Showing posts with label politics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label politics. Show all posts

Thursday 15 June 2023

The Problem With Stories

Human minds run on stories, in which things happen for human meaningful reasons. But the actual world is not human centred. It runs on causal processes that are largely indifferent to humans’ feelings about them. 

The great breakthrough in human enlightenment was to develop techniques – empirical science – to allow us to grasp the real complexity of the world and to understand it in terms of the interaction of mindless (or at least unintentional) processes rather than humanly meaningful stories of, say, good vs evil. Hence, for example, the objectively superior neo-Darwinian account of adaptation by natural selection that has officially displaced premodern stories about human-like but bigger (‘God’) agents creating the world for reasons we can make sense of. 

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.

Monday 3 April 2023

Governments Don't Actually Prioritise Economic Growth - But They Should

Environmentalists are always complaining that governments are obsessed with GDP and economic growth, and that this is a bad thing because economic growth is bad for the environment. They are partly right but mostly wrong. First, while governments talk about GDP a lot, that does not mean that they actually prioritise economic growth. Second - properly understood - economic growth is a great and wonderful thing that we should want more of.

Monday 13 February 2023

Strongman Leaders And The Infallibility Trap

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

Public Protest Is Not A Democratic Thing To Do

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

How Many Children's Lives Is That Worth?

According to the meta-charity GiveWell, the most effective charities can save a child’s life for between 3 and 5,000 US dollars. One way of understanding this figure is that whenever you consider spending that amount of money, one of the things you would be choosing not to spend it on is saving a child’s life.

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

On The Incoherence Of The Claim That 'Taxation Is Theft'

The idea that 'taxation is theft' is one of those thrilling, paradigm shifting recognitions that are continually being rediscovered and shared. It is a classic case of pseudo-intellectuality, in which the excitement around an idea determines its popularity, rather than its quality (previously).

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

Taking Decolonization Seriously Means Recognising the Moral Agency of Non-Western Political Actors

In the context of the current decolonisation movement it is rather strange that whenever bad things happen in a non-Western country they are still routinely analysed as the moral responsibility of actors in the West - (former) governments, companies, ideologues, consumers, etc.  For example,

  1. 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.
  2. 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. 
  3. 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 
This way of looking at the world is unfounded, patronising and unhelpful. It betrays a pernicious asymmetry in the recognition of moral agency between Western and non-Western actors. Western actors are assumed to have the power to make decisions that matter and to bear moral responsibility for their choices. Non-western actors are not. Although many of those who are so ready to blame Western actors may think they are opposing 'colonisation', this asymmetry actually continues rather than repudiates the patronising moral hierarchy that characterised the West's unfortunate colonial history.

In reality non-Western political actors make important decisions all the time that affect many people's lives, and these are not merely overdetermined reactions to external forces but actions initiated by them for their own reasons. There is no good reason why they should not be held as morally accountable for their choices as they would be if they were making such decisions in a Western country. 

Saturday 25 June 2022

Putting Women In Charge Is Not The Way To Make The World Better

It is common to see claims that if only women were in charge things would be much better and nicer, for example that people would be much happier at work, inequality would fall, climate change would be solved. 

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

Four Reasons Not To 'Trust The Experts'

A standard reaction to the disastrous democratic discourse and political mismanagement of public interest issues from the economy to public health to gun control has been to demand more respect for experts. I am sympathetic to the idea that when it comes to facts it is better to look them up than to try to work them out for ourselves, and that the way to do that is ask the experts: people in good standing in the relevant epistemic community (previously: Democracy is Not a Truth Machine). 

Nevertheless, there are problems with the 'trust the experts' mantra that should be acknowledged if we are not to fall into an epistemic trap of misplaced faith. Here are four that I try to keep in mind.

Monday 18 April 2022

Why Governments Failed the Challenge of Covid and Capitalism Succeeded

Capitalism has had a good Covid. While governments of every political hue seem to stumble from one crisis to the next, for profit corporations stepped up to deliver our food and consumer goods to our doors, reroute disrupted supply chains, manufacture huge amounts of PPE, and develop multiple safe and effective vaccines in record time. I put this triumph of capitalism over statecraft down to two factors in particular. 

  1. Corporations are better at globalisation than national governments 
  2. Political incentives are less well aligned with the public interest than those for corporations

Saturday 12 March 2022

There Is No Such Thing As Countries

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

Invading Ukraine Can Only Be Bad For Russia

If Russia invades Ukraine this will be very bad for Ukraine. This has led many commentators to assume that invading Ukraine would be a great victory for Russia and a great defeat for the US and its allies. Actually the opposite is true. Ukraine doesn't matter geopolitically, and therefore the suffering of Ukraine also doesn't matter. What Ukraine does represent is a huge military distraction for Russia (as Iraq and Afghanistan were for the US) and a huge advertisement for NATO membership.

Monday 22 November 2021

Moral Status Should Not Depend On Social Status

“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)

What does it mean to say that everyone is equal? It does not mean that everyone has (or should have) the same amount of nice things, money, or happiness. Nor does it mean that everyone’s abilities or opinions are equally valuable. Rather, it means that everyone has the same – equal – moral status as everyone else. It means, for example, that the happiness of any one of us is just as important as the happiness of anyone else; that a promise made to one person is as important as that made to anyone else; that a rule should count the same for all. No one deserves more than others – more chances, more trust, more empathy, more rewards – merely because of who or what they are.

Monday 23 August 2021

The Political Economy of Tourism

Tourism accounts for perhaps 10% of global GDP and 300 million jobs (source), though obviously much less at present due to Covid. Yet tourism has an awkward unloved place in most societies. Tourists are widely resented by many locals in the places they visit, not only because their behaviour is sometimes obnoxious but also because they are accompanied by businesses catering to their interests and tastes, like Airbnb rentals and expensive cafes. Jobs in tourism tend to be low-level, often seasonal hospitality services that don't feel very meaningful or prestigious (unlike manufacturing or finance).

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

If our governments won’t help refugees, they should let us sponsor them ourselves

Guest post by Brecht Weerheijm

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

The Abject Intellectual Failure of Libertarianism

Libertarianism does not make sense. It cannot keep its promises. It has nothing helpful to say on the questions of the day. As political philosophy it is an intellectual failure like Marxism or Flat-Eartherism - something that might once reasonably have seemed worth pursuing but whose persistence in public let alone academic conversation has become an embarrassment. The only mildly interesting thing about libertarianism anymore is why anyone still takes it seriously.

Thursday 14 January 2021

How Is It No One's Job To Defend Democracy?

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?

Liberal democracy is like capitalism, a game designed to make its players compete against each other for points and prizes. Competition is the driving force behind the real benefits such systems achieve, but the logic of competition also imprisons its players to stay within their roles. It is no one's job to defend the system of rules governing that competition. As a result, democracies are surprisingly vulnerable to take over, as we have seen from the recent examples of Turkey, Hungary, and (ongoing) India.

Sunday 3 January 2021

Racism Is Global and Local - But Not Especially American

The passionate global response to George Floyd's killing showed that the world is as connected as ever, despite the hard borders and economic nationalism induced by Covid. Yet it also showed that America is still the centre of world politics and the problems that come with that. 

Racism is a global phenomenon that one can find everywhere from South Africa to Brazil to India to Japan, but it takes different forms in different places. Americans are too quick to assume that their particular experience of the oppression of black people and their stop-start struggle for equal rights provides a universal diagnosis and treatment plan for racism. The rest of the world is too willing to copy and paste America's provincial self-understanding, however poorly it fits their situation.

Wednesday 23 December 2020

Fantasy Politics

Fantasy politics starts from the expectation that wishes should come true, that the best outcome imaginable is not just possible but overwhelmingly likely. Brexit, for example, is classic fantasy politics, premised on the delightful optimism that if the UK were only freed of its shackles it would easily be able to negotiate the best deals imaginable.

Tuesday 15 December 2020

Boris Johnson's Peculiar Game of Kamikaze Chicken is About to End

Rumple Johnson negotiates (credit: Andrew Parsons)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pursued exactly one strategy in his EU trade negotiations: threatening to drive Britain into a no-deal wall unless he gets what he wants. In other words, Johnson has been approaching this extraordinarily important matter of national interest as a peculiar version of the game of chicken. This explains much of his bizarre behaviour over the last 18 months, such as his antagonistic attitude, stubbornness, time-wasting, and even (part of) his buffoonery. Nevertheless, to be explained is not to be justified. Not only will the strategy fail, as it did before when Johnson used it in the Withdrawal Agreement negotiations. It has also foreclosed any hope for a substantive trade deal that could have fulfilled the positive aspirations of Brexiteers.