Fey Accompli

Since I'm giving recommendations, let me direct your attention to a great newish blog, Fey Accompli, where you can find a singular mix of finely crafted political commentary, literary analysis, ruminations on marketing & business & fashion, and poetic spiritual reflection. Be sure to check out this post about “special music” at Sunday service. I remember wowing the reverently assembled with “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” around this time of year some many years ago. The correct answer, I think, is “No, I was not there, but Jim Caviezel was.” But the point was, Fey Accompli, good. Joanna is pretty pretty. Fey is ineffable.

You Should Buy Explaining Postmodernism

My friend Stephen Hicks, a professor of philosophy at Rockford College, has written an outstanding book, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault. I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in the subject. Steve is an incredibly lucid writer, and has a rare talent for making fordbidding ideas accessible. Steve traces the dismal fortunes of reason from Kant's Copernican Revolution, through subsequent German philosophy, down to contemporary postmodernism. I especially enjoyed the clear explanation of the famously obscure Heidegger. Steve notes that postmodernism isn't just nihilist or anti-rationalist, but is uniformly leftist. (If nothing's true, there is no fact of the matter about the quality of reasons to believe things, and belief is just a commitment backed by power, then it makes just as much sense to be a money-grubbing natural rights minarchist as a turtlenecked chainsmoking Trotskyite.) His account of the way the increasingly evident failures of communism in terms of reason and evidence are tracked by the increasingly extreme postmodern rejection of reason and evidence is utterly compelling, and has influenced my thinking since I Steve first gave a talk on the topic to a student group I ran at Northern Illinois way back in 1997. Anyway, it's a lovely little book, and if you've never been able to make heads or tails of postmodernism, or would just like to get a particularly sharp and fresh take on it, pick up Steve's book.

On Trivers

Great profile in the Boston Globe about Robert Trivers. I had the privelege of meeting Trivers at a little conference I helped Tyler Cowen & Robin Hanson organize on self-deception while I was at Mercatus. Trivers is undoubtedly one of the weirdest people I've ever met. He apparently has a penchant for stealing and hoarding pens. He is quite frank about it. So, reasoning that the principle of diminishing marginal utility might help save the pens of those around Trivers, a colleague and I rounded up a varied bunch of spare pens from around the office and left them at Trivers spot, along with a cheap watch from the lost and found, while everyone was having a coffee break. He was delighted. He instantly put the watch on and stashed all the pens in his bag. Big smile. Later, he complained about the flourescent lights bothering his eyes and wondered if we had a hat he could wear. Since we kept no hats around the office, I popped over to the GMU Law bookstore and bought him a Mason cap. Again, just thrilled! He wore it happily the rest of the conference. Later, I received what I consider the ultimate compliment from a man like Trivers: “Hey man, I like your phenotype.”

My impression was that he's a very emotionally labile person who naturally gravitates to a fairly agressive form of tit-for-tat. If you do nice things for Trivers, he's just incredibly warm and grateful. If you do things that Trivers doesn't like to Trivers, he angrily retaliates with extreme prejudice.

And he is brilliant. I can't wait for the book on self-deception.

Coming to Boston

I'll be giving a talk on “Pluralism, Sympathy, and Lifestyle Entrepreneurship” or something along those lines, at the Boston University Libertarian Society's imaginatively named Liberty Conference on Saturday April 9th. If you'll be in Boston, or across the river among the dorks and snots, please come by. I aim to edify.

I just thought of something Boston-related that I think is funny to do. When you get in a conversation with somebody, and it gets to the “where'd you go to school phase”, and they say with excruciatingly mannered evasiveness “Oh, up in Boston,” reply, “Oh sure, Northeastern's a really great school,” and walk away. Fun!

Good Government : Nice, But Unnecessary

Deep in the comments of this characteristically puzzling Elizabeth Anderson post, David Velleman strikes back at those who deny that the state is productive:

This is the fallacy that lies behind so much of the distrust of government in which Mr. Ridgely revels (irresponsibly, in my opinion). The fallacy is to think that because government doesn't produce anything, it doesn't contribute to economic productivity. Go look at the current economic productivity of Iraq, and ask yourself what's most needed before it can be improved. What's needed is government.

How productive would our country be without secure borders, without civil order, without a properly regulated currency and banking system, without a judicial system to enforce contracts and adjudicate disputes, without an interstate highway system, air traffic control, well functioning ports and waterways, orderly division of the electromagnetic spectrum, protection for intellectual property rights, guarantees of the safety of buildings, food, and drugs, a well-educated and healthy work-force … must I go on? All of these government functions make productivity possible. Without them, we would all be less productive and poorer.

I agree that the state can contribute to economic productivity by setting in place a system of sound basic institutions that help create the conditions for efficient market cooperation. But Velleman seems to dip his toes in the opposite fallacy. Markets are limited and feeble without effective political and legal institutions. Therefore assume effective political and legal institutions! And behold their glory! Government makes markets go ZOOM!

But but but wait. Market cooperation is limited in the absence of effective government because of, to make a very complicated story very uncomplicated, problems of assurance and trust. But problems of assurance and trust are exactly what prevents government from being effective, too. In order to fund a government sufficient to do anything worth having a government do, there has to be sufficient wealth, and thus markets that have already solved, to some extent at least, the problems that you need government to help markets solve.

The more effective, efficient, trustworthy, non-corrupt, credible, etc. a government is, the less you will need government. Whatever norms a society has deployed to partially solve the principle/agent & state autonomy & nepotism & predation problems that afflict political institutions everywhere and always, those are norms that will have also been deployed to solve problems of market cooperation.

So here's my little superficially paradoxical rule of thumb, which I hereby dub Wilkinson's Law, until I am told that it has already been dubbed: The more your markets need government, the less your government will be able to do for your markets. Or, equivalently, the more your government is able to do for your markets, the less it will need to do. Pithier still . . . Government: if you need it, it won't be good, and if it's good, you don't need it.

Ceterus paribus, naturally.

This leads me to believe that Velleman's list of the wonders of good government has too much stuff on it. Indeed, his entire list after “adjudicate disputes” is pretty questionable. If you've already got the kinds of markets that give rise to issues about interstate highways, air traffic control, spectrum allocation, food and drug safety, and whatnot, then you've likely already developed the wherewithal to solve market coordination problems using largely market means. And if the market can do it, then the government isn't likely to do it any better. And the government doesn't contribute to productivity if it's crowding out something that could be do the same thing better by other means. And when the government does it, its coercive. And coercion is bad, on the face of it, and raises questions of moral legitimacy that do not arise under institutions of voluntary coordination. Because voluntary cooperation is good, which is why markets are.

IHS Summer Seminars

Time is running out! If you're a libertarian or libertarian-curious college student with some time on your hands over the summer, you've got to apply for one of the Institute for Humane Studies' fantastical free summer summer seminars. You'll make new friends! You'll explore WILD new ideas! Face the ultimate contrarian challenge of alienating even those who agree with you!

Seriously, some of the best times in my young life were had at IHS seminars. If you miss the chance, you'll regret it. There is no tired quite like the good tired after a week of friendly heated conversation, little sleep, and copious free beer.

Style and the CPI

Virginia Postrel has a nice little piece on hotel rooms and the problem of setting up the CPI. I am quite sure that the CPI overestimates inflation, underestimates real wages, and that the gap between the methodologically “correct” CPI and the actually existing CPI is growing at an ever accelerating rate. Before coming to Washington, and getting all interested in policy. I had no idea what a profound impact a bunch of statisticians down at the BLS have on all our lives. These technical methodological matters mean more than most people know. Although she doesn't come right out and say so (when she writes, “If . . . guests care as much about aesthetics as hoteliers believe they do, it would be irresponsible to treat the $15 as a true price increase,” I think I can hear the antecedent affirmed between the lines”), Virginia's saying that the CPI just can't get a grip on increases in value due to “intangibles,” and so overestimates the price of hotels rooms and underestimates the worth of the money in your pocket.

The concluding sentence is nice:

Measuring inflation, [BLS guy] acknowledges, “is more of an art than a science, unfortunately.”

Which is to say, value-laden and contestable.

Hartz Brain Farts

From Louis Hartz's bizarrely rambling and free-associative The Liberal Tradition in America (1955), for all you Austrians out there:

But Lippmann's defense of liberalism, if it utilized the bogey of foreign totalitarianism, was for the most part devoid of American nationalism. It was theoretical, philosophic, relying, as we know, on the Austrian school of Von Mises and Hayek. And here is a most interesting set of relationships. The class-conscious Toryism of Europe could absorb only a bit, and even that incongruously, of the diehard John Brightism preached by the Austrians. Austria itself with its statist tradition found it for the most part irrelevant. But America, a liberal community, found it usable, so that Hayek after the Second World War scored himself a more vivid literary success here than Lippmann had during the New Deal. What they used to say about England, that it was the home of dead German philosophies, would have to be altered in this case to apply to America: it is the home of dead English philosophies retained by Austrian professors.

That is, in fact, a particularly coherent passage. After reading about ten pages, I thought I was inside a political theorist's hallucination, where historical figures become grotesteque blabbering cartoons, and their “isms” become ruber balls that they juggle and throw, and which bounce around according to no sensibile physics. And even the isms have isms. Americanistic Hamiltonism is bouncing its repressed Algerist Whiggery off the skull of Herbert Spencer and Norman Thomas who have heads the size of watemelons and giant mouths yelling slogans and tiny bodies dressed in meticulous brown suits. Or, in other words, like reading a book-length Reihan Salam post, but without the rap. Harvard professors really used to write like this?