Private versus Government

In his textbook Public Finance, 7th edition, 2005, Princeton University emeritus professor of economics Harvey S. Rosen, discussing the idea that incentives to monitor are better in the private sector than in government, quotes Adam Smith’s statement to that effect in The Wealth of Nations. He also gives a famous modern example. Rosen writes:

Anecdotal evidence for this viewpoint abounds. One celebrated case involved New York City, which spent $12 million attempting to rebuild the ice-skating rink in Central Park between 1980 and 1986. [DRH note: think about that–that’s 6 years.] The main problem was that the contractors were trying to use a new technology for making Iceland it did not work. In 1986, after spending $200,000 on a study to find out what went wrong, city officials learned they would have to start all over. In June 1986, real estate developer Donald J. Trump offered to take over the project and have it completed by December of that year for about $2.5 million. Trump finished the rink three weeks ahead of schedule and $750,000 under projected cost.

I remembered this passage when I was preparing for a Zoom interview on Monday with a high school senior in Arizona. He asked good questions and I gave him this example and a number of others.


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What the Success Sequence Means

[continued from yesterday]

…This is a strange state of affairs.  Everyone – even the original researchers – insists that the success sequence sheds little or no light on who to blame for poverty.  And since I’m writing a book called Poverty: Who To Blame, I beg to differ.

Consider this hypothetical.  Suppose the success sequence discovered that people could only reliably avoid poverty by finishing a Ph.D. in engineering, working 80 hours a week, and practicing lifelong celibacy.  What would be the right reaction?  Something along the lines of, “Then we shouldn’t blame people for their own poverty, because self-help is just too damn hard.”

The underlying moral principle: You shouldn’t blame people for problems they have no reasonable way to avoid.  You shouldn’t blame them if avoiding the problem is literally impossible; nor should you blame them if they can only avoid the problem by enduring years of abject misery.

The flip side, though, is that you should blame people for problems they do have a reasonable way to avoid.  And the steps of the success sequence are eminently reasonable.  This is especially clear in the U.S.  American high schools have low standards, so almost any student who puts in a little effort will graduate.  Outside of severe recessions, American labor markets offer ample opportunities for full-time work.  And since cheap, effective contraception is available, people can easily avoid having children before they are ready to support them.

These realizations are probably the main reason why talking about the success sequence so agitates the critics.  The success sequence isn’t merely a powerful recipe for avoiding poverty.  It is a recipe easy enough for almost any adult to understand and follow.

But can’t we still blame society for failing to foster the bourgeois values necessary to actually adhere to the success sequence?  Despite the popularity of this rhetorical question, my answer is an unequivocal no.  In ordinary moral reasoning, virtually no one buys such attempts to shift blame for individual misdeeds to “society.”

Suppose, for example, that your spouse cheats on you.  When caught, he objects, “I come from a broken home, so I didn’t have a good role model for fidelity, so you shouldn’t blame me.”  Not very morally convincing, is it?

Similarly, suppose you hire a worker, and he steals from you.  When you catch him, he protests, “Don’t blame me.  Blame racism.”  How do you react?  Poorly, I bet.

Or imagine that you brother drinks his way into homelessness.  When you tell him he has to reform if he wants your help, he denounces your “bloodless moralism.”  Are you still obliged to help him?  Really?

Finally, imagine you’re a juror on a war crimes trial.  A soldier accused of murdering a dozen children says, “It was war, I’m a product of my violent circumstances.”  Could you in good conscience exonerate him?

So what?  We should place much greater confidence in our concrete moral judgments than in grand moral theories.  This is moral reasoning 101.  And virtually all of our concrete moral judgments say that we should blame individuals – not “society” – for their own bad behavior.  When wrong-doers point to broad social forces that influenced their behavior, the right response is, “Social forces influence us all, but that’s no excuse.  You can and should have done the right thing despite your upbringing, racism, love of drink, or violent circumstances.”

To be clear, I’m not saying that we should pretend that individuals are morally responsible for their own actions to give better incentives.  What I’m saying, rather, is that individuals really are morally responsible for their actions.  Better incentives are just icing on the cake.

This is not my eccentric opinion.  As long as we stick to concrete cases, virtually everyone agrees with me.  Each of my little moral vignettes is a forceful counter-example to the grand moral theory that invokes “broad social forces” to excuse wrong-doing.  And retaining a grand moral theory in the face of multitudinous counter-examples is practically the definition of bad philosophy.

Does empirical research on the success sequence really show that the poor are entirely to blame for their own poverty?  Of course not!  In rich countries, following the success sequence is normally easy for able-bodied adults, but not for children or the severely handicapped.  In poor countries, even able-bodied adults often find that the success sequence falls short (though this would be far less true under open borders).  Haitians who follow the success sequence usually remain quite poor because economic conditions in Haiti are grim.  Though even there, we can properly blame Haitians who stray from the success sequence for making a bad situation worse.

Research on the success sequence clearly makes people nervous.  Few modern thinkers, left or right, want to declare: “Despite numerous bad economic policies, responsible behavior is virtually a sufficient condition for avoiding poverty in the First World.  And we have every right to blame individuals for the predictable consequences of their own irresponsible behavior.”  Yet if you combine the rather obvious empirics of the success sequence with common-sense morality, this is exactly what you will end up believing.


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What Does the Success Sequence Mean?

If you live in the First World, there is a simple and highly effective formula for avoiding poverty:

1. Finish high school.

2. Get a full-time job once you finish school.

3. Get married before you have children.

Researchers call this formula the “success sequence.”  Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill got the ball rolling with their book Creating an  Opportunity Society, calling for a change in social norms to “bring back the success sequence as the expected path for young Americans.”  The highest-quality research on this success sequence probably comes from Wendy Wang and Brad Wilcox.  In their Millennial Success Sequence, they observe:

97% of Millennials who follow what has been called the “success sequence”—that is, who get at least a high school degree, work, and then marry before having any children, in that order—are not poor by the time they reach their prime young adult years (ages 28-34).

One common criticism is that full-time work does almost all the work of the success sequence.  Even if you drop out of high school and have five kids with five different partners, you’ll probably avoid poverty as long as you work full-time.  Wilcox and Wang disagree:

…This analysis is especially relevant since some critics of the success sequence have argued that marriage does not matter once education and work status are controlled.

The regression results indicate that after controlling for a range of background factors, the order of marriage and parenthood in Millennials’ lives is significantly associated with their financial well-being in the prime of young adulthood. Simply put, compared with the path of having a baby first, marrying before children more than doubles young adults’ odds of being in the middle or top income. Meanwhile, putting marriage first reduces the odds of young adults being in poverty by 60% (vs. having a baby first).

But even if the “work does all the work” criticism were statistically true, it is misses the point: Single parenthood makes it very hard to work full-time.

A more agnostic criticism doubts causation.  Sure, poverty correlates with failure to follow the success sequence.  How, though, do we know that the so-called success sequence actually causes success?  It’s not like we run experiments where we randomly assign lifestyles to people.  The best answer to this challenge, frankly, is that causation is obvious.  “Dropping out of school, idleness, and single parenthood make you poor” is on par with “burning money makes you poor.”  The demand for further proof of the obvious is a thinly-veiled veto of unpalatable truths.

A very different criticism, however, challenges the perceived moral premise behind the success sequence.  What is this alleged moral premise?  Something along the lines of: “Since people can reliably escape poverty with moderately responsible behavior, the poor are largely to blame for their own poverty, and society is not obliged to help them.”  Or perhaps simply, “The success sequence shifts much of the moral blame for poverty from broad social forces to individual behavior.”  While hardly anyone explicitly uses the success sequence to argue that we underrate the blameworthiness of the poor for their own troubles, critics still hear this argument loud and clear – and vociferously object.

Thus, Eve Tushnet writes:

To me, the success sequence is an example of what Helen Andrews dubbed “bloodless moralism”…

All bloodless moralisms conflate material success and virtue, presenting present successful people as moral exemplars. And this, like “it’s better to have a diploma than a GED,” is something virtually every poor American already believes: that escaping poverty proves your virtue and remaining poor is shameful.

Brian Alexander similarly remarks:

The appeal of the success sequence, then, appears to be about more than whether it’s a good idea. In a society where so much of one’s prospects are determined by birth, it makes sense that narratives pushing individual responsibility—narratives that convince the well-off that they deserve what they have—take hold.

Cato’s Michael Tanner says much the same:

The success sequence also ignores the circumstances in which the poor make choices. Our choices result from a complex process that is influenced at each step by a variety of outside factors. We are not perfectly rational actors, carefully weighing the likely outcomes for each choice. In particular, progressives are correct to point to the impact of racism, gender-based discrimination, and economic dislocation on the decisions that the poor make in their lives. Focusing on the choices and not the underlying conditions is akin to a doctor treating only the visible symptoms without dealing with the underlying disease.

Strikingly,  the leading researchers of the success sequence seem to agree with the critics!  Wang and Wilcox:

We do not take the view that the success sequence is simply a “pull yourselves up by your own bootstraps” strategy that individuals adopt on their own. Rather, for many, the “success sequence” does not exist in a cultural vacuum; it’s inculcated by an interlocking cultural array of ideals, norms, expectations, and knowledge.*

This is a strange state of affairs.  Everyone – even the original researchers – insists that the success sequence sheds little or no light on who to blame for poverty.  And since I’m writing a book called Poverty: Who To Blame, I beg to differ…

* To be fair, Wang and Wilcox also tell us: “But it’s not just about natural endowments, social structure, and culture; agency also matters. Most men and women have the  capacity to make choices, to embrace virtues or avoid vices, and to otherwise take steps that increase or decrease their odds of doing well in school, finding and keeping a job, or deciding when to marry and have children.”

[to be continued]


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From UBI to Anomia

AEI’s Nicholas Eberstadt and Evan Ambramsky have eye-opening answers to a jarring question straight out of Richard Scarry: What do jobless men do all day?  Background:

Thanks to the American Time Use Survey (ATUS) from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we have detailed, self-reported information each year on how roughly 10,000 adult respondents spend their days—from the moment they wake until they sleep.1 These surveyed Americans include prime-age men who are not in labor force (or “NILF” to social scientists), ordinarily in their peak employment years, who are neither working nor looking for work. By examining the self-reported patterns of daily life of these grown men who do not have and are not seeking jobs, we may gain insights into the work-free existence that some UBI advocates hold to be a positive end in its own right.

Immediate answers:

NILF men report much less paid work than their peers—an average of just 12 minutes per day, nearly six hours a day less than employed men, and almost five hours a day less than employed women, but also close to an hour a day less than unemployed men. Perhaps more surprisingly, their time freed from work is not repurposed into helping out around the home, such as doing housework, cooking, and other tasks of home maintenance. In fact, they devote significantly less time to such home chores than unemployed men—less, too, than women with jobs. NILF men also spend much less time helping to care for other household members than working women—less time, as well, than unemployed men.

Apart from work, by far the biggest difference between the daily schedules of NILF men and everyone else comes in what the ATUS calls “socializing, relaxing, and leisure,” a category that encompasses a range of activities, from listening to music to visiting a museum to attending a party. On average, prime-age NILF men spend almost seven and a half hours a day in such diversions—over four hours a day more than working women, nearly four hours a day more than working men, and over an hour more than jobless men looking for work.


NILF turns out to be a catch-all category that merges two very different populations. One of them is adult students, out of the labor force for training to improve their job prospects upon return. The other is a group British parlance calls “NEET”—an acronym for “neither employed nor in education or training.” The NEETs are in effect complete labor force dropouts. And in contemporary America, the overwhelming majority of prime-age male NILFs are NEETs: in the years 2015-19, according to Census Bureau data, fewer than one in six NILFs was an adult student. In the lead-up to the COVID pandemic, this meant one in 10 prime-age men was neither working, nor looking for work, nor seeking the skills that might help them return to the workforce.

If we disaggregate prime-age NILFs into NEETs and adult students, two strikingly different ways of life are revealed.


On the one hand, adult students reportedly spend an average of nearly six hours a day on their education or training—and since those averages include weekends and holidays, these men are committing over 2,100 hours a year to their schooling. The converse of such motivation is an unusually low involvement in “socializing, relaxing, and leisure”—distinctly less than for working men, though not as little as for prime-age working women, a notoriously “leisure-poor” population.

On the other hand, self-identified prime-age NEET men spend about seven and a half hours a day in “leisure activities.” That works out to about 2,700 hours a year—almost 1,600 hours a year more than working women, nearly 1,400 hours a year more than working men, and remarkably enough, over 450 hours a year more than unemployed men.

The deeper patterns:

The overwhelming majority of this “leisure” is screen time: television, internet, DVDs, and all the rest. NEET men reported an average of over five hours a day in front of screens—nearly 1,900 hours a year, almost equivalent to the time commitment of a full-time job. ATUS does not ask specifically about video games; if it did, even more NEET screen time commitment would almost certainly be recorded.

To go by the time-use surveys, prime-age men without work who are not looking for jobs and not engaged in training spend almost three times as many hours in front of screens as working women and well over twice as many as working men. Strikingly, they also report over 300 hours more screen time per year than their unemployed counterparts—men likewise jobless but who want to get back to work. And the reality is even more disturbing than these time-use numbers can convey on their own. According to a 2017 study by Alan Krueger, almost half of NILF men reported taking some form of pain medication every day. The fraction for NEET men would likely be higher still. The rhythms of life for a great many of the prime-age men in America currently disengaged with the world of work is defined not simply by days and nights sitting in front of screens—but sitting in front of screens while numbed or stoned.

I’ve long opposed the Universal Basic Income for a great many reasons.  First and foremost: Helping everyone regardless of need is an absurd way to allocate finite charitable resources.  Eberstadt and Ambramsky add another potent objection to the list: the UBI encourages the recipients to fritter away their own lives.

There would seem to be no shortage of anomie, alienation, or even despair in the daily lives of men entirely free from work in America today. Why, then, would we not expect a UBI—which would surely result in a detachment of more men from paid employment—to result in even more of the same?

Paternalistic?  Indeed.  But as I’ve argued before, the very fact that an adult fails to support himself suggests that he is a poor judge of his own interests – and donors are right and prudent to impose conditions on their assistance.  I call this “Ward Paternalism”:

Let’s call this “Ward Paternalism” – paternalism limited to people who are dependents of the government.  For example, rather than give welfare recipients cash to spend, a Ward Paternalist might give them food stamps instead.  Why?  To nudge them into buying groceries instead of alcohol.

Key point: Under Ward Paternalism, anyone who doesn’t want to be nudged can simply decline to become dependent on the government.  You can spend your own money your own way, no questions asked.  If, however, you ask taxpayers for help, the help comes with strings attached to encourage you to get your life in order.  He who pays the piper, calls the tune – and why shouldn’t the tune be, “Get your life in order”?

Or in slogan form: If an independent adult can fairly protest, “It’s my money and I’ll do what I want with it,” why can’t taxpayers just as fairly protest, “It’s our money and you’ll use it as we think best”?


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The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism Book Club Commentary, Part 3

You’ve got reactions to Orwell; I’ve got reactions to your reactions.  Here goes:


How close are your 5 steps to what Pinochet did in Chile?

I think he at least followed steps 1 and 2.

I was offering for steps for reforming a socialist dictatorship from within.  While Pinochet did step down and allow a return to democracy, his dictatorship he built was mild enough that he didn’t need a master plan to unravel it.

Thomas DeMaio:

I can’t help but to notice that the adherents of anti-racist ideology never seem to notice that structural racism, ongoing Jim Crow, etc. are taking place at the exact same time as an influx of immigrants who belong to the supposedly persecuted minority groups.  Is this a matter of not spontaneously noticing the contradiction or an example of Crimestop?  I’m thinking it’s the former.

The obvious reply would be, “However bad things are in the U.S., they’re much worse at home,” or maybe, “There’s more racism in America than Mexico, but most Mexicans are happy to endure a little more racism if they can triple their material standard of living in the bargain.”  Though I’d also point out that non-white immigration to the U.S. is much more Hispanic and Asian than African, and that latter-day anti-racists have relatively little to say about racism against the former two groups.


The counterpoint to both Marx and Orwell is Aldous Huxley: “Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience.”

Brave New World was first published in 1932.  So I’d say that Huxley was clearly wrong for the last four generations or so.  And the only sign that he was on to anything is the psychiatric drugging of school children, which governments use to sedate difficult children – not instill support for themselves.  I see no sign that governments are doing much to make people “love their servitude,” though there has been a notable increase in nagging alongside old-fashioned coercion.  Even there, incarceration massively outweighs flogging and kicking.

Max Avar:

Contingency cuts both ways, though. Had Beria, who briefly took power after the death of Stalin, managed to stay in charge—and he was certainly ruthless and experienced enough that he might well have—the Cold War and/or Soviet Union might have ended within a few years of 1953.

I’d say it was amazing that Khrushchev managed to liberalize as much as he did.  I know Beria was allegedly open to a few compromises with the West, but I think he would have been much closer to Stalin than Khrushchev.

John Alcorn:

Re: Doublethink.

Distinguish two scenarios:

(a) Lucid insiders (The Party) deceive outsiders (the rest of society). I think Orwell underestimates this scenario.

Orwell focusses on the psychology of the sender in propaganda. He narrowly — and, I think, mistakenly — asserts: “firmness of purpose […] goes with complete honesty.” Sometimes honesty and resoluteness are conjoined, but often not. Liars can be hellbent. Honest persons often keep their heads down.

Plausible, but for your story to be right, the apparently self-righteously dogmatic ideologues I’ve encountered so many times would have to be Oscar-worthy actors.  That just doesn’t add up.  They’re not feigning self-righteous dogmatism; they’re the real McCoy.

We should consider also the psychology of the addressee in propaganda. If addressees lack competence in lie-detection, then The Party doesn’t need doublethink. If, instead, addressees ‘know a lie when they see it,’ then Party members first must deceive themselves. This brings us to the doublethink scenario.

(b) Party members doublethink.

Orwell defines doublethink as “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”

Compare the standard psychological theory of cognitive dissonance. When a belief (cognition) strongly conflicts with a desire (motivation), unconscious adaptation often occurs, like a person who turns in sleep and finds a comfortable position. This mechanism explains psychological adaptation to Party ‘rewrites’ more plausibly than doublethink does.

The whole idea of cognitive dissonance is that people are strongly uncomfortable with holding contradictory beliefs.  I’d say that for most political activists, the discomfort is mild at most.

Orwell notwithstanding, it’s difficult consciously to believe X and not-X (contradictory cognitions) at the same time. It’s much easier for the unconscious to adapt a belief to a desire (or vice versa).

Perhaps, but most politically active people have little trouble adapting incompatible beliefs with each other.

Wishful thinking (to believe X because one hopes X is true), counter-wishful thinking (to believe Y because one fears Y is true), and sour grapes (to believe Z is bad because Z is out of reach) are commonplace mechanisms in political psychology.

You could classify doublethink as a species of wishful thinking – “I believe these seemingly contradictory beliefs are compatible because I hope they are compatible.”  But I think this rushes over a rich mental process that Orwell patiently explores.


The subsidiary reason is that the Party member, like the proletarian, tolerates present-day conditions partly because he has no standards of comparison. He must be cut off from the past, just as he must be cut off from foreign countries, because it is necessary for him to believe that he is better off than his ancestors and that the average level of material comfort is constantly rising.

I think Orwell overstates the importance of this. People seem to put very little stock in how well off they are compared to the past, or to people of other nations. Libertarians love writing essays pointing out how even very low income people in America today have access to things far beyond the imagination of even the wealthiest from a few decades back, and have standards of living in many key areas which are significantly better than a much higher income person in Europe. Yet, nobody who is low income ever reads these essays and comes away feeling reassured. They care far more about how well off they are relative to their peers. It simply doesn’t matter to them that Rockefeller and J. P. Morgan would have envied their access to GPS devices and air conditioning and Novocain or that they have more living space than an upper income person in Belgium, when almost everyone around them has those things too.

Brilliant words, Kevin.  This is my favorite reaction in the entire Book Club.

An alternate strategy of the Party would be to simply ensure that everyone is equally immiserated. Since people seem to care far more about their relative well being compared to their neighbors, rather than their absolute well being, or relative well being compared to the past or people in distant countries, the proles might have been kept relatively content in their condition. Since the whole society is kept poor, there would be none of the envy and resentment we are so often told is destabilizing for a society.

Given the massive size of Oceania, I fully agree.  If Luxembourg were vastly poorer than its neighbors, the stability of Luxembourg’s government would be endangered.  But when your country is so large that you rarely remember the existence of other countries, your rulers can rest easy.

Reminder: Next week, we start with “War Is Peace”!


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The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism Book Club Commentary, Part 2

Here are my thoughts on the latest batch 0f Book Club comments.  Your words are in blockquotes; mine aren’t.


If your ideology of unfreedom is open, uninfected by any vestige of tolerance, then you can’t pay lip service to some other ideology.

If hierarchy is what you consciously aim at, then you can’t also delude yourself that you’re not a slave-driver.

If equality is no longer an ideal to be striven after, then you openly call yourself the factory boss, and your nation a fortress. You abandon all pretence of Utopianism for hierarchy and regimentation.

If the socialist dystopias hadn’t actually happened, I’d be inclined to agree with you.  Yet when we actually look at these regimes, especially their Marxist-Leninist version, Orwell’s story checks out.  Even today, the government of North Korea is officially ruled by the Workers’ Party of Korea, and energetically combines extreme hierarchy and regimentation with extreme utopianism.  Indeed, one of the strongest forms of regimentation is the demand that North Koreans loudly affirm utopianism in their dystopia.

This is the implausible psychology of Orwell’s book, except that Orwell himself can’t maintain it from one sentence to the next. Straight away he slips back into the more believable and recognizable idea that these are “people who considered themselves enlightened and progressive.” Not openly hierarchical.

Glenn Greenwald: “No authoritarians believe they are authoritarians. No matter how repressive are the measures they support–censorship, monopoly power, no-fly lists for American citizens without due process–they tell themselves that those they are silencing and attacking are so evil, are terrorists, that anything done against them is noble and benevolent, not despotic and repressive.”

Greenwald overstates.  Yes, many authoritarians mask their true aims.  Plenty of others, however, have been self-conscious and self-confessed.  Consider defenders of absolute monarchy like Sir Robert Filmer or the Catholic ultramontanists.  Franco called his regime “totalitarian” even though few historians agree: “A totalitarian state will harmonize in Spain the operation of all the capabilities and energy in the country, that inside the National Unity, the work esteemed as the most unavoidable must be the only exponent of the people’s will.”  And of course Lenin called for “Revolutionary-Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and the Peasantry.”

Michael Barton:

I recently read The Road to Wigan Pier, a book that was commissioned by a leftist book club. He was to travel to northern industrial England (mid 1930s) and report on the condition of the unemployed. The first part of the book is travelogue, a really gripping account of the people he encountered, employed and not. The second part contains his thoughts on the socialist project. Again, he says he is a socialist but has nothing but criticism for actual socialists and for their approach. It was so pronounced that the publishers inserted a Prologue in which they dispute the very book they commissioned.

Quite right; I’ll be talking about Orwell’s strange socialist silence in a later post.

John Alcorn:

Was Gorbachev (the individual) a necessary cause of the end of the Soviet Union? If, say, Gorbachev had died in a car accident before he rose through the ranks, would “weak-kneed reform” have occurred anyway?

Eventually, but it could have taken decades.  My understanding is that Gorbachev had already been passed over in favor of his short-lived predecessors.  If they survived a few years longer, Gorbachev could easily have been replaced by a youngish hard-liner (not Putin, presumably, but a Putin-esque figure).

My non-expert understanding is that “standards of comparison” gradually became available to Soviet citizens — if only to “the Middle” — in the 70s and 80s, through more access to international travel, media, contraband. If this was the case, then the increase in exposure to western standards of comparison probably eroded Stalinist self-confidence and perhaps indirectly even made many of “The Low” aware that they were oppressed.

As far as self-confidence goes, I’d say growing knowledge of the West was a minor factor compared to Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s crimes and readmission of large numbers of former Gulag inmates back into the Party.  If you want to hold power, you keep the disillusioned as far from the levers of power as possible.

(Moreover, cracks in the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe — for example, Solidarnosc in Poland — cast a shadow over long-term stability of the Soviet Union itself; perhaps especially in the Baltic republics.)

There was little sign of resistance in the Baltics until Gorbachev let the Eastern European satellites go.  And ponder how Stalin would have handled Solidarity.

Nicholas Decker:

It always struck me that, if we accept the world’s conclusions about the fragility of kin ties and the effectiveness of propaganda as true, then the only thing that could end it would be a cataclysmic natural disaster – an asteroid impact, or a redux of the deccan traps.

Thank heavens he wasn’t right about the pliancy of man’s minds.

Even if this were right, I’d say that Orwell grossly underrated intra-Party factional conflict.  I’d expect that to destabilize most totalitarian regimes long before a civilization-disrupting asteroid strike.


If I’ve inherited control of a traumatized dictatorship, and I want to turn it into a capitalist liberal democracy, how should I go about reforming things without causing things to fall apart like they did in the Soviet Union or Iraq?

Amorally speaking, here’s my best guess.  Consider it a recipe, not an endorsement.

Step 1: Purge known hard-liners en masse, without warning, Godfather style.

Step 2: Swiftly liberalize the economy and civil society from this position of strength, while unequivocally affirming your monopoly on political power.

Step 3: During the same period, open up your society to foreign business, tourism, media, NGOs, etc.

Step 4: Once you’ve had 4-6 years of strong economic growth and rising international prestige, slowly relax your monopoly on power.  Always make it clear that you are acting out of the goodness of your own heart, not under pressure from the opposition.

Step 5: After 15-20 years, you’re ready for your first competitive national election.  Put strong post-reform protection for your supporters into the constitution so they aren’t tempted to derail your plan.

More Dwarkesh:

I wonder how much of this [crimestop] is not about fear of thinking the wrong thing but just the failure of transfer learning which you write about elsewhere. Even in free societies, people are bad at grasping thoughts like, “If I believe X about A, I must also believe X about B to be consistent.” It would be interesting if our brains evolved to be bad at transfer to protect us from having heretical antisocial ideas in ancient hunter gatherer tribes.

Very plausible.  In fact, I’d say failure of transfer is the main mechanism of thought control.  You only need crimestop to suppress the rare instances of socially disapproved transfer.  Thus, until the sixties most Americans felt no need to use crimestop to suppress their knowledge of the contradiction between segregation and the Declaration of Independence, because few spontaneously noticed the contradiction.  You do need crimestop, though, to describe your society as a paradise of the workers and peasants while the peasants starve in plain sight, as they did under Stalin and Mao.

More John Alcorn:

Are Crimestop and cancellation simply distinct, local, emergent species of social desirability bias?

I’d say they’re both outgrowths of Social Desirability Bias rather than “species” thereof.  Crimestop is a technique humans use to internally suppress their own socially undesirable thoughts.  Cancellation is a strategy activists use to punish other humans who express socially undesirable thoughts.

If conformity is a relentless censorship mechanism, in the forum and even in the market, then can open societies endure?

“Openness” is a matter of degree.  By world and historic standards, the West is still extremely open.  Indeed, I’d say openness is higher and conformity weaker than when I grew up.  While political correctness was much milder in the eighties, religious and patriotic correctness were both stronger.

What are effective countervailing mechanisms or institutions?

Apathy and ADHD.  Most people barely care what other people think and say, and even the people who do care rarely care for long.

How much bite does the institution of private property have as a bulwark against the dynamics of social desirability bias and social censorship?

Enormous bite.  How many controversial websites could ever hope to receive government funding?  Private property is what allows diverse opinions to endure, using “diversity” in the non-Orwellian sense.


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Richard Yetter Chappell on Lessons from the Pandemic

It’s generally recognized that our (American) response to the Covid-19 pandemic was disastrous. But I think far fewer appreciate the full scale of the disaster, or the most significant causal levers by which the worst effects could have been avoided. (Yes, Trump was bad.  But his public health disinformation and politicization of masking—while obviously bad—may prove relatively trivial compared to the mammoth failings of our public health institutions and medical establishment.) Much of the pandemic’s harm could have been mitigated had our institutions been properly guided by the most basic norms of cost-benefit analysis.

This is the opening paragraph of Richard Yetter Chappell, “Lessons from the Pandemic,DailyNous, January 19, 2021.

The whole thing is excellent. Chappell is a philosopher but the piece reads like a well-written analysis by a policy economist.

Another excerpt:

In ordinary circumstances, the status quo is relatively safe and so untested medical innovations present asymmetric risks. That is, until they are proven safe and effective, it may be reasonable to assume that the potential risks of an untested product outweigh its potential benefits, and so block public access to such products until they pass stringent testing requirements. (There are arguments to be made that FDA regulations are excessively onerous even in ordinary circumstances, but I remain neutral on that question here. I take it that there is at least a reasonable case to be made in the FDA’s defense ordinarily. No such case for the FDA’s stringency seems possible in a pandemic.)

A pandemic reverses the asymmetry of risk. Now it is the status quo that is immensely dangerous, and a typical sort of medical intervention (an experimental drug or vaccine, say) is comparatively less so. The potential benefits of innovation likely outweigh the potential risks for many individuals, and vastly so on a societal scale, where the value of information is immense. So the FDA’s usual regulations should have been streamlined or suspended for potential pandemic solutions (in the same way that any ethics barriers beyond the minimum baseline of informed consent should have been suspended for pandemic research). This should be the first thing the government does in the face of a new pandemic. By blocking access to experimental vaccines at the start of the pandemicthe FDA should be regarded as causally responsible for every Covid death that is occurring now (and many that occurred previously).

This last sentence is almost correct and similar to what Charley Hooper and I argued last month in “The FDA’s Deadly Caution,” AIER, December 16, 2020. Surely there are some deaths that would be occurring now, even without FDA intervention, due to people not taking the vaccine or due to the vaccines’ not being 100% effective

Yet another excerpt:

Closely related to the above mistake is the implicit assumption that it’s somehow better to do (or allow) nothing than to do (or allow) something imperfect. Letting the perfect be the enemy of the good in a pandemic is disastrous. Blocking quick Covid tests for having lower accuracy than slow ones is an obvious example of this form of stupidity. Deciding in advance that a vaccine must prove at least 50% effective in trials to receive FDA approval is another. (Obviously a 40% effective vaccine would be better than nothing!  Fortunately it didn’t come to that in the end, but this policy introduced extra risk of disastrous outcomes for no gain whatsoever.)

Compare Dr. Ladapo’s argument in the WSJ that “Doctors should follow the evidence for promising therapies. Instead they demand certainty.” (Steve Kirsch expands on the complaint.) Again, this is a very basic form of irrationality that we’re seeing from the medical establishment.

Misguided perfectionism has also damaged the vaccine rollout due to prioritizing complex allocation schemes over ensuring that as many people are vaccinated as quickly as possible. (Some are letting doses spoil rather than “risk” vaccinating anyone “out of turn”!)

More examples are discussed here.

Do read the whole thing.

HT2 Daniel Shapiro.





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The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism Book Club, Part 1

This is the first installment of my book club on Orwell’s book-within-a-book, entitled The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by fictional dissident Emmanuel Goldstein.  I’m going to treat Orwell as the author of the book, even though he probably didn’t agree with all of the general claims, and almost surely didn’t mean to predict the rise of his precise geopolitical scenario.  Today I’ll start with Chapter 1, “Ignorance Is Strength.”  Please put all your thoughts and questions in the comments, and I’ll respond in a big post later this week.

Now let’s get started.

At first glance, Chapter 1 is just rehashed Marxism:

Throughout recorded time, and probably since the end of the Neolithic Age, there have been three kinds of people in the world, the High, the Middle, and the Low. They have been subdivided in many ways, they have borne countless different names, and their relative numbers, as well as their attitude towards one another, have varied from age to age: but the essential structure of society has never altered. Even after enormous upheavals and seemingly irrevocable changes, the same pattern has always reasserted itself, just as a gyroscope will always return to equilibrium, however far it is pushed one way or the other.

The aims of these groups are entirely irreconcilable.

On closer look, however, TPOC improves on Marxism by focusing on political power rather than relationship to the means of production.  Furthermore, it has the wisdom to recognize that revolutions are fundamentally about replacing one elite with another rather than replacing elite rule with “rule by the people,” whatever that might mean.

Still, TPOC retains the silly Marxist dogma of “irreconcilable conflict.”  Whenever two groups fight, both sides burn up resources.  At minimum, then, both sides would be better off if they simply foresaw the ultimate outcome, skipped the actual conflict, implemented the ultimate outcome, and saved the resources.  If this doesn’t happen, the reason isn’t that the conflict is “irreconcilable,” but that the participants refuse to reconcile.  The possible reasons for their refusal are endless: overconfidence, stubbornness, ethical constraints, imperfect information about the other sides’ resources, and so on.  Nevertheless, if you want to understand any conflict, you have to energetically sift through these possibilities.  Calling a conflict “irreconcilable” ensures that you’ll never understand what’s really going on.

The aim of the High is to remain where they are. The aim of the Middle is to change places with the High.

Orwell’s basically right about the aim of “the High,” though of course the High often dream of being Higher.  But he grossly misunderstands “the Middle.”  Their most common ambition by far is to join the High without changing the structure of society.

The most Orwell can rightly say is that in some societies a tiny minority of the Middle dreams of “changing places with the High” – and that once in a long while, they succeed.  Even that, however, is misleading, because such malcontents are often already part of the High; they’re just so power-hungry that they’d rather tear down the whole system than share power.

The aim of the Low, when they have an aim — for it is an abiding characteristic of the Low that they are too much crushed by drudgery to be more than intermittently conscious of anything outside their daily lives — is to abolish all distinctions and create a society in which all men shall be equal.

Since Orwell wrote, the leisure time of the Low has immensely increased.  Yet all public opinion research confirms that the masses remain deeply politically apathetic.  So instead of saying that they are “crushed by drudgery,” the accurate description is that pragmatic conformism is most human beings’ natural state.

In any case, when roused from this natural state, the Low are at least as inclined to religious fundamentalism and xenophobia as they are to egalitarianism.  While the rhetoric of human equality has broad appeal in some societies, hardly any of the Low take such talk literally.  Just try using the rhetoric of the American or French Revolutions to sell open borders to ordinary Americans or Frenchmen and see how far you get.

Thus throughout history a struggle which is the same in its main outlines recurs over and over again. For long periods the High seem to be securely in power, but sooner or later there always comes a moment when they lose either their belief in themselves or their capacity to govern efficiently, or both. They are then overthrown by the Middle, who enlist the Low on their side by pretending to them that they are fighting for liberty and justice. As soon as they have reached their objective, the Middle thrust the Low back into their old position of servitude, and themselves become the High. Presently a new Middle group splits off from one of the other groups, or from both of them, and the struggle begins over again.

Using these categories, apparently, the American elite in 1775 was actually part of “the Middle” of the British Empire.  And so was Parliament during the Glorious Revolution, Islamic fundamentalists in Iran under the Shah, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt under Mubarrak, and the leadership of Solidarity in 1980s Poland.  Unless Orwell turns his story into a tautology, these classifications seem quite odd.

Of the three groups, only the Low are never even temporarily successful in achieving their aims. It would be an exaggeration to say that throughout history there has been no progress of a material kind. Even today, in a period of decline, the average human being is physically better off than he was a few centuries ago.  But no advance in wealth, no softening of manners, no reform or revolution has ever brought human equality a millimetre nearer. From the point of view of the Low, no historic change has ever meant much more than a change in the name of their masters.

Unless, of course, one of the aims of the Low is to simply to enjoy a prosperous and healthy life!  Since Orwell never renounced socialism, I suspect that he couldn’t fully accept the obvious fact that most people care far more about personal well-being than societal equality.

Also worth mentioning: The history of decolonization shows that the Low can at least temporarily get excited by “a change in the names of their masters.”  Indeed, there is far more evidence that ordinary human beings care about the nationality of their masters than the ideal of “equality.”

By the late nineteenth century the recurrence of this pattern had become obvious to many observers. There then rose schools of thinkers who interpreted history as a cyclical process and claimed to show that inequality was the unalterable law of human life. This doctrine, of course, had always had its adherents, but in the manner in which it was now put forward there was a significant change. In the past the need for a hierarchical form of society had been the doctrine specifically of the High. It had been preached by kings and aristocrats and by the priests, lawyers, and the like who were parasitical upon them, and it had generally been softened by promises of compensation in an imaginary world beyond the grave. The Middle, so long as it was struggling for power, had always made use of such terms as freedom, justice, and fraternity.

What about religious fundamentalism, with the Protestant Reformation being the most obvious historical example?

Now, however, the concept of human brotherhood began to be assailed by people who were not yet in positions of command, but merely hoped to be so before long. In the past the Middle had made revolutions under the banner of equality, and then had established a fresh tyranny as soon as the old one was overthrown. The new Middle groups in effect proclaimed their tyranny beforehand. Socialism, a theory which appeared in the early nineteenth century and was the last link in a chain of thought stretching back to the slave rebellions of antiquity, was still deeply infected by the Utopianism of past ages. But in each variant of Socialism that appeared from about 1900 onwards the aim of establishing liberty and equality was more and more openly abandoned.

Alternate story: Throughout history, dissident movements have usually been authoritarian at best.  But beginning in 1700 or so, novel dissident movements promising liberty and equality arose in the Anglosphere, and this classical liberal rhetoric gradually spread to the rest of Europe and the broader world.  In practice, this movement had very mixed results; see the French Revolution and the quarter century of carnage it inspired.  As the 19th-century progressed, however, classical liberalism began to deliver results consistent with its high-minded rhetoric.  During this time, however, rival dissident movements of socialism and nationalism began to take shape, and twisted the rhetoric of liberty and equality to authoritarian ends.  “Liberty” became the “liberty of each nationality to be ruled by members of their own nationality” and “equality” became “state ownership and state regulation.”  Socialism, like nationalism, was “born bad” – authoritarian from day one, though happy to borrow appealing classical liberal rhetoric.

The new movements which appeared in the middle years of the century, Ingsoc in Oceania, Neo-Bolshevism in Eurasia, Death-Worship, as it is commonly called, in Eastasia, had the conscious aim of perpetuating unfreedom and inequality. These new movements, of course, grew out of the old ones and tended to keep their names and pay lip-service to their ideology.

Lip service is one of the great under-used concepts in social science.  One wonders, though, what lip service to “Death-Worship” might be!

But the purpose of all of them was to arrest progress and freeze history at a chosen moment. The familiar pendulum swing was to happen once more, and then stop. As usual, the High were to be turned out by the Middle, who would then become the High; but this time, by conscious strategy, the High would be able to maintain their position permanently.

In Orwell’s time, Marxism-Leninism in particular seemed to have mastered the science of “arresting progress and freezing history at a chosen moment.”  Once the revolutionary Bolshevik generation passed away, however, their successors were markedly less fanatical and ruthless.  After one further generation, the totalitarian system crumbled to dust.  This isn’t an iron law, but I do predict that both the Chinese and Iranian leaderships will markedly moderate over the next forty years even if they don’t lose their monopoly on power.  The main issue is that selecting for fanaticism and ruthlessness in peacetime is like pulling teeth.  Why?  Because ambitious pragmatists will eagerly and skillfully feign fanaticism and ruthlessness to get ahead – and in every known human population, ambitious pragmatists outnumber ruthless fanatics by a factor of at least 10:1.

But the principal, underlying cause was that, as early as the beginning of the twentieth century, human equality had become technically possible. It was still true that men were not equal in their native talents and that functions had to be specialized in ways that favoured some individuals against others; but there was no longer any real need for class distinctions or for large differences of wealth. In earlier ages, class distinctions had been not only inevitable but desirable. Inequality was the price of civilization. With the development of machine production, however, the case was altered. Even if it was still necessary for human beings to do different kinds of work, it was no longer necessary for them to live at different social or economic levels.

“No longer necessary”?!  How about to provide incentives to work, acquire useful skills, and innovate?  And incentives aside, you might want to allow inequality because preventing inequality requires a draconian police state.  Come now, Orwell!

Therefore, from the point of view of the new groups who were on the point of seizing power, human equality was no longer an ideal to be striven after, but a danger to be averted. In more primitive ages, when a just and peaceful society was in fact not possible, it had been fairly easy to believe it. The idea of an earthly paradise in which men should live together in a state of brotherhood, without laws and without brute labour, had haunted the human imagination for thousands of years. And this vision had had a certain hold even on the groups who actually profited by each historical change. The heirs of the French, English, and American revolutions had partly believed in their own phrases about the rights of man, freedom of speech, equality before the law, and the like, and have even allowed their conduct to be influenced by them to some extent.

Orwell conspicuously omits the heirs of Russian revolution from his enumeration of the partially sincere.  Well-done.

But by the fourth decade of the twentieth century all the main currents of political thought were authoritarian. The earthly paradise had been discredited at exactly the moment when it became realizable. Every new political theory, by whatever name it called itself, led back to hierarchy and regimentation. And in the general hardening of outlook that set in round about 1930, practices which had been long abandoned, in some cases for hundreds of years — imprisonment without trial, the use of war prisoners as slaves, public executions, torture to extract confessions, the use of hostages, and the deportation of whole populations — not only became common again, but were tolerated and even defended by people who considered themselves enlightened and progressive.

Remember: For Orwell writing in 1948, this is history, not futurology.

It was only after a decade of national wars, civil wars, revolutions, and counter-revolutions in all parts of the world that Ingsoc and its rivals emerged as fully worked-out political theories. But they had been foreshadowed by the various systems, generally called totalitarian, which had appeared earlier in the century, and the main outlines of the world which would emerge from the prevailing chaos had long been obvious. What kind of people would control this world had been equally obvious. The new aristocracy was made up for the most part of bureaucrats, scientists, technicians, trade-union organizers, publicity experts, sociologists, teachers, journalists, and professional politicians.

Verily.  And who did the new aristocracy supplant?  Nobles and clergy in some countries.  But businesspeople and the rich in all countries – the elite that is as masterful at delivering prosperity as it is incompetent at pandering to Social Desirability Bias.

These people, whose origins lay in the salaried middle class and the upper grades of the working class, had been shaped and brought together by the barren world of monopoly industry and centralized government. As compared with their opposite numbers in past ages, they were less avaricious, less tempted by luxury, hungrier for pure power, and, above all, more conscious of what they were doing and more intent on crushing opposition.

Yes!  Power-hunger is the great neglected motive of social science.  And the big power grab of the 20th-century was when professions high in rhetorical dominance got the upper hand over professions high in material dominance.

This last difference was cardinal. By comparison with that existing today, all the tyrannies of the past were half-hearted and inefficient. The ruling groups were always infected to some extent by liberal ideas, and were content to leave loose ends everywhere, to regard only the overt act and to be uninterested in what their subjects were thinking. Even the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages was tolerant by modern standards.

Again, I remind you: For Orwell writing in 1948, this is history, not futurology.

Part of the reason for this was that in the past no government had the power to keep its citizens under constant surveillance. The invention of print, however, made it easier to manipulate public opinion, and the film and the radio carried the process further. With the development of television, and the technical advance which made it possible to receive and transmit simultaneously on the same instrument, private life came to an end. Every citizen, or at least every citizen important enough to be worth watching, could be kept for twenty-four hours a day under the eyes of the police and in the sound of official propaganda, with all other channels of communication closed. The possibility of enforcing not only complete obedience to the will of the State, but complete uniformity of opinion on all subjects, now existed for the first time.

At this point, modern readers may feel chills run up their spines.  Imagine Stalinism enforced with modern computing power!  Modern China is moving in this direction, but for now Xi’s China remains far freer than Mao’s China.

Even so, the potential for totalitarian oppression has probably reached a new height, and continues to grow.  Facial recognition plus ubiquitous cameras plus AI approximates constant surveillance.  Back in 1994, Peter Huber wrote a book called Orwell’s Revenge arguing that new technology helped liberate the Eastern Bloc.   Huber made some good points, but the long-run link between tech and freedom is at best unclear, as I discuss in my essay on “The Totalitarian Threat.”



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Convenience vs. Social Desirability Bias

Convenience has a massive effect on your behavior.  You rarely shop in your favorite store, eat in your favorite restaurant, or visit your favorite place.  Why not?  Because doing so is typically inconvenient.  They’re too far away, or not open at the right hours, so you settle for second-best or third-best or tenth-best.  You usually don’t switch your cell phone company, your streaming service, or your credit card just because a better option comes along.  Why not?  Because switching is not convenient.  Students even pass up financial aid because they don’t feel like filling out the paperwork.  Why not?  Because paperwork is inconvenient.

In politics, however, almost no one talks about convenience.  When governments mandate extra privacy or safety or consumer protection, crowds cheer and pundits sing.  From now on, you’ll be clicking a few extra boxes a day.  From now on, you’ll have to stand ten feet away from the next person at the pharmacy.  From now on, you’ll have to sign your name and initials twenty times on a mortgage contract.  Privately, almost everyone thinks each of these is a pain in the neck.  Yet almost no one goes on TV and self-righteously objects, “These high-minded ideals are going to be awfully inconvenient.”

What’s going on?  The Panglossian explanation is that there’s almost no political resistance to the inconvenience of extra privacy, safety, and consumer protection because these benefits are clearly worth the loss of convenience.  Yet that’s hard to reconcile with the enormous effect of convenience on our actual behavior.  Furthermore, we routinely complain about inconvenience one-on-one, or with trusted friends.  When people are speaking off the record, I’ve heard at least a hundred times as many complains about inconvenience as I’ve heard about lack of privacy, safety, or consumer protection.

How can we explain this chasm between daily life and political rhetoric?  By appealing to Social Desirability Bias.  Quick version: When the truth sounds bad, people respond with lip service – especially where there’s a sizable audience.  People occasionally voice ugly truths one-on-one, or with trusted friends.  Normally, however, they sugarcoat.  If “what sounds good” conflicts with “what works well,” we usually respond with hypocrisy; we say what sounds good, then do what works well.

In politics, alas, words rule.  From the viewpoint of any individual voter, elections are surveys.  As a result, demagogues run the world.  They gain power by swearing fealty to lofty ideals, not weighing costs and benefits.  And when lofty ideals imply serious inconvenience – as they sadly do – the demagogues impose serious inconvenience.

Why doesn’t a rival politician gain power by promising to make convenience great again?  Because “convenience” sounds petty and ignoble.  People love convenience.  They happily sacrifice other values for convenience.  But they don’t want to acknowledge this fact – or affiliate with those who do.

My favorite Dead Kennedys album is called “Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death.”  The music is great, but the message is not.  The band heaps scorn on our wicked First World society for placing immense weight on the superficial value of convenience.

The reality, however, is more complicated.  Yes, we long for a convenient world.  A little inconvenience can ruin your entire day.  No one, however, will ever go to the barricades for convenience.  In fact, we’re ashamed to admit how much convenience matters for our quality of life.  The market mercifully sells us the convenience we want without judging us.  Government, in contrast, takes us at our word – and robs us of precious convenience bit by bit, day by day.


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