Thursday, October 28, 2010

Contempt and the Public Sphere (A Footnote on Don Herzog's "Poisoning the Minds of the Lower Orders")

Like many other people, when reading the political blogosphere I am often struck by the prevalence of expressions of contempt. It is not simply that the “political public sphere” in the internet hardly corresponds to the Habermasian ideal of deliberation in which only the force of the better argument prevails; rather, expressions of contempt for the views and sometimes persons of others thoroughly pervade political argument. It is common to find claims that certain others have no (moral) “right” to speak on certain issues, or that their views should be ridiculed or ignored rather than engaged.

I am less interested in condemning this state of affairs (a pointless exercise anyway) than in trying to understand whether contempt is inextricably linked with public political argument. The thought crossed my mind while reading Don Herzog’s interesting book Poisoning the Minds of the Lower Orders, which I discovered via Adrian Vermeule’s Law and the Limits of Reason. Herzog’s book could be described as a look at the political blogosphere in the British Isles circa 1817; he seems to have looked at every political pamphlet, newspaper, minor novel, and even popular song published between 1789 and 1834, and examined how coffeehouses, alehouses, and hairdressers' shops functioned as sites of political debate. It’s impressive, though I do not envy the undertaking (just imagining trying to write the contemporary version of this book makes me nauseous). 

As Herzog makes clear (at sometimes excruciating length, in fact), the political public sphere of the time was as filled with expressions of contempt, or perhaps more so, than the current political public sphere. Contempt was directed towards women, blacks, Jews, workers, rich people, poor people, politicians, hairdressers, etc.; reading Herzog, in fact, one gets the impression that most political argument at the time was simply composed of expressions of contempt by contending parties. (So much for the good old days before the internet). Moreover, though Herzog stresses that contempt was tightly linked to the “conservative” project of preserving hierarchies and preventing the transformation of “subjects into citizens,” the book makes it clear that contempt was deployed both to sustain hierarchy and deference on the part of subordinate groups and to undermine such hierarchy and deference; it was not the specific property of particular parties or groups (though conservatives and radicals typically expressed contempt in different ways, and made use of it for different purposes).

What makes the book interesting, beyond its account of the historical debates that shaped the emergence of a distinctively modern “conservatism” in Britain during those decades, is the way Herzog links the question of contempt with questions about epistemic authority: who is worth listening to, and who is not, and what norms should apply to apply to political debate.

Norms of political debate are not neutral with respect to epistemic authority. The Habermasian ideal of deliberation, for example, implicitly grants all citizens equal epistemic authority: all arguments are to be judged on the merits, not with respect to any characteristics of the person making them. This may imply, among other things, that one should deploy arguments sincerely rather than strategically, be open to correction, and extend interpretive charity to the positions of others (at least ideally).

But what if one thinks that the characteristics of some people – e.g., people who are far from me politically – are useful proxies for the likelihood that their arguments are worth listening to? (Life is short, after all – do I really have to listen to what everyone has to say?) And what do we do about people who violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the norms of debate – deploying arguments dishonestly or strategically, “concern-trolling,” refusing to accept evidence, etc.? Do we engage with them or punish them through expressions of contempt etc.? (And it is not always possible to determine who is behaving strategically and who is not; what looks like trolling to some may look like perfectly reasonable argument to others). Or how about people who have more influence than their (actual, rather than perceived) epistemic authority warrants? (What if we think, for example, that particular bloggers we dislike are more influential than their arguments warrant?) Do we engage with their views sincerely, in the confidence that “the truth will out,” or try to diminish their influence by attacking their epistemic authority by other means – ridicule, contempt, ad hominem argument, etc.? (Consider here debates about climate change or creationism in schools).

Herzog’s key idea (and here I sense a criticism of Habermas, though AFAIK Habermas is not mentioned in the book) is that distinctively political debate is always in part about the distribution of epistemic authority, i.e., about who has a “right” to speak and whose views are worth being listened to. Conservatives and radicals in the England of 1817 disagreed not merely about the merits of particular proposals (about suffrage, etc.), but about whether certain groups of people were worth taking seriously. And there is no neutral standpoint to determine who can or cannot be admitted to the public sphere, no neutral view that reveals the true distribution of knowledge and indicates what the true distribution of political influence should be; political debate is always (among other things) the attempt to shape the distribution of epistemic authority, and this attempt seems to be inescapably accompanied by the deployment of contempt. (Consider, by contrast, debates where epistemic authority is relatively uncontroversial, as in some purely scientific debates: the debate is non-political to the extent that the standards for evidence and argument are widely shared among participants, and hence to the extent that there is wide agreement among participants regarding who is or is not worth listening to).

The point I am trying to get at goes beyond the observation that party boundaries in politics are typically policed by expressions of contempt, and partisanship is inescapable in democratic politics (and at any rate there are good things to be said for partisanship in the public sphere). The question is whether one can one imagine a deliberative form of politics that is not underpinned by the deployment of contempt towards those who are not considered to be worth listening to? Are judgments that some people are not worth listening to necessarily expressions of contempt? And are the sanctions that we may think are necessary to keep debate healthy necessarily contemptuous?

I do not know the answers to these questions, but I suspect that it is impossible to police any set of norms of debate without using sanctions that express contempt. To the extent that the public sphere is a political sphere, it will be pervaded by contempt (though to a greater or lesser extent), and hence the lamentations about the quality of our public discourse will always be with us. Democracy, in other words, may be structurally unsatisfying, no matter how deliberative it may be; a public sphere without contempt would be a public sphere from which politics properly has been excluded, either because of an accidental harmony of interests among its participants, or through the kind of coercion that prevents certain people from participating in it.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Ancient Ones

R. John Parkes, a researcher at the University of Cardiff, Wales, studies microbes found in core samples collected by the Ocean Drilling Program from rocks deep below the ocean floor. “For a long time, these deep sediments were thought to be devoid of any life at all,” he says. There’s life down there, all right, but talk about slow metabolism: When Parke analyzed 4.7 million-year-old organic sediment in the Mediterranean, he estimated the average time it took for resident microbes to reproduce by cell division at 120,000 years. And he reported finding living bacteria just over a mile below the seafloor, in sediments 111 million years old and at temperatures of 140 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit.
More here.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Too many gods

The pot is a god. The winnowing fan is a god. The stone in the street is a god. The comb is a god. The bowstring is also a god. The bushel is a god and the spouted cup is a god.
Gods, gods, there are so many there’s no place left for a foot.
Quoted here, from the 12th century South Indian poet Basavanna.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Hills and Valleys in Greek Speculative History (Or, Prolegomena to a Sketch of an Anarchist History of Western Political Theory)

(Warning: 2000 words or so on the place of “hills” and “valleys” in Greek political thought).

As I mentioned in a previous post, reading Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia pointed me in the direction of thinking about the place of “hills” and “valleys,” state spaces and stateless places, in political theory. Scott claims that both Southeast Asian and Western political thought have stigmatized those hill-dwellers who have no permanent residence (p. 101), and identified civilization with the settled states of the valleys (pp. 100-101), though he also pays homage to Ibn Khaldoun’s Muqaddimah (p. 20), a work which does not stigmatize the stateless (at least so far as I remember; it’s been a while). He even notes that Aristotle famously argued that human beings were political animals, i.e., animals that live in poleis or cities, a characterization that suggests that people who do not live in cities are not fully human (p. 101 – though Scott fails to note that for Aristotle such people can be both above and below the level of humanity). I cannot speak about Southeast Asian political theory, but it seems to me that at least with respect to Western political theory the picture is a bit more complicated, even if Scott is correct overall.

For example, Aristotle’s famous pronouncement about the polis-nature of human beings is complicated by the fact that the polis was most certainly not an agrarian state – the “statelessness” of the polis is well known, though some of the larger poleis did eventually develop something like police forces and other aspects of statehood – and that Aristotle did not define the polis in contrast to nomadic life and in terms of settled habitation, but in contrast to the family and in terms of its purpose. Indeed, he takes pains to distinguish the polis both from the great empires of his time (which were true extractive agrarian states of the sort that Scott discusses in his book) and from mere settlements (whose focus on “mere life” did not qualify them for civilization). The barbarian empires were “uncivilized” despite their possession of large and powerful states, and the city-less are low less because they are scattered than because they have no “clan” and are “lovers of war,” i.e., because they are insufficiently social.

Thus, though Aristotle does seem to indicate that nomadic peoples are “primitive” (the Cyclops, who are traditionally represented as a nonsedentary people, appear as an instance of the “old ways” of political organization), there is no clear indication that sedentary existence per se is necessary to the polis, or that it is in itself valuable. In this Aristotle is in keeping with what I take to be the traditional Greek way of thinking, where not the physical location but the citizens constituted the city: “For the men, not the walls nor the empty galleys, are the city,” and so “Wherever you settle, you will be a polis as Nikias tells his soldiers in a speech Thucydides either invented or recreated for his History of the Peloponnesian War. To be sure, this is still consistent with the story that Scott tells about the importance of men, rather than land, in the construction of states; but it ought to put a wrinkle in the “stigma” thesis.

But it is in Plato that we find an explicit consideration of the valence of “hills and valleys” in the sense that Scott is really concerned with. In book III of his long dialogue Laws, Plato develops the contrast between the hills and the valleys through a speculative history which he uses to isolate those factors that gave rise to politeiai (political organization) and laws, both of which are associated with the cities of the plain and the states they controlled. (Ancient speculative histories are fascinating. I suspect they functioned among ancient thinkers much as economists’ or political scientists’ models function today: as interesting simplifications with some explanatory value that isolate general reasons for action operating in particular contexts.).

The narrative is more or less as follows. The Athenian Stranger (the leading character in the dialogue) asks his interlocutors to imagine a situation where, thanks to some massive flood, the states of the plains were destroyed, leaving only a slight remnant of pastoralists high up in the hills (677a-b). This catastrophe not only radically simplified technology (most arts and sciences are lost), but also greatly reduced exposure to the various forms of greed and morally dubious competition prevalent in cities (677b-c). In fact, the catastrophe destroyed the memory of cities and politeiai and laws: the hill peoples are clearly stateless in a radical sense (678a). But laws and political life are not necessarily good; the Athenian stresses that with laws and political life properly speaking you can get both virtue and vice (and more often the latter than the former, especially in the form of warfare). By contrast, the hill peoples are naïve or artless (εήθεις; literally having “good habits”), not educated (or mis-educated) by urban artifice, and rather peaceful.

Indeed, war is presented in the story as an artefact of civilization (678d-e); so long as land is abundant, and the memory of catastrophe is recent (the “fear of the plain”), the hill peoples do not fight (and at any rate they do not have much of the technology and arts of war, so their fighting is not, the Athenian speculates, highly destructive). On the contrary, they welcome each other (679a) and have pleasure in each other’s company (given low population densities, they do not meet each other that often), and because their societies are less unequal than urban societies (with less of both poverty and wealth, as well as less hierarchy and subordination), they develop in an environment that ultimately makes them more courageous, moderate and just than urban peoples (679d-e). It’s an idyllic picture (and not a terribly bad description of forager/pastoralist societies in the absence of states, either, though idealized in some respects). How do laws emerge, then? What are they for?

The first step towards law and political life is made possible, in this speculative story, by the very naïveté or artlessness of the hill peoples. Because they did not have the cunning and scepticism of urban peoples (who are experienced about deception, both as agents and subjects of it), they believed any old story that they were told about “gods and men” (679c), and adopted these stories as the basis of their customs. (Note the dig here towards all mythical stories of founding and legitimation; most of these stories are simply nonsense, in the Athenian’s view). These customs were not yet laws; their orality disqualified them from this status. (The hill peoples are illiterate, 680a). But they did not need to be laws in order to regulate their social life, which was still quite self-contained.

Their self-containment could be interpreted as a form of “savagery” (680b-d), or perhaps more accurately a lack of “domestication,” as the Athenian notes by comparing such hill peoples to the mythical Cyclops described in Homer. Yet he does not himself endorse the comparison, which seems at any rate inconsistent with his previous praise of the justice and moderation of the hill peoples; the one who proposes it is Megillos, the representative of the slave-holding valley state par excellence, Sparta (680d3), which was also known for its "savagery" (cf. 666e, where the Athenian calls the Spartan system "savage"). To be civilized, for Megillos, is to become domesticated; but the metaphor of domestication is not altogether unambiguous in Plato (sheep and pigs are also domesticated, after all).

But this self-containment cannot last. As the memory of the initial cataclysm fades (perhaps an echo of a collective memory of an old fear of the cities of the plain? Fears of slave-raiding, for example, as Scott suggests in his discussion of the stories of hill peoples from Thailand and Burma? Not that Plato mentions such fears), hill peoples move down, and some turn to farming and a sedentary life (681a), coming in contact with other recent transplants from the hills. But now they need to coordinate regarding which of their various and incompatible customs (based on the random stories mentioned earlier) is to regulate their common life; and here we have the origins of legislation properly speaking (681b-d).

From here the Athenian shifts from speculating about the origin of valley states to recounting the history of the first Greek valley states, in particular the Dorian states (Sparta, Argos, and Messene), a history that would have been familiar to his two interlocutors (the Spartan Megillos and the Cretan Kleinias). This narrative is then put to use in order to understand why in some states (Sparta) the rulers were more constrained by laws than in others (Argos and Messene), despite their various similarities. This is perhaps the first systematic empirical comparison in political science, using a “most similar cases” design, but the Athenian no longer mentions hill peoples, so I shall not summarize the rest here.

This speculative history is notable in two ways. First, it marks a contrast between the natural but “naïve” or “artless” goodness of the peoples of the hills and the potential for both virtue and corruption of the cities. The hill peoples do not need “technical” or "artificial" virtue to live well; their natural virtue is enough. But cities do need such “artificial” virtue (or rather, they need real knowledge), and it is not obvious that this is not a curse, since such knowledge is exceedingly scarce. As the Athenian notes in the “historical” part of his narrative, life in most valley states seems to end in some form or another or tyranny due to a lack of knowledge and virtue; the hill peoples had it better in that respect.

But second, the narrative suggests that short of a major cataclysm, there is no going back to hill life. Indeed, the point of the Athenian’s political theory in this part of the dialogue is to find a way to realistically mitigate the evils of life in settled valley societies; and for this, he will introduce for the first time a systematic theory of the “mixed constitution” - the ancient predecessor of our theories of the “separation of powers” and “checks and balances” (though the theory is in many ways quite different from our modern equivalents; more in a future post, probably). It is precisely the possession of something like a “mixed constitution” that enabled Sparta to become a relatively law-governed state, in contrast to the situation in Argos and Messene, which degenerated, in the Athenian’s telling, into more arbitrary regimes. But this did not make Sparta perfect; on the contrary, he had criticized it earlier as an “armed camp” more than a city (666e).

One could note that the Athenian’s narrative is still valley-centric; there is no mention of flight into the hills, for example, and certainly the background fact of slavery as a requirement of the valley states is kept deep in the background. At any rate, it seems that, from the point of view of a fourth century Greek like Plato, the hill frontier had more or less closed, or had become an unrealistic option (or perhaps it was all only a thought experiment to begin with). And the full flourishing of human life does seem to go through urban life, but in Plato (in contrast, perhaps, to Aristotle’s more optimistic take later on) this is a road that is almost certain to lead to disappointment. The hill peoples had it better.

Now, it is possible that canonical thinkers like Plato and Aristotle were not representative of the tenor of Greek political thought on the question of the valence of hills and valleys. One probably would have to scour a much larger sample of writings, and our sources are often fragmentary and biased. And though the “anarchism” of the early Stoics and Cynics is reasonably well attested, as well as the antipolitical attitudes of the Epicureans (or at least as well attested as the meagre fragments of their texts that survive allow), these attitudes clearly soften in later thinkers identified with these schools (and more from these later people survive). Moreover, the evidence of etymology supports the “stigma” thesis; the word asteios, for example, which originally meant something like “urban” in a neutral sense, eventually came to mean something like “good.” At any rate, canonical thinkers like Plato clearly tend to be unrepresentative; that is part of the reason why their thought can be continuously re-appropriated by later generations, and why it remains interesting beyond the narrow context in which it emerged. But still, in general it seems that there was more ambivalence about the identification of states and civilization in Greek political theory than Scott suggests, and this ambivalence does not simply die off. Beyond Plato to Augustine to Rousseau there is a strand of Western political theory that is willing to call most states “bands of robbers” and has difficulty making its peace with them; and as with Rousseau, this strand sometimes comes close to saying that a stateless existence would be better, even if they also acknowledge its impossibility in a world where the valley states are dominant.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Footnotes on things I've been reading: James C. Scott's "The Art of Not Being Governed"

I’ve been reading James C. Scott’s latest, The Art of Not Being Governed: an Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, which had been highly recommended to me by a number of people. All I can say is, what are you waiting for? Go read it! It’s great!

Scott starts from a couple of observations that are obvious when you think about them but are illuminating when stated explicitly and applied systematically. First, the vast majority of the subjects of pre-modern states (in all parts of the world, not just Southeast Asia) have been unfree – slaves, bondsmen, serfs, etc. In fact, the pre-modern state (a problematic term, but let’s let that pass for the moment) was basically a technology for coercively extracting surpluses from sedentary agricultural laborers. Second, for most of human history the geographical reach of any state was sharply limited by the characteristics of the terrain, especially elevation (moving grain by oxcart quickly becomes prohibitively expensive over relatively long distances or as the elevation increases, for example).

Going up (or into swamps or other inaccessible terrain) thus meant going out of what Scott nicely calls “state space.” It is worth stressing that stateless spaces do not imply a lack of sociality, or a horrendous Hobbesian "state of nature." Stateless societies tend to be relatively egalitarian, small, mobile, and based more on gift exchanges than on the coercive extraction of resources – just like the forager bands that dominated human history for most of the 100,000 years or so since Homo Sapiens Sapiens emerged as a distinct species of primate. In comparison to many pre-modern states, the stateless hill societies Scott describes had a more varied diet and more leisure, and in general they could be said to be far “freer” (less hierarchy and subordination, not to speak of taxes, corvée labor, strict gender roles, and the like). Leaving the state has not been a very bad thing for most people for most of human history, pace Hobbes.

Thus, so long as terrain imposes significant limits to state-building projects, you get a situation where many “subjects” of the state can and often do exercise their “exit” option: they can move to the hills. And state-makers, in turn, try to prevent them from moving, especially since under the typical conditions prevailing in most of human history (e.g., limited military specialization) manpower is identical with power. The primary project of pre-modern state-building has been to “sedentarize” people – to keep them near at hand to the ruler so that they can be mobilized for his purposes and his glory. (The “problem” posed by people leaving – for state-makers, not for the emigrants themselves - is not confined to pre-modern states; the communist regimes went to great lengths to try to prevent people from leaving as well, and like pre-modern states, they collapsed when they could not manage to keep them in.)

One might think that one way of preventing people from leaving would be to produce good government. And indeed, Scott notes how the desperate need for people of most Southeast Asian rulers produced a great deal of “social mobility” in what are otherwise highly hierarchical societies, and a certain amount of redistribution of material resources: slaves quickly became regular exploited peasants, for example, and there was lots of redistributive feasting. And there were some attractions to being near the culture of the court. But when there are always other petty tyrants busy trying to build their own tiny empires (full of "cosmologial bluster" about universal rule), there is a strong incentive for each of them to steal other people’s people. Pre-modern warfare (not only in Southeast Asia, but also in the Mediterranean world) is thus often indistinguishable from pure slave-raiding.

Moreover, producing good government is often actually contrary to the interests of the ruler. The ruler is interested less in the total amount of production (GDP) than on the total amount of accessible resources – men and storable crops; and these were often (and are often) very different things. While the farmer might want to plant root crops (which are not easily visible to the state officials), practice less labor-intensive swidden (“slash and burn”) agriculture, and in general have a more varied diet and life, the ruler would prefer that he stick to planting rice, which is easily surveyed and seized. (This continues a theme of Scott’s other great book, Seeing like a State; state-making has been historically concerned above all with making things visible to state officials so that they can be more easily controlled and seized). Indeed, rice made states in Asia; no rice, no states. (I wonder if the fact that Australia is and has been pretty dry explains why it was, until extremely recently in historical time, basically a stateless area; concentrated agriculture of the kind that can make states was probably not worth the trouble, and so political entrepreneurs intent on creating durable hierarchies simply did not have the sorts of resources necessary for the task).

Thus, at least in Southeast Asia, people often had both the incentive and the opportunity to escape states. But the availability of exit didn’t necessarily produce “good government,” though it might have mitigated petty tyrannies occasionally, and it certainly produced states that where cultural assimilation was possible and often quick. Competition between state-builders did not produce good Tiebout effects but rather a lot of what Weber called “booty capitalism” (and, it seems, a lot of misery; the history he tells is at bottom a dismal chronicle). More importantly for Scott, this dynamic also led to the formation of hill societies that were extremely concerned with avoiding the state. I haven’t gotten this far yet, but from the earlier sections it seems clear that Scott argues that, far from being “primitive,” many features of these societies – their forms of agriculture, their social structures, even their orality – are basically designed to prevent their incorporation into valley states – to become less legible and less controllable. The culture of the hills is the art of not being governed.

Yet I suspect that Scott makes too much of the “primitive”/ “civilized” dichotomy; the art of not being governed seems suspiciously like the art of living like a forager band, even if the hill societies he is interested in are not necessarily foragers (they practice swidden – “slash and burn” – agriculture, for example).

A couple of things I was thinking as I was reading. First, how far could you go in refining and formalizing Scott’s implicit model of statemaking? Scott is a classical “thick description” scholar, distrustful of simplified models, but I’m an unreconstructed theorist, and would like to understand more about the parameters governing the significance of exit and voice in the development of tolerable or bearable states. Maybe “voice” (e.g., democracy) only becomes a significant possibility once the possibility of exit is foreclosed yet production technologies are such that states cannot simply survey and seize productive resources at will?

And what about the significance of different technologies? Scott argues that his analysis does not apply today, when “distance destroying technologies” – helicopters, all-weather roads, etc. – make extending state spaces easier than ever, but those who wish to avoid the state are not standing still either; one thinks of the many ways in which financial technologies serve to take production away from the reach of the state, even as at the same time newer military technologies make the state less dependent on manpower and so less intent on "fixing" people in place.

I was also thinking about the hill/valley relationship in political thought. Scott notes how Ibn Khaldoun’s great work, the Muqaddimah (which is great, by the way!), is basically concerned with the complex dialectical relationship between state and non-state spaces, the Bedouin and the “civilized;” but he basically claims that for the most part political thought has simply reiterated the basic dichotomy of hill and valley (or civilized and barbarian, “raw” and “cooked,” and so on), valuing the valleys and dismissing the hills. This may be true in the aggregate, yet I kept thinking of the speculative histories of the origin of the state in Plato, especially the Laws, with its complex and by no means one sided evaluation of the virtues of the hills and the vices of the cities. (More on this later).

Anyway, there’s much more to it (I’m not finished with it yet), and it’s well written to boot. (I love the term “cosmological bluster,” for example). I'm considering assigning it to my honours seminar in political theory, even though it's not really a political theory text; yet it really makes you think about the nature of states from a "universal history" perspective that is too often obscured in the usual texts and debates on power and the state in contemporary political theory. 

Monday, October 11, 2010

Hermes, Lord of Robbers (Homeric Hymn #4)

As a picture book. Nancy found it in the public library, and we read it to our daughter. It is a fairly complete (and very nice) translation of the short fourth Homeric Hymn (to Hermes, Lord - or Leader - of Robbers - or Thieves), with some truly lovely illustrations. Some bits and pieces are missing (stuff about sacrificial meat that would be hard to explain in any book, an episode about Hermes' invention of fire that is incomplete in the original), but I suspect it is all the better for it (the original hymn lacks some thematic unity).

Hermes is born and the first thing he wants to do is steal Apollo's cattle, which he succeeds in doing that very night. He is clever and thus makes the cattle walk backwards, so that they leave tracks that point in the wrong direction, but he is seen by an old man, so Apollo quickly learns who stole his cattle. He goes to seek Hermes and accuses him, and some funny banter ensures (Hermes: "I was only born yesterday! My feet are soft, and the ground is hard!"). Apollo is not amused, and wants to beat Hermes up. Hermes appeals to Zeus, who laughs at his fibs and tells him to go get Apollo's cattle ("Dad, I really didn't do it. Zeus: ok, now go get the cattle"). They go (big brother and little brother: Apollo and Hermes are sons of Zeus) but Apollo discovers that Hermes has slain two of his cows (this is a bit abrupt in the picture book, since the stuff about sacrifice is omitted), so he gets really mad again and wants to beat Hermes up. But Hermes is clever again, and soothes him by playing music - and giving Apollo the lyre he had fashioned out of a turtle's shell. Apollo, grateful for the music, decides to let the matter go, and gives him a staff and tells him that he shall always be known as the prince of robbers - and so given the tribute and recognition he had craved since he was born (the day before). Hermes promises never to steal anything from Apollo's house. (I don't tell the story well enough. It really is charming, in a cheerfully amoral way, and the illustrations in the book are beautiful).

The hymn depicts a world that is truly different from our own - a world where Hermes' excellence lies in his ability to steal Apollo's cattle and then charm him so that Apollo does not beat him up, where political authority - including the authority of Zeus - is at best the authority of mediators, not enforcers, where population densities are low and the natural world is intensely present; it's a world closer to the world of nomadic foragers than to the world of farmers and cities of later antiquity. (This is a very old piece of poetry, a survival in writing of an even older oral tradition; one can apparently learn much from Homer's epic poetry and the Homeric hymns about Bronze-age society). Hermes is praised as the prince of cattle-raiders, not condemned; he is excellent because his cleverness is beautiful, not because he is a good boy. (There is something in Nietzsche about this, I think - which I am probably misremembering). We quite enjoyed it, though I can see why Plato thought the Homer-heavy popular culture of his time was very corrupting; the poem reminds me a bit of Roald Dahl's tales.

Fun with visualizations 2: Growth and Democracy

William Easterly recently had a post on the "mystery of the benevolent autocrat" that illustrated the fact that non-democratic countries seem to have a higher variance in growth rates than democratic countries. Since I've been playing with visualization software, I thought I'd try to replicate his analysis and produce some pretty graphs that I could use in my dictatorships class. The results are here (make sure to click - the full-screen versions are much prettier than the embedded versions below, and the software has some nice features that make it easy to explore the data).

The first view replicates Easterly's scatterplot, but using data from the Penn World Table from 1950-2007. (At least, I think it does. My econometric skills are obviously much worse than those of a former World Bank economist, so take that with a grain of salt). It adds, however, a color for the Polity2 score - greener is more democratic here - and the size of each dot is proportional to the number of years of data available for the comparison (some countries have only a few years of data available, others have more than 50). I use the same transformation of the Polity2 score that Easterly uses - Polity2/(11-Polity2). As you can see, countries that have been on average autocratic have a higher growth variance - some have had very large growth rates over the period in question, others have had very low rates. Democracies, however, seem to be clustered towards the average growth rate of the world economy - around 2.5% per year or so or so.

The second view shows the same scatterplot, except using the average of the raw Polity2 score rather than Easterly's transformation. The greatest amount of variance seems to be found in the countries that have an average Polity2 score between 1 and -5 or so - the more autocratic "anocracies" (many of them "hybrid regimes") rather than the full "autocracies" of Polity's classification (though of course a scatterplot is not a statistical analysis).

The last view shows the data on a map, where the size of the dot corresponds to the average (geometric mean) of the growth rate over the period in question, and the color corresponds to the average Polity2 score - green is more democratic (at least in the Polity2 scheme).

Why do non-democracies seem to have greater growth variance than democracies? I suspect the incentives of leaders in democracies prevent large policy changes (both good and bad), whereas more autocratic systems may have greater variance in the quality of leadership and in the incentives they provide to these leaders. (Maybe I will try a more fine-grained visualization using data on types of political regime to see what comes out - later).

Changes small and large: Epistemic Arguments for Conservatism II

One epistemic argument for conservatism (or rather, gradualism) goes more or less like this. We have grave epistemic limitations that prevent us from understanding the consequences of institutional change, and the bigger the change, the more these limitations apply. All things considered, it is harder to predict the consequences of major institutional change than of minor institutional tinkering. Moreover, even when we are in error about the consequences of minor change, the potential damage to our social life from such errors is also likely to be minor and easily contained, whereas when we are in error about major changes, the damages may be devastating. Hence we should try to avoid wholesale change to our institutions.

The key idea is that ex ante we have a better idea of the risks of small changes than we do of the risks of large changes, and ex post we can contain the damage of small changes better than the damage of large changes. Given reasonable loss aversion in the face of genuine uncertainty, this implies that we should be more careful about larger than about smaller changes to our institutions. Note that the argument is not that major changes will have bad effects, but that we should be more uncertain about the effects of major changes than about the effects of minor changes, and that this asymmetric uncertainty should make us more cautious about undertaking these larger changes.

There is a whole question here about how to define “small” and “large,” but let’s let that slide for the moment, since there are clearly some cases where the argument seems to make sense. Something like it forms part of Burke’s case against revolution: there are many potential bad consequences from trying to completely change an entire form of life, but given our epistemic limitations we can hardly know which major changes will be on balance good and which will be on balance bad. And today we might see this argument deployed to justify less action than some economists might like on restarting the global economy, or less action on climate change than some environmentalists might like, though whether the argument works in these cases depends in part on our estimates of the costs of inaction, estimates that may also be subject to our epistemic limitations. (A full formal investigation of the problems here would presumably use Bayesian analysis. But here I reveal my on epistemic limitations – I do not know enough to use it).

This is a sort of “selection” argument for conservatism, though it does not look like one at first sight. In order for this argument to justify gradualism, however, rather than rigid immobility, we have to assume that small deleterious changes are either eliminated quickly or else that they cannot accumulate and interact in collectively very harmful ways. For example, a firm that produces bad products should go bankrupt without affecting the ability of other firms to operate too much, and small regulatory changes that do not work must be quickly identified and eliminated through some explicit mechanism (e.g., litigation, as in some defences of the common law). Whenever there is no selection mechanism to get rid of such minor but potentially harmful changes (and there may not be one, especially if the changes are only truly harmful in connection with many other changes), they can accumulate until they reach a kind of threshold (when they become really bad). The point is that if our epistemic limitations are binding with respect to the consequences of large “revolutionary” changes, they are also binding with respect to the consequences of collections of small changes that interact in complex ways with one another. Thus, in the absence of knowledge about the interactions of many small changes, the argument would seem to justify rigid immobility, not gradualism.

Indeed, an awareness of this problem seems to have led most classical political thinkers to a position that is in a sense the reverse of the Burkean “gradualist” position, i.e., willing to contemplate major changes to institutions under some limited circumstances (when the legislator has good knowledge) but extremely wary of small changes that might accumulate and interact in unexpected ways (since the presence of knowledgeable individuals capable of understanding their effects in the long run cannot be assumed). Plato, for example, while quite willing to recommend radical institutional innovation in cities (e.g., equal education for men and women, major censorship, new religious institutions, etc.) insisted that a city must be very careful about changing its “educational” laws, in part because the deleterious effects of any minor changes would not be visible until many years later, and they could easily accumulate in destructive ways. Similarly, Aristotle was not shy about recommending large institutional changes to political communities, but nevertheless urged cities to be vigilant about institutional drift, the minor changes that seem harmless individually but may collectively lead to the destruction of a politeia.

The point is not that they believed that major change was epistemically “safe” while gradual change was not; they thought both major and minor change was epistemically problematic. (Plato’s insistence on the need for knowledge in politics is grounded precisely on an extreme distrust of normal human epistemic capacities; we would only need philosopher kings if we were effectively incompetent in political matters). But they did not think gradual change was any less exempt from the problems caused by human epistemic limitations than revolutionary change, since they did not think that there were appropriate “selection mechanisms” able to weed out deleterious gradual institutional change under normal circumstances (other than “state death,” which is of course not especially ideal from the point of view of the state in question; as Josiah Ober has noted, whereas bankruptcy may be the consequence of “failure” in a market economy, “state death” in the classical world typically implied the death or enslavement of much of the population). From this point of view, major but planned institutional change had a slight “epistemic advantage” over unplanned, gradual change, at least so long as gradual changes could accumulate and interact in deleterious ways that could not be easily identified either at the time or in advance. 

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Fun with visualizations 1

I've been playing around in the last few days with free visualization software, trying to think of ways to create interesting visualizations for my dictatorships and revolutions class next year. Some of it is quite impressive but few free packages seem to be able to do a temporally animated map (where color values for a country change year by year, for example, according to regime type), at least not in a way I can easily figure out. I eventually found this free alternative (openheatmap) that is easy to use and renders fast, though it has few options.

Here's a map of authoritarian regime types, 1946-2002, using data from Jennifer Gandhi's book "Political Institutions Under Dictatorship" (thanks to Prof. Gandhi for kindly sharing her dataset):

(Click here for a larger version. Yellow means "civilian dictatorship," red means "military dictatorship" and blue means "monarchy.")

The map isn't perfect: you need to code the Soviet Union as Russia and East Germany as Germany, for example. I suppose with professional GIS software and a good set of shapefiles you could have the borders move as well, but hey, this is free and fast.

Now, what I would really like to see is a map of regime types that displays a little picture of the dictator as it plays and a little flash (accompanied by a sound of guns, perhaps?) when there is a coup.

Any suggestions for free visualization software able to do animated maps?