I appreciate Scott Alexander’s willingness to address neoreactionary ideas at a deeper level than one usually finds in progressive screeds. He makes excellent points that force us neoreactionaries to sharpen our arguments and refine our positions. I wish we had more interlocutors like him. We often accuse the Left of operating in an ideological echo chamber, so we need to ensure that we are constantly deconstructing our own.
In any debate, the devil is in the details. Too often, however, we conflate the details with the debate itself. Arguments are nested within arguments, and within this nesting exists a hierarchy of importance. The crux of a debate rarely hinges on a single data point but rather on a collection of data, a preponderance of evidence, a forceful trend in one direction or the other. The tête-à-têtes that make up a debate move that force toward one position or another. But we should not confuse this small movement with an end to the debate writ large. No one is going to change his progressive or reactionary mind based on, e.g., the results of an argument about the Roman corn dole.
With all that in mind, I’ll address some points brought up by Alexander in his counter-argument, recognizing, from the outset, that many of these issues are nested within a larger argument over worldviews, and that any one of these sub-issues are but one node within a larger argumentative network. Let’s not lose the forest for the trees.
Part I. Rome.
Alexander’s reformulation of his original argument brings me into almost entire agreement with him. He writes:
The original question was whether ancient Rome could be called a progressive society. I say it was. Scharlach objects that it wasn’t, because it didn’t have the particular brand of progressive philosophy we do today. But I respond that the philosophy is irrelevant to what we presumably care about – social policies and social outcomes. Policies (like welfare) and outcomes (like the existence of a large class of welfare-dependent poor) were the same in classical Rome and modern America, and for the same reasons. Therefore, it is correct and useful to call classical Rome an early progressive society, though with the obvious caveat that it did not go as far in that direction as our own.
I did indeed object to the labeling of Rome as “progressive” because Rome “didn’t have the particular brand of progressive philosophy we do today.” I don’t think Alexander negates my objection. Rather, he simply argues that my point is irrelevant—“philosophy is irrelevant to . . . social policies and social outcomes.” The title of my original post was The Motives of Social Policy. Ergo, my entire post is irrelevant. However, the way Alexander re-frames this question of social policies and outcomes, I agree that my post is irrelevant. Let’s not quibble over semantics, Alexander says, providing instead a wonderfully Machiavellian analysis of “progressive” societies wherever they may be found and whatever their political ideals:
According to legend, Frederick the Great declared of his conquests: “I will begin by taking. I shall find scholars later to demonstrate my perfect right” (okay, Reactionaries, I will admit Frederick the Great was hella cool). If Frederick was in the welfare business, he might have said “I will begin by giving welfare. Later, I will find scholars to come up with a philosophy supporting welfare.” . . .
I’m sure if Frederick conquered both classical Rome and 21st-century America, his Roman supporters would declare he was following the will of Jupiter, and his American supporters would declare he was trying to help disprivileged minorities.
Indeed! Most neoreactionaries strain to make this same point: progressive lip-service to “social justice” is in fact conquest by other means (c.f., e.g., demographic history of Los Angeles or Detroit). Progressivism is about grasping power in a society that cannot afford the costs of direct violent conflict. I am in total agreement with Alexander here.
Alexander also writes:
States that are militarily secure, economically advanced, multicultural, and urbanized tend to adopt progressive policies (here I am confusingly lumping some values like multiculturalism in as policies, but you know what I mean). Ancient Rome and modern America are both militarily secure, economically advanced, multicultural, and urbanized.
Again, I am in complete agreement on this point. Just now I wrote that progressivism is the means by which individuals grasp power in a society that cannot afford the costs of direct violent conflict. Societies that cannot afford conflict are precisely the successful and secure ones. Neither neoreactionaries nor Black Panthers are going to war because that might cost them their Netflix and Starbucks, not to mention the USG would be quick to throw them all in jail.
One more time, then: Progressivism is the political means by which individuals grasp power in a society that cannot afford the costs of direct violent conflict because it has become urbanized and economically advanced. For example, in a society in which blacks, mestizos, whites, Jews, and Asians all live within a few hundred yards of one another, and they all live relatively comfortable lives, sheltered by a strong economy and national military . . . why the hell would you light the fire of ethnic tensions in that society? Much better to circulate false memes about equality and acceptance. These memes keep the ethnic tensions in check. Who knows? Maybe some day all the ethnics will actually believe these bullshit memes. Someday . . . In the meantime, it’s enough that they pretend they believe them, so that everyone can enjoy their Netflix.
One small point of continuing disagreement with Alexander over the Rome question. He writes:
If [Scharlach’s] essay is trying to compare the grateful Roman poor and the entitled, demanding modern poor, I propose that the Roman recipients of the annona were as entitled and demanding as any modern.
They may have been equally demanding, but what they were demanding was very, very different. I can feel sympathy for an underclass that demands its right to basic food items. I can feel no sympathy for an underclass that demands its right to, e.g., free tax credits for purchasing $2500 hand bags.
Part II. Alexander’s Progressive Values Equation.
This whole discussion is interesting enough, but it is mostly valuable as an entry point into a more basic discussion about the emergence of progressive values. Alexander provides an equation for this emergence:
Urbanization + Growth -> Social Change -> Progressive Values
(really the “social change” node should be called “pressure for social change”, and it and the “progressive values” node should have little circular arrows both pointing at each other, but let’s keep it simple)
He provides an example of his equation:
A 25th century historian, looking back at our own age, might notice two things. She would notice that suddenly, around the end of the 20th century, everyone started getting very fat. And she would notice that suddenly, around the end of the 20th century, the “fat acceptance movement” started to become significant. She might conclude, very rationally, that some people started a fat acceptance movement, it was successful, and so everyone became very fat.
With clearer knowledge of our era, we know better. We know that people started getting fat for, uh, reasons. It seems to have a lot to do with the greater availability and better taste of fatty, sugary foods. It might also have to do with complicated biological reasons like hormone disrupters in our plastics. But we have excellent evidence it’s not because of the fat acceptance movement, which started long after obesity rates began to increase. If we really needed to prove it, we could investigate whether obesity is more common in populations with good access to fat acceptance memes (like, uh, Wal-Mart shoppers and American Samoans).
To us early-21st century-ites, it’s pretty clear why the fat acceptance movement started now. Its natural demographic is fat people, there are more fat people around to support it, they feel like they have strength in numbers. and non-fat people are having trouble stigmatizing fat people because it’s much harder to stigmatize a large group than a small group (no pun intended).
Once more, I broadly agree with Alexander here. Now, at some point, once the progressive values are in circulation, a feedback mechanism emerges that accelerates the social change. But Alexander is correct that before those values enter wide circulation, certain social, political, or demographic conditions must already be in place. Obviously! There needs to be fat people for there to be a fat acceptance movement. (Likewise, there needs to be a lot of people divorcing and already-progressive divorce law before you get no-fault divorce.)
Let’s input some specifics into Alexander’s equation relating to fat acceptance. We could quibble about the inputs, of course, but this is just an illustration:
Urbanization (more sedentary lifestyles) + Growth (more access to sugary foods; hormone disrupters in plastics) –> Social Change (more fat people) –> Progressive Values (fat acceptance movement)
I agree with this equation, but I agree with it as a purely descriptive matter. The equation captures how progressive values emerge from diverse material conditions, but as a normative matter, I think this equation is precisely the problem. Once Social Change and Progressive Values enter into a feedback loop, sooner or later, there is no incentive to combat the inputs leading to the emergence of that feedback loop. Again, as a normative matter, I don’t think that “obesity” is a value my culture should adhere to, and I certainly don’t want to see people “optimizing for obesity.” But that is what may be happening. Why? See the equation.
To combat the feedback loop, you need to combat its inputs, if possible. How do you combat the inputs in the equation above? There are many ways to do it, but one way not to do it is to foster the progressive value of fat acceptance. If obesity deserves our respect and acceptance, then what incentive exists to combat the root causes of obesity? We might for a while pay lip service to the idea that “well, fat acceptance is not about refusing to combat obesity but about being nice to fat people. We want both!” You can’t have both. If a society decides to be nice to X, then X it will accept and X it will have because X will eventually become normalized. Indeed, isn’t that what the fat acceptance movement is all about? Normalizing fatness? That is the end result of Alexander’s Progressive Values Equation: normalization.
Urbanization (more sedentary lifestyles) + Growth (more access to sugary foods; hormone disrupters in plastics) –> Social Change (more fat people) –> Progressive Values (fat acceptance movement) = Normalization (fat is a normal and legally protected way of life)
I would rather see the following equation:
Urbanization (more sedentary lifestyles) + Growth (more access to sugary foods; hormone disrupters in plastics) –> Social Change (more fat people) –> Reactionary Values (tough love on the obese) = Incentives (combat sedentary lifestyle, sugary foods; surgery; etc.)
Now, obesity is largely genetic, so I don’t think we should shame fat people any more than we should shame low-IQ students for dropping out of high school. Fat Shaming Week was about pushing back against the normalization of obesity, not about making fun of fat girls. However, by responding to Social Change (more fat people) with Reactionary Values (tough love on the obese), the end result is not normalization of obesity but the creation of a society in which fat people want to combat their own fatness to the best of their ability, with help and support from the skinnies who have set the anti-obesity standard. Will all obese people lose weight? Of course not. Like I said, there are obvious genetic issues involved, as well as intractable environmental issues. But there will be more weight loss and less obesity in general in a world that responds to increased obesity rates with Reaction rather than Universal Progressive Acceptance. And I think that, up until now, America has generally responded to obesity in a wonderfully right-wing manner. As I said, the fat acceptance movement is still fringe. The only fat people I know who want to be accepted as such are my far-left colleagues; my Spanish family is quite large, but all of them actively try not to be, and some have been quite successful.
The fat acceptance movement is still fringe, but growing (heh heh). It may grow very quickly because we live in a hyper-mediated world in which memes circulate swiftly. However, will it grow because there are more fat people?
Alexander seems to imply that numbers drive this emergence, from social change, of progressive values of acceptance:
To us early-21st century-ites, it’s pretty clear why the fat acceptance movement started now. Its natural demographic is fat people, there are more fat people around to support it, they feel like they have strength in numbers. and non-fat people are having trouble stigmatizing fat people because it’s much harder to stigmatize a large group than a small group (no pun intended).
Indeed there are more fat people around today. But what do we mean by “more”? As I discussed in this post:
The population increases, but the percentage of people committing themselves to political movements probably stays the same. But . . . math: the population increases, the percentage stays the same, but nevertheless the raw number of people getting involved in politics increases. Conservatives in their 70s and 80s are asking themselves, “Where did all these wierdos come from?” There is not a higher percentage of people than ever feeding their bizarre Rights fetish; but there are more people from which the same percentage of political malcontents can be gathered. Ergo, seemingly more wierdos with a Rights fetish. And they are the people who matter. Neither the nation at large nor the fickle politicians notice the 90% not agitating for political movements; they notice the 10% who do. They’re the few, the proud, the Neopuritans with a megaphone and an attitude that says, ‘by any means necessary.’
More fat people are not needed to fuel a fat acceptance movement. More fat people willing to start and agitate for a fat acceptance movement are needed to fuel a fat acceptance movement. But there needn’t be very many of them. I think Alexander is wrong to implicate Social Change with large numbers of people. If it were a matter of numbers, the LGBT movement should never have gotten off the ground. Only about 5% of the population is LGBT, and certainly only a small percentage of that already small percentage is willing to agitate for LGBT rights. If you add in the straight “allies,” maybe you get back to 5% of the whole population agitating for LGBT rights. Yes, 5% of 300 million is a lot of people, but it’s not a lot of people given the total population.
The conclusion I draw is that the influence of political agitation does not control for total population size. This fact is the basis of pressure politics. Pressure politics—and its latest manifestation, “shame politics”—relies on that relatively small percentage of the population that is bored or unemployed enough to commit to political agitation. The progressives win because they know pressure politics. They know how to control the breeze to create the appearance of a storm, which ends up causing a real storm. Progressives know they don’t need ‘the people’—an empty rhetorical concept—they just need a few percent of the people. And they need just one percent of that few percent to agitate, to scare CEOs into firing people, to scare politicians into voting for progressive policy.
Alexander’s equation is incomplete. He seems to assume that Social Change will be widespread, and the widespread nature of Social Change leads to Progressive Values, a natural emergence. But the change needn’t be widespread at all. In terms of pure percentages, there are no more LGBT individuals (or blacks, for that matter) in America today than there were 100 years ago. It should, in Alexander’s terms, still be easy to stigmatize these small groups. In reality, though, people lose their jobs and are socially shunned if they stigmatize these groups.
Small groups with great political Voice. A progressive thing. Which would be fine if these groups were agitating to terra-form Mars or build a Death Star. They aren’t. What are they doing instead? Go back to the strategy with which we started:
Progressivism is the political means by which individuals grasp power in a society that cannot afford the costs of direct violent conflict because it has become urbanized and economically advanced.
Neoreaction is, in part, the realization that progressivism is power politics among groups who don’t think they have enough power and are putting all their energy (and, ultimately, the nation’s energy) into gaining the power they believe is rightly theirs. Left unchecked, this progressive impulse can lead nowhere but down, into cultural and intellectual decline—just like Rome.
Everyone has read Scott Alexanders’ anti-reactionary FAQ. Handle is probably right not to let Alexander frame the debate by responding directly. However, one issue Alexander brings up is something I’ve thought about addressing myself, so I may as well address it in response to his FAQ. It has to do with the genealogy of progressivism.
Moldbug and most neoreactionaries situate progressivism within post-Reformation Protestantism, claiming that the nearest ancestor of contemporary progressivism is 19th century millennial theology. Alexander wrongly associates our genealogy with Calvinism: “So please, tell me again how utopian desires for peace and social justice were invented wholesale by John Calvin in 1550,” he writes. I don’t know anyone who claimed that, and if someone did, I would thoroughly disagree with him.
However, Alexander’s larger point is that social policies that look an awful lot like modern progressive policies clearly existed before the Reformation. He travels back to Rome to prove it:
The ideals commonly called progressive predate Calvin by several millennia. Consider the example of Rome. The early Romans not only overthrew their kings in a popular revolution and instituted a Republic, but experienced five plebian secessions (read: giant nationwide strikes aiming at greater rights for the poor). After the first, the Roman government created the position of tribune, a representative for the nation’s poor with significant power in the government. After the third, the government passed a sort of bill of rights guaranteeing the poor protection against arbitrary acts of government. After the fifth, the government passed the Lex Hortensiana, which said that plebians could hold a referendum among themselves and the results would be binding on the entire populace, rich and poor alike. By the later Empire, even slaves were guaranteed certain rights, including the right to file complaints against their masters.
The Romans pioneered the modern welfare state, famously memorialized by its detractors as panem et circenses – bread and circuses. Did you know welfare reform was a major concern of Julius Caesar? That ancient Rome probably had a higher percent of its population on the dole than modern New York? That the Romans basically worshipped a goddess of food stamps?
. . . Equality has a clear antecedent in the plebian secessions of ancient Rome, peace in the Pax Romana, social justice in the Roman welfare system, and community in…well, it’s so broadly defined here that it could be anything, but if we’re going to make it the leadership of benevolent public servants, let’s just throw in a reference to the philosopher-kings of Plato’s Republic (yeah, fine, it’s Greek. It still counts)
First, it’s problematic to associate the plebian secessions with “strikes aimed at greater rights for the poor.” The plebian strikes were in fact aimed at greater rights for plebians, who could be wealthier than the patricians. Most of them were what today we would call the lower-middle and middle classes. Alexander is playing fast and loose with his definitions, as he does in most of his FAQ.
The more important point worth looking at is Alexander’s discussion of the Roman welfare state. Alexander could easily have looked outside ancient Rome to find examples of what he calls “progressivism.” E.g., in Islamic society during the age of the Caliphate, or in the charity policies designed by the Church in the Middle Ages. But the question is: do these seemingly “progressive” policies stem from what today we would consider progressivism? Do they have anything to do with “social justice”? We should remember that when looking back at history, curious similarities arise, but they do so at incongruous joints, and their existence may not signify anything but the fact that large-scale political ecologies have limited practical expressions. Think of it this way: A society whose political discourse and ideals sanction welfare to the poor because it is believed that the underclass is genetically inferior, incapable of taking care of itself, and might revolt if not given enough food . . . that’s a very different society from one whose political ideals sanction welfare because it is believed the poor have a right to good living standards or that the poor deserve welfare because it re-distributes goods rightly theirs but taken from them through an oppressive economic system.
Contemporary progressive policies emerge from ideals and discourses about morality, justice, oppression, and rights. The poor (especially the dark-skinned poor) deserve the welfare they get; it is theirs by Constitutional right. It is a moral and political imperative not to take away the welfare they receive and to give them more if possible. Progressives actively try to alleviate the shame once associated with receiving welfare. Pointing out that the poor in America have it pretty good is a distinctly right-wing thing to do. “Food stamps” are now “EBT cards” that look and function like debit cards. Medicaid patients sit in the same waiting rooms as patients paying high insurance premiums, and you can’t tell the difference. (Well, you can, but . . .) Welfare in America has become a right, a moral imperative, a matter of justice and just desserts, a thing that brings no shame, a thing to be proud of, a thing to demand, a thing to stand up for.
When categorizing social policy, the motives and ideas behind a policy are just as important as the policy itself. Among the ancient Israelites, slaves and indentured servants were freed every 50 years, during Jubilee. But obviously, Jubilee should not be compared to 19th century abolitionist movements. Roughly similar policy. Very different motives. And a very different context. Abolitionists did not argue that the slaves should be freed and the fields laid fallow because the Sabbath demands rest and that, as servants of God, men should not always be bound to serve both man and God. The moral fervor of abolitionists was cranked up much higher than that and drew from new and radical Protestant theologies that mostly eschewed the Bible. The Good Book is clear that, outside of Jubilee, slavery and servitude are fine with God as long as masters treat their slaves decently. (But as far as I know, not a single abolitionist took the position that slavery needn’t be abolished as long as laws were passed to ensure the better treatment of slaves.)
So Scott Alexander is correct that social policies in ancient Rome look similar to contemporary progressive welfare policies. But were the motives the same? Did the poor and the plebians get free or reduced-cost corn, grain, wine, and olive oil . . . . because they deserved it? because it was theirs by moral and legal right? because it was a matter of social justice?
I’m not a classicist, so I’m willing to be corrected on this, but as near as I can tell, the Roman dole was wrapped up in discourses about a) the might and wealth of Rome and b) goddess worship. Welfare policies in ancient Rome were built upon very different ideals and emerged from very different motives than contemporary progressivism’s welfare policies. Nowhere have I been able to fine a discussion of the Roman congiarium in terms of rights or justice. The dole was there because it made the emperor more popular and demonstrated the wealth of Rome to the people. What’s more, the dole was personified as Annona, a goddess to be worshiped and thanked. Scott Alexander even recognizes this difference in motive when he says that ancient Romans “worshiped a goddess of food stamps.”
Indeed they did. And that’s the whole point. When was the last time you heard welfare policies discussed in terms of worshipful gratitude, mercy, and thankfulness? If that were the discourse surrounding welfare policy, America would be a very different country. It seems that Roman welfare and American welfare are as different from one another as Jubilee is from abolitionism.
In its general, ill-defined sense, “pressure politics” was introduced by whichever hominid first realized that the easiest way to influence his leader was to gather a few malcontent males to look intimidating so that the leader decided, Ok, yeah, you guys are right, we’ll move to the next valley in search of food even though my harem likes this valley because it’s close to the river. No violence or mass revolt needed. The threat of it works fine, too.
In a more concrete sense, pressure politics could only have been invented in a democratic society powered by mass media. Wikipedia tells us that its origins are most commonly associated with 20th century social reform movements—specifically, the temperance movement, the most utopian of all progressive movements. And the master of pressure politics from the social reform era was Wayne Wheeler, the architect of Prohibition:
Discovering the power of utilizing mass media to exert pressure on politicians is usually attributed to Wayne Wheeler, the de facto leader of the Anti-Saloon League. Under his mentorship, a number of skilled practitioners of pressure politics emerged within the league. One leader of the league testified that prior to [Prohibition’s] passage in Congress, he had compiled a list of 13,000 business people who supported Prohibition. They were then given their instructions at the crucial time:
“We blocked the telegraph wires in Congress for three days. One of our friends sent seventy- five telegrams, each signed differently with the name of one his subordinates. The campaign was successful. Congress surrendered. The first to bear the white flag was Senator Warren Harding of Ohio. He told us frankly he was opposed to the amendment, but since it was apparent from the telegrams that the business world was demanding it, he would submerge his own opinion and vote for submission.
Politicians in a democracy are like willow reeds. The lightest breeze, they bend that direction. That is a feature, not a bug, of democratic politics more generally. Whoever can channel the breeze can control the entire political climate and eventually cause a typhoon.
In less metaphorical terms, 20th century progressives realized, quite brilliantly, that the pressure in pressure politics can do its work without actually assembling that much pressure. (Just a few malcontents can look intimidating.) The appearance of pressure—the appearance that ‘the people’ want something—is far more important than the substance. To make it appear as though the people want something, you don’t need the people. You just need the rhetorical construct and 13,000 businessmen with varying degrees of sympathy to your cause. Not even the businessmen. Just their names, per Wheeler.
Take any national population. Only a certain percentage of it will care enough about politics to involve themselves in politics in any way. Only a certain percentage of that percentage will be committed enough to become persistent activists.
In the past, when most of the population was busy tending gardens, raising livestock, and feeding itself, not many people got involved in politics. Today, much of the population is no longer busy, so we can expect an increase in the number of people getting involved in politics, but still, most people don’t get involved, and the statistical limitations noted above are still in effect.
The population increases, but the percentage of people committing themselves to political movements probably stays the same. But . . . math: the population increases, the percentage stays the same, but nevertheless the raw number of people getting involved in politics increases. Conservatives in their 70s and 80s are asking themselves, “Where did all these wierdos come from?” There is not a higher percentage of people than ever feeding their bizarre Rights fetish; but there are more people from which the same percentage of political malcontents can be gathered. Ergo, more wierdos with a Rights fetish. And they are the people who matter. Neither the nation at large nor the fickle politicians notice the 90% not agitating for political movements; they notice the 10% who do. They’re the few, the proud, the Neopuritans with a megaphone and an attitude that says, ‘by any means necessary.’
10% of 50 million can do a lot of damage. 10% of 300 million . . .
Online, it’s easy to agitate. You may be committed to anti-racism in only the vaguest, “I don’t want to be an ass hole” kind of way, and that’s all the Progressives need because all they need you to do is tap a dozen keys and hit Enter. In Wheeler’s day, there was a measure of commitment to be made on the part of the agitators. A letter had to be hand-written and posted; a long walk into town had to be made if you wanted to protest or send a telegram. Today? Don’t leave your bed, you can still sign a petition or share a link.
Pressure politics—and its latest manifestation, “shame politics”—relies on that relatively small percentage of the population that is bored or unemployed enough to commit to political agitation. The progressives win because they know pressure politics. They know how to control the breeze to create the appearance of a storm, which ends up causing a real storm. And with increasing population (of the inherently leftist sort) and increasing proliferation of mass communication, pressure politics is easier than ever. The progressives know they don’t need ‘the people’—which was always an empty rhetorical concept—they just need one percent of the people. And they need just one percent of that one percent to agitate, to scare CEOs into firing people, to scare politicians into voting for progressive policy. With the right leadership, a few hundred thousand puritanical Liberal Arts students can control the political climate and thus control the immediate fate of the nation.
Earlier this year, David Friedman found himself in a debate with two self-professed Bleeding Heart Libertarians (BHLs for short, though I can’t detect any serious differences between BHLs and pro-capitalism neo-liberals). Friedman’s main charge against the BHLs is their attempt to smuggle a concept into libertarian philosophy that is neither well defined nor given objective parameters, namely social justice. The BHL definition of social justice is reliant on vague phrases like “special concern for the poor” and “minimally decent lives.” Friedman’s point is that if social justice is to be taken seriously as a politically or economically worthwhile concept, then its definition needs to be more rigorous. However, forcing the BHLs to formulate a more rigorous definition of social justice was like pulling teeth.
Part of my criticism of [BHL] Jason’s position centered on a definition of social justice offered on his facebook page, using the term “minimally decent lives.” In his response he switches to something closer to the definition I offered from Z&T, claiming that the two are close enough to both describe the same cluster concept.
That raises an obvious question: Does he agree that “minimally decent lives” in one of his definitions is, as I argued, dishonest mush, a term implying an objective standard that does not exist? If he does agree, he ought to take his use of such a term as some evidence of a problem with the concept whose definition he is offering, for reasons along the lines of those offered by George Orwell in his classic essay “Politics and the English Language.” If your objective is to clearly express ideas that you are thinking clearly about, there is no need to use terms that are emotive but meaningless.
. . . they wanted to incorporate social justice into libertarian philosophy. So I tried to get them to tell me what “social justice” meant. To put some substance into the concept, one needs more than concern for the poor, one needs a special concern for the poor, so I asked them to explain what that meant, and they didn’t.
For BHLs, social justice is emotive but meaningless: in other words, rhetorical.
In The New Rhetoric, legal philosopher Chaim Perelman has this to say about values like ‘Justice’ as they are used in argumentation:
Their claim to universal agreement . . . seems to be due solely to their generality. They can be regarded as valid for a universal audience only on condition that their content not be specified; as soon as we try to go into detail [e.g., about social justice], we meet only the adherence of particular audiences. According to E. Dupreel, universal values deserve to be called “values of persuasion” because they are “means of persuasion which are that and no more than that; they are, as it were, spiritual tools which can be completely separated from the material they make it possible to shape . . .”
It is thus by virtue of their being vague that these values appear as universal values and lay claim to a status similar to that of facts. To the extent that they are precisely formulated, they are simply seen to conform to the aspirations of particular groups. (76)
Terms like “social justice” and “equality” get their emotive power from being vague. This is why progressives generally don’t like agonistic, logical debate. Logical debate requires precise definition of terms from the outset; but a precise definition of terms would unmask the progressive insistence on “equality” or “justice” as what it really is: special-interest pandering or, in other cases, a bizarre form of post-millennial utopianism. (I don’t mind when someone like Eric Holder tells us point blank that justice for “his people” is what really matters; at least he is honest about his partisanship, not pretending that he actually has universal aspirations when using superficially universal terms.)
All sides in political discourse make use of vaguely defined, emotive terms. “Freedom” and “duty” are popular terms on the American right. However, the test of a political philosophy is whether or not these universal values can be defined more precisely without completely negating their emotive power or unmasking them as partisan rhetoric. My own journey away from de facto leftism began with a recognition that people on the right were much more willing to delve into the first principles behind and definitions of their emotive concepts and terms. Beneath their rhetoric was more than ‘mere rhetoric.’
Friedman’s debate with the BHLs demonstrates that the rhetoric of social justice is indeed built upon smoke and mirrors and does not even try to correspond to reality. There are no first principles or attempts at precise definition because the entire progressive political philosophy finds its reason-for-being in emotion and subjective moralistic judgment. For example, Friedman persuasively argues that when progressives talk about the human right to “minimally decent standards of living” or to the meeting of “basic needs,” they really mean humans have a right “to live in a way that I, an upper-middle class leftist, would vaguely recognize as comfortable and meaningful.” There is no attempt to give a precise calculus to the concept of a “decent standard of living,” no attempt to define or to formulate the cost of “basic needs.” Why? Because then they would start to sound like Friedman:
A reasonably objective definition of “basic needs” might be “enough food and shelter so that their lack would not greatly reduce your life expectancy.” To make it more precise, replace “greatly reduce” with “reduce at least in half relative to those who had such food and shelter.” What would that work out to?There are parts of the U.S. where housing is pretty cheap, down to about $100/room/month, probably less if I searched further. Assume that people are packed in ten beds to a room, along the lines of housing for tramps in London as described by Orwell in Down and Out in London and Paris. That gets annual housing cost per person down to about a hundred dollars.On further thought, that’s too high. There are parts of the U.S. where the weather is temperate enough so that living outdoors, perhaps with a roof to shelter you from the rain, is not a serious risk to health. So all you need is some empty land in such an area, enough roofs for everyone to huddle under when it rains, and local authorities willing to put up with the land being used as a refuge for the homeless. Cost per person close to zero. Add a little for porta-potties and a water supply.
The emotive power is gone, and with it goes the entire power of progressivism.
It’s human nature to be wooed by the power of emotive words and symbols. The power of religion likewise finds it fuel in the emotional needs of human beings. The value of a religion, like the value of a political philosophy, lies in its willingness to delve logically into the nature of its emotive terms and concepts, to prove that its emotive aspects do not rest upon rhetorical smoke and mirrors but rather correspond in some way to reality. (Whether those proofs are successful or not isn’t the point here.)
Humans have an uncanny ability to turn on the ‘logical’ or ‘realist’ part of their brain in one domain, but to shut it down entirely in other domains, to rely instead on emotion and subjective judgment, allowing themselves to be wooed by emotive words and symbols that in other contexts would send their logical brains into critical overdrive. It’s one thing to let the logical brain get turned off when attending to the kinds of needs fulfilled by religion—a recognition of sin, a need for forgiveness, a need for community, a need for spiritual comfort, et cetera. I think the needs fulfilled by religion are inherently emotional, inherently a-logical (I wouldn’t say illogical). And anyway, how a man works out his salvation is a private affair between him, his God, and perhaps his family. If such a process operates on emotion, what do I care? It doesn’t affect me, nor does it affect the world at large.
The trouble with progressivism is a) that it is emotive, b) that it is (unlike religion or right-wing populism) emotive and built on smoke and mirrors—emotive but meaningless, as we just saw—and c) that its meaningless emotionalism is designed to be coerced into the political workings of Western society.
Maybe coerced is the wrong word. There have been fights between left and right, yes, but the history of the West for at least 200 years has been the history of ever-leftward movement. An obvious reason for how the left took and kept power (not the only reason, of course) is that progressivism is, as Friedman points out about Bleeding Heart Libertarianism, vague enough to be emotionally satisfying.
Progressivism is feel-good words, feel-good symbols, feel-good rallying, feel-good values. What does it matter if progressivism takes reality into consideration? It feels fucking good. It satisfies the emotional needs of guilty egalitarians. It is emotive but meaningless, sure, but like I said, humans are perfectly capable of turning off the demand for meaning in order to satisfy the demand for emotional fulfillment.
Progressivism is a political platform of irrational emotion and subjective moralistic judgment. The history of progressivism’s leftward march is the history of people turning off their logical brains and booting up their emotions. Okay for religion. Bad for socio-political policy.
I’ve withheld comment on the George Zimmerman trial because it’s not an edifying subject—it’s intellectual junk food, a soap opera. I agree with James Goulding that our blogs should elevate the discussion, which, if we want Dark Enlightenment ideas to spread, is a better strategy than writing screeds about “the Jews control America!” or “fuckin niggers at it again!”
However, the latest round of Zimmerman punditry deserves comment.
Matthew Yglesias, who is, if possible, an even whiter Spaniard than I am, writes the following in a post entitled “Bayes’ Theorem for Dummies”:
I think what Cohen really means to be arguing isn’t so much that neither he nor Zimmerman are racists, but that racism is the correct social and political posture. That white people have good reason to fear black men, and that therefore all black men should be put in a subordinate position. But as a logical argument, Cohen here is falling afoul of very poor statistical inference . . .
. . . the fact that young black men are disproportionately likely to be involved in violent crime in no way licenses the inference that you should stop random black men on the street and begin treating them like criminals.
For example, since moving to a majority black city 10 years ago, it is the case that 100 percent of the people who randomly assaulted me on the street were African-American. And yet that was a single incident on one day out of thousands. The overwhelming preponderance of black men I walk past on the street on a day-to-day basis—even the young ones, even the ones wearing hoodies—aren’t committing any violent crimes. If I were to start questioning every single black male teenager I come across as a criminal suspect, I would very much be engaged in unreasonable behavior.
The critique is elementary. Formally, we may say that Zimmerman confused Pr(A|B) with Pr(B|A). Colloquially, we can summarize Yglesias’s critique thusly: “Even if most criminals are black, it doesn’t follow that most blacks are criminals. So it’s simply not logical to profile every black person you meet as being a criminal threat.”
Yglesias probably thinks his point is unanswerable. I’ll give him credit for at least attempting to return an element of logos to the seething pathos of this turgid affair. However, like the young college girl who first discovers that American settlers didn’t treat the natives too kindly, Yglesias is satisfied with setting his feet into the cement of his first rational step and not moving anywhere else.
From my perspective, his point is entirely answerable, and on purely rational grounds. It’s all a matter of returning logic to its context and filling in the priors.
First, Zimmerman was not following “all black men,” as Yglesias implies later in his post. Zimmerman was following a singular young black male, dressed in ill-fitting clothes, wandering a suburban neighborhood at night after a recent streak of burglaries committed by young black males in his neighborhood. 100% of recent burglaries had been committed by a marked population that constituted only a small percentage of the community’s whole population. Trayvon Martin, at various points of description, fit the marked “profile” of recent burglars.
As commenter Cail Corishev writes at Sailer’s:
I’m writing a Bayesian spam filter (based on Paul Graham’s Plan for Spam), and “profiling” is exactly what it does. There’s no one word that guarantees that a message is spam. But if a message contains 10 words that appear frequently in spam, and it doesn’t contain any words that appear exclusively in non-spam, the probability that the message is spam will be very close to 1.
That’s what profiling means. It doesn’t mean, “Stop all blacks because blacks are more dangerous than other groups”; that’s what liberals like Bloomberg do because they’re trying to avoid profiling. Profiling would have a cop say (pulling percentages out of my hat for the example), “Ok, there’s a young black man walking down the street in this neighborhood, so historical data says there’s a 5% chance that he’s up to no good. That’s not nearly enough to suspect anything. But he’s also wearing a hoodie, which adds another 5% (whether he’s black or white), and he’s hiding his face (another 3%), and keeping his hands shoved down deep in his pockets (another 10%), and his sneakers look brand new, which we’ve been told to look out for because a store was knocked over last night (another 20%). Let’s pull over and ask him where he’s headed …. Okay, he doesn’t seem to know this neighborhood (another 20%) so let’s chat with him a bit more…. Ok, he showed us what he was holding in his pockets, and it was liniment and denture cream that he said he’s taking to his grandma whom he’s staying with a few blocks from here (-30%), and he seemed friendly and relaxed while we talked to him (-10%), and offered to show us the receipt for his shoes (-30%). Seems okay, tell him to have a nice day.”
My limited knowledge of Bayesian statistics is, indeed, that it provides a framework for working with multiple priors for coming up with an averaged statistical probability. In other words, its entire point is to move away from the kind of decontextualized logic that Yglesias invokes, a logic that would make sense as a critique if Zimmerman (or anyone) had indeed been following every black male he met on a daily basis. But no one does that, so Yglesias’s invoked logic is really just a shot at a strawman.
Second, until the fight itself, Zimmerman’s actions were quite modest. The act of “profiling” or “being suspicious” is an act of personal caution, not a willful attack on someone else’s personal rights. (My crossing to the other side of the road while being approached by a group of young black males does not in any meaningful way affect the young black males. Zimmerman’s following Trayvon did not affect Trayvon.) Without his strawman (stop every black on the street!), Yglesias, I imagine, might modestly modify his claim: Zimmerman’s decision to follow Trayvon, or my decision to cross the street, remains illogical because, well, the same old same: “just because criminals are often young black males, most young black males aren’t criminals!”
The comments on Steve’s post provide many obvious rejoinders, which I paraphrase here:
The vast majority of grizzly bears don’t attack hikers, so it’s irrational for hikers to carry bear spray in the wilderness!
80% of lumps aren’t cancerous, so my mom was being irrational when she got hers checked out by a doctor!
The odds of my house burning down are at least as miniscule as the odds of any random young black male being a criminal, so I guess I’m stupid for having fire insurance. I’ll cancel it right away, Matt!
So on and so forth. One might also invoke the common airline policy of not allowing adult males to sit next to unaccompanied minors. Not all adult males are pedophiles, but most pedophiles are adult males. Betting that a given adult male is not a pedophile isn’t worth the risk, and is certainly worth the minor inconvenience of asking all adult males to switch seats in the event they are seated beside a young girl traveling alone. Liability issues, you know.
And that’s what this second point is really about: the logic of damages. In a purely decontextualized way, I know that Pr(A|B) is not the same as Pr(B|A). Given certain context and content, however, betting on Pr(B|not A) may carry serious consequences if, however unlikely, I turned out to be wrong. In other words, taking minor measures to avoid the risk of certain events or probabilities, however unlikely, is not at all illogical. In fact, in many contexts, we commend people who take these measures. We call it “planning ahead” or “preparing for all possible outcomes” or “erring on the side of caution.”
This all seems to me a perfectly rational rejoinder to Yglesias’s over-simplified evocation of Bayes and its implications for how Zimmerman acted. Zimmerman’s neighborhood had recently been burgled by young black males, a small percentage of the community’s population. Trayvon Martin was a young black male, which, of course, did not mean he was a burglar. However, the possibility that he was a burglar, however unlikely, was nevertheless, given demographic reality, modest enough to warrant a few minutes of Zimmerman’s time to check him out, because not checking him out (i.e., assuming that Martin was not a burglar) might incur greater damages to the neighborhood.
Are you not rationally persuaded?!??!!?!
Nope. Not Aaron Gross, one of Sailer’s progressive trolls:
the fact that young black men are disproportionately likely to be involved in violent crime in no way licenses the inference that you should stop random black men on the street….
That’s absolutely correct. There may be other facts that imply it, but the facts that Cohen cites do not support it in any way. And it’s obvious that Cohen did get his conditional probabilities backwards, just as Yglesias pointed out. Cohen was talking about P(black|criminal), where a more relevant probability is P(criminal|black).
I haven’t read all the comments here, but from the ones I’ve read it seems that as usual, iSteve readers endorse the stupid, unsound argument over the intelligent, sound argument because the former supposedly leads to the desired conclusion.
Now, there may be a purely rational case against the one I’ve presented against Yglesias, another round in a logical tête-à-tête. However, Aaron Gross’s ostrich response is the most common one I’ve seen from the Left.
What am I to do with that? The “stupid” comments to which Gross refers lay out the same argument against Yglesias that I’ve provided here. To me, it seems like a perfectly reasonable counter-statement to Yglesias. To Gross, however, it’s the usual, unsound stupidity of biased proles grasping for rationalizations.
We’ve now reached the reason I brought this whole thing up: the incommensurable gap between me and Aaron Gross demonstrates that logic and reasoning are, in the end, absolutely worthless when it comes to arguing about social and political issues. It seems we cannot even decide on what constitutes “sound” versus “unsound” argument—on what constitutes rationality versus stupidity. More and more often, I find myself persuaded by Heartiste’s preferred tactics for cultural engagement: mockery and agitprop.
Which brings us back to the second sentence I wrote in this post: I agree with James Goulding that our blogs should elevate the discussion. But how can we elevate the discussion if the other side will never see as rational what we see as rational? What’s the point of trying to convert the Brahmins if they deride even a rational counter-statement as “stupid” and “unsound”?
At this point, I’m failing to see a point.
RELATED: Perhaps I’m being too pessimistic. William Saletan changed his mind about the Zimmerman case. (But then, Saletan is probably just a closeted reactionary.)