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Thursday
Jan022014

Causes, Laws, and Free Will - Why Determinism Doesn't Matter

Being able to choose among alternative courses of action is central to our common sense view of ourselves as agents with free will. We ordinarily take it for granted that we have a genuine choice about what to do and that we have the ability to choose and act in ways other than those in which we actually choose and act. But many people think that in order for this common sense view of ourselves to be true, determinism must be false. If determinism is true--these people believe--nobody is ever able to choose and act otherwise; they think that it is only if we would somehow be exempt from the laws of nature that we can be free and responsible agents. In the brand new book Causes, Laws, and Free Will - Why Determinism Doesn't Matter, Kadri Vihvelin argues convincingly that--even though it might seem to be so--it is not the case that determinism (if true) would rob us of free will. Indeed, she argues that whether determinism is true or not doesn't matter because we can have free will--including the ability to choose and do otherwise--whether our universe turns out to be deterministic or indeterministic. On careful examination, all of the arguments intended to show that the ability to choose and act otherwise is incompatible with determinism fail. The widespread belief that determinism somehow robs us of free will is shown to spring from mistaken ideas about the nature of causation, laws of nature, and the logic of counterfactuals.

 

The Return of Classical Compatibilism

There are many philosophers today who defend the claim that "moral responsibility" is compatible with determinism, but few defend the claim that the ability to choose and do otherwise is compatible with determinism. This makes Vihvelin a minority among contemporary philosophers. According to the recent PhilPapers survey, 59.1% of professional philosophers consider themselves to be "compatibilists", but this figure is misleading since most contemporary compatibilists are what Vihvelin call "moral compatibilists". Moral compatibilists either accept, or at least do not dispute, the (incompatibilist) claim that if determinism is true, then no one is ever able to do otherwise. Moral compatibilists defend only the thesis that moral responsibility (and/or moral blame, moral obligation, etc.) is compatible with determinism and evade the deeper issue of the compatibility or incompatibility of determinism and free will (understood as including the ability to choose and act otherwise). Elsewhere Vihvelin has called contemporary mainstream compatibilists "romantic compatibilists" as they are labouring under the romantic notion that they don't even need to address what many people consider to be the fundamental issue and instead concern themselves merely with "moral freedom", or "the kind of freedom that is needed for moral responsibility", or some such thing.

 

Until at least the first half of the twentieth century, it was in this way that the free will problem was understood. (That is, as concerning the compatibility or incompatibility of the ability to do otherwise with determinism). By returning to this traditional way of conceiving of the problem, Vihvelin is reviving classical compatibilism--a view that goes back to Thomas Hobbes and David Hume, but that has almost disappeared from the contemporary philosophical landscape. As such, Causes, Laws, And Free Will fills a gap and constitutes a much needed addition to the literature. Her defence of the view that we do have free will and that this is compatible with determinism does not rest on any claims about morality or moral responsibility. Vihvelin believes that our common sense belief that we have free will, including the ability to do otherwise, can and should be discussed separately from considerations of moral responsibility. The problem of whether free will is compatible with determinism, she rightly insists, is a problem in metaphysics and not in ethics. Though, of course the issue might have implications for moral philosophy, and on law. (Also, there might be reasons for being sceptical about moral responsibility that have nothing to do with determinism. As Vihvelin points out in a footnote, a compatibilist can be a moral sceptic or nihilist.)

 

For me, the classical compatibilist view is the only one that makes sense. The moral compatibilists have done more to obscure the debate than to advance it. In this interview published on her blog, Vihvelin remarks that the literature on "Frankfurt-style examples" is now an entire sub-field of philosophy that has been going on for over 40 years. She rightly insists that such examples fail to show what they are supposed to show (that free will is not needed for moral responsibility) and that this literature is a dead end. 

 

Missing pieces

Vihvelin provides a satisfactory philosophical analysis of the fallacious reasoning underlying incompatibilist arguments. What the book lacks, however, is a psychological story about what tempts people towards incompatibilist ideas. Older compatibilists ventured such theses. Here is, for instance, Bertrand Russell:

 

[T]he subjective sense of freedom, sometimes alleged against determinism, has no bearing on the question whatever. The view that it has a bearing rests upon the belief that causes compel their effects, or that nature enforces obedience to its laws as governments do. These are mere anthropomorphic superstitions, due to assimilation of causes with volitions and of natural laws with human edicts. We feel that our will is not compelled, but that only means that it is not other than we choose it to be. It is one of the demerits of the traditional theory of causality that it has created an artificial opposition between determinism and the freedom of which we are introspectively conscious.

 

Psychological hypotheses of this sort are often viewed with suspicion by philosophers, but I still believe that there might be something to this. It is widely known that humans have a strong tendency to see intentional agency in inanimate things and processes; we see faces in the clouds, we ascribe intentions to mindless shapes on a computer screen, etc. Perhaps this universal human tendency may play at least some role in producing or reinforcing incompatibilist intuitions? Here, cognitive science, neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology, could make headway, corroborating or falsifying such psychological hypothesis of the underlying causes of incompatibilist ideas.

 

Concerning recent claims that results from neuroscience show that we don't have free will, Vihvelin has little to say. This is probably because this has already been said by others. See for example this podcast from Philosophy Bites in which another female philosopher (and neuroscientist) argues that neuroscience (the Libet experiments) fails to show that we don't have free will. 

 

Another missing piece is that the book does not explicitly discuss the moral, legal, or political implications of the issues at all. It may turn out that there are no such implications, but if so that would itself be something that deserves to be made explicit. 

 

Causes, Laws, and Free Will is by far the best text I have read on the subject. A good place to start is with the aforementioned interview and then this chapter-by-chapter summary of the book.

Thursday
Sep052013

Hierarchy in the Forest - The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior

That the human species is hierarchical and "despotic", and that humans naturally exhibit a love of individual freedom may appear to be two contradictory claims. But, as Christopher Boehm demonstrates in his book Hierarchy in the Forrest - The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior, these two claims merely reflect different sides of our species' "ambivalent" political nature. Boehm argues that, on the one hand, human beings have innate dispositions to dominance and submission that easily lead to the formation of social dominance hierarchies (similar to those of the African great apes). But, on the other hand, we also have an innate tendency to dislike being dominated by others. Boehm notes that "these behaviorally opposed tendencies have coevolved" and further that they "underlie the predictable psychological ambivalences that are experienced by individual decision-makers in a variety of political contexts". What political form a given human society takes at a given time can be said to depend on in what direction the "ambivalences of both subordinates and would-be dominators are resolved".

 

As any student of history knows well, human societies can take on many different forms. "The human animal can exhibit far more tyranny than any despotic African great ape, but it also can be more egalitarian than even the bonobo", Boehm writes. This has led many scholars to believe that human political nature is infinitely flexible, or even that there is no such thing as human political nature at all; that we are born as Lockean "blank slates". Boehm points out that this is a serious mistake and explains how "the same quite definite and 'hierarchical' human political nature could have been supporting not only despotic societies of recent humans and ancestral apes, but also the egalitarian societies of humans [in hunter-gatherer bands]".

 

The three innate propensities mentioned by Boehm--(1) to dominate others, (2) to submit to domination, and (3) to dislike being dominated by others--are present in all of us, but in different degrees and configurations, giving rise to different individual political strategies. How different political strategies play out against each other determines the degree of despotism in a society. (Here, I think that a game-theoretic approach would have been useful to model frequencies of political strategies in a population, but Boehm unfortunately eschews formal methods in favour of a strong focus on ethnographic descriptions and similar observations from primatology.)

 

The reverse dominance hierarchy 

Before twelve thousand years ago, humans basically were "egalitarian". They lived in what might be called "societies of equals", with minimal political centralization and no political classes. Everyone participated in group decisions, and outside the family there were no dominators. Small local groups of hunter-gatherers had no leaders with any real authority and members could leave the group at will and join another. "Strict equality was practiced with respect to political relations among adult males. Leaders were weak and merely assisted a consensus-seeking process when the group needed to make [collective] decisions." How was this possible given that humans are naturally hierarchical?

 

Boehm's key insight is that political egalitarianism "does not result from the mere absence of hierarchy, as is commonly assumed. Rather, egalitarianism involves a very special type of hierarchy, a curious type that is based on antihierarchical feelings". In this type of hierarchy, which Boehm calls a reverse dominance hierarchy, "the rank and file avoid being subordinated by vigilantly keeping alpha-type group members under their collective thumbs". Politically egalitarian society, then, "is the product of a large, well-united coalition of subordinates who assertively deny political power to the would-be alphas in their group". This differs markedly from orthodox dominance hierarchies, "like those of chimpanzees or gorillas, or humans living in chiefdoms or states". While in orthodox dominance hierarchies "the pyramid of power is pointed upward, with one or a few individuals (usually male) at the top exerting authority over a submissive rank and file". In reverse dominance hierarchies "the pyramid of power is turned upside down, with a politically united rank and file decisively dominating the alpha-male types".

 

Boehm stresses that the rank and file "must continue such domination if they are to remain autonomous and equal, and prehistorically [...] they appear to have done so very predictably as long as hunting bands remained mobile". Egalitarian hunter-gatherers "seem to realize", says Boehm, "that if a little authority is permitted to develop, then a normal human leader is likely to want more". If the tendencies leading towards despotism are to be continuously suppressed, both eternal vigilance and (occasionally harsh) social sanctions are necessary. The sanctions employed by hunter-gatherers range from ridicule to ostracism to execution. Boehm emphasises that these sanctions are informal and that "foragers have no need of constitutional conventions in order to define and institutionalize their mode of self-governance".

 

The ever present inclination to dominate others asserts itself by the fact that alpha-types sometimes try to turn the tables and engage strongly in political upstartism: "Regularly, but not frequently, critical domination episodes with feared individuals occur, in which hunters are too cowed to use [sanctions] as a way of resolving their political predicament. The tactical problem is obvious: whoever speaks up first may be putting his life in danger". (This is what game-theorists call a prisoners dilemma situation). So how do nomadic peoples overcome this tactical problem? Boehm talks about a "social agreement" or "implicit contract" collectively upheld by an "egalitarian ethos". The essence of this social contract is parsimoniously captured in the adage "All men seek to rule, but if they cannot rule they prefer to be equal" (a quote Boehm borrows from an anthropologist named Schneider and that expresses an attitude that he claims to be universally manifested among hunter-gatherers). Boehm unpacks the slogan thus:

 

Even though individuals may be attracted personally to a dominant role, they make a common pact which says that each main political actor will give up his modest chances of becoming alpha in order to be certain that no one will ever be alpha over him.  

 

... we all agree to give up our statistically small chance of becoming ascendant in order to avoid the very high probability that we will be subordinated. We agree to settle merely for individual autonomy for all, rather than seeking ascendancy or domination [for ourselves over others].

 

This reminds strongly of Thomas Hobbes's recommendation in Leviathan "that a man be willing, when others are so too, as far-forth as for peace and defence of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down [his] right to all things, and be contented with so much liberty against other men as he would allow other men against himself". Interestingly, Boehm mentions both Hobbes and Rousseau (the original social contract theorists) and suggests that their respective views "may reflect human nature quite accurately--but only if we combine their contradictory viewpoints, rather than allowing them to compete" (tying in with his "ambivalence theory" of human nature). Boehm clearly is in a better position than either Hobbes or Rousseau to provide a more empirically accurate characterisation of the "state of nature" (the starting point for social contract reasoning).

 

Political egalitarianism 

By the term 'egalitarianism' Boehm does obviously not mean the same as the political philosopher Jan Narveson in the latter's paper "Egalitarianism: Partial, Counterproductive, and Baseless". Boehm is talking about egalitarianism with respect to political power (not with respect to material resources). While, as Boehm writes, "Politically egalitarian foragers are also, to a significant degree, materially egalitarian", he points out also that "social and economic nonequals could build a 'society of equals' when it came to the enjoyment of individual autonomy" and that "Foragers are not intent on true and absolute equality, but on a kind of mutual respect that leaves individual autonomy intact". As a libertarian, Narveson certainly is an "egalitarian" in this sense. Libertarians (especially of the anarchist variety) hold that everyone should have the same amount of political power (namely, zero). And this is indeed precisely what the social contract requires according to Narveson's contractarian libertarianism (expounded in his The Libertarian Idea and elsewhere).

 

The biologically sophisticated economist Paul H. Rubin referred to Boehm repeatedly in his excellent book Darwinian Politics - The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom (my review here). Rubin too points out that our preferences for material equality are outdated and counterproductive in today's world. The environment in which our preferences evolved was essentially a zero-sum world in which the only way to accumulate wealth was to take it from others. In such a world, if some are wealthy, this must be at the expense of the poor. But we no longer live in a zero-sum world. In the market economies of modern western societies the most efficient and the most common way to accumulate wealth is to provide productive benefits for others. Today's wealthy have not in general accumulated their wealth through "exploitation". In the modern world, egalitarianism with respect to material resources (or for that matter "equality of opportunity") is indeed "partial, counterproductive, and baseless". But egalitarianism with respect to political power is as relevant as ever before.

 

Rubin further argues that both ordinary people and professional students of human behaviour and evolution have often confused dominance hierarchies and productive hierarchies. The universal human dislike of dominance hierarchies, aptly described by Boehm, can lead people to dislike productive hierarchies as well, even though the latter may benefit all members. The result is that people today may be overly hostile to productive hierarchies and as a result choose policies that make us all worse off. Rubin takes Marxism to be the most powerful and tragic example of this phenomenon. Boehm comments on Marxian communism that it was "formed with a flawed understanding of human political nature, and for that reason failed".

 

The history of human hierarchy

Humans were egalitarian for thousands of generations before hierarchical societies began to appear. "For more than five millennia now, the human trend has been toward hierarchy rather than equality." However, "the past several centuries have witnessed sporadic but highly successful attempts [starting in America and Europe] to reverse this trend". Maryanski and Turner have argued that modern western society is more similar to the environment of our ancient ancestors and that industrial (and post-industrial) societies, in virtue of the increased freedom that individuals enjoy in these societies, are far more compatible with human nature than any other societal formations since hunting and gathering.

 

Boehm notes that "Ancient and modern democracies may temper individual power with checks and balances, but centralized power still exists and is backed by the coercive force supplied by professional policemen or soldiers". He compares modern nations with "primitive kingdoms" as "both have strongly centralized polities with abundant coercive force available to the rulers":

 

[A]ncient civilizations and modern nations are highly despotic because the leaders can govern strongly, with abundant coercive power. Although this is somewhat less true of democracies, they too are more similar to primitive kingdoms [which are more despotic] than to chiefdoms [which are less despotic].

 

Boehm likens chiefdoms to the hierarchies of chimpanzee society and says that given humans' "apelike despotic nature, the advent of chiefdoms was no political surprise". "By contrast, the degree of centralized political control in primitive kingdoms and early civilizations was phenomenal by primate standards." 

 

Implications for today

Even though humans are "resentful of power abuse in a wide variety of political circumstances, and this resentment stems rather directly from human nature", Boehm points out that, "as human political groups become larger and more hierarchical, the psychological ambivalences of individual actors become more complicated":

 

In addition to the triadic pull between dominance, resentment of domination, and submission, other factors enter the picture: for example, tendencies to resent control from above may be heavily tempered by appreciation of what a benevolent dominating leader does for one, as in chiefdoms or primitive kingdoms or modern democracies where largesse is redistributed from the political center. Or one may identify with a powerful leader on a chauvinistic basis, as he (or she) tries to advance the political advantage of one's nation. Or one may simply be captivated by a leader with powerful charisma. 

 

Boehm points out that "the power of centralized government, be it national or local, is a perpetual threat to the personal autonomy of its citizens". Inspired by Boehm, Rubin recommends that "those of us not involved in government would do well to form our own reverse dominance hierarchy and attempt to limit the power of government." 

 

Final words

The book could easily have been considerably shorter than it is, and it could have been better structured. The main thesis is stated over and over with new ethnographic illustrations being cited. One problem I had with the book, which is thankfully confined to chapter nine, is Boehm's unmotivated appeal to group selection theory. Group selection is highly controversial (see this recent piece by Steven Pinker on the topic) and Boehm does not need it to support the main thesis of the book. The ultimate starting point when it comes to evolutionary approaches to politics is Rubin's book that I mentioned above. The latter gives a more complete picture while Hierarchy in the Forest offers only one piece (though an essential one) of a larger puzzle.

Friday
Jul262013

Look out for availability cascades!

Daniel Kahneman, in his popular book Thinking, Fast and Slow, explains the notion of an availability cascade as follows:

 

An availability cascade is a self-sustaining chain of events, which may start from media reports of a relatively minor event and lead up to public panic and large-scale government action. On some occasions, a media story about a risk catches the attention of a segment of the public, which becomes aroused and worried. This emotional reaction becomes a story in itself, prompting additional coverage in the media, which in turn produces greater concern and involvement. The cycle is sometimes sped along deliberately by "availability entrepreneurs", individuals or organizations who work to ensure a continuous flow of worrying news. The danger is increasingly exaggerated as the media compete for attention-grabbing headlines. Scientists and others who try to dampen the increasing fear and revulsion attract little attention, most of it hostile: anyone who claims that the danger is overstated is suspected of association with a "heinous cover-up". The issue becomes politically important because it is on everyone's mind, and the response of the political system is guided by the intensity of public sentiment.

 

See this graphic representation for some examples of recent global fears (that perhaps fit the category of availability cascades?).

 

The technical notion of availability concerns the mental ease with which instances come to mind. Salient events that attract our attention will be easily retrieved from memory and systematically bias our judgments of the probability of the event in question (availability bias). Unusual events attract disproportionate attention and are consequently perceived as less unusual than they really are. Vivid examples are especially "available", reinforcing the bias. A common example is that of a plane crash (a rare but dramatic event) that attracts media coverage and leads us to (wildly) overestimate the actual risks involved.

 

This "availability heuristic" (a heuristic is "a simple procedure that helps find adequate, though often imperfect, answers to difficult questions") probably very often led to accurate judgments in the environments in which it evolved. In hunter-gatherer societies, all "news" came from the small, local group and territory. But in our current environment, with global mass media and populations of many millions, the heuristic often leads us wrong. Paul H. Rubin (in a very insightful chapter on "How humans make political decisions" in this book) draws attention to the related human tendency to focus on identifiable individuals:

 

... remember that our decision-making aptitudes evolved in small societies--probably no more than one hundred persons. Then think about the implications if something happened to a person in our band. Before mass communications, a person probably would learn of a hazard only if it harmed someone in the community. Such risks were likely to be sufficiently probable to be worth worrying about. If there were one hundred people and something harmed or killed one of these people, then the risk of that event was fairly large [about one per cent] 

 

We now live in much larger societies. Rubin takes the example of the United States, a society of around 300 million. If something happens to one individual in such a large society, this certainly doesn't mean that it is something with a one per cent risk of happening to us. Indeed, as Rubin points out, a one in a one million chance of something happening is quite low--but we should expect 300 of these events to happen in a society of that size. If the media bring these events to our attention, we may (using the availability heuristic and focusing on identifiable individuals) grossly overestimate the risk. As Kahneman observes, our inaccurate probability judgments in combination with the social mechanisms of availability cascades, "inevitably leads to gross exaggeration of minor threats".

 

Availability cascades often change priorities and influence how resources are used at the expense of other uses (including other, more serious, risks). Kahneman takes terrorism as an example: terrorism gets much news coverage and enormous resources are spent on combating terrorism, but the number of casualties from terror attacks is very small relative to other causes of death. He writes (in connection with another set of examples) that "estimates of causes of death are warped by media coverage. The coverage is itself biased toward novelty and poignancy. The media do not just shape what the public is interested in, but also are shaped by it. Editors cannot ignore the public's demands that certain topics and viewpoints receive extensive coverage."

 

In addition, we are innately disposed to pay more attention to bad news than to good news. This too makes evolutionary sense; those of our ancestors that paid close attention to potential dangers probably had a better chance to survive and become our ancestors than those who tended to ignore potential dangers. In the environment in which we evolved, acting on perceived dangers that turned out to be not real was much less costly than not acting on dangers that turned out to be real. As descendants of the survivors, we are naturally biased in favour of "erring on the side of caution" (which may have large costs in our current environment). Here too, identifiable individuals plays a role. As Rubin writes, we "seem to pay particular attention to news stories about bad things happening to identified individuals". "By paying attention to things that happened to individuals, our ancestors have learned to avoid those situations." This would explain why the press emphasises bad news and why bad news sells better than good news. News media providers that failed to cater to our innate tastes for bad news would lose market shares or be driven out of business. (Availability bias is by no means the only cognitive bias that is exploited by the news media. This and other factors have led some to avoid news altogether.)

 

As Kahneman points out following Paul Slovic, the ease with which ideas of various risks come to mind (availability) is inextricably linked to our emotional reactions to these risks (our "affect heuristic"): "Frightening thoughts and images occur to us with particular ease, and thoughts of danger that are fluent and vivid exacerbate fear". This is especially worrisome in the light of the fact that politicians can use fear to manipulate the public into supporting policies they might otherwise oppose. (A recent study shows that not everyone are equally susceptible to such political strategies: "... individuals who are genetically predisposed to fear tend to have more negative out-group opinions, which play out politically as support for policies like anti-immigration".)

Monday
Jul152013

The four bases of political power

Jonathan H. Turner is Professor of Sociology at the University of California at Riverside. According to his academic website "He is committed to making sociology a hard science". In his introductory textbook Sociology, he distinguishes between four different "bases of power" that are basic elements of all polities:

 

1. The coercive base of power

Political leaders always seek to gain the ability to coerce or physically force others to do what they want. Actual coercion is often unnecessary because the threat of physical force is often sufficient to get others to act. Coercion as a base of power can be very effective in the short run, but if leaders rely too much on coercion, resentments build and eventually people will begin to fight back. Moreover, once coercion is the primary base of power it costs a great deal to keep it going: people must be constantly monitored, a standing force loyal to leaders must be supported, and administrative structures must be elaborated to keep tabs on who is doing what and to imprison or kill those who fail to conform.   

 

2. The administrative base of power

When leaders set up structures for carrying out their orders and for monitoring conformity, this power to monitor and control greatly enhances their power. [...] once a large-scale administrative structure is in place, the ability to rule a society is dramatically expanded. Large projects can be undertaken; taxes can be collected; police and military can be organized; agencies for specific tasks can be created; and in general, the ability to do more things is enhanced. Not only does an administrative structure become a useful tool for leaders to implement their decisions, but once in place, the structure itself also becomes a source of power.   

 

3. The material incentive base of power

People can be encouraged to do what leaders desire through the manipulation of material incentives. If orders are followed, material rewards are offered; if they are not followed, material resources are taken away. All leaders ultimately begin to tax their population, taking their surplus resources and, then, selectively giving them back to induce conformity. Of course, a great deal is skimmed off the top to support elite privilege, but leaders will almost always try to bestow or withhold material benefits to control members of a population. 

 

4. The symbolic base of power

People can be moved by symbols organized into ideologies. When the symbolic base of power is used, leaders make appeals to cultural traditions, religious beliefs, history, laws, constitutions, emblems like flags, and virtually any symbol that has the power to move people. [...] Political leaders are given legitimacy by symbols that assert, in essence, their right to make binding decisions on others. These legitimating symbols can be much more low key than a religious belief system, as is the case when constitutions and law give leaders the rights to regulate the conduct of others. For leaders' hold on power to endure, then they must cultivate symbolic power and be seen as having the legitimate right to lead. 

 

As the philosopher Michael Huemer points out (in an excellent chapter on "the psychology of authority") in his book The Problem of Political Authority, every national government in the world has a flag; most have national anthems; governments adorn their currencies with various symbols; statues and monuments commemorate important people and events in the nation's history; police officers and soldiers wear uniforms with badges and rank insignia; the architectural style of government buildings often emphasize the power of the state and fosters a submissive disposition on the part of the visitor; special rituals are conducted when a new leader accedes to power (like a coronation of a monarch or the public swearing-in ceremony of a new U.S. president); legal documents are usually written in a certain authoritative language ("legalese"), etc., etc. What function do all these symbols, rituals, stories, and rhetoric serve? Huemer's answer is that they work to create a sense of national identity through appeal to the audience's emotions and to induce in citizens a sense of the government's power and authority.  

 

The rise of polity and the state

All governments rely on all four bases of power, Turner writes, but in different configurations:

 

Totalitarianism, for example, relies heavily on the coercive and administrative bases of power. A more democratic polity will still have coercive force and a large administrative structure, but it will rely much more on legitimating symbols (as enshrined in a constitution and laws) and on manipulation of incentives (tax breaks and subsidies) to get people and organizations to voluntarily "choose" to do what government wants.

 

Turner stresses that for most of human history, bands of hunter-gatherers wandered a territory without leaders who could tell them what to do. At times, perhaps, temporary, functional leaders would emerge if there was a conflict with another band. But nomadic hunter-gatherers were reluctant to give anyone too much authority. "They might give another prestige, but not the power to tell them how they had to act; and indeed, they would ridicule anyone who thought they were better than others" (a thesis argued at length by Christopher Boehm). Relations among hunter-gatherers were generally non-coercive, and "most hunter-gatherers do not appear to have had even the rudiments of government. Thus, for almost all of human history, government or polity did not exist."

 

In another of Turner's books, co-authored by Alexandra Maryanski--On the Origin of Societies by Natural Selection--the four bases of power are used to explain the rise and subsequent evolution of government. The politics of settled hunter-gatherers is contrasted with that of the modern state; (1) with respect to the coercive base:

 

[T]he Big Men of settled hunter-gatherers often used force to take power and to make demands upon others, and the modern state, even one with the trappings of democracy as a mechanism for selecting leaders, is ultimately backed up by the coercive force of police and armies.

 

(2) With respect to the administrative base:

Big Men used a combination of kinsmen and "spies" to ensure that members of the settled population abided by their decisions, and, when necessary, these kinsmen and their allies would compel members of the population to abide by their decisions. [...] The subsequent evolution of the state, in essence, began to superimpose a bureaucratic structure over this kin-based structure, eventually replacing the kinship system with a more bureaucratized state...

 

(3) With respect to the material incentive base: 

Big Men often had the right to take away some or all of the material surplus from members of a population, but they were also obligated to give these resources back, often through elaborate displays of their "generosity". Yet, they could, if necessary, selectively redistribute resources in order to induce members of a society to follow their leadership or punish them for not abiding by directives. As polity became bureaucratized, the state had the capacity to tax the population and, then, using these revenues as a pool of incentives, to manipulate conformity to directives by bestowing these incentives selectively.   

 

And, finally, (4) with respect to the symbolic base:

[Big Men] redistribute the resources that were collected [...] to garner prestige and to articulate an ideology of the "generosity" and "benevolence" of the leader. [...] Religious beliefs also began to legitimate power in horticultural systems, with leaders being viewed as god-like or, at a minimum, as the agents of gods whose directives must be followed because they embody the wishes of the supernatural.

 

Later on, in the agrarian era, law was increasingly used as an alternative to religious edicts to increase the power of the state. Turner identifies several ongoing, long-term trends in governmental organization: (a) the growing scale of the administrative base, (b) the bureaucratization of the administrative base, (c) the centralization of all four bases of power, (d) the use of law (particularly constitutions) as a symbolic base of power, (e) more reliance on the material incentive base, (f) less reliance on the coercive base, and (g) democratization.

 

The increasing reliance on symbols and material incentives and decreasing reliance on direct coercion can perhaps be helping to reinforce what James L. Payne (in his book Six Political Illusions) has called "the voluntary illusion"--the psychological tendency to want to believe that government is not based on force. Payne points out that, in advanced cultures force is considered a primitive, barbaric approach, and notes that this modern distaste toward force "creates a powerful psychological pressure to repress the recognition of government's coercive nature". To repress the fact that all governments are ultimately based on force is a lot easier when it is hidden behind ideologies, manipulated incentive structures, and administrative bureaucracies.

 

Wednesday
Jun192013

The White Man's Burden - Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good

What do colonial imperialists, military interventionists, and foreign aid bureaucrats have in common? According to William Easterly, quite a lot. They are all in the grip of utopian ideas to transform foreign peoples according to some grand plan--to impose on "the rest" a blueprint for success that (supposedly) has worked for "the west". In short, they are all "planners". Easterly contrasts planners with "searchers": 

 

A Planner thinks he already knows the answers; he thinks of poverty as a technical engineering problem that his answers will solve. A Searcher admits he doesn’t know the answers in advance; he believes that poverty is a complicated tangle of political, social, historical, institutional, and technological factors. A Searcher hopes to find answers to individual problems only by trial and error experimentation. A Planner believes outsiders know enough to impose solutions. A Searcher believes only insiders have enough knowledge to find solutions, and that most solutions must be homegrown.

 

Military intervention and occupation aiming for "democratization", "regime change", or "nation building" show "a classic Planner’s mentality: applying a simplistic external answer from the West to a complex internal problem in the Rest". Planners in foreign aid setting grandiose goals such as "eliminate world poverty", "bring about world peace", and "save the environment" do no better.  

 

The Big Plans show remarkable bipartisan support from both the rich-world Left and the rich-world Right. The Left likes the idea of a big state-led effort to fight global poverty. The Right likes the idea of benevolent imperialism to spread Western capitalism and subdue opposition to the West.

 

Easterly examines the history of this approach and concludes:

 

Sixty years of countless reform schemes to aid agencies and dozens of different plans, and $2.3 trillion later, the aid industry is still failing to reach the beautiful goal. The evidence points to an unpopular conclusion: Big Plans will always fail to reach the beautiful goal.

 

The plan to end world poverty shows all the pretensions of utopian social engineering. Setting such abstract goals is irrational, Easterly insists, because there is no reason to assume that the goal is attainable at a reasonable cost with the available means. One of the key predictions about Planners that history confirms over and over is that "they keep pouring resources into a fixed objective, despite many previous failures at reaching that objective, despite a track record that suggests the objective is infeasible or the plan unworkable". History further shows that planners even escalate the scope of intervention when the previous intervention fails. These planners are in the grip of what James Payne has called "the materialistic illusion" (in his book Six Political Illusions). They end up "throwing money at problems" despite the fact that spending more money on something can have zero effect, or worse, even exacerbate the very problem one is trying to solve. Easterly cites Edmund Burke, Karl Popper, and Friedrich Hayek. These philosophers recognized the economic and political complexity of society. This complexity dooms any attempt to achieve the end of poverty through a big plan, and no rich society has ended their own poverty in this way. The key insight of Burke, Popper, and Hayek is that social and economic reality is so complex that any top-down reform that tried to change all the rules at once could only make things worse rather than better.

 

It is a fantasy to think that the West can change complex societies with very different histories and cultures into some image of itself. The main hope for the poor is for them to be their own Searchers, borrowing ideas and technology from the West when it suits them to do so.

 

Easterly understands that free markets work, but that free market reforms imposed from the outside often don’t. His slogan is "You can't plan a market". 

 

... introducing free markets from the top down is not so simple. It overlooks the long sequence of choices, institutions, and innovations that have allowed free markets to develop in the rich Western economies. Markets everywhere emerge in an unplanned, spontaneous way, adapting to local traditions and circumstances, and not through reforms designed by outsiders. The free market depends on the bottom-up emergence of complex institutions and social norms that are difficult for outsiders to understand, much less change.

 

Some people believe that "the market" is a western invention. This is nonsense, Easterly points out: "Any visit to an outdoor market in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, or Latin America will quickly convince you that markets are vibrant in poor countries. Historical anecdotes suggest that these markets predated Western contact." The world’s poor do not have to wait passively for the West to "save" them (and they are not so waiting). The poor are their own best Searchers. Searchers in aid are already finding practical solutions that actually help the poor, and Easterly gives many good examples of such. He is confident that many more could be found if the balance of power in aid would be shifted from Planners to Searchers. You just have to do whatever you discover works with your modest resources to make a difference in the everyday lives of poor people. There are things that westerners can do to help, but western aid is not in general the answer.

 

Easterly debunks the legend that the poorest countries are stuck in a "poverty trap" from which they cannot escape without an aid-financed "big push". This was exactly the legend that gave birth to foreign aid in the 1950s and it is exactly the legend that the advocates of a massive aid increase are telling today. Statistically, countries with high aid are no more likely to take off than are those with low aid. Yet, the aid Planners keep pouring in aid resources with the fixed objective of stimulating higher growth, although evidence does not support an effect of aid on growth. The response to failure of previous interventions was to do even more intensive and comprehensive interventions. So why do the ineffective and counterproductive approaches to foreign aid continue decennium after decennium? 

 

In any human endeavor, the people paying the bills are the ones to keep happy. The big problem with foreign aid and other Western efforts to transform the Rest is that the people paying the bills are rich people who have very little knowledge of poor people. The rich people demand big actions to solve big problems, which is understandable and compassionate. The Big Plans at the top keep the rich people happy that “something is being done” about such a tragic problem as world poverty.

 

"Big plans are attractive to politicians, celebrities, and activists who want to make a big splash, without the Western public realizing that those plans at the top are not connected to reality at the bottom." Aid agencies are rewarded for setting goals rather than reaching them, since goals are observable to the rich-country public while results are not. Aid managers at the top are thus free to promise everything without feedback from or accountability to those who are supposed to benefit from the aid. 

 

Easterly's book is not suggesting a simple recipe for success. Indeed, it argues that no recipe exists, "only a confusing welter of bottom-up social institutions and norms essential for markets. These evolve slowly on their own from the actions of many agents; the Western outsiders and Planners don’t have a clue how to create these norms and institutions."