Friday, September 15, 2017

What was Aristotle's secret of happiness?


Aristotle held that being happy is the same as living well and doing well – it involves fulfillment of potentials inherent in each individual human. From this perspective, happiness is activity in conformity with virtue. It is acquired through practice in much the same way as one might learn an art or craft. Aristotle’s view rests on the view that emotions are not inherently good or bad. Virtue lies in avoiding excess or deficiency:
For example, one can be frightened or bold, feel desire or anger or pity, and experience pleasure and pain in general, either too much or too little, and in both cases wrongly; whereas to feel these feelings at the right time, on the right occasion, towards the right people, for the right purpose and in the right manner, is to feel the best amount of them, which is the mean amount - and the best amount is of course the mark of virtue. And similarly, there can be excess, deficiency, and the due mean in actions. Now feelings and actions are the objects with which virtue is concerned; and in feelings and actions excess and deficiency are errors, while the mean amount is praised, and constitutes success; and to be praised and to be successful are both marks of virtue.” Nicomachean EthicsBook 2.


Aristotle acknowledged “happiness does seem to require the addition of external prosperity”, but he regarded notions that happiness can be identified with wealth, pleasure, health, honour or good fortune as superficial.

Aristotle’s view also differs from the modern view of happiness as a state of contentment, as satisfaction with life, or as the absence of symptoms of depression.

Many psychologists maintain that since Aristotle’s teachings on happiness were about ethics - how people should live their lives – they have little relevance to the question of what makes people happy. Subjective well-being research has been dominated by the view that happiness is about the balance between pleasant and unpleasant emotions. Even the use of life satisfaction, which has some cognitive content, has been grounded largely in utilitarian philosophy. More recently, some researchers have sought to introduce eudaimonic considerations by asking respondents about feelings of autonomy and competence, the quality of personal relationships and whether they feel that their lives are meaningful.

Aristotle would not have accepted a distinction between living a virtuous life and living a pleasant life. He maintained: “happiness is at once the best, the noblest, and the pleasantest of all things”. Similar views have been expressed by some modern philosophers. For example, Neera Badhwar writes: “the integration of emotional dispositions with intellectual (especially deliberative dispositions), which is required by virtue, makes virtue highly conducive to happiness, since a common source of unhappiness is conflict between our emotions and our evaluations” (Well-being, Happiness in a worthwhile life, p 152).

Can Aristotle’s view about the desirability of minimising the excess or deficiency of emotions be tested empirically? Some conditions need to be met before empirical testing is possible. First, we need a measure of human flourishing. In the absence of anything better, we might need to be prepared to accept some standard measures of life satisfaction, for example, as an indicator of human flourishing. Second, we need to be able to accept that the individual is an appropriate judge of “right feelings”, so that any excess or deficiency of emotion can be measured as the difference between right feelings and actual feelings. I’m not sure whether Aristotle would have accepted the second condition, but I don’t have a problem with it.

Some such testing has been reported in a recent article entitled ‘The Secret to Happiness: Feeling Good or Feeling Right?’  by Maya Tamir, Shalom H. Schwartz, Shige Oishi, and Min Y. Kim. The study was based on a cross-cultural sample of 2,324 participants from 8 countries around the world. The researchers used statistical analysis to explain happiness in terms of the discrepancy between desired and actual emotion. Their analysis controlled for experienced emotion, desired emotion and some other variables. They measured happiness both as life satisfaction and the absence of depressive symptoms. The analysis focused on four categories of emotion: self-transcending emotions (love, affection, trust, empathy, compassion); negative self-enhancing emotions (anger, contempt, hostility, hatred); opening emotions (interest, curiosity, excitement, enthusiasm, passion); and conserving emotions (calmness, relaxation, relief, contentment).

As expected, the researchers found that people were happier the more they experienced pleasant emotions and the less they experienced unpleasant emotions. However, they also found that people were happier when they experienced smaller discrepancies between the emotions they experienced and the emotions they desired.

In accordance with the Aristotelian prediction people were happier when they felt the emotion they desired, even when that emotion was unpleasant.

The authors concluded:

“The secret to happiness, then, may involve not only feeling good but also feeling right.”

The authors note that their findings are consistent with two different interpretations: happiness is related to experiencing the emotions one desires, or happiness is related to desiring the emotions one experiences. In either case it may be reasonable to speculate that awareness of a discrepancy between desired and experienced emotion leads people to engage in struggles that make them unhappy – whether they are struggling to change their cognitions or their emotions.

What advice would Aristotle offer to a person who felt unhappy as a result of a discrepancy between desired and experienced emotion? Would he tell that person to obtain cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help bring their emotions under the control of reason? He certainly emphasized the importance of practical reason, so he might have seen merit in CBT.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that the context in which Aristotle advocated “right” emotions was more about the nature of virtue than about the emotional benefits of self-control, even though he recognised the latter aspect. In modern terms, it seemed to me that Aristotle’s discussion of the virtue of emotional moderation translates to a discussion about values. The message I take is that to have lives worth living we need to look our values and to behave like the persons we want to become.

Monday, August 21, 2017

What can be done about the "game of mates"?


What is wrong with looking after your mates? If you ask any Australian chosen at random the chances are that they will tell you that it is good to help friends and acquaintances. Yet, the same person would be likely to express disapproval of people who use powerful positions in politics, public service, business and unions to look after their mates at the expense of the broader public. That is a downside of the mateship culture.

In their book, The Game of Mates, How Favours Bleed the Nation, Cameron Murray and Paul Frijters explain that “the game of mates” also involves a strong element of self-interest. When people play that game, they look after their mates in the expectation that their mates will reciprocate. The game involves the exchange of “grey gifts” among groups of mates. Grey gifts arise from political and bureaucratic discretion in interpreting and enforcing regulation. The granting of such gifts differs from theft and bribery because it is difficult to identify as corrupt or illegal in any instance. Participants do not ask for direct trades and exchanges are spread out over time.

A typical example of the game of mates involves a politician or senior bureaucrat providing grey gifts to an industry or firm and then subsequently moving to take a well-remunerated position in that firm or industry. The most important attribute the appointee brings to the new position is his, or her, ability to reward the new employer by playing the game of mates with great expertise.

Murray and Frijters make the claim - exaggerated in my view - that the game of mates enables well-connected individuals to steal roughly half of “the real wealth” of the rest of the community – whom the authors refer to as the “champion Aussies”. They give the impression that the beneficiaries of the game are wealthy and the victims are relatively poor. However, they do admit that it is possible for an individual to benefit from the game with respect to some regulations and to be a victim with respect to others. Not much attention is given to the deadweight costs of the game of mates - everyone has less incentive to work, save and invest when a substantial part of the income produced ends up funding mates’ games.

Much of the book explains how the authors see the game of mates being played in different parts of the economy. In property development, there is a game involving rezoning of land for residential use. In transportation, the game involves negotiation of public private partnerships (PPPs) to fund infrastructure projects. There are also games involving granting of mining licenses, administration of superannuation funds, banking regulation, tax dodges, regulation of pharmacies, assistance to agriculture, undue restriction of taxi licences, dominant supermarkets influencing their regulatory environment, and even the control of public universities for the benefit of private interests.

Murray and Frijters offer some remedies to disrupt the game of mates. They show insight in their suggestion that the game can be tackled more effectively by reducing the value of grey gifts - by selling them or taxing them - rather than by adding additional layers of regulation. However, they don’t seem to recognise that the best way to reduce the value of grey gifts is to reduce the extent to which the economy is subject to government regulation, and the political and bureaucratic discretion associated with it.

Some of the authors’ proposed remedies seem bizarre. For example, they suggest that foreign experts be contracted to develop new laws and regulations for their specialist industries. I wonder how they would prevent the foreign experts from playing the game of mates to benefit their buddies and amigos at the expense of “champion Aussies”.

Another bizarre suggestion is to increase competition by creating public competitor companies in industries such as banking, land development and the universities. The fact that Australian universities are still largely government-owned might have caused the authors to think a little more about the likely effectiveness of that remedy. Political appointment of boards and chief executives, combined with vast discretion for allocation of grey gifts, make government-owned enterprises part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

In my view, the book’s ideologically blinkered approach favouring government enterprises is a major shortcoming. The authors ask:
“If governments believe that they are unable to efficiently construct school buildings, hospitals, roads, or powerlines, through their own departments or government-owned companies, what magical skills do they believe they possess in order to effectively negotiate with and regulate, the powerful private interests they are selling these assets to?”

Part of the answer to this question is that trade unions – major players in the game of mates whose role is barely recognised in this book – can exert more influence over government departments and government-owned companies, than over private enterprises. Public sector managers have a strong incentive to sacrifice productivity to maintain the appearance of industrial harmony because that is what their political masters expect of them in playing the game of mates.

Another part of the answer is that it is easier for governments to remove regulation protecting private firms from competition than to remove similar barriers protecting public enterprises. For example, it is unlikely that Australia Post’s monopoly on letter carriage would be maintained if that organisation was privatised and its community service obligations (more mates’ games) were converted into transparent subsidies for people living in remote areas.

I could go on for a few thousand more words discussing the shortcomings of this book – including its highly misleading claims about banks creating credit, and its view that sovereign risk is a “mysterious idea”. However, that might be boring.

The thought I want to leave you with is that despite its many shortcomings, this book raises disturbing issues that should not be lightly dismissed. The authors deserve to have their claims subjected to detailed scrutiny, but not by me! I could change my mind about that, of course, if one of my mates can come up with a sufficiently lucrative consultancy proposal to bring me out of retirement 😊

Friday, July 21, 2017

What caused the narcissism epidemic?


It seems obvious that there is a narcissism epidemic in many countries: people taking selfies everywhere we look; adolescents saying that their goal in life is to become famous; celebrities behaving like gods; people exploding in rage in response to imagined affronts; charlatans, shysters and jerks everywhere betraying trust. Psychologists have been written books about it: “The Narcissism Epidemic”, by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell, tracked scores of U.S. college students on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) across generations and found that there had been an increase in narcissism.

Claims based on the NPI have been disputed by Kari Trzensniewski, who conducted research using a slightly different data set and found no increase in NPI scores. In the face of ambiguous evidence, I wonder whether it might be narcissistic of me to continue to accept that there is a narcissism epidemic. Nevertheless, I will persist. A national survey conducted in the U.S. suggests that about 10 percent of people in their 20’s have experienced symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) at some time during their lives. So, even if narcissism hasn’t been increasing it might still be reasonable to view it as an epidemic.

NPD is a long-term pattern of abnormal behavior characterized by exaggerated feelings of self-importance, exaggeration of achievements and talents, an excessive need for admiration, and a lack of understanding of others' feelings. The Mayo Clinic has published a longer list of symptoms that are referred to in the DSMv. Narcissism exists on a spectrum, ranging from exhibiting a few traits to the full-blown personality disorder.

Anne Manne, an Australian journalist has provided an interesting discussion of the nature and causes of narcissism in her book, The Life of I, The new culture of narcissism, updated edition published 2015.

She notes that Twenge and Campbell have taken aim at myths regarding the relationship between narcissism and self-esteem. They point out that narcissism is not just high self-esteem, in the sense of a quiet and sturdy confidence in oneself. Narcissists feel superior; they are arrogant and unwilling to accept criticism.

Twenge and Campbell also suggest that it is a myth that narcissism is a mask for low self-esteem. They are opposed to the psychodynamic view that narcissists are flawed people who are ‘hurt deep down inside’. According to their view a narcissist is ‘just a jerk’.

However, Manne notes that Erin Myer and Virgil Zeigler Hill found that narcissistic people revealed lower self-esteem than non-narcissistic people when a bogus lie detector test was used in assessing self-esteem and narcissism. Narcissists don’t like to admit weakness or vulnerability.

Manne points to a corresponding division of views on the causes of narcissism. Twenge and Campbell argue that what makes a child into a narcissist is spoiling, indulgence, an absence of moral discipline in building character, and a culture of excessive praise, of telling children they are special. However, findings of research by Lorna Otway and Vivian Vignoles, using recollections of young adults to test a range of views of the role of parenting in development of narcissism, support a Freudian view. Apparently future narcissists receive constant praise from their caregivers that is accompanied by implicit messages of coldness and rejection rather than warmth and acceptance. This helps explain the combination of grandiosity and fragility exhibited by many narcissists.

Manne also discusses evidence that infants whose dependency needs are rebuffed by parents tend to become aggressive adults. Studies by Alan Sroufe suggest that preschoolers forced to self-reliance too early tended to bully others and engage in repeated acts of cruelty. Their early experiences at home made such behaviour seem natural.

The author also draws attention to research suggesting that affluent families are not immune to problems arising from parents being emotionally distant from their children. While insisting on high levels of achievement, such parents are often indulgent towards bad behaviour.

Manne sees the problems of parenting as linked to limited government support for parental leave. After a brief discussion of this topic she concludes:

This brave new world is a whole lot larger than its symptoms – the self-esteem movement or the college kids with unrealistic ambitions or the helicopter parents rushing in to rescue a child whose grades are poor. Another way of looking at narcissism is that it is a quality required for survival in the hyper-competitive paradise of the new capitalism”.

That is indeed another way to look at the issue. Manne attempts to support that view in the second part of her book, holding Ayn Rand responsible for the “new capitalism”. She refers to Rand as “a monstrously narcissistic character” and suggests that “she practiced what she preached” in her philosophy of selfishness.

The main problem I have with that claim is that some of Rand’s behaviour seems to me to have been more selfish – showing less regard for other people - than that of the heroes of her novels. The behaviour of the heroes of her novels was presumably intended to illustrate the selfishness that she saw as a virtue, but I have difficulty, as previously noted, in recognising these fictitious characters as being particularly selfish

At one point Manne states that Rand’s “heroes are all young, male, wealthy … “. That left me wondering whether Manne had ever taken the trouble to read Atlas Shrugged. If she had done so, or even if she had looked up the list of characters on the internet, she would have been aware that Dagny Taggart was female.

Manne’s claim that Rand promoted “an ideology of narcissism” can be much better answered by an Objectivist, than by a reader of Rand’s novels like myself.  John Galt said:

“Happiness is not to be achieved at the command of emotional whims. Happiness is not the satisfaction of whatever irrational wishes you might blindly attempt to indulge. Happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy – a joy without penalty or guilt, a joy that does not clash with any of your values and does not work for your own destruction, not the joy of escaping from your mind, but of using your mind’s fullest power, not the joy of faking reality, but of achieving values that are real, not the joy of a drunkard, but of a producer”. (Atlas Shrugged, p 1022)

Manne raves on about what she refers to as “the neoliberal revolution” as creating an ideological framework for narcissism to flourish at an individual level. Yet she doesn’t specify the nature of the incentives that could have caused that to occur. If “neoliberalism” means free markets, how do free markets provide an incentive for appointment of narcissistic business leaders? Under normal circumstances the last thing individual investors want is to have their wealth depend on the actions of a narcissistic chief executive.

Some investors might think it makes sense to take a punt on a narcissistic entrepreneur in highly regulated industries where there may be something to be gained by hoodwinking politicians and voters. Otherwise, why take the risk that the narcissist might run off with your money or spend it to enhance his own image?

It is disappointing that Manne has not considered whether narcissism might be a problem in occupations other than business. Markets expose private sector narcissists to financial disciplines for failure to deliver on their promises unless they can use their skills to persuade governments to bail them out. Casual observation suggests that some other occupations - such as politics and some parts of the media - provide a breeding ground for narcissism and a sanctuary for narcissists.

Anne Manne has not, in my view, made a persuasive case that Ayn Rand’s philosophy played a large role in the partial return to classical liberalism in the U.S., the U.K, and a few other countries including New Zealand and Australia, during the 1980s and 90s. And she certainly hasn’t made a persuasive case that free markets promote narcissism.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading The Life of I. I particularly enjoyed reading her explanation of the behaviour of Anders Breivik and Lance Armstrong. The book seems to provide a good introduction to psychological research on the nature of narcissism and parenting styles that lead to narcissism.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Will individualism destroy Western Civilization?


Paul Kelly’s article ‘Blessed be the egoistic individuals’, a gated article published in The Weekend Australian (July 8-9, 2017) asserts that the decline in professed Christianity in Australia from 88 per cent of the population in 1966 to 52 per cent in the most recent census is an epic change that “has profound consequences for society”. I agree with him, although I suspect that the change might be exaggerated by greater honesty in the responses in recent censuses. I also agree with Kelly’s claim that there is a link between decline of Christianity and the emergence of a situation where “politics is being asked to assume a role and burden utterly beyond its capacity and guaranteed to leave community-wide unhappiness”

In my view, the linkage between the decline of Christianity and inflated expectations of politics arises from the growth of the welfare state. As people have come to rely more heavily on government, faith in government has tended to replace faith in God. Increased dependence on government for education, support for the elderly, health care etc. has been associated with a decline in family responsibilities, a decline in support provided by civil society, and a decline in individual responsibility.

However, Kelly takes a different view. He identifies individualism as the culprit. In taking that view he overlooks the contribution of Christianity to recognition of the worth of the individual human.

To explain I will first sketch out Kelly’s line of argument:

  1. There is an “obsession about individual autonomy in every aspect of life: love, work, race, sex, culture and death”. This “is narcissism presented as self-realisation and human rights”
  2. Narcissism has become an epidemic and is the central problem of our times. The new terror is to be invisible. Many people now have “a distorted idea of the human person and human aspiration”.
  3. The narcissistic attitudes now prevalent contrast starkly with the modesty, humility and forbearance of the generation who lived through the Depression and World War II. It is impossible to separate those virtues from the Christian norms that were so pervasive at the time
  4. The rise of “progressive values in the name of freedom and justice” during the 1960s marched in parallel with the decline in religious faith. They were “different sides of the same coin”
  5. Eventually, the revolution took judicial and legal form. In 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court, led by Justice Anthony Kennedy asserted: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and the mystery of life”. Kelly claims that at this point: “The idea of freedom was separated from a higher order moral duty and tied to personal self-realisation and self-esteem. Narcissism was legitimised.
  6. As the moral status of the church declines, the moral status of progressive ideology grows. Pivotal to this transition is the progressive attack on the Aristotelian framework that made the West a success. This concept envisages three “necessary” elements for human happiness: domestic society (marriage and family), faith and church and, finally political society. Progressive doctrine denies any preferred model for family structure “since that would be prejudicial and discriminatory” and seeks to drive religion from the public square.
  7. “As the society of family and marriage becomes mired in confusion, as the society of church and religion is the target of assault, so the society of politics is being asked to assume a role and burden utterly beyond its capacity …”

Interestingly, what Kelly refers to as “obsession about individual autonomy in every aspect of life” corresponds fairly closely to “emancipative values”, as measured on the vertical axis of the chart shown below. Emancipative values reflect concern about such matters as personal autonomy, respect for the choices people make in their personal lives, having a say in community decisions, and equality of opportunity. As well as supporting gender equality, people who have emancipative values tend to consider independence and imagination as more desirable child qualities than obedience, and to be tolerant of divorce, abortion and homosexuality.


"The New Cultural Map of the World”, from Christian Welzel, Freedom Rising: Human Empowerment and the Quest for Emancipation, Figure 2.3, 2013.



The countries in which emancipative values are most common are also characterised by strong secular values, but a high score on secular values is obviously not a particularly good predictor of strong emancipative values.  As the chart shows, the dominance of secular values is most noticeable in former communist countries, but is also more evident in the welfare states of western Europe than in the United States and Australia. 

In equating self-realisation with narcissism, Kelly is casting his net very broadly indeed. His net not only catches the self-esteem advocates - who deserve criticism, in my view, for leading people into narcissism – but also all those who have followed in the footsteps of Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers.

In fact, every program for self-improvement that draws inspiration from Aristotle is caught in Kelly’s net. All such programs are based on the potential for self-realisation – the idea that humans have a natural orientation toward pursuit of their own ultimate good and that it is desirable for individuals to realise the potential of their character or personality. While I can claim little knowledge of the writings of Thomas Aquinas, I understand that he expressed similar sentiments.  I also have the impression – based on distant childhood memories - that acceptance of personal responsibility for character development was one of the messages of the Parable of the Talents.

In staging such a broad attack on individualism, Kelly overlooks the contribution of Christianity to recognition of the intrinsic worth of the individual human. He might find Larry Siedentop’s book, Inventing the Individual, discussed here, to provide a useful reminder of the historical role played by Christianity in liberating individuals from constraining perceptions of their personal identities as defined by social roles, and in encouraging recognition that individuals have consciences that deserve to be respected.

I agree with Kelly’s comments about the epidemic of narcissism and most of the other points he makes. However, I am concerned about his claim that the U.S. Supreme Court legitimised narcissism by separating the idea of freedom from moral duty, and tying it to personal self-realisation and self-esteem.

Who knows what the U.S. Supreme Court was claiming? It is certainly not clear to me that it was claiming that the concepts of “the mystery of life” that individuals “have the right to define” for themselves have the status of “moral truths”. Kelly’s comments left me wondering what role he sees for legislators and courts in enforcing compliance with “moral truths”. Does he really think that freedom should only be about being free to do the things that one has a moral duty to do?

I have read and commented on Paul Kelly’s views on individualism only because many of his other contributions to Australian journalism have been excellent. A few years ago I expressed the view that, over several decades, he had developed a formidable reputation as Australia’s leading ‘big picture’ journalist. More recently I described him as Australia’s most widely respected journalist.  I stand by those views. I don’t think anyone else has been more successful in identifying the defining elements of the changing political landscape in Australia.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Where does the money come from to pay for education in PNG?


I didn’t have any intention of thinking about economics a few weeks ago when I was on a cruise ship, the Sun Princess, visiting Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. It just happened.

 If you spend a lot of your life thinking about anything you find interesting you don’t necessarily stop doing that just because you are enjoying a holiday. That is what I tell myself anyhow.

One of the reasons people go on cruises, like the one I recently enjoyed, is to see something of the culture of the people in the countries they visit. That isn’t important to everyone. Some people are more interested in scenery, bush walking, swimming, diving etc. Others just want to enjoy the amenities offered by a floating hotel.

 A substantial proportion of people on our cruise were interested in local culture and history. That judgement is based largely on attendance at the lectures offered on those topics. There were not many spare seats available in the theatre seating a few hundred people – my guess is about a quarter of passengers attended the lectures. In addition, videos of the lectures were also available for viewing in passenger cabins.

Of course, when cruise ship passengers visit any small community they don’t get to observe people going about their normal daily activities. The arrival of the cruise ship disrupts normal activities. People who usually spend their time gardening, fishing or making handicrafts become merchants, guides and entertainers. Inevitably, the role of tourists as consumers and potential benefactors influences the culture they observe.

I don’t wish to imply that the cultural experiences we were offered were not authentic. The cultural festival staged for our benefit in Alotau provided a sample of traditional singing and dancing. The houses we saw on Kiriwina Island were places where people lived; the gardens provided food that people relied on for subsistence; the canoes we saw were normally used for fishing. I didn’t get the feeling of visiting a theme park that I had at times a few years ago on an Alaskan cruise (that was nevertheless enjoyable).

Some houses on Kiriwina Island

Of the places we visited, on Kiriwina lives of the people have been least affected by western influences. Even there, however, a group of village children, who were dressed traditionally, were raising money from the tourists by singing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”. When I suggested to my guide, a year 10 student at the local school, that this song was part of a universal culture, he expounded eloquently on the importance of preserving local culture. I agree with him and hope tourism will help to preserve local culture. For my guide and most locals, however, the highest priority in obtaining money from tourists was to help fund education.

Wherever we went, people were raising money to fund local schools and pay school fees. From what I have heard when I was working in PNG a few years ago, the funds raised from tourists do not all end up being used for the purpose for which funds were donated. However, there is no doubt that education is widely seen by parents as a way for their children to obtain a better future. The children in some of the groups performing for tourists on Doini Island seemed to be doing a good job of raising money by entertaining tourists whilst also helping to preserve local culture.

Children on Doini Island raising funds to build a new classroom

The main reason why the government does not do more to fund education and health services is because PNG is a low-income country, lacking the tax revenue base that would be required to fully fund schools and basic health services. Politicians have promised to increase funding but have not delivered on those promises. If taxes were raised that would have an adverse impact on incentives - including incentives for village people to become involved in the market economy - and be unlikely to raise much additional revenue. Misuse of public funds is a serious problem, but it is unrealistic to expect that a huge pool of public funds would appear to fund education and health services if corruption could be eliminated.

During our visit to Rabaul I witnessed a discussion of education funding that left me feeling frustrated. The participants were an Australian tourist and a local tour guide. The discussion occurred on a small bus taking a group of tourists to see the area that had been devastated by the eruption of Mount Tavurvur in 1994.

Visiting a volcano at Rabaul

When our guide told us that she felt fortunate to be able to take on casual work as a tourist guide to help pay for the education of her children, the Australian tourist expressed the view that the PNG government should be paying for education. She went on to tell everyone how incredibly lucky we were in Australia to have a government that paid for education, health services and pensions.

Other passengers remained silent, but a man sitting in the front seat next to the driver looked over his shoulder to see who the woman was who was doing all the talking. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask the vocal tourist how she thought our government funded education, health services and pensions.

As the cargo cult dies out in PNG, the magic pudding cult has continued to grow in Australia, apparently now even seeking converts in PNG. 

Virgin Coconut Oil Rabaul

The same tourist bus provided us with an opportunity to see a small manufacturing plant making Virgin Coconut Oil. I don’t know whether the product has the health benefits that are claimed for it, but the process by which the oil is extracted from fresh coconut meat looks as though it should produce a better product than the oil manufactured from copra exports.

 Preparing coconuts for oil extraction

Manufacturing plants like this one may have potential to generate more income for local communities than is possible by exporting copra.

Copra awaiting export at Rabaul

If I let my imagination run wild it even seems possible that the manufacture of virgin coconut oil in Rabaul could be an example of the kind of development that could play an important role in enabling more widespread economic opportunities to emerge in PNG in the years ahead. If that can happen it might even be possible for village people to purchase better and more secure access to education, health services and the other things they want. 

Coming back to earth, the manager of Virgin Coconut Oil Rabaul mentioned that the business had obtained assistance from a government agency serving grower interests, the Kokonas Indastri Koporesen (KIK). A question that raises is why such assistance is necessary if the venture has potential to be profitable and provide more attractive remuneration for labour than is otherwise available. I don’t know what services the KIK provided in this instance, but I am sure that in a more normal market economy those services could have been provided by commercial enterprises with relevant technical knowhow, marketing links and other relevant resources. So, what prevents potential commercial partners, including foreign firms, from linking up with local firms to undertake ventures of this kind?

The underlying problem, as I see it, is that the profit motive doesn’t work very well in an economic environment where investors have reason to fear that profits are not safe from potential predators, including some within government. The assistance provided by KIK to processing enterprises is valuable in demonstrating the potential for value adding activities, but does not address the underlying problem.
It is difficult to see how the underlying problem can be solved in the near future. It will take a lot more than just announcement of economic policy reforms. Meanwhile, perhaps greater economic opportunities could be generated if the KIK and other commodity boards were given a more explicit role to facilitate additional investment in agriculture and related processing activities.

Friday, June 16, 2017

So, what is the problem with tolerance?


Anyone who claims to be in favour of individual liberty must view tolerance as a virtue. If you favour a political/legal order in which adult humans are responsible for managing their own lives, you must accept that this requires you to tolerate conduct that you don’t approve of, provided those responsible for that conduct do not interfere with the rights of others. Tolerance is a core value of western civilization. John Locke provided a powerful defence of tolerance in A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) which was written in defence of religious freedom in the aftermath of the English Civil War.

Tolerance is strongly related to the Golden Rule, to treat others as you would wish to be treated. Since all the major world religions subscribe to a version of the Golden Rule, it is not difficult for people from many different cultural heritages to understand the virtue of tolerance. Nevertheless, intolerance is still rife in many societies. For example, it is only too obvious that the injunction in the Islamic version that people should desire for their brothers what they desire for themselves, is not always interpreted to require tolerance of unbelievers.

The problem with tolerance, as Linda Raeder has explained in The Transformation of American Society, is that its meaning has tended to stray from the traditional definition: 
"The traditional definition of tolerance, according to Merriam-Webster, is the “capacity to endure pain or hardship; sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own.” In other words, throughout most of Western history, tolerance has implied “putting up” with something that causes one pain, enduring something that one personally dislikes or of which one personally disapproves. A person does not “tolerate” beliefs or behavior that he enjoys or finds praiseworthy but rather those he finds somehow offensive or repugnant. In the social and political sphere, tolerance thus means permitting other people to think and behave in ways that one personally finds objectionable, distasteful, or even morally wrong."

The definition in the Concise Oxford dictionary (1982 edition) is similar, and includes explicit mention of “forbearance”.

The change in meaning that Linda observes in that in the context of contemporary multiculturalism toleration has come to mean accepting without judgment. She suggests that members of contemporary U.S. society have been taught that meaning by both popular culture and formal education at every level, from kindergarten to post-doctoral training. She goes on to observe:

"One consequence is a disturbingly passive generation that seems incapable of making, certainly reluctant to make, moral judgments of any kind. Young people have been taught that to make such judgments is “intolerant” of other “perspectives.” Self-censorship has become habitual among students shaped by Multicultural education, the mind unfamiliar with conceptual and moral discrimination. To exercise the capacity for critical evaluation - to “judge” - is regarded as wrong, intolerant."

I suspect that debasement of the meaning of tolerance has gone just as far in Australia as in the United States. In his CIS report, No Ordinary Garment? The Burqa and the Pursuit of Tolerance, Peter Kurti suggests that the contemporary exercise of tolerance often “avoids engaging in judgements about relative values” and “amounts to little more than a position of indifference to views and opinions”. He refers to the muting of criticism to the point where all behaviour is considered beyond judgment as ‘reverse zero- tolerance’.  He notes that reverse zero-tolerance admits no discretion as to the moral value of the position in question, including the acceptability of religious or cultural practices such as wearing a burqa.

How should we react to the debasement of the meaning of tolerance? Should we allow the advocates of cultural permissiveness to hijack the term in the way that advocates of collectivism hijacked ‘progressive’?  I am a person who advocates the progress of societies to provide greater opportunities for individual human flourishing, but I would rather not be labelled as a progressive. I wonder whether a time will come when I object to being described as tolerant.

In my view, it is important to preserve the traditional meaning of tolerance in order to be able to distinguish between behaviour that we judge to be unwise, immoral or likely be inimical to the flourishing of the individuals who indulge in it, and behaviour that we cannot tolerate and seek to prevent. There are more appropriate labels to describe the cultural relativists and ethical agnostics who argue that we should refrain from making judgements about the cultural practices and behaviour of other people.

As noted earlier, for anyone who claims to be in favour of individual liberty the dividing line between tolerance and intolerance is set at the point where behaviour infringes the rights of others.

It seems reasonably clear that a woman who wears a burqa is not infringing the rights of others. Unfortunately, I have to admit to being among those who feel uncomfortable when I see women wearing the burqa on the streets of Australia. It is possible that some of the women who wear the burqa do so as an act of religious piety, but I suspect that most are making a political statement to the effect that they are opposed to the cultural norms of this country. It might be their intention to make people like me feel discomforted by their apparel. But no-one has a right to be protected from feeling discomforted by the behaviour of others. Feeling discomforted is a lot different to feeling threatened. We can tolerate the burqa, in the same way we tolerate people with green hair and those who use profanities with the intention of offending us.

Some religious and cultural practices cannot be tolerated because they infringe the rights of other people. The list obviously includes acts of violence, including terrorism, honour killing and violence against children e.g. genital mutilation. It also includes threats of violence.

Of course, Australian legislators have not confined their activities to protection of individual rights. There is a vast amount of government intervention that seeks to influence the way people live their lives. Some of this can be justified on the grounds that it provides people with better opportunities than would otherwise be available to them e.g. public funding of education to help children to acquire useful skills. We should not tolerate children being prevented from accessing such opportunities as a consequence of the cultural traditions of their parents.

The Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, recently announced plans to strengthen the citizenship test to ensure that people granted citizenship share Australian values. Interestingly, a discussion paper that has been released by immigration department to promote public discussion of the issues doesn’t actually mention tolerance. I don’t see that as a problem. It is fairly clear that the main aim of the exercise is to avoid giving citizenship to people who can’t tolerate us -  those who seek to undermine our society.

There is not much that is peculiarly Australian about the “Australian values” listed in the discussion paper. The paper notes:

Ours is a society founded on a liberal-democratic tradition in which the fundamental rights of every individual are inviolable”.

I can’t quote that without observing that it is aspirational rather than a description of current legislative practice in Australia. The important point is that those aspirations reflect the values of western civilization. Some might feel bemused that when attempts are made to identify Australian values what we end up with is a statement of the values of western civilization. But that is highly appropriate.  That is our cultural heritage!

Even when we attempt to use common Australian colloquialisms to describe our values we end up talking about the values of western civilization. Some people equate the “fair go” ethos with egalitarianism. I suspect many Australians would be suspicious of such terminology, but if you ask them whether giving people a fair go means recognizing that all people have equal rights, they would be likely to agree. That is what egalitarianism actually means, according to my old Concise Oxford as well as the Macquarie dictionary. Most Australians like to think that they take fairly seriously the idea that people deserve to be treated as equals in terms of their fundamental worth. Giving individuals a “fair go” entails, among other things, being tolerant of their conduct provided they don’t interfere with the rights of others.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

How do we know what we value?


“Although feelings are the one output of the adaptive unconscious that is likely to reach consciousness, sometimes even feelings are unconscious. And other contents of the adaptive unconscious, such as personality traits and goals, are likely to remain beneath the surface, unavailable to conscious scrutiny (the beam of the flashlight).”

The quoted passage is from Timothy Wilson’s book, Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the adaptive unconscious. The author views the adaptive unconscious as a “necessary and extensive part of a highly efficient mind”. Its functions include “warning people of danger, setting goals, and initiating action in a sophisticated and efficient manner”.

The context of the quote is a discussion of introspection as a means by which people can “try to decipher their feelings, motives, traits, or values, not to mention what they want for dinner”. The “beam of the flashlight” refers to a metaphor in which the mind is thought of as a cave, with consciousness constituting those objects that are not currently in the beam of the flashlight. The quote seems to imply that our values and preferences are not necessarily easily accessible by just focussing our awareness inwards.

Tim Wilson argues that because people “cannot directly observe their nonconscious dispositions, they must try to infer them indirectly, by, for example, being good observers of their own behaviour”. He suggests that when we discover important truths about ourselves through introspection we do so by constructing stories about our lives, much as a biographer would. Trying to access unconscious goals and motives results in “a constructive process whereby the conscious self infers the nature of these states”.

I felt somewhat bemused when reading that - presumably because of my training as an economist. The idea of being able to discern our values and preferences from our behaviour seems to have more in common with the neoclassical economists’ notion of ‘revealed preference’ than with the view of many psychologists (and behavioural economists) that people are prone to make irrational choices because of cognitive biases that reflect non-conscious influences.

Of course, Tim Wilson does not suggest that the adaptive unconscious always makes the right choices for us. He notes that it is important to distinguish between “informed and uniformed gut feelings” by gathering as much information as possible to allow your “adaptive unconscious to make a stable, informed evaluation rather than an ill-informed one”.  His main point seems to be that in order to make good decisions, e.g. in choosing a spouse or buying a home, you need to avoid over-analysis by the conscious mind.

Does it make sense to try to try to infer your values from your past behaviour? If the aim of the exercise is self-improvement that approach might appear to be futile. If you see need for improvement in your behaviour, it isn’t immediately obvious how the values that can be inferred from your past behaviour could provide helpful guidance.

So, how can people bring their values to awareness in order to engage in self-improvement exercises? Tim Wilson has some suggestions, but before considering them it might be useful to consider approaches adopted by some psychologists engaged in therapy and personal training.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) places a heavy emphasis on living according to values, so the approach adopted by ACT therapists might be of particular interest. One approach used in ACT is the life compass, which ask people questions to elicit values in various domains of their lives – relationships, health, work, leisure etc. People are asked what is important or meaningful to them, what sorts of strengths or qualities they want to develop and what they want to stand for. That approach obviously works if you can find what you value by just shining the flashlight into your cave. But to do that you must have a fair amount of self-knowledge already, and you would probably have constructed a story about where your values have come from.

ACT offers a range of techniques to elicit values if they don’t readily come to consciousness. One technique noted by Russ Harris in ACT Made Simple is to imagine what you would love to hear people say about you, and what you stand for, in short speeches at your 80th birthday party. (Dr Harris presumably doesn’t have many readers who are over 80.) In The Reality Slap, he suggests that it is also possible to elicit values by remembering a “sweet spot”, a memory that encapsulates some of life’s sweetness for you. After appreciating that memory, he asks people to notice the personal qualities they were exhibiting and what this reveals about the personal qualities they would like to embody.

The Authentic Happiness web site (stemming from Martin Seligman’s book of that name) has, among other things, an extensive questionnaire that enables people to discover their ‘signature strengths’. People taking the questionnaire are asked to what extent 240 statements describe themselves. The statements seem to be largely about dispositions rather than past behaviours, so seem to assume prior knowledge of dispositions.

The Enneagram Institute offers people an opportunity to discover more about their personality type through a questionnaire (the RHETI) which asks participants to choose between 144 paired statements relating to their past behaviour. One of the potential benefits of this approach is that it seems to offer a way for people to identify values that can guide them toward attainment of higher levels of personal development, without having to attempt to make fundamental personality changes.  For example, a person who has a persistent desire for self-control could see himself, or herself, as having many of the characteristics of a Reformer, and thereby see potential for growth by becoming more reasonable, and progressively acquiring greater wisdom. Some more examples might help to make the point: a person who seeks to avoid conflict through accommodation might have many characteristics of the Peacemaker, and see potential for growth by acknowledging her or his peacefulness and seeking to become indomitable; a person who is highly defensive much of the time might have many characteristics of a Loyalist, and see potential for growth by becoming more trusting, cooperative, reliable and courageous; and a person who is restless and constantly seeking stimulation might have many of the characteristics of an Enthusiast, and see potential for growth by becoming more productive and more grateful. Similar personal growth paths exist for the five other personality types.

A couple of the approaches described above bring values into conscious awareness through an explicit consideration of past behaviour. The sweet spot approach builds on selection of a particular memory, whereas the RHETI may help people to identify their potential by providing them with a systematic way to understand their past behaviour and personality. Unfortunately, although the RHETI is being widely used in personal training exercises, its predictions do not yet appear to have been subjected to a great deal of rigorous scientific testing.

One approach that Tim Wilson advocates is Pennebaker’s exercise which involves writing about the deepest thoughts and feelings associated with an important emotional issue. Although writing about emotional experiences is distressing in the short run, it apparently has positive long-run effects. The exercise seems to help people make sense of a negative event by constructing a meaningful narrative that explains it. A possible downside of this approach is that some people may dwell on negative life experiences by constantly revising their narratives. I expect that some people might also have a tendency to fuse with stories that make their lives miserable.

Tim Wilson acknowledges that some narratives are better than others. He writes:

"As with any biography, there are multiple ways of telling the story. A good biography, though, has to account for the facts of the person’s life and capture his or her inner goals and traits. The better a story does at accounting for the “data” of the person’s adaptive unconscious, the better off the person is. By recognizing their nonconscious goals, people are in a better position to act in ways to fulfill them, or to try to change them."

How can we change our non-conscious states in order to match our more positive self-stories? Tim Wilson suggests we follow Aristotle’s advice to acquire virtues by first putting them into action. We can change our feelings and traits by changing our behaviour. In order to “change some aspect of our adaptive unconscious, a good place to start is deliberately to begin acting like the person we want to be”.

Monday, May 1, 2017

The Revolution Inside

This guest post by Leah Goldrick was first published on her excellent blog: Common Sense Ethics

Peace and justice are two goals which the politically inclined often seek, but they are simultaneously inner qualities which a philosophical person must posses, not just external conditions which we would like to see in the world. If we want to see the world change we must first concern ourselves with healing our own lives.

In Xenophon's
Memoirs of Socrates, Hippias tells Socrates that instead of always asking questions about justice, he would do better simply to say, once and for all, what justice is. Socrates replies: "If I don't reveal my views on justice in words, I do so by my conduct." A modern parallel to Socrates' statement can be found in Martin Luther King's quote, "Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.”

What Socrates wanted to show is that we can never understand justice if we do not
live it. King similarly noted that we won't achieve peace through our actions if outwardly we are irrationally angry and inwardly we are a mess of anxiety and neurosis. We can't expect the world to give us better than we give the world.

In antiquity, philosophy was a way of life akin to therapy or care of the soul. Socrates,
the Cynics, Aristotle, the Epicureans and the Stoics all stressed that we can achieve autarkia, or inner freedom independent of external events.[1] Autarkia is a self-sufficiency and peace of mind where we feel that we lack nothing, relying on our inner resources. To be liberated, we must turn our attention to the revolution within and to what we can control; our thoughts, emotions, and actions. In order to obtain autarkia or inner freedom, we must train ourselves for it. 
Ancient Philosophy As a Way of Life
Pierre Hadot was a historian of philosophy who is also just as rigorous a philosopher. He was aware of limits of specialization in academia and sought cross-specialization within Classics. In his excellent book Philosophy as a Way of Life, Hadot maintains that philosophy did not change in essence during the entire course of antiquity. However, it evolved away from a therapeutic, lived experience to a theoretical discourse during the Medieval and Modern eras.

Hadot is explicit that in antiquity philosophy was understood as a way of life. Ancient philosophy is therapy for the soul - the goal is very different from that of much modern philosophy, which is primarily an academic exercise in exegesis, although
not exclusively so according to Dr. Greg Sadler.

For the Epicurean, Hadot notes that one form of philosophical therapy consists of bringing one's soul back to joy from the worry of living. Unhappiness comes as a result or worrying about things which are not to be feared or are beyond our control. By contrast, inner freedom or
autarkia is deliverance from worry about things we cannot control. Worry about external conditions often takes precedence in our lives, often to the point that we neglect what is going on inside. [2]
Politics as Externals Beyond Our Control
One external that philosophical people often fixate on - and for good reason considering the many problems in the world - is politics. However fixation on politics can be a dangerous thing if we neglect to care for our own souls and to remind ourselves that for the most part, political issues fit squarely within the realm of things which we do not control.

This dilemma isn't new. In Plato's
Symposium, Alcibiades remarks that Socrates has made him admit, "While I am spending my time on politics, I am neglecting all the things that are crying for attention in myself."[3] He goes on, "Socrates makes me admit to myself that even though I myself am deficient in so many regards, I continue to take no care for myself but occupy myself with the business of the Athenians."[4]

Socrates expected Alchibiades - and each person - to be excellent and rational and to care for their internal disposition. In this same vein, Hadot quotes George Friedmann’s 
La Puissance de la Sagesse (The Power of Wisdom) on the necessity of such a philosophical disposition for a politically oriented person:
Try to get rid of your passions, vanities, and the itch for talk about your own name, which sometimes burns you like a chronic disease. Avoid backbiting. Get rid of pity and hatred. Love all free human beings. Become eternal by transcending yourself.
This work on yourself is necessary; this ambition justified. Lots of people let themselves be wholly absorbed by militant politics and the preparation for social revolution. Rare, much more rare, are they who, in order to prepare for the revolution, are willing to make themselves worthy of it.[5]

What is being articulated here is a revolution inside, which is more important than political revolution. It is very difficult to live everyday life in a philosophical manner. We often fixate on the external conditions of life while neglecting what is going on inside of us. Philosophical exercises can us help in this regard.
Philosophical Exercises for Care of the Soul
Wisdom can be acquired through work on ourselves via ongoing philosophical or spiritual exercise. One philosophical exercise which we can practice everyday is essentially present moment awareness or attention to what we are doing, giving each thing its due. It's what Marcus Aurelius was talking about when he said:
Everywhere and at all times, it is up to you to rejoice piously at what is occurring at the present moment, to conduct yourself with justice towards the people who are present here and now, and to apply rules of discernment to your present representations, so that nothing slips in that is not objective. [6]

In
Philosophy as a Way of Life, Hadot comments on therapeutic value of writing. Hadot notes that writing or keeping a journal helps you explain yourself to yourself. Writing takes the place of another person's eyes. The writer instinctively feels as though he is being watched. This process helps makes what was confused or subjective more objective and universal for the writer. One observes one self to see what progress they have made using writing as an exercise.

The final philosophical exercise to care for our souls is inner transformation. This is what Socrates and Martin Luther King implored us to do; change our way of seeing and living so that we are self-sufficient inwardly and so outwardly we become our political ideal. To understand our object, we must become our object. To understand justice, we must be just in our dealings with others. To get peace, we must have peace in our own lives:
The trick is to maintain oneself on the level of reason, not to allow oneself to be blinded by passions, anger, resentment or prejudices. To be sure, there is an equilibrium - almost impossible to achieve - between the inner peace brought about by wisdom, and the passions to which the sight of injustices, sufferings, and misery of mankind cannot help but give rise. Wisdom, however, consists in precisely such an equilibrium, and inner peace is indispensable for efficacious action. [7]


 Sources: 
  1. Hadot, P. 1995. Philosophy as a Way of Life. Malden, MA: Blackwell. 266.
  2. Ibid. 87.
  3. Ibid. 90.
  4. Ibid. 156.
  5. Ibid. 81.
  6. Aurelius, M. 1997. Meditations. 2:5.
  7. Hadot, P. 1995. Philosophy as a Way of Life. Malden, MA: Blackwell. 274.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

What will government look like after the fourth revolution?

“Democracy in Australia is sinking into a self-destructive spiral. The sickness at its heart is the demise of individual responsibility and expecting more from the state when the national interest says state responsibilities should be cut, not increased. Our democratic system now works to undermine economic progress.”

That is how Paul Kelly, Australia’s most widely respected journalist, concluded an article in The Australian a few weeks ago. The article entitled “Crisis time: We can take a stand – or solve a problem” (probably gated) was published on March 29.

As far as I can see there hasn’t been much public reaction to this article. Only a small proportion of the population read articles of this kind, and most readers would still feel complacent about the Australian economy and the future of democracy in this country. It will become easier to convince people that they should be alarmed about the self-destructive spiral when the crash is imminent. The malfunction began over a decade ago and it might be another decade, or more, before crunch time.

Some other informed commentators take a more optimistic view than Paul Kelly. For example, Gary Banks, former chairman of the Productivity Commission, acknowledges that policy development is now a problem. He has suggested the a “loss of policy capability within government – Commonwealth and State - is palpable and multidimensional”. He is hopeful, nevertheless, that the problem can be ameliorated by improvements to policy-making processes:
Yet, if this diagnosis is correct, there is hope. Unlike the adverse changes evident in our parliaments and media, changes which are arguably reflective of changes in society itself, the decline in capability is not irreversible. Unless it is turned around, however, we cannot tell whether reform has truly become ‘too hard’, as many now seem to assume”.

A few years ago I was similarly optimistic. I still support efforts to improve policy capability within government. I agree with Gary that improvements to the policy-making system are an essential pre-condition for improvements in policy. However, I doubt whether much economic reform will be achievable until we see substantial changes in the rules of the political game that will provide political representatives with appropriate incentives to pursue the broader interests of the community, rather than the narrow interests that too many of them currently seek to protect. And, unfortunately, that seems unlikely to occur until a major economic crisis is upon us.

In his article, Paul Kelly drew inspiration from The Fourth Revolution: The global race to reinvent the state, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. 









The authors of this book make a case that western societies have seen three and a half revolutions in government over the last four centuries:
  • The rise of the nation state in 17th century Europe. Europe’s network of competing Leviathans threw up a system of ever-improving government.
  • The rise of the liberal state in the 18th and 19th centuries following the American and French revolutions.
  • The advent of the welfare state in the 20th century.
  • And the half revolution in the 1980s, associated with economic reforms promoting a partial return to classical liberalism in a few countries.


This history of the revolutions in government seems broadly accurate. Micklethwait and Wooldridge associate each of these revolutions with a notable contributor to ideas about government. In sequence, the four revolutionary thinkers they chose were: Thomas Hobbes, J S Mill, Beatrice Webb and Milton Friedman. It is possible to quibble about that choice, but I will refrain. I want to focus here on what the authors have to say about the fourth revolution.

The authors argue that the fourth revolution is occurring as a result of a confluence of three forces: failure, competition and opportunity.
  • The West has to change because it is going broke:“Debt and demography mean that government in the rich world has to change. … For the foreseeable future the Western state will be in the business of taking things away – far more things than most people realize”
  • Competition from the “Asian alternative” is prompting change:“Chinese-oriented Asia offers a new model of government that challenges two of the West’s most cherished values: universal suffrage and top-down generosity. This ‘Asian Alternative’ is an odd mixture of authoritarianism and small government, best symbolized by Singapore’s long-term ruler, Lee Kuan Yew”.
  • There are opportunities to “do government” better: “New technologies offer a chance to improve government dramatically, but so does asking old questions such as the most basic question of all: “What is the state for?”


So, what will government look like after the fourth revolution? The authors would like to see greater individual liberty emerging as a consequence of reforms that reduce government spending and relieve governments of some of their responsibilities. I would too, but we need to be careful not to confuse what we hope will happen with what we see as most likely to happen.

Micklethwait and Wooldridge published their book a couple of years ago, but it was apparent even then that many voters were becoming cynical about politicians representing the mainstream political parties. The European Union had become a breeding ground for populists who were speaking out against “incompetent and arrogant elites”. Even then, that cynicism was also apparent elsewhere. The authors suggested:
Such cynicism might be healthy if people wanted little from the government. But they continue to want a great deal. The result can be a toxic and unstable mixture: dependency on government on the one hand and disdain for government on the other”.

Perhaps the victories that the populists appear to be winning at the moment will cause the elites to become less complacent, and less incompetent and arrogant. The political cycle may be turning, as Tyler Cowan suggested in The Complacent Class (recently discussed here). Over the longer term, the elites may come to embrace dynamism, rather than protection of their professional turf, so we might see the battle lines being drawn more clearly between dynamism and stasis. That might correspond broadly to Tyler Cowan’s depiction of the political battle as between talent (human capital) and authoritarianism, stemming from underlying fears of disruption. Since this is also a battle between talented young people and fearful old people, in my view the odds favour talent in the longer term.

It would be easier to predict what government will look like after the fourth revolution if some western democracies provided models of a successful revolution in government. Micklethwait and Wooldridge suggest that reforms in Sweden, necessitated by economic crisis, have produced “a highly successful update of the old middle way”. New Zealand provides a model of what effective government can achieve following a natural disaster. The response to crisis in Sweden and New Zealand provides better protection for citizen’s rights than would adoption of something like Lee Kuan Yew’s model of technocratic government. However, democratic government in Sweden and New Zealand might well revert, within a few years, to taking upon itself more responsibilities, until another economic crisis ensues.


It seems to me that the fourth revolution is likely to involve changes in the rules of democratic politics. This might require constitutional change in some countries, but revolutionary change might be possible in Australia and other countries similarly afflicted by voter cynicism and political fragmentation, if the major parties were to adopt a convention for accountable government. What I have in mind is that the major parties should agree that whichever party wins government has a mandate from the people to implement the tax and expenditure policies it has taken to the election. What could be more democratic than that?