Sunday, September 19, 2010

Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences - Chapter 9 - A Is Null-A

In the previous chapter we looked at one exception to the general pattern of liberal and interventionist theories, that is a theory in which there is not an explicit elite. Now we shall turn our attention to another deviation from the norm, though in this case not so much a variation on the liberal theory as an alternate argument which was once used to justify similar intervention, and which seems to be enjoying a revival in some circles. Though rarely stated explicitly outside of academic circles, this theory has enjoyed a revival among proponents some "pragmatic" theories, as well as academics, and, to some degree, is embraced by almost every interventionist theory.

That theory is the existence of an irrational universe. That is, a universe where cause and effect do not stand in a one to one relationship1,2.

It should be evident why this makes a difficult basis on which to found a political theory, or any theory for that matter. If a given cause cannot be known to produce a given effect, then planning of any sort is impossible, and without planning there is little subject matter with which a theory of politics could interest itself. Though many in academia like to pretend that rationalism is out of date and that it is possible to base theories upon irrationality, the truth is, without rationality, without actions producing predictable results3, there is no point in developing theories, since theories are, in essence, nothing but a cataloging of which effects are produced by which causes, though later they may be reduced to rules in order to simplify the list4. But, in their most basic form, all theories are nothing but catalogs of pairs cause and effect, and without a rational universe, there is no way to generate such lists. And so it would be impossible for someone to develop a theoretical system to explain a truly irrational universe5.

Not that the theorists are consistent in their theories. like the universe they postulate, their theories are largely inconsistent and irrational. In many cases acting simply as a means to ignore laws of human behavior that they dislike. For instance, though common sense, and most economic theories, agree there is no way one can create limitless wealth through purely political changes6,  if we reject rationality with regard to economics, we can then argue that certain changes can produce such a "free lunch."Of course that is not the only use, the limited irrational universe is used in countless ways, but in most of them it is used primarily to invalidate laws of behavior, nature\, mathematics and so on which prove inconvenient, while the rest of the universe is tacitly assumed to behave according to established rules7.

Others take an even more limited approach, arguing for a rational universe, but irrational humans. Of course, as the observers are themselves incapable of rational thought, they then extrapolate from this that the way we understand the universe is likely not its true nature, given our inherent irrationality, but by and large this theory, unlike a theory involving  a strictly irrational universe, is little different from traditional liberal thought, as postulating irrational humans is not much different from postulating humans incapable of making correct decisions, and without the ability to learn. There are obviously some differences in practice, as the results of any theory are shaped by all the details of that theory8. But on the large scale, ignoring details, a theory involving irrational humans works out in practice to little more than a traditional liberal approach.

Which brings us to the most common irrational theory, at least the most popular one at this moment. That is the belief that the universe is irrational to some degree, though by and large appears to have regularities and behave in a rational manner. But, should we choose to rely upon that appearance of regularity, we will quickly discover that the rules we draw from the apparent regularity fail to work, and we have no guide to tell us what to do to achieve our wanted results. In short, though superficially rational, and orderly enough to allow us to make large, general predictions, when we try to make precise predictions, we find the universe is not rational.

This would, as I said above, lead us to adopt a nihilist approach to government, were it not for one exception. The universe may be without order, and prediction may be impossible, except for a handful of enlightened souls, beings who somehow gain information from non-rational sources, which information can then be used to successfully guide the rest of us.

As you can tell, this theory is little different from the traditional liberal theory which bases its elite's insight upon non-rational sources. In fact, both normally postulate the same criteria for those finding insight, be it class, race, language or some other group identity.In both theories, the masses are, for some reason, unable to decide for themselves, and only those belonging to a specific category can find such answers, and they can only because of a non-rational source of knowledge.

So, why are there two theories, when both lead to the same result?

"Why" I cannot answer. I suppose those who endorse one or the other would argue we have both theories as the existence of multiple hypotheses allow us to choose between them and move closer to the truth. However, while I cannot answer "why" I can explain how the two differ, and it is, though apparently a minor difference, a significant one.

The irrational theory, and the traditional liberal approach, both result in an argument in favor of subjugating the public to the government, with all decisions, or at least a large number of the decisions made by the public, left in the hands of a wise elite.Where they differ is in the arguments for that decision, specifically what those arguments imply about others. In traditional liberalism, as we have discussed repeatedly, the power granted to the government is explicitly or implicitly founded on the incompetence of others. Granted, most arguing for these theories see themselves as part of the elite, and their listeners as well imagine the incompetent masses are so other individuals, not themselves,but still the theory requires that we accept that most people are not competent. On the other hand, an irrational universe, though difficult to defend, and carrying with it implications that no one seems to consider when making such statements, does not require such a negative view of mankind. Under theories of universal irrationality, it is quite possible to argue that all individuals are entirely competent, that, in a rational world, they could be entrusted to make any decisions they wished. The only reason limits are being placed upon their actions, and they are being asked to follow the decisions of others, is because true knowledge can only come from non-rational inspiration, and so everyone who cannot obtain such received wisdom must accept the authority of those who can.

Thus, in practice, an irrational universe can be either almost identical to the more common liberal theories, or it can be something quite different, an approach unto itself. Then again, it is, while becoming more common, still a quite unusual argument to encounter today, as our culture still places some premium upon rational thought, despite all the pressures to do otherwise. And so, though I did bring it up to explain the differences , and the similarities, I think it is now best if we left this topic alone and returned to out central topic, the origins and consequences of the normal liberal and interventionist theories we see all around us today.

But, before moving on, allow me to make one point. It is an argument I recall having made long ago when I was in college, and recall having made a few more times while arguing the same question with friends and strangers. And that is my argument that, while it is impossible to prove with certainty, evidence suggests that the universe is not irrational and is guided by a set of intelligible rules.

The basic argument is quite simple. The universe, by and large, behaves in entirely predictable ways. There are some matters where the cause and effect, or the external conditions which can change cause and effect's interaction, is not well understood, but for the most part, in our everyday experience, specific actions, under the same conditions, produce the same results. In other words, our experience is that there is cause and effect, and, beyond that, the success of science has convinced us that, beyond our simple, common sense understanding, cause and effect holds in enough cases that it supports the many triumphs of science. And so, when confronted with claims of an irrational world, it is a bit hard to swallow, as we see in everyday life too much evidence of a rational one.

Granted, this is not conclusive proof. As I said elsewhere, an irrational universe, producing random results, could produce results which, when observed over a specific period, would seem to follow a pattern suggesting cause and effect. And even if we conducted an infinite series of tests, taking countless observations, it would still prove nothing, as the very next test could invalidate our conclusion. Worse still, even if it followed the pattern, it could still be the outcome of randomness and not causation. So I am well aware that the appearance of  regularity is not sufficient proof.

On the other hand, we have observations of some phenomena going back to ancient times, for example the Mayan and Egyptian astronomical observations,  and in modern times we have such a massive volume of scientific data, that it has reached a point where it is very difficult to take seriously claims of irrationality. It is, again, not conclusive, in a strictly logical sense, but at some point we have to say that evidence that has matched a pattern for long enough is as good as proof9. Yes, there is always the possibility that one future exception will prove the entire theory wrong10, but so far it has not, and so it seems reasonable to assume a universe which has shown regularity of cause and effect, and the same patterns, for 7000 or more years, can be safely assumed to not be guided by irrational forces.

And so it seems that there is little of value to be found in the theories of an irrational universe. Of course, I also find little of value in the conventional liberal theories which seek answers in non-rational inspiration as well. Experience, both personal and historical, has by now convinced most of us that a deterministic, rational model describes the universe quite well11, and so little is gained by incorporating the concept of irrational guidance. Not that I find much more value in the supposedly rational liberal theories either, given that their trinity of assumptions strike me as both unfounded and often self-contradictory, but at least they are somewhat more tenable than the irrational theories12.

Continue to "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences - Chapter 10 - We're All Above Average".
Return to "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences - Preface".

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1. A probabilistic universe is something of a watered down irrational universe, as it still postulates that outcomes are impossible to predict, though the  range of possible outcomes makes it slightly more certain than a fully irrational universe. Still, everything said about an irrational universe applies equally well to a probabilistic universe. The most significant differences between theories is that those endorsing probability tend to adopt pseudo-technocrat solutions rather than mystic theories, and they tend to use analogies from subatomic physics more than psychology.

2.The uncertainty I describe here is the failure of any laws of cause and effect to apply. As I argued many times, human behavior is volition and inherently unpredictable in a precise, numeric sense. On the other hand, humans do tend to obey larger patterns in their behavior, and those rules can be applied, though they usually produce very general predictions, not precise results. Still, we must bear in mind in what I have written, my use of uncertainty is not the same as the uncertainty found when one tries to predict volitional behavior with precision.

3. Again, I suppose it might be possible to found a theory on a probabilistic universe, though it would not be as useful as one based on a universe with deterministic causation. That is why in the earlier note I claimed the probabilistic universe is something of a hybrid. We can base a theory on the likely outcomes of a given act, even develop rules and theories. However, such theories tend to produce rather uncertain results in practice. They may work for, say, subatomic physics, but would you want to base your life on a car whose brake pedal stops the car 75% of the time, accelerates 20% of the time, and explodes 5% of the time? For the certainty we need in life, in order to plan, we need mechanistic causation, or else a probabilistic causation where a single result is so overwhelmingly likely (say 99.999999%) that it is effectively a one to one causation.

4. Theories may include additional elements, such as hypotheses concerning the origins of the phenomena, larger rules which gather together and explain multiple rules, and so on. However, all science, in its earliest stages, is nothing but a catalog of causes and effect, perhaps with surrounding circumstances to allow the distinguishing of differing results. All the later developments, the discovery of regularities, forming rules based upon those regularities, and theoretical explanations based on those rules, and, eventually, developing ever more general rules and explanations, all start with observing regularities. And so, in an irrational universe, there would be no science, as no one would be able to take the first step needed for the development of science.

5. it is arguable whether a truly irrational universe could even produce life, or matter. If results are unrelated to causes, would it be possible for life to evolve? Or matter to coalesce? I suppose, as all outcomes are possible with random results, it would be possible for a random universe to exactly mirror a rational, ordered universe, or to be irrational and yet periodically call into existence life or matter. But in general, it seems unlikely, close to impossible, for us to  conceive of a non-rational universe which would produce anything like the universe we see around us. But then again, rarely are theories of an irrational universe fully consistent. Just like the universe they postulate, the theorists themselves are not consistent in their thoughts, and instead imagine a universe which gives the appearance of order, but that intermittently fails to respond predictably, most often in those areas where existing theories go against their wishes. For example, many who are not pleased by the reality that no political system can ensure unlimited wealth will postulate that economics does not obey the obvious laws, but instead behaves in unpredictable, erratic ways. It is simply their way to avoid rules which make them uncomfortable. On the other end of the spectrum are theorists of irrationality who truly believe that observed regularity is an insufficient guide for leaders, and so propose that inspiration for governance must come from some non-rational source. Be it the weltgeist, class consciousness or some other source, they imagine that the argument for liberalism rests, not upon the trinity of beliefs we have postulated this far, but instead on the fact that the universe does not behave in a rational way, and so can only be understood through extra-rational inspiration.

6.  Some nominally rational theories do postulate such absurdities. For example, classical Keynesianism, and many of its offshoots, both liberal and nominally conservative, believe proper political management of currency can produce an economy where there is never a contraction or recession. However, they do so, and retain their appearance of rationality, by downplaying the benefits they supposedly bring. While the supporters can read between the lines, see the claims of constant growth, and try to sell the theory on that basis, the theory itself couches its claims in modest, and often technical, language, to keep from sounding too absurd, and thus the theory is still accepted as reasonable. (For the record, it is possible to avoid a general, monetary recession or depression through the elimination of central banking and fiat currency. It is not possible to avoid all economic downturns, nor localized recessions. Even under absolutely free banking, widespread recession is possible, if banks engage in fractional reserve banking and a large enough number misjudge the market. But it is a very unlikely event, and so I feel secure saying that monetary recessions of a wide scale can almost always be avoided through the elimination of centralized banking and fiat currency.)

7. Strangely, those postulating a limited irrationality normally do not call it such, but instead claim they believe in an irrational universe. They simply gloss over the fact that most of the universe they describe is wholly rational, with the irrational limited to those areas whose laws they detest. It is an odd choice, as most audiences would be more receptive of a less irrational worldview. On the other hand, perhaps it makes some sense, as stating outright that irrationality is limited to specific topics might make all too clear the purpose of such claims and weaken the argument by letting the audience know that the proponent is simply trying to invalidate accepted laws.

8. Theories based on irrational humans tend to involve more physical restraint and stronger authoritarian policies, with a heavier police presence. And that only makes sense, as irrational individuals are not responsive to social pressures, or even self-interest, and so the only way to keep the peace is to maintain a defensive presence strong enough to quell any outbreak of violence or disorder.

9. There are many things that cannot be logically proved. For example, invulnerability, or immortality. But at some point, if an object survives a raging fire, a fall from 30,000 feet, being crushed under many dozen tons of rock, and a nuclear explosion, it seems safe to call it invulnerable. Likewise, a man who lives 10,000 years, is not felled by gunshots, stabbings or poison, and who manages to survive all the previously mentioned abuse we heaped on our invulnerable object, it is acceptable to deem him immortal.

10. In a computer science course we were taught a handy rule of thumb, drawn from mathematics, that if a rule valid for K can be shown to be valid for k+1, it is safe to assume it is valid for all cases. Again, this may not hold. For instance, drawing an example from computer science, it is safe to assume that passing the increment command with the value k will produce the output k+1, and passing the increment command with the value k+1 will produce the output (k+1)+1. However, when k+n is the same as the maximum value the register will hold, the output cannot be (k+n)+1, and so the rule breaks. However, barring such unusual circumstances, it is a pretty good rule of thumb, and in this case it seems sensible to hold to it.

11. I am not here arguing in favor of a purely materialist universe. All I argue here is that, when dealing with the mundane, it can be described quite well by a deterministic universe. It may be a universe made by G-d, but it seems he created it to abide by definite, immutable rules. And so it only makes sense for us to follow those rules. And so, while I argue for the use of material, rational concepts when dealing with the physical world, it is only because the material world is material and deterministic. This in no way implies any beliefs concerning any spiritual matters.

12. Despite the fact that I find them of little value, I will continue to examine the irrational and semi-rational theories of liberalism along side those claiming rational foundations. First, because this work would be far from complete were I simply to omit those topics I find without merit. (In fact, given my views of liberalism, I would have written nothing at all.) Second, because there is much cross-pollination between rational and irrational liberalism, as shown by the hybrid semi-rational theories, such as Marxism and its offshoots, with largely (nominally) rational foundations, but comingled with non-rational class-based "awareness" -- which later, more rationalist theories then tried to rationalize away. Or, more recently, the nationalist, national socialist and other race, ethnic, language or other social group based theories, which are normally haphazard mixtures of the rationalist liberal theories, semi-mystical inspiration, and rationalization of mysticism in terms of social constructs, structuralist theory, semiotics, sociology, or some other vehicle suitable for making mystical beliefs sound like they have rational origins.

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POSTSCRIPT

As I was working on Chapter 8, I came up with a theme I felt needed to be addressed. As it is more related to the consequences than the origins of liberalism, I decided that it should come in the second section of the book. Then again, as my last list of chapters, in "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences - Chapter 7 - More Equal Than Others" seemed to exhaust the chapters relating to origins, I feel that I can add the chapter (or rather chapters) following what is currently Chapter 13.

And so, here is the new list of chapters:

Preface: Preface
Introduction: Introduction
One: The Trinity and Its Necessity - An overview of the three core ideas behind liberalism
Two: Saving You From Yourself - What is and is not a proper role for government
Three: The Truth is Out There - Principle One: There is an objectively best choice for every question
Four: Our Foolish Compatriots - Principle Two: The average man is unable to make the correct decision
Five: We Don't Need No Education - Corollary One: The common individual cannot learn from experience
Six: Us and Them - The differences between theories founded on sinister forces versus those founded on incompetent actors
Seven: More Equal Than Others - Principle Three: The existence of an elite capable of providing correct answers
Eight: Two Heads Are Better Than One - The theory of collective competence
Nine: A Is Null-A - A look at the theory of an irrational universe and how its consequences differ
Ten: Untitled - The allegations of arrogance and their relationship to these foundations (and the use of arrogance to sell these points)
Eleven: Untitled - A look at how this theory corresponds with modern environmentalism
Twelve: Untitled - An examination of the reason this theory implies a need to correct errors others make
Thirteen: Untitled - The possibility of human perfectibility, and the implications for political theory
Fourteen: Interlude - A transition between the origins and the consequences, explaining the relationship between the two
Fifteen: The War of All Against All - Examining the way that liberal theory encourages conflict
I know I do not normally provide much more summary of a chapter than I gave above, but in this case there is a specific detail which relates to chapter 8 and chapter 9, and so I feel the need to mention it.

First, the "War of All Against All" is inherent in all systems which grant the government too much power, as I discussed in "Transparency, Corruption and Reform", "Bureaucracy Revisited", "The Inevitability of Bureaucratic Management in Government Enterprises","Bureaucratic Management and Self-Policing", "Inflexibility and Bureaucracy", "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism", "A New Look At Intervention", "Adaptability and Government", "The Irrationality of Government Redistribution", "The Cost of Big Government", "The Inevitable Corruption of Protectionism" and elsewhere. However, there are systems which discourage this struggle, such as theocratic states which combine religious authority with state power to give the wielders of power legitimacy. Similarly, the divine right of kings, or even some nationalist theories argue in favor of retaining power in the hands of a few.

What liberalism generally fails to do is provide such a justification. Yes, the irrationalist versions, such as nationalism, or those that postulate an irrational universe do have such aspects, but they are a clear minority. In most cases, the argument is that the elite are experts, and expertise can always be contested, making any failure, or even a claim of inferiority, justification for a coup. (Even nationalism has potential for such events, as I will explain in the chapter.) And when we enter the theory of collective competence, we have even worse problems, as sheer number of votes provides justification, making it quite possible for one group to oust another either by claiming broader representation, or just having more members.

Obviously, there will be much more detail and discussion in the chapter itself, but I think this will make an interesting introduction to the topic of consequences, as it makes clear exactly how the theories underlying a political system find expression in the real world.

POSTSCRIPT II

Having written the post "Some Additional Thoughts on Technocrats" while this one was in the works, I think it is a good idea to include the discussion of technocracy in this work. Obviously, the full essay I proposed in that essay cannot be included here, but as rationalist tendencies in interventionist theories tend to favor technocratic solutions, it is definitely a likely outcome of liberalism/interventionism, and thus an appropriate topic to cover.

In addition, I want to add a chapter discussing how the theories we discuss in this work are no longer limited to liberalism, or even liberalism and points left. The theories I have described have been embraced, in one form or another, to one degree or another, by the majority of theories calling themselves moderate or conservative. Though we do still retain some sort of freedom promoting movement (or at least since one revived following the Goldwater movement, especially following the Reagan years), by and large, the theories discussed here are held true by the vast majority of our political parties and by almost every ideology. In fact, from about 1900 until 1960 or a bit later, there really were no political viewpoints, at least none in the mainstream, which did not accept the theories put forth here. (See "The Best Historical Example", "A Passing Thought", "Rethinking the Scopes Trial" and "The Political Spectrum".)

I do not yet have chapter numbers for these two additions, and so will not rewrite the chapter list. The first will likely come early in the section on consequences, while the second will come near the end of the work, but that is all I can say at the moment.

POSTSCRIPT III

As this essay was being written I posted several others on relevant topics, as should be evident from the past two postscripts. And, yet again, I have written a post which seems to provide a subject for a chapter in the second part of the book. In this case, the post "Busy Bodies, Public and Private" is of interest, though it is rather hard to specifically place in the book. Rather than discussing the origins or consequences, it discusses the way liberalism is "sold" to the public. Then again, as that does in many ways shape the final form liberal government takes, I suppose it is part of the consequences section, and so, for now, I plan to add it as chapter sixteen. Which gives us the following table of contents:
Preface: Preface
Introduction: Introduction
One: The Trinity and Its Necessity - An overview of the three core ideas behind liberalism
Two: Saving You From Yourself - What is and is not a proper role for government
Three: The Truth is Out There - Principle One: There is an objectively best choice for every question
Four: Our Foolish Compatriots - Principle Two: The average man is unable to make the correct decision
Five: We Don't Need No Education - Corollary One: The common individual cannot learn from experience
Six: Us and Them - The differences between theories founded on sinister forces versus those founded on incompetent actors
Seven: More Equal Than Others - Principle Three: The existence of an elite capable of providing correct answers
Eight: Two Heads Are Better Than One - The theory of collective competence
Nine: A Is Null-A - A look at the theory of an irrational universe and how its consequences differ
Ten: We're All Above Average - The allegations of arrogance and their relationship to these foundations (and the use of arrogance to sell these points)
Eleven: Untitled - A look at how this theory corresponds with modern environmentalism
Twelve: Untitled - An examination of the reason this theory implies a need to correct errors others make
Thirteen: Untitled - The possibility of human perfectibility, and the implications for political theory
Fourteen: Interlude - A transition between the origins and the consequences, explaining the relationship between the two
Fifteen: The War of All Against All - Examining the way that liberal theory encourages conflict
Sixteen: The Proper Fulcrum - A look at the rebirth of technocracy and how it was necessitated by liberalism's basic philosophy
Seventeen: We're All Socialists Now - A look at how the basic premises of liberalism have permeated the entire political spectrum
As you can see, I have incorporated all of the chapters mentioned above. The chapter descriptions should also be self-explanatory. One note to add, though not strictly necessary, is that chapter 17, as I presently imagine it, will begin with a section drawing heavily on "The Best Historical Example", "A Passing Thought", "Rethinking the Scopes Trial" and "The Political Spectrum", but will then explain how such changes came about, something I have so far not done. In part it will draw on my discussion of our changing culture (eg. "An Immature Society", "Cranky Old Man?", "A Brief Thought on Patience", "In Defense of Standards", "Addenda to "In Defense of Standards"", "Self-Interest Versus Narcissism"), but there will also be elements of political and economic thought as well, including the flaws already present in the works of many of the founders, and the lack of truly consistent liberalism (in the 19th century sense), outside of the Jackson-Polk circle. Even some of the most minimalist presidents such as Jefferson, Madison and Cleveland embraced positions they should have rejected. But we will discuss all that when I get to chapter 17.

UPDATE:
After writing the above, I realized the new chapter 16 would replicate chapter 10, and so I rolled them both into chapter 10. I did not go to the bother of rewriting the above, as it is only a postscript. I simply updated the list of chapters, and changed the chapter numbers in the following text to match.

POSTSCRIPT IV

There is not much in my earlier writing to support the arguments I made here. At best I could cite those same two or three dozen articles on liberalism in general I have cited repeatedly throughout this set of essays, but they are relevant only in a general sense. I could also cite many articles on misapplying evidence, abusing numbers and mathematics and the general failure to understand science or the nature of proof (such as "Problematic Arguments", "The Plural of Anecdote is Not Data" and "The Nonsensical Nature of Some Statistical Analysis"), but, again, those are not precisely relevant. And so, since I have so little on point, and even less which has not already been cited more than once, I will simply mention that the subject mentioned in footnote 6 can be better understood by reading "Bad Economics Part 7", "Bad Economics Part 8", "What Is Money?", "What Is A Dollar? ", "Why Gold?", "A Thought on Technology and Technocrats" and "Some Additional Thoughts on Technocrats".

Originally Published in Random Notes on 2010/09/19.

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