "If Clinton had been president, she would have been so competent that we would have had like 20,000 COVID deaths instead of 400,000". She probably would have done a better job, and I expect could have cut the total by 10%. But it's fantasy to imagine she'd have cut it dramatically. We don't really know now why some places have so many few deaths than others, though it's fun to point to New Zealand and pretend every country could have been the same with only enough political willpower. 

Update 2: On Facebook, Andrew Doris has a good point which can help clarify this blogpost. We can distinguish A) Trump's actual performance vs Bush II's, from B) Trump's and Bush II's overall character an expected performance. I'd say Trump's actual harms are far lower than Bush II's. But given how corrupt Trump is and given that Bush II seems to have decent character and have learned somewhat from his mistakes, I'd say that if given the choice between a second Trump term or a third Bush II term, we should pick Bush II. The Trump presidency was not as disastrous as the Bush II presidency, but right now Bush II would make a better future president. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

So Much For the Rational Political Interests Theory of Trump

Against Democracy came out in 2016 with Brexit, Trump, and the Five-Star Movement in the background, among other democratic idiocies. (Thanks to these and other democratic failures, the book has now been translated into 10 languages.)

At the time, I argued support for Trump was an example of democratic failure caused by rational irrationality and rational ignorance. Were voters better informed, Trump would not have been the Republican candidate, let alone the winner. 

Many prominent democratic theorists, ever ready to defend democracy and dismiss all empirical evidence to the contrary, claimed that no, Trump voters were probably rightly and genuinely upset about globalization. Globalization, they claimed, created winners and losers. Trumpers were the losers, or at least lived near and were concerned about the losers. They supposedly supported Trump because they believed he would fix the flaws of free trade.

At the time, this was already implausible, because economics studies did not vindicate and in fact falsified these claims. For instance, see here, here, and here. In fact, 2016 Trump voters on average receive a higher wage subsidy from globalization than average or than I do. (Back in 2016 and 2017, when I told theorists about these studies, they mostly said, yeah, well, just because lots of economists say this doesn't mean it's true.)

Now fast forward to today. Here are some fun facts:

1.77% of Trump voters think the 2020 election was rigged.

2. Most Trump voters believe in many of the absurd Q conspiracy claims, even when they haven't heard of Q.

3. About half of Republicans approve of the Capitol riot/attack.

I wonder, dem theorists, do you still wish to say that Trump voters' support is based on a rational belief that Trump will implement policies which will effectively promote their independent goals?

It's time for philosophers and "political theorists" to dispense with the sixth-grade theory of voter behavior.  The evidence overwhelmingly shows that the majority of voters are innocent of ideology and that most do not select political parties or candidates because they antecedently prefer those candidates' or parties' platforms or policies. People join parties and support candidates largely for identity-based reasons which do not track how well those candidates' policies support their interests. Even among the minority who do have more stable policy preferences, it is far more common for people to rationalize that they accept whatever the party supports today than for people to support a party because they agree with it. For almost everyone, politics is like sports fandoms. Adopting political beliefs, if they do it at all, is more about demonstrating fidelity to the in-group and expressing hatred toward the out-group than it is about identifying goals or policies to promote those goals.

I am a rational choice theorist, but a good rational choice theorist needs to understand the incentives. It is instrumentally rational for many Q supporters to believe the QAnon bullshit even though it's epistemically irrational to believe it. The reason is that they get social benefits from doing so, much as one derives a social benefit from playing along with fashion or music trends, or from following the dominant religion in a heavily religious locale. 

Indeed, the stupidity of the beliefs is part of the point. Consider: Human beings need to know whether they can trust one another and whether others are loyal members of the group. They need to know whether people will contribute to public goods or free ride on others' efforts. Expensive signals--such as loudly and enthusiastically expressing belief in bizarre things, or engaging in expensive, painful, and time-consuming rituals--help demonstrate such loyalty. It works. QAnon conspiracy theorists are epistemically irrational, but only because epistemic irrationality of this sort pays off with social rewards. They will stop when a new trend takes over or when the total costs exceed the total rewards. 

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Electoral and Procedural Legitimacy for Democratic Skeptics

I'm on the record saying the legitimacy of the state, period, and of democracy are very much in question.

Given that I think that--and many of the others here do too--you might wonder what I am opposed to Trumpist Capital invasion last week, or why I believe Trump should be removed from office, even though he has only a few days left and his removal would largely be symbolic. (I am taking it for granted in this post that he did indeed induce an angry mob to attack the Capitol to stop it from certifying Biden's victory.) Instead, the question is, given my background philosophy, why would I think Trump is obligated to go along with the process? Why can't he or his goons override the system?

As an analogy, consider how sophisticated Marxists such as G. A. Cohen or Brian Leiter react to private property in the means of production. Cohen and Leiter both think that capitalism is unjust and should be replaced by an alternative economic system. There should not be private property in the means of production. Nevertheless, neither of them thinks (I'm pretty sure) that because capitalism is unjust, any person can steal from any private productive enterprise at any time for any reason. One reason is that if it's illegitimate for Elon Musk to have $200 billion, then it's also illegitimate for me to have $200 billion after stealing it. But more importantly, they both recognize (I'm pretty sure) that even when you are in an unjust economic system, willy-nilly and ad hoc thievery simply imposes great harm and causes chaos without doing anything to fix the system. Leiter doesn't steal from or firebomb Amazon warehouses, and he wouldn't do so even if he could get away with it. 

Similarly, suppose the NFL's Competition Committee decides, for demonstrably corrupt reasons, to eliminate the forward pass next season. Suppose they took bribes from QBs with no passing game. This may well give teams and referees grounds to engage in collective, widespread "civil disobedience" by continuing to use and recognize forward passes But it would not license or justify players deciding that since the governing board is corrupt, they, the players, should do whatever they want whenever they want.

Even if a system is unjust or deeply unjust, there might be reasons to play along with certain parts of it, and play along with certain rules. 

Let's apply some of this to the Trump election of 2016. Trump's election resulted from demonstrable voter incompetence. If voters had been adequately informed and reasoned in an adequate way, Trump would not have been the Republican candidate, let alone the winner. Nevertheless, it would not be acceptable for me, on January 21, 2017, to depose Trump and attempt to install myself as the new president. Doing so would cause massive chaos and violence, and further, even if (thanks to the Competence Principle) Trump should not rule, there is also no legitimate reason why I should rule. 

Biden was lawfully elected. Even within the rules of the election, Trump did not have grounds for rejecting Biden's win. But even if you think, as I do, that anarchism is just, or that certain forms of epistocracy are probably more justifiable than democracy (though they are unjust because they are statist), that doesn't mean you should think it's acceptable for a standing president to induce a mob to attack the Capitol to overthrow an election. The background injustice of the system is not a blank check for anyone to seize power or to attack legislators whenever they dislike their decisions. 

I think there's good work to be done here on "playing along" inside unjust systems. I discuss some of that here, in When All Else Fails: The Ethics of Resistance to State Injustice. For instance, I argue that if you were to take a job with the Nazi government doing a legitimate function, such as teaching schoolchildren to read, you should still do it competently, even though others should try to sabotage its illegitimate functioning.