The three party system (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

Warning: Amateur political analysis ahead. I posted this on Crooked Timber a few days ago. It isn’t as applicable to Australia. In part, I think, this is because Rudd (along with Henry and Swan) saved us from the GFC with Keynesian policies, but then failed to defend them, leaving the advocates of market liberal reform largely unchallenged.

Looking at the way politics has evolved over the past 25 years or so, in the English-speaking world and beyond, I have developed an analysis which is certainly not original, but which I haven’t seen set down in exactly the way I would like. Here’s the shorter version:

There are three major political forces in contemporary politics in developed countries: tribalism, neoliberalism and leftism (defined in more detail below). Until recently, the party system involved competition between different versions of neoliberalism. Since the Global Financial Crisis, neoliberals have remained in power almost everywhere, but can no longer command the electoral support needed to marginalise both tribalists and leftists at the same time. So, we are seeing the emergence of a three-party system, which is inherently unstable because of the Condorcet problem and for other reasons.

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An inconvenient gun fact for Nicholas Kristof, and David Leyonjhelm

Nicholas Kristof has a column in the NY Times, headlined Some Inconvenient Gun Facts for Liberals . The headline, though presumably not chosen by Kristof, is a pretty accurate summary of the article, which berates liberals for proposing various ineffectual gun control measures, and concludes:

Let’s make America’s gun battles less ideological and more driven by evidence of what works.

If Kristof wants to be taken seriously, he ought to acknowledge the actual evidence of what works, namely, measures that drastically reduce the number of guns and restrict their availability. I discussed the evidence a bit more in this post, with links.

Of course, such measures aren’t politically feasible in the US, and have to be disavowed by politicians seeking even limited progress. But if Kristof started by admitting this, he’d end up with a very different analysis than the one he’s putting forward. The primary criterion for any gun control policy in the US has to be to maximize the ratio of long-term harm reduction to political cost. I don’t have any particularly good ideas about political strategies. Still, it’s clear that Kristof’s operating assumption that sweet reason will be sufficient, or even helpful, is way off the mark.

In the Australian context, it’s notable that the only people who deny the obvious facts about gun control are those who have a strong ideological or personal motive for doing so. It’s scarcely surprising that gun enthusiasts want to resist any measures that would inconvenience them, and are willing to employ spurious arguments to do so – that’s true for just about any group.

What’s more striking is the attitude of David Leyonjhelm, the Senate representative of the Liberal Democratic Party. When dealing with something he doesn’t like, such as wind turbines, he’s willing to accept utterly bogus claims of health risks. When it’s something he likes, such as guns whose only purpose is to kill, he’s just as happy to reject the evidence.

Unfortunately, this combination of attitudes is very common among self-described libertarians. The implication is that, as a libertarian, you can oppose any government restriction you dislike, while supporting any you favor – you just need to make up your own facts.

Polls and punters, yet again

I just read this piece on The Drum, taking the line that it’s better to rely on the betting markets, which have Labor and the government level-pegging, than on the polls, which have had Labor well ahead for a long time. Elections are only held every few years, so they don’t provide much data on which to test the relative performance of the two. But, if markets give better estimates than polls, we should expect to see movements in the poll results follow those in the market rather than vice versa (in econometrics, this is called Granger causality). Digging around, I located a study finding that, if anything, movements in polls Granger cause movements in betting markets.

Since a compelling observation beats an econometric analysis for most people, let’s look at the 18 months or so since I last posted on this topic. Labor started out with a small lead in the polls and stayed consistently in front, with the lead varying over time. Meanwhile, the betting markets favored the government until very recently, before moving to even money. It seems clear in this case, that the markets are following the polls and not vice versa.

After Melos

I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s been thinking about the words Thucydides assigns to the Athenians in the Melian dialogue

The strong do as they will and the weak suffer what they must

And I knew the immediate context. Militarily powerful Athenians demanded that the inhabitants of neutral Melos surrender their city and pay tribute. When the Melians refused, Athens invaded, slaughtered the men and enslaved the women and children.

I didn’t however, have any broader context in which to place this episode, even though the information is readily available on Wikipedia for example, which is my source here (apologies in advance to any actual experts for inaccuracies). The story begins with the formation of the Delian League, an expression of Greek unity in the war against Persia. The Athenians used the League to supplant Sparta as the hegemon of Greece, and then to oppress the other members, leading to a series of attempted defections. In Thucydides words

Of all the causes of defection, that connected with arrears of tribute and vessels, and with failure of service, was the chief; for the Athenians were very severe and exacting, and made themselves offensive by applying the screw of necessity

Eventually, this policy lead to the outbreak of war with the Spartan-led Pelopennesian League (this war was Thucydides’ subject). The war on Melos took place during a brief period of peace about half way through the war. The war ended with Athens being utterly defeated. Only the mercy of the Spartans prevented the Athenians sharing the fate they had meted out to the Melians a decade earlier, as Sparta’s allies demanded.

Rather than extract analogies to current events, I’d like to observe that the historical setting suggests a very different reading of the dialogue to that commonly seen today. In most of the contemporary discussions I’ve read, the Athenian side of the dialogue is presented as embodying the remorseless logic of power politics. But in the light of the outcome (well known to his intended readers), it seems to me Thucydides is better read as showing the Athenians as subject to the kind of hubris that demands, and inevitably receives, punishment. By contrast, while the Melians made a bad bet in resisting, their arguments are entirely sound, and should have been convincing to a rational hegemon.

Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.

Render unto Caesar (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

Of the three Jews described by George Steiner as, in Corey Robin’s summary, having formulated a great and demanding ethics/politics, Jesus is to me the most interesting.[^1] That thought struck me while reading Jerry Cohen’s Self-ownership, freedom and equality, a Marxist response to Nozick. As Cohen observes early on, Marxists seem to have a lot more difficulty responding to Nozick than do (US) liberals or social democrats. That’s because the notion of self-ownership central to Nozick’s argument is closely allied to the Marxian idea that capitalism inherently involves exploitation (that is, extraction of surplus value from labor). Nozick’s claim was that the same is true of taxation, or any kind of claim on private property imposed by the state.

I’ll come back to self-ownership in a little while. The more interesting point, to me, is that Nozick’s argument was refuted in advance by Jesus when he was asked by Pharisees (arbiters of the law laid down by Moses) whether it was lawful for Jews to pay taxes to the Romans. This was, of course, a trap, since he could be arrested for saying No and discredited for saying Yes. Jesus showed them a coin with the emperor’s head on the obverse and said “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”. And “when they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way.”

Jesus’ point is just as valid if the coin is replaced by paper currency bearing the picture of a president, or rent from a land title issued by a state, or a dividend coupon from a corporation established under state law. All of these things were initially obtained from states under conditions that (in most cases, explicitly) involved the obligation to pay taxes as determined by the legal processes of those states. Someone who takes Caesar’s coin and then repudiates the associated obligation to pay taxes is, quite simply, a thief (of course, theft implies property, and vice versa).

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Uncle Tom’s Cabin

The concept of self-ownership came up in discussion at Crooked Timber as a result of my passing slap at Nozick in the post on Austrian economics and Flat Earth geography. I’ve been planning posting on some related issues, but I realise there are some critical points I need to clarify first, most notably on the relationship, if any, between self-ownership and property rights.

I’m inclined to the view that there is no such relationship, or more precisely that our inalienable rights over our own bodies represent a constraint on the legitimate scope of property rights, rather than forming a basis for such rights. But, there’s lots that I know I don’t know about this, and, presumably, more that I don’t know I don’t know.

The problems for me start with language. As far as I know, no one has ever remarked on the title of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Yet the core of the book is that Tom owns neither the cabin nor himself: both are the property of his owner. And that brings up another striking feature of language (at least English). We use the possessive case to refer to Tom’s owner, but, obviously the owner was not Tom’s possession whereas, legally, the reverse was true.

The abolition of slavery hasn’t resolved the contradictions here: for wage workers, it’s natural to divide the hours of the day into “company time” and “my time”, while for house workers the common complaint is the absence of any “time of my own”.

So, some questions to start off with

First, how universal is the linguistic conflation of the possessive case with possession in the sense of ownership (Wikipedia suggests that there may be some exceptions, but the distinctions described are not precisely the ones I mean). And, if there is such a linguistic universal, what conclusions should we draw from it?

Second, have political philosophers looked at the question in this light: that is, on the relationship between the broad use of the possessive to denote relationships of all kinds and the particular use to denote property ownership. If so, what is the relationship between self-possession and self-ownership?

Tu quoque

I’ve written many posts and articles making the point that the political right, in most English speaking countries[1] has been taken over by a tribalist post-truth politics in which all propositions, including the conclusions of scientific research, are assessed in terms of their consistency or otherwise with tribal prejudices and shibboleths.

Very occasionally, intellectuals affiliated with the political right (conservatives and libertarians) will seek to deny this, arguing that isolated instances are being blown out of proportion, and that the right as a whole is committed to reasoned, fact-based argument and acceptance of “inconvenient truths’ arising from the conclusions of scientific research[2], [3].

But, far more often their response takes the form of a tu quoque or, in the language of the schoolyard, “you’re another”. That is, they seek to argue that the left is just as tribalist and anti-science as the right. Favored examples of alleged left tribalism included any rhetoric directed at rightwing billionaires ( Murdoch, Rinehart the Kochs). The standard examples of alleged left anti-science are GMOs, nuclear power and anti-vaxerism, but it is also sometimes claimed that US Democrats are just as likely as Republicans to be creationists.

I’ll argue over the fold that these examples don’t work. What’s more important, though, is what the tu quoque argument says about those who deploy it, and their view of politics. The implied claim is that politics is inherently a matter of tribalism and emotion, and that there is no point in complaining about this. The only thing to do is to pick a side and stick to it. What passes for political argument is simply a matter of scoring debating points for your side and demolishing those of the others. So, anyone who uses tu quoque as a defence, rather than seeking to dissuade their own side from tribalist and anti-science rhetoric, deserves no more respect than the tribalists and science deniers themselves, who at least have the defence of ignorance.

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Gentlemen don't read other gentlemen's mail (repost from 2004)

One of the more tiresome points being made in relation to the revelations from Edward Snowden is that there is nothing really new here. And, of course, it’s true that, if you’ve been paying careful attention to all the news on this topic, disregarding both official assurances and the wilder conspiracy theories, and thinking through the implications, the material leaked by Snowden is more confirmation than revelation. But, sad to say, that’s not the case for most of us. I think I’ve been paying more attention than most, and I still learned a lot from the latest news.

That’s all a preamble for a repost of a piece I wrote in 2004, in relation to an earlier revelation along similar lines, with a link to an even earlier piece from 2001, making the general case that secret intelligence is useless.
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Non-core health promises

When campaigning for office, Campbell Newman promise public servants they had nothing to fear from an LNP government

Breaking that promise, and announcing 10-20 000 job cuts, Newman promised no cuts in staff delivering “frontline” services

Breaking that promise, and sacking large numbers of frontline staff, Newman promised that, even if staff were cut, frontline services would not be

Given this trajectory, it was only a matter of time before the word “core”, made infamous by John Howard’s “core promises”, appeared in government rhetoric. And here it is. Wide Bay Hospital and Health Service chief executive, Adrian Pennington, who is busy abandoning or privatising a wide range of preventative care services, services to the elderly and so on, says, of cuts to emergency staff

There have been no cuts to front-line services in our emergency departments in Bundaberg, Hervey Bay or Maryborough. Emergency departments are core services to keep our people safe.

Pennington’s claim is disputed in the article, but what’s notable here is the emergence, as with Howard, of the implied non-care category of services we will have to do without.

We can all expect plenty more of this under Abbott.

Paris in the Spring (crossposted from Crooked Timber)

Sunday was Mother’s Day in Paris, and also the occasion of a big demonstration against equal marriage, titled “Manif Pour Tous”, presumably with the unspoken reservation “sauf homos”. I ran into a bit of the crowd, coming back from this event [^1], and they were certainly loud and boisterous. The idea that this was a rightwing version of a “Paris Spring” occurred to me, and also to this commentator in Le Monde.

I’ve seen it suggested that resistance to equal marriage is stronger in France, because there’s no legal recognition for church marriages – everyone has to go through the same civil ceremony. I’d be interested in other thoughts on that.

Overall, the real appeal of the right still seems to me to lie in anti-immigrant rhetoric and, within Europe, on attempts to blame the people of one country or another for a crisis of the entire global system of financial capitalism. The backlash against equal marriage seems to me to be the last gasp of the cultural right, rather than the basis for a sustained upsurge. But then, what I know about social developments in France would fit comfortably on a restaurant menu, so I’d be interested in what others have to say on this..

[^1]: I’m actually in town for this conference, where I’ll be talking about bounded rationality and financial crises. Essentially a preliminary attempt to describe the “Black Swan” problem in terms of formal decision theory, with the hope that this will lead to a more developed theory of financial bubbles and busts.