Mutually assured tribalism

Youre right that weve reached a political consensus on neoliberalism in public policy, Mark. There is no battle of ideas anymore, save the many little battles within broader long-term questions of how do we convert this or that social democratic structure into a neoliberal one?

Source.

Social democracy is so deeply entrenched in our political institutions that it is in the fine-tuning and adaptation phase, not the original new thinking phase.

Source.

I am also guilty of this. Is it because we in the political class are exposed in debate to the arguments of our most ‘extreme’ opponents and therefore have a skewed view of what is happening? I reckon I sense a few PhDs worth of work here — in Economics and Psychology to start with.

Edit:

It hasnt occured to anyone that there is no longer a battle of ideas, because neo-liberalism won the battle?

Source.

I feel very differently.

Final edit, I promise:

Finally, the fact you can only think about these things in a war-like, battle context is really sad, and I think highlights a tragic tendency.

The war is all in your head dudes – you think most people give a shit about this (even the informed ones)? What about – I dont know, its so wacky – the policy solution that will engender the best solution? What about getting departments to actually do the research to find out what the best way forward is, rather than rooting about like truffle pigs trying to find the rare treasure that jusitifies the already taken intellectual position?

Source.

That’d be nice, but it flies in the face of what the shrinks have learnt about biases, about how people selectively perceive ‘proof’ of existing beliefs, how self-worth gets muddled up with consistency, and how important social standing and conformity are.

We’re all stuck inside these rather dodgy meat machines; it can be difficult to disentangle ourselves, our beliefs, and the probability that there’s an objective reality separate from either.

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39 Responses to Mutually assured tribalism

  1. JC says:

    So Jacques, does that all mean you aren’t really wedded to your libertarian beliefs…. in that you don’t really think your belief system is superior? I don’t mean that in a snarky way, I’m trying to highlight the fact that policy direction etc. is all about our belief systems. At least that’s what i think. How about you?

  2. Jacques Chester says:

    Yes and no, if that makes sense. I say to folk that I adopted my current form of incrementalist libertarianism through a process of reasoning and thought. But it’s dangerous to assume that I can find an endpoint — that the thinking is ever perfect or complete. So there’s always the possibility I will undo it.

    I think the form of thought that has most affected me is that of mainstream science and my own field of computer science. From the former I take the necessity to accept no precept as settled. Everything is always worth challenging, as what does not kill a theory makes it stronger (more useful). From computer science I learn a lot about complexity and the way that problems can quickly spiral out of the range of any cognitive ability. This is not unique to computer science; what is unique is that the range is so vast: no other field deals with the theory and practice of things covering around a dozen orders of magnitude including every intermediate stage.

    So I am wedded to my libertarian beliefs, so long as they continue (to my mind) to resist assault and conform to usable evidence.

  3. JC says:

    Well yea, that’s ok in the sense that challenging your belief system is a good thing.

    Take what you said about computer science. What you’re basically saying is that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. In other words programming has a “personality” factor attached as two programmers could write a program in different ways that does the same thing. That’s what you’re essentially saying , right?

    I’m not sure you can do that with economic ideas. Any reasonable economist will tell you say that free labor markets will produce optimum outcome. There is enough research now according to Mark Hill that it pretty well locks that up. It doesn’t though mean though that someone can’t come along and show us why that isn’t the case (with requisite proof). It’s unlikely but we can’t totally discount it.

    I think you train of thought is heading to what the writer of the Black Swan (can’t recall the exact name of the book) was suggesting : that we simply don’t know enough to ever be sure a freight train is heading our way.

    I think that argument has one big weakness in it.

    If you place too high a delta on uncertainty you end up being paralyzed with confusion.

    My argument against that is, sure it’s true we really are only inferring most things we think we know about. For example we’re really not sure if plane travel is as safe as we make out simply because we not have enough flight time clocked.

    But you got to work with the best information or rather the information you have available and make the best decision possible with what you have. If the freight train shows up you deal with it in exactly the same way as you deal with any problem which is to figure the odds, risk management and move forward.

    Which brings me back to your/our core beliefs. I won’t go out of my way to look for alternatives but if they came along I’ll willing to take a look. That’s about the best you can do. Don’t you think?

    We will never know what infinity looks like, Jacques. And when we do it really won’t matter.

  4. John Hasenkam says:

    Maybe not so mutually assured. I’ve just finished reading Krugman’s new tome: The Conscience of a Liberal. He is taking the current tribe to task. I don’t think he will win but I have an entirely different view to most. Some may argue that economic arguments are settled but that is like saying various health debates are settled. Hell no, long way from it, just think of all the whiz bang do this you’ll live forever crap that comes out only to find several years later … . Keep in mind though that I’m an iconoclast, nothing I enjoy more than smashing conceptual icons. To be honest, the more I find a person talking in absolutes the more I think I’m being fed nonsense. Call me a conceptual nihilist.

  5. JC says:

    John, Jacques.

    This is how I look at things.

    I’m a professional trader for a living and have been since I got out of uni.

    Trading isn’t a complex game in the sense that there an enormous amount of information doing the rounds that can either help or hinder you. Quite frankly you don’t really know what are the important bits and what aren’t. You can only get a small peak with an educated guess and take your best shot.

    I have always thought that information picking isn’t the biggest part of the task as you really don’t know what is important in terms of what will grip the market for the moment and send it in one direction.

    The only thing I can do is take a shot: what i think is a well calculated shot with the info on hand and go for the ride. Stopping here though is what turns the game into gambling and I don’t gamble.

    The really hard bit is to figure risk management and protect against the freight train.

    It’s how you place your bet that really counts. The size, the risk capital you afford to a trade, adding to a trade, taking some of money off the table and how much your stomach (risk) can take.

    I think most of what I said resonates through everyday life. We really know only little bits of information to make any informed opinion. However you have to act on that information. The hard bit is figuring out the risk management part of life and how much “risk” you want to take with the little you know.

    This is why I suggested that if you start looking everywhere to affirm your opinions etc. you end up paralyzed with confusion. it’s the way you handle the the stuff after you have acted that’s really important.

  6. Bingo Bango Boingo says:

    What you’re really highlighting here Jacques is that the neoliberal project does not fully incorporate libertarian philosophy. Neoliberals are not always and everywhere violently opposed to government intervention in the way that libertarians are (except in the usual places).

    And Andrew is right that social democracy is entrenched in our political institutions. I just think he’s overestimating how deeply and firmly they are so entrenched. As I said in another place, the general trajectory of reform in public policy reflects a neoliberal outlook rather than a social democratic one. This shouldn’t be read as a denial of the ongoing reality of social democracy in countries like Australia. It’s just a recognition of where the apparent end point is.

    BBB

  7. John Hasenkam says:

    This is why I suggested that if you start looking everywhere to affirm your opinions etc. you end up paralyzed with confusion. its the way you handle the the stuff after you have acted thats really important.

    “There are many ways of leaping, the essential being to leap.”
    “But it is bad to stop, hard to be satisfied with a single way of seeing, to go without contradiction, perhaps the most subtle of all spiritual forces. The preceding merely defines a way of thinking. But the point is to live.”

    Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

    157
    “A professor in California has estimated that on an average weekday the New York Times contains more information than any contemporary of Shakespeare would have acquired in a lifetime. I am ready to believe that this is more or less true, although I suspect that an educated Elizabethan was less confused by what he knew. He would certainly have been less agitated than we are. His knowledge cannot have lain so close to the threshold of chaos as ours.”

    “What good is such a plethora of information? We have no use for most of the information given by the New York Times. It simply poisons us.”

    Saul Bellow, It All Adds Up.

    JC,

    I do not look everywhere to affirm my opinions, often I do the exact opposite, I look everywhere to test my opinions; which is why I spend time on libertarian forums. I have no trouble making decisions but I am very skeptical about a great many things. Decisions in life are different from decisions in logic. Logic has limitations, that we all know(except for some libertarians and Latte Leftists!), but if we choose to limit our access to knowledge we limit our logic all the more. The stronger the mind the more knowledge it can handle.

    Your comment reminds me of a study I read long ago. People who read and remember a lot, as they enter into their 40’s, can start experiencing some unusual memory problems. It is not so much that their memory is failing but that they now have so much information stored upstairs that retrieval and categorisation becomes a real problem. The solution is:

    Memory, as noted earlier, stores items in the conceptual space within the mind. The more richly structured (and well-signposted) the space, the more possibility of storing in a discriminating fashion, and of recognizing their particularities in the first place.

    252

    Consistently H-creative people have a better sense of domain-relevance than the rest of us. Their mental structures are presumably more wide-ranging, more many-levelled and more richly detailed than ours. And their exploratory strategies are probably more subtle and more powerful.

    254

    Margaret Boden: The Creative Mind: Myths and Mechanisms.

  8. Jacques – Part of the problem here is that we use ideological labels to describe political arrangements that very rarely have the coherence of ideologies, put in place by people with many motives, few of them deeply ideological.

    The ‘neo-liberal’ aspect of policy has been to increase the role of markets in industries traditionally traded on a commercial basis, but this occurred alongside increased regulation of worker safety and additional consumer protection.

    ‘Neo-liberalism’ has pretty much failed on overall size of government issues; there is a steady upwards trend in spending on welfare and social services, so social democracy is triumphant. ‘Neoliberal’ influences have at most helped trim the growth rate, and helped point out the more pathological effects of welfare, but this critique of the welfare state long predates the rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s.

  9. Jacques Chester says:

    Take what you said about computer science. What youre basically saying is that theres more than one way to skin a cat. In other words programming has a personality factor attached as two programmers could write a program in different ways that does the same thing. Thats what youre essentially saying , right?

    Not as such. My point is that it’s easier to think up complex systems than it is to be sure they’re correct. A chain of logic can be buggy and I assert that any sufficiently large body of logical implications — an ideology, for instance — contains many bugs. We know from computer science that even really obvious bugs can lie in plain sight for decades before they are uncovered. We also know that bugfixes can cause new bugs.

    So insofar as ideologies are an exercise in building sky castles, they, like software, are inevitably flawed.

    So they must be tested, pounded, attacked, kicked, stretched, tortured, reviewed, re-reviewed, disassembled, proved, disproved, tested, mangled and just plain distrusted. In theory you can have a perfect piece of software; however experience demonstrates that you get provability or useful features — but not both.

  10. JC says:

    But you can’t do that as easily in the political sphere, Jacques. You have to take your best shot and if it doesn’t work you end up being hosed by the opposition.

  11. FDB says:

    Those of us not in government can’t really use that excuse for being intellectually lazy though JC.

  12. JC says:

    We don’t have a lab to test economic ideas, FDB. We have economic history which i think is a vital part of economics no longer considered to be as important as it once was in terms of teaching.

    What do you suggest?

    Here’s my mine.

    I think Jacques is making an honest error in using computer programming as an example. We all tolerate a certain amount of problems in computer programming that we don’t in other areas. Look at how we seem to tolerate the bugs in Microtheft’s programs.

    Compare that to the toleration we show in other areas.

    I think we should allow a little more experimentation in our political process by trial testing ideas. Maybe Gillard’s new ed policies should be trial tested and if they fail not use that against her. But what do you think the chances are?

  13. FDB says:

    “I think Jacques is making an honest error in using computer programming as an example. We all tolerate a certain amount of problems in computer programming that we dont in other areas. Look at how we seem to tolerate the bugs in Microthefts programs.

    Compare that to the toleration we show in other areas.”

    I think you’re missing the point of his post, and getting caught up on an example given in comments, the point of which you are also missing.

    But I’ll leave it to Jacques to clear it up if he so wishes.

  14. FDB says:

    My suggestion, for what it’s worth, is that we try our best to disentangle (where possible) our selves, our ontology, our epistemology and whatever objective reality we can get our flailing hooks into. Basically as per Jacques’ last para.

  15. Jacques Chester says:

    I think Jacques is making an honest error in using computer programming as an example. We all tolerate a certain amount of problems in computer programming that we dont in other areas. Look at how we seem to tolerate the bugs in Microthefts programs.

    FDB is right — I haven’t communicated my point. I’m not speaking in the sense of “oh, it’s just software, bugs happen”; rather, “logical systems behave analogously, software is a logical system, software has bugs, analogously other logical systems have bugs”.

    I mean at the base level of assembling individual AND and OR gates, software is brutally deterministic and incredibly simplistic. Yet it very quickly spirals into impossible complexity as soon as we try to do anything useful. While in theory we could explain and understand every single thing occurring in a modern software codebase, in practice it is utterly impossible. Most of the important advances in software are discovering new ways to manage complexity.

    Enter ideologies. Like software they start with very simple first principles. Then come the next layer of implications. Then the next. Suddenly you’re eyeballing the ragged edge where the theory interfaces with reality and it doesn’t quite match up. Where’s the problem? Is it at this level? Is it in our tools? Assumptions? Methods? Is there some fundamental mistake we’ve made 100,000 lines ago? Then, blam, welcome to bug-hunting in large systems.

    My argument is that this is not unique to software, rather that software is the first field where it turns up so quickly and visibly, simply because its very flexibility makes software attractive to change and expansion. Then you’re a dozen orders of magnitude from ANDs and ORs and things are nearly incomprehensible.

  16. JC says:

    FDB says I’m missing the point. You seem to agree with him, Jacques. I’m not sure I am though.

    You analogize software in your example and correctly assert that software is similar to ideology in terms of ground up complexities. Fair enough. I never really had much of a problem with that.

    However we tolerate the complexity in software more so than we do in other areas or at least I think we do.

    I also said that you can end up being paralyzed with confusion when you try to take too many complexities into account which seems to be the case when we’re seeing forms of ideology practiced in the political sphere.

    Do we tolerate it in the political sphere? How long was Workchoices allowed to be tested and tried before people felt threatened and gave up with a burning desire to punish the government? About a new York minute?

    Two contrasted examples of someone going with his basic ideology in the political sphere and one who is generally considered to be a failure simply because he was paralyzed by complexity are:

    Carter was possibly the most intelligent man ever to operate from the oval office and was a failed presidency. Reagan was possibly of middling Prez intelligence, very ideological and was considered a success by and large.

    Too Complexity can kill you figuratively speaking.

    Another example:

    In the commercial world you also hear the adage of keeping things simple. This doesn’t mean you dumb things down. however there is a beauty bringing complex issues down to basic language. Buffet can do it.

  17. FDB says:

    JC – I wasn’t meaning to imply, contra the level of snark I frequently send your way, that you’re way off or anything. I just got (and still get) the feeling that you and Jacques are talking past each other. He’s making a philosophical/theoretical point using a reasonably concrete example, while you keep wanting to take things back to practical application of policy.

    One could take his (now even better-made) point about ideological systems suffering unforeseen structural problems at higher levels of complexity, without invoking the realities of public decision-making. Unless you truly believe your own ideology to be perfect and complete, you should be able to see examples of what he’s talking about all around you.

    And what’s more if you DO believe your own ideology to be perfect and complete, you’re probably simply wrong.

  18. Ingolf says:

    JC, chance also plays a pretty big role in how politicians end up being judged. RR was lucky enough to ascend to the throne when things were primed for an upswing after about a decade in the dumpster. Bill Clinton (and Howard, for that matter) shared in similar good fortune. Still, as you say, Carter’s inclination to micromanage was something of a fatal flaw.

    As for keeping things simple, isn’t the great virtue of the classical liberal position that it allows and, where necessary, encourages spontaneous order to unfold? Given a basic framework of laws and mores, the distributed intelligence that results constantly works to repair its own bugs.

  19. JC says:

    You said it well , ingolf. Great points.

  20. pedro says:

    JC, you seemed concerned that we don’t give the pollies time to learn from their mistakes.

    “I think we should allow a little more experimentation in our political process by trial testing ideas. Maybe Gillards new ed policies should be trial tested and if they fail not use that against her. But what do you think the chances are?”

    Good idea, but it begs the question of whether Gillard or any other pollie is likely to admit a big mistake. Isn’t the history of failed programs that the failure leads to demands for even more of the same? Certainly in welfare and public education.

    “Were all stuck inside these rather dodgy meat machines; it can be difficult to disentangle ourselves, our beliefs, and the probability that theres an objective reality separate from either.”

    Too true. Ingolf is correct about classical liberalism. Nothing will be perfect so the goal is to find the least bad on average. However, social democracy is intended to result in different outcomes from classical liberalism and is better at achieving those goals. A lot of political debate is allegedly about means rather than ends, but I don’t think it really is true that the major players intend the same ends.

  21. Ingolf says:

    Thanks, JC.

    Pedro, if I’ve understood you correctly, I think I pretty much agree with all of your comment. Still, even though the ends may often be different, the central tenets of classical liberalism (in particular its trust in spontaneous order) can probably still provide useful guidance as to how state interventions should be structured so as to be most effective.

  22. FDB says:

    “Still, even though the ends may often be different, the central tenets of classical liberalism (in particular its trust in spontaneous order) can probably still provide useful guidance as to how state interventions should be structured so as to be most effective.”

    Excellent illustration of Jacques’ point here. Trust in spontaneous order is indeed a useful thing to apply sparingly as a guiding principle, while if you examine it closely as a fundamental principle (and try to apply it as your main principle in policy) it is worse than useless. What was spontaneous becomes quickly entrenched, embedded and defended in any real system. Et voila – feudalism!

  23. John Hasenkam says:

    Trust in spontaneous order is indeed a useful thing to apply sparingly as a guiding principle, while if you examine it closely as a fundamental principle (and try to apply it as your main principle in policy) it is worse than useless. What was spontaneous becomes quickly entrenched, embedded and defended in any real system. Et voila –

    Trust in spontaneous order was the assumption of uniformitarianism which appears to have influenced A. Smith’s ideas about the Invisible Hand. It is wrong, open systems do not by default move towards equilibrium. It is surprising though how frequently one finds this assumption lurking in the backwaters of our minds. For example, many people still think biological processes are striving towards equilibrium, the term being “homeostasis”. Wrong again, biological processes are typically highly dynamic and moving through stages of activity. In fact if this isn’t happening, as in cell senescence, chances are death is on the way.

    As for the Invisible Hand I only have this to say: My Invisible Hand is better than your Imaginary Friend.

  24. pedro says:

    JH, I don’t think too many classical economists think that equilibrium is ever approached and I expect they same goes for evolutionary biologists. The scene always changes around you. The point about spontaeous order would be better made by saying that people tend to be self-organising. The liberal market system requires a particular environment consisting of property rights, contracts and rule of law. But no market will ever be in equillibrium because products and processes are constantly evolving.

    I think Ingolf’s point is that market processes are best at delivering productivity, innovation and, most of all, customer satisfaction, and therefore should be preferred where the market process is able to achieve the ends sought. Now, a tax and transfer system is not necessarily incompatible with the market working as expected. As long you the tax is not too high. So it is unproductive to attack the market for not delivering “distributional equity” because you can let the market operate and then tax and transfer (with in limits). However, if you want total equality of incomes then the tax regime required would kill market processes by destroying the incentive to bother. The complete alternative to the market is socialism and it obvviously does not work. Thus social democracy.

    Obviously some people have problems with the market because they do not like the outcome of freely agreed deals. thus labour market regulation. I think that the government should ditch awards and minimum wages and use the tax and transfer system to put an effective floor under incomes.

  25. pedro says:

    FDB, feudalism was not a product of spontaneous order. I think swords were involved. The church probably helped a bit too.

  26. Ingolf says:

    Thanks, Pedro. Nicely argued.

  27. John Hasenkam says:

    Pedro,

    I am all in favour of market based economies but some demonstrate an inordinate faith in the same. Yes, I have known people who even advocate the market is the best determinant of justice. I regard this as a category error. Markets are fine but justice is something else altogether. the free market model seems to make the error of assuming that people won’t consciously interfere with market processes. That is where real big problems emerge. We need to protect against this. Most countries recognise this problem and try to address it.

  28. pedro says:

    FDB, I will refine that. I guess feudalism is an example of spontaneous order, but in a social environment where swordsmen were currency and the poor old serfs had no say. Not really an agrument against liberalism though.

    Ultimately it’s a moral question. What claim does A have on the talent, effort and/or prudence of B?

  29. FDB says:

    “What claim does A have on the talent, effort and/or prudence of B?”

    For the sake of argument, if A has put in place (using swords) the conditions under which B is protected from the tyranny of C (the guy with all the other swords), then such a claim might be defensible. Oh wait, that’s government.

  30. pedro says:

    JH, what does determine Justice? Surely if you discount god then justice becomes a convention and thus the will of the majority. Now I know that is superficial and I believe we innately feel that some concepts of justice are “right”.

    But there are problems like distinguishing bewtween criminal justice, where I think it safe to say there will be a strong majority on right and wrong, and social justice, which so often seems a licence for envy and is certainy a very different argument. It is easy to say my punching you unprovoked is injust, but saying I am unjust for not giving you money when you have less is a whole different kettle of fish.

    As for inordinate faith in markets, you can only judge the sensibility of that faith by comparing is to the alternatives. I expect some people have silly expectations for what the market can achieve. but that does not matter if the alternatives will be worse than the market anyway.

  31. pedro says:

    OK, FDB, you’ve got me. I’ll vote for the defence budget. But you know that was not my argument.

    What if A hangs around the beach surfing and smoking cones, knocking back work easily available. I know that is possible. I did it back in the day.

  32. FDB says:

    What if A the surfer gets nothing from A the tax-collector, and goes and steals B’s plasma screen or gets a sword-handling job from C?

    Looky here! We’ve got ourselves a dilemma ain’t either of our ideologies goin’ fix!

  33. NPOV says:

    Pedro, and how does having god in the picture help? How are we supposed to determine what the correct way of divining god’s intentions are?

  34. NPOV says:

    (hmm, either that should be “is” not “are”, or “…what IS the correct way…”)

  35. pedro says:

    That’s a different question NPOV. I simply said that absent a god justice is a convention, but obviously you could have a god who does not impose a conception of justice. All I meant to do was recognise that many people take their concepts of justice from the religious beliefs. I suppose that if you were sure there is a god it would mean you are equally sure about god’s plan etc. And so it seems when one looks at believers.

  36. NPOV says:

    Ok, but I’d argue that even with a god, justice is just as much a convention. But when you use the phrase “just a convention”, it implies it’s somewhat arbitrary and could easily be quite different and society would get on fine. But I don’t believe that, for example, there’s ever been a successful society where murder was not a punishable offense (although of course what types of killings classify as murder is a more variable concept).

  37. Ingolf says:

    I don’t get the impression Pedro would disagree with you on that, NPOV. He did after all add “Now I know that is superficial and I believe we innately feel that some concepts of justice are right.”

    As for the grammatical question (although I suspect you’re just being humorous in posing it), how about leaving out both the “what” and the “are”? Hence, “How are we supposed to determine the correct way of divining gods intentions?”.

  38. pedro says:

    Exactly Ingolf. Ritual sacrifice looks like murder to us, but obviously does not fit our definition of a criminal act. A good example of different conventions is that some cultures recognise private property and some have markedly different ideas, or so we are told about Aboriginal culture.

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