Sam Harris on Happiness

He focuses on the absence of negative feelings. He's almost Eastern. And I think this is in fact the largest part of the subjective sense of well-being. The importance of the absence of anxiety and worry is why it is plausible that money has a fairly strong non-relative effect well up the income scale. There is always some worry that having a bit more helps alleviate.

By the way, Big Think has a lot of interesting stuff. I think of it as mono-vlogging. 

David Brooks and the Infrastructure of Technocratic Control

One thing I wish decent liberals would get a handle on is this: the idea of the state as a benevolent scientific administrator of all aspects of the lives of its citizens is not a liberal idea. There is nothing about this conception of state power that tends, in principle, to promote liberal values. The values it will promote will be the values of the people who control it. Moreover, science isn't partisan. Once we have created a infrastructure of technocratic control, if the science happens to say the economy will do marginally better if, say, more women spend more time in the kitchen, pregnant, rather than competing for social esteem on an equal footing with men, then the state is ready with its managerial tools to reshape our incentives, our lives, and our social structure. We need only wait for a faction to come to power that finds that this or that bit of science (or “science”) conveniently reinforces their prior impulses, and then those tools will be deployed.

These are the thoughts I had reading David Brooks' play at writing John McCain's domestic policy in his latest column. I don't have time to pick through the trainwreck, but let me just note that Brooks is in favor of mandatory national service, no doubt to help shape young people's conception of who they really belong to, and what their lives are really for. And he wants to send government agents into “chaotic” homes, so that the children there “have some authority in their lives.” Brooks is very keen to ensure that we all have a great deal of authority in our lives, it seems, and I'm afraid that John McCain is too.

Limited Government and Morality as a Fill-in-the-Blanks Slate

So far I have found this month's Cato Unbound extremely stimulating. It sure helps when you get to invite the discussants, but the problem of how exactly limited-government types think government can realistically be limited really is of the first importance.

I think Anthony de Jasay is right that incentive-compatibility problems plague attempts to keep government lean and limited. That said, I think a certain kind of anarchist, like de Jasay, tend to somewhat oversell the impossibility of limited government. As Gordon Tullock likes to emphasize, given the vast amount that could be extracted by political predation, the puzzle for the political scientist is to explain why so little is invested in rent-seeking. Part of the answer lies in the structural constraints de Jasay mentions in his essay. The prospect that financial and human capital may flee a grabbing hand, or the fear that the electorate will rise up in anger and panic when the thicket of opportunistic regulation has begun to strangle prosperity, may rein in government. But these are constraints implicit in the nature of things, not ones imposed by law as limits on lawmakers. So it is interesting that he also mentions the campaign-finance rule as a constraint on the size of government, since that seems open to choice, to design, in a way that the other constraints are not. This seems like an admission that certain rules can successfully bind.

I think I'm almost entirely in agreement with the main thrust of Jerry Gaus's reply. The problem isn't so much the weakness of formal, paper constraints, but the weakness of formal constraints that are not reinforced by our moral sentiments. If a formal rule is seen as merely conventional, and therefore revisable by the relevant authority, and not as moral, there may be little resistance to overriding it in order to meet the demands of weightier moral rules. I found this passage especially illuminating:

[I]f the basic normative commitments of classical liberals were widely conceived of as moral rules, then there would be much deeper resistance to government-made rules that seek to cancel or override them. The problem is that the opposite seems nearer the truth: for many citizens, their understanding of the moral norms related to fairness endorses government-made rules overriding the conventional rules of property. The welfare state reigns supreme not because the state and it allies have tricked the rest of us in a power grab; it reigns supreme because in the eyes of most citizens it conforms to the egalitarian fairness norms that have evolved with humans (Fong, Bowles, and Gintis, 2005). Classical liberals who convince themselves that the New Deal is best explained as a power grab by Roosevelt and his allies are manifestly deluded: it was (and still is) very widely seen as demanded by our sense of fairness.

I think this is on the right track. But I think it's worth emphasizing that the power grab explanation is not at all inconsistent with the “mandate of fairness” explanation. Power-seeking politicians can create the perception that their role and their power is legitimate by appealing to deep-seated moral sentiments. Second, I'm not so sure that our egalitarian sentiments are all that close to a pure expression of egalitarian sharing norms. First, there is the artificiality of nationalism, and the modern welfare state is nothing if not an expression of economic and moral nationalism. To see co-nationals in a vast pluralistic territory as part of a common tribe in which even an attenuated form of ancient sharing norms apply requires an incredible, imaginative, “unnatural” expansion of the circle of affinity.

But I think the general point stands. Moral rules are processed differently than conventional rules. If limited government is going to have a chance, it must be in sync with our moral sentiments and dispositions to moral judgments. I don't think this is impossible. I'm pretty well sold on something like Jonathan Haidt's multidimensional conception of the moral sense. And there may be something like a classical liberal calibration of the moral sentiments, such that certain rules limiting the domain of political power and collective choice may come to be experienced as distinctively moral, and therefore non-optional.

Now, I don't know that there is such a thing, but there might be. I do think there is a broadly liberal calibration of the moral sense, I think that it is prevalent in liberal societies, and that is what makes them stably liberal. That means, in no small part, that the government is effectively limited in what it may do to people. Limited government is evidently possible because it is actual.

The idea that the there are various dimensions of the moral sense each with its own parameters implies that morality is a fill-in-the-blanks slate. The moral sense then isn't an exogenous variable acting as a hard constraint on feasible social coordination. Nor is it infinitely malleable. There are only so many combinatorial possibilities, and the feasible cultural/developmental paths from one combination of settings to another may be quite limited.

But this kind of view does I think put ideas about pluralism and liberal neutrality that both Jerry and I are very fond of in a tight spot. The multidimensional moral sense view makes it pretty clear that liberal society requires that a certain kind of moral personality become common in the population. A specifically classical liberal society, in which the certain further limits on the scope of politics are felt strongly to be moral, may require an even more tightly-focused and even more-broadly shared, fine-tuning of the moral sense. But I'm not certain I'd even want that.

Climate Debate Daily

My one climate post in forever reminds me that I should link to Climate Debate Daily, the new-ish site edited by Denis Dutton (overseer of the famed Arts & Letter's Daily) and Douglas Campbell.

Here's the site's statement of what Denis is up to:

At the University of Canterbury he has recently introduced a new course on the distinction between science and pseudoscience. Dr. Dutton is skeptical about the degree to which human activity has contributed to the general warming trend that began in the 1880s. He adds, however: “Working at the university where Karl Popper taught in the 1930s and 40s, I am more than a little aware of the way that good scientific hypotheses must always be open to falsification. The best way for science and public policy to proceed is to keep assessing evidence pro and con for anthropogenic global warming. That is the idea behind Climate Debate Daily.”

Good idea. Campbell looks to be a bit more convinced of AGW and thinks action is warranted. But he wants to hash it out. Good man.

Prizes for Amelioration

Has anyone seen an extended argument for doing nothing at all about global warming other than offering huge prizes for technological fixes?


Also… from Warren Meyer I see this: “[Some climate scientists] claim now that man-made sulfate aerosols and black carbon are cooling the earth, and when some day these pollutants are reduced, we will see huge catch-up warming.”

Has anyone in the Pigou Club advanced the argument for subsidizing sulfate aerosols and black carbon (and whatever else has cooling effects)?

I'm sincerely asking. Such subsidies are only logical, right?

Is Limited Government Possible?

Hey, political theory geeks! This month's Cato Unbound should be pretty sweet. Here's the editorial summary of Anthony de Jasay's lead essay, “Government, Bound or Unbound?“:

Reprising the topic of his 1989 essay, “Is Limited Government Possible?” political theorist Anthony de Jasay continues to express limited skepticism. According to de Jasay, the incentive of political actors is to gain power by putting together winning coalitions, and to stay in power by rewarding their supporters at the expense of their opponents. If constitutional limits stand in their way, they will eventually be reinterpreted, undermined, or otherwise worked around. Governments are more delayed than limited by constitutional rules, like a lady with the key to her own chastity belt. If governments are effectively limited, de Jasay argues, then it is by means of the structure of campaign finance, the practical limits on tax rates, and public panic at the prospect of economic ruin. De Jasay admits conventional cultural and moral norms may limit government, but doubts these are strong enough to fully check the interests that drive politics.

It's long, but very worthwhile. Stay tuned for University of Arizona political philosopher Gerald Gaus, author of On Philosophy, Politics and Economics; Michael Munger, chair of the Duke University political science department; and Randy Barnett, professor of law at Georgetown University and author of Restoring the Lost Constitution.

Seriously, Why Are You Freaking Out?

My comments are teeming with racists good people who believe in the racial and cultural superiority of Americans of European descent clearly terrified by the prospect of the breakdown of Anglo-European cultural hegemony in America. The worry seems to be that with a slightly liberalized immigration regime the U.S. will swiftly devolve into some kind of squalid hell.

Like California?

Califonia Population by Ethnicity

[Click for bigger image.]

Presently, whites are well less than half the Calfornian population. Hispanics make up just more than a third. Asians at 12 percent are nearly double the black population. I'd guess it won't be long before Hispanics pass whites to become a plurality.

Now, if my fearful commenters aren't simply making things up in their paranoid dreams, wouldn't California be a complete disaster already? Of course, we all know that, were it a country, California would be the fifth or sixth largest economy in the world. The median household income in California, $54,385, ranks 11th in the U.S., and would put California right near the top of the world rankings.

No doubt the browning of California has become unpleasant for some white natives. But according to the 2007 United Van Lines internal migration study, California just had another year of decline in out-bound intra-U.S. migration rates, leaving net migration about a wash. And the out-migration that exists is probably more a result of price pressure than white flight, given that California is the most expensive state in the country in which to live. Indeed, the fact that more people don't leave due to such high costs is an indication of how desirable life in California must be. Arizona, a border state whose population is almost a third Hispanic (and that percentage is swiftly growing), is one of the favorite destinations for internal American migration, and in some recent years has been the favorite. So Arizona, which boasts a median family income right around the national median, is either doing just fine or the many thousands of Americans who move there each year are stupid.

So what gives my xenophobic friends? If the idea is that the U.S. will inevitably slide toward second-world status if the whole place comes to look a lot more like California and Arizona demographically, wouldn't you expect California and Arizona to be much poorer and much less popular? I mean, given the claims I'm getting from some of you, these places ought to be nightmares. But instead they are … really nice places to live!

Anyway, I can't say I'm looking forward to the explanation of how it is that, if suddenly cut loose from the Union, an independent California and its half-wit citizens would swiftly vote its way into conditions resembling the slums of Calcutta. But I'm pretty sure it's coming…

Talking about Happiness

This week on Free Will, I chat with Eric Weiner, author of NewYork Times bestseller, The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World. I didn't always agree with Eric's interpretation of some of the happiness data, but I found this a really fun, though-provoking hybrid of travel and science writing. As it happens, I met Eric when he called to interview me for this article on why Republicans are happier than Democrats, which appeared in yesterday's Washington Post. Here's my appearance:

Nowadays, politicians are hesitant to explicitly utter the H-word, choosing instead to dance around the subject. It's only a matter of time, though, before Republicans begin to crow about their happiness. “They can say, 'Look, I'm not being a stuffy, old-fashioned conservative,' ” says Will Wilkinson, a policy analyst with the libertarian Cato Institute. “There is real science that shows that if you go to church, if you don't get divorced, you'll be happier. That's tempting to any politician.”

Eric had asked whether using happiness research for political purposes was mostly just a left-wing thing, or if it might appeal to conservatives too. I said that if there are findings congenial to conservatives, and there are, then you can bet it won't go unmentioned, especially if it gives a scientific patina to what they believed in anyway. David Cameron was first out of the blocks on this, but I bet we'll see plenty of conservative references to happiness findings in the future.