Wednesday, April 18, 2018

What is to be gained by listening to opposing viewpoints?




It is comforting to listen to people espouse views like our own. Perhaps it makes us feel that our views are being validated.

Listening to an opposing viewpoint can feel challenging. There are several reasons for that. There may be times when we are not in the mood for the intellectual stimulation involved in considering the merits and demerits of an opposing viewpoint.

A more deep-seated reason for feeling challenged arises when we identify strongly with views that are being attacked. We may even feel offended. That has traditionally been seen to be likely when views on politics, religion and sex are being criticized. Ethnicity and culture should be added to that list. People also tend to be highly offended if anyone casts aspersions on the sporting teams they support.

However, taking offence is optional. Many Collingwood supporters, and many people of Irish and Scottish descent even seem to be able to see the humour in some of the jokes made at their expense.

From my childhood memories, in the farming community in which our family lived in the 1950s, there seemed to be greater willingness to listen to opposing political viewpoints than exists anywhere today. There seemed to be widespread acceptance that you need to listen to opposing political viewpoints if you want to argue against them effectively. People steered clear of discussion of religious differences and if anyone had views about sex and marriage that were at variance with conventional morality they didn’t discuss them openly.

The civility of the participants is obviously an important determinant of the amount of heat generated when contentious political issues are discussed. From my own experience, and limited discussions with others, I have the impression that in the 1950s people were generally more intent than they are now on maintaining civility when participating in political discussions. It seemed common for discussions to end in a meeting of minds on some points and respectful disagreement on others. Occasionally, when one of the main participants was intent on giving offence, discussions would end in an exchange of insults, or worse.

Have people become more open to listening to opposing views on other contentious issues since the 1950s?  A few years ago, I would have argued that the shibboleths had diminished as the major religions had become more tolerant of each other and a revolution in attitudes had caused many people to moderate their views of sexual morality.

It now seems that the old shibboleths have been replaced as new issues have become politicised. When issues become politicised it now seems to be much more common for people to parrot the views of the leaders of their political tribe and to refuse to consider opposing viewpoints. The art of listening seems to be disappearing from the public realm.

Steven Pinker has an interesting discussion of the politicization of issues in his recent book, Enlightenment Now: The case for reason, science, humanism and progress. He refers to research by the Dan Kahan, a legal scholar, who argues that bitter public disputes over science are now “the exception rather than the rule”. The exception arises when certain beliefs become symbols of cultural allegiance. To help make this point Kahan refers to recent U.S. history regarding vaccines for Hepatitis B and the HPV virus (a major cause of cervical cancer). Both vaccines prevent sexually transmitted diseases. Hep B vaccination has apparently been accepted without much opposition, but HPV vaccination has become a political firestorm because of fears that it would encourage teenage promiscuity. Kahan suggests that the difference stems from the way the two vaccines were introduced.  Hep B vaccination was treated as a routine public health matter, but the manufacturers of the HPV vaccine lobbied state legislatures to make vaccination of adolescent girls mandatory. Kahan’s view is supported by Australian experience of a voluntary HPV vaccination program being introduced successfully without the issue becoming politicised.

Issues often become politicized when they are taken up by political leaders. For example, it seems likely that by politicising the global warming debate, Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth made it more difficult for conservatives to acknowledge the merits of any proposed policy action on climate change.

The media also plays a role in politicising issues by converting disagreement on public policy into a spectator sport.  In my view Australia’s public broadcaster, the ABC, is a major offender. The ABC’s charter requires it to inform and entertain, but unfortunately does not require it to encourage the reasoned debate and respectful disagreement necessary for liberal democracy to function effectively. In particular, the Q&A program seems to me to be designed to politicize policy debate. It entertains viewers by providing a forum for activist and conservative tribes to clash on totemic issues. Although some panellists and audience participants do their best to engage in reasoned debate, it would be difficult for any viewers to obtain a better understanding of alternative viewpoints from this program.

How can we have a useful exchange of views on issues that have become politicised? In a recent article on this blog I suggested that people who approach issues from different ideological perspectives would be able to have more useful policy discussions if they could turn their attention to what they can learn from the actual experiences of people in different institutional and policy settings. That is rarely straight forward, of course, because interpretation of experience is not immune to ideological bias. But it is still good advice!

It can also be useful to ask people to explain views you disagree with, rather than asserting that they are talking nonsense. Steven Pinker notes that when people are asked to explain an opinion they often realize that they don’t know what they are talking about and become more open to counter-arguments. That is more likely to occur when they are aware that someone is listening intently to the answer they are giving.

This view is consistent with Leah Goldrick’s conclusion in a recent article about the know-it-all syndrome. On her blog, Common Sense Ethics, Leah writes:

“Thinking is fundamentally driven by questions, not answers. This is why doubt, not certainty, is so important. Doubt is the starting place that leads us to question the assumptions that have lead us to a particular conclusion, and doubt is what drives us to learn more if we will humble ourselves enough to consider that we may be wrong. Constant learning, from a place of humble confidence, rather than a place of arrogance, is the antidote to know-it-all syndrome”.

You are more likely to have useful exchanges of view if you “assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t”. That is one of the rules that Jordan Peterson lists in his recent book, 12 Rules for Life (recently reviewed on this blog). Peterson suggests that we remain threatened by disease, self-deception, unhappiness and many other causes of suffering because we are too ignorant to protect ourselves. There is always potential for us to improve our own lives if we respect the personal experience of our conversational partners.

Some of my readers may be wondering whether there is any organisation they could joint to help cultivate a listening culture and improved communication in the community in which they live. A few weeks ago, the realisation dawned on me that for the past 16 years I have been a member of an organisation whose founder believed that “in bringing improvement in the way of better thinking, better listening, better speaking to individuals we are contributing to the improvement of the society which is made up of these individuals”. The quote is from an article by Ralph Smedley, founder of Toastmasters International, which appeared in the February 1958 issue of The Toastmaster. (The article, entitled, ‘The Toastmasters Club … Its Meaning and Values’, has been reproduced in Personally Speaking: Selections from the Writings of Dr Ralph C Smedley.)

The mission of Toastmasters is to develop communication and leadership skills of individual members so that they can achieve greater self-confidence and personal growth. The benefits that can bring to the lives of individual members are obvious but, as Ralph Smedley maintained, members of Toastmasters - now numbering more than 352,00 – also have an opportunity to contribute to “the building of a better society made up of individuals who must act in groups”.

Monday, March 26, 2018

How many rules for life can you remember?


A few hours after I had finished reading Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life: An antidote to chaos” I thought it might be interesting to see how many of his rules I could remember.
I remembered: stand up straight; use your past performance as a benchmark for comparison rather than other people; have meaningful objectives; don’t let your children do anything that makes you dislike them; be a good listener; be precise in your speech; tell the truth; and the one about setting your house in “perfect” order before you criticize the world. That is 8 out of 12. The rules are paraphrased as I remembered them rather than quoted directly.

I would not have much trouble explaining in terms of my own experiences why I remembered some of those rules. For example, the lessons that I had about 20 years ago in the Alexander technique left me with some knowledge of the links between posture, attitude and intention, as well as scepticism about the utility of the injunction to “stand up straight”. I remembered the rule about setting your house in perfect order before you criticize the world because I doubt whether anyone ever has their house in “perfect order”. I certainly have no intention of refraining from criticism of the views of “the radical left” until I get my house in “perfect” order.

The four rules that didn’t come readily to mind were: “treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping”; “make friends with people who want the best for you”; “do not bother children when they are skateboarding”; and “pet a cat when you encounter one in the street”. The meaning of the last couple of rules is not self-evident. The one about skateboarding is mainly about encouraging boys to acquire manly virtues. The one about petting a cat seems to be about taking advantage of opportunities to notice that we live in a wonderful world, despite the suffering that is attendant upon existence. That is just my interpretation. As Nathan Robinson has noted, Jordan Peterson does not always abide by his own rule to “be precise in your speech”.

My purpose in revealing how many, or how few, of the 12 rules for life I remembered is to open discussion about the accessibility of the rules Dr Peterson has offered, rather than to confess the imperfections of my memory. A month, or so, after reading Peterson’s book a few cult followers will remember all his rules, but I doubt whether many other readers will remember more than 1 or 2 of them. That is because Jordan Peterson’s selection of rules seems arbitrary, and he has failed to organise them in a systematic way that might make them easily accessible.

The best way I can illustrate the arbitrary nature of Dr Peterson’s rules is by referring to the 12 rules for life that Russ Roberts developed for himself after interviewing Jordan Peterson. Although Roberts acknowledges that his list of 12 rules for life was inspired by Peterson - and there is a lot of overlap between the sentiments covered in both lists - they look quite different. There are also differences in emphasis. For example, the first rule on Roberts’ list, learn to enjoy saying “I don’t know”, might be implied by Peterson’s rules about telling the truth and listening, but in my view, he doesn’t give this rule as much prominence as it deserves. If other people can develop a different set of rules for life, it is reasonable to ask what would make Peterson’s list superior to one that might be drawn up during a brain storming session by any randomly selected group of people.  

Dr Peterson’s list of rules would be more memorable if they were related in an obvious way to a central organising principle. His book has underlying themes, but those themes are not evident in his list of rules. Perhaps someone could develop a mnemonic to help people remember the items on his list, but that would trivialize the whole exercise.

As I read through the 12 rules, the rule “pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)” strikes me as being of central importance. Dr Peterson’s offers several definitions of meaning, all poetic rather than precise.  The definition that seems to come closest to the central theme of his book is this one:

Meaning is the ultimate balance between, on the one hand, the chaos of transformation and possibility and on the other, the discipline of pristine order, whose purpose is to produce out of the attendant chaos a new order that will be even more immaculate, and capable of bringing forth a still more balanced and productive chaos and order. Meaning is the Way, the path of life more abundant, the place you live when you are guided by Love and speaking Truth and when nothing you want or could possibly want takes any precedence over precisely that” (p 201). 

That passage brings to mind an attempt I made a few years ago to understand the meaning of Dao. We can feel that we have some understanding of Dao, but it is difficult to be precise in our speech about it. My limited understanding left me feeling that it is wise to proceed with minimal rules, waiting to observe how things develop, and redirecting with minimal effort the things that are subject to our influence. I’m not sure that Jordan Peterson would agree.

If I push myself to be precise, what I would mean by pursuing what is meaningful, is pursuing what is important to you in the various domains of life.

In the personal domain we seek to understand what we know and what we don’t know, where we have been, where we are now, what we value, and what values we want to be expressed by the persons we are becoming. Our values determine our intentions, our attitudes and our posture. We want to improve, so we focus on our intentions in what we do, rather than our expectations of how we will perform based on how we have performed in the past. We measure our performance by comparison with our own past, rather than the performance of other people. We treat ourselves like persons we are responsible for coaching. We seek friends who want the best for us, providing encouragement and taking us to task as appropriate.

As regards interpersonal relations, we seek to place particular importance on authenticity and trustworthiness. We listen to what others have to say because they may know something that we don’t.  We seek to be precise and forthright in communication. We encourage our loved ones to behave in ways that will enable them to be widely liked and respected.

We approach the world with humility. We don’t seek to govern the lives of other people because we know the shortcomings in our governance of our own lives. We avoid the temptation to be over-protective of young people because they have to learn from experience how to take responsibility for their own lives.

So, that probably covers more than enough rules for life. If you can only remember one rule, the most important rule is to remember to do what is important.  That rule in particularly useful to remember when you find yourself falling into the trap of trying to avoid negative thoughts and feelings. Doing expedient things to make yourself feel better is likely to end up making your life more chaotic.

I would like to end this somewhat critical post by acknowledging that there is much that I like about Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life”. In fact, my main point is that it is unfortunate that the author has not found a way to make the messages of the book more memorable.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Is John Locke responsible for the failings of liberal democracy?



The liberalism that Patrick Deneen writes about in his recent book, Why Liberalism Failed, is the set of principles upon which liberal democracies are built. This set of principles encompasses the classical liberalism favoured by many who would like to reduce the dependence of citizens on government, as well as the progressive liberalism of those who see a role for government in supporting emancipative values.

In my view Deneen makes many good points. Having just finished reading and writing about The Meaning of Democracy by Vincent Ostrom I welcome Deneen’s further reminder that citizens of the United States (and other liberal democracies) no longer display the intense commitment toward democratic citizenship at a local level observed by Alexis de Tocqueville when he visited America in the 1830s. I welcome Deneen’s view that “politics and human community must percolate from the bottom up, from experience and practice”. I welcome his support for practices “that sustain culture within communities, the fostering of household economics, and ‘polis life’, or forms of self-governance that arise from shared civic participation”. I welcome his acceptance that the achievements of liberalism “must be acknowledged” and that we “must build on those achievements”. I also welcome that Deneen’s book is much easier to read than Ostom’s book.

Unfortunately, Deneen’s book is based on a monstrous error. The error I refer to is not directly linked to his criticism of globalization and technological progress, his forecast of growing inequality, or his fears about “rapacious exploitation of resources”. Some of what he writes on those topics is in error, but in my view those errors are balanced to a large extent by insightful comments about education and politics, and his acknowledgement that “there can be no going back”. (Deneen’s negativity about the modern world leaves me with a strong desire for an antidote. My desire to read Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker’s latest book, has suddenly become more urgent.)

Deneen’s monstrous error stems from his mis-reading of John Locke:

Both Hobbes and Locke—but especially Locke—understand that liberty in our prepolitical condition is limited not only by the lawless competition of other individuals but by our recalcitrant and hostile natures. A main goal of Locke’s philosophy is to expand the prospects for our liberty—defined as the capacity to satisfy our appetites—through the auspices of the state. Law is not a discipline for self-government but the means for expanding personal freedom: ‘The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom’.” (p 47-48).

Deneen has taken the quoted sentence about the “end of law” from John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. However, in the paragraph from which the quoted sentence is taken, Locke was actually writing about the discipline of self-government rather than law provided “through the auspices of the state”. The paragraph begins:

The law, that was to govern Adam, was the same that was to govern all his posterity, the law of reason”.

Locke goes on to imply that everyone has to learn “the use of reason” before they can know where their “proper interest” lies. It is in the context of writing about “the law of reason” that Locke notes:

“the end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom: for in all the states of created beings capable of laws, ‘where there is no law, there is no freedom’ for liberty is to be free from restraint and violence from others”.

Locke implies that “the law of reason” is linked to norms of reciprocity: “for who could be free, when every other man’s humour might domineer over him”. See: Second Treatise of Government, para 57.

In The Nature and Purposes of Government: a Lockean View, Linda Raeder has carefully noted the vast difference between Hobbesian and Lockean views of the state of nature. While Hobbes saw the state of nature as a “war of all against all”, Locke saw it as being governed by natural law. Linda Raeder notes that Locke’s particular formulation of the law of nature “carried forward a longstanding tradition that ascribes an intrinsic moral dimension to human nature”.  According to that view all humans “possess an inherent ability to distinguish between right and wrong” and “every human being knows, as Locke says, that he is obliged, ‘as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind’.” (Raeder, loc 465)

Why do I view Deneen’s mis-reading of John Locke a monstrous error? If Deneen had read Locke more carefully he could not claim:

Liberalism rejects the ancient conception of liberty as the learned capacity of human beings to conquer the slavish pursuit of base and hedonistic desires” (p 37).

Nor could he claim:

“Liberalism’s ascent and triumph required sustained efforts to undermine the classical and Christian understanding of liberty, the disassembling of widespread norms, traditions, and practices, and perhaps above all the reconceptualization of primacy of the individual defined in isolation from arbitrary accidents of birth, with the state as the main protector of individual rights and liberty” (p 27).

If Deneen had not misread Locke his central thesis about the contradictions inherent within classical liberalism would fall apart. He could not claim:

“Liberalism has failed—not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It has failed because it has succeeded. As liberalism has “become more fully itself,” as its inner logic has become more evident and its self-contradictions manifest, it has generated pathologies that are at once deformations of its claims yet realizations of liberal ideology” (p 3).

If we want to understand why liberal democracy is becoming “a war of all against all” we need to understand why the norms underlying it are breaking down, despite the efforts of classical liberals to uphold them. Why is it that people now exercise less restraint in the demands that they make on others through the political process? Why is it that those whose tax payments fund transfers through the political process increasingly consider themselves to be exploited? We can’t blame John Locke, or his classical liberal followers for the failings of liberal democracy.

Despite my misgivings about Why Liberalism Failed I am grateful to Patrick Deneen for drawing attention to the importance of the exit rights advocated by classical liberals. In discussing how self-governing communities might emerge, he writes:

“For a time, such practices will be developed within intentional communities that will benefit from the openness of liberal society. They will be regarded as ‘options’ within the liberal frame, and while suspect in the broader culture, largely permitted to exist so long as they are nonthreatening to the liberal order’s main business” (p 179).

That is hardly a ringing endorsement for the exit rights that Locke and Jefferson helped to have recognized as core values of western civilization. Nevertheless, I am grateful for the opportunity to note that the author is pointing to a means whereby liberalism could transform itself rather than fail.

Monday, March 5, 2018

What kind of governance would emerge if we insisted that we are individually responsible for fashioning mutually beneficial relationships with others?


This post begins where the preceding post ended. I suggested there that conditions most favourable to human flourishing would emerge in “self-organizing and self-governing societies” in which each person “is first his or her own governor and is then responsible for fashioning mutually productive relationships with others”.  That is the description of self-organizing and self-governing societies provided by Vincent Ostrom in The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerability of Democracies (1997, p 84).

Ostrom argued that it is “within families and other institutional arrangements characteristic of neighbourhood, village, and community life that citizenship is learned and practiced for most people most of the time”. This is where people learn to be self-governing, by learning how to live and work with others. (p x)

He explained that in face-to-face relationships associated with activities entered voluntarily for mutual benefit people also learn to exercise power with others rather than power over others. The exercise of power with others implies a willingness to take account of the interest of others in "patterns of social accountability." The democratic form of governance that evolves under those circumstances is likely to be characterised by “mutual understandings grounded in common knowledge, agreeable patterns of accountability, and mutual trust” (p 287).

Vincent Ostrom’s views on the benefits of decentralized governance for human flourishing were based partly on the empirical research on governance arrangements conducted with Elinor Ostrom at the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University. Aspects covered in this research included urban policing, irrigation systems, and forest resource management. Lin Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize for her work showing that common pool resources could often be successfully managed by user associations.

The history of decentralized governance, particularly in the United States, also provided Vincent Ostrom with evidence that self-governing societies were practicable. He observed:

“The American federalists and Tocqueville were able to conceive how democracy as a form of government could be used to craft the architecture of authority relationships in ways that were constitutive of what could appropriately be conceptualized as self-governing societies. Such concepts drew on prior experiences in consti­tuting free cities, monastic orders, religious congregations, merchant soci­eties, craft guilds, associations among peasants, markets, and other pat­terns of human association” (p 280).

Why have many functions previously performed by voluntary associations and local government been centralized, leaving citizens to be passive consumers of services with no direct role in management? It is easy enough to identify who might benefit from centralization. Access to central pools of funding have offered service providers the prospect of higher pay. Bureaucrats have been offered vast opportunities for career advancement. Centralization of funding has offered many consumers the prospect of getting someone else to help pay for services they consume.

Centralisation of service delivery has also promised lower cost service provision resulting from scale economies. However, such benefits have been offset to some extent by inefficient work practices associated with centralized bureaucracies. Lower costs could have been achieved with greater certainty if decentralized governance had been retained, with service delivery contracted out to the private sector.

Some readers might suspect that Vincent Ostrom was a reactionary, vainly seeking a return to the village life of a bygone era. He is more appropriately viewed as a scholar seeking progress toward a science of citizenship. In the final chapter of this book he writes optimistically:

“A quest for conflict resolution consistent with the reestablishment of communities of associated relationships based again on precepts of covenantal relationships is the way for maintaining the covenantal character of self-governing societies through time and across generations. Such an approach is facilitative of innovations consis­tent with standards of enlightenment, freedom, justice, reciprocity, and mutual trust in patterns of order in human societies” (p 280).

It is hard to know how sufficient numbers of citizens might eventually decide to insist that assign­ments of authority under current legislation be made subject to challenge and contestation by groups who want to be self-organizing and self-governing. Perhaps this will emerge from the slow train wreck now occurring in bureaucracies of even the older-established democracies as they experience increasing difficulty in meeting the expectations of voters. To reduce costs, greater efforts may be made to provide social safety nets in a manner consistent with contestable service delivery. Increasing efforts may be made to involve community groups in service delivery. Volunteers, who are still active in many areas of service delivery, may seek greater involvement in decision-making. We may also see more community groups seeking to opt out of centralised provision of social services to obtain services more closely attuned to their requirements.  





Thursday, February 15, 2018

What kind of government is most likely to promote human flourishing?



One way to approach this question is to rule out those kinds of government that are least likely to enable people to live lives that they value.

We can begin by ruling out those kinds of government that exercise absolute power in a cruel and oppressive way. There is no need to explain why that kind of despotism is inimical to human flourishing.

If you ask yourself how we can avoid being ruled by a cruel and oppressive despot you will probably begin to sketch out some constitutional rules requiring fair elections and preventing concentrations of power in a few hands. There is a fair chance that the constitutional rules you specify would describe liberal democracy. So far so good.

However, some written constitutions that appear to embody ideals of liberal democracy end up as a fa├žade for oppressive government. So, I have to ask myself why some experiments in liberal democracy been more successful than others.

Before I can attempt to answer that I need to explain what I have previously described as democracy’s basic problem – which could also be described as the tragedy of democracy because of its similarity to the tragedy of the commons (see my preceding post). Democracy’s basic problem arises because of inherent tendencies for the responsibilities of elected governments to expand beyond their capacity to cope. That results from a combination of two factors. First, the perceived benefits to individual voters of proposals for an expansion of government responsibilities in areas of particular interest to them exceed the additional costs they incur as a result of those proposals. Second, when an individual elector sees others declaring their support for political parties which promise additional spending or regulation in their particular fields of interest, it is natural for her to feel that her interests will likewise be better served by behaving similarly. (Democracy’s basic problem is further explained in Chapter 8 of Free to Flourish.)

Democracy’s basic problem could be expected to result in an ongoing expansion of government spending, an increasing regulatory burden constraining growth in productivity, higher tax rates on those least able to protect themselves politically (e.g. foreign investors) with adverse effects on investment incentives, and expanding fiscal deficits with public debt growing beyond the capacity of the government to service it.

Those trends obviously can’t continue indefinitely. At some stage, the government’s bankers will refuse to advance additional credit. That means that funds will no longer be available to fund social services or to pay government employees. Civil disorder is likely to ensue. It is open to speculation who the main characters will be in the next act, as the political theatre turns into a democratic tragedy. Voters may resort to electing demagogues whose policies will cause further deterioration in the economy. In the final act it is quite common for the generals to take over the reins of government to restore order.

Thus, on the basis of that reasoning it might appear that democracy is unlikely to be a sustainable form of government over the longer term.

So, how come some democracies have survived for well over a century?

One possible explanation, which could be described as the Schumpeterian explanation, after the economist Joseph Schumpeter, is that this has been achieved by constraining democracy to ensure that “the effective range of political decision should not be extended too far”. (Again, there is more discussion of this in Chapter 8 of Free to Flourish.)

Another possible explanation (not adequately discussed in Free to Flourish) is that the culture of some countries has fostered normative conditions that have prevented democracy’s basic problem from emerging with irresistible force. In his book, Why I, too, am not a conservative, James Buchanan identified two norms that underpin liberal democracy:

·         that a sufficient proportion of the population can make their own choices and prefer to be autonomous rather than dependent on others; and

·         that a sufficient proportion of the population enter relationships with others on the basis of reciprocity, fair dealing and mutual respect.

The first norm needs to be met for people to be able to cast their votes to achieve outcomes that they prefer, whilst exercising restraint in the demands that they make on others through the political process. The second norm needs to be met to ensure that those who depend on transfers from the public purse do not consider those transfers to reflect successful exploitation of others through the political process, and that those whose tax payments fund those transfers do not consider themselves to be exploited.

Buchanan concluded:

Generalized or widespread failure of persons to adhere to these norms, along with widespread recognition that others also disregard the standards, will insure that the liberal order itself must fail, quite independently from any institutional safeguards.” (p 28)

As early as the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville expressed similar concerns in Democracy in America about the implications for democracy of the emergence of a culture of dependence on government.  In his discussion of the “sort of despotism that democratic nations have to fear” he suggested that democratic governments might take upon themselves full responsibility for the happiness of citizens, reducing each nation “to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd”.  Tocqueville remarked:

It is indeed, difficult to conceive how men who have entirely given up the habit of self-government should succeed in making a proper choice of those by whom they are to be governed; and no one will ever believe that a liberal, wise, and energetic government can spring from the suffrages of a subservient people. … The vices of rulers and the ineptitude of the people would speedily bring about its ruin … ” See: Democracy in America, Book 4, Chapter 6.

Tocqueville doesn’t seem to have mentioned norms of reciprocity (or even adherence to the golden rule) explicitly as one of the factors that had led to maintenance of democracy in America, but he emphasised the importance of “the manners and customs of the people” and “the whole moral and intellectual condition of a people”.

Vincent Ostrom commented as follows:

In light of the meaning to be assigned to the manner and customs of the people, we can understand why Tocqueville identified religion as the first of their political institutions even though religion took no direct part in the government of society. The place of religion was important to the whole moral and intellectual tradition of a people when complemented by the place of families, friends, neighbors, and schooling in the shaping of what might be called "habits of the heart and mind." The place of habits of the heart and mind is critical to the possibility that societies of men might establish systems of governance appropriate to the exercise of reflection and choice as ways of coping with problems of conflict and conflict reso­lution.” Vincent Ostrom, The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerability of Democracies, p 14.

Most readers will probably have gathered by now that I think that adherence to the norms that underpin liberal democracy has now diminished to such an extent that this form of government is in deep trouble, even in the western countries where it has been sustained most successfully in the past. So, we are faced with an ongoing struggle to avoid a democratic tragedy, with adverse implications for human flourishing.

However, such prognostications don’t help us much in answering the question I began with. The best way to move toward an answer, it now seems to me, is to follow the lead of Vincent Ostrom and to ask what forms of governance are likely to emerge when it recognized that each person “is first his or her own governor and is then responsible for fashioning mutually productive relationships with others” (p 84).

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

How can people who approach issues from different ideological perspectives have useful policy discussions?


Like the ideological opponents of free markets, the birds of Edinburgh show little respect for the founder of Economics 

In my view there is a lot to be said for attempting to develop a coherent ideological position – a system of ideas and ideals - that can be applied to public policy issues. Those who insist on approaching every issue with an empty mind, refusing to draw upon a priori reasoning and lessons learned from previous experience, are severely handicapping themselves.

It is important to note that having a coherent ideological position does not necessarily imply being ideologically blinkered. An ideological commitment can be consistent with being sufficiently openminded to consider the possibility that it could be appropriate to depart from a general principle in a particular instance. For example, people who have an ideological commitment to free markets are often open to persuasion that government regulation might be warranted in some instances.

Ideologies are not necessarily heavily laden with values.  In my view that applies particularly to the free market ideology favoured by many economists. As a result of their training and work experience economists tend to acquire objective knowledge about the operation of markets that leads them toward a system of ideas and ideals that is relatively favourable to free markets.

Many non-economists have an anti-market bias. As Bryan Caplan implied a few years ago in his book The Myth of the Rational Voter (discussed previously on this blog) some people have a strong ideological attachment to false beliefs.  More generally, however, it seems to me that the anti-market bias among non-economists is attributable to lack of understanding of the functioning of markets. Few people are so wedded to conspiracy theories about market behaviour that they are unwilling to consider economists’ explanations.

During my work career as an economist, I had many difficult policy discussions with engineers, who seemed to have acquired an ideological commitment to planning that led them to favour government regulation. From their perspective free markets appeared to be chaotic and planned solutions appeared to promise order. However, they were able to appreciate that actual outcomes that were likely to emerge from chaotic political and administrative processes might not be superior to market outcomes.

The most difficult policy discussions I have been involved in have been with Greenies whose ideological opposition to free markets is based on the view that capitalism leads to bad environmental and social outcomes. The main problem in these discussions is not a difference in values; we all want to avoid environmental and economic catastrophes. It seems to me that the main barrier to communication is that the Greenies have an ideological commitment to the belief that better outcomes will follow automatically if the regulation they favour displaces markets and voluntary cooperation. 

In thinking about how economists could have more useful policy discussions with Greenies it occurs to me that there is not much to be gained by talking to them about externalities. They might support proposals for limited intervention to correct specific externalities, but they actually see no virtue in limited intervention. They see market failure as pervasive and believe that superior outcomes can be produced by burdening governments with massive responsibilities.

I wonder whether it might be useful to begin a policy discussion with Greenies by considering the tragedy of the commons. When I re-read Garrett Hardin’s 1968 article with that title I was reminded of its shortcomings with regard to population projections, but his warnings about the potential for common pool resources to be over-exploited have a fairly solid foundation in economic reasoning.

Hardin wrote:

“The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy. …
Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit - in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

However, as Elinor Ostrom demonstrated, it is by no means inevitable that use of common pool resources will end in tragedy in the absence of government intervention. She found that some communities of individuals have been able to manage common pool resources with reasonable degrees of success over long periods of time “relying on institutions resembling neither the state nor the market”.

The methodology adopted by Elinor Ostrom in her research strikes me as highly relevant to the question of how people who approach issues from different ideological positions can have useful policy discussions. In the preface to Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Elinor Ostrom wrote:

"Instead of presuming that the individuals sharing a commons are inevitably caught in a trap from which they cannot escape, I argue that the capacity of individuals to extricate themselves from various types of dilemma situations varies from situation to situation. The cases to be discussed in this book illustrate both successful and unsuccessful efforts to escape tragic outcomes. Instead of basing policy on the presumption that the individuals involved are helpless, I wish to learn more from the experience of individuals in field settings. Why have some efforts to solve commons problems failed, while others have succeeded? What can we learn from experience that will help stimulate the development and use of a better theory of collective action – one that will identify the key variables that can enhance or detract from the capabilities of individuals to solve problems?"

Some advocates of smaller government (including myself) are fond of pointing out that the logic of the tragedy of the commons applies to interest group politics as well as to physical resources. When goods such as education and health services are converted into common pool resources there is an incentive for interest groups to attempt to increase their share at the expense of other groups and the general public. More generally, when interest groups view the coercive power of the state as a common pool resource to be used for the benefits of their members, the adverse impact of tax and regulation on incentives for productive activity is likely to result in outcomes that will be detrimental for everyone. The incentives facing individual interest groups in that situation are similar to those facing individual fishermen – when their collective actions results in over-fishing, that is detrimental to all.

However, it is reasonable for the advocates of big government to ask why the tragedy of the political commons has not resulted in the failure of all experiments in representative government. If we apply Elinor Ostrom’s research methodology we have to acknowledge that some countries have been more successful than others in coping with the common pool resource problems associated with interest group activity. The reasons for this seem to me to be an important topic for research and discussion.
It strikes me that people who approach issues from different ideological perspectives would be able to have more useful policy discussions if they could turn their attention to what they can learn from the actual experiences of people in different institutional and policy settings.