Expertise and Ego

I sincerely hope that ‘experts’ of all stripes — and not merely economists — take note of your admonition toward humility.

The kind of humility you advocate, however, is something one rarely sees among the ‘experts’ — within government and think-tanks and academia — who routinely proclaim to us all that they know “the truth” and that the proper role and responsibility for the rest of us is simply to shut up and do as they say.

That may not be completely fair: it may be that the apparent hubris of expertise is exaggerated by reporters and a news media that is besotted with the idea of ‘expertise’ and, therefore, amplifies the voices of the most self-certain while muting the voices of the humble.  It may be that many or most experts are, indeed, well  aware of their self-limitations but that their voices are not the ones that the media chooses to tell us about; or, it may be that the various caveats and disclaimers with which they accompany their assertions never make it through the filter of the reporters’ perceptions into the news stories and analyses written about them.

And, it may also be that those, in particular, who choose to go into government are self-selected from among the most hubristic precisely because their very self-confidence leads them to the belief that they should also have the power to impose their chosen “solutions” upon others.

Regardless of the reason, however, what is presented as ‘expertise’ for public consumption is, all too often, the farthest thing from your humble ideal:  it is, rather, most often arrogant; and it is, far too frequently, also condescending.

And that arrogance and condescension is exacerbated by the fact that such experts frequently extend their claims to ‘expertise’ beyond what is justified by their training and experience.  A medical researcher will discover some (perhaps tentative) connection between a chemical or a food and some health state, like heart disease.  They will then not only exaggerate their certainty, proclaiming that the evidence of such connection is irrefutable (Eat this and you will die!), but will also proclaim, with equal certainty, that a particular policy prescription — Ban that chemical! — is, by extension, mandatory; and they will claim that their policy prescription is simply a matter of “following the science” and, therefore, also wholly within their ‘expertise’, as if such policies have no other economic or practical or emotional or moral dimensions beyond the narrow realm of “science” that might require consideration.

Continue reading

Absolution and Responsibility

Among the civilizing aspects of modern culture is the fact that ancient traditions of personal retribution have been supplanted by a socially-administered system for public accountability. Victims and their families may no longer take the law into their own hands by seeking vengeance on predators.  Instead we, as a society, promise to see justice done on their behalf.

But that is a compact that goes both ways:  if society demands authority over the administration of justice, then it also assumes responsibility for it.  If we have promised to see justice done, then delivering anything short of justice is a breach of that promise.

Within such a system, justice demands that sentences we assign are and should be proportionate to the moral severity of the crimes committed. Ensuring, then, that those proportionate sentences are, indeed, carried out is how we fulfill society’s moral obligation to the victims.

Continue reading

What picture of America do we carry in our heads…?

In today’s Wall Street Journal, in an article about the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, Peggy Noonan asked this question:

Why did the White House think the 20th anniversary of 9/11 was the right date for a pullout? What picture of America do they carry in their heads that told them that would be symbolically satisfying? It is as if they are governed by symbols with no understanding of what the symbols mean.

It occurs to me that the question — “What picture of America do they carry in their heads…?” — is much broader than the context of our policy in Afghanistan. It is, in fact, the question at the heart of nearly all the cultural and political divisions rending America these days.

The right asks that question of the left.  The left asks that question of the right.  And both left and right — and the vast middle that both left and right disdain and ignore — fear and despise the answer that they think and feel — or, all too often, imagine — the other side would offer if it was ever to be explicitly articulated.

That is, perhaps, the most important conversation of our generation: What picture of America do we carry in our heads? And can we come to some, if not consensus, then at least forbearance on what that picture looks like?

If not, we are truly lost…

Continue reading

Should Washington, DC be a State?

Is it either accurate or fair to say that there is not, and cannot be, any reason to object to statehood for the nation’s capital that doesn’t drag in racial antipathy and civil rights recidivism?

No.  Statehood for Washington, DC, is a troubling prospect.  And, it is troubling for reasons that have nothing to do with race.

The most compelling reason, however, to oppose statehood for DC is not that a city isn’t really a state, though that is true.  And it is not that DC statehood has the real potential to interfere with the autonomy of the Federal government, though that is also true.  And it is not that there are simple and practical remedies to the disenfranchisement of DC’s citizens that fall short of outright statehood and that would not, therefore, threaten Federal autonomy — though that, too, is true.

No.  The most compelling reason to oppose statehood for DC is that DC is a company town.

Continue reading

The Sledge Hammer

In your article, you predict 3 things that are likely to happen “…when people feel they cannot talk openly about a subject…”.

Here is another prediction: The Sledge Hammer.

That is the name I have given to a phenomenon I have observed many times in the last 40 or 50 years — prototypical examples are the passage in CA of proposition 209, outlawing affirmative action, and propositions 13 (CA)  and 2-1/2 (MA) limiting the rate of property tax increases.  But it might also, perhaps, be used as well to describe Donald Trump’s election to the Presidency, not to mention “Defund the Police”….

The people who can see that there is, indeed, a problem but are told to shut up about it get impatient.  Then they get frustrated.  Then they get angry.  Then they get furious.

And then they swing the populist Sledge Hammer:  “Screw all of you condescending bastards!  If we can’t fix the system, we’ll destroy it!”

Continue reading

A Declaration and a reminder: Many (if not most) Republicans are no longer conservative…

…and thoughtful, honest conservatives should no longer be Republican.

It’s been building to that point over the last 20 or 30 years.  That was the broad subject of my book.

But now, it is no longer building.  It is built.

To be clear (and in the interest of full disclosure): I’ve always been a conservative but I’ve never been a Republican.  Since my political awakening, that tent has always been big enough to embrace, alongside those I agreed with, a variety of people and agendas that I couldn’t, in good conscience, support.

Nonetheless, I have voted for Republican candidates more often than not.  Not for Trump, certainly, but for others.  Because the tent was, indeed, big and it included good guys along with bad guys, and always more of the former than of the latter.

I think, at this point, that is no longer true.  Unless something changes, they have lost my vote for good.

Because anyone who associates themselves with the current mob of self-absorbed, unprincipled, power-mad thugs, and with their ignorant and deluded supporters, is dragging too much baggage along with them.  It is no longer possible to distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys: as long as the good guys insist on swimming in sewage, they will look and smell like sewage and will contaminate and corrupt everything they touch — including the idea and the practice of conservatism.

Continue reading

America’s Original Sin

American slavery was a sin, but neither an original nor an idiosyncratic one….

… On the other hand, Jim Crow — and the racialist foundation upon which it was erected — was America’s original sin: we invented it and allowed it to take root in spite of (or, arguably, as an excuse for disregarding) our founding creed of human liberty; we took far longer than we should have to rid ourselves of it – longer, indeed, than we did to rid ourselves of slavery, itself; and we yet suffer its furtive vestiges and endure its execrable repercussions more than sixty years after it was officially and formally consigned to the ash-heap.

Continue reading

Risk, Part 2: Fear and Control

Part 2 of a 2-part sequence on different aspects of how American society deals with risk:

It seems that government policy – and social convention, and cultural aspiration, and the tyranny of public opinion expressed through social media mobs – is now all too often fashioned by a destructively self-reinforcing partnership between those, on the one hand, who have lost all trust in their fellow citizens and who want so badly to be protected from risk, and even from discomfort, that they will trade away almost any freedom for a promise of a bit more security; and those, on the other hand, whose innate and fervent proclivity is to tell everyone else, with great piety and self-assurance, how to organize and operate their lives.

The more we have come to – and the more we have been taught to – rely on government to regulate the behavior of others, the less we have come to rely on – and the less we have been taught or practiced – the virtue of regulating ourselves. The more success the solipsistic fringe – economic more than cultural on the “right”, cultural more than economic on the “left” – has had in attacking and emasculating the economic and religious and social and cultural mores that historically disciplined such self-control, the less able we are to count on self-regulation and the more pressure there is to empower government to impose yet more external regulation upon us.

We can no longer negotiate and compromise – we can no longer embrace a shared process for governance rather than seeking a raw power over others – because we no longer trust each other either to have empathy or, more importantly, to act in good faith.  Why are we intolerant of risk?  Because we feel a lack of control.  Why do we feel a lack of control?  Because we don’t trust each other to do the right thing, either as individuals or as a polity.  In the absence of trust, even small risks loom large.

Continue reading

Under Color of Authority

The police act on our authority and in our name.  That gives us a corresponding responsibility to act, as well, when they step beyond reasonable bounds we have set.  And, if we don’t act – if we relax and extend those bounds, either intentionally or simply by failing to accept the responsibility to rein them in – then we are, as well, responsible for the consequences.  The color of authority becomes actual authority if we acquiesce to it; and, therefore, the moral stench of that authority, when exercised indecently, adheres to us as much as it does to whoever exercised it on our behalf.

The protesters want justice, but not the kind that a court can give them by convicting a particular villain.  Their protests are not really directed at the police or at the courts or at the politicians: they are directed at us.  And what they are demanding of us is simple: “Step up!  Stop accepting the unacceptable! Rein in those who claim to act in your name!”

That is, indeed, our responsibility.  How can we do less?

Continue reading

Risk, Part 1: Trade-Offs and Value Judgements

Part 1 of a 2-part sequence on different aspects of how American society deals with risk:

…we all intuitively understand, even if we can neither articulate nor rationalize the precise placement of the implied ethical boundaries – or are loath to admit to them – that the trade-offs in risky human activity between the potential for loss of human life and the potential for benefit, economic or otherwise, are not as stark and as obvious as the simple and common mantra –that saving human life is always worth any cost – implies.

To be blunt: there is, indeed, some upper bound on how much cost, either in economic benefit or in liberty, represents a fair trade for a statistical human life.  And we all personally adjudge where that bound lies, implicitly if not explicitly, many times per day, every day, as a matter of routine. We all take risks and impose risks on others because we think we will reap some economic or physical or emotional or social or moral or spiritual reward from doing so…

There is a legitimate, important, and ongoing debate that we may and should have over where, on the continuum of behavior, the margin lies between prudent risk-taking and reckless disregard. But we must acknowledge that there is a continuum, not a simple border: not all risks are reckless ones and there are costs sufficiently dire, and benefits sufficiently valuable, that they may, indeed, justify the risk of precipitating some generalized and arbitrarily-distributed human suffering in order to forestall or foster them.

For those who have taken the position that no relaxation of the lockdowns should be even contemplated while any significant risk remains, that means accepting and acknowledging that zero risk is an unrealistic and unachievable standard.  It means acknowledging that reducing risk for some causes real and consequential harm to others and that, at some point, the harm of incremental gains in risk reduction exceeds the incremental harm of the virus, itself.  We can’t live in lockdown forever; and, in the absence of an effective vaccine or a cure, widely deployed to create widespread immunity, the lockdown will, indeed, stretch on forever because there will never be a time when releasing it will seem propitious and wholly safe.

For those who have been advocating for a quick and complete re-opening – and especially for those actively protesting the imposition of various modest public safety measures like the wearing of masks – that means accepting that we all have responsibilities commensurate with the rights we so self-righteously defend.  What we do affects the community.  Yes, we have the personal right to accept a risk of catching the virus in pursuit of some other reward.  But, assuming risks for yourself – by exposing yourself to disease carriers – and imposing risks on others – by carrying the disease to them despite their own best precautions – are two very different acts and should fairly be judged by different criteria, the latter more stringent than the former.  Whether you like it or not, in a world of pandemic you have a moral responsibility to protect others against the possibility of your own contagion.  If you cannot willingly and diligently assume that responsibility, then your moral claim to a “right” to be free of restraint is little more than a hollow defense of self-indulgence.

And for all of us, that means taking each other’s concerns seriously, with empathy rather than with contempt.  The pain people are expressing is real, not imagined.  What you find comforting, others may find distressing.  What you find to be reasonable precaution others may experience as destructive overreaction.  Neither side may or should presume they hold a monopoly on truth or on wisdom.  We are, indeed, in this together because this is a contagion.  But that doesn’t mean we all experience that contagion in the same way or bear its burdens in the same forms or to the same degree.  The fact that someone disagrees with your value judgements about those burdens means they and their circumstance are different than you and yours.  It doesn’t mean they are right.  But, it also doesn’t mean they are wrong.

Continue reading