Monday, April 26, 2010

Why Do Political Opinions (Naturally) Clump, and Polarize?

What does abortion have to do with national defense? Why does one's opinion on taxation typically correspond to the seemingly completely unrelated topic of medicine? The most common response to the clumping of political views is to attribute it to a highly polarized 2-party political process, resulting in the artificial combination of viewpoints. In other words, that these separate issues don't actually have any relation to each other, and there is no legitimate reason that someone who feels a certain thing about the death penalty, should find himself on a certain side of the issue of the environment.

While our political process is certainly responsible for making this polarization more well-defined, and entrenched, I would argue that there is a natural process that accounts for much of (though not all of) the clumping itself. That is; when examined, there is a good reason why people should find themselves on particular sides of certain issues, if they are on a particular side of another seemingly unrelated issue. The reason is the underlying worldview, or vision.

There appear to be two main conflicting, dominant visions of the world, and of humanity, with very little in between*. In the book Fooled by Randomness Nassim Taleb calls them the Utopian vision (typically that of the left) and the Tragic vision (typically that of the right.) Thomas Sowell has a whole book dedicated to the topic, A Conflict of Visions, where he classifies the visions as the constrained (Tragic) vision and the unconstrained (Utopian, or Vision of the Anointed) vision. If you want an in-depth treatment of the subject, definitely check out Sowell's book (Taleb mentions the visions only in passing in order to classify his own worldview as part of the Tragic vision.) I will summarize the two visions as succinctly as possible.

The Utopian Vision

- Sees scientific knowledge and empiricism as the be-all, end-all means for determining truth. And that the elites of humanity have the ability to effectively 'know everything'
- Optimistic view of humanity and it's ability to significantly improve (if not eventually 'perfect') its condition by learning all there is to learn, and coming up with solutions to problems.
- Believes in centralized processes (i.e. top-down economic systems), and entrusting decision-making (on behalf of society) to experts who 'know' things.
- Favors the theoretical and hypothetical. Experimentation as a means to (hopefully) stumble upon solutions eventually.
- Epitomized by: Godwin, Condorcet, Rousseau, and Thomas Paine.

The Tragic Vision

- Believes in scientific empiricism, but also believes that there are limits to what any one person, or elite group of people, can actually ever 'know'.
- Believes that whatever it is experts do know often doesn't translate to being able to 'solve' a particular problem.
- Sees humanity as fundamentally flawed, and incapable of ever 'solving' many of the problems that plague it, as many of them are inherent to our nature, and insoluble; we're only able to choose methods of reducing the harm done.
- Believes in de-centralized processes (i.e. the free market), and the efficacy of individuals making decisions on behalf of themselves and their own determined best interest, based on their own personal experiences.
- Favors proven processes, established through years of experiences, and hardships of millions.
- Epitomized by: Burke, Hayek, Friedman, Adam Smith, Karl Popper.

Again, see the work of Sowell for a clearer picture, but hopefully this gives you a basic understanding of the two visions. Once you are equipped with these definitions, you quickly start to realize why people's views on seemingly unrelated subjects tend to congeal and polarize. It's because when you see the world and humanity in a certain way, then the way in which you see all the issues involving humanity and how it relates to the world will be derivative of that overall vision. So a liberal will generally be against a strong national defense, for they believe other nations can always be reasoned with (despite lessons of history that say otherwise), and they will believe in higher taxation in order to centralize decision-making in the hands of the intellectual elite, and leave fewer decisions in the hands of the individual. On the surface these two beliefs seem to be mostly unrelated, but in the framework of the visions laid out, you can see that they actually flow from the same source.

Given this, 'centrism' seems to be the result of a muddled kind of thinking. Although centrists like to portray themselves as the epitome of 'free thought', with no allegiance to any superficial affiliation, it turns out that they often have no allegiance to internal coherence or consistency among beliefs, either. Although I consider myself a strong adherent to the Tragic Vision, I still recognize that those who ascribe to the Utopian Vision at least have an internally coherent perspective. That is, given their starting point, most of their beliefs make sense within that context, and don't necessarily contradict each other. The same is rarely true of 'centrists', who often go out of their way to look for middle ground, when often there is no natural reason that there should be any middle ground to be found. Which is not to say that one can never find himself on the side of an issue that differs from the prevailing vision which he prescribes to. Simply that more often than not you should find that your views tend to be consistent with one another, because the basis upon which they are established are all the same. However, this assumes that you are thoughtful when deciding what it is that you believe, which of course is often not the case with people.


* That is to say virtually all views can be classified as falling under one or the other.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Results-Oriented Thinking (Poker & Life)

The past can be a deceptive thing. In life we believe that because we see can how events unfolded, and the conditions, and decisions leading up to them, that we can determine whether a 'mistake' was made based on whether or not the outcome was desirable or not. In a world with innumerable variables that affect events, and where our sample size consists of precisely 1 (the past that actually happened, rather than the billions of other pasts that might have been), this is a lot less true than people naturally tend to think. In the case of a controlled scientific experiment, with a limited number of variables, and after a large number of trials, definitive or near-definitive conclusions can often be drawn about the isolated variables in question. However when looking at decisions in life, whether they be on a personal or national level, the variables are often much more difficult to isolate, and we only have a single sample to work with.

We are conditioned to learn from our mistakes from a very young age. When we touch a hot stove, it hurts, and we know to not to touch a hot stove again. The cause-effect in a scenario such as this is very direct and obvious. In a case like this, the results are much more like a scientific experiment; there's a single isolated variable (does this event cause pain?), and there are hundred of thousands of iterations, all with the same result (yep, pain occurs.) So in this sense, results-oriented thinking is not always flawed. Results can be illuminating, when we know how to interpret them.

However, because this kind of thinking is useful on this level, too often we apply it to areas where it isn't really useful or applicable. For example, say you have a choice of two career paths. You choose one path, and after 10 years in that career you are reasonably content and satisfied with your life. Does that mean you made the correct, or optimal, choice in choosing the path that you did? No, because you have nothing to compare against. Had you chosen the other path you may have been even more happy with your life and circumstances. There is no way to know.

There are a small number of variables that leaders of nations take into account when deciding whether to wage war, but there are near infinite numbers of variables that can affect the outcome of a war, one way or another. Many people hold it as self-evident that Vietnam or Iraq were 'mistakes' because of how they turned out. Though the negative outcomes may outweigh the possible negative outcomes of not having gone to war, we have no way to know for certain (though we can make some reasonable assumptions.) Not to mention the fact that the undesirable outcomes could have been due to decisions made about how to wage the respective wars, not whether to wage them at all.

In short, undesirable outcomes are not always the result of poor decisions, and desirable outcomes are not always the result of wise decisions.

In becoming a successful poker player you have to train against results-oriented thinking. If you let the results of a single trial, in which there is an enormous amount of luck involved, affect your decision-making then you are going to start making bad decisions. Short term results tell you nothing. You could make perfect decisions on 10 straight hands and lose them all. Conversely you could make bad decisions on 10 straight hands and win them all. Because there is randomness and luck involved (as there is with life), you have to focus on making the optimal decision, and not worry about the short-term results. The difference between poker and life in this sense is that if you continue making better decisions than your opponents in poker, then it is a mathematical certainty that you will win in the long term. Where in many areas of life you could make good decisions (given the available information at the time) that have unforseen consequences, both short and long term. Still, your chances of succeeding in life are obviously much better if you make wise, informed decisions that are more likely to have desirable outcomes. Though those outcomes are not guaranteed.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

On People as Abstract Groups

Do good-looking people have a higher annual salary, on average, than uglier people? It's quite likely, though I don't know whether there have been any official studies done to confirm this. Do thinner women get employed as waitresses and actresses more often than obese women? One would assume so. Do taller individuals have a better chance at making it to the NBA than shorter individuals? Without question.

What should be done to address these "inequities"? Is it incumbent on society to ensure not only equality of opportunity, but also equality of results? Should the NBA feature teams whose average height is equal to that of the average height of society at large? It seems unreasonable to expect this of society. Indeed, to expect this of society would require 'society' to impose it's standards of equality on people who may or may not share the opinion of 'society' as to whether equality of results in all facets and aspects of life are achievable, or even desirable.

But at least this notion, as unreasonable as it is, deals with actual human beings who are here on this Earth. More unreasonable still is the notion that not only should 'inequities' between abstract groups of living humans (i.e. rich/poor, black/white) be addressed and rectified, but also between abstract groups of the living and the dead. This idea is most commonly represented by advocation of policies such as racial quotas for hiring, and calls for reparations for slavery. As Thomas Sowell writes in his book Intellectuals & Society:

Abstract people have an immortality which flesh-and-blood people have yet to achieve. Thus, a historian writing about the newly-created state of Czechoslovakia after the First World War, said that its policies regarding the ethnic groups within it were designed 'to correct social injustice', and to 'put right the historic wrongs of the 17th century,' despite the fact that actual flesh-and-blood people from the 17th century had died long before, putting the redressing of their wrongs beyond reach of human control. Much the same kind of reasoning has continued among the intelligentsia in 21st century America, who speak of 'whites' and 'blacks' as intertemporal abstractions with centuries-old issues to be redressed, rather than as flesh-and-blood people who take their sins and their sufferings with them to the grave

Monday, April 12, 2010

Census 2010 - Why fill it out?

You had better fill out that form that's been laying on your dining room table for weeks. It's very important. Why should you take 30 minutes of your valuable time to fill it out, and send it back? has the answer:

When you do the math, it's easy to see what an accurate count of residents can do for your community. Better infrastructure. More services. A brighter tomorrow for everyone.

Huh? What about the simple process of counting people results in there being more available total resources, services and better infrastructure for all? Counting is an act of creation? I thought counting was an act of tabulation? Hmmm. Maybe I'll count my fingers and toes while thinking of a Ferrari and one will materialize... Nope. No dice. The 'do the math' portion of the above quoted section is one of the most priceless bits of irony I've ever come across.

In fact, the information the census collects helps to determine how more than $400 billion dollars of federal funding each year is spent on infrastructure and services like:

Job training centers
Senior centers
Bridges, tunnels and other-public works projects
Emergency services

Now this part I understand. Certainly census data can be used to determine how resources are to be allocated (not created.) The disingenuous part is that they advertise this fact as though resources will always be allocated in a way that benefits you and your community, which is not necessarily true. Resources are finite by definition, and allocation involves taking resources and directing them toward some people and away from others. If resources were infinite then there would be no need to take a census. Simply utilize your infinite resource when and where ever they are needed. An honest commercial for the census would say something more along the lines of:

"Please fill out the form because we need the information in order to figure out how to optimally utilize our resources. This may mean funding goes toward you and your community, or it may be discovered that your community already receives an excess of it's fair share of the resources, in which case you would receive less funding and subsequent benefits."

I'm not saying you shouldn't fill it out. You probably should because it will help them (whoever 'they' are) make better informed decisions about how to allocate resources and other things. Just be aware that this could mean negative consequences for you individually.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Obama's Disarmament - Ignoring History in Favor of Blind Idealism

Was World War II really that long ago? Have we already forgotten the lessons we should have learned from the run up to that war, primarily via Chamberlain and Churchill? Forget about World War II, was the Cold War that long ago? Have we already forgotten the lessons from it as well? In this case the lesson being a rather brilliant "how-to" (as opposed to the "how-not-to" of WWII.) Whether we have forgotten or not, our president sure has. That is if he ever learned those lessons in the first place, which seems unlikely.

As noble a goal as it seems on it's face, in reality it's just stupid and dangerous. When we look at the track record of disarmament in the real world, versus the track record of deterrence, a very clear picture emerges as to which is better at preventing war, mass death and destruction. And it isn't disarmament, which, however nice it sounds in theory, in practice has had the effect of exacerbating the problem.

If you don't know the lessons of history that I'm talking about (primarily the run up to WWII in Great Britain, and the success of Reagan's "peace through strength" in the Cold War), here's a very brief primer, from Thomas Sowell:


Chamberlain sought to "remove the causes of strife or war." He wanted "a general settlement of the grievances of the world without war." In other words, the British prime minister approached Hitler with the attitude of someone negotiating a labor contract, where each side gives a little and everything gets worked out in the end. What Chamberlain did not understand was that all his concessions simply led to new demands from Hitler -- and contempt for him by Hitler.

What Winston Churchill understood at the time, and Chamberlain did not, was that Hitler was driven by what Churchill called "currents of hatred so intense as to sear the souls of those who swim upon them." That was also what drove the men who drove the planes into the World Trade Center.

Pacifists of the 20th century had a lot of blood on their hands for weakening the Western democracies in the face of rising belligerence and military might in aggressor nations like Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. In Britain during the 1930s, Labor Party members of Parliament voted repeatedly against military spending, while Hitler built up the most powerful military machine in Europe.

On the Cold War:

During the Cold War, many European intellectuals once again misread the threat of a totalitarian dictatorship-- in this case, the Soviet Union. When they finally recognized the threat, many saw the question as whether it was "better to be red than dead."

They were no more prepared to stand up to the Soviet Union than they had been ready to stand up to Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

Worse yet, much of the European intelligentsia objected to America's standing up to the Soviet Union.

Many of them were appalled when Ronald Reagan met the threat of new Soviet missiles aimed at Western Europe by putting more American missiles in Western Europe, aimed at the Soviet Union.

Reagan, in effect, called the Soviet Union and raised them, while many of the European sophisticates-- as well as much of the American intelligentsia-- said that his policies would lead to war.

Instead, it led to the end of the Cold War. Are we now to blindly imitate those who have been so wrong, so often over the past hundred years?

Some might say that the WWII isn't exactly analogous to where we are today, and of course the situations are not identical. The point is simply that while the goal of disarmament is to reduce war, to reduce suffering, and to reduce mass destruction, it has the ability to have the exact opposite effect. Indeed, the concept may have been largely responsible for unleashing (or allowing someone to unleash) the greatest horror in the history of mankind (the holocaust). So regarding it as a de facto good is asinine.

Although the international stage is a lot different than our domestic lives, there's a very good parallel right here at home. Gun control laws. Just as with international disarmament treaties, the problem is not getting the sensible, civilized nations to disarm. You can do that all day long, if you wish. The problem is that once you succeed the good guys are left defenseless and the bad guys are still armed to the teeth. "But we'll write them harsh letters! And put sanctions on those rogue, irresponsible nations! That'll show em'! HAH! Bring on your death and destruction, we have a stern tone to deal with the likes of you!" I don't mock this idea merely as an untried theory, we have already seen that it doesn't work.

Of course it would be wonderful to live in that world where the only people with nukes are sensible, responsible nations who could agree to incrementally scale back until nukes no longer exist. But that is not this world. It would be grand to live in that world where we could ensure that, once we had made it through the arduous process of disarming every nation on the planet, no nuclear weaponry would ever resurface again. But that is not this world. I would love to live in a world where you could go back in time and un-invent something. But that is not this world.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Christian Case for Freedom

Freedom is a concept that is often discussed in politics (at least by one side of the aisle), and in general, but doesn't get discussed in biblical or religious terms often. Perhaps because the word itself doesn't appear in the Bible (I don't think)[1]. Perhaps because so many secular people's conception of God is totalitarian or dictatorial. But I'm not sure why Christians are reticent to discuss God's clear, though often not explicit, endorsement of freedom.

In the public sphere there are essentially two types of freedom, political and economic. Political freedoms would include things such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to own property, bear arms etc. Economic freedom is the freedom to engage in economic transactions as you, and the party with which you engage with, see fit. None of these topics seem particularly Biblical, at first glance. And in any explicit sense, they really aren't. Jesus Christ was expected to be a political messiah, but he turned out to be apolitical. Why then should we be concerned with these matters, if Jesus wasn't?

The primary way God reveals his intent on these matters is through his created order. This notion that God speaks through both the Bible, and through his creation, is known as dual revelation. The two sources of revelation being wholly compatible and reconcilable. So what does his creation have to say about these matters? And how does the Bible confirm that which the created order has to say?

Freedom is a doctrine that is intrinsic to the Christian faith. It's so fundamental, so basic, that it needn't be preached explicitly. After all, what is there to say about the subject that isn't self-evident? You are free to choose to do as you wish. You are free to follow me. You are free to turn from me. This is how we were created. It is the essence of our being. There is not much that needs to be revealed or 'taught' on this subject. It is revealed in our very nature, and we don't need to be told to make choices and decisions. We are compelled to do it. We can't not do it.

Economic Freedom

You may often hear juvenile arguments from people on the left of the political spectrum along the lines of "Republicans love Jesus, but Jesus was all about giving to the poor, and they aren't!" or "Jesus was a socialist." It should be obvious that the people who make these arguments are referring to the lessons that Jesus taught regarding charity, material wealth and treatment of the poor. Of course charity in general, and especially, caring for the poor (both through monetary charity, as well as through acts of service), are a primary focus of Jesus' social teachings. These teachings are wholly compatible with that which the right wing preaches which is economic freedom in the public arena (i.e. laissez-faire capitalism), and private charity in the private sphere [Matthew 6:1-2].

We see where the doctrine of private charity comes from Biblically; directly from the words of Jesus Christ himself. But where do I derive the 'good' of economic freedom and laissez-faire capitalism from? How is founded Biblically or extra-Biblically through the revelation of creation?

Laissez-faire capitalism is, essentially, freedom extended into the economic arena. It is the economic system that would arise out of Eden, had Eden gone unspoiled. It is merely the uninterrupted interactions between individuals. Because Eden was befouled, and because of everything that has happened subsequently, a system of true, complete, pure laissez-faire capitalism is not really attainable or practical today for various obvious (and some not-so-obvious) reasons. But the closer we move toward that ideal, the closer to Eden we get. And all of the empirical data on economic systems throughout history showing their various failings and successes reveal this to be true, when the data sets are placed in their proper contexts. [2]

As the success of free markets (as compared to centrally planned economies) became readily apparent and empirically verifiable throughout the 20th century, even most communist and socialist countries began to turn to free markets. But where they may have seen the light of freedom and it's benefits as applied to it's economic sector, and thus reaped the rewards of that more efficient system, these same countries fail to see the same light regarding freedom in the political arena, and systematically deny those freedoms to it's citizens.

Political Freedom

In contrast to economic freedom, which can be mutually beneficial to all members of a country, including the rulers and ruling class of that country, political freedoms are a one-way street. They benefit the individual, sometimes to the detriment of society, sometimes in it's benefit (depending on which freedoms, and depending on your perspective), but always to the detriment of the ruling class. Because a gain in freedom for the individual represents a net loss in power and control for the ruling person or class. Therefore it's not really a question of empirical observation, as with economic freedom. A ruler, or ruling class, may be fully aware that political freedom is beneficial to the individual, and to society as a whole, and still have every vested interest to not provide those freedoms because doing so will result in that person(s) own loss of influence or power. Unlike the economy where there exists a fairly objective criterion for success (i.e. standards of living of citizens, economic growth, etc.), political goals are more subjective. And if your political goals consist of usurping large amounts of power at the cost of the rights and freedoms of your citizenry, then no amount of empirical data is going to convince you that political freedom is a 'good thing'.

Still other people who don't have political power at stake will also object to certain political freedoms, and do so on behalf of what they feel is 'a greater good', and therefore hold that property rights need to be limited, the right to bear arms needs to be repealed, the right to political speech must be limited etc.

But what does the Bible and/or the created order have to reveal on the subject? As discussed in the opening segment, the created order couldn't be more explicit. We are beings endowed with the ability to make choices and determine what paths we will take, while we're compelled to accept any consequences, or benefits, that derive from those decisions. The right to make these choices is full and complete, and only reaches natural limits when those freedoms become an imposition on another individual's rights. Thus the only justifiable function of the state is to protect it's citizens against fraud, coercion, theft, murder, assault, invasion, etc.

At this point one might argue, "well, in order for the state to exist, and exercise these duties, won't it necessarily have to usurp some degree of freedom?" The answer is unfortunately 'yes'. And, as with economic freedom, there are pragmatic considerations that come with living as fallen man in a fallen order. However, as with economic freedom, the closer we come to the ideal (political freedom), the closer we come to Eden. Thus the minimal state is the closest we can get to Eden politically, on this Earth. [3]

While I believe this case can be made solely on the basis of the created order, the Bible contributes to, and confirms these conclusions. Jesus Christ recognizes that two hierarchal orders exist within this world; that of God's Kingdom (where God > us), and that of a political nature (where our governments > us) [Matthew 22:21]. Other than that he recognizes nor affirms any hierarchal structure amongst ourselves on any basis; race, gender, wealth etc. (excepting perhaps merit.) His recognition of governments is only as a fact of nature, as I referred to in the last paragraph. Not as an ideal, or as a good; simply as an is. This conception of government's role in our lives (where Jesus wastes very little effort and energy discussing or dealing with governments in general, contrasted with how much focus He puts on our personal lives and personal interactions) is very consistent with the state-of-nature conception of a minimal state that I have outlined. The state is something that is a nuisance. Something that must be tolerated and dealt with. But not something that should be given much thought or time out of our day. And if a government is usurping our God-given freedoms, acting as a coercive power over us, that is going to require much of our attention, unfortunately. In this way Jesus implicitly affirms the necessity of governments in our current reality, while at the same time refusing to bestow upon them any great significance or ultimate importance. Which is completely in line with the conception of a minimal state.


If you reduce the infractions of governments against their people to the root offenses, it becomes apparent that these are explicit infractions against their people, even in Biblical terms. For example, using taxation as a means of stealing from one person to give to another violates 'thou shalt not steal.' However, as a broad, general concept, Freedom is an assumption in Christianity. Not something that requires specific attention. It's literally a given.

[1] A search at just revealed me to be wrong. There were 11 instances of 'freedom', but none really proclaiming it's virtue.
[2] I don't have space to fully connect the dots on this point, but see the writings of Adam Smith, Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell etc.
[3] See Anarchy, State & utopia - Robert Nozick