Wednesday, November 30, 2011

When Did Human Violence Start Falling?


"Human violence started dropping thousands of years ago with the formation of the first states, Dr. Pinker argues. For evidence, he points to archaeological studies and observations of stateless societies today. With the birth of the first states, rates of violence began to fall, and they have dropped in fits and starts ever since."

(H/t to Pete Booetke.)

Comment Backlog

Well, comments have been moving through the moderation system here as slowly as Murphy passes his Thanksgiving dinner. For some reason, only a few are showing up in my mailbox, while the rest sit, unannounced, inside the Blogger system. My apologies.

Spot the Logical Fallacy

What logical fallacy is committed in the following passage? Pedro? Bueller? Bueller?
It is, however, tediously easy for people who write columns, ministers who preach sermons, or those who are generally comfortable with their jobs or finances to look down on the rushing mobs grabbing electronics from Wal-Mart shelves. When it comes to consumerism, there exists a tendency to blame the customers for bad behavior and greed.

Of course, they are greedy people everywhere, those who will do anything to gain advantage for themselves at the expense of others—people who live in a soulless world of material possessions. But the oddest thing about the folks in lines at those discount stores: They are mostly poor, working class, or marginally middle class. These are the very people who attend church regularly, express higher levels of belief in God, and are more likely to give a higher percentage of their income to those in need. Indeed, nearly every survey in religion shows that the poorer the American, the more likely they are to be both faithful and generous.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

So, Where Is The Surge?

People like Bob Murphy keep saying things like, 'It’s funny how the various objections to Ron Paul as a “serious” candidate keep falling away.' Oddly, though, the basic facts that make me think Paul has no chance of winning the GOP nomination look exactly like what they looked like eight months ago. Check out Real Clear Politics, which compiles lots of good political data. There you can see that Paul's campaign cannot get him lastingly above 10% in the national polls. He loses to Obama worse than does Romney. Paul is running fourth in Iowa, third in New Hampshire, and fifth in South Carolina, with only about 5% of the vote.

And in the national polls, he is just sitting there: no movement at all for months. He is now better known, but the plain fact is, most GOP voters don't like what they see! They think Obama is too soft on Iran and is selling out Israel, which are big reasons why they want a Republican president, and they see Paul as even worse on both issues. (And I say this as someone who thinks Paul is better on both issues than Obama.) Eight or ten percent of GOP voters love him, while ninety percent will vote for pretty much anyone else.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Creative "Translation" of the Day

"lo villanello... si leva, e guarda, e vede la campagnia biancheggiar tutta..." -- Dante, Divine Comedy, Canto XXIV

"the peasant... gets up, looks around outdoors, and sees the countryside all white..." -- Stanley Applebaum

So "guarda" apparently means "looks around outdoors"! Or perhaps, Dr. Applebaum, Dante felt it was unnecessary to mention that the peasant was looking outdoors, given that what he sees is the friggin' countryside, something he wouldn't have seen if he had been looking in his cupboard or basement, or into the bottom of a glass.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Can You Say Non Sequitur?

Anne McCaffrey is dead. Her NY Times obituary contains the following sentence:

"But the immense commercial success of Dragonriders of Pern more than outweighed any criticism."

Hmm, so what exactly is the equation that balances the errors critics spot (one critic accused her of "awkward similes" and "formulaic descriptions") against sales? One thousand copies sold negates one awkward simile?

Libertarian Neutrality

is an illusion:

"And it is very difficult to believe that [laissez faire] best promotes happiness in Aristotle’s sense of the term.  For the market maximizes the satisfaction, not of all preferences, but rather of those backed by the most spending power.  It is bound, then, to cater to the most vulgar tastes and passions – which are, by definition, the most common and thus the ones most people will pay to satisfy – rather than to more refined sensibilities.  And since on an Aristotelian conception an individual’s moral character – his characteristic habits and sensibilities – is inevitably deeply influenced by the character types and sensibilities prevailing in the society around him, it follows that a commercial society is one in which the sort of refined moral character that most fully manifests the realization of human potentialities, and thus most fully guarantees human happiness, is bound to be very rare and difficult to achieve.  But then, since on a classical Aristotelian or natural law view, a society cannot be just unless it makes the attainment of virtue a realistic possibility, a libertarian society would seem to be deeply unjust.  It certainly isn’t neutral between an Aristotelian or classical natural law conception of justice and other conceptions." -- Ed Feser

What Has Government Ever Done for Us?

"All right, but apart from sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?"

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Libertarian Slogans That Are False: II

So, in part I of our series, we established that the proposition "Involuntary exchange always makes at least one participant worse off," is only true with certainty ex ante. Ex post, we can only say, "Well, it seems likely that the proposition is true, but we can have no certainty about it -- there surely will be exceptions." (If you recall, I got the libertarian trifecta agreeing with me here: Mises, Rothbard, and Murphy all concur that this statement is only apodictically true ex ante.)

This is an important initial result to establish along the way to debunking a second libertarian slogan as demonstrably false:

"The government doesn’t create resources or wealth, it simply redistributes them." (Now, don't tell me this slogan is a straw man!) What can this mean?

The Wonder of Monteleone's Bakery

The day before Thanksgiving:

But... Aren't Sattelites Supposed to Be in Space?

From an article on seasteading:

"but the duo envisions the top platform holding buildings, gardens, solar panels, wind turbines and (of course) satellites for internet access."

Holistic Blather

Although I have been critical of methodological individualism, if I thought the only alternative were social holism, I'd be down with MI! Bruce Caldwell, in fact, explains Hayek's early adherence to MI in just that way: the alternative was much worse!

Consider, if you dare, this example from David Brooks:

"At this moment of crisis, it is obvious how little moral solidarity undergirds the European pseudostate. Americans in Oregon are barely aware when their tax dollars go to Americans in Arizona. We are one people with one shared destiny."

Say what? How is it, exactly, that the American people have a "shared destiny"? Are we all destined to be saved or damned together? To become rich or poor together? If you hit the lottery, do I win too? If I get a Nobel Prize, will I split the credit 300 million ways? Other than "Let me think of something rousing and pro-American sounding to shove in here," was Brooks thinking anything at all?

I Just Love Authority!

Now that I am an evil statist.

In any case, I continue to get a kick out of, while simultaneously being annoyed by, people from the trollosphere who post comments like this:

ME: Well, Heisenberg said quantum mechanics does have such implications.
TROLL: Ah, the old appeal to authority fallacy!

These people have never even bothered to understand what constitutes this fallacy. They simply have taken it on authority that there is such a fallacy, and, given its name, they think they must know what it means.

But the real name of the fallacy should be something like "Appeal to Illegitimate Authority." To quote an authority:

"This fallacy is committed when the person in question is not a legitimate authority on the subject."

Well, Well

Because It's So Much Better to Be Stuck...

waiting for someone to back out of a parking space.

Ramanujan's Formula for π

He was such an oddity. All of the earlier formulas for calculating π involved mostly simple numbers. But look at Ramanujan's:

 \frac{1}{\pi} = \frac{2\sqrt{2}}{9801} \sum^\infty_{k=0} \frac{(4k)!(1103+26390k)}{(k!)^4 396^{4k}}

It makes sense that someone who instantly could see what a special number 1729 is could come up with a formula like the above.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Dinner-Table Conversation

At my house:

ME: Eamon, did you wash the stainless steel pan?
EAMON: Well, Dad, I sure gave it the old Byzantine rubdown.

The Obvious Objection

Ed Feser provides it, to those who object to, say, me, when my God is not the God of the man on the street:

"It is no good replying that lots of ordinary religious people conceive of God in all sorts of crude ways at odds with the sophisticated philosophical theology developed by classical theists – ways that make of God something like a glorified Thor or Zeus. The 'man on the street' also believes all sorts of silly things about science – that Darwinism claims that monkeys gave birth to human beings, say, or that molecules are made up of little balls and sticks. But it would be preposterous for someone to pretend he had landed a blow against Darwinism or modern chemistry by attacking these silly straw men. Similarly, what matters in evaluating classical theism is not what your Grandpa or your Pastor Bob have to say about it, but rather what serious thinkers like Aristotle, Plotinus, Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Avicenna, Averroes, Maimonides, and countless others have to say."

Libertarian Slogans That Are False: I

"Involuntary exchange always makes at least one participant worse off." Well, this is only half nonsense. Of course, ex ante, it is true: if both parties believed the exchange would make them better off, it could be done voluntarily. (Query: But what about the case where I stealthily perform the exact exchange with you that you would have voluntarily made?) But ex post? Then it certainly is nonsense. A simple example: When my children were young, I made them brush their teeth. There was nothing voluntary about it. Now, years later, they have good teeth and have established a good habit. They are much better off because of this involuntary exchange. I could generates hundreds of examples like this quite easily, but you get the point.

UPDATE: As noted in the comments, the brightest libertarians (generally) get this right. Mises certainly would not have demurred from my conclusion -- as he liked to say, "Many a slip twixt cup and lip," meaning, like they say in the mutual fund ads, your ex post results may vary. And Bob notes that Rothbard only claims we can say that it's likely in the ex post situation that the involuntary transaction made at least one person worse off. (Although this undermines his conclusion in his famous welfare paper.) But the naive version I am attacking, that holds it is apodictic both ex ante and ex post that at least one party to an involuntary transaction is worse off is something I encounter all the time on discussion threads. But that is not my main thrust in establishing this result: rather, it is to have at hand an important conclusion that we can bring to our next level of the discussion.

UPDATE II: I have changed the post title to be more accurate. Since Mises and Rothbard would not agree with the strong version of the claim I critique, it won't do to call it libertarian dogma; it is, however, a slogan that gets wheeled out as a conversation-finisher in many debates.

That's Some Fancy Pants Drumming

Starting at about 2:30 and running the rest of the clip.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due

I was reading an article today by a libertarian who was noting how much the federal government did to encourage more loans to low-income borrowers by subsidizing lending to them. This was done in the interest of making housing more affordable. I have to admit, driving a good's demand curve hard to the right is an odd way of making that good more affordable.

UPDATE: Somewhat stunningly (especially given the title) some commentators apparently thought I was criticizing the author of the article! That they thought this is so surprising to me that it took me a couple of days to realize that's what they thought. No: I am criticizing the silly policy of trying to make things "affordable" by driving the demand curve for them rightward.

Order Yours While They Last!


(I cut a quite dashing figure on the cover, do I not?)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Public Choice: It Ain't New

I shouldn't be surprised to see even people with PhDs saying things like, "As Public Choice Theory has shown, government actors are self-interested." (I shouldn't be surprised because I know the state of our historical education, even for professional social scientists, is abysmal. I once mentioned "Alexander the Great" to a quite prominent economist with tenure at a fairly major university, and he looked at me blankly and said, "Who is that?") The recognition of this problem did not suddenly emerge in human consciousness in 1962. What do the people who say things like the above think Plato was doing, in The Republic, by requiring that the guardians hold all women, children, and property in common? Well, he was trying to align their self-interest perfectly with the community's welfare. Now, you may think his solution is awful or woefully inadequate, but it is clear that he recognized the same problem focused on by the Public Choice School perfectly well, and made a suggestion for how to solve it.

It Ain't the State

It's human nature. Courtesy of Ryan Murphy, here's a graph from Stephen Pinker's new book showing war deaths as a percentage of population:
Incredible how many more people were killed in warfare in the absence of the state! The idea that eliminating the state will reduce violence is massively refuted by the evidence. "But," you complain, "that's not the sort of state-free society I envision: I envision one in which people will follow the non-aggression principle." Well, it's very nice to have visions. But there is simply no reason to think that, if the state is eliminated, ancapitopia is what will emerge. We have had many, many non-state societies in the past, and none of them turned into ancapitopia. And you know what? When you eliminate the state, by definition, you won't be in charge! In fact, I'll give you a hint who is really, really likely to take charge: whoever can organize a whole lot of violent force really quickly. And if no one can, there will be a bunch of people who could not quite succeed at this fighting each other.

Experience teaches anyone willing to listen that eliminating the state will produce a huge spike in violence. A bunch of wishful thinking is hardly counter-evidence!

I Know I've Complained About It Before, But...

It's just so obnoxious to put up this message:

"You 404’d it. Gnarly, dude.

"Surfin’ ain’t easy, and right now, you’re lost at sea."

When the problem is that the site posting the message has a bad link.

Police Brutality In California

Rod Dreher complains.

And this is one of the worst problems with someone like Kevin Carson raging that the mere attempt to stop OWS from camping out in a city park is "Gestapo" tactics: If merely enforcing the law, as the NYPD was doing, is a "Gestapo" tactic, then what words do you have left for real abuses like this?

Friday, November 18, 2011

Bertrand Russell on the Abstract Nature of Physics

The following quote relates to this post:

"It is not always realised how exceedingly abstract is the information that theoretical physics has to give. It lays down certain fundamental equations which enable it to deal with the logical structure of events, while leaving it completely unknown what is the intrinsic character of the events that have the structure. We only know the intrinsic character of events when they happen to us. Nothing whatever in theoretical physics enables us to say anything about the intrinsic character of events elsewhere. They may be just like the events that happen to us, or they may be totally different in strictly unimaginable ways. All that physics gives us is certain equations giving abstract properties of their changes. But as to what it is that changes, and what it changes from and to—as to this, physics is silent." (My Philosophical Development, p. 13)

Activism That Could Get Somewhere

Did you see this shocking story in today's New York Times? New York's family courts were ordered to provide open access to the public fourteen years ago, but they have simply ignored the law, with over 90% of them refusing the public access. The whole family court system apparently desires the hearings to be closed, so that the public doesn't see things like mothers permanently losing custody of their children in a seven-minute hearing. Now, if an "activist" really wants to help people by making a substantive change, rather than stroking their egos by telling themselves how their drum circles are "bringing down the system, man," why not fix this? If, say, a quarter of the people at OWS showed up at family courts demanding access (which courts have said is their legal right!) every day, I bet it would take about a week for the system to break down and family courts to start adhering to the law. One week, and they could accomplish a dramatic change for the better in the legal life of many poor families. But actually fixing a real, albeit small and local, problem in a way that actually helps people doesn't sound nearly as romantic as "changing the world," does it?

Interesting xkcd Post

Because of the error it makes. Certainly, whatever space-time is, it is not a set of equations, which are themselves just a model, or "analogy," if you like, for space-time. We can, for instance, move our bodies through space-time, which we cannot do through a set of equations.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Somebody Just Told Me...

that she has trouble falling asleep, because she starts to worry about where her mind goes when she is asleep.

I had never encountered that before.

They Don't Know They Are Nazis. They Only See What They Want to See.

Allowing protests, but forbidding trespass? What Gestapo tactics!

'Earlier, on CNN's "American Morning," Howard Wolfson, a New York City deputy mayor, vowed, "We'll make sure, if people want to peacefully protest, they have the right to." But, he added, "if people break the law, we'll have to deal with that."

'"If they attempt to enter a building they're not allowed in, that's breaking the law. If they want to express their concerns about Wall Street, that's totally fine," he said.'

How can we tolerate living in such totalitarian conditions?!

What Have You Wandered Into?

You show up at church at a time you have never been. As you walk in, the priest looks up at you. His eyes open wide, and he asks, "What the heck is that outfit you are wearing? Oh, and your hair looks awful. Suck in that gut!"

You are in shock.

He goes on: "Why are you just standing there with your mouth hanging open? Are you mentally challenged or something?"

What is this event at which you have arrived?

Tequila Is Good for You

Something Is Not Quite Right Here

The web hoster has finally noticed that Bob is a bit off kilter.

OWS Has Succeeded!

In convincing New Yorkers that being ruled by Goldman Sachs isn't so bad, after all. At least not if the alternative is these OWS ass hats.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

And As the Flames Climbed High into the Night

A Must Read Post

from The Last Psychiatrist. He starts out skewering a nonsensical social science study, and finishes noting the purpose scapegoats (e.g., Nazi New York police) serve: they allow you to focus outside of yourself for the source of evil in the world, when, of course, the source is inside you the whole time. (And inside me, too, I should add!) I may [ cheat on my spouse / drink too much / ignore my kids / steal from my employer / treat strangers rudely / drive recklessly / visit whores / etc. etc. ], but at least I'm not like the New York Gestapo Department!

No Kidding

What regular New Yorkers think of the NYPD's "gestapo tactics":

'Marybeth Carragher, who lives in a building overlooking the park, said she and other residents were apprehensive about the city’s plan to let the protesters return, without their tents. "I think my neighbors and I are very thankful that the mayor acted," she said, "but we remain completely outraged for having to endure this for nine weeks."'

These protesters had essentially stolen the park and turned it into their own private drug market / sex bazaar / toilet / self-expression forum / etc.

There is no reason they should have been allowed to camp in the park for a single day, let alone the 60 during which they were tolerated. I'm not allowed to pitch tent in a city park. That's not what the parks are for, and it's not how the people of New York want them to be used.

For the Rest Remain Uncommitted

"In these days when people are so much the prisoners of systems -- especialy the prisoner of those general ideas which mark the spirit of the age -- it is not always realised that belief in God gives us greater elasticity of mind, rescuing us from too great a subservience to intermediate principles, whether these are related to nationality or ideology or science... There are times when we can never meet the future with sufficient elasticity of mind, especially if we are locked in the contemporary systems of thought. We can do worse than remember a principle which both gives us a firm Rock and leaves us with the maximum elasticity for our minds: the principle: Hold to Christ, and for the rest be totally uncommitted." -- Herbert Butterfield, Christianity and History

It Takes All Kinds

Sitting on a coffee table nearby in the cafe I now occupy -- and I will tolerate no Gestapo tactics such as trying to kick me out at closing time! -- is a copy of Bing magazine, devoted to Bing Crosby. The magazine has now put out something like 170 issues. (The copy I saw yesterday boasted about this on the cover, but I can't find that issue at the moment.)

Yeah, sure, he did a pretty good duet with David Bowie once -- but 170 issues? What is left to say about the guy?

Strong Anti-Inflation Measures Were Called For...

and Henry I provided them.

He was off fighting in Normandy, and sent word back to England that he needed a whole mess of silver coins shipped across the Channel to pay his soldiers. But when the coins arrived, they were found to be much lighter than they had ought to be.

Henry's solution was to have all the moneyers in England called to Winchester Cathedral, where they had their right hands and their dingle-dongers cut off.

My guess is inflation didn't rear its head again for a good while, while some others heads never reared again at all.

Blu Ray

I am watching a regular DVD, and it opens with an ad showing me how great Blu Ray looks. Or so it claims: but if I can see how great it looks on my regular DVD player, then what do I need Blu Ray for? And if I can't, then what the heck are you showing me?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

I See Nazis! They Are Everywhere!

Kevin Carson suffers a complete mental breakdown over OWS being evicted from Zuccotti Park. Should the protesters have been evicted? I don't know. Did the police sometimes use too much force? Most likely. But is evicting the protesters a "Gestapo" tactic? Only in the most fevered of imaginations. These people were continuously breaking the law for two months. The place was filthy, the protesters were disruptive to neighbors and small businesses in the area, cabs could not pass through lower Manhattan, and so on. After two months of law-breaking, the police came and told them to leave. Only if they refused were they arrested.

That is one really restrained "Gestapo"!

Those Wiley Translators!

Consider the following:

"e quale i Padovan lungo la Brenta" -- Dante, The Divine Comedy, Canto XV

Now here is the translation by Stanley Applebaum:

"and as the Paduans erect levees along the river Brenta"

OK, my Italian is not that good, but look as I might, I cannot see anything in Dante that translates as "erect," "levees," or even "river." I can even grant Applebaum "river," maybe. What happened is that in the previous three-line bit, Dante mentions that the Flemings put up screens (schermo) against floods, and now he is saying, well, the same for the Paduans along the Brenta. But Applebaum has decided that he is a better writer than Dante! Dante was evidently mistaken not to have repeated what these folks were up to, and Applebaum has corrected him. And it's not just this passage: he does this all the time, which is particularly annoying since he is producing a dual-language book, which is supposed to be helping students learn Italian, but which will leave them sorely puzzled as to what the Italian word for levee is. Applebaum is not translating Dante; he is writing his own version of The Divine Comedy!

The worst case of this of which I know is the alteration of Proust's Sodome et Gomorrhe into the English title The Cities of the Plain!

Great Minds Think Alike...

and so do F.A. Hayek and I.

We think alike in that he, too, came to see that methodological individualism is an arbitrary restriction on social explanation. Here is Bruce Caldwell on the topic:
It may even be possible that, in the 1940s, [Hayek] actually believed that [individualistic] explanations were sufficient to cover all the sorts of social phenomena that were of interest.

But as he delved deeper into these issues, as he studied the early writers more thoroughly and simultaneously expanded into new areas of research, he began to find it necessary to broaden his explanatory framework... by 1960, he was no longer referring to the work of the Scottish philosophers as individualist; rather, he was referring to it as representing an "evolutionary conception." Later in the decade, he was able to write passages like the following: "[The] transmission of rules of conduct takes place from individual to individual, while what may be called the natural selection of rules will operate on the basis of the greater of lesser efficiency of the resulting order of the group." -- Hayek's Challenge, p. 284
So, our greatest Hayek scholar argues that Hayek abandoned methodological individualism, and I think he is correct in so arguing. If you expand your "methodological individualism" so much that it includes group selection, you have made the "individualism" part meaningless.

I now anxiously await commentary on how Hayek and Caldwell, also, never really understood methodological individualism, and are just critiquing a straw-man version of it.

Methodological Sub-Atomic-Particle-ism

I am proposing a new doctrine: methodological sub-atomic-particle-ism. This doctrine posits that all explanations of the behaviour of anything other than sub-atomic particles are really just "shorthands" for the behaviour of sub-atomic particles. So when someone says "Leopards climb trees with their prey's corpse in order to protect their food from other predators such as lions and hyenas," I will tell them that is really just a convenient description of what a whole mess of sub-atomic particles happened to do. And if they insist we understand something new when we describe this at the level of the leopard and its ecosystem, I now know what snappy comeback I should use: "Did you ever encounter a leopard that was not made up of sub-atomic particles?!"

And when they talk about storms, I'll respond "Did you ever encounter a storm that was not made up of sub-atomic particles?!"

And should they mention stars, I'll answer "Did you ever encounter a star that was not made up of sub-atomic particles?!"

That'll learn em.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Let Us Grant Avram His Point

He set me the task, in the comments of another post, of correcting all of the Amazon reviews that say "Fukuyama has written a [good / bad] work of history."

Good point. My aim was not to enter upon interminable terminological debates. So let me re-phrase: There are two different types of studies: History1 and History2. History1 is a very disciplined, precise "science" (in the sense of a German wissenschaft) and achieves results as reliable as do physics and chemistry -- that is to say, always open to revision upon new evidence, but broadly accepted by all of the experts in the field as being the best answer available at present. Here is an example: Herodotus reported that the size of the Persian invasion force attacking Greece was 2.5 million men. If the naive view of history were correct, here we would have a simple "fact" of history, and historians would then go about interpreting it. But that is not what History1 practitioners do. Instead, they treat the words of Herodotus not as a fact, but as evidence. "Hmm, Herodotus thought there were that many Persians... why?" Looking at such testimony, as well as archaeological evidence, populations estimates, etc. etc., historians of type 1 have concluded that Herodotus's figure is greatly exaggerated: the real number is more like 200,000. This is a finding that is agreed upon by Marxist historians, feminist historians, libertarian historians, and so on, so long as they are all competent "technical historians" (Butterfield's term). Someone may say, "Well, of course, they agree on the facts, but not their interpretation," but that ignores my point that this "fact" is not a given with which one starts historical research: it is the conclusion of an historical study. And that is the sense in which I stake my claim that history is as precise as any other well-developed wissenschaft -- skilled practitioners can reach consensus on facts such as this.

Now, let me grant that there is something else typically called "history," which consists in grand speculation about the broad patterns that may or may not be exhibited in the findings of History1. I will permit everyone to continue to call it "history" -- you may thank me later. But I will designate it as History2. History2 is what Fukuyama does. History2 is what Marx (usually) did. History2 is what Jared Diamond does. History2 is what Pinker does. And History2, I will grant, is extremely speculative, and the conclusions of its practitioners generally achieve a very low degree of consensus.

So let us call them both history. But do not confuse the vague results achieved by History2with the remarkable achievements in determining what really happened in the past achieved by History1.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

I Didn't Say "Fukuyama Is No Historian"...

as one reader claimed I said. I said he is not an historian.  There is quite a difference between the two statements. The first would imply he is trying to do history, but is doing it badly. If we hear a band's drummer struggling through attempting lead vocals on some song, we might say, "Wow, he's no singer!"

The second means that he simply is not engaged in the activity in question. If the drummer never sings at all, we'd say "No, he's not a singer." And it is the second I have been saying about Fukuyama. He is not an historian, and does not claim to be an historian. He is a political theorist, using the output of historians to do political theory. (It's very surprising that someone at GMU should have trouble grasping this point, since that is exactly how Pete Boettke describes his work on the USSR -- he is an economist using the output of historians to do economics.)

And lest anyone still think I am trying to snub Fukuyama in some way here, let me note: I have a book coming out discussing Roman and American history. But I will admit freely that I am not an historian of America or Rome: I am using the work of historians on those times and places to do political theory.


"So the purpose of life is not in the far future, nor, as we so often imagine, around the next corner, but the whole of it is here and now, as fully as ever it will be on this planet. It is always a 'Now' that is in direct relation to eternity -- not a far future; always immediate experience of life that matters in the last resort -- not historical constructions based on abridged text-books or imagined visions of some posterity that is going to be the heir of all ages. And neither do I know of any mundane fulnesss of life which we could pretend to possess and which was not open to people in the age of Isaiah or Plato, Dante or Shakespeare. If atomic research should by some accident splinter and destroy this whole globe tomorrow, as we are told that some of the scientists have apprehended, I imagine it will hurt us no more than that 'death on the road' under the menace of which we pass every day of our lives. It will only put an end to a globe which we always knew was doomed to a bad end in any case...

"But supposing all this were to happen it would be an optical illusion to imagine that God's purposes in creation would thereby be cut off unfulfilled and the meaning of life uprooted as the the year A.D. 2,000 or 40,000 had a closer relation to eternity than 1949. Supposing the the time is to come -- as I always understood that it would -- when the world in any case will be no more than a whiff of smoke drifting in desolate skies, then those who rest their ultimate beliefs in progress are climbing a ladder which may be as vertical as they claim it to be, but which in reality is resting on nothing at all." -- Herbert Butterfield, Christianity and History, p. 66

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Bankers Are Like Hitler and Stalin

World's Top Rave DJ...

Methodological Individualism and the Old Testament

Having been brought up a Catholic, I knew very little about the Bible. But as I learn more, I am occasionally get a glimmer of insight into the overall movement of the text. And just yesterday, it struck me that...

If methodological individualism were correct, than the Old Testament is false in a way far beyond anything to do with whether there really was a big flood or a tower to heaven. Those things could always be re-interpreted as metaphors. But the whole narrative of the Old Testament is about a relationship and a covenant between God and Israel. Israel... which, per methodological individualism, does not really exist, and can't enter into any sort of covenant. But which, nonetheless, has promises made to it, and is punished, and goes back on its promises, etc. etc. And it's not just Israel; much of the text deals with nations as corporate entities:

"In that day shall there be a highway out of Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian shall come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians shall serve with the Assyrians. In that day shall Israel be the third with Egypt and with Assyria, even a blessing in the midst of the land: Whom the LORD of hosts shall bless, saying, Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel mine inheritance."

Why Now?

I was in the locker room at the field house yesterday. Two older gents (about Paterno's age) were discussing the Penn State scandal, and expressing sympathy for Paterno. "Why are they springing this on him now?" one of them asked.

I was barely able to avoid yelling, "Because he and a bunch of people succeeded in covering this up for ten years!"

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Explaining the Penn State Scandal

Someone across the aisle from me on the train had his MP3 player up so loud that the music was audible for five or six rows around the guy. (What the hell does that sound like on the other side of the earphones?!) The conductor, as he came through collecting tickets, asked him to turn it down.

But imagine the guy had been looking at some porn while rubbing his crotch. It would have been a heck of a lot harder for the conductor to confront him.

And so I think it was at Penn State. If Sandusky had been caught, say, smoking a doobie in the locker room, it would have been handled right away. But what he was really caught doing... well that, that no one wanted to even think about, let alone confront. (Note: This is an explanation, not an excuse.)

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Getting All the Details Right...

 while missing the big picture.

Everything Bob says in the above post is correct... in terms of technical economics. But that has nothing to do with making practical judgments in our day-to-day lives, in which we make the practical equivalent of interpersonal utility comparisons all the time -- and while not perfectly, well enough to get by. I make them every time I have to divvy up time and goods amongst my three children.

And I think that's what Dan Klein was talking about. Certainly, Dan knows everything Bob put in his post. But he is saying, "Come on, as a practical matter, we do know that in 9999 cases out of 10,000, an additional dollar will mean more to a poor person than to a rich one."*

So when Bob writes, 'Hopefully you can now see that trying to increase "social utility" by taking money from a rich man and giving it to a poor man, is simply nonsensical,' what he should have written is that ''Hopefully you can now see that trying to promote the common good by seeing to it that fewer dollars  go to the rich and more to the poor makes perfect sense."

* And when I made this case at NYU, guess who agreed with me?

The Origin of Government

"There has come down in the Christian tradition a profound but paradoxical system of teaching on the subject of the origin of government. On the one hand government is regarded as being due to the Fall of Man, a consequence of human sin, while at the same time it is looked upon as being of Divine institution, the creation of Providence. On this view, property, and even slavery at one time, and any form of subordination of man to man were on the one hand necessary evils in given circumstances -- things which would never have been conceivable, and never needed, so long as the human race remained in the Garden of Eden. But at the same time they were regarded as, so to speak, a second-best gift from God, since they implied a certain structure and ordering of society -- they were better at least than the sheer ungovernable anarchy which resulted when human cupidity was left totally unrecognized and uncontrolled. Though government does not cure men of sinfulness anymore than the institution of the idea of property eliminates human selfishness, the evil mitigated by institutions that are the gift of God, and it is brought under regulation by the orderings of society. And so Providence produces a world in which men can live and gradually improve their external conditions, in spite of sin--in other words it does the best that human beings have left possible for it at any time." -- Herbert Butterfield, Christianity and History, p. 34

Throwing Cold Water

on Enlightenment buffoonery is John Gray's job.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Pigou... and My Mice

We have been thinking of shutting down our Pennsylvania home for the winter, to save on heat. But there is a problem.

Haven't the mice that live there moved in based on their having formed the expectation that I would continue to provide heat? Isn't my shutting down a negative externality for them? Perhaps the solution is to place a Pigouvian tax on me for shutting down, and employ the proceeds to help the mice relocate?

(The answer to these questions has larger ramifications: Bob Murphy also wants to tax me because of negative externalities I have created, and the mouse case probably would act as a precedent.)

Friday, November 04, 2011

The Dumbest Movie I've Seen This Year

Has to be Die Another Day. (I couldn't sleep, and it was the last video in the house that I hadn't watched.) First of all, what was with all of the completely juvenile "witty" word play? Look, I love a pun and a good dirty joke as much as anyone, but the jokes they kept making about Bond's dingle-donger were the sort you make when you first figure out what sex is at ten or eleven. How could these actors resist gagging when they said those lines?

But even more ridiculous is the "world destroying" top secret weapon from which Bond must save civilization. Icarus was a big flamethrower! I mean, this thing took fifteen minutes to partially destroy a friggin' ice hotel. So, if it were the case that New York City were made entirely of ice buildings, and if the United States let North Korea focus Icarus on the city without trying to do anything about it, then, in maybe a couple of months, Icarus could level most of the city. Meanwhile, in about the fifteen minutes it took Icarus to partially destroy an ice hotel, the United States could turn North Korea into an uninhabitable wasteland. So this threatening bad guy was an imbecile. It would be like me thinking, "Hmm, I have a kitchen knife: I bet now I can take on a full SWAT team in battle gear carrying automatic weapons!"

Sure, Bond movies always had a ton of unlikely stunts and so forth. But they didn't used to be this dumb, did they?

Strong Central Government

After examining how weak central governments in Hungary allowed the oligarchy to ruthlessly exploit the peasantry, Fukuyama writes: "A powerful central government is neither intrinsically good nor bad; its ultimate effect on freedom depends on the complex interplay between it and the subordinate political authorities" (p. 385).

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Faith and Reason

"Aquinas applied this principle to his own study of Aristotle, and the philosophical tradition he founded encouraged later generations of commentators on the law not to mechanically reproduce an existing body of law but instead to reason about the sources of law and how it was to be applied to novel situations. The classical tradition that was revived in European universities was not simply one of appeal to the authority of certain static texts but also of rational inquiry into the meaning of those texts." -- Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order, p. 269

Hmm, so the Medieval Catholic tradition was not one of blind acceptance of authorities, but of rational inquiry into what they meant, how it did or didn't apply to the present, and so on? You don't say.

Fukuyama does not seem to a be a religious man. But the above is very common: anyone who seriously studies history simply cannot maintain the cartoon version of what the Church was like that the new atheists put forward. The professor who taught me the history of science at King's College, London, was very much like this: not a believer himself, but swift to debunk the pop-villain version of the Church's actions regarding science at that time.

Hayek: Mistaken Aout the Common Law

This is a good example of the sort of things historians can decide very definitively. Hayek held that the Common Law was a spontaneous, evolutionary development of customary law. But that is simply wrong. As Fukuyama notes, "the emergence of the modern rule of law was critically dependent on enforcement by a strong centralized state. This is evident in the very origins of the Common Law that Hayek celebrates" (p. 253).

He continues, "The Common Law is called common because it is not particularistic. That is, the myriad customary rules that governed the different regions of England were replaced by a single Common Law, in which a precedent in one part of the realm was applicable to the rest of the kingdom..." (p. 258)

And how did this happen? Well, it turns out that the king offered much better justice than had the customary law. For instance, the king provided "equal justice -- as opposed to the differential scale of wergelds dependent on the social status of the victim of an offense under customary law..."

This meant that "plaintiffs preferred to have their cases taken to the royal courts... the royal courts must have been perceived as being fairer and less biased in favor of the local lords, and better able to enforce their decisions" (p. 259).

He concludes: "A fair normative order also requires power... This is a point that Hayek and his libertarian followers fail to see: the Common Law may be the work of dispersed judges, but it would not have come into being in the first place, or been enforced, without a strong centralized state."

By the way, when anarchists are faced with the objection to private law that claims that this would simply allow the rich to buy their way out of trouble... well, what do they say, anyway? But we can see that the stateless Angles and Saxons had exactly such a system: if a rich man killed a peasant, he would simply pay the fellows minimal wergild, and that was that. But, if a peasant killed a wealthy person, the wergild would be many times as high.

The Stateless Anglo-Saxons

I'm listening to Jennifer Paxton lecture on the history of Medieval England. She mentions that when the German barbarians arrived in England in the fifth century, they were a stateless society. We can tell, she continued, a lot about what they valued by their poetry. And what did they seem to value the most?


England Christianized Twice

The Greeks, as far as I know, were the only people to develop writing twice. The Mycenaeans had writing, but the art was lost during the Greek "Dark Ages," then writing developed a second time, as Homer was scheduled to write the Illiad and the Odyssey

But I've just learned that Emgland was Christianized twice. The first time was during the latter years of Roman Britain -- of course, it was not called England yet! -- when the urban centers were all largely Christian. But the Germanic migrants who arrived when the Romans left were pagans, and Christianity disappeared in England, being driven out to the "Celtic fringe." Then, England was converted again, between about 600 and 700 AD.

Is England the only country to twice convert to Christianity?

The New Protest

A friend of mine who works at an investment bank was going in to be "scoped"; a camera was being inserted into his netherlands. "A camera?" he asked me. "What, are they going to broadcast it on CNN?"

"Yes," I replied, "they're capturing footage of the new protests: Occupy Wall Streeters. There is going to be footage of thousands of bacteria, gathered in their little drum circles, carrying placards saying things like "Big Pharm Killed My Family!"

Tuesday, November 01, 2011


After all my posts on the philosophy of history, after I thought I had at least made my position clear, I get a note from someone saying, "I don't understand how you can dismiss Fukuyama as an historian: he's probably one of the top five historians in the world."

What am I supposed to say? Perhaps that it is impossible to "dismiss Fukuyama as an historian," since he isn't one and doesn't pretend to be one! On his book jacket, he is listed as a "top political theorist." His Wikipedia page lists him as "an American political scientist, political economist, and author.

Do you see what is missing from that list? HISTORIAN. He's not an historian! I am not saying he is a bad historian, because that would be like classifying Hayek as a bad writer of sonnets.

Furthermore, you can determine this without going to Wikipedia or reading his own self-description. Look in his bibliography. In The Origins of Political Order, what do we find? Well, although Fukuyama discusses the history of the Chinese, Indian, Arabic, and Turkic states, there is not a single work listed that is in Chinese, Indian, Arabic, or Turkic. There is no original source material in any language whatsoever, so far as I can tell. (I may have missed one or two, I admit.) Someone who is an actual historian of the Turkic state will be working almost entirely with documents in Turkic, Arabic, Greek, Persian... well, I don't know what other languages, because I am not such a person.

What's more, Fukuyama's sources are almost always not even the secondary, scholarly journal literature of the specialists in these areas. Some of his sources are the third-level works these scholars produce for more general consumption: their summaries of the detailed scholarly literature for non-specialists. But many of the works cited are at an even higher level, or summaries of summaries of actual historical research.

Fukuyama is a bright guy, and is worth reading. But he is not an historian, doesn't describe himself as an historian, and doesn't do any original historical research. Calling him an historian because he talks about the past is like calling him a physicist because he often mentions material objects.

Old-fashioned excuse: "The dog ate my homework."

Modern excuse: "Dual-factor authentication ate my ability to do my homework."