Science flourishes still, demonstrating the possibility for human minds to escape the fairy tale epistemology that we have inhabited for tens of thousands of years and to inquire systematically into the world, or at least to benefit from the work of those who do. Yet - as the evolution example illustrates - stories continue to exert a powerful psychological hold over human minds. The US is one of the most educated societies in the world, but only around a third of adults accept the scientific account of evolution. Despite their deficiencies stories continue to dominate our minds, and hence the world that we build together with our minds via politics. From our thinking on the economy to identity politics to Covid to Climate Change to Climate Change activism, stories continue to blind us to reality and to generate mass conflict and stupidity.
Thursday 15 June 2023
Monday 3 April 2023
Monday 13 February 2023
It is easy to become exasperated with liberal democracy. Various factions bicker and manoeuvre against each other in an endless grubby contest for power, hypocritically appealing to a shared public interest while continuously generating and sustaining social divisions. Things that are necessary – like addressing climate change – do not get done, lost amidst the endless dithering, quibbling, and bargaining for advantage. Things that should not be done – like deporting UK asylum applicants to Rwanda – become official policy against all common sense and multiple laws, seemingly mainly as a way of trolling the opposition and civil society.
So it is disappointing but perhaps not surprising that people around the world are increasingly likely to endorse the strongman theory of government, that “a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and election is a good way to run the country”.
Strongman government has two major attractions compared to liberal democracy. First, it promises wise and benevolent rule: undistracted by factions motivated by political interests the strong leader will be freed to make wiser, better decisions in the national interest. Second, it promises decisiveness: without the endless bickering and second guessing, strong leaders can get on and do what needs to be done.
In what follows I want to challenge these apparent advantages and show that the very failings of liberal democracy are actually the solution to the problems that strongman governments run into.
Monday 12 December 2022
When people take to the street to protest this is often supposed to be a sign of democracy in action. People who believe that their concerns about the climate change, Covid lockdowns, racism and so on are not being adequately addressed by the political system make a public display of how many of them care a lot about it so that we are all forced to hear about their complaint and the government is put under pressure to address it.
Sunday 23 October 2022
Take the median of the GiveWell figures: $4,000. I propose that prices for all goods and services should be listed in the universal alternative currency of percentage of a Child’s Life Not Saved (%CLNS), as well as their regular prices in Euros, dollars, or whatever. For example, a Starbucks Frappucino might be priced at 5$ /0.13%CLNS. A Caribbean holiday cruise might be priced at $8,000/ 200%CLNS (perhaps written as emojis🪦🪦)
Sunday 28 August 2022
First, unlike theft, taxation is legal - and this turns out to be a more significant difference than it first seems since we rely on laws to determine who owns what. Second, taxation is a device for solving collective action problems and thus allowing us (by coercing us) to meet our moral obligations to ourselves and each other - including our obligations to respect each others' property rights. One can't coherently be in favour of enforcing property rights, e.g. by having a police force and judges to catch and punish thieves, without also being in favour of a sustainable system for funding that enforcement.
Wednesday 13 July 2022
- War: If a Western country is involved in a war (or an ally - as in the case of Saudi Arabia in Yemen) then they are routinely assigned the entire responsibility for that war, including for all the terrible things done by those they are fighting.
- Illiberalism: Government oppression of religious and sexual minorities, political opposition, free press, and so on is routinely attributed to 'colonial era laws' or continuing Western ideological influence.
- Misgovernance: Government dysfunction and corruption are routinely blamed on Western consumers/companies' demand for natural resources; terrible environmental and labour regulations (or enforcement) are likewise blamed on Western demand for cheaper products
Saturday 25 June 2022
There is no good evidence for these claims. They seem to rely on the question begging assumption that the best explanation for why people in charge of things seem so often seem incompetent, mean, self-serving, unresponsive to their constituents' needs, and so on is that they are men. This framing is then used to cherry pick anecdotes about female prime ministers/CEOs that support the possibility, but not the probability that women would do things better.
As a general rule, we should reject claims supported by inadequate evidence. We should also be careful to distinguish moral claims about fairness in the competition for power from claims about how that power would be exercised. The first moral problem of power is whether it is used rightly and for the good. The moral problem of fair opportunity to gain power is a secondary and far less significant moral problem. To put it another way, we should care less about the gender of the super competitive alphas who get the top jobs in our society, and more about the poor saps who will be ruled by them.
Assuming that power is misused because it is held by men leaves us unprepared for the very probable discovery that things will be just as bad when most things are run by women (which in some countries is only a couple of decades away). This is because it is institutions rather than gender that select, train, and constrain those who wield power, and it is highly questionable whether and how far those institutions would be changed merely by changing the gender of those in charge. Instead of trying to control how power is exercised by changing the gender of those in charge, we should focus directly on restructuring the institutions of power, for example by making political leaders more legally accountable and empowering employees with workplace democracy. The aim should be to ensure that whether the people in charge are men or women, they are no longer able to behave like bullies or tyrants.
Saturday 28 May 2022
Monday 18 April 2022
- Corporations are better at globalisation than national governments
- Political incentives are less well aligned with the public interest than those for corporations
Saturday 12 March 2022
As any map will show you, the world is divided by political borders into spaces called countries. People and things can live in, come from, or go to these places.
But countries are not any more than that.
Firstly and most obviously, countries are merely a social construction. They are collectively produced fictions (like money, or religions) rather than mind-independent objects (like stones). Being fictional does not mean that countries do not matter, but it does mean that they only exist so long as enough people agree to act as if they do.
Secondly and more significantly, countries are places not agents. Places on a map cannot have interests or goals or take actions to achieve them. To think otherwise is to confuse the properties of one kind of thing with another. This category error infects not only general talk, but also much otherwise careful journalism and even academic analysis. For example, the influential Realist school of international relations is founded on the axiom that countries do (or ought to) act only in their national interest. This trades on two category errors: that countries (rather than governments) can act and that they have interests. The result is confusing and unfalsifiable nonsense about buffer zones, access to resources and so forth that is about as helpful for understanding, predicting, and managing conflicts as an astrological map.
Sunday 20 February 2022
Monday 22 November 2021
“The poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he” (Thomas Rainsborough, spokesman for the Levellers at the Putnam Debates)
Monday 23 August 2021
I think some of this resentment is entirely misplaced, and other parts are misdirected. The central problem is a failure to recognise that tourism is an export industry. Your country exports things like cars or T-shirts or coffee beans to people in other countries in exchange for tokens (dollars, Euros, etc) that you can use to buy things they make. Tourism is where you sell foreigners things that can't be moved around the world; things that they have to come to your country to consume, like views of your beautiful coastline, authentic cuisine, and the famous paintings in your museums. The fact that cars and T-shirts tend to get made inside large ugly buildings on the outside of town while tourism exports are produced in the prettiest parts of the centre is irrelevant. The things that tourists buy are still exports.
Thursday 19 August 2021
As of 2020, over 80 million people are on the run from war and persecution. Of this group, over 26 million are refugees looking for a safe haven outside of their home country. Most of these are from countries torn by civil war or governed by authoritarians, to whom human lives seem not to matter. The burden of caring for these million falls squarely upon the shoulders of developing nations; 86% of all refugees are hosted by developing countries, with the UN’s 46 least-developed countries taking in more than a quarter of all refugees. Millions are living in inhumane conditions in refugee camps across the globe, in nations that lack resources to take proper care of these refugees. Even if there are means to stay alive in these camps, there is often no access to public services or a path to citizenship. Refugees are neither politically represented nor provided with education, and this status is often inherited by their children and grandchildren.
Wednesday 10 March 2021
Thursday 14 January 2021
Why did it take until now for a critical mass of key players to take a stand against Trump's assault on democracy? Why wasn't it already enough when he pointedly declined to promise to accept the results of the election if he lost, during the 2016 presidential debates?
Sunday 3 January 2021
Wednesday 23 December 2020