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Rationalism vs Pluralism, once more with feeling!

Jim Manzi channels Hayek and Popper.

A central insight of Hayek, Popper & Co. was that our ignorance of human society runs deep. We need the experimentation of an open society not only because different people often want different things, but even more importantly because we’re never sure what works. I generally support, for example, a high degree of legal toleration of behavior that I find personally objectionable. I recognize, though, that others believe that what I think should be tolerated goes too far and threatens social cohesion, or what Buckley called morale. How do we resolve this impasse?

The best answer for conservatives or libertarians is federalism, or more precisely, subsidiarity – the principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest competent authority. After all, a typical American lives in a state that is a huge political entity governing millions of people. As many decisions as possible ought to be made by counties, towns, neighborhoods and families (in which parents have significant coercive rights over children). In this way, not only can different preferences be met, but we can learn from experience how various social arrangements perform.

The characteristic error of contemporary conservatives in this regard has been a want of prudential judgment in trying to enforce too many social norms on a national basis. The characteristic error of contemporary Libertarianism has been the parallel failure to appreciate that a national rule of “no restrictions on non-coercive behavior” (which, admittedly, is something of a cartoon) contravenes a primary rationale for libertarianism. What if social conservatives are right and the wheels really will come off society in the long run if we don’t legally restrict various sexual behaviors? What if left-wing economists are right and it is better to have aggressive zoning laws that prohibit big-box retailers? I think both are mistaken, but I might be wrong. What if I’m right for some people at this moment in time, but wrong for others or wrong the same people ten years from now? The freedom to experiment needs to include freedom to experiment with different governmental (i.e., coercive) rules.

Now, obviously, there are limits to this. What if some states want to allow human chattel slavery? Well, we had a civil war to rule that out of bounds. Further, this imposes trade-offs on people who happen to live in some family, town or state that limits behavior in some way that they find odious, and must therefore move to some other location or be repressed. But this is a trade-off, not a tyranny.

We live in an imperfect world. Ironically, given the deeply anti-utopian orientation of Hayek and Popper, contemporary Libertarianism has veered off into increasingly utopian speculations disconnected from the practical realities that ought to animate it. At the same time, the Conservative movement has become increasingly ideological about enforcing moral norms. Both could learn a lot from re-engaging with one another.

This brings up one of the most popular documents in this blog's history: Jacob Levy's Liberalism's Divide paper (for which Brian Doss is a self-proclaimed "total pimp"); see below for more posts. Politically, I'm a libertarian, meaning that I generally favor libertarian policies. Epistemically, unlike most libertarians, I'm a pluralist rather than a rationalist. There's a clear limit to human knowledge and without the ability to experiment, we won't get closer to the truth. I have strong opinions but don't believe I have all the answers. When no answers are self-evident, I yield to tradition as a first line heuristic.

Despite being a small rock surrounded by large belligerent nations including communist China, Singapore somehow managed to stay independent and showed the world that a third world country can become one of the richest countries in the world in a single generation through free market policies. Without the ability to carry out this experiment, the world would have less knowledge and be worse off. Few things convince the skeptics more than hard data. When there's a conflict between libertarian policy and federalism, I'll favor federalism 99% of the time. Let a thousand Singapores bloom even if some ultimately wilt. The world will be better off.

Aside from facts are matters of taste and morality, questions which may have no final answer. It wouldn't make much sense for me to proclaim my tastes as univerally correct (though clearly, my taste in television is better than everyone else's). People have their own conceptions of the good life and ought to be allowed to seek them as long as they're able to leave the communities that don't meet their inclinations.

I strongly believe that without federalism, the liberal project is doomed.

Of the Plural and the Rational - Brian Doss
Levy on Pluralist and Rationalist Liberalism - Randall McElroy
We can Allow Individuals to Opt Out - Jonathan Wilde
On Liberty and Liberal Indeterminacy - Brian Doss

A Hypocrite Politician? Never

Elliot Spitzer's political career is over

Gov. Eliot Spitzer has informed his most senior administration officials that he had been involved in a prostitution ring, an administration official said this morning. [...]

But a person with knowledge of the governor’s role said that the person believes the governor is one of the men identified as clients in court papers. [...]

Mr. Spitzer gained national attention when he served as attorney general with his relentless pursuit of Wall Street wrongdoing. As attorney general, he also had prosecuted at least two prostitution rings as head of the state’s organized crime task force.

He had ambitions for the Presidency but Americans are mercifully saved from that development.


I've been super busy of late and have had no time to blog.  Fortunately, there's activity on the aggregator.  Matt asks what I think is an important question on immigration (coincidentally, his German cousin asked a similar question in the past.)

Quick Plug

I lean mostly on Patri's side of the argument though not quite as far as him. I once posted a hypothetical attempting to show how it might be possible to have a large libertarian population but statist laws. The first post is the question; the second is longer and makes my argument.

Hypothetical Question on Political Parties

Hypothetical Answer on Political Parties

What I tried to get across: The fact that Libertarians don't do well at politics doesn't mean that

  • Libertarian policians are worse at politics than other politicians
  • Libertarians don't try hard enough
  • Americans aren't libertarian. (This is one of my disagreements with Patri: America has a sizable libertarian population and culture, probably - from what I know about the rest of the world - the largest in the world.)

Rather, it's that the incentives in the political market are aligned against us.

This is just one aspect of how the political infrastructure is incompatible with libertarian policy. There are others - rational ignorance, innate biases, etc.

That Stevie Wonder is right on

The wonders of Japanese culture never cease to amaze me.

Thugs Watch The Wire

Don't read this unless you're caught up on this season's The Wire episodes.

Sudhir Venkatesh gets his hands dirty with some real-life thugs who watch The Wire.

Shine and I walked back into the apartment to watch episode 8. The rest of the crew was already assembled. Many had served up plates of catered food and were opening their fine domestic beers.

The viewing was uneventful until, “BANG!” Omar fell to his death. Kenard, the shortie from Michael’s street crew, had laid claim to the bounty.

The place went crazy. Omar is dead! Long live Omar! Kool-J threw a bag of pork rinds in the air, causing Shine to rebuke him with: “Hot sauce don’t come out of the carpets, boy!” Orlando woke from his semi-comatose state, crying, “No! No! They took my boy! First Butchie and now Omar!”

Tony-T was the most visibly shaken. “It can happen to any of us, just like that. You think you’re going out to buy some chicken and Pepsi, and the next thing, some kid wants to make a name for himself by taking you out.”

“We got to tell Flavor,” Shine said. “I know he’ll go nuts when he hears this.” Shine left the room to call Flavor on his cell phone. The rest of the Thugs began making side-bets.

“I say Michael kills Marlo,” Orlando said soberly. “That young [man] is going to take over.”

“Nope,” said Tony-T. “Avon. Avon, Avon, Avon. He’s got a deal with the Greeks, and they’ll take out Marlo. You watch: Avon is coming back! That’s my boy!”

Amidst the speculation and wagers, Shine returned. He had a fresh beer in his hand and he was shaking his head.

“Flavor’s in some real trouble now,” he said. “That boy should have laid low, and instead…”

“He went after Pootchie, didn’t he?” Kool-J yelled. (Everyone in the room evidently knew about Flavor’s troubles.) “Just say it! I’m right, ain’t I? Flavor went after Pootchie, didn’t he? I knew that son of a b—h couldn’t just hide out, keep quiet. That’s all he had to do! Jo-Jo was going to get arrested in a week — I told him that.”

Shine nodded and then explained: Flavor was so upset about the coup d’etat orchestrated by Jo-Jo that he decided to go after Jo-Jo’s girlfriend. But on the way to her place, he stopped off at a strip club, where he ran into some of Jo-Jo’s guys.

“They beat the s–t out of him, but that n—-r got away! I guess he left this trail of blood; he’s hurt pretty bad. But he’s in his car, still running.”

“I say Flavor goes after Jo-Jo,” Orlando said. “That [guy] can’t wait. Impatient m—-r f—-r.”

“No,” said Shine. “I think he’s shaken up. I think he’ll call his brother, Richie, stay at his place.”

“Hell no!” Tony-T yelped. “He’s going out like John Wayne. Guns firing.”

Stringer Bell, these guys aren't. Among the many not-believable characters in the series, Stringer Bell stood out. I always thought that someone as smart, calm, and far-thinking as him would not stay long in the Game. He'd realize that he'd have a much easier time making money by legal means with a fraction of the risk.  But David Simon needed a diabolical "capitalist" genius criminal.

On the Deuce

In case you don't have the Community Aggregator in your newsreader...

Constant links to Seattle day care centers trying to re-write slates.

Brian Macker has a run-in with Werner Patels.

And don't miss this gem from Curunir:

There's a great big America out there, full of people falling in love, raising kids, going to the ballpark, and doing everything else that make life worth living. If most of those people don't spend their waking hours obsessing over which stationary bandit is going to rob them more, or worse, actually spending time to help the bandits take power, well, then I say God bless them.

He'll Kick You Apart, He'll Kick You Apart Ooooh

On this President's Day, a repost from last year:

Super Bowl Thoughts

* Is there an in-the-grasp rule in the NFL? Sure looked like Eli Manning was in the grasp on that crazy play at the end of the game.

* Speaking of that play, I think it will probably be replayed 30 years from now on ESPN8. It was an unbelievable play both from the QB and the WR on a drive where it counted the most.

* What's up with Belichick's short-sleeve sweatshirt? I've never seen such a thing. Don't the short sleeves defeat the whole purpose of the sweatshirt? It even had a hood.

* Best commercial was probably the pair of E*Trade commercials with the baby. The first one with the puking was all slapstick. The second one with the clown was cerebral.

* More fashion: what in the world is Keyshawn Johnson wearing on the ESPN set?

* The NFL now has two "faces of the NFL", not just one.

* WHERE'S TIKI? It's bad enough his team win the Super Bowl the year after he retired. But he went the extra mile and publicly criticized Manning and Coughlin at the beginning of the season. There are winners and there are talkers. Tiki turned out to be a talker, Manning and Coughlin winners. I think he'll have to publicly give credit to Manning and Coughlin to have any credibility remaining.

* I remember an interview with the Archie Manning sometime while Peyton was in college. They asked him about Peyton's little brother who hadn't yet started high school, and the elder Manning said something like, "Yeah, he shows promise, but I'm not going to push him into football. We'll see what happens." Archie Manning never played in a Super Bowl. Both his sons now have Super Bowl MVP trophies.

* Hey Tom Brady - chin up. Even on your worst day, it's still Christmas.


Stimulate THIS

Steven asks some questions about the stiumulus plan.  Anyone got any answers?


So it looks like McCain is going to be the Republican nominee and either Clinton or Obama will be the Democratic nominee.  They all look pretty much the same to me.  Clinton is probably a little bit more big government, but I think if she's president, she'll be powerless.  Any upshot of any of them?


The site will be down for maintenance Sat night starting at 9 EST.

Google's Real Product

I just read something interesting on a message board written by someone in the tech industry. To paraphrase,

Millions of companies existed before Google whose entire purpose was to create spam. Google is largely responsible for a spam free internet. In fact, that's Google's real product: a spam free internet.

A Flash Victim?

David Bernstein on his initial exposure to libertarians:

Though I was only 13, I still remember hearing a radio ad for Libertarian Party presidential candidate Ed Clark, the most successful (1% of the vote in a five-way race with Reagan, Carter, Anderson, and Barry Commoner) Libertarian Party presidential candidate in its history. It went something like this: "Ronald Reagan says he wants to cut the fat out of government. I want to cut the lean. When I'm president, I'll cut federal spending and federal taxes by 50 percent, and close all American military bases abroad." I didn't quite know what to make of it at the time, but it piqued by [sic] curiosity.

(bold mine, italics his)

Seems like the Libertarian Macho Flash that Micha alluded to in a previous post worked.

Mystery Woman

Alright TV watchers, who is this woman? No googling allowed. 

(Hint:  The pictures are probably at least a decade old, though I'm not sure of their exact origin.)