All posts by Aeon J. Skoble

Structural Racism and Individual Choice

A story this week in the New York Times about the Minneapolis school district raised some interesting questions about racism, liberalism, and individualism.  The story explains how Minneapolis school officials “assigned families to new school zones, redrawing boundaries to take socioeconomic diversity — and as a consequence, racial diversity — into account.”  This is in response to legitimate concerns that Minneapolis, described in the story as “among the most segregated school districts in the country,” has tangible gaps in academic performance by race.  “Research shows that de facto school segregation is one major reason that America’s education system is so unequal, and that racially and socioeconomically diverse schools can benefit all students.” 

The article elaborates on the problem: “Research has shown that integration can deliver benefits for all children.  For example, Black children exposed to desegregation after Brown v. Board of Education experienced higher educational achievement, higher annual earnings as adults, a lower likelihood of incarceration and better health outcomes, according to longitudinal work by the economist Rucker Johnson of the University of California, Berkeley. The gains came at no cost to the educational achievement of white students.  Other research has documented how racially and economically diverse schools can benefit all students, including white children, by reducing biases and promoting skills like critical thinking.  Racially segregated schools, on the other hand, are associated with larger gaps in student performance, because they tend to concentrate students of color in high poverty environments, according to a recent paper analyzing all public school districts.”

So the plan is to increase integration, not necessarily by bussing black students to predominantly white schools, but by bussing white students to predominantly black schools.  Predictably, not every family is enthusiastic about this.  But what I found interesting about the story is that it highlights the ways in which a structure can have outcomes that are racist even if individual actors within that structure aren’t racists.   Many people bristle at the terms “structural racism” or “institutional racism” because they take them to imply that individual actors are racists.  People who use these terms typically don’t mean to imply this (though some do), but this distinction can get lost in the shuffle.  One specific anecdote in the article is helpful here.

Heather Wulfsberg, of Minnetonka, had her daughter reassigned to North High School.  She appealed this decision, but let’s see why.  Wulfsberg, “who is white, had intended to send her daughter, Isabella, 14, to Southwest High, a racially diverse but majority white public school that is a 10-minute bus ride from their home.  The school offers an international baccalaureate program, as well as Japanese, which Isabella studied in middle school. Isabella’s older brother, 18, is a senior there, and Ms. Wulfsberg envisioned her children attending together, her son helping Isabella navigate freshman year. So Ms. Wulfsberg appealed the reassignment to North, citing her son’s attendance at Southwest, and her daughter’s interest in Japanese. (North offers one language, Spanish.)  She was also concerned about transportation. There was no direct bus, and Isabella’s commute could take up to 55 minutes. She would also have to walk from the bus stop to school through an area where frequent gun shots are a problem.”

If Wulfsberg had said something like “I can’t bear the thought of my daughter going to a majority-black school,” it would be clear these are unsupportable reasons.  But the preceding paragraph gives all perfectly legitimate reasons.  Isabella can’t continue learning her language.  She would spend 2 hours a day on the bus.  Is it reasonable to force Heather to do that to Isabella?  I don’t see that it is.  And Heather didn’t either, so Isabella is going to private school.  On the community Facebook page, Heather was called a racist.  ““They were like, ‘Your cover is, you want academics for your kids, and underneath this all, you really are racist,’” she recalled. “It’s a very scary feeling to do a self-examination of yourself and think, ‘Am I?’”  She paused, reflecting. “But I don’t believe I am. I really don’t.””

I have no idea whether she is or not, but she certainly can’t be called a racist for the reasons given here.  So in this case, the parents in the community Facebook group were in fact using something about structural racism as a personal accusation, precisely what the coining of the term was meant to avoid.

It’s possible of course that both (a) the evolution of American public schooling has been heavily influenced by racism and yields outcomes that are demonstrably unequal and (b) parents like Heather aren’t motivated by racism at all.  But then we’re stuck with a conundrum: what’s the fix for (a)?  If the answer is “Isabella’s good must be sacrificed for the greater good of helping ameliorate racial inequality in schools,” you’re certainly in for rough time getting Heather to agree.  Another approach might be systemic: since the outcome problems are systemic, it wouldn’t be crazy to think the solution would be systemic as well.  The anarchist response “don’t have public schools at all” is probably correct, but politically unfeasible.  But even if we have public schools, there’s no reason they have to be structured the way they are.  One reason for the disparity in schools is that in most districts, local property taxes pay for the schools, so wealthier suburbs have better schools than poorer areas (this affects poor white areas too of course).  So maybe don’t tie school funding to local property taxes.  Or maybe don’t have school districts be drawn like Checkpoint Charlie.   Any rigidly drawn district would have some families living at its fringes – why prohibit those kids from attending school in the next district?  The classic pro-choice argument is: figure out what the state government spends per pupil, and then give that money to the families to spend on whichever school they think is best, public or private.  This would eliminate geography-based funding discrepancies.   We address the problem of people not being able to afford food not by having state-run farms and grocery stores, but by giving people money for food.  Why not give them money for school?

Slogans and Wars

Activists like slogans, and some slogans are accurate, but philosophical positions are often too nuanced to be captured in a bumper-sticker-length slogan.   So in several recent online discussions in which I’ve attempted to explain why Israel is justified in responding to attacks by Hamas, I’ve encountered people saying that because they’re libertarian, they are anti-war, and therefore I must be a bad libertarian.  That’s wrong, and one reason it goes wrong has to do philosophy’s resistance to bumper-sticker sloganeering.

To begin with, saying “war is unjust” is some kind of category error, along the lines of saying “physical force is unjust.”  Wait, the bumper-sticker objects, I thought libertarians were opposed to physical force.  This move elides the moral significance of the distinction between the use of force in aggression and the use of force in defense.  If Bob starts hitting Bill and Bill hits Bob back, they’re both using physical force.  But that doesn’t make them morally equivalent, and this shows why it’s a conceptual mistake to say that “hitting is unjust”: if Bob’s hitting is unjust (aggression), then Bill’s hitting is just (defense).   “Hitting” alone isn’t just or unjust, until we know who is committing aggression, the initiation of force, to violate someone’s rights, and who is using force defensively, to protect their rights.  Libertarianism isn’t about hitting, it’s about rights.  Similarly, saying “war is unjust” misses the important distinction between aggression and defense.  If Sylvania invades Freedonia, say because the former wants to annex the latter to obtain raw materials, Sylvania’s action is unjust.  But that implies that Freedonia’s use of arms to repel the unjust invasion is just.  So the question “is this war just?” is poorly formed.  It’s unjust for the one to have attacked, and (therefore!) just for the other to respond.

Of course, there are complicating variables, so it’s sometimes harder than it first appears to assess justice.  (See my “War and Liberty,” Reason Papers 26, Spring 2006; can’t hyperlink for some reason but it is online.)  But the point I’m making here is that the slogan doesn’t even come close to capturing the variables.   At this point in the argument, someone objects that because there may be harm to innocents, the analogy from Bob and Bill to Sylvania and Freedonia doesn’t work.  But it’s not that the analogy doesn’t work, it’s that there are other factors to be added to the evaluation.  The analogy works in skeletal form – an unjust aggression may be justly opposed – but it’s true that military action carries increased risk of harm to innocents.  This isn’t a particularly novel observation, though, nor is it something that only a libertarian would think of.  It’s been a principle of ethical theory about warfare for centuries.  So it’s true that assessing the morality of a conflict has to involve the degree to which both parties take care to minimize harm to noncombatants.  But here too, the moral assessment is not unitary: if Sylvania is indiscriminate in attacking but Freedonia avoids targeting civilians, we’d say “Sylvania is fighting unjustly” and also “Freedonia is fighting justly.”

Another objection that is largely a red herring is to note that it’s states that go to war, and the fighting is thus subsidized by involuntarily-collected taxes.  I certainly agree that states shouldn’t do this.   But not everything that a state does is illegitimate per se.  There are state activities that would be morally legitimate if not done by the state, so it’s only that the state is doing them that makes them bad.  If it’s already bad, then it’s bad for the state to do it (for example, private citizens owning slaves is morally wrong, so for the state to enslave people is also wrong).  But if it’s morally permissible to do a thing, then the wrongness of the state doing it comes from libertarian objections about the nature of state activity.  For example, the occupation of firefighter is morally legitimate, so to complain about state-run fire departments is not to object to firefighting per se, but to the scope of state power.  (See also: teaching.)  So the fact that states engage in macro-level self defense is not wrong because defending yourself is wrong, but because of some theory about the proper scope of state power.  But while we’re arguing about the proper theory of the scope of state power, firefighters are doing a good thing, not a bad thing, when they go put out fires.  And Freedonia’s army is doing a good thing, not a bad thing, when it  repels Sylvania’s invasion.

Sylvania, of course, is doing something wrong: invading Freedonia.  This aggression would be wrong even if it were some non-state entity – it is just like Bob’s attack on Bill.  Bob is wrong to attack Bill.  Sylvania is wrong to invade Freedonia.  Bill is right to fight back; Freedonia is right to fight back.

Now to the extent that the “I’m anti-war” sloganeering is useful, it’s going to be useful in places like Sylvania: making the argument that aggression is unjust, that launching a war is wasteful of resources, that attacks like this are callous about human life.  Libertarians in Sylvania ought to make it clear to their leaders that they oppose the war.  But Freedonians, even libertarian Freedonians, are not bound to say “we should stop fighting”; they have the right to defend themselves.  Remember, just because Bill is a peace-loving person doesn’t mean Bob won’t attack him.  Similarly, a society that eschews aggression may nevertheless find itself attacked.  Some of the people I’ve argued with about this will point out the number of times the US has engaged in warfare that couldn’t plausibly be described as self-defense, as if this were some sort of “gotcha” moment that proves I’m bad at libertarianing.  But this is to confuse history and philosophy.  I’m perfectly aware that the US has acted badly in the past.  But that doesn’t imply that it’s always in the wrong, and more to the point, it doesn’t disprove the normative argument about the legitimacy of self-defense.   So we often end up with something like:
Me: People have a right to defend themselves when attacked.
Other person: Tommy is an aggressive bully.  Carl often starts fights.
Me: ???

Maybe this would fit on a bumper sticker: We should oppose starting wars, but we are not obligated to eschew self-defense.

Thinking about Covid Vaccine Distribution

Although the ideal is to get everyone vaccinated, there currently are not enough doses, so while they’re making more, we get to argue about who should receive the doses that already exist.  Different suggestions imply something about underlying ethical principles and intuitions.  It seems mostly uncontroversial that health care workers ought to be vaccinated first.  If you can remember back to when we used to go places on airplanes, recall the safety announcements: please make sure your oxygen mask is secure before helping others.  The logic here is impeccable, if slightly counter-intuitive.   Even if you feel strongly that you need to tend to the needs of others above your own, if you pass out from oxygen deprivation, you can’t help anyone, plus you’re dead too, so that’s the wrong answer.  Securing your own oxygen first is thus not merely self-interested, it’s also the necessary condition for your helping others.  This is allegorical for lots of things, but particularly on-point here: if we’re worried about a global pandemic, it’ll just make things even worse if the health care workers get sick.  If they get sick, who will take care of me?  So it makes good sense for them to vaccinated first.  And of course we wouldn’t have this problem if there were more doses available. So people who work in labs that study and create the virus seem like they ought to receive priority as well.

After that, it’s less obvious.   Some considerations pro and con for various candidates:
The Elderly
Pro: they’re more at risk of serious complications and death
Con: they’re also more at risk of dying of other things
The Young
Pro: they’re more likely to violate social distancing protocols and participate in spreader activity. 
Con: they’re less vulnerable to serious complications and death.
Note that the analysis of old-vs-young folds in on itself.  It’s not the 80-somethings who are going to bars, nail salons, gyms, frat parties, the mall.  So if the main concern is spreader activity, that’s an argument for vaccinating younger people, but if the main concern is harmful consequences of actually getting the virus, that looks more like an argument for vaccinating the elderly.

Front-Line Workers – no one has a precise definition for this, but it seems to be a way to categorize people like the grocery store workers and bus drivers.  The argument here is that we are all dependent of the continued functioning of things like supermarkets and transportation systems, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to make sure they’re healthy.  But how about:
Teachers – since the schools are closed, not only are students suffering from suboptimal education, but parents of school-age kids have had their work disrupted, and in many cases were obliged to stop working entirely.  And indeed, many heath care workers and people in the “front-line” category are parents of school-age children, so it’s in everyone’s best interests to reopen the schools as soon as possible.
The counter-argument to both of those is that there’s no precise and uncontroversial way to prioritize how important one job is relative to another. 

What about political leaders?  If politicians get sick, how will we ever manage as a nation? Maybe the sarcasm of that remark doesn’t translate into writing, but seriously, one argument in favor of vaccinating political leaders is that it might mitigate the sort of conspiracy-theory resistance to vaccination.  While I don’t think politicians deserve greater protection from the virus, there’s a consequentialist argument for them being vaccinated publicly, if it helps disabuse people of irrational fears.

Another dilemma arises from the suggestion that even though one is supposed to get two doses, maybe we could trade off instantly doubling the supply for mitigated effectiveness.  That’s a different sort of approach to thinking about who gets it.  That seems like a tradeoff that, in principle, we could evaluate empirically, but in reality will take more time than we have.  So proponents of either are gambling, to some extent.  If two people have headaches, and there is only one 500-mg Tylenol in the house, one way to go would be to have one person take it, reducing the total number of headaches by half, but the other way to go would to break it in half and give each person 250 mg.  That seems “more fair” in one sense, but would this result in two people with slightly-improved headaches, or two people who still have headaches?  If it’s the latter, that means the medicine has been wasted.  Again, before moral reasoning can be applied, we’d need some empirics.

So, it looks like the right order of priority is:
Health care workers
Lab scientists and workers who study and create the vaccine
Philosophers (because the rest of the dilemmas are still not obvious)

I, Lockdown

There’s tons of online debate about whether lockdowns are helpful to fight the pandemic.  I have no idea whether they’d be helpful or not, but I suspect that they’re impossible anyway.  In his essay “I, Pencil,” Leonard Read famously highlights the vast interconnectedness of millions of people that lies behind seemingly-mundane phenomena like 20-cent pencils at Staples.  Echoing more academic treatment of similar themes in Hayek and Simmel and others, Read reminds us in laymen’s terms just how complex these networks are: not only do you need someone cutting down cedar trees, you need someone making saws and work boots and rope and chains; then you need trucks to transport the lumber to a mill, which means truck drivers, and people who manufacture trucks, and fuel for the trucks, which means people who drill for oil, and refine the oil, and all these people need coffee, which means coffee growers, exporters, importers, roasters, and so on.  I have been reminded of this fundamental lesson several times during the pandemic as pundits would occasionally say things like “if we could just shut everything down for a few weeks, we could stop the spread.”  But the problem is not that people are too selfish or stupid to stay home (though some are, to be sure), it’s that the very idea of “shut everything down” is a misnomer at best; at worst a deliberate red herring.

The Read-ian reason why we can’t actually “shut everything down” is that there are so many exceptions, each of which entails a vast web of corollaries.  Thinking about it just for a moment, look how deep it gets.  Don’t worry about whether you think any of these is essential; what matters for the exercise is that most people would.

A. Soldiers

B. Cops

C. Firefighters

D.  EMTs/Ambulance drivers

E.  All of these need support staff, road maintenance, mechanical and fuel supply workers, etc.

F.  All people who work in hospitals, including but not only health care workers

G. E again, for the people in F

H. Lawyers and judges and corrections officers

I. E again, for the people in H

J. child care workers for the people in A-I

K. Grocery store workers

L. The people who make/grow the food

M. The people who transport the food from L to K

N. E and J for people in K-M

O. That means we’ll need public transportation operators, and E and J for them also

P. Journalists, broadly construed to include people who make newspapers, tv, radio

Q. Power supply workers

R. So, even more E and J

And so on.  This exposes the fundamental fallacy in saying “shut it all down.”  We couldn’t if we tried.  That’s not to say, of course, that we shouldn’t practice social distancing until the pandemic is over.  But an actual shutdown, like a pencil, is something no one actually knows how to make.

What Art Scolds, Whether Conservative or Woke, Have in Common

I had a revelation this weekend, finally understanding something about what the woke left has in common with conservatives.  The revelation had to do with Plato and Aristotle, which won’t surprise people who know me well, but will require some explanation.

The insight was sparked by a long Facebook discussion about the controversy surrounding the French film Mignonnes, released on Netflix as Cuties.  The film’s promotional material featured 11-year-old girls dressed in skimpy dance outfits, and a clip circulating on the internet showing their dance routine was decidedly age-inappropriate, filled with twerking and assorted other sexually-suggestive moves.  Conservatives on social media were apoplectic about the exploitative oversexualization of young girls, calling for Netflix and the filmmaker Maïmouna Doucouré to be cancelled, and in some cases brought up on charges of child pornography.  They seemed to be imagining defenses of the film involving the idea that girls were “empowered” by owning their sexuality, though I actually didn’t see anyone advancing that argument in defense of the film.  The defenses I did see were mostly along the lines of  “that’s a three-minute clip, maybe the film isn’t as smutty as it seems.”  But the response to that was “anyone defending this trash is defending sexual exploitation of children.  You should be ashamed of yourselves.”

That’s a familiar script: woke critics of films like 16 Candles or 48 Hours criticize those films for sexist and racist tropes, and respond to any defense of the films with “you’re defending a racist film, you should be ashamed of yourselves.”  You see the parallels: conservatives accuse the defenders of Cuties of being soft on pedophilic exploitation of children, and the left accuses defenders of 16 Candles and 48 Hours of being soft on sexism and racism.   But are the defenders of those films defending the sexism or the racism?  Mostly no; they’re pointing towards some kind of contextualiztion, or differentiating between depicting an attitude and endorsing an attitude.  Nick Nolte’s character Cates calls Eddie Murphy’s character Hammond the N-word, for example, yet one of the key payoffs of the film is when Cates apologizes to Hammond for doing that, and upbraids his lieutenant for doing it, defending Hammond as smarter and braver than anyone else in the precinct.  So: 1, calling someone the N-word is bad.  2, a clip from a movie where someone does that looks bad.  But 3, the full context of the film may reveal that the story shows that doing it is wrong.   Nevertheless, the critics maintain, it’s bad to even show characters talking like that because it “normalizes” the behavior, influencing  viewers to approve.

Similarly, conservative critics of Cuties point out that there’s something wrong with a society that pushes young girls to embrace a hyper-sexualization, especially at a too-young age.  But is the filmmaker saying “no, it’s fine if 11-year-old girls dance in a sexually suggestive way”?   No. Turns out the filmmaker, Maïmouna Doucouré, an émigré to France from Senegal, agrees with the conservatives that there’s something wrong with a society that pushes young girls to embrace a hyper-sexualization, especially at a too-young age.  She says (I haven’t seen it, but several reviewers confirm this) that the film shows the young protagonist uncomfortably pressured into embracing this oversexualization, and rejecting it.  Nevertheless, the critics maintain, it’s bad to even show characters dancing like that because it “normalizes” the behavior, influencing  viewers to approve.

What finally hit me this weekend was the realization that what the woke left and the conservatives have in common is that their view of art is Platonic, and they both oppose an Aristotelian approach.  On Plato’s view, certain artistic representations should not be allowed, as their very existence can have a baleful influence on impressionable minds.  To be sure, Plato gets a bad rap from people who overstate and caricature his view to imply that all artistic representation is bad – he can’t literally mean that no representative art can be allowed, since he himself expresses his theories in artistic representations.  But he does seem worried that art, because of its ability to communicate in a way that bypasses the intellect, can give people bad ideas.  By even depicting bad things, he thought, people might get the wrong idea – what they call today “normalizing.”

Aristotle’s theory was a little more nuanced.  He’s aware of art’s ability to influence, but he argues that it’s not depiction that is of chief importance, but portrayal.  I’m oversimplifying a bit here, but basically the artist can depict good people or things or bad people or things, and can portray them as good or bad, or leading to good or bad outcomes.  If a good thing is made to look good, or a bad thing is made to look bad, that’s morally correct.  There’s nothing wrong with depicting vice provided that the vicious do not flourish as a result of vice. The essence of tragedy, conversely, is when a basically good person meets a bad end due to some weakness or character flaw.   What would be morally bad, on this theory, would be when the artist makes the noble appear base or the subject of mockery, or makes the vicious flourish.  So a story about a racist character isn’t per se bad – if the character learns why racism is bad and rejects it, the story is morally edifying. 

American History X is a good illustration.  The film shows us vile, racist invective (and violence) from a neo-Nazi character.  But the point of the film isn’t to glorify these attitudes, it’s to condemn them.  The protagonist comes to renounce hate and try to redeem himself, but is (tragically) too late to save his brother.   Similarly, Cuties shows us lewd and age-inappropriate dancing from 11-year-olds, but the point of the film isn’t to glorify pre-pubsescent twerking, it’s to condemn a culture that makes young girls think they should sexualize themselves to get ahead.  A Platonist would respond to both by saying “these portrayals are made with good craftsmanship, therefore they’re dangerous, because people might get the wrong idea and emulate what they’ve seen portrayed.”  But an Aristotelian would say “these bad things are in fact being portrayed as bad, so no sensible person would draw the wrong lesson here.”  Although the racist speeches in American History X really are the sorts of things neo-Nazis say, and are delivered credibly and passionately by a talented actor, it’s plain that the filmmaker sees these as bad ideas, as indeed does the protagonist by the end of the film.  The film doesn’t “normalize” neo-Nazis.  No sensible viewer would see this film and think “yes, I should become a Nazi.”   John Hinkley seemed to be have been “inspired” to attempt to assassinate President Reagan by the 1976 film Taxi Driver, though most sane people would have no trouble recognizing character Travis Bickle as someone who is very disturbed and not the object of emulation.  In Cuties, the dance routine is indeed disturbing (a clip of that has been circulating on the internet), but it’s portrayed as disturbing in the film.  The in-film audience watching the dance is not cheering.  They look shocked and saddened and disapproving –  the same response as critics of the film.  And the protagonist realizes she shouldn’t act that way. 

So the woke critics of popular culture on the left, and the conservative critics who have been calling to jail the CEO of Netflix, share in common a Platonism about art that fails to adequately differentiate depiction and endorsement.   But Aristotle was right.  A film can depict bad people and bad things and still be a morally edifying film, if the filmmaker portrays them that way.  To be sure, some artists portray bad things in such a way as to glorify them or endorse them.  Criticizing those is one thing, but criticizing a film merely for depicting them is to have a mistaken conception of how art works.   

I should add that some of my interlocutors argued that unlike fictional portrayals of racism or violence, Cuties actually does have young girls engaged in age-inappropriate dancing, namely the child actors portraying the dance team.  That’s true of course: Joe Pesci was just pretending to shoot Michael Imperioli in the foot, whereas these young actors really are twerking.  But that argument proves too much: this would imply that child actors couldn’t do anything that would inappropriate to do in real life.  Child actors have portrayed victims of traumatizing crimes, as murderers themselves, as prostitutes, thieves, drug users, con artists.  Presumably, as actors, they’re clear about the distinction between real life and acting, and their parents support their budding careers.  The actors in Cuties, having read the entire script, would surely have seen that the filmmaker’s point is not that it’s awesome to have young girls oversexualized, but that it’s sad and dangerous.  Meanwhile, of course, there really are dance competitions for tweens that feature these age-inappropriate oversexualizations.  The difference between those young girls and the actors in Cuties is that the latter know it’s a portrayal of something bad.

The Platonic view has it that art has this tremendous power to influence, but simultaneously that it doesn’t matter how the story or movie portrays things. I think that’s self-contradictory.  The Aristotelian view on the other hand, accounts for art’s power precisely in its ability to make something look good or bad. If it makes good things look good and bad things look bad, there is no cause for moral concern. The problem arises when a movie makes good things look bad or bad things look good. Trainspotting is not morally problematic, because it makes a bad thing look bad. 1776 is not morally problematic, because it makes a good thing look good. If there were a movie that made the oversexualization of tween girls look like a desirable thing, that would be a morally bad film.  But it seems as though Cuties is not that film.  I say “seems” because I haven’t seen it – just like the conservative Twitter mob calling it pedophilia.  Reviews seem to indicate the mob is wrong, but the bottom line is, these conservatives are united with their counterparts on the woke left in sticking to a Platonic view: it’s enough to know something bad is depicted to know the art is bad.  Aristotle would disagree, and, on-brand for me, I’m going with Aristotle on this one.  It matters how people and ideas are portrayed, not just that they’re there.

Reflecting on The Box

I just finished Marc Levinson’s book The Box (CE*), which traces the introduction and development of the shipping container and its impact on global trade. You might think from that description that it was quite a dull read, but actually it was fascinating. (Steve Davies has a very useful 3-minute overview here. Check it out, I’ll wait.) The story includes an interesting take on the nature of innovation – while Malcom McLean is clearly an important innovator whose role cannot be discounted, lots of other people and events are indispensable parts of the story, which, as Hayek would be happy to remind us, is vastly complex and is the result of more inputs that one might guess. Levinson notes that single-actor “a-ha!” stories stir the imagination, but tend to obscure the actual process by which change occurs. Individual insight and entrepreneurship are real, of course, but if we want to fully understand innovation, we need to know about the other inputs as well.

Levinson’s story is a great illustration of unpredictability and the difficulties in planning. The book shows how both governments and private actors made some bad mistakes along the way, and the way things are in 2021 were largely unforeseen in 1956. Not only would the people in 1956 not have been able to predict the way the shipping business would evolve, they also couldn’t have predicted the way those changes would impact manufacturing, global supply chains, urban planning, the economic impact on then-undeveloped countries.
Another thing I found useful in this book is that it’s a great illustration of the tensions between classical liberal proponents of free markets, and actual business leaders. Levinson’s story is rife with lobbying, subsidies, and regulation. The regulatory activity is an important part of the story; sometimes helping move progress along, often hampering progress or promoting malinvestment. In some cases the regulatory structure reveals the political influence of industry leaders, other times that of unions. Indeed, labor unions come off as not particularly more noble than the captains of industry, as we see them press for rules that allow for make-work and featherbedding, and to shield themselves from the disruption innovation frequently entails. But the business leaders are, in a different way, seeking protection from competition and subsidies for their experiments – the exact opposite of “laissez-faire.”

Levinson tells the story in a fair-minded way – he’s sympathetic to the dock workers who stand to lose jobs, even as he describes rules and practices that are plainly self-serving and can’t withstand rational scrutiny. Meanwhile, he’s very up-front about the way the business leaders transparently seek favorable regulatory systems, as if skillful lobbying is as much a part of business as entrepreneurship and competition. It’s a prime example of “Horwitz’s First Law of Political Economy”: no one hates capitalism more than capitalists. More precisely, in this case, they simply take it as a given that there is a regulatory apparatus, and therefore do see “competing” via lobbying for a favorable place in the regulatory regime like competing in the market. And when Levinson shows us the point of view of the legislators who are on the other end of the lobbying efforts, it’s sometimes almost comedic, as they have to juggle “protecting” the interests of shipping companies, railroads, trucking companies, manufacturers, longshoremen’s unions, the Teamsters, stevedores’ unions, and so on – all of whose interests are often at odds with each other, and with that of the general public.

Interestingly, despite all the intervention by regulators and lobbyists from both labor and business, the innovation happens, the industry evolves, and millions of people experience an increased standard of living as global poverty declines massively. So is “capitalism” the story of businesses and unions “competing” via lobbyists for special legal protections? Or is “capitalism” the word for exchanges and competition that happen without government intervention? Obviously the word gets used to mean both, although that’s oxymoronic (which is a good reason to avoid the word – a topic for another day’s blogpost). But the story of the shipping container shows that despite, if not because of, political pull and self-dealing, dynamic innovations have the power to help millions of people lead better lives, often in ways no one could have predicted.

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When Equalizers Are Thought To Be Biased

Writing in the New York Times this past Thursday, Anthony Tomassini called for ending blind auditions for orchestras, because the orchestras are not coming out diverse enough. What strikes me as odd about this is that the whole reason for blind auditions is to encourage diversity, by eliminating unconscious bias. The argument would go something like this: the orchestra is all white men, it’s highly unlikely that no women or POC are talented enough to play enough in the orchestra, therefore it’s probable that there’s bias in the selection process, but if we hold blind auditions, no one will know the gender or ethnicity of the candidate. And sure enough, while women made up around 6% of orchestras in 1970, today “women make up a third of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and they are half the New York Philharmonic.” However, black and Latino artists hover around 2%. So Tomassini suggests that we now end blind auditions in order to purposely increase POC representation in orchestras. The article considers, but is dismissive of, the idea that the best way to get more POC orchestra members is to address bias issues in school music programs, so that more POC are going to the blind auditions. Tomassini rejects this on the grounds that at the top levels, everyone is pretty much as good as everyone else, so we might as well prioritize other values such as representation.

While I suspect it’s false that there is “remarkably little difference between players at the top tier,” my point today is not to argue against Tomassini’s conclusion. I don’t have particularly strong views on how orchestras should be constructed. Rather, what motivated me was that I was reading this story on the same day that my news feed brought me yet another article arguing that the SAT is “mired in racism and classism.” In both instances, we have something that was designed to eliminate bias being castigated for being biased. In the old days, admission to elite universities was largely a matter of connections – if you were white and wealthy and attended good prep schools, you could go to an elite university. If you were female, or Jewish, or low-SES, or non-white, or a recent immigrant, it didn’t matter much if you were very smart and industrious. The “old boy” network would have still excluded you. Standardized testing was meant to undermine that bias by providing objective evidence that a woman, or a Jew, or a recent immigrant from Italy, or an African-American, could be just as smart, just as capable of dealing with college, as the WASP boys were. And sure enough, the elite institutions diversified broadly. But. It’s generally well-accepted that you can get better SAT scores if you have lots of prep coaching, which the wealthier can procure much more easily, so despite the success of standardized testing in increasing diversity, concerns remain about bias.

Now I do have slightly stronger opinions about education policy than I do about orchestra membership, and I am not convinced that the SAT is as horrible as Teen Vogue makes it out to be. But even if it is, it’s far from obvious what the solution should be. If we eliminate standardized testing, college admissions would be based on something else. High school grades? Given the great disparity in schools, this would make the problem much worse, not better. The rich kids from elite prep schools, or even just well-funded suburban public schools, will have at least as much of an edge in terms of showing good grades as they do in test coaching. What about appealing to other things, like who is on the crew team? It’s obvious that that sort of metric would be biased as well. What about the personal essay? That’s even more susceptible to coaching and prep advantages than testing. To take a page from Tomassini, we might say “well, there’s remarkably little difference between students at the top tier,” so we can select for as much diversity as we like – except in this case we don’t yet know which students are in the top tier.

What both of these stories have in common is a tension between conceptions of equality. If selection for elite institutions is based on racial/gender/SES discrimination, that’s inegalitarian. But if mechanisms for routing around bias fail to eliminate all bias, or introduce new bias, what to do? Does meritocratic egalitarianism help, or hinder, diversity along racial/gender/SES lines? I am not sure there are easy answers here. One piece of right-wing snark I saw online said of the orchestra issue “this is the civil war between white women and blacks.” The implication there seems to be that gains for women come at the expense of gains for African-Americans and vice-versa. It’s a zero-sum game in the sense that there are only so many slots in a particular orchestra (or an incoming freshman class), but how those slots are filled is a values question. What is the main desideratum? Excellence? Representation? Preservation of status quo? Inclusion? Exclusion? Not all these are mutually incompatible: When baseball was segregated, you couldn’t really claim that excellence was the main value, because the great talent of Negro League players was excluded. Promoting a value of inclusiveness aided the promotion of a value of excellence. (So too with Ivy League schools ending their prohibition of females, Jews, blacks, etc.) But different institutions might seek different values. In professional sports, you don’t have to be a native of (say) Pittsburgh to play for the Pittsburgh teams. But in international amateur competitions, the team from Finland is made up of Finns. There’s no metaphysical necessity behind one institution having one rule and the other having the other. That’s just the way those institutions developed. But clearly there’s a difference between (a) the Finnish team says “sorry, no Danes allowed” and (b) the Finnish team says “sorry, no Jews allowed, even Finnish Jews.” So some forms of discrimination are more legit than others. But that doesn’t tell us whether to abolish testing for college admissions, or blind auditions. Those institutions need to clarify – both to themselves and to their public – what their chief values are. We won’t solve the problem by just assuming that all institutions have, or even should have, the same values and purposes.



Allegory for last week

I’m thinking of writing an essay on themes of moral equality and its consequences for political theory. I’m going to argue that people are morally justified in resisting, by armed force if necessary, when agents of an oppressive, colonialist power routinely violate their rights, acting like a thuggish, occupying army rather than, as their propagandists claim, dedicated protectors of public safety. Part of the basis for this will be the idea that it’s conceptually mistaken to think that there are different classes of person, some of whom are morally better, or more capable of self-control, than others. On that (wrong) view, one would be able to justify all sorts of oppression and rights violations, but on the view I’m going to defend, all persons have equal moral worth, so there’s no good justification for, say, beating peaceful protesters, or arresting them on trumped-up charges and punishing them in kangaroo courts that are rigged to keep them down. I’ll use the fundamental moral equality premise to argue that people’s basic rights are conceptually prior to state power, and that therefore the latter is hard to justify – at a bare minimum its authority would require consent, consent that is conditional on that authority not overstepping its bounds and becoming oppressive. When power is abused, consent is withdrawn, and the power then lacks legitimacy and hence can be resisted. I would think this essay will be welcome in the current climate of protests against police brutality and mass incarceration and policies that treat whole segments of the population as second-class citizens.

I’d be mistaken, of course. In most online discussions of that essay this past week, I saw people getting it wrong in two distinct ways. One set was people who thought it sounded pretty cool, but somehow thought that it meant that the people protesting rights violations were the bad guys and that the brutal repression was justified, and that it’s fine to treat whole segments of the population as if their rights didn’t matter. Some of them actually said that whatever the agents of state power say is ipso facto right. These people say they like the essay, but have managed to miss its point entirely.

The other set was people who agreed with me that it’s bad to systematically violate rights, yet for some reason hated the essay. When I tried to ask them why they hated it, some of them accused me of endorsing the rights violations. That’s self-evidently stupid, of course, since the essay is about why those rights violations are bad. Other people said they hated the essay because not everyone takes it seriously enough. That struck me as an odd reason to dislike an essay. If it makes a sound argument that you agree with, you should like it, even if other people have ignored it. Some people said they didn’t like the essay because some other document, written by someone else, has a lot of flaws. When I said that I agree that that other document has serious problems, and indeed that its problems were largely rooted in insufficient attention to my essay, they simply reiterated in “this-one-goes-to-eleven” fashion that the other thing is flawed.

Anyway, I’m not actually not going to write this essay, first of all because people just insist on missing its point, or on getting mad at me about something other than what’s in the essay, and second of all, because it would be plagiarism, in case this allegory wasn’t obvious enough.

No True “No True Scotsman”

Say you encounter someone, Sam, saying “I dislike [movement/theory/group G], because they say [bad thing B].” Say you’re a member/proponent of G, and you not only agree that B is bad, but you’re pretty sure that’s not representative of G, and indeed inconsistent with G, so you tell Sam that, and Sam replies that some other person Bob says B, and that Bob is a G. Under what conditions can we properly affirm that Bob is in fact not a G? In logic class we encounter the “no true Scotsman” fallacy:
“No Scotsman would drink vodka”
“McGregor [a Scotsman] drinks vodka.”
“Well, no true Scotsman would drink vodka.”
The illicit rhetorical move accomplished by this fallacy is to immunize a generalization against a refutation by counterexample by smuggling in an ad hoc modification to the definition.

But is every scenario like the one I’ve described an example of “no true Scotsman” fallacy? Say Bob claims to be a Christian, but frequently lies and betrays and kills. When asked, he reports that he does not believe in the divinity of Jesus, or even in God at all. So if Sam said “I dislike Christians, that Bob guy is just awful,” and you replied “look, Bob just is not a Christian, so you’re mistaken to dislike Christianity because you don’t like Bob,” would you be committing “no true Scotsman” fallacy? I think the answer is no. You are correct; Bob, despite calling himself Christian, is not one, and Sam is wrong both to take Bob as representative of Christianity and to dislike Christians on that basis.

This comes up in political contexts, of course. Sam claims to dislike libertarianism because he read something by Bob, who also claims to be libertarian, to the effect that it’s great that the police harass racial minorities and imprison them for minor offenses, or that immigration from Mexico is a bad thing because they’re mostly criminals anyway. This is a fictional example, but I’ve engaged on social media with people who claim that libertarianism is bad because that one guy is a racist, or that one other guy opposes immigration. I generally respond by enumerating the ways in which racism (or closed-borders or protectionism or what have you) just aren’t part of libertarianism. Am I committing “no true Scotsman” fallacy? I don’t think so. I think, as in the case of Bob the non-Christian, that there has to be a way to respond to caricature and distortion that is not also committing the fallacy. As with the religion case, Bob may simply be inaccurate in his self-description of his politics.

First of all, we might distinguish between (a) people who are academics, writers, attorneys, people who think about things enough to have what could even be considered a coherent set of views, and are libertarian, from (b) right-wingers (or whatever) who like 2 planks of the LP platform and then say they’re libertarian while nevertheless disagreeing with the other 95% of it. People in (b) are not coherent, and their self-labeling just cannot be taken for what libertarianism is. To act as though that is what libertarianism is is either unserious thinking, or deliberate dishonesty.

I can see how it might look like I’m doing “no true Scotsman,” but I am not. I’m saying that just because Bob says “yeah, I’m a libertarian,” that doesn’t mean that Bob is representative of libertarianism, and it might not even mean that Bob is libertarian at all (in the same way that he’s not a Christian). Here’s how: It’s possible that people can like something about a label, or what they heard that one time, that makes them think “that’s me,” when in fact they’re so misinformed that it really isn’t. This happens all the time – for example, lots of college-age people report a self-identification as socialist. On investigation, though, this turns out to mean they favor universal health care and free college, or are worried about income inequality, not that they want to abolish private property and nationalize all industry. So they say “I’m a socialist,” but in fact are not, because they don’t even really understand these theories well enough to have a coherent view. They’ve heard that free health care is socialist, and they want free health care, so they say they’re socialists. But if you give them some Marx to read, that’s not what they want at all. So too with libertarianism. Libertarians call for lower taxes, Bob wants lower taxes, so he says he’s a libertarian. But that’s obviously wrong if he simultaneously rejects the other 95% of what libertarians say. Bob is like the free health care kid in my analogy.

Of course, there are things libertarians disagree about, and in most cases it’s unhelpful to apply “purity tests” and excommunicate people. But if labels can mean anything anyone wants them to mean, there’d be little point in doing political theory, or philosophy at all, because nothing means anything, humpty-dumpty style. Socialist, fascist, libertarian, Austrian – we have to have some usage standards about when these words are deployed or we can’t really have any discussion at all. Most people are very confused about politics in general and labels in particular, so those of us “in the business” need to help promote clarity. It’s as if people debating medical issues said “hey, I say it’s virus, so just because you call it bacteria doesn’t mean I have to agree. It’s a virus to me”; or if people debating astronomy said “look, comets and asteroids are the same thing in my book, so I don’t care what you think the distinction is.” Nothing productive would come out of discussions like that.

We not only can help out by pushing for clarity and precision, we should do so. Whatever your political position, your cause will be poorly served by imprecision and humpty-dumptyism. I think it’s fine to claim that lots of self-labeled “socialists” aren’t actually socialists, and that lots of self-labeled “libertarians” aren’t actually libertarians. People’s self-claimed labels may not be accurate, especially in a world where labels are often a substitute for philosophy. It isn’t a “no true Scotsman” fallacy to point that out.