Monday, September 11, 2006

Laughter is the Best Antiauthoritarianism

Julian Sanchez posts on Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, a book on the Rwandan genocide. He then asks if postmodernism and ironism might provide an important check on tyrrany:

Laughter is, after all, a powerful antiauthoritarian check: Egalitarian bands of foragers and hunters frequently used ridicule as a means of keeping (temporary) leaders within their proper bounds. And as Jonathan Glover notes in his fantastic book Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century, authoritarianism seems to take hold more easily in places that lack a strong tradition of political satire. You sometimes run into this odd frame that classes pomos and jihadis and Nazis together under the rubric of "nihilism." But with apologies to Walter Sobchak: Say what you will about the tenets of nihilism, at least it's not an ethos—which Salafism and fascism certainly are.

This passage reminds me of two separate ideas—and since this is my blog, I'm not going to worry about the fact that they're almost totally unrelated and I'll put them in the same post. First is P.J. O'Rourke's point that seriousness can be a weapon:

Self-loathing is oneo f those odd, illogical leaps of human intuition that is almost always correct. "Serious" people are dense and know it. But, they think, if they can be grave enough about Yugoslavia their gravity will make up for the factthat—like most people—they don't know what's going on there and—like all people—they don't know what ot do about it. Seriousness is stupidity sent to college...

Seriousness lends force to bad arguments. If a person is earnest enough about what he says, he must have some point. There's a movement in some of our school systems to give creationists equal time in science class. Man was plopped down on earth the week before last, is one rib short on the left, and becuase silly people are serious about this so are we.

If people are being intensely serious, we can feel bad about not taking them seriously, making fun of them, joking about them. "It's easy to mock him, but what have you done about the poor, disenfranchised baby seals in the Amazon Rain Forest being burned by Global Warming?" Nothing, because that's stupid. But it can be hard to say that in public.

And yet mockery can be the most useful and effective way to deal with all sorts of stupidity. Lots of people do and say stupid things, and either don't realize it or don't want to realize it. If you can force them to admit just how silly they're being, 90% of the time you've already won.

The second disjointed thought is on Objectivism. Objectivists are notorious for not having much in the way of a sense of humor; I suspect they feel it undermines both the typical objectivist's sense of superiority over the faith-having altruistic parasite, and the leadership's control over the movement. I wrote in the comments of a post below that Objectivism is like a religion that dumped the idea of God, but kept all of the potentially harmful institutional stupidities. As such you have this cultish sense of superiority to outsiders, and reverence for the cult leadership; this is exactly what Julian said laughter is dangerous to (I should interject here that this isn't per se a critique of the underlying philosophy, some of which is quite good and some of which is complete crap. It's just a complaint that the cultishness of the movement has sabotaged its ability to do good by making it stupid. As far as I can tell, the objectivists who have a sense of humor are also the ones who aren't likely to buy into the whole cult-thing).

Essay on Innocence

Friday, September 08, 2006

Plus ca Change...

There are the several bad Effects of Whoring; and it is an unhappy Thing, that a practice so univeral as this is, and always will be, should be attended with such mischievous Consequences: But since few or none of them are the necessary Effects of Whoring, considered in itself, but only proceed from the Abuse and ill Management of it; our Business is certainly to regulate this Affair in such sort as may best prevent these Mischeifs. And I must here beg pardon of those worthy Gentlemen of the Society, if I can't conceive how the Discouragement they have given, or rather attempted to give, to public Whoring, could possibly have the desired Effect. If this was a Vice acquired by Habit or Custom, or depended upon Education, as most other Vices, there might be some Hopes of supressing it; and then it would no doubt, be commendable to attack it, without Distinction, in whatever Form or Disguise it should appear: But alas! this violent Love for Women is born and bred with us; nay, it is absolutely necessary to our being born at all: And however some People may pretend, that unlawful Enjoyment is contrary to the Law of Nature; this is certain, that Nature never fails to furnish us largely with this Passion, though she is often sparing to bestow upon us such a Portion of Reason and Reflection as is necessary to curb it.

This from "A Modest Defence of Public Stews: or, an Essay upon Whoring as it is now practiced in these Kingdoms . . . Written by a Layman," an essay by Bernard Mandeville. Mandeville argues that we can't get rid of fornication, or prostitution, so we should try to control them and their negative effects; legalize and license some prostitutes so guys go there, rather than having streetwalkers and pimps.

This essay was written in 1724. It could have been written today. plus c’est la meme chose.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Nozick, As Usual, Was Right

Brad DeLong argues in favor of redistribution to assuage envy: Bill Gates's wealth makes everyone else unhappy because it makes them feel poor, so we can make most people much happier by taking wealth away from the rich. Greg Mankiw articulates the argument in more formal economic terms, and expresses distaste. Tyler Cowen responds, as does Jane Galt.

The core of DeLong's argument is that we can equalize status, so low-status people don't feel unhappy. I see three problems with this. First, unless everyone has the exact same income, there will still be status, and richer and poorer people. The people at the bottom of the income distribution will still be at the bottom, even if the distribution itself narrows. If the source of envy is relative positions, merely narrowing the ramge of wealth isn't helpful.

The second problem is that equality of income doesn't translate to equality of compensation or of position. P.J. O'Rourke once commented that even in hyper-egalitarian Sweden, "someone alwasy turns out on top":
All salaries in Sweden may come out, after taxes, somewhat the same. But who gets the room with the view? Who flies off to European Union cheese-food milk-fat-content subcommittee negotiating sessions on the sunny isles of Greece? And opera tickets are heavily underwritten by the Sweedish government. What a relief to the working stiff. "Bundle up the kids, Helga, we're all going to see Claude Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande! [Your author here would like to interject that regulations on performances of Debussy surely appear in the Geneva conventions somewhere.]

I had dinner that night in another expensive restaurant, and in the men's room, there was a rack of reading material, all of it annual reports. I don't think anyone had evr been in there who wasn't—like me—on an expense account, except, of course, for the fellow, probably an immigrant, who cleans the toilet.

If companies can't compensate their executives and top workers with cash, they'll find some other way to compensate them. It's possible that DeLong would find this preferable, if it causes the average person to notice and therefore envy less. But the deadweight loss and lack of transparency concern me.

But the third and best problem with the politics of envy comes from Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia. Sadly, I don't know where my copy is at the moment so I can't give a direct quote. But Nozick points out that there's an infinity of ways I can compare myself to other people. "I'm not as athletic or rich as Michael Jordan," I can say, "but I'm smarter, so he should envy me." Because we can compare ourselves in so many ways, no one has to come out on the bottom of the status distribution; people decide which dimensions they value how much, and tend to value what they're good at more (or perhaps tend to be better at what they value). These different weightings allow two people to look at each other and each say, "I'm better off than he is."

If we follow DeLong's policies, we start eliminating ways for people to compare themselves. The end result is that people are more likely to feel inferior and worthless, because it's less likely that there's a weighting that advantages them relative to everyone else (since there are fewer dimensions of comparison, there are fewer degrees of freedom in constructing a weighting system). So paradoxically, making people more equal, even if successful, actually exacerbates perceived inferiority and increases welfare loss from status comparisons.

Update: Jane Galt is really smart. I think she hit everything I said here, and writes better to boot. Someone should make her stop blogging so we inferior bloggers don't feel so bad.