Ten Degrees of Difference: Is it all just a tragic misunderstanding?

I’d like to thank Walenty Lisek at The Life of the Mind blog for the detailed response to my post on the Tragic Vision. I’ll try to reciprocate as best I can with ten points in response.

I should start, however, by clarifying my position.

My main point was that, so far as I can tell, I share the Tragic Vision that, according to Sowell, many right-wing conservatives possess. Yet possession of that vision is what predisposes me to support left-leaning economic policies not right-leaning ones.

In my case, then, I’m either very confused in my thinking or there is nothing incompatible between having the Tragic Vision and being ‘predisposed’ to left-wing policies.

If I’m right then the convergence between the ‘tragic vision’ (Sowell’s ‘constrained’ vision) and right-wing economic thinking (e.g., in the US) has an arbitrary element to it. Further, that suggests that where such a convergence occurs it is perhaps best explained by social, economic and cultural factors rather than by some underlying vision or predisposition (i.e., the presence of a ‘tragic vision’ in some people).

To put it bluntly, I think a tragic vision predisposes people to support right wing economic principles through exposure to what I would term a cultural overemphasis – both ideologically and structurally – on individualism rather than because it produces a necessary causal ‘weighting’ towards them.

I should add that I also think there’s nothing particularly determinative between having a so-called ‘utopian vision’ and being predisposed to left wing economic principles. Perhaps the most identifiably left wing thinker in the history of economic thought – Karl Marx – was decidedly and determinedly ‘anti-utopian’ and so certainly did not share the ‘utopian vision’ that supposedly predisposes people to lean to the left.

Famously, he referred to his socialist predecessors – critically – as ‘utopian socialists‘ because of their belief that they could design a cooperative utopian society by making better people (i.e., by changing their ‘nature’). (Sowell uses Marx as an example of a ‘mixed’ vision probably because he couldn’t deny Marx’s anti-utopianism but had to explain why Marx ‘leaned’ left.)

That’s my basic point: There’s no necessary or causal relation between the tragic vision or utopian visions, on the one hand, and left and right leaning economic commitments, on the other.

Now to the specific points.

1. The confusion arising from my post appears to begin with a misunderstood sentence in my first paragraph. So, let’s start at the beginning with that. The offending sentence is:

The great untested assumption underlying Sowell’s analysis is that changing social structures (from their present incarnation) amounts to changing human nature.

and is met with the quite correct claim that:

Sowell is clearly on the side of the Tragic Vision of society and because of that this would mean he would argue that we cannot change human nature, regardless of social structure.

I should have been clearer (of course). What I was saying in that sentence was, in effect,“The great untested assumption underlying Sowell’s analysis is that [the left’s attempts to change] social structures (from their present incarnation) amounts to [attempts to change] human nature.”

Using myself as a case in point (Exhibit A), I believe that current social structures need changing. But I don’t advocate such changes because I’m ‘optimistic’ that I will be able to change human nature in that way but, rather, because I think changed social and economic circumstances bring out different possible behaviours (‘better ones’) from that same human nature. (Walenty makes the same point with the example of how ‘high-polygyny societies’ would elicit quite different behaviours from the same ‘nature’ than those exhibited in our societies.).

In fact, I think that current social and economic arrangements in consumer capitalist societies are not the kind that represent a good ‘fit’ with human nature. Further, I think rising rates of psychopathology – in our lands of plenty – are part of a wealth of evidence that, today, we are trying to fit the round pegs of human nature into the square holes of our societies. (There’s a lot to say on this and a lot of evidence in its support, but that’s another post.)

2. I’m accused of proposing a non sequitur in saying that:

I believe rationality is highly flawed [another hallmark of the ‘tragic vision’], especially when it comes to understanding ourselves, hence the free market idea that each individual knows what’s best for themselves seems like utterly naive nonsense to me (whatever happened to belief in learning from the experience of our predecessors and wisdom of our elders, etc.?).

The term “utterly naive nonsense” I admit is hyperbole. But this is not a non sequitur.

Now, I’m aware that economists don’t assume that people make perfect decisions. I’m aware that, for example, in the Austrian school (von Mises, Hayek and the like) there’s no assumption of perfect – or even remotely correct – information though there is a strong assumption that humans act rationally as a matter of course.

Indeed, there’s plenty of evidence that we are, in several respects, quite bad at making decisions towards ends we might claim we are making them. While it is not necessarily true that consumer decisions, for example, are being made always to increase happiness, subjective wellbeing or hedonic pleasure, it’s reasonable to assume that many people think that that is why they make their consumer choices. Well, we’re not good at it. More to the point, we seem to be almost actively not good at it. As the authors in the link put it:

A fundamental assumption of classic economic theory is that people are able to identify and choose what is best for them, conditional on being well-informed about their circumstances. This assumption is not an idiosyncratic doctrine of economics; it is shared by the general public. Our support for consumer sovereignty, free marriage, and democratic elections all reflect this assumption.

And the findings they review,

challenge a fundamental assumption that underlies popular support for consumer sovereignty and other forms of autonomy in decision-making (e.g. marriage choice), namely, the assumption that people are able to make choices in their own best interests.

The notion that individuals are in the best position to make choices may well be defensible on political and ideological grounds (e.g., that it is important to assert the pre-eminence of the individual as their own ‘best’ decision maker in order to avoid tyrrany, oppression by the state, etc.) but a growing body of research shows that we have various biases specific to ourselves that lead to over and underestimations of outcomes of various kinds, etc. and that others do not share such biases in relation to our decisions. Other people are actually quite often in a better position than us to decide what is in our best interests – on the assumption that something other than ‘negative freedom’ is in our best interests (e.g., a healthily nourished body during our early development).

And this point shouldn’t be so hard to swallow for right wing libertarians. As Isaiah Berlin noted in his essay on ‘Two Concepts of Liberty‘, every value is what it is and nothing else. If you value negative freedom then you can’t expect that, at the same time, the circumstances that support negative freedom would provide other things you might value (e.g., justice, the greatest well-being for humans, etc.).

As he put it;

Everything is what it is: liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or culture or human happiness or a quiet conscience. If the liberty of myself or my class or nation depends on the misery of a number of other human beings, the system which promotes this is unjust and immoral. But if I curtail or lose my freedom, in order to lessen the shame of such inequality, and do not thereby materially increase the individual liberty of others, an absolute loss of liberty occurs.

To value negative freedom as a singular priority is to put this ahead of these other values, and therefore to subordinate them to it – it is to diminish them so as to maintain or increase negative freedom (liberty). To attempt to claim that negative (economic) freedom is also the best way to maximise individuals’ well-being is, frankly, an attempt to have one’s cake and eat it too.

But, as I said, there may be other – ideological – justifications for holding to this assumption that each individual is best situated to make decisions in their own best interests. Indeed, I think this is the motivation for many economists from Adam Smith to Milton Friedman making this assumption. But it’s important to realise that it’s a political stance, not an empirical one. It’s an (politically motivated) assumption, not a finding. [We could also defend it on the basis that it is a simplifying assumption for the purposes of modelling, but it still raises the question of why this assumption and not its opposite -or some entirely different assumption – was not used as the simplifying assumption.]

Modern economics, after all, was part of an intellectual movement (the Enlightenment) that was itself joined at the hip to a broader political movement to assert the rights of an emerging mercantile middle class against aristocratic forms of sovereignty. Many Enlightenment thinkers (perhaps even all of them!) were politically outspoken and active or, at least, critical in their writings of those who, at the time, had substantial power. They were quite aware that their ideas often had extremely significant political consequences.

I don’t have a problem with that, by the way. As you might guess from the title of this blog, I assume that science and scientists are political and I don’t think that’s a problem – unless it’s denied.

3. In response to my comments to the effect that capitalism has a dynamic that is destructive of family, community and other social relationships, Lisek states that:

Corporations have been one of the enabling factors of the breakdown of the family if only because they can offer high paying jobs the lure people away from home.  But if the West’s social conservatism hadn’t broken down first, there would have been few people that would have been willing to make such a move.

I’m sorry, but I know of no serious historical analysis that supports the idea that “the West’s social conservatism” broke down first and then corporations (my point was about capitalism, actually) simply lured already ‘morally vulnerable’ individuals away from friends, family and community.

As capitalism moved from production-based to consumption-focussed as a result of excessive capacities to produce, there was a crisis – widely recognised by players in the major industries – around how to ramp up consumption amongst a population that operated on ‘production values’ (thrift, hard work, reliability, stability, etc.).

The answer, as is part of the written record, was to increase advertising, marketing and the like and to repeat messages that contained ‘consumer values’ (egocentrism, pleasure, image, fashion, being ‘up to date’, etc.). Basically, the aim was to ‘democratise’ the conspicuous consumption (to use Thorstein Veblen’s phrase), that had been mainly a feature of the wealthy elites, to the masses. In effect, this was a deliberately chosen course of conditioning of the population (for details see Stuart Ewen’s famous book ‘All Consuming Images‘, especially the political and historical analysis.)

Interestingly, Isaiah Berlin (same link as above) also recognised how such deliberate decisions to manipulate preferences and values amounts to a loss of liberty:

This makes it clear why the definition of negative liberty as the ability to do what one wishes – which is, in effect, the definition adopted by Mill – will not do. If I find that I am able to do little or nothing of what I wish, I need only contract or extinguish my wishes, and I am made free. If the tyrant (or ‘hidden persuader’) manages to condition his subjects (or customers) into losing their original wishes and embracing (‘internalising’) the form of life he has invented for them, he will, on this definition, have succeeded in liberating them. He will, no doubt, have made them feel free – as Epictetus feels freer than his master (and the proverbial good man is said to feel happy on the rack). But what he has created is the very antithesis of political freedom.

That process of changing values began with the ‘roaring twenties’ which was a massive speculative boom. In capitalist boom times indulgence (and its associated morality) always comes to the fore but with the expansion of media, advertising and PR a massive cultural change was underway. Post-WWII, mass consumption really hit its stride. Teenagers were invented (yes, invented) along with their own sub-culture once it was realised that they were an emerging market with access to money and/or influence over parental expenditure. Whole industries blossomed to cater for this market (e.g., pop and rock music).

In essence, what has happened (and what many conservatives are actually lamenting) is the shift from what we might call ‘production virtues/values’ to ‘consumer virtues/values’ (a focus on gratification, egotism, materialism, lack of self-discipline and responsibility, etc.).

This shift is part of the structural economic changes that have come along as capitalism has ‘matured’ and that beckoned in ‘liberal permissiveness’ – a highly compatible expression of consumerist values. Those changes came first. (I should add that the deliberate efforts of corporations and advertisers were not the only force driving this shift – but it is a clear reflection of the general structural change.)

4. My analogy with digging a garden over was simply to point out what is well known in developmental literature and is – or should be – common sense. Stability is required for things to develop to maturity. Constantly digging over a garden to rearrange and replant it in ‘better’ ways – i.e., constantly ‘creatively destroying’ it – disrupts the production of the very outcomes that the gardening is meant to serve (growing crops).

Similarly, constantly ‘re-creating’ economic conditions to make a better economy (‘garden’) may well produce more (even ‘better’) goods and services but won’t do what it ultimately is for – provide an environment that nurtures human beings to a flourishing maturity. But, perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe the economy is not actually for that. Maybe it has its own interests, independent of people? Or at least independent of most people.

5. Lisek claims:

The author has causation moving backwards – right wing conservatives are not predisposed to the tragic vision, rather those with the tragic vision are predisposed to be right wing conservatives.

Agreed. Which is what I argue against. Those with a tragic vision are not predisposed to be right wing conservatives – as I’ve explained above.

Lisek then goes on to claim I’ve again got it backwards when I say:

What I think has happened, especially in America, is that the Tragic Vision has simply been tapped and co-opted by the right, not the left. There’s nothing inherently right wing about the tragic vision and nothing inherently left wing about the utopian vision.

Perhaps I’m reading English differently from Lisek, but he(?) seems to be reading that quote as my saying something other than what he(?) claims is Sowell’s position. Yet, as just pointed out, Lisek says:

right wing conservatives are not predisposed to the tragic vision, rather those with the tragic vision are predisposed to be right wing conservatives.

Isn’t that just what I said in the offending sentence where I supposedly got the causality backwards? I’m focusing on the question of each vision’s ‘intuitions’ about human nature: in the tragic vision human nature is ‘constrained’, which is to say it is flawed, limited and not particularly malleable. The utopian vision supposedly is that human nature is ‘unconstrained’ and infinitely malleable. So?

Whether you think human nature is constrained or unconstrained has nothing to do with whether you might want the government to intervene in the economy or not because economic intervention does not have to be predicated on changing human nature (so it can be as inflexible as you like and you can still advocate for state intervention). Similarly, if you think that human nature is constrained there’s no reason that that intuition should lead (or ‘predispose’) anyone to advocate for a free market. It may well line up like that with American conservatives but that has nothing to do with different people’s visions of human nature or ‘how the world works’.

As Sowell says about a ‘vision’,

It is what we sense or feel before we have constructed any systematic reasoning that could be called a theory, much less deduced any specific consequences as hypotheses to be tested against evidence. A vision is our sense of how the world works.

That is, it is ‘pre-deductive’ and so doesn’t lead, for example, to something like the view that ‘[therefore] people should look after themselves’. It only leads to that if the culture provides the deduction from that vision – which is my point. I’m mystified at the confusion.

6. The comment is made that,

There is nothing magical about capitalism, but it can seem that way because many of the insights produced by it are counter-intuitive.  Such insights are things like how the minimum wage actually destroys jobs, or how rent control makes the living situation worse.  Apparently this is counter-intuitive to many people.

I don’t find this remotely counter-intuitive since I have a reasonable grasp of economic logic. But, as Lisek may well know, there is considerable debate amongst economists (in the scholarly literature) over whether or not, for example, minimum wages reduce employment.

7. Lisek then claims that,

As compared to a central authority, for all of an individuals faults they still on average produce better results.  This is not speculation, this is the judgement of history.  Unless of course the author is willing to believe that the economic and human conditions in Cuba and North Korea are better than in the free markets of the Western world, or even the semi-free market of China.

First, central planning versus free markets are not the only options that have been tried in history. Further, I’ll ignore the red herring about North Korea (it would be laughable to even call it a ‘planned economy’).

I’ll also (almost) ignore the factual error in talking about “the free markets of the Western world”. To take the US as an example, its ‘free markets’ involve massive public subsidies both directly (e.g., in the agricultural sector) and indirectly (e.g., through Pentagon contracts). The US has less of a history of ‘free markets’ than it does of heavy government intervention to ‘incubate’, promote and ensure the prospects of most of the major industries the US has relied upon during its process of industrialisation (and, of course, many foreign interventions are in the service of such interests and industries. I don’t think that is – or should be – a controversial summary of US foreign policy.)

Whether it’s aeronautics, biotech, IT, the auto industry or agriculture in general they all have been the beneficiaries of massive state-funded innovation, massive subsidies and massive social engineering on their behalf (how long would it have taken GM to build the US interstate highways if Eisenhower hadn’t decided, conveniently, that the US needed the highways to move its ICBMs around on and so was a matter of ‘national defence’?). It’s not too much of a stretch to call the US a state capitalist society rather than a free market one, though admittedly nowhere near as state capitalist as China (or pre-WWII Italy and Germany).

8. Lisek points out that, “American conservatives are weird as far as conservatives go” and that “An American conservative could be somewhat accurately described as a classical liberal.” Agree completely, at least in the economic sphere. Many classical liberals supported socially liberal causes (abolition, feminism, etc.), which I understand is not always the case with American conservatives.

9. I’m then quoted as saying that

[e]conomically, I’m very conservative which, of course, means that I believe that communities should provide collectively and cooperatively for their own welfare (the case with just about every previous society and culture in human history and prehistory).

Lisek responds with the claim that,

Because of how interdependent we have become, both within nations and between nations, such a restructuring would return many people to a state of poverty.

That would be true if (a) it was done instantly, and (b) it simply meant returning to pre-capitalist structures. I wouldn’t advocate either (a) or (b). Trading, exchange, division of labour, etc. are not incompatible with more cooperative ownership structures.

There are myriad examples of successful enterprises that are not structured as capitalist firms but are run democratically. In Emilia-Romagna cooperatives have a long history. The region is one of the wealthiest in Italy (Bologna is the capital) and it has the most cooperatives (it is also historically strongly supportive of the Italian Communist Party). It has a ‘balanced economy’ and freedom to move from the cooperative sector to the private sector. If you have the time, check out this interview with Professor Stefano Zamagni on the cooperatives (I’ve linked to the page – the link to the interview is near the bottom, titled ‘Ideas: The Cooperative Economy’). Note the social, as well as economic, benefits and also the challenges for cooperatives.

10. The post ends with this comment,

Breaking this interdependence would also cause another problem – it has been rather convincingly shown that where goods do not cross borders, armies will.

Indeed. There’s a reason for that and it can be summed up with two well known quotes:

“War is politics by other means”

Carl von Clausewitz

“As long as politics is the shadow cast on society by big business, the attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance”

John Dewey

Join the dots. If you do, and we agree with Clausewitz and Dewey, then war results when big business is not given what it wants – the ability to access (some would say ‘plunder’) resources in other countries. So long as it gets what it wants there’s no need for war. Get in its way – well, that’s another story. Sadly, I don’t think we’ve seen the end of war. Should a nation decide not to open its borders but still possesses something desired by ‘big business’, then war is the next option. (I don’t think I should need to provide an example here.)

The history of colonialism also shows this connection incredibly clearly. But … that’s another post.

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5 Responses to Ten Degrees of Difference: Is it all just a tragic misunderstanding?

  1. Pascal's bookie says:

    Lawks. That was a very pleasurable demolishment to read. Love your work.

    • TPSA says:

      Thanks PB. I’m pretty slow at producing posts and I’m still trying to make this site a bit more appealing and informative (haven’t even got a proper blogroll yet), but I hope you keep dropping by.

      I’m not really into ‘demolishment’ but I like to argue things through as far as I can and I always hope to get responses that make me think – e.g., that I got something wrong. Right wing libertarians are actually good to debate as there’s a logic there (usually) and a set of starting assumptions. As I once said to ‘Gosman’ on The Standard, I like to ‘know’ more than I like to ‘win’ – but I like to win too!

      I should add that I appreciate your comments on The Standard. You always make good points – well thought out and entertaining.

  2. Pingback: If you're going to criticize Sowell, at least read his book first | a life of the mind

  3. Pingback: If you're going to criticize Sowell, at least read his book first | a life of the mind

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