Saturday, December 17, 2016

Is our "real" constitution pro-liberty?

My main reason for reading Politics of Liberty in England and Revolutionary America, by Lee Ward, was to understand how the English Whigs could oppose the American colonists’ quest for independence. Ward explains why they did not have any problem reconciling their opposition to American independence with their philosophical views. 

Constitutional ideas that were held in high esteem by Thomas Jefferson and many other American politicians - particularly the views of John Locke - were on the radical fringes of political discourse in England. The English Whigs (and Tories) were more strongly influenced by the constitutional ideas of Samuel Pufendorf (1632-1694) a German jurist and political philosopher who argued that whatever form of government a people constituted must be guided by a supreme power that is subject to no limitations or external force. The British Parliament was seen by parliamentarians like William Blackstone, and even Edmund Burke, as having supreme power over the colonies.

Whilst reading about the differing constitutional ideas being put forward by influential writers in England and colonial America my mind often turned to the concept of a real constitution put forward by Sheldon Richman in America’s Counter-Revolution: TheConstitution Revisited (discussed previously on this blog). Richman defines the real constitution as the set of dispositions that influence what most people will accept as legitimate actions by the politicians and bureaucrats who make up the government. He derives support for this concept from Roderick Long’s observation that “government is not some sort of automatic robot standing outside the social order it serves; its existence depends on ongoing cooperation, both from the members of the government and from the populace it governs” (NPPE, Vol 2, No 1).

All the advocates of different constitutional ideas in England and America in the 17th and 18th centuries were seeking to influence their readers’ dispositions concerning what they would accept as legitimate actions by governments. Robert Filmer used his interpretation of scripture as a basis to argue that even tyrannical kings had a divine right to rule.  Thomas Hobbes argued that while individuals had a right to self-defence, life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” if they were unwilling to authorise a strong government to maintain order. John Locke’s view of the state of nature - life without government - was not much more benign: in his view the absence of government to act as an umpire to settle disputes would result in a state of war, or something dangerously close to it. Locke argued, however, that government power derives from the individuals who compose society; it is held by governors as a form of trust; and if governors break this trust - fail to preserve the property (lives, liberties and estates) of individuals - then power devolves back from whence it came.

Moderate Whigs successfully advocated a Pufendorfian interpretation of the Glorious Revolution which deposed James II in 1688. Rather than asserting that the people had a natural right to appoint and depose their governors, the House of Commons accused James of having “endeavoured to subvert the constitution of the kingdom, by breaking the Original Contract between king and people”. However, the House didn’t even present those actions as grounds for rightful deposition – it relied on the legal fiction that James had abdicated. All mention of an original contract was expunged from the final version of the Declaration of Rights presented to William and Mary.

As already noted, the constitutional ideas advocated by Thomas Jefferson owed a great deal to John Locke. Tom Paine went somewhat further by asserting that modern society rather than the classical polis provides the psychic plane on which moral virtue flourishes:
Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices”.
Unfortunately, Paine’s argument for government to be viewed as “a necessary evil” was not matched by recognition of the potential for legislative tyranny. Paine believed that legislatures would protect individual liberty because they would reflect the “popular will”.
   

Our experience with representative government over the last couple of centuries should have made everyone sceptical of claims that democratic constitutions allow the people to rule. The only way the people can rule is if the real constitution is pro-liberty – and that can only happen if enough individuals accept responsibility for governing their own lives. In my view Karl Popper was right to defend democracy on the grounds that it provides a way to get rid of bad governments without bloodshed. Democracy does not necessarily help us to choose good government. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Did the framers of the U.S. Constitution intend it to protect liberty?

A week ago my answer would have been along the lines that while I could not claim any expertise in American history I had the impression that the natural right to liberty had been recognised in both the US Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. In support of that view I would have pointed to the division of powers between the executive, congress and judiciary; the specific guarantees of freedom including freedom of speech; and the allocation of specific powers to the central government with remaining powers residing with the states. I would have argued that limiting the powers to the central government was a particularly important guarantee of freedom because states which imposed burdensome taxation and regulation were likely to lose out in the competition for people and investment. However, I would also have indicated that I was aware that the federal government had ended up with more power than the founding fathers had intended as a consequence of imaginative judicial interpretations of the Constitution.

For the benefits of an Australian audience I might have added that the framers of the US Constitution were obviously more concerned about liberty that the framers of the Australian Constitution. The two constitutions are similar, but the Australian Constitution - written a little over a century later - does not include explicit guarantees of liberty. As with the US Constitution, the Australian Constitution specifies limited powers for the central government, but some leading politicians who were heavily involved in federation were aware from the outset of the potential for its taxing powers to give the central government great leverage. Soon after federation, Alfred Deakin remarked that the Constitution had left the States “legally free but financially bound to the chariot wheels of the Central Government”.

My view of the libertarian credentials of the framers of the US Constitution has been challenged over the past week by my reading of Sheldon Richman’s book, America’sCounter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited. Richman suggests that the framers of the US Constitution staged a counter-revolution:
“the Constitution, far from limiting government, was actually designed to bring about a new one that betrayed the ideals of the Declaration of Independence itself. … There is a reason it has done a poor job in protecting freedom: it was never intended to do so”.

The Constitution was ratified in 1788, twelve years after the Declaration of Independence. It replaced the Articles of Confederation, which had been ratified in 1781. Under the Articles the government of the United States had been essentially confined to external affairs. It had no power to tax, regulate trade, or raise an army.

Greater central government powers were apparently not required to improve the lives of citizens. Under the Articles of Confederation, America was relatively peaceful and prosperous. In Richman’s words, life “wasn’t so bad after all – at least for white males with property  … ; obviously it wasn’t so good for African Americans, Indians, and white women, but their fate did not change in 1789”.

Richman cites evidence that a negative impression of the confederation period was fostered by those who favoured nationalist centralisation. Mercantile interests apparently tended to favour nationalist centralisation because they hoped it would help them to hold onto political power at the expense of radical democrats – including overtaxed small farmers - who were gaining greater representation in some state legislatures. Interstate protectionism was more legend than fact.

The author suggests that from the outset the US Constitution could reasonably be seen as a stool with three legs: taxation; mercantilist trade-promotion; and national security in a hostile world. The Constitution gave Congress taxation powers that would be sufficient (in my view) for any modern warfare/welfare state: “Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States”. Promoting trade was seen in those days (and still today in many quarters) to be more about opening export markets than enabling mutually beneficial transactions between people in different countries; trade-promotion was about selective embargoes and building empires. The nationalists sought a permanent military establishment that would be powerful enough to protect the nation’s interests from the old colonial powers and the Indian nations, whose lands Americans coveted.

The bill of rights in the US Constitution was introduced as an afterthought to mollify anti-federalists who had made the absence of a bill of rights the top talking point against the draft constitution. The rights embodied were largely uncontroversial common law rights of Englishmen.

Richman seems to me to make a strong case that James Madison, sometimes referred to as the father of the US Constitution, was father of the “implied-powers doctrine”. Madison argued that it was impossible to confine the federal government to the exercise of powers “expressly delegated” unless the constitution “descended to recount every minutiae”. Richman comments:
“Madison was right, of course. … There must be implied powers. But that’s the danger of a constitution and a monopoly constitutional government. Implied powers must be inferred, and inference requires interpretation. Who is likely to have the inside track in that process: those who seek to restrict government power or those who seek to expand it? We know the answer to that question”.

This book does more than make the case that a counter-revolution set America on the wrong path over 200 years ago. The author asks an important question that could help put America back on the right path: “Where is the Constitution?” Richman is referring to “the real constitution – the set of dispositions that influence what most Americans will accept as legitimate actions by the politicians and bureaucrats who make up the government”.  The point he is making, with the aid of Roderick Long’s (easily found) contribution on “market anarchism as constitutionalism”, is that if government power is to be wound back the real constitution must be pro-liberty:
That’s why there’s no substitute for education and an intellectual-moral revolution”.

Another piece of wisdom that Sheldon Richman provides to libertarians is to avoid letting the perfect be the enemy of the good:
I see no reason for libertarians, in the name of purity, to withhold support for steps that make real progress toward liberty and pave the way for more”.


That is an approach that a I can readily support without having to be persuaded that market anarchy offers the best prospects for human flourishing. 

Sunday, November 20, 2016

How did the culture of growth evolve?

There can be little doubt that a change in attitude toward nature and the ability to harness it to human needs, that occurred among an educated elite in Europe in the period 1500 to 1700, paved the way for the industrial enlightenment in Britain, and the subsequent economic growth that has since benefited much of the world’s population. Joel Mokyr’s recent book, A Culture of Growth: The origins of the modern economy, explains that change of attitude in terms of cultural evolution.

Since cultural evolution involves individuals in making choices that change their beliefs, values and preferences it might be expected to be a gradual process. However, Mokyr uses cultural evolution to explain the large, discontinuous change in attitudes that occurred in Europe by pointing to: factors causing resistance to such change throughout the world; factors specific to Europe leading to a weakening of such resistance; and specific change agents espousing the cultural change that occurred. At the risk of over-simplifying the author’s scholarly efforts I will attempt to outline his thesis below.

Early modern Europe was a deeply religious age. The great Thomist synthesis, in which Christianity was merged with Aristotelian physics and metaphysics became a deeply entrenched dogma. The prevailing culture discouraged potential innovators from openly challenging this dogma. Science had previously flourished during some periods other parts of the world. It flourished in the first centuries of Islam, but was subsequently held back by mystical religious dogmas. It flourished in China during the Tang and Song dynasties (618-907 and 960-1127), but stagnated during the Ming and Quing dynasties (1368-1644 and 1644-1911) when institutions such as the imperial service examination system served to discourage intellectual innovation.

Political fragmentation is the specific factor which led to a weakening of resistance to intellectual innovation. In the context of the ongoing cultural unity of Europe, political fragmentation made it possible for intellectuals whose ideas were suppressed in one jurisdiction to continue their work elsewhere. The ubiquity of the printing press made a mockery of prohibitions on books by rulers of particular states. The rulers of different states sought to enhance their prestige by competing with one another to attract citizens with academic or other skills. 

The third element of the evolutionary story is the work of cultural entrepreneurs, particularly Francis Bacon (1561-1629) and Isaac Newton (1643-1727). Joel Mokyr emphasises that Bacon’s contribution should be assessed in terms of his rhetorical contribution to cultural change rather than his specific contributions to science. Bacon challenged the traditional orthodoxy by emphasizing the potential for the “sacred duty” to improve the material conditions of life to be aided by knowledge gained from experimentation. He argued that knowledge ought to bear fruit in production.

Isaac Newton promoted the view that the universe is mechanistic and understandable and that the role of science is to establish empirical regularities. He also argued that this knowledge should be used for the material benefit of mankind.

The educated elite in Europe – members of the so-called Republic of Letters – looked upon Bacon and Newton as the most influential thinkers of their age. The Republic of Letters set up norms and incentives that supported the market place of ideas. Participants were expected to reply to letters, disclose findings and data truthfully and acknowledge intellectual debts. The main payoff for successful scientific efforts was enhanced reputation. Evidence and logic were needed to back up assertions in order to win acceptance for new ideas. Scepticism provided the basis for advances in codified knowledge.

In Britain, the Puritans were particularly impressed by Francis Bacon’s writings. They were deeply attracted to experimental research. The systematic study of God’s creation was seen to be the closest a Calvinist could get to understanding an inscrutable deity. The study of nature was seen to have potential to instruct interpreters of the scriptures. The Puritans saw a great deal of virtue in “good works”, which they associated with labour that was useful and profitable in a worldly sense. What we call leisure, the Puritans viewed as idleness. They regarded education in physics, science, mathematics and languages as deeply virtuous.

The Puritans showed little concern for improving institutions in ways that would benefit economic growth, but in their stress on empirics and the practical use of knowledge they constitute “an essential link between the early followers of Francis Bacon and the Industrial Enlightenment of the 18th century” (which Joel Mokyr wrote about in The Enlightened Economy). During the later Enlightenment period, science was, of course, able to “shed religion and advance on its own steam”.

In this brief review I have focused on the bare bones of Joel Mokyr’s model of cultural evolution. Readers interested in a broader perspective, should read Deidre McCloskey’s review. McCloskey’s important trilogy of books in this field also emphasise the importance of rhetorical contributions in promoting a culture of growth, but seem to imply that literature’s role in changing attitudes toward business made a greater contribution than Bacon’s cultural entrepreneurship in the field of science.  I mention this just to acknowledge that history can be complicated.

I find it difficult to read a book like A Culture of Growth without wondering what the implications it might have for the future. My reading of the history of the industrial enlightenment (sometimes still referred to as the industrial revolution) has previously made me think about the links between cultural change and economic policy reform. One might think that if a cultural evolutionary framework can help us to think about the past it should also be able to help us to think about the future. However, such models can only provide a framework. As Joel Mokyr emphasises models of cultural evolution are contingent rather than deterministic:
“In other words, they force us to recognize that things could have turned out differently than they did with fairly minor changes in initial conditions or accidents along the way” (p 232).

Hopefully, the “accidents” that  the world is currently experiencing will not destroy the culture of growth.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

How can we measure human flourishing?



This graph suggests that, at a national level, three quite different indicators of human flourishing tell a similar story about human flourishing. The opportunity measure, shown on the horizontal axis, encompasses economic freedom, income, education, health and environmental performance. The thriving measure, shown on the vertical axis, shows the percentage of the populations who are positive about their present life situation and optimistic about the next five years. The measure of psychological flourishing, shown by the size of the bubbles, reflects the percentage of the populations whose responses to questionnaires indicate competence, emotional stability, engagement, meaning, optimism, positive emotion, positive relationships, resilience, self-esteem, and vitality. 

The focus on European countries was dictated by the data source on psychological flourishing:  an article by Felicia Huppert and Timothy, ‘Flourishing Across Europe’ (published in Soc.Indic.Res. in 2013). The thriving data is from Gallup World Polls using the Cantril scale which asks people to evaluate their lives relative to the best possible and worst possible life. The opportunity measure was created using methodology described in Chapter 6 of my book, Free to Flourish.

The graph raises such questions as whether Scandinavian countries will be able to sustain high rates of thriving and psychological flourishing in future without further expanding individual opportunities.

However, I want to focus in this post on how we came to measure human flourishing in three different ways and what the different measures tell us.

First, consider measures of opportunity. GDP per head of population has been used by economists as a rough measure of well-being for many decades, even though its potential shortcomings for this purpose have been well known since the concept was developed in the 1930s. Recognition of such problems led to efforts to take account of longevity and education, in the UNDP’s Human Development Index, and of a wider range of indicators of the quality of life in the OECD’s Better Life Index and similar indexes - including the opportunity index used in the graph. All those indexes can be viewed as measures of opportunity; they are not direct measures of well-being or human flourishing. It is possible to be wealthy, highly educated and have good physical health and yet to be deeply unhappy.

Second, there are attempts to measure well-being directly using surveys asking individuals to give a simple numerical rating to their happiness or their satisfaction with their lives.  The data on thriving shown in the graph are based on subjective well-being assessments of that kind.

The meaning that should be given to life satisfaction ratings is less obvious than the meaning of happiness ratings. The happiness question clearly elicits responses about feelings. Available evidence suggests that life satisfaction ratings reflect evaluations of lives rather than momentary feelings. Research by John Helliwell et al for The World Happiness Report shows that a large part of variation in life satisfaction ratings among countries can be explained by differences in income levels, social support, freedom to make life choices, generosity and perceptions of corruption.

Analysis of data from long-running national panel surveys for Australia, Germany and Britain provides evidence that adaptation and resilience tend to restore life satisfaction to previous levels following positive and negative changes in circumstances. Nevertheless, recent research by Bruce Headey and Ruud Muffels suggests that most people go through periods of their lives when they have relatively high and relatively low life satisfaction. Positive feedback loops between life satisfaction and variables such as health, social support, frequency of social activities, and satisfaction with work and relationships partly account for extended periods of high or low life satisfaction.

As I have discussed in a previous post, evaluations of life satisfaction can also be interpreted as frames of mind, which influence the extent to which people experience positive emotions. Monty Python (and many philosophers and psychologists) tell us that people who have a disposition to look on the bright side of life are better able to maintain relatively high life satisfaction. The evidence that life satisfaction is influenced by dispositions that are attributable to genetics also supports a frame of mind interpretation. People in Denmark are apparently particularly favoured by genes that promote high life satisfaction.

The main reservation I have about the tendency to use of life satisfaction as the gold standard in measuring human flourishing stems from evidence (for example, findings of research by Daniel Benjamin, OriHeffetz, Miles Kimball and Nichole Szembrot)  that when faced with relevant choices people rank life satisfaction less highly than other criteria such as the overall well-being of their family, being a moral person, having a meaningful life, and having many options and possibilities in life and freedom to choose among them. Some of the findings of this research are not easy to understand, but those noted above are, at least, consistent with the choices people could be expected to make when they exercise their practical wisdom.

That leads me to the third approach to measurement of human flourishing: the eudaimonic approach, which draws some inspiration from ancient Greek philosophers.  In their research, referred to above, Felicia Huppert and Timothy So viewed flourishing as lying at the opposite end of a spectrum to depression and anxiety. The authors identified 10 features of positive well-being: competence, emotional stability, engagement, meaning, optimism, positive emotion, positive relationships, resilience, self-esteem, and vitality.  As noted in my previous discussionof this study, an important finding was that was that the individuals identified as flourishing did not correspond very closely to those identified as having high life satisfaction. For Europe as a whole, the percentage who were both flourishing and had high life satisfaction was 7.3%. Among people who met the criterion for flourishing, 46.0% had high life satisfaction, and among people who had high life satisfaction, 38.7% were flourishing. (The correlation between life satisfaction and flourishing was only 0.34.)

As the philosopher Daniel Haybron has observed recently, there is no consensus among eudaimonic psychologists about what their measures of well-being should look like. Dan Haybron has provided what seems to me to be a good account of the “philosophical basis of eudaimonic psychology” in a chapter of that name in J Vitterso (ed.) Handbook of Eudaimonic Well-being.  I don’t agree with him on the question of whether it is possible for the wicked to flourish, but I don’t think that impinges greatly on the measurement issues. Haybron argues cogently that the main factors that should be targeted in eudaimonic measures of psychological well-being are:
  • Agency - personal development, competence and autonomy
  • Relationships - close personal relationships, social enjoyments, community trust etc.
  • Meaning - engaging in activities that are meaningful or worthwhile
  • Emotional well-being - endorsement (or positive emotion) engagement and attunement (tranquillity or peace of mind).

He also acknowledges the importance of some other factors that researchers may wish to measure: authenticity, knowledge and virtue.

In my view Haybron’s contribution should provide a useful basis for further consideration of these matters by psychological researchers, but any consensus they reach will inevitably be somewhat arbitrary and tenuously related to the perceptions of individual survey respondents about the factors that are important to their own flourishing.

I end by raising a couple of questions:
First, how should researchers determine what weights should be given in combining ratings of factors targeted in their surveys? My answer, very briefly, is that this should be left to the practical wisdom of survey respondents. I considered the question here.


Second, would it be enlightening to attempt to combine measures of economic opportunity with measures of psychological flourishing? My initial thought is that before considering that question we should have a clear view of the purpose(s) for which such a combined measure might be more useful than separate indicators of economic opportunity and psychological flourishing. I can’t think of any right now.

Postscript: 

Dan  Haybron has provided the following comments:

Very nice post! It might be useful to see your opportunities index related to the capabilities framework, which in my view is really just a kind of opportunity approach--and possibly better framed as a matter of opportunities (though maybe the connotations of the latter aren't always helpful). 

I suspect policy should consider well-being/outcome and opportunity metrics, and also don't see any clear rationale for combining them, except perhaps in some still broader index including lots of other stuff as well. In my work on capabilities, I suggest that the latter better captures something like parents' concern that their kids have good opportunities (so push them in school), which is distinct from a wish that they be happy/do well, which can sometimes be in tension with giving them the best opportunities. (If your kid goes to Harvard, great opportunities, probably not so happy.) Though in line with your graph, I assume they generally tend to be positively correlated.

On life satisfaction (LS)  measures: you point to one of the odd features of the Benjamin et al work, which generally seems to undervalue emotional goods as well. I suspect the setup skews answers misleadingly on things like that (though I think their work is really cool). But also, partisans of LS should not be bothered by that result: the smart position is to allow that LS itself isn't very important (hence the responses), but is very useful as an indicator of success in the things people do care about. So if LS is a valid measure, it should reflect all those other things, in proportion to how much people care about them. i suspect the Benjamin et al framework might be used to help test LS measures: are they sensitive enough to what people actually care about? Or do they lean too heavily on information that is chronically salient, like day-to-day material concerns? 

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Can your view of external factors affecting human flourishing be summed up in a collection of quotes?

Just as sunshine, water and nutrients are necessary for plants to flourish, so too are external factors necessary for human flourishing. Aristotle was criticized by some other ancient Greek philosophers for holding that view, but it is hard to see how it could be contentious if human flourishing is viewed as the exercise of practical wisdom to pursue goals that each individual values in the circumstances in which they find themselves. The extent that we flourish - the quality of our lives - is not entirely divorced from the outcomes of our efforts to obtain the goods we value.  

As in the preceding post, which focused on the internal (personal development) aspects of human flourishing, the quotes I have selected below have been chosen on the basis that they support what I hope is a coherent set of propositions about external factors affecting individual human flourishing.

1. Human nature is probably shaped by multi-level evolutionary processes.
“Natural selection works at multiple levels simultaneously, sometimes including groups of organisms. I can’t say for sure that human nature was shaped by group selection – there are scientists whose views I respect on both sides of the debate. But as a psychologist studying morality, I can say that multilevel selection would go a long way toward explaining why people are simultaneously so selfish and so groupish.”  Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind, 2012, p 218.

2. There seems to be broad agreement about virtues among almost all religious and philosophic traditions.
“Led by Katherine Dahlsgaad, we read Aristotle and Plato, Aquinas and Augustine, … Buddha, La-Tze, … the Koran, Benjamin Franklin … some two hundred virtue catalogues in all. To our surprise, almost every single one of the these traditions flung across three thousand years and the entire face of the earth endorsed six virtues: … wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence.” Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness, 2002, p 132-3.

3. Our social interactions encourage us to judge our own conduct as impartial spectators.
“Every man is, no doubt, by nature, first and principally recommended to his own care; and as he is fitter to take care of himself than any other person, it is fit and right that it should be so. … If he would act so as that the impartial spectator may enter into the principles of his conduct, which is what of all things he has the greatest desire to do, he must … humble the arrogance of his self-love, and bring it down to something that other men can go along with. … In the race for wealth, and honours, and preferments, he may run as hard as he can … in order to outstrip his competitors. But if he should jostle, or throw down any of them, the indulgence of the spectators is entirely at an end. It is a violation of fair play that they cannot admit of.” Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759/1984, II.ii.2.1.

4. Freedom was made possible by the evolution of abstract rules of conduct which enabled mutually beneficial transactions among strangers.
Man has not developed in freedom. The member of the little band to which he had to stick in order to survive was anything but free. Freedom is an artefact of civilization that released man from the trammels of the small group, the momentary moods of which even the leader had to obey. Freedom was made possible by the gradual evolution of the discipline of civilization which is at the same time the discipline of freedom. We owe our freedom to restraints of freedom. ‘For, Locke wrote, ‘who could be free when every other man’s humour might domineer over him?’ …
The great change which produced an order of society … for the preservation of which he had to submit to learnt rules which were often contrary to innate instincts, was the transition from the face-to-face society, or at least of groups consisting of known and recognizable members, to the open abstract society that was no longer held together by common ends but only by the same abstract rules.” Friedrich Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty, 1982, VIII, p 163-4.

5. The concept of natural law was important in opening the way to recognition of the right to liberty.
“The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions … (and) when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind, and may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another.” John Locke, The Two Treatises of Civil Government, 1689, II, 6.

6. The “progress of society toward real wealth and greatness” is hindered by restrictions on natural liberty.
“All systems either of preference or of restraint … being thus completely taken away, the obvious and simple system of natural liberty establishes itself of its own accord. Every man, as long as he does not violate the laws of justice, is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest in his own way, and to bring forth both his industry and capital into competition with those of any other man, or order of men.” Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, 1776, IV.ix,50,51.

7.  The economic betterment that has vastly improved the lives of an increasing proportion of the world’s population over the last 300 years can be attributed to the ‘bourgeois deal’.
“Then after 1798 … life in quite a few places got better. Slowly, and then quickly, and by now with unstoppable, ramifying worldwide force, it got much better. Material life got better not merely for Europeans or imperial powers or Mr Moneybags, but for ordinary people from Brooklyn to Beijing.
The betterment stands in human history as Great Enrichment, the most important secular event since we first domesticated squash and chickens and wheat and horses. …
The real engine was the expanding ideology of liberty and dignity that inspired the proliferating schemes of betterment by and for the common people. Liberty and dignity for ordinary projectors yielded the Bourgeois Deal: ‘You accord to me, a bourgeois projector, the liberty and dignity to try out my schemes in voluntary trade, and let me keep the profits, if I get any, in the first act – though I accept, reluctantly, that others will compete with me in the second act. In exchange, in the third act of a new, positive sum drama, the bourgeois betterment provided by me (and by those pesky, low quality, price-spoiling competitors) will make you all rich.’ And it did.” Deirdre McCloskey, Bourgeois Equality, 2016, p 21.

 8.Economic betterment has been associated with the emergence of emancipative values, and social movements to promote civic entitlements.
“Most people in … [technologically advanced] societies have a high living standard, are well educated, and can easily connect to like-minded others, irrespective of locality. In these situations, and in many societies approaching these conditions, people recognize the use of universal freedoms and value them accordingly: emancipative values emerge. Inspired by emancipative values, people take action on behalf of freedoms. This is evident in all kinds of social movement activity, the most vigorous of which voice emancipative goals: people-power movements, equal opportunity movements, civil rights movements, women’s rights movements, gay rights movements, children’s rights movements, and so forth. … This is a virtuous circle that describes thriving societies.” Christian Welzel, Freedom Rising, 2013, Loc 9324.

9. Classical liberalism is not an all-embracing ethic.
“As liberals, we take freedom of the individual, or perhaps the family, as our ultimate goal in judging social arrangements. Freedom as a value in this sense has to do with the interrelationships among people; it has no meaning whatsoever to a Robinson Crusoe on an isolated island (without his Man Friday). … Similarly, in a society freedom has nothing to say about what an individual does with his freedom; it is not an all-embracing ethic. Indeed, a major aim of the liberal is to leave the ethical problem for the individual to wrestle with.”  Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom, 1962, p 12.

10. Individual rights answer the question of how it can be possible for the flourishing of individual humans to be self-directed without conflicting.
“Individual rights are an ethical concept different from those concepts generally found in normative ethics. They are not needed in order to know the nature of human flourishing or virtue, or our obligations to others, or even the requirements of justice. … Rather, individual rights are needed to solve a problem that is uniquely social, political and legal. … How do we allow for the possibility that individuals might flourish in different ways … without creating inherent moral conflict in … the structure that is provided by the political/legal order? How do we find a political/legal order that will in principle not require that the human flourishing of any person or group be given structural preference over others? How do we protect the possibility that each may flourish while at the same time provide principles that regulate the conduct of all?”  Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl, Norms of Liberty, 2005, p 78.

11. The liberal order can only succeed if sufficient people want to be free to make their own choices, and are prepared to enter into relationships with others on the basis of fair dealing, reciprocity and mutual respect.
“I have suggested that the liberal order that embodies political democracy and a market economy must be grounded in two normative presuppositions: first, that all persons are capable of making their own choices and that they prefer to be autonomous and, second, that most if not all, persons enter into relationships with others on a basis of fair dealing, reciprocity and mutual respect. I have also suggested that, from certain perspectives, observed reality in politics and economics may not seem to square with those presuppositions. My argument is that, nonetheless, and regardless of what may be observed, we must, within limits of course, proceed as if the presuppositions are satisfied. …
Properly designed institutional-constitutional safeguards against deviations from the norms can be effective … only in settings where the share of participants who might behave in violation of the norms of autonomy and reciprocity remain relatively small. Generalized or widespread failure of persons to adhere to these norms, along with widespread recognition that others also disregard the standards, will ensure that the liberal order itself must fail, quite independently from any institutional safeguards.” James Buchanan, Why I, Too Am Not a Conservative, 2005, pp 26, 28.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Can your view of human flourishing be summed up in a selection of quotes?

The quotes selected for this post are related specifically to individual flourishing or personal development. I will follow this up later with a selection of quotes relating to the social conditions that favour human flourishing.
Rather than selecting the most inspirational quotes I can think of I have selected quotes that seem to support what I hope is a coherent set of propositions about human flourishing.

       1. Happiness is the final end to which humans are naturally attracted.
“Since there is evidently more than one end, and we choose some of these (e.g. wealth, flutes …) for the sake of something else, clearly not all ends are final ends; but the chief good is evidently something final. ...
Now such a thing happiness [living well and doing well], above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for itself and never for the sake of something else …” Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 1, 7.

2. Reflection tells us that there is more to happiness than having a successful life.
“For both ancients and moderns, the starting point for considering happiness is a conventionally successful life which the agent finds satisfactory. … We have no concept which readily covers both the unreflective notion of success in life from which we start, and the revised notion of success in life with which we end if and when we have appropriately revised our priorities, and given morality its appropriate place in our life. The fact that we lack such a concept doubtless owes something to our tendency to see the pursuit of morality as being always likely to be in tension or conflict with the pursuit of other ends.” Julia Annas, philosopher, The Morality of Happiness, 1993, p 453-4.

  3. Human flourishing is the exercise of practical reason to actualize human potentialities.
“Ontologically considered, human flourishing is an activity, an actuality, and an end that is realized (or a function that is performed) through the self-directed exercise of an individual’s rational capacity. … As an actuality, human flourishing consists of activities that both produce and express in a human being an actualization of potentialities that are specific to the kind of living thing a human being is and that are unique to each human being as an individual.” Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen, philosophers, The Perfectionist Turn, 2016, p 45.

 4. We feel elevated when we contemplate the natural beauty of our world and the kindness of other humans..
Many words have been written to express such thoughts, but the those that come to mind at the moment are the lyrics of “What a Wonderful World”, a song written by Bob Thiele (as "George Douglas") and George David Weiss, first recorded by Louis Armstrong, and released in 1967. You can view the lyrics and listen here.

 5. We are responsible for setting the internal rules that determine our behaviour.
“The brain is an evolved system, a decision-making device that interacts with its environment in a way that allows it to learn rules to govern how it responds. It is a rule-based device that works, fortunately, automatically.” Michael Gazzaniga, neurologist, The Ethical Brain, 2005, loc 1278.

 6. Individuals flourish as their reason and emotions learn to work in harmony.
“We sometimes fall into the view that we are fighting with our unconscious, our id, or our animal self. But really we are the whole thing. We are the rider, and we are the elephant. Both have their strengths and special skills” p 22.
“Reason and emotion must work together to create intelligent behaviour, but emotion (a major part of the elephant) does most of the work” p 13.
“virtue resides in a well-trained elephant” p 160. Jonathan Haidt, psychologist, The Happiness Hypothesis, 2006.

7. Unpleasant thoughts and feelings are a natural part of life.
“So here is the happiness trap in a nutshell: to find happiness, we try to avoid or get rid of bad feelings – but the harder we try, the more bad feelings we create” p 40.
“As you open up and make space for these feelings, you will find they bother you much less, and they ‘move on’ much more rapidly, instead of ‘hanging around’ and disturbing you” p 45.
“A rich, full and meaningful life comes about through accepting your thoughts and feelings instead of fighting them, and taking effective action, guided by your deepest values” p 74.  Russ Harris, MD, The Happiness Trap, 2007.

 8. Grant yourself the freedom to pursue your goals.
“The easiest way to convince yourself that you don’t have mobility is to form ironclad concepts of yourself and how you do things …  . Freedom is about realizing that you always have the choice to start moving in any desired direction regardless of your past.” Timothy Gallwey, coach, The Inner Game of Work, 2000, p 126.

9. You get to choose whether to be content with past achievement or to stoke motivation.
“Once you have taken the first two steps in self-control – setting a goal and monitoring your behaviour – you’re confronted with a perennial question: Should you focus on how far you’ve come or how much remains to be done? There is no simple, universal answer, but it does make a difference … . For contentment, apparently, it pays to look how far you’ve come. To stoke motivation and ambition, focus instead on the road ahead.” Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, psychologists, Willpower: Rediscovering our Greatest Strength, 2011, Loc 1804

10. Be yourself!
“The paradox that frees you from all the prisons of self and the worries about image and approval is that the highest development of self is self-forgetfulness. When you fully integrate the awareness that it’s not about you, your focus shifts. Now you realize it’s about the experience, the contribution, the exploration, the discovery, and transformation. Now you’re free to be fully present without double-tracking in your head worrying about whether you have their approval.” Michael Hall, psychologist, Unleashed, 2007.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Can creative destruction be an inclusive process?

This question is prompted by my reading of Innovation and Its Enemies, Why people resist new technologies, a recently published book by Calestous Juma. The author takes much of his inspiration from Joseph Schumpeter, who famously described the innovation process as one of creative destruction. Juma argues that new controversial technologies are likely to enjoy more local support “where the business models include provisions for inclusive innovation”. I will explain later.

As the title suggests, the book explores resistance to introduction of new technologies. It does this mainly by telling the stories of nine innovations: coffee, printing of the Koran, margarine, farm mechanization, AC electricity, mechanical refrigeration, recorded sound, transgenic crops, and AquaAdvantage salmon.

Anyone who has an interest in innovation is likely to enjoy reading the stories presented in this book. Without reading a book like this one it would be difficult to fully appreciate that goods, like coffee, that are now commonplace, were once highly controversial innovations. The stories told in the book make me wonder whether future generations will look back with bemusement about my concerns about artificial intelligence and neural lace.

Although Calestous Juma delves into history in these case studies, he does not seek to provide much historical perspective on changing societal attitudes toward innovation. I doubt whether he believes that we are living in a time when opposition to innovation is particularly great by historical standards, but his views on such matters are not obvious from this book. Readers need to look elsewhere (e.g. The Enlightened Economy, by Joel Mokyr) for an understanding of the industrial enlightenment that began to occur in western Europe around 300 years ago. The author’s neglect of this big picture of attitudinal change is surprising in view of his acknowledgement that he obtained “early inspiration” from an article by Joel Mokyr on innovation and its enemies.
   
The stories told in Juma’s book are enlightening about the nature of resistance to new technologies. The general message is that resistance should not be lightly dismissed as irrational fear of change:
“Many of these debates over new technology are framed in the context of risks to moral values, human health, and environmental safety. But behind these genuine concerns often lie deeper, but unacknowledged, socioeconomic considerations. This book demonstrates the extent to which those factors shape and influence technological controversies, with specific emphasis on the role of social institutions”.

One of the things the book demonstrates is that resistance to innovation is often fuelled by people who have reason to fear competition from new products and new ways of doing things. Those faced with potential for economic loss have used every trick available in an attempt to protect themselves from the consequences of innovation. It is certainly true that many members of the public have genuine concerns about the potential impact of innovations on public morals, health and the environment, but the losers from change often exploit such concerns mercilessly to persuade governments to protect their interests. Thankfully, since the industrial enlightenment, the efforts of the losers to protect themselves from new competition have not been particularly successful.

Although he has chosen a similar title for his book, the author is clearly not a fan of Virginia Postrel’s The Future and its Enemies (which I discussed here).  He has little faith in the capacity of the spontaneous processes of free markets to manage innovation:
“Managing the interactions between change and continuity remains one of the most critical functions of government”.
Again:
“Political leadership on innovation and the existence of requisite institutions of science and technology advice are an essential aspect of economic governance. Such institutions need to embody democratic practices such as transparency and citizen participation that accommodate diverse sources of expertise”.

The author’s apparent faith in government regulation of the innovation process sits oddly with his acknowledgement of shortcomings in existing regulatory processes which focus largely on the risks of introducing new products. He acknowledges that these processes often fail “to compare the risks and benefits associated with the new product to those of existing production systems, even though it is precisely this difference that should form the basis of a regulatory decision on new technologies”. The author also acknowledges the potential for consumer protection regulation to be used for protectionist purposes:
What may appear as a legitimate appeal for the right to know may in fact be driven by an effort to brand a product so it can be rejected by consumers for protectionist reasons”.

I agree with the author that sensible political leadership is a fundamental requirement, but sensible political leaders will aim to confine regulatory interventions to those circumstances where there are good reasons to fear that spontaneous processes might lead to outcomes that will be widely regretted. When political leaders set out to manage interactions between change and continuity they open their doors even further to interest groups seeking preferential treatment. It would be nice to think that sensible policies and social harmony will emerge from citizen participation that accommodates diverse sources of expertise, but experience suggests that elected politicians are more representative of broader community interests than are the interest group spokespersons that governments select as citizen representatives. The most likely outcome is for the interests that would be represented in such forums (e.g. consumer, environmental, industry and union groups) to conspire to protect their interests in regulating markets, at the expense of the interests of the broader community in allowing free competition to determine outcomes under most circumstances. The critical requirement for sensible policy development is for the claims of interest groups to be subjected to critical scrutiny within the context of a public inquiry process that is capable of providing trustworthy independent advice to governments. (Australia’s Productivity Commission may provide a useful model for other countries to consider.)

Calestous Juma suggests several ways in which innovation could be made a more inclusive process: greater involvement of public sector institutions in providing training in the emerging fields; creation of joint ventures; equitable management of intellectual property rights; segmentation of markets to enable the technology to be used for non-competitive products, and improvement of the policy environment to support long-term technology partnerships.


Smoke and mirrors may help political magicians to appear to be ‘inclusive’, but they cannot alter the fact that some people are adversely affected by innovations that provide widespread benefits to the broader community. In her book, Bourgeois Equality, discussed on this blog a couple of months ago, Deirdre McCloskey uses the term, ‘bourgeois deal’ to refer to societal acceptance of innovations that compete with and displace old ways of doing things in exchange for widespread improvements in living standards. I doubt whether ‘inclusive’ innovation policies - even if designed by intelligent and well-meaning people - can do much to help sustain public support for the bourgeois deal. Ongoing support for the bourgeois deal depends on expectations that innovation will continue to generate widespread improvements in living standards.

Postscript:
Calestous Juma has responded as follows:

"I appreciate your thoughtful review of my book. You raise important points that need addressing. First, you wondered why I did not address the question of whether public attitudes on new technologies have changed over the centuries. I address this issue by showing that the public responses to new technologies appear to be conserved over the 600 years that the case studies cover. At face value this may appear not to be the case because of the remarkable proliferation of technology into every aspect of human life. I think that the change has been in the availability of technologies due to the exponential growth in science, technology and engineering. Public perception of technological risks has not changed, mostly because as humans we have not changed in any discernible way over the last 600 years. We have not found a way to reprogram the amygdala, to simplify a little.

Now to your more complex question: is inclusive innovation compatible with creative destruction? My answer is yes. In many cases disruptions, to use the term in a more prosaic way, is largely a result of the business model used. There are two examples that illustrate this. The introduction of mobile phones in Africa was by any measure disruptive. But it was also inclusive because from the outset the focus was to ensure that the poor had access to the service. Inclusive innovation was achieved through low-cost handsets and pre-payments for airtime. The early concern that mobile phones would be toys for the rich never came to be. The second example involves the strategies adopted under the Montreal Protocol to develop alternatives to the ozone-depleting substances. In this case those firms such as DuPont that were likely to be disrupted by alternative chemicals were included in new research efforts. The Protocol went further and introduced an amendment that promoting the sharing of the new technologies with developing countries.


Both examples involved private-public partnerships that were committed to promoting inclusive in innovation. In both cases incumbent technologies were displaced. Both case provide lessons of inclusive innovation. We can trace other examples of inclusive innovation in history. We have café au laite, as the name advertises, because of compromise to create a recombinant product. Proposals for co-existence are not new. It was tried, without success, to leave a niche for horses in American agriculture in light of the relentless march of tractors. The proposal came too late and the superiority of tractors over horsepower illustrates that there are many areas of technological transformation where inclusive innovation is not a viable option. In other cases there has been a long period of co-existence between butter and margarine. This wasn't a result of an inclusive innovation strategy but it offers some lessons worth considering."

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Does your flourishing depend on having a meaningful life and being true to your self?


The idea that people gain happiness by acting in accordance with their perceived identity has interested me since I read (and wrote about) Identity Economics, by George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton quite a few years ago. The idea was used in their book to consider the incentives that people have to conform to the norms and ideals of the social categories to which they belong (e.g. gender, race, social class, age group) but I wonder whether the idea of being true to one’s self might shed light on the relationship between happiness and deeper concepts of identity related to personality, signature strengths and values.

A search of the relevant literature in psychology has not uncovered any direct tests of this idea, but I have found a couple of articles that seem to point in the direction of a hypothesis that might be worth testing.

My starting point is that the extent to which people assess their lives as being meaningful seems to be closely related to their perceptions of their identity. We know from research by Roy Baumeister (with Kathleen Vohs, Jennifer Aaker and Emily Garbinsky) that the extent to which people view their lives as meaningful is closely related to doing things that express themselves (for a summary discussion see Baumeister’s essay entitled The Meanings of Life).

The research by Baumeister et al was focussed on the differences between happiness and meaningfulness of life as assessed by the individuals in their survey. The two states overlapped substantially: almost half of the variation in meaningfulness was explained by happiness, and vice versa. The researchers used statistical techniques to abstract from this interdependence and to look for factors that had different impacts on happiness and meaning.

The research suggested that the extent to which people identify as being wise or creative was associated with them viewing their lives as meaningful, but did not make them happier. Other factors adding to meaningfulness but not happiness included working, exercising, meditating and praying. Stress, negative events, worrying, arguing, and reflecting on challenges and struggles all seem to be part and parcel of a highly meaningful life.

Factors that added to happiness that had little impact on meaningfulness of life included satisfaction of desires, having enough money to buy the things one wants, good health, and the frequency of good and bad feelings. There is a trade-off between happiness and meaningfulness of life because people have to choose at the margin whether to allocate more time and other resources to the things that make them happier or to things that make life more meaningful.

Unfortunately, the research I have been discussing did not consider to what extent people perceive themselves as actually acting in accordance with the values that add meaning to their lives. It might be possible for some individuals to feel that their lives are highly meaningful but to be unhappy because they lack the self-control to live up to the high standards that they set themselves. Alternatively, greater self-control may make it possible for people to attain more meaningful lives through a smaller sacrifice of happiness.

There is some research which shows that inadequate self-control has a deleterious effect on happiness. Psychologists define self-control as the ability to override or change one’s inner responses as well as to interrupt undesired impulses and to refrain from acting on them. An article entitled “Yes, But Are They Happy? Effects of Trait Self-Control on Affective Well-Being and Life Satisfaction” by Wilhelm Hofmann, Maike Luhmann, Rachel Fisher, Kathleen Vohs and Roy Baumeister concluded: “our data clearly indicate that people who have more trait self-control feel happier and are gladder about their life”.  The authors found that “many benefits of high self-control are linked to handling and avoiding conflicts among goals”.

Adding all that together suggests to me that it might be reasonable to hypothesize that an individual’s happiness depends on: (1) the extent to which they perceive their life to be meaningful (this variable accounts for factors that jointly influence the meaningfulness of life and happiness); (2) factors that add to happiness that have little direct impact on meaningfulness of life; (3) self-control.
That relationship could be turned around the other way to view meaningfulness of life as a function of happiness and the other two variables (with opposite signs expected for the estimated coefficients expected for those variables).


The important point is that there may be potential for many people to flourish to a greater extent by improving their self-control. Roy Baumeister and Ron Tierney wrote a book about how to do that, which was discussed on this blog a few years ago. 


Postscript:
After writing this piece I had some doubts about whether it makes sense to suggest that people with self-control problems would claim that their lives are meaningful. Then it occurred to me that just about everyone I know is a reforming sinner – a fallible human trying to live a better life. I don’t know many saints!
Introspection can’t take me far, but it does tell me that sinners who try to reform themselves often do so because they feel their lives are meaningful and should not be wasted. Introspection also tells me that reforming sinners cannot live with no regrets unless they are willing to expose themselves to temptation, and that when people are tempted they find themselves outside their comfort zones - they tend to succumb to temptation from time to time and feel somewhat unhappy.
For example, while I was giving up smoking I would have certainly said that my life was highly meaningful. However, in order to live a normal life I had to expose myself to situations where I was tempted to have a cigarette. So, I spent a fair amount of time suffering from withdrawal symptoms and would probably have rated my happiness somewhat lower than when I was smoking full-time.

That story has a happy ending. For many years I have been able to observe other people smoking without craving for a cigarette. I would now give myself a higher rating for self-control, but I’m still a fallible human trying to live a better life! 

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Does stasis now make more sense than dynamism?

It is now about 18 years since Virginia Postrel suggested in The Future and Its Enemies that our political, intellectual and cultural landscape was increasingly being defined by “stasis” and “dynamism”:
How we feel about the evolving future tells us who we are as individuals and as a civilization: Do we search for stasis – a regulated, engineered world? Or do we embrace dynamism – a world of constant creation, discovery, and competition?

The author was writing about the United States, but the ideas in her book have much wider application. The old political divisions seem to breaking down all over the world. On many issues there is not much political distance between social reactionaries, green reactionaries and technocrats. The social reactionaries yearn for the kind of world our parents lived in, green reactionaries yearn for a premodern society and technocrats fear change that is not managed by governments. They all see virtue in government regulation of innovation. As a result, we see strange alliances forming on issues such as fracking.

By contrast, dynamists share beliefs in a spontaneous order. They emphasize individual flourishing and individual responsibility, and the possibilities for progress that emerge when people are free to experiment and learn. They care about “protecting the processes that allow an open-ended future to unfold”.

Virginia suggested that dynamists don’t yet share a political identity. She notes that they may view themselves as libertarian, progressive, liberal or conservative. That still seems to be true. Many dynamists eschew politics. Of those who take an interest in politics, people who see themselves as libertarians or classical liberals would have least objection to being labelled as dynamists - if they understand what the label is intended to mean.

Misunderstanding of the meaning of ‘dynamist’ might be a problem. To the uninitiated, the word could appear to refer to history’s hastening agents who seek to activate what they perceive as ‘historical forces’ to achieve a particular vision of future society. I can’t think of a positive word that adequately captures the idea of allowing an open-ended future to emerge. A new word might be required: e.g. ‘catallaxist’ - a believer in catallaxy, or spontaneous order.

Advances in technology have helped those who believe in spontaneous order to achieve some important victories over the last 18 years. For example, the emergence of services such as Uber are helping to break down regulation protecting incumbent service providers.

Yet, on balance, it looks to me as though the stasists have been winning the economic policy debate. In the aftermath of the GFC, deregulation has often been perceived as a cause of economic crisis, overlooking the effects of the regulatory environment in encouraging some financial institutions to believe that they were too big to be allowed to fail. The actions of some leaders of the economics profession in distancing themselves from market liberalisation policies has lent weight to populist demands for a return of stasist policy prescriptions.

As I see it, identifying myself as a believer in spontaneous order does not involve an ideological commitment never to advocate government intervention under any circumstances. It has to do with where the onus of proof should lie. In the case of migration, for example, I would argue that the onus should be on those favouring restrictions on international movement of people to justify why such restrictions should exist. It is argued that free international movement of people is incompatible with welfare systems in which immigrants can qualify for social assistance, but it is not obvious why immigrants should qualify for social assistance.  A more persuasive argument immigration restrictions can possibly be mounted in terms of potentially adverse social consequences of a large influx of migrants with different cultural traditions.

Similar considerations apply in relation to new technology. It is easy to mount a persuasive argument for regulatory restrictions on access to nuclear technology, but that is obviously an extreme example. Some statists have argued that innovations in home entertainment should be regulated to avoid adverse social impacts, but they imply that individuals are not capable of learning how to make sensible decisions for themselves and their families about use of new technology. Some of us had difficulty in making good decisions about use of our leisure time following the introduction of television, but that is not a powerful argument for the government to make such decisions for us. Of course, as suggested by Daniel Lattier, we have a responsibility to learn to use technology wisely, i.e., temperately. Similar considerations have applied in many aspects of life, e.g. food, beverages, sex, since ancient times.

How should we view decisions about whether to enhance brain power with neural lace? I ended a recent post on this topic suggesting that neural lace will not be worth having unless it can be developed in such a way as to enable humans to protect the privacy, autonomy and responsibility that is integral to their individual flourishing. I should have added that the decision to have a neural lace implant will be best left for individuals to make for themselves. Anyone wants to argue that choosing to use some particular form of neural lace would be tantamount to selling oneself into slavery, is of course free to try to make a case for regulation or prohibition.

My reading about potential consequences of artificial intelligence (see blog posts here and here) has left me feeling somewhat more cautious about new technology, but that does not mean that stasis now makes more sense than dynamism. Virginia makes some relevant points. She acknowledges: “the open-ended future can be genuinely scary, the turmoil it creates genuinely painful”. However, she follows with the observation:
“Statist prescriptions … stifle the very processes through which people improve their lives – from the invention of new medical treatments to the creation of art. In their quest for stability, statists make society brittle, vulnerable to all sorts of disasters”.


Like other technological innovations, the advent of super-intelligent machines has potential to expand the possibilities for human flourishing. It will also expand the range of technology by which the flourishing of individual humans could be threatened by other entities, including governments.  New technology will not alter the fundamental principle of liberalism and that adult individuals should be free to flourish as they choose, provided they do not interfere with the rights of others.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Does individual human flourishing require entrepreneurial qualities?


In case some of my friends and relatives think that I have chosen this question just to provoke them, I should note at the outset that the entrepreneurial qualities I have in mind don’t necessarily involve a desire to obtain great wealth. Ordinary people often, and increasingly, benefit from such qualities in their search for rewarding employment.

When I was young it seemed possible for most people in relatively high income countries to choose a career suited to their personal abilities and inclinations, obtain the qualifications necessary to pursue that career and then look forward to working in the same occupation until their retirement. It seemed possible for people to plan their lives around stable career paths, in order to obtain the optimal combination of income, interesting work, job security, or whatever else they were seeking. Educational opportunities depended to a larger extent on wealth and/or ability, and career opportunities for women were more restricted that at present. Nevertheless, everyone who applied themselves diligently was predicted to end up having a successful career.

From an individual's perspective, such predictions were always problematic. For one reason or another, some people were more successful than predicted. Others made mistakes in their career choices and either changed paths, or came to perceive themselves as square pegs trying to fit into round holes. There was always a lot of adjustment going on in the labour market as people moved between firms and industries in search of better opportunities, or as a result of retrenchments. Most people ended up with satisfying careers, but some didn’t.

These days there is much greater uncertainty about whether young people will be able to pursue the careers they prepare for, even though educational opportunities are more widely available. Predictions can be made about the kinds of skills that are likely to be in demand in future (see, for example a post I wrote last year on this question) but we cannot be confident that any particular academic pursuits (including STEM subjects) will necessarily produce the skills that potential employers might want.  Acquiring useful skills and obtaining rewarding employment seems to be becoming more akin to an entrepreneurial process of discovering and gearing up to supply a market niche.

In thinking about the process of skill acquisition and job search it may be helpful to reflect upon Israel Kirzner’s view of the way entrepreneurial decision-making differs from economizing decision-making i.e. efficient use of known means to achieve known ends. Kirzner notes that entrepreneurial decision-making requires a posture of alertness:
In addition to the exploitation of perceived opportunities, purposive human action involves a posture of alertness toward the discovery of as yet unperceived opportunities and their exploitation. This element in human action – the alertness toward new valuations with respect to ends, new availability of means – may be termed the entrepreneurial element in the individual decision’ (Perception,Opportunity and Profit, p 109).

Of course, occupations are just one aspect of life. How does the forgoing discussion relate to the question I asked at the outset was about human flourishing? Is it reasonable to argue that the entrepreneurial alertness discussed by Kirzner is an important component of the practical wisdom required for individual human flourishing?

In my view, Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen make a strong case for that in their recently book, The Perfectionist Turn, aspects of which have been briefly discussed in the last two posts on this blog (here and here). After acknowledging Kirzner’s insights, the authors suggest that just as entrepreneurship involves a discovery process, so too does human flourishing. This is contrary to the view of people who imply that pursuit of our final end in life is merely an optimisation process:
Knowing what our end is, so it is said, will leave us only the task of utilizing the means at our disposal to effectively achieve that end. Yet, as we have tried to show in our various discussions of freedom and self-direction, our end of a perfecting or flourishing life is not like one of using known resources in their most effective manner. Rather the perfecting is more like discovering means available to such an end that are as yet unknown, or only partly known, to us. Moreover, once those means are discovered, it is equally mistaken to suppose that efficient usage is the only remaining challenge. Because perfecting or flourishing is not a passive state but an activity, there is virtually a constant reassessment of the adequacy and appropriateness of the means; this, as a consequence, suggests openness and alertness to new opportunities amidst changing circumstances. Finally, optimization suggests efficiency along only one dimension, but flourishing (at least in our view) is inclusive of multiple dimensions’ (p 287-8).


While such observations about the qualities required for individual human flourishing would probably have been as relevant in ancient Greece as they are today, we are helped to comprehend them by a sympathetic understanding of the qualities required for successful entrepreneurship.