Monday, November 8, 2021

Why I'm Skeptical about the University of Austin

See the announcement here: https://bariweiss.substack.com/p/we-cant-wait-for-universities-to

Their expressed intentions include a strong commitment to liberal free speech and research policies and to increased rigor in the classroom. I hope they succeed.

But I am skeptical that they will, though--based on this statement--I am rooting for them. (I reserve the right to stop rooting if subsequent statements show bad intent or behavior.)

The reason is that the problems that plague universities seem to be built-in, and I'm not sure how this new university will overcome them. Let me explain the basics.

Every major organization faces a problem in that the goals of the organization as a whole and the goals of individual people within the organization may conflict. The organization might be dedicated to, say, furthering research, but the individual secretary in cubicle C just wants a job. The organization might be dedicated to finding the truth no matter where it lies, but the dean wants the angry mob to go away and the students who make up the angry mob want to ensure their truth and their feelings are protected. 

What's good for the organization and what's good for any individual within it can conflict. You need to align the utility functions of the individuals with the organization's goals. 

Indeed, it's worse than that because there are only individual people. The organization does not really have goals. The organization itself has no heart to break or dreams to realize. There is no Harvard per se that aims for truth, or social justice, or status. There are only individual people at Harvard that have their individual aims. The organization aims at any particular goal only in the reductive sense that many individuals might, in light of their shared values or incentives, be directed toward that goal. When we say Harvard aims for status and money, what we mean is that most people there aim for that. When we say Harvard aims for social justice, what we mean is that most people there pretend to aim for it. (I presume we all know no one sincerely means it.)

If this university gets off the ground, it will probably at first attract faculty and students committed to a certain ideology of the university. It's a good ideology, as far as I can tell! (Universities should seek truth and provide a rigorous, demanding, mind-expanding education. Most people disagree with this today, but they're wrong!) Because at first they will likely attract people who share this mission, there's a good chance that at first they will adhere to it, for the most part.

But then there will still be the perverse incentives. Individual professors push their brand over the university's brand. Individual students might want easy grades in their case, if not other cases. Individual staff members might want to squash just this one speaker they find obnoxious. Deans don't want to deal with bad press. Competition from other schools requires compromise. Getting good press means playing along with prevalent ideas. Etc. On the margins, individuals will face these temptations and some will succumb. 

However, the real issue is what happens in the long-term. The start-up tech firm is founded by three dorks with a vision and a passion, but 30 years later it's run by career manager types who are just as happy to sell this tech as they are to sell shoes. The people there don't have any passion for that initial vision. It's just a job.

So it goes with universities. Suppose the University of Austin becomes successful. It attracts an elite student body which then gets good jobs and grad school admissions. It attracts elite faculty. It has a high ranking. 

What will happen then is that people will go the University of Austin as students or faculty for the same reasons they try to go to other elite schools. They won't care so much about the original mission. They'll care about the status and financial rewards attendance brings. Just as today's Harvard students are mostly there for self-promotion, not veritas, so their future students will likely not be there for the mission. 

That's what I'd expect if they succeed and become a big deal.

The other alternative, I suspect, is to stay small, like St. John's College, which the incoming president used to lead. St. John's works, as far as it does, because it only admits a small number of weird students attracted to its mission. (N.B., I was one such weirdo. I applied to St. John's myself and was admitted, but I couldn't afford to go.) It's probably possible to maintain a tiny student body and tiny faculty that believes in that mission over the long term. 

At any rate, conservative critiques of the academy often read to me as follows: The USSR, China, Cambodia, and Cuba were humanitarian disasters because their Communist Party leaders have evil intent. What we need to do is ensure the new central planners have the right motives. But the real problem is the central planning and the incentive structure it creates. There is no long-term version of "making sure the right people run the system". The same goes mutatis mutandis for universities. 

Friday, October 29, 2021

A New Argument for a Dworkinian Theory of Legal Interpretation


The late Ronald Dworkin was one of the great legal and political philosophers of modern times. This is true, I think, whether or not one agrees with his substantive views, which (I think to his detriment) followed the main tenets of the Democratic Party’s political platform. 

 

Central to his theory of law was his view of legal interpretation. Dworkin thought that the ideal judge interprets legal texts by putting them (the Constitution, statutes, and precedents) in their best possible light. A law should be interpreted using the best political theory that explains that law in a manner coherent with the legal system. Legal interpretation is thus a child of both morality and history. Propositions of law must be ethically sound but also faithful to the text, to history. It is not unhinged political philosophy, but bounded practical reasoning.

 

Now Dworkin’s views are not popular these days. They are under attack, not only by Hartian positivists, but also by the progressive left (not radical enough) and the conservative right (judicial activism). And libertarians dislike his support of expansive government. More generally, many have objected that Dworkin does not give enough weight to original intent.

 

I will not respond here to all these criticisms. I want to offer, instead, a new argument for Dworkin’s theory of legal interpretation. (The argument is confined to statutory interpretation. Constitutional interpretation and interpretation of the common law, although similarly inspired, call for separate considerations.)

 

In a democracy judges are called to interpret the law enacted by elected politicians. Now, politicians tend to be bad people, for many reasons. To them, incumbency is paramount, and the least we can say is that this goal undermines public-spirited motivation. Politicians lie in the pursuit of their own political and material aggrandizement. I don’t mean that politicians are viscerally bad people: rather, the structure of incentives under which they operate kills most public spiritedness in their behavior. Legislation often results from bargains to trade favors, and from responses to rent-seeking from powerful interests. These pathologies are well known and have been amply discussed by social scientists.

 

So, the judge is called to interpret the law enacted by bad people. The judge, let’s assume, is well motivated. She wants to render a just and impartial decision. I think this assumption is plausible because the judge is not trapped in the structure of incentives that corrupts politicians. Given this, it makes eminent sense for the judge to ignore original intention altogether. Why would she give weight to the intentions of bad people? Better to find the best meaning of the statute so she can render a just and impartial decision consistent with an ordinary meaning of the text. As we know, many legal terms are vague or ambiguous. Political theory will help our judge choose among the semantic alternatives.  

 

Seen in this way, judges perform the invaluable function of protecting us from politicians. (Someone could object that the solution should be to elect good people to office. For reasons I cannot pursue here, this is, alas, unlikely to occur.) 

 

So Dworkin’s theory of legal interpretation is attractive, but for different reasons from the ones he gave. Judges that ignore legislative intent render a valuable public service, regardless of the substantive political theory they happen to prefer. 

 

Friday, September 17, 2021

What Motivates Egalitarians?

The real world provides us with a nice test case to examine whether egalitarians are motivated by envy or a desire to help the poor.


If they were motivated by envy, then if they get rich, we'd expect them to live large and find excuses for their own behavior.

 

If they were motivated by a desire to help the poor, then if they get rich, we'd expect them to donate lots of money to help the poor. 

 

What we overwhelmingly see among egalitarians is the former, not the latter. That's the opposite of what we see among utilitarians, who generally seem to mean what they say. 


Egalitarians of course have plenty of rationalization strategies to excuse their behavior, but none of them work, as Chris and I show here.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

I Am Now Immune to Criticism

I've decided to copy-cat a style of argumentation which is prominent among democrats and socialists in the philosophy literature. This move will now render me and my work immune from criticism.
By epistocracy, I henceforth mean not only a system that gives greater weight to the wise during voting, but which actually makes substantively wise decisions! Thus, any time a seemingly epistocratic decision-system makes a bad choice--such as a choice that runs afoul of the demographic objection--it wasn't *true* or *real* epistocracy! Epistocracy by definition always makes the wisest choices. Therefore, to oppose epistocracy is to oppose good choices and favor bad ones.

In the same way, socialists will often say that socialism is not merely a system with a certain kind of ownership and control rights over productive property, but a system that in fact lives by certain norms, including substantive norms about outcomes. For instance, a socialist might say that it's not real socialism unless things are done properly and people are treated as equals, with equal incomes. Democrats say similar things about democracy meaning not merely equal inputs, but substantively liberal and egalitarian results.

If they can do it, so can I.

Monday, August 16, 2021

The Afghanistan Disaster: A Case of Unjust War Exit

As we watch wretched Afghanis clinging to the wings of departing US airplanes, the Taliban, one of the cruelest regimes on earth, has taken control of Afghanistan following the withdrawal of United States troops. Most observers are dismayed, but for various reasons and with different motivations. Some think the US should have never invaded; others say that, while the initial invasion was defensible, the US subsequently botched its mission; yet others obsess over who was at fault: G.W. Bush, Obama, Trump, Biden, or all of the above.

Here I set aside these questions. At the time I defended the invasion, but I will not assume here that I was right then. I wish to make a different point: the withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan constitutes an unjust war exit. 

Just war theory specifies the conditions for the justice of a war:

1. The war has a just cause. A just cause consists in stopping or preventing the violation, backed by lethal force, of persons’ rights to life and physical integrity (in brief, repelling or preventing attacks against persons).

2. The commander intends the just cause either as an end, or as a means to some other end, or, perhaps, as a foreseen side effect.

3. The war stands a reasonable chance of succeeding by military means that do not breach jus in bello requirements.

4. The war is a necessary means to pursue the just cause while minimizing casualties.

5. The war is a proportionate response to the wrong it seeks to remedy.

6. Neither the war’s occurrence nor the way it is fought should threaten the establishment of a just peace. 

Those who question the justice of the Afghanistan war may claim that it violated condition 1, the failure to have a just cause; or condition 3, the success requirement; or perhaps condition 6, the failure to create the conditions for a just peace.

I don’t have to decide whether or not the critics are right, because even if they are, the withdrawal of troops violates the requirements for the just termination of war. The idea is that “the question of whether belligerents may, or indeed must, end their war at time t2 cannot be settled solely by a verdict on the justness or unjustness of their war at t1.” (C├ęcile Fabre, here, at 632). 

We must consider two cases: either the Afghanistan war was initially just or it was not.

Let’s assume that the Afghanistan war was initially just at T1, the time of the invasion. It follows that the United States had an obligation to realize the just cause (say, free Afghanistan from the Taliban and eliminate the chances of anti-Western terrorists operating there). But suppose that at a later time, T2, the war had become impossible to win or could only be won at a prohibitive cost, defined as a cost in human lives that significantly exceeds the value of the realization of the just cause. Then, perhaps the United States would have had to stop fighting at the time the impossibility of victory became apparent.  By hypothesis, continuing the war would have led to worse consequences than withdrawing. If success cannot be achieved (thus turning an initially just war into an unjust one), but the United States presence is necessary to avert a catastrophe, then the United States must stay. The United States may withdraw only if doing so complies with the rules of proportionality, that is, if predictably the consequences of withdrawal are acceptable.

Similar reasoning holds if we assume that the war is unjust at T1, which means the invader should not have invaded in the first place. However, at T2 it became apparent that stopping the (initially ill-conceived) fight would have led to a major humanitarian catastrophe. Then, the principles of war exit recommend staying the course, on grounds of proportionality as before: the consequences of leaving are worse than the consequences of continuing the fight, even if starting the fight was wrong.

It is apparent that the United States withdrawal is unjust regardless of any view about the justness of the original invasion, or any view about supervening justice or injustice of the war. The Taliban’s reconquest of power will predictably lead to disastrous results. At the very least, the Taliban will resume its reign of terror against its own citizens, especially women. And in the worst case, the country will become once again a military base for terrorists, especially given the likely involvement of Iran in Afghanistan. All of this makes the withdrawal unjust. The United States should have continued to fend off the assault of the Taliban with the contingent it had. This would have been morally preferable, I contend, even if the United States troops would have had to stay forever.

A final word about the rationale offered by the present and previous US administrations: “We cannot fight for them, they must fight themselves.” This noxious doctrine, going back to J.S. Mill, is that freedom is only valuable if people fight for it. The doctrine is wrong because it blames the victim. The victims of the Taliban, especially women and children, are helpless against the Taliban and are not responsible for their corrupt and ineffectual government’s failure to defend them. The United States military presence in Afghanistan, flawed and indecisive as it was, was indispensable to save human lives. It should not have ended. 



Friday, August 6, 2021

Why Don't Socialists Take Exploitation Seriously?

Socialist: "Capitalism is full of exploitation. Capitalist employers exploit their employees by underpaying them."

Randian Capitalist: "Well, maybe the mixed economies we currently have see that kind of thing happening. The problem is that the presence of socialism in our mixed economies socializes individuals to believe that individuals have no inherent worth and so it's okay to sacrifice or exploit them for any bigger end. What we need is real capitalism. Once we have real capitalism, people will grow up with a new ethos. Under real capitalism, a Randian ethos will emerge in which everyone insists on paying others exactly what they deserve, not a penny less or more. Therefore, real capitalism eliminates all exploitation.” 

This sounds pretty dumb, right? But socialists often say the same thing in reverse. They claim that socialist societies will create a new ethos in which people will refuse to mistreat one another, will work for the public good, and will abide by various demanding moral rules. They claim that existing selfishness--including selfishness and malice in socialist communes or countries--is the result of past socialization from capitalism. 

Of course, it's possible they are right! While most people just assert this stuff because it flatters their ideology, we can at least study how different systems affect things like interpersonal trust, altruism, cooperativeness, trustworthiness, and so on. Unfortunately for socialists, though, the empirics are rather clear that capitalism increases these good things while socialism and traditional society tend to demote them. You can read Markets without Limits for a review of that literature. 

Socialists oddly don't seem to take exploitation very seriously despite talking about it all the time. Consider another dialogue:

Socialist: "Exploitation occurs when someone uses their market power--which results from power differentials--to give someone a bad deal that takes advantage of the other's misfortune or differential power."

Capitalist: "That sounds bad. We should stop that if we can. So, I'm guessing then that you think it's really important to foster a competitive market--competitive in the technical economic sense--so that everyone everywhere is a price taker and no one has market power. You'd probably hate it if there were monopolies or monopsonies."

Socialist: "Well, no, what I propose we do is create a monopsony for labor and a monopoly seller of goods."

Capitalist: "Huh? What? I think I must have misheard you, because you just said literally the wrongest thing anyone could propose as a solution to this problem."

Socialist: "No, we'll create a monopoly and monopsony but make sure everyone is super duper nice."

Capitalist: "What the fuck?"

Socialist: "For real."


Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Why Was Rawls's Work So Bad?: Some Speculation

Rawls's work is quite bad. His style is boring and awkward. He writes in half-retractions. He offers a method but doesn't stick to it. He advances principles but doesn't really argue for them. (For instance, his argument for moral powers test of basic liberty is radically incomplete--he offers hardly any reason to believe it, and he offers even less reason to think it picks out the liberties he favors.) He largely ignores critics. He straw mans the views he criticizes. He offers criticisms of others but ignores whether his criticisms apply to his own work. His argument for his most famous idea--the difference principle--is clearly unsound, as Wolff demonstrates here. 

Why?

I suspect it's because he gave himself an absurd task.

Rawls often said that he was trying to articulate and defend the implicit, substantive theory of justice inside the culture of the modern democratic nation state.

Here, then, are somewhat snotty but nevertheless accurate summaries of his two biggest books. A Theory of Justice: Idealized agents under a veil of ignorance but who possess special knowledge of sociology and economics would unanimously choose...wait for it...something like the 1972 Democratic Party Platform. Political Liberalism: All reasonable people committed to a free and equal society, but who recognize and respect diversity of value would...wait for it...end up agreeing with Rawls that we should implement either the 1972 Democratic Party Platform or the 1972 Social Democratic Party of Germany's platform. 

Here's the problem, then: Consider the big political parties--the ones that actually get into power and rule in modern democratic nation-states. (You can ignore fringe parties like the communists, libertarians, etc., here.) The platforms that these political parties have--not merely their particular platform in any given year, but their overall tendencies towards various policies--are not derived from philosophical principles combined with economics. Rather, most political parties are composed of a wide range of interest groups with very different ideologies, and often no ideologies at all. These different groups have different goals with differing strengths. The platforms that emerge in any party are half compromise and half accident. Parties push incompatible ideas at the same time and in the same breath. 

The platform of any big party is a hodgepodge of largely incompatible ideas or ideas in deep tension with each other. These tensions arise in part because the party is trying to please different people with conflicting goals and interest. These arise because their voters are usually uninformed, irrational, and inconsistent themselves. They arise because parties mostly want to do what sounds good but also sometimes want to do what is good. They arise because most people are confused and unprincipled themselves. Any given member of parliament probably has inconsistent ideas and goals. The body as a whole does too.

This holds not merely for any one party, but for the overall politics that emerge in any particular country. 

You cannot produce a good, simple, principled, but very substantive account of the implicit theory of justice underlying a modern democratic nation-state because the principled part is rather minimal. My point is not to say that because people disagree, there is no truth in politics, and no substantive theory of justice is correct. Rather, my point is that Rawls was trying to provide a principled defense of what he regarded as the rather substantive implicit principles of justice in modern democratic nation states. But modern democratic nations states have no such implicit robust theory; all they have is something far more minimal.