Monday, June 29, 2015


204. Free speech revisited

Recently I discussed free speech (in item 198 of this blog), but I want to come back to it, in response to a recent debate on the issue between four philosophers on Dutch TV (on 22nd June 2015). They were practically unanimous on the following, standard liberal view:

There is ‘liberal emptiness’: in liberal democracies the state does not, or should not, provide a view of the good life. It should not offer a ‘leading culture’. It is up to citizens to choose and discuss such views. The crux of democracy is dialogue and debate among citizens, and that requires free speech. Clearly, there are restrictions, in the institutionalization of ‘public space’, for example against incitement to violence. But whether or not free speech yields psychological or spiritual damage is irrelevant. People should be able to bear it.

I agree with some of this, but I also have objections. I think we need more practical wisdom.  

In item 198 I argued that ‘speech acts’ can also be a form of violence. But there is more.

First, liberal emptiness is an illusion. A society, and groups within society, harbour a-priori views and values that are tacit and taken for granted. They are assimilated in growing up, education, training, professional practice, and functioning more generally as a member of society. They constitute a ‘paradigm’ that forms the basis for unaware, tacit ideologies. While liberal government may not intend to proscribe a leading culture, in fact it does.  

Liberalism is based on the doctrine of the autonomous individual, able to make rational choice. On that cultural substrate the tacit ideology has increasingly become that of ‘the market’.

Here I recall Wittgenstein’s notion of ‘language games’ and Foucault’s idea that institutionalized views and values constitute power structures that enable society but are also suppressive, in part. Even the victims have internalized the taken-for-granted underlying values and views.

As I argued elsewhere (in item 180), market ideology is not value-free, as economists claim, but rests on a utilitarian ethic that should in my view be replaced with a virtue ethic. That would include virtues such as moderation, tolerance, empathy, openness and moral courage.[i]

Second, the liberal view is highly idealized and unrealistic. The idea behind free speech is that unjustified ravings will be revealed and discredited in public debate. That grossly overestimates the rationality of public discourse, which is upheaval and noise rather than debate, driven by emotions more than arguments. Negation of the holocaust is greeted with assent in sections of society, in disregard of facts.

Third, while I agree that as much freedom of expression as possible should be allowed, that is only half he story. While demeaning, insulting, hateful speech may be allowed, that does not mean it is good. Next to laws and regulations there is culture and civilization, with ethics and morality.

The declared aim of free speech is to give room to dialogue and debate. But dialogue requires not only room for debate but also capabilities for it. That includes robustness to criticism and invective. It is too facile to take that for granted. It also includes empathy: the ability to understand people who think and see differently, and openness to see the possible limitation and prejudice of one’s own view. That requires a sense of history and of cultural differences. If the aim is dialogue, it does not help to attack and insult people in their most fundamental beliefs and assumptions that form the marrow of their cultural bones, constitute their identity. That will block rather than trigger dialogue.  

In sum, while government should not consciously prescribe some ethic, it should be aware that in fact it does, implicitly. The choice of ethics and values should indeed de left up to citizens, to the utmost, but ethical debate can be stimulated and enabled. In educational policy government can stimulate ethical awareness, knowledge, competence, empathy and openness, as democratic virtues.

 
[i]See also my book How markets work and fail, and what to make of them, Edward Elgar, 2014.

Monday, June 22, 2015


203. How do winners take all?

In business, politics, art, and sports, we see that ‘the winner takes all’. The spoils of victory in competition accumulate to the winner and the rest drops out. How does that work?

The general principle is that resources spawn more resources. More in particular, there are four mechanisms.

First, in the science of markets and consumer behaviour there is the notion of contagion. Users already having a product trigger or ‘contaminate’ those who do not yet have it, by showing it off (in ‘conspicuous consumption’), or telling about it. In the process, more users generate more contagion. However, at the same time the number of people not yet contaminated dwindles. Mathematically, this yields an S-shaped curve of the product’s adoption. First, the rate of increase increases, later it declines, and consumption levels off at a saturation level. However, the producer can come up with new models or versions of the product, generating renewed demand.

Second, in economics there is the notion of network externalities, or the ‘telephone effect’. To be useful, a telephone must connect with others with technically compatible telephones. The producer who first introduces a product successfully has an advantage in offering a base of users that increasingly outdistances any newcomers. This generates a race to be the first to enter and build a base of users, to set the snowball rolling. Examples are Microsoft with Windows, Google, Facebook, Twitter, AirB&B, etc. The more faces there are on sight in the Book, the more people want to join that site. Faces evoke faces. An added twist is the flood of advertisers and buyers of data from the system. The more users, the greater the attraction and the need to advertise there. Moving fast breeds moving faster. Like the contagion effect, this may die down as saturation sets in. Again, the trick then is to keep on adding new products or bells and whistles to keep the ball rolling.

Third, in networks there is the phenomenon of preferential attachment. Those nodes of the network (the things connected, such as works, people, firms) that have most connections are the most attractive to connect to. So, having connections breeds connections. Power breeds power. Fame breeds fame. Being connected to the best connected also helps to breed your connections. You don’t want to be caught out not having read the latest bestseller by a best-selling author. For a scientific publication, a high citation score, supposed to be a measure of quality, evokes more citations. Network theory shows, however, that this may also work against the winner, because as he/she gets more crowded with connections, this may also start to hamper him/her and lock him/her into that position, and may produce a basis for the formation of opposition.

Fourth, in cognition there is an accumulation of the ability to learn. The more you know, the higher your absorptive capacity: your ability to absorb what others know. This is partly cognitive, in knowledge, and partly relational, in ability to deal with people with a different outlook. However, here also there is a dampening effect: the more you know, the more difficult it may become to still find someone with something new to offer.  

All four processes show the Matthew effect: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

However, there are forms of dampening or saturation. Radically new innovations may melt down the current snowball, contagion peters out, central network positions may get swamped and strangled, existing sources of knowledge may dry up, and radically new knowledge may invalidate the accumulation of the old.  

Monday, June 15, 2015


202. Is this conservative?

In this blog I have shown scepticism concerning human rationality and the ability to conduct intelligent design of institutions and society. Socialists tend to overestimate that ability. I share this view with conservatives. Does that make me a conservative?

Conservatives add two things with which I disagree.

First, a neo-liberal conservative, such as Friedrich von Hayek, godfather of neo-liberalism, argues that since rational design of society is bound to fail, things should be left to the market mechanism.

That mechanism allows for, and utilizes, the spread and variety of local information, knowledge, views and preferences that central planning could never cope with or allow. Thus, it offers maximum freedom. Competition, said Hayek, is a discovery process.

I agree with that. However, there are deep, various and fundamental market imperfections and distortions that necessitate state intervention, in order to even enable markets, and to prevent or compensate their perverse effects.[i]

For an alternative view, there is a source of inspiration in the logic of evolution: it yields novel forms of life without prior intelligent design. That, I propose, yields a fruitful way of looking at markets. There are similarities in the logics of markets and of evolution, though there are also important differences. From an evolutionary perspective, economic policy may take the form of setting conditions to enable and constrain an evolutionary process.

In sum: one should not be naïve: neither concerning human capability of rational design, nor concerning the operation of markets.

Second, from limited rationality in the design of society conservatives conclude that one should respect what has proved itself in surviving the vicissitudes of history, the teeth of time.

And indeed, what has survived in evolution has shown ‘fitness’. However, at the same time the consolidation and uncritical acceptance of what has survived suffocates and suppresses ideas, blinds and subdues people, and protects and preserves powers that have entrenched themselves in institutions designed to maintain the status quo. Here, the comparison with natural evolution begins to fail. In evolutionary terms, present practices and positions mould the selection environment to serve their survival. Then evolution fails.   

Here, as elsewhere in this blog (item 50), I am reminded of Foucault, who showed how established customs and institutions shape views and expectations, making them self-evident, to the point that even casualties of the established order accommodate to them, take them for granted.

As I also argued before (in item 127), the virtue of democracy is not that it yields perfect designs or solutions but that it ensures that imperfect ones are allowed to fail and be replaced, in contrast with authoritarian regimes that can maintain mistakes.

While rational design is imperfect, the hallowing and consolidation of what has survived as rational is worse. This delusion goes back to the philosopher Hegel, with his motto that ‘the actual is the rational’. Illusions of perfect intelligent design are tragic, the confirmation as rational of what has survived is dishonest. It serves the self-service of established powers.

Rational perfection being an illusion, we must allow for an ongoing stumbling of imperfection rather than fossilizing the status quo.

So, after all, I am not a conservative, I think. 


[i] I discussed this in my 2014 book How markets work and fail, and what to make of them, Edward Elgar

Monday, June 8, 2015


201. How to proceed with this blog?

I will continue to elaborate on themes discussed earlier in this blog. I will discuss economics and markets in some detail. In particular, I will explore the connections between economics and the various philosophical themes discussed in this blog: knowledge and discovery, ethics and morality, identity, self and other, collaboration and competition, trust, altruism and egotism, meaning and language, culture and society, and, above all, change.

My treatment of economics will be far from textbook economics. Traditional, mainstream economics is built on assumptions of rational choice, the autonomous individual, and optimal or equilibrium outcomes. I go against all of those, as I have done before, in this blog.

Rational choice is severely limited by unconscious motives of behaviour, with little free will, and by ‘radical uncertainty’ where one cannot calculate risks because the set of things that may happen is open, and preferences shift in the process of making and enacting choices. What can happen and what one wants follow choice as much as they precede it. This connects with the themes of knowledge and change.

The individual is constituted by genes in interaction with experience, especially interaction with other people. He/she develops his/her intellectual and emotional identity along a unique path of life. This yields variety of cognition, in what I have called ├žognitive distance’.

Our genes carry instincts of both self-interest and altruism that can be aligned or in conflict. Individual identity has multiple, often muddled, and shifting elements. Identity is more a network phenomenon than some essence that one contains. And in this we find the connection between individual and cultural identity. Here, I will explore the connections between economics, networks, and identity.

Processes of cognition, evaluation and action never achieve intended goals, and shift as a function of obstacles or novel opportunities encountered on the way. That is the pragmatist perspective that I have adopted in this blog. Equilibrium outcomes may be analytically useful as benchmarks but are never actually achieved. Life is, as I called it, imperfection on the move.

The challenge is to sort out how this all works out in a renewed view of economics and markets. Here I use a book that I published in 2014: How markets work and fail, and what to make of them (Edward Elgar).[i]

I am against fundamentalist market ideology, but I am not against markets. We could not do without them. But they work imperfectly. They often fail, and not only in the ways that economists realize. There are areas where markets should not be permitted to go. In other areas they may make sense but yield more perverse than useful effects. Above all, in markets there is, or should be, not only competition but also collaboration. There is need for both trust and control, without trust becoming blind. This ties in with the themes, in this blog, of self and other, collaboration, and trust.

I will argue that for a new economics the utilitarian ethics adopted, mostly tacitly, in present economics, should be replaced by a virtue ethics, inspired by that of Aristotle, but with some important twists, as discussed in this blog. There are multiple virtues and values, which cannot always be brought under a single measure. This is another obstacle to the calculation of optimal choice.


[i] The book is ridiculously expensive, but a cheaper paperback edition will appear in August.

Monday, June 1, 2015


200. Survey of this blog

After 100 items in this blog I gave a survey of contents and readership. Now, at 200 items, I do so again.

The blog was started in June 1012. Until end of May 2015 it has been viewed 24.400 times in 82 countries. The top 10 countries are:

Russia             8500 views
US                  3900
Netherlands    3300
Rumania         1680
Germany         960
Czechia           930
France             860
Ukraine           540
Switzerland    340
UK                  330

Below, the items, indicated by their number, are assigned to classes of content and frequency of views up to end of May 2015.

                                                         Number of times viewed

                                   10-20                           21-50               51-100 100-170  >170
Items:

Self and other             52,53,56                     54,55,108                  
Collaboration                                                 31,67,              74,85               75,76             
Love/happiness           193                             6,121,183                  
Trust                            164,196                      107,122,123                             68,70,71,72,73
Identity, culture           9,11,12                       10,93               78
Religion                      13,14,132                    115,182           96
Ethics/morality           38,39,40,42,43,48,     95,118,119,120                          179
                                   125,177                      162,163,166,174,
                                                                       175,176,178
Knowledge/truth         23,25,26,27,28,29,35, 24,91,104,106 112      69,79      7                                                       58,59,133,157,171,     116,136,161,
                                    172,173                       169
Causality                                                                                96,97,98,99,100
Universals/individuals 16,135                        17
Unity/diversity            185,186,188,               184,187,189, 191
Enlightenment/            197                             22                                                 77
  Romanticism
Change, imperfection  126,127,148               18,138 
Language, meaning                                        32,36,142,167,168
Art                                                                  124                  80,81,82,83,      88,89
                                                                                                84,87,90,92
Nihilism                                                         144,145,146,   143                     19
                                                                       147
Society, democracy   15,40, 41,44,45,46,47,  109,110,111,   51
                                   49,50,113,150,152,153,  114,151,159,
                                   154,155,160,181,199    165,190,192,194       
Economics, markets                                       86,180
Philosophers, -phies    64,156,158                 2,60,65,117,    1,61,62                   63                                                                                      140,149,170,
Eastern philosophy     130                             128,129,1
                                                                       137,139,141
Various                        195                             3,4,5,43           101,102,103

 The top 15 items are as follows:

68 Trust: what is it?                                                    316 views
19 Beyond nihilism: Imperfection on the move         280
63 Nietzsche and Levinas                                           262
71 Judgements of good and bad                                 231
72 Uncertainty and openness                                      227
88   Wabi Sabi                                                             221
76   How much community?                                       212
77   Beyond Enlightenment and Romanticism            209
75   Horizontal control                                                 205
70   Forms of identification                                         201
73   Psychology of trust                                               194
89   Aesthetic judgement                                             181
179 Moral robots?                                                       179
7     Geometry and finesse                                           158
61   Levinas: Philosophy of the other                          124

Only one of the 15 is among the second 100 items. Of course, older items, with lower numbers, have had a longer time to accumulate views.