Archive for February, 2011

Rationality and Irrationality

Posted by villageidiom at BBTF:

Over the years I’ve become a big believer that, except in cases of dementia, what we perceive as irrational behavior is actually rational behavior informed from a different set of knowledge and experience than we have.* With that belief, generally my first impulse is to try to imagine what kind of knowledge and experience the seemingly irrational person has, or doesn’t have, that would lead to their decision being rational to them… So, in this case, instead of basing the judgment of what’s rational based on my information, I look for the pieces I’m missing to suggest why my view is the irrational one.

* 99% of the time mrsidiom and our daughter have an argument, it’s because each thinks the other is being irrational, when in reality they’re both rational but misinformed.

Quite. But some people think it’s more fun to shout “Monkeybrains!”

More about Arab Democracy

Why aren’t Arabs so keen on democratic politics? My last post referenced the widespread notion that political divisions are “sicknesses in the body politic, that weaken and divide, set one man against another, faction against faction, and make the government easily manipulable by strong and unified forces either domestic or foreign.” This is by no means a sentiment unique to the Arab world – you see it strongly expressed in the West too, in the idea that to politicise something is to make it worse, or that if only the politicians could get together and hammer out their differences, it’d be all right. Let’s be quite clear – non-partisan means anti-democratic. Yet this view, although mainstream, does not dominate in the West. I think there are two broad reasons why this view dominates more in the Arab world – one political, one cultural.

In the west, representative democracy has a claim on ancient legitimacy, even when it is in fact radical. The French National Assembly of 1789, for example, was clearly a revolutionary body, but it could also claim to be restoring the rightful ancient governance of France under the Estates-General. And almost every European country has some history of these bodies, be they called Parliaments, Estates, Diets, or whatever else, that where they fell were typically replaced by arbitrary dictatorial (or foreign) power. Thus representative democracy is often depicted as cultural restoration – and in those countries where such restorations have occurred, things have generally gone well. Therefore a Spaniard in 1978 could both see the transition to democracy as a restoration of traditional government, as gaining the benefits enjoyed by other Western European countries, as well as whatever other theoretical reasons there might be.

In the Arab world this history is absent. There is no ancient history of representative institutions to draw on. Parliamentary democracy is perceived as what it is – an imported western political norm. But despite their supposed multiculturalism, few in the west are interested even in learning about Arab ideas about political institutions, such as Shura, ulema and Wilayat al-faqih. Instead the attempt is just to impose a western politico-cultural system on a foreign country, with no regard for its perceived legitimacy, on the crazy logic that the people there are ignorant barbarians too stupid to know what’s good for them. But oh, once they see the manifold blessings of representative democracy, they’ll thank us!

(Note: I am not a multiculturalist, I think Western ways are best, and English ways in particular. But I don’t think you can pretend that Baghdad is the same as Bromley, you have to start from where you are.)

In reality, of course, the blessings of representative democracy are notable by their absence. There are two Arab democracies, Lebanon and Iraq, and both are advertisements for the Arab view that democracy makes the government weak and easily dominated by internal blocs and powerful neighbours. Meanwhile, the best-governed countries in the region, such as the UAE, Qatar and (whisper it quietly) Bahrain, all have broadly traditional forms of government. One powerful testament to superiority of capitalism to communism was that people were trying to leave East Germany to go to the West, but no-one wanted to go in the opposite direction. In the Arab world, the population flow is from Beirut and Baghdad to Dubai and Doha. What does that say about the political systems?

So much for politics, but the other factor is cultural. In the west the contrarian figure is seen as very laudable (at least in retrospect), for his willingness to tell the public what they do not want to hear and persist despite their hostility. We have countless instances of this, be it in science, politics, religion… indeed, Jesus Christ is a fine example. In fact, this is such an easy trope that many people who in fact did not suffer like this will claim that no-one recognised or believed in their work, so that they seem more heroic! Yet in the Arab world this idea is rather lacking. Certainly, someone who tells the government what they do not want to hear and is punished for it will be held up as a martyr – provided the people were on his side. But truly marginal figures are not. There is just not the same notion that the general public are fickle and frequently wrong.

Instead, the dichotomy is between the malign ruler and the good public. It’s easy to work out what should be done, the problem is that the government won’t do it because they’re evil and corrupt (you can see how this attitude makes representative democracy seem bad, with its committees and horse-trading). The countervailing conservative western notions of individualism, irreducibly opposed interests, etc, are much weaker. And so there is what I like to call the Harun al-Rashid theory of political governance: that the purpose of the political system is to choose a ruler who is good and incorruptible, and then get out of the way.

I sometimes also call this the “Dave” theory of governance, after the Kevin Kline movie where the US President is switched with a look-a-like. Unlike the real, evil President, the look-a-like is a really nice guy who sits up with an accountant all night to fix the budget deficit, solves unemployment problems, etc etc. Ah, if only we could get nice leaders instead of our current nasty ones, everything would be solved! So if you realise that the Arab critique of government sounds a lot like the leftist critique of government, ten brownie points for you. Leftists share many of these cultural traits – the hostility to individualism, the tendency to imagine that there is such a thing as the “popular will,” the anthropomorphising of institutions (“we decided as a society…”). So it is unsurprising that the left should be greeting the Arab Spring with great enthusiasm. Of course they showed the same enthusiasm for the disastrous uprisings of the 1950s and 1960s, but that kind of thing never gives them pause.

Will there ever be real progress for the mass of the Arab world? I can’t say I’m optimistic, but you have to be hopeful. If I believed in the Dave theory, I’d say they should make Adnan Pachachi dictator. At the least, it’s worth a shot.

Why I am not a Rebel

Last Saturday, in what passes for a newspaper, the front page read:

Rebellion spreads as ‘Arab Spring’ takes hold

The Arab Spring, the great awakening, 2011’s equivalent of the fall of communism in 1989, is spreading across North Africa and the Middle East like water pouring from a broken dam. Brave and youthful populations are rising against stunned dictators who are reacting the only way that they know how, and yesterday the entire region seemed to be choking on teargas and reeling from the bullets, rubber or real.

And on like this. Martin Fletcher decided to entirely omit any news, and just write florid prose fiction. This is typical of the way events have been covered.

Perhaps the enthusiasm for these rebellions would be somewhat tempered if our journalists had a vague notion of history. The regimes in Egypt and Libya came to power on the back of popular rebellion backed by a section of the military. Indeed, that’s how almost every regime in the Middle East came to power, and most have had this process play out several times. So if it’s been such a disaster previously, why should we believe things will work out better this time around? And more importantly, what’s going on?

Anomaly UK has repeatedly drawn a distinction between Old Democracy (i.e. democracy with strong intermediary political institutions) and Young Democracy (i.e. democracy without those institutions). So Britain at any point in the last three centuries would be an Old Democracy with its accompanying stability, France in 1789 would be a Young Democracy leading to bloodshed and civil war. Another distinction would be a cultural one, and to talk about the asabiyah (national togetherness) of the polity. So Britain would be a country with strong asabiyah, where mostly people feel they’re all in the same boat, and vote for the national interest*. Whereas Rwanda had weak asabiyah, where people used their votes as instruments of power, leading to bloodshed and civil war.

These are the two arguments that are constantly made about democracy in the middle east. The first says that democracy is problematic because Arab countries don’t have the intermediary institutions that can keep them from sliding into Something Much Worse (Islamism is the bogeyman du jour). This is nonsensical, because most Arab countries have intermediary institutions much stronger than ours. Whatever power the BBC and the permanent civil service has in Britain is trivial compared to the power of the army in Egypt, or the theocracy in Iran. If anything, these countries have intermediary institutions that are much too strong. The second argument says that democracy is problematic because Arabs are a bunch of primitive tribal heathens. So democracy will break down into Muslim vs Christian, Sunni vs Shi’a, etc. Apart from being deeply racist, this view is also fundamentally mistaken – for the most part these divisions are not very important at all. For example, most of the sectarian trouble in Iraq has been whipped up by outside forces – by which I do not just mean Iran, but also the deliberately divisive and sectarian policies pursued by the occupying US forces.

The real issue is indeed cultural, but not in the way that most people understand it. In the Arab world there is much enthusiasm for Democracy as Result – i.e. that the government should do what the people want. But there is huge scorn for Democracy as Process – i.e. elections, parliamentary negotiations, in short, politics. These are seen as sicknesses in the body politic, that weaken and divide, set one man against another, faction against faction, and make the government easily manipulable by strong and unified forces either domestic or foreign. What is interesting is that this is similar analysis to that used by Public Choice Theorists and Formalists alike. I find it therefore surprising that there is not more enthusiasm among these groups for the Arab Spring – perhaps the rebels might be persuaded to organise their new state as a joint-stock corporation. However, I think reaction trumps creativity in the Formalist ranks.

Realistically, however, Egypt and Libya are not going to be reconstituted along Formalist lines (not that that would end happily either). If they do get democracy, the popular resentment of the divisions of democratic politics will make the rent-seeking a lot worse, and the polity will be non-functional. More likely, the people will get what they want, which is a strong ruler. The question of how you get a strong ruler who nevertheless does what the people want is of course as yet unsolved. The best answers that the Arab world has come up with are the various versions of political Islam, but the very notion of government having anything to do with religion so horrifies western liberals that the international pushback would be very strong.

Perhaps the new government will be a little better than what was previously in place, but I doubt it. The long-term structural factors are all negative. In short, I don’t see this ending happily, and the Western cheerleading of these uprisings makes me queasy.

*Of course the asabiyah is breaking down at present.


When I was 16 years old, my history teacher asked the class if any of us were anti-intellectual. I was the only one who raised his hand, and for my troubles got a combination of dirty looks and disbelieving comments. I was not only the smartest kid in the class, I was also the one most interested in and curious about history – by some measures, you might have said that I was the most intellectual. And in the circles in which I have moved, this viewpoint has tended to set me apart. Of course, I’m normally not the smartest guy in the room, and then my anti-intellectualism has sometimes made people think me jealous or stupid. Politically, I believe it is the biggest difference between conservatives and libertarians: libertarians, like progressives, tend to worship at the altar of “rationality,” intellectualism, and (at least in theory) academia. Ask a libertarian to identify their libertarian heroes, and they almost always name academics and writers. Ask a conservative to identify his conservative heroes, and he will likely also name heads of state, politicians and generals.

This temperamental difference often results in libertarians and progressives alike looking down on conservatives as being stupid or at best ignorant. See for example this post on conservative anti-intellectualism. However, I do not associate anti-intellectualism with stupidity, but with intelligence – and specifically, the ability to distinguish between science and scientism. Basically, an intellectual is someone who can’t call himself a scientist without failing the giggle test, so he settles for saying he’s an intellectual. Physicists call themselves scientists, criminologists call themselves intellectuals. The distinction is clear.

A moderate anti-intellectual position is outlined here: essentially, that what keeps research honest is the rigour of empirical feedback, and the less feedback you have from that, the more other feedbacks can dominate. So when there are no fruitful lines of attack or the subject matter is swamped with ideology, anything except the hardest of sciences turns into junk. Indeed, why would you expect it to be otherwise? What incentives are there to be a truth-seeker in such a situation?

The counter-position is taken by Robin Hanson, who argues that even though experts aren’t perfect, they still know much more than us, so we should defer to them anyway. But this is to miss the whole point. Exactly what are these intellectuals expert in, if their academic fields are full of junk? I completely agree that the rationally ignorant outsider should generally defer to expert opinion, but the anti-intellectual position is that the experts are often not the abstract thinkers, but the the practical doers. In other words, if you want to know how to solve crime, the expert is the police chief, not the criminologist.

Obviously all this links into my belief that most rationality really isn’t, that what looks like good evidence to one person is obviously biased to another, and that 99% of the time, it’ll turn our that your grandmother was right all along. Note: validity may vary with grandmother.

The alternative position, to me, just looks sloppy, complacent and absurd. I don’t want to draw a strawman, but it really does appear to be that we should care who Nobel Prize winners vote for, that there exists an intellectual elite who know better than the rest of us, and essentially that the world should be governed by the Harvard faculty. But if they knew anything about anything, why would they be on the Harvard faculty? Surely they’d do something useful with their lives!

Although I do think that the public are often wiser than their masters, I do not want this mistaken for crude populism. Not only do the people have the right instincts, such as to trust the police chief over the criminologist, but I regard their thinking as generally more rational, in the true sense, than that of the academy. However, popular belief is no substitute for hard fact, which is the reality before which we must all bow down. The foundation of my anti-intellectualism is not that I believe in populism – it is that I believe in science.

Folk Wisdom

“How many years can a mountain exist before it is washed to the sea?” – answered.

“How many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?” – still unclear.


This blog is on the first page of results if you google the term “NQOCD.” In fact, it’s the first site listed that’s not simply a definition website. For those ignorant, it means Not Quite Our Class, Darling. I’m still not as popular as Facebook, but one step at a time.

Why I am not a High Tory

A review of “Supermac: The life of Harold Macmillan”, by D.R. Thorpe.

In Vicky’s famous cartoon for the Evening Standard, Harold Macmillan was depicted as the “terrific, stupendous, irresistible” Supermac. Intended as mockery of the then Prime Minister[1], it backfired badly, and became a badge of honour. For a certain generation, Macmillan really did stand for decency, prosperity, tradition… and whatever else is our equivalent of “Truth, Justice and the American way.” My mother was not the only little girl who called her teddy “Supermac.” For those Tories fearing the twin evils of socialism and war, Macmillan’s premiership represented a time of blessed prosperity when they really had “never had it so good.”[2]

The verdict of history has been much harsher – and not in the way that one might have expected. The dominant counter-narrative at the time was that the 1950s was really an “Age of Anxiety,” that the gains were only going to the middle-classes, that the system was merely supporting inherited privilege, and that only the “white heat” of socialism could blow away those stuffy cobwebs – a view that now seems ridiculous. Rather, Macmillan is seen as being the bad farmer who ate next year’s seed, who failed to mend the roof when the sun was shining and therefore forced future leaders to try and fix it in a hurricane. In short, he is now attacked not from the left but from the right – his economic views, for example, would nowadays be significantly to the left of any major British party. And what is particularly remarkable about all this is that the kind of attacks you hear on Macmillan today were not heard at all during his premiership.

Thorpe’s book does not seriously seek to challenge this narrative. Indeed, it seems barely to try. It is above all a narrative of his works – the last 23 years of his life, after he had resigned, are covered in just 27 pages. Wisely, the book accepts that Macmillan was a man of his time – less wisely, it does not grapple with the fact that the times changed around him, partly of his own making. Indeed, whether from the left or from the right, this has always been the central criticism of Macmillan – that he did not understand that the world had changed, that he was forever living in 1932. It is therefore disappointing that a book so long on painstaking research should be so short on serious analysis[3].

Macmillan’s inheritance gave him wealth, connections and an excellent education. Combined with his natural intellect and bravery, he would nowadays be considered a consummate political insider. Yet Macmillan always saw himself as an outsider. Perhaps this was understandable, to a degree, in the early 1920s, when his mercantile, rather than aristocratic, origins may have counted against him. And in the 1930s he was certainly on the political outs with the Conservative Party. Even then this was probably less salient in reality than in his mind – after all, he married Dorothy Cavendish, the daughter of the Duke of Devonshire, and the Conservatives were such a broad church in the 1930s that there were whole future Cabinets wandering in the wilderness. Yet to the end of his life Macmillan persisted in this view, long past the point when it was absurd. The old Establishment had withered and a new one grown up, of which Macmillan was fundamentally part, even if he could not see it himself.

As an MP, Macmillan was happiest in Stockton, an industrial town in the North East, where his constituents were almost entirely working-class. Later he represented Bromley, whose residents he despised as bourgeois and complacent. Yet what Macmillan missed is that the whole country was becoming like Bromley – a trend he contributed to by his performance as Minister of Housing. Even by 1960 this shift was clear, but by the 1980s you would have to have been blind to miss it – yet miss it he somehow did. As Lord Stockton, he famously described privatisation as selling off heirlooms:

The sale of assets is common with individuals and states when they run into financial difficulties. First, all the Georgian silver goes, and then all that nice furniture that used to be in the saloon. Then the Canalettos go. 

Oh yes, it’s very common to have Canalettos to sell off. Perhaps this kind of thing might have played in Stockton in 1932 – but that was a more deferential age. Perhaps the factory workers of the time might have accepted the view of the state as an essentially aristocratic operation, but by 1985 this was no longer the case. It just made him look ludicrously out-of-touch. Peter Cook famously gave two impersonations of Macmillan – the first, in 1961, portrayed Macmillan as an out-of-touch, amoral chancer. He tells a poverty-stricken widow: “Mrs McFarlane, as one Scottish old age pensioner to another, be of good cheer. There are many people in this country today who are far worse off than yourself. And it is the policy of the Conservative Party to see that this position is maintained.” The second, in 1986, portrays him as a slightly senile old man whose sole pleasure in life is annoying “those ghastly estate agents in the House of Commons.” Both portrayals are funny because they are so dead-on, but are also tinged with great affection for the man.

And indeed Thorpe’s book is tinged with no less affection, affection that leads it slightly astray. Macmillan was involved in several serious controversies during his life – the Klagenfurt affair, the Suez Crisis, the Profumo affair, and the selection of Douglas-Home as his successor. In each case, the book mounts a vigorous defence of Macmillan’s motives, without ever really addressing the broader questions. I do not mean that the author must make moral judgements, but rather that actions must be seen in the context of social, political, legal and constitutional proprieties.

Moreover, the book would do well with better economic analysis. It is simply not true that “there is an inevitable trade-off between unemployment and inflation,” and this has been well-known for at least 25 years. Indeed, this goes right to the heart of the argument that Macmillan stored up trouble for future years. Moreover, Macmillan’s wage controls and planning policies[5] were clearly counter-productive. The book is right to emphasise that Macmillan was deeply affected by the Depression in pre-war Stockton, and that this had a lasting intellectual effect on him, as did his friendship (and publishing relationship) with Keynes. But this psychological portrait is no substitute for good economics – there is no reason that what is good for Stockton in 1932 is good for Britain in 1962.

Ultimately, however, the broader failure of the book is its inability to tie together a consistent story of what Macmillan was trying to achieve. Such will always be difficult with a figure as amoral as Macmillan[4], and perhaps the answer is that there is no such story. But still, it must be addressed. The author quotes C.P. Snow: “The first thing is to get power. The next is to do something with it,” but he does not explain what Macmillan did, or even intended to do, with his power. The book says that there was no “Macmillanism,” but I’m not sure that’s true. There was no coherent Macmillanism, but that is another matter.

Overall, this book taught me a lot about Macmillan’s life – and rather more about his personal life than I needed to know. For those who wish to know more about him as a person and a politician, I greatly recommend it. Those looking to understand his place in history may be disappointed.

[1]Although I think the cartoon’s primary focus is wider than Macmillan personally. In my reading of the cartoon, the Tory grandees are cynically exploiting the stupid middle-classes standing in line – the bowler-hatted punters are the real fools. The cartoon is reproduced on page 370 of Thorpe’s book.
[2]A phrase he actually used in a very different sense, but has nevertheless stuck.
[3]Unfortunately the book does contain a good deal of tawdry sexual psychoanalysis, no doubt to increase its interest to a certain kind of reader.
[4]A word I use without judgement. It is the repeated conclusion of the book that Macmillan, like Murray Edelman, saw politics as simply an insider power game.
[5]”Nicky,” the National Incomes Commission, the “guiding light,” the soft incomes target for wage settlements, and “Neddy,” the National Economic Development Committee.