Tim Lee on Patriotism

Tim Lee's response to Tim Sandefur (and therefore to Ilya Shapiro) is spot on. Do read the whole thing.

I especially liked this:

Loving your country because it embodies specific political ideals isn’t patriotism, it’s called having a political philosophy. Patriotism is loving your country because it’s your country, regardless of what political ideals it may or may not embody. Most people would not switch allegiances if they became convinced that another country better embodied their political ideals.

It is not obvious to me that other countries don't better embody the ideals I most care about. Because I do have a particularist attachment to America, I'm quite glad that its not obvious. I do love America (in much the same way I love Iowa and the Cato Institute). But I love liberty, prosperity, and human flourishing first. If another society does better in securing these things, it's a better society, and I would indeed switch my allegiances if it came down to it. That is, I have a political philosophy and I seriously.

Tim's conclusion is especially good:

It’s important to understand the social and psychological processes that lead people to be biased in favor of their own groups in part because it will make us more effective at persuading others to adopt our ideals. Our goal in Iran, for example, should not be to make Iranians patriotic Americans—an impossible task—but to make them (classical) liberals. The way to do that is to convince them that it’s possible—maybe even natural—to view liberalism and Iranian patriotism as compatible. This is one of the reasons I’m a big fan of Tom Palmer’s work to convince people around the world that liberty is not an American invention but the common heritage of mankind. Tom goes out of his way to find home-grown examples of liberty in the various countries where he works—writings of ancient Chinese philosophers in China, Sumerian writings in the Middle East, and so forth. We’re never going to turn Iranians or Chinese into American patriots. But we may be able to help them cultivate a more liberal conception of what it means to be an Iranian or a Chinese patriot.

That's exactly right. If you really care about liberty, you've got to ease up on the Americanism.

Happy Independence Day!

This is excellent:

Of course, Yglesias is correct and it's not easy to see how the American Revolution was legitimate. I suspect it wasn't. But if you think it was, then you're pretty clearly committed to the proposition that a violent overthrow of the American government this afternoon would be legitimate. Go for it!

Just so you're tempted to get too swept up in idolotrous Americanism, here's Herbert Spencer and George Kateb on patriotism. Also, Muppets, which are irrefutable evidence of the superiority of distinctively American culture.

Two Views on Luck and Redistribution

This one's mainly for political philosophy nerds. Here are some schematic thoughts…

Luck egalitarians argue that the essence of distributive justice is that the lucky compensate the unlucky. This has been an extremely popular view in academic political philosophy and it is also completely ridiculous. To me, at least. Luck egalitarianism strikes me as a kind of extreme desert conception of justice: material distribution should be in accordance with desert. But nobody really deserves anything, good or bad. All inequalities are due to luck, really. So once all the winners “compensate” all the losers, we arrive at something close to equal shares. I don't think this makes any sense at all absent a fatalistic hard-determinist conception of agency and responsibility, and no political philosophers actually seem to believe in that. But some of them do seem to believe in extreme luck egalitariansism, so that's a puzzle. I think it's motivated cognition. Psychologically, we start at the desirability of equal shares and we search toward a view that generates it.

It really is a weird view, and I think it's dying because it's fundamentally silly and rests on what David Schmidtz calls the Big Bang Fallacy — which is that if you didn't cause the origin of the universe, you don't deserve your attributes or the consequences of anything you have done. The peculiarity of luck egalitarianism is that it is so metaphysical.  Yet the idea isn't usually that the lucky everywhere should compensate the unlucky everywhere. It's that the lucky within a nation state should compensate their unlucky compatriots. But WTF? The nation state you happen to be born a citizen of is about the biggest piece of luck or unluck anyone ever runs into. If you're going to ground redistribution in strange metaphysical views about luck and desert, you've got to go all out and argue for immense global redistribution and not completely arbitrarily ignore the great good luck of having been born Dutch. If what you wanted to do is argue for bigger welfare payments from rich Dutch to poor Dutch, the hard-core luck egalitarian argument is way too strong.

A not-so-silly view about luck and redistribution is a “social insurance” view that is very prevalent in actual public policy, and which you'd think you'd see more defense of in actual philosophy, since it's quite amenable to standard contractualist forms of justification. In this view, a nation state is a kind of semi-voluntary (you can always move, but may not have better options) territorially-based mutual insurance scheme. People within the political jurisdiction form a sort of risk pool. There are defined a few socially insurable events such as a involuntary unemployment, a fall below a minimum income threshold, catastrophic illness, or what have you, and a schedule of benefits, tied to a variety of conditions for continuing payment, to help soften the blow of bad fortune. There are a number of advantages that accrue to the society as a whole from the presence of the insurance scheme in addition to the value of the insurance to individuals (an increase in entrepreneurial risk-taking, e.g.), so even those who happen to not need social insurance benefit from it and have reason to support it.

This is the standard classical liberal argument for a safety net. And it is quite plausible. It's so plausible that it's more or less what all successful societies do in one form or another.  So  I wonder why more folks on the academic left don't advance this kind of argument?

Could it be because a scheme of redistribution from the lucky to the unlucky that minimizes the harm from bad luck might do too little to limit the gains from good luck? Maybe. But that strikes me as a spiteful worry, hard to credit morally. What's the moral point of limiting the gains from good luck, once the downside of bad luck has been successfully limited?

By the way, I think Rawls gets incoherently stuck between hard luck egalitarianism (a lot of this work is due to him) and the social insurance view.  When you read Rawls as arguing that a system of stable social cooperation will have social insurance that limits the downside of risk, he's extremely plausible. When you read him as arguing that inequalities per se are dubious and have to be justified, since nobody deserves their parents, he's much much less plausible because he's appealing to a metaphysical theory of just distribution that has no place inside his contactualist justificatory structure.

Again, these are notes. Forgive the prose. I am probably repeating things other people have said better or which I have read and forgotten. Citations please.

World Getting Happier

The new World Values Survey is out and these dismal United States comes in 16th in the world in the WVS happiness rankings, just between such Scandinavian hellholes as Sweden and Norway. You'll see the usual Latin American bonus in the data, with Puerto Rico, Colombia, and El Salvador populating the upper reaches of the rankings. However, the U.S. has now pulled ahead Mexico. Maybe it's because all the Mexicans who moved to the U.S. Denmark retains its happiness crown.

The real news is that happiness increased in so many places. Univesity of Michigan political scientist Ronald Ingelhart, director of the WVS, explains why. From the University of Michigan press release:

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—People in most countries around the world are happier these days, according to newly released data from the World Values Survey based at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.

Data from representative national surveys conducted from 1981 to 2007 show the happiness index rose in an overwhelming majority of nations studied.

“It's a surprising finding,” said U-M political scientist Ronald Inglehart, who directs the World Values Surveys and is the lead author of an article on the topic to be published in the July 2008 issue of the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. “It's widely believed that it's almost impossible to raise an entire country's happiness level.”


The new findings from the World Values Surveys not only show that during the past 25 years, happiness has in fact risen substantially in most countries. Fully as important as the fact that happiness rose is the reason why. In recent decades, low-income countries such as India and China have experienced unprecedented rates of economic growth, dozens of medium-income countries have democratized and there has been a sharp rise of gender equality and tolerance of ethnic minorities and gays and lesbians in developed societies.

Economic growth, democratization and rising social tolerance have all contributed to rising happiness, with democratization and rising tolerance having even more impact than economic growth. All of these changes have contributed to providing people with a wider range of choice in how to live their lives—which is a key factor in happiness.

The people of rich countries tend to be happier than those of poor countries, but even controlling for economic factors, certain types of societies are much happier than others.

“The results clearly show that the happiest societies are those that allow people the freedom to choose how to live their lives,” Inglehart said.

The world is getting better. Wealth and freedom makes it better.

Governments of Men Governed by Laws

Arnold Kling reminds me of this Woodrow Wilson stunner:

I am not repeating the famous sentence of the Massachusetts Bill of Rights, “to the end that this may be a government of laws and not of men.” There never was such a government. Constitute them how you will, governments are always governments of men, and no part of any government is better than the men to whom that part is entrusted. The gauge of excellence is not the law under which officers act, but the conscience and intelligence with which they apply it, if they apply it at all.

I've always been fascinated by this passage because it is both obviously true and obviously false. How it can be both at once?

Wilson is right that laws are not magic spells that bind the rulers to enforce them. The effective law is the law applied by the ruling class. He's right about that. But not so fast. A well-designed constitution knows this and sets competing ruling elites jealous of their turf against each other. The will of some officers of the law can get us a long way in checking the will of others. It's amazing how power-seeking opportunists can become sticklers for the letter of the law. Of course, if they all manage to collude, we're pretty close to Wilson's world, but perhaps not entirely in it. For what determines the attitude of the ruling class to the laws? In a constitutional moral culture, like America's, the Constitution is widely believed to have a bit something more than merely conventional moral authority. Some of the ruling class, including many of the judges in the court of final appeal, will share this belief, and if they don't they'll have to be pretty coy about it in order to avoid political backlash from the constitution-loving people and their very learned and motivated constitutional lawyers. Under those conditions, the laws will tend to guide action, if only loosely. In that case, the content of the laws surely to a large extent determines the excellence of government.

So, sure. Constitutions are rarely constraints on political behavior in the absences of a political culture that buys into the legitimacy of the constitution. But some constitutions, if faithfully applied for enough time, can help create social conditions that lead the people living under the constitution to internalize and affirm its values and principles. When folks like Wilson complain about our antediluvian constitution, they're really complaining about the moral culture that the constitution itself helped to create.

I think if you put it all more plainly, Wilson's point is obviously crazy. Laws change all the time and things get better or worse because the laws do tend to get more or less faithfully enforced and so what the law says matters. If the ruling powers didn't need to actually change the law to get things done, but merely needed to do their thing with “conscience and intelligence,” then the ruling elite would worry less about changing the laws than they actually do.

Hey Kids: Frugality Is for Chumps

Steven Levitt's favorite personal financial advice:

When I was a first-year assistant professor at the University of Chicago, my friend and department chair, Jose Scheinkman, relayed the advice Milton Friedman had given him 20 years earlier, “Don’t save too much.”

The logic was simple: An academic’s salary rises steadily over time, as do outside opportunities — like writing popular economics books! The right reason to save is so you can even out your consumption. When times are good, you should save, and when times are bad, borrow.

Most likely, I would never be as poor again as I was starting out. That meant I should have been borrowing, not saving. I didn’t follow the advice as fully as I should have, partly because my wife insisted we save — she is not quite as good an economist as Milton Friedman.

Let me just say that Milton Friedman would think I'm a genius. And Kerry's not about to cramp our consumerist style.

But seriously, it's pretty hard not to be against over-saving when young once you grasp the symmetry of savings and credit. If a consumption experience now is worth the cost plus expected interest then you should go for it. In general, people in their twenties travel too little. College kids with a decent projected life-cycle income trajectory who eat ramen anyway are the mirror image of the imprudent never-saver who ends up eating “cat food” (Ramen is cheaper than cat food, by the way. I investigated this in college.)
The difficulty is not having a time machine, which prevents certainty about lifetime income, and so gets in the way of really truly optimal consumption smoothing. Confidence biases might be problematic as well. For example, I just know I'm going to strike it rich any day now, so really it's just silly to save.