Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Road to Rationalia

By Kevin D. Williamson
Thursday, June 30, 2016

Being an astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson is familiar with event horizons. He needs a refresher on epistemic horizons.

An event horizon (the term is generally associated with black holes) is a boundary in spacetime surrounding a massive object exerting gravitational force so great that nothing that happens within the borders of the event horizon can ever affect anything outside of it. Which is to say, the escape velocity is equal to the speed of light, meaning that you could spend an eternity staring into it and never see what’s happening inside. If you got close enough to take a peek . . . the result would be what British astrophysicist Martin Rees calls “spaghettification,” and nobody wants to suffer that.

An event horizon is something you cannot see into. An epistemic horizon is something you cannot see out of.

If what you know of chaos science is limited to the published works of Dr. Ian Malcolm, you’ll despair to learn that the reality of it is a lot less sexy and a lot more mathy than it is in Jurassic Park.

Drawing from sources as diverse as the works of Henri Poincar√© and mathematical biologist Robert May, scholars of complexity have disassembled Isaac Newton’s machine-like, deterministic model of reality that gave scientists the dream of a perfectly predictable world. As Melanie Mitchell put it in her indispensable Complexity: A Guided Tour:

Newtonian mechanics produced a picture of a ‘clockwork universe,’ one that is wound up with the three laws and then runs its mechanical course. The mathematician Pierre Simon Laplace saw the implication of this clockwork view for prediction: in 1814 he asserted that, given Newton’s laws and the current position and velocity of every particle in the universe, it was possible, in principle, to predict everything for all time. With the invention of electronic computers in the 1940s, the ‘in principle’ might have seemed closer to ‘in practice.’

That hope turned out to be a false one. Some complex systems (weather patterns, markets, animal population groups) turn out to be extremely sensitive to tiny variations in initial conditions, which we call, for lack of a better term, chaos. You can have a theoretically perfect model of the behavior of a system, but that behavior remains unpredictable — even in principle — because of variations that are beyond our ability to measure. Phillips again:

The presence of chaos in a system implies that perfect prediction à la Laplace is impossible not only in practice but also in principle, since we can never know [initial conditions] to infinitely many decimal places. This is a profound negative result that, along with quantum mechanics, helped wipe out the optimistic nineteenth-century view of a clockwork Newtonian universe that ticked along its predictable path.

That is pretty heady stuff, but the unpredictability and fundamental unknowability of many aspects of reality are familiar enough, particularly when it comes to human social interactions (meaning, among other things, the whole of politics and economics), human beings being notoriously unpredictable creatures. Soldiers, entrepreneurs, and fashion designers all know that all of the best planning and research that can be done often goes up in a flash when actual events start to unfold. Never mind the failed businesses; go back and read the initial plans of some of our most successful firms, and you’ll get a good laugh. Bill Gates denies ever having actually said that 640k memory ought to be enough for anybody, but he does admit to being surprised at how quickly 640k became too little, at being surprised at how important the Internet became and how quickly that happened, etc. Paul Krugman, the great economist, famously predicted that “by 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s.”

The point here isn’t that Bill Gates and Paul Krugman are dumb — it’s that they aren’t.

Politicians like to tell simple stories about social problems, preferably stories in which their friends wear white hats and their rivals wear black hats. The 2008–09 financial crisis is an excellent example of that: The Left says that the problem is that we deregulated finance (never mind that we didn’t actually do that) and that “greed” caused bankers to trick tens of millions of Americans into taking out mortgage loans that they couldn’t really afford, with the result that wicked banksters such as Dick Fuld managed to cleverly . . . lose themselves billions of dollars. It’s a dumb story.

Some conservatives tell a pretty dumb story, too: that the bankers and mortgage brokers were in reality good, public-minded, upstanding types, who were viciously strong-armed into making loans to poor people, especially black and brown ones, who schemed to enrich themselves by . . . getting themselves foreclosed on, ruining their credit, losing their investments, and being put out of their homes.

The reality is that regulations, regulatory reforms, and economic incentives interacted in ways that no one foresaw — or could foresee — producing results that no one wanted. Securitization (bundling and chopping up mortgages into financial instruments that could be easily traded among firms) was intended to distribute risk among investors and institutions, but it ended up concentrating that risk. Everything from public-school failures to advanced mathematics contributed to the housing bubble and meltdown.

Many of the policies relevant to the housing bubble go back to the 1930s. No one in the Roosevelt administration could have foreseen what their policies ultimately would contribute to, nor could the deregulation advocates of the Reagan and Clinton years, or the regulators who helped shape housing and financial markets from the Great Depression until the current day. There’s a case to be made (I made it in National Review on December 15, 2008) that the invention of photocopying played a role, with credit-rating agencies switching from an investor-pays business model to an issuer-pays model once the easy replication of their reports made it more difficult to get paid for their work.

These things happen all the time. Protectionist measures taken by the United States against Japanese automakers ended up contributing to those firms’ technological innovation (especially with smaller four-cylinder engines) and allowing domestic automakers to forgo improvements in quality and performance; this ultimately made Japanese cars more attractive rather than less attractive to U.S. buyers. Agriculture policies that kept sugar prices artificially high led to the popularity of high-fructose corn syrup. The Islamic State emerged from our war on al-Qaeda and its supporters. Etc., etc., etc.

Professor Tyson, who may be the dumbest smart person on Twitter, yesterday wrote that what the world really needs is a new kind of virtual state — he wants to call it “Rationalia” — with a one-sentence constitution: “All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence.” This schoolboy nonsense came under withering and much-deserved derision. Conservatives, who always have the French Revolution in their thoughts, reminded him that this already has been tried, and that the results are known in the history books as “the Terror.” Writing with a great deal of reserve in Popular Science, Kelsey D. Atherton notes:

Rationalia puts a burden on science that it cannot bear: to work, it must be immune to the passions of the day, promising an objective world and objective truth that will triumph over obstacles.

That’s true enough, but it shortchanges the scientific objection to Tyson’s Rationalia pipe dream, which is that it implicitly presupposes quantities and types of knowledge that are not, even in principle, available, even if the scientists in question were the dispassionate truth-seekers of Atherton’s ideal.

The epistemic horizon is not very broad. We do not, in fact, know what the results of various kinds of economic policies or social policies will be, and there isn’t any evidence that can tell us with any degree of certainty. The housing projects that mar our cities weren’t supposed to turn out like that; neither was the federal push to encourage home-ownership or to encourage the substitution of carbohydrates for fats and proteins in our diets. A truly rational policy of the sort that Tyson imagines must take into account not only how little we know about the future but how little we can know about the future, even if we consult the smartest, saintliest, and most disinterested experts among us.

That is part of the case for limited government and free markets. Government can do some things, such as guard borders (though ours chooses not to) and fight off foreign invaders. There are things that it cannot do, even in principle, such as impose a “rational” order on the nation’s energy markets, deciding that x share of our electricity supply shall come from solar, y share from wind, z share from natural gas, all calculated to economic and environmental ideals. That is simply beyond its ken, even if all the best people — including Tyson, from time to time — pretend that it is otherwise. Free markets go about solving social problems in the opposite way: Dozens, or thousands, or millions, or even billions of people, firms, organizations, investors, and business managers trying dozens or thousands of approaches to solving social problems.

Consider the relatively straightforward question: How do we move people around to the places they need to go? Even the most simple-minded among us would realize that there isn’t a single answer to that question: Some trips are best done in a 747, some in a Honda Civic. What is the ideal mix of walking paths, bicycle routes, rickshaws, Hindustan Ambassadors, airliners, private jets, trains, hyperloops, spacecraft, sailboats, Teslas, hot-air balloons, zip lines, etc., for the world’s 7.125 billion people? And what will it be 20 years from now?

Would you really trust a group of politicians to figure that out?

There isn’t a road to Rationalia. There are billions of them, negotiated by individuals and institutions dozens or hundreds of times a day, every time they make a significant choice. Government programs are, by their nature, centralized, unitary, and static attempts to impose a rational order on complexity beyond the understanding of the people who would claim to manage it. Obamacare is an excellent example of that: No one intended for premium prices to skyrocket and for millions of people to lose their policies or for the majority of the American public to be unhappy with the program and its results, but that is what happened. The architects of Obamacare weren’t stupid, but, being ordinary mortals (albeit reasonably bright ones), their intellectual capacity was insufficient to the problem at hand: Small brains, big problems.

It isn’t ideology that imposes a relatively narrow circle on what government planners can do. And, with all due respect to the genius of F. A. Hayek (“The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design”), it isn’t only economics, either. The limitations on human knowledge are real, and they are consequential. As men like him have done for ages, Tyson dreams of a world of self-evident choices, overseen by men of reason such as himself who occupy a position that we cannot help but notice is godlike. It’s nice to imagine ruling from an Olympus of Reason, with men and nations arrayed before one as on a chessboard.

Down here on Earth, the view is rather different, and the lines of sight inside the epistemic horizon are not nearly so long as our would-be rulers imagine.

Where Have All The Free Traders Gone?

By David Harsanyi
Thursday, June 30, 2016

This week, Donald Trump likened international trade agreements to the rape of the motherland. Also, in his anti-market speech, the presumptive Republican argued that “politicians have aggressively pursued a policy of globalization — moving our jobs, our wealth and our factories to Mexico and overseas.” Tons of people cheered him. Worse, people who know better said nothing.

It takes too much time and space to constantly point out all the lies Trump perpetuates about trade. But it’s worth mentioning that “globalization” is now one of those catchall insults which, like “neocon” or “elitist,” has lost any practical meaning. It’s far more likely you’ll see a Republican twisting himself into intellectual knots defending the party’s nominee than defending free trade. No one wants to be a globalist.

So few elected Republicans of note, other than Sen. Ben Sasse and perhaps a couple of others, pushed back against Trump’s litany of absurdities on international trade. Don’t these people supposedly believe in free markets? Many of them voted for the very deals the presumptive nominee of their party is now calling rape.

Even economists like Stephen Moore, who’s helped shape my own thinking on numerous economic issues over the years, argues that, well, yes, China is probably cheating on “some of these deals,” so we should renegotiate. The problem with this contention is that, as imperfect as deals may or may not be, Trump isn’t looking to rework them to stem wrongdoing or to open markets for more low-priced goods. He wants to raise tariffs, close those markets, start trade wars, and bring unproductive jobs “back” to America.

These policies would lead to an economic disaster. I know this because not that long ago a champion of free trade, economist Stephen Moore, argued that Trump’s protectionism undermines the idea that “Americans and workers all over the world” should “have access to the best-quality products at the lowest possible prices.” This, he points out, is all about comparative advantage, a theory taught to us by (the suspiciously foreign-sounding) David Ricardo.

Similarly, let’s dispense with the notion that Trump merely wants to end illegal immigration. His protectionist rhetoric goes far beyond that, blaming an influx of people, not only the illegal kind, for our economic troubles. But as Moore once pointed out, in 1980s and ’90s we saw nearly 20 million new legal immigrants enter the country —“one of the largest waves of newcomers in our nation’s history”— yet the United States created “nearly 40 million new jobs, the unemployment rate plunged by half, and the middle class saw living standards rise by almost one-third (between 1983 and 2005).”

Let’s also dispense with the idea that more trade regulation will alleviate crony capitalism and elite control, as Trump contends. The more regulations and restrictions you impose on the economy, the more rent-seeking you have. Trump wants to create more of this, not less.

Yet if you propose that American kids shouldn’t be saddled with low-paying, menial, unproductive jobs brought back from Vietnam, you’re a globalist now. We’ve lost 6 million manufacturing jobs over the past 12 years, and those loses are often meted out in human suffering. But, as if it needs to be repeated, U.S. manufacturing is producing far more with far less through efficiency and modernization.  That’s not going to change because of political anger.

So while the GOP was negligent in acknowledging the many legitimate anxieties of working-class voters, that doesn’t mean it has a duty to surrender to their worst instincts. I guess pinning the shifting realities of the economy on the Mexicans, Chinese, and immigrants is a lot easier than blaming robots and other technological innovations. But surely there are positive, free-market arguments available for Republicans to be making to these people. Silence is a vacuum, and Trumpism is filling it.

There are some conflicting poll numbers on trade. One Pew poll from earlier this year found that only a slight plurality of voters believe free-trade agreements are a net positive for the nation. Among Republicans and those who lean Republican, a majority believe trade agreements are a negative.

It should also be noted that Democrats’ political reaction to Trump’s anti-free-trade speech wasn’t to defend the Trans-Pacific Partnership or North American Free Trade Agreement—or any of the deals that mainline Democrats have supported in the past. It’s not surprising that AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who substantively agrees with the basic Trump trade positions, accused him of sending “American jobs overseas to line his own pockets.” That sort of zero-sum protectionist rhetoric is a backbone of the progressive economic rhetoric of Bernie Sanders, who is solidifying those kinds of ideas on the left flank of the Democratic Party.

But what about Hillary Clinton? Her surrogates only attacked Trump for outsourcing his branded apparel. There’s a legitimate point to make about hypocrisy, but making only that point affirms Trump’s position that trade is bad for the American worker and economy. In this age of gotcha politics, Hillary is blessed to have an opponent who gives her the space to avoid taking on thorny topics like trade in a serious way.

Like many Democrats, Hillary becomes increasingly critical of trade agreements when running for office — probably because she sees it as a way to woo white, working-class voters. She has oscillated on NAFTA, and gone from calling TPP the “gold standard” of trade deals to a deal she’s “reserving judgment” on. If you value free trade—and, obviously, it’s not the only issue—the best-case scenario for the country is that she’s lying again. Maybe he is, too. Although I doubt it.

The Wisdom of Mencken and Nock Seems Fresh Today

By Jonah Goldberg
Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Believing in my bones, as I do, that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are unworthy and unqualified to be president of the United States has inspired me to do a lot of soul searching, and that has drawn me more and more to the writings of the legendary H. L. Mencken and less-than-legendary Albert J. Nock. The two Tory anarchists, as some called them, were friends and intellectual comrades-in-arms who stood athwart the progressive and populist passions that defined American politics in the first half of the 20th century.

The domestic madness of World War I galvanized both men. Under Democrat Woodrow Wilson, the United States established the first modern ministry of propaganda, the Committee on Public Information. The Wilson administration jailed political dissenters by the thousands, encouraged the brown-shirt tactics of the American Protective League, and censored newspapers and magazines with abandon.

The president demonized “hyphenated Americans” — i.e., Irish Americans or German Americans — as enemies of the state. “Any man who carries a hyphen about with him,” Wilson declared, “carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready.”

Nock wrote a scalding editorial for The Nation criticizing labor leader Samuel Gompers for supporting the government. The Wilson administration responded by temporarily banning the publication.

The government also banned booze — an effort led in Congress by Republican Andrew Volstead. Prohibition further demonstrated for both Mencken and Nock that the zeal to muck about with peoples’ lives was a bipartisan affair.

“The more obvious the failure becomes, the more shamelessly they exhibit their genuine motives,” Mencken wrote in 1926. “In plain words, what moves them is the psychological aberration called sadism. They lust to inflict inconvenience, discomfort, and, whenever possible, disgrace upon the persons they hate — which is to say, upon everyone who is free from their barbarous theological superstitions, and is having a better time in the world than they are.”

What united Nock and Mencken most was a sense of homelessness in the intellectual establishment. Franklin Roosevelt, who campaigned on the promise to use the war-fighting methods of the Wilson administration to fight the Great Depression, further cemented their alienation. “Communism, the New Deal, Fascism, Nazism,” Nock wrote in his memoirs, “are merely so-many trade-names for collectivist Statism, like the trade-names for tooth-pastes which are all exactly alike except for the flavouring.” This was an exaggeration, but one can only exaggerate the truth.

Once again American politics is threatening to become a competition between rival factions of statists, eager to use the government to reward themselves and punish their enemies, with “enemy” defined as anyone who doesn’t agree with them.

Today, America looks very different from the America of Mencken and Nock’s era, but the similarities are hard to ignore. Liberal elites have decided that if you have a problem with men using women’s bathrooms, you’re not just wrong, you’re a bigot. A registered Democrat murdered 49 Americans at a gay nightclub, in the name of the Islamic State, and the smart set insists that conservative Christians are somehow to blame. The zeal of Prohibition has multiplied like a cancer cell, with reformers wanting to ban everything they don’t like: vaping, free speech, coal, Uber, refusal to bake cakes for gay weddings, and, if they could, guns.

On the right, the presumptive GOP nominee promises not limited government but stronger, more protectionist government enlisted to remedy the grievances of his constituencies. His white working-class supporters represent “real” America, and their problems are always somebody else’s fault. I’ve lost count of how many times his most ardent fans have called me a “bigot” for opposing Trump.

True to their reputations as curmudgeons, no constituency was above reproach for Nock and Mencken. Business elites were Babbitts, eager to chart the course of least resistance. The people, in Mencken’s famous phrase, were the great “booboisie.” The decent and right-thinking were, according to Nock, a silent and tiny “remnant” hiding away from politics. Democracy itself, according to Mencken, was “the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

My cynicism is not yet as great as theirs. I have some cause for optimism. But one only looks for signs of hope when there’s ample reason to despair.

How This Election Turned Me Into A Libertarian

By Ilya Shapiro
Thursday, June 30, 2016

This election has turned me into a libertarian. Yes, given that I work at the Cato Institute, that statement seems either confusing or trite, but hear me out.

It’s not that my political views have changed; I wasn’t a secret socialist or paleo-conservative fifth-columnist in the heart of the libertarian mother ship. While I don’t agree with all my colleagues on everything, no two libertarians are in complete accord anyway (and are more likely to be found arguing about whose libertarianism is purer). (For the record, I fight the hypothetical and consider myself a classical liberal, so anarcho-capitalists and liberaltarians may commence criticism.)

Nor is it that I’m now a capital-L Libertarian, offering a full-throated endorsement of Gary Johnson. I mean, of the declared candidates, of course I’d go for one who’s fit for office. But a lot could happen between today and November 8. Clinton or Trump, or both, may not end up on their respective parties’ ballot lines, or an independent could enter whom I like more. Anyway, none of this means I’m throwing my lot in with the Libertarian Party itself.

No, turning libertarian has little to do with either ideology or partisanship. Instead, it’s an attitudinal shift.

I Care about What Politics Does

I’d always been a pretty political guy: I’ve enjoyed following the strategery, debating tactics, arguing historical counter-factuals, and memorizing statistics. It’s like sports, except at the end you’re left with more than just entertainment—which is scary when you realize that the winners of this “game” get, instead of trophies, power to control other people.

A lot of libertarians aren’t like that. Not that my fellow travelers in the liberty movement are unique in that way; most Americans aren’t political animals. For good reason: as George Mason University law professor (and Cato adjunct scholar) Ilya Somin has detailed in his excellent and often counterintuitive book “Democracy and Political Ignorance,” it makes no rational sense learning political intricacies when your vote is insignificant. Indeed, one measure of a country’s health and stability is how little its citizens feel a need to engage with politics. People are busy with jobs, kids, hobbies, and other much more important concerns.

Of course, self-identified libertarians are very much into small-p politics—honing ideological consistency, identifying the best policies, criticizing government—but many simply think getting “into the muck” of capital-P Politics is a waste of time, especially when both major parties have strong statist aspects. This is probably most true for the staunchest non-interventionists.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that perspective, but I’ve never been that way. I care a lot about political outcomes and have figured that the best way I can advance them, especially given my skill set and particular interest in legal policy and judicial nominations, is to work within the system rather than ignore it.

Voting With a Clean Conscience

Professionally I build unconventional coalitions, engaging whichever politicians and interest groups can help on any given issue. For example, I’ve joined dozens of organizations on Supreme Court amicus briefs and regularly meet with a range of politicians. But politics is different from the policy world in that you’re more often choosing the lesser of two evils, working against a candidate’s opponent more than for the candidate himself. That often involves supporting candidates who don’t score very high on libertarian purity tests, like George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney, but whose party professes to care about and be influenced by classical-liberal ideas and whose executive and judicial appointments I would prefer.

Granted, I only became a citizen two years ago, so this will be the first presidential election where I can actually vote. (My first non-presidential vote, in 2014, was to legalize marijuana in D.C.—not that Johnson needs to make it his leading issue—after which I promptly moved to Virginia.) But I consider voting to be my least important political activity, which is a good thing given how unpalatable the suitors are for my first time.

No, this year, when both the Republicans and Democrats are poised to nominate the most godawful presidential candidates imaginable, count me out of conventional politics. I’ll instead be with the too-cool-for-school black-leather-jacket crowd that decrees “a pox on both your houses” before retiring to its absinthe snifters and e-cigars.

So far, I’ve found being an attitudinal libertarian to be cathartic. It’s a better way of dealing with this political season’s frustrations than arguing with your conscience about whether “Crooked Hillary” or “Fraudulent Donald” would be least unacceptable.