Friday, March 21, 2014


When you think about it, true anarchy is not the absence of government.

As we usually conceive it, anarchy is the absence of law. When there is no law, the weakest suffer. Those who are stronger rule over those who are weaker. Only respect for the law, a law which applies equally to all people, can prevent the powerful from taking advantage of their position.

A government unconstrained by the rule of law is thus the very definition of anarchy--that is to say, might makes right. The real anarchists are those who wish us to yield more and more power to the state.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Aubin, Bayen, and Saint-Pierre on the science of complexity

I'm trying to teach myself viability theory using Aubin, Bayen, and Saint-Pierre's tome bearing that title. In the  part of the introduction outlining applications and motivations of the theory, the reader stumbles upon a rather remarkable philosophical challenge: to radically change the current mathematical paradigm in order to better understand complex systems. The relationship between mathematics and the physical sciences is well established. We have developed mathematical tools to study the simple pieces of nature, particularly waves and particles in motion. But what about living systems or, more complex still, societies? "Simplifying complexity," say the authors (emphasis in the original), should be the purpose of an emerging science of complexity, if such a science will emerge beyond its present fashionable status."

That's an intriguing challenge. What do they have in mind? The following paragraph needs a full quote.

Quoting from Section 1.1, p. 8:
So physics, which could be defined as the part of the cultural and physical environment which is understandable by mathematical metaphors, has not yet, in our opinion, encapsulated the mathematical metaphors of living systems, from organic molecules to social systems, made of human brains controlling social activities. The reason seems to be that the adequate mathematical tongue does not yet exist. And the challenge is that before creating it, the present one has to be forgotten, de-constructed. This is quite impossible because mathematicians have been educated in the same way all over the world, depriving mathematics from the Darwinian evolution which has operated on languages. This uniformity is the strength and the weakeness of present day mathematics: its universality is partial. The only possibility to mathematically perceive living systems would remain a dream: to gather in secluded convents young children with good mathematical capability, but little training in the present mathematics, under the supervision or guidance of economists or biologists without mathematical training. They possibly could come up with new mathematical languages unknown to us providing the long expected unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the social and biological sciences.
What's awfully strange about this, aside from the desire to hide children away in convents, is the implicit belief that somehow mathematics must be capable of describing social and biological phenomena in a direct way as in physics. The reader is left with the sense that he has just read not so much a discussion of the state of the art in mathematics as an eschatological vision in which mathematics will conquer all of the corners of reality. It seems rather utopian.

Indeed, the next paragraph reveals, in my opinion, why this utopianism ultimately fails. "Even the concept of natural number is oversimplifying," say the authors, "by putting a same equivalence class so [sic] several different sets, erasing thier qualitative properties or hiding them behind their quantitative ones." This is an issue I've mused on myself: is there a way to "break away" from the discrete number system which gave birth to our mathematics? There are subtle issues to be dealt with, here, but I think the way the authors have phrased it leads quickly to absurdity: if what we care about is the qualitative and not the quantitative, it seems safe to say we're no longer doing mathematics. We might as well call it--ahem--biology and economics.

Though my initial reaction is critical, I don't mean to be overly negative. On the contrary, I think the vision expressed here is important. Mathematics should remain in the tradition of seeking to clarify and extend our understanding of reality. Yet I humbly suggest that this will not require children raised by economists. It will require, as the authors suggest, a great deal of trial and error--Darwinian evolution, if you like. Ultimately, however, I think mathematics is the science of quantity, and to the extent that it describes qualitative properties, it does so by mapping them to numbers. I am not saying that the concept of number is self-evident and unchanging. History proves that it isn't. But we need not rely on some forced revolution in mathematical training in order to reimagine (and sometimes redefine) the concept of number.

Progress in the direction of mathematical life/social sciences already seems underway. The very text I am citing here is evidence of that. Another example I would point to is mean field game theory, with which the authors are surely familiar. The insight that the behavior of a multitude of rational beings can be understood quantitatively in the aggregate appears to be a profound boost to the project of mathematical social sciences, in particular. Based on my general sense of the field (from a young perspective), I would like to believe that the current interest in biological, economic, and social questions in mathematics is more than a passing fad. Over time, we may think of mathematics as intrinsically tied to these subjects just as it is to physics.

But all things in their place. Mathematics may be helpful in addressing a plethora of questions, but I very much doubt it is without limits (no pun intended).

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The bleeding heart's dilemma

In a recent "Intelligence Squared" debate, Bryan Caplan gave his classic argument in defense of the statement, "Let anyone take a job anywhere." You can read his opening statement here. If you know Caplan, you know the moral force his argument has: immigration restrictions are violent means by which people in rich countries prevent people in poor countries from reaching their potential and bettering their own existence. If you believe that all the people of the world have equal moral value, then there simply is no moral defense of this practice.

Where, then, is the conflict, particularly from someone on the left? Someone on the right, after all, can claim unapologetically to be a nationalist, to think that by virtue of where he is born he is indeed entitled to certain priviliges, and perhaps even to think that his culture is inherently superior to and must be protected from others. People on the left would (rightly) think this view is awful. None of these things can justify immigration restrictions for a liberal.

There are two things that I noted in the arguments of the opposition, particularly coming from Kathleen Newland, as well as from the audience's questions. One is a subtle tribalism, which creeps in without ever being named. Whereas some might be openly nationalist, there is a different form of tribalism which protests, "We haven't done enough to take care of our own, how can we possibly take in others?" The underlying assumption is that merely coming to work in the U.S. would be impossible; you must also join our system, depend on our government benefits, receive our public education, and so on.

The second is a not so subtle nationalism. Newland is so frank as to say that part of a government's job is to be biased in favor of its own people. In other words, egalitarianism be damned--nation states are more important than human rights. I could be wrong, but I rather thought Newland was coming from a point of view typical on the left, namely that the role of the state is to embody the will of the people. And therein lies the dilemma--the will of the people is really quite often in conflict with the idea of human equality.

Caplan calls his position basic human decency. I think that's unfair, but only because our instincts are so biased against decency. His "basic human decency" is actually a moral tradition built up over thousands of years of civilization--but that's competing against hundreds of thousands of years of tribal existence, in which loyalty to the tribe was essential for survival. The concept that everyone within the tribe is equal may come naturally to a lot of us, but the concept that all humans are equal is still as radical an idea today as it ever was.

But the left claims to champion this idea. The only problem is that it can't champion the equality of all human beings and the sacredness of nation states at the same time. Either anyone should be allowed to take a job anywhere, or not. Let's just be honest about why the left could not bear to allow this: then they would actually have to see the poor. And it would be the truly poor, not just the statistical bottom 10% in a wealthy, developed nation. It would be the truly poor from all over the world coming into this rich, blessed nation with the hope of making a better a life for themselves. The sight of them all would simply be too unbearable. It is better to force them to suffer at home than to come here and make us feel guilty for not having the resources to take care of them all.

In other words, it's paternalism or bust. The best we can do for the rest of the world is develop those other nation states (whose very existence was in many cases forced by the West) so that they can support the population living there with services which meet Western standards. If those nation states won't listen and won't reform, then shame on them. And too bad for the poor, who continue to toil for $1 a day.

The fact is, Caplan is really asking us to stretch our morals to their limits. The prospect of witnessing a flood of foreigners is instinctively horrifying, not always because of the fear of what is different, but rather because of the sorrow of seeing others who are so much less well off. Do we really want to live in a country with millions and millions of the world's poor, working on wages we find obscenely low, even if it means they have a chance of earning more than they could ever dream in their homeland? It is, after all, our own country.

My contention is that the left ought to give up this "paternalism or bust" attitude. It is far too convenient to insist that others ought to change their government, and then everyone would be fine. The truth is, we have no moral reason to keep people out, only excuses which come from our instincts. If we really believe in human rights, we should also accept the right of people to start from much less than what we have and work their way up--even if that means doing so in our own neighborhood. And that might mean a lot of sad things. It might mean watching people stumble and fall. It might mean watching people live without all thoese benefits we take for granted. It might mean watching people struggle with basic things like language and literacy. And it would all be right there for us to see with our own eyes.

Of course, poverty exists already in the U.S., as it does in all countries. The reaction that the left expressly desires to cultivate against poverty is one of anger and revulsion. We should not tolerate poverty. I find it bizarrely sickening to think that this revulsion at the sight of poverty could be a reason to lock more people in it.

I'm picking on the left wing here because of their tendency to think of themselves as moral guides on this issue. They're for immigration reform, certainly. They believe we should naturalize all the undocumented Americans who have been in the country living as productive members of society for years. They believe they are being sensible in all of that. But they are unwilling to accept the ultimate conclusion of their humanist principles, which is that there is simply no excuse for any restrictions on who can immigrate to the U.S. in the first place.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Why does economics need to be a science?

I've seen some commentary going around the blogosphere about this article by economist Raj Chetty, "Yes, Economics is a Science." I believe there is some merit to the question of whether or not (and what ways) economics is a science. But what's more striking to me is why the question continues to create such a stir.

So that's why I ask the question: what is it about being a "science" that makes us argue over it? My conjecture: modern mythology. Or more precisely, modern messianism.

Here is the messianic myth of the modern age. Once upon a time, we were living in darkness, plagued by superstitious beliefs to which we clung due to indoctrination by authorities. Then, around 400 years ago or so, a revolution was stirred, and science came to show us the light and brought us into a new age of progress. Now, if only we embrace science and reject whatever isn't science, we will continue along the path of enlightenment, so that one day we can all live in peace and prosperity.

The roles of good and evil here are played by understanding on the one hand and bias on the other. Anything which is "science" can help us understand, anything which is not can only obscure. That's why the battle over calling economics a science is so perilously important--if it isn't a science, then it is merely a tool to fuel ideological agendas. But a real science could never do such a thing.

If we reject this myth, then the question becomes less perilously important (though still interesting for other philosophical reasons). Science as we know it today has helped bring about many positive changes, but it is not going to bring about the kingdom of enlightenment. It may be worthwhile at some point to give an argument stating all the reasons why I think this, but my main argument goes something like this. Science, as understood today, is supposed to be objective, in the sense of separating the observer from his biases and forcing him to interpret the facts from a fresh point of view. The problem is that you can't build a better society on a model of separation. Things which could be construed as bias are actually some of the most essential attachments which hold civilization together: family, tradition, empathy, duty, and above all love.

An important corollary of rejecting the messianic myth of scientism: society will not heal itself by adopting the right policies at the level of federal government. If society were merely an object of scientific study, then I suppose it could be engineered to perfection. That is not the case.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Immigration restrictions are the modern day slavery

Bryan Caplan has convinced me that supporting open borders--all the way, no restrictions--really is the right thing to do. Also, the fact that he has convinced me proves the point he was making in this post, where he compares the defense of open-borders to abolitionism:
The obvious moral objection is that comparing slavery and immigration restrictions is absurd hyperbole. But it's absurd hyperbole to call this apt comparison "absurd hyperbole." Yes, enslaving a Haitian is plainly worse than forbidding him to accept a job offer anywhere on earth except Haiti. But they're both dire harms. How would you react if the world's laws barred you from every non-Haitian labor market on earth? With weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Paradoxically, you might say, it's precisely Caplan's doctrinaire attitude that gradually made me reconsider the facts and adopt my present position. This corresponds with what he says further down: "Moderates are better at bargaining with people holding preferences fixed. Abolitionists are better at changing preferences." It also helps when the abolitionist is a highly well-informed economist.

I'm not sure why Caplan uses Haiti as his illustrative example every time he talks about the issue, but he really can get the point across. Immigration restrictions constitute one of the gravest injustices of our time, one which reinforces global social hierarchies--the poor remain poor while the rich remain rich--for no good reasons that cannot be addressed in other, more humane ways. This essay has pretty good answers to all the standard objections, particularly the ones which come from the right of the political spectrum.

Common political wisdom would suggest that the left is more naturally receptive to immigration, but I'm not so convinced. My guess is that in the long run, the left will have difficulty with truly open borders, precisely because of the difficulties presented in running a welfare state while letting everyone in (a classical right-wing objection to open immigration, to which the libertarian can reply, "Oh, well!"). And if what Caplan reports about the inverse relationship between diversity and redistribution is true, good old European socialists may be the last to embrace open borders.

As for me, I've come to see this as a plain implication of the existence of universal human rights. It comes down to a really fundamental question about the purpose of democratic governments. I don't believe that we can prohibit the movement of foreigners--of individual human beings who happen not to be born in our country--in the name of democracy, that is in the name of protecting our own interests. Indeed, when a country excludes certain people from immigration, it doesn't protect anyone's property, it only forces people not to exchange, and therefore not to mutually benefit from one another. For each immigrant you deport for trying to work in the U.S., you also deprive an employer of an employee he wanted to hire.

And this is a moral issue. If it were only a matter of economics, I think the empirical evidence might still make me an open borders libertarian, but the issue is far more urgent than that. There are people all around the world who could make a better life for themselves and their families if they had the freedom to move somewhere else. We need to let that happen. The first step is being convinced if the desirability of that goal.

I haven't thought what the next step might be, but I'm sure that will come.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Open Borders

I am so happy this website exists:

From the site's self-description:
This website is dedicated to making the case for open borders. The term “open borders” is used to describe a world where there is a strong presumption in favor of allowing people to migrate and where this presumption can be overridden or curtailed only under exceptional circumstances.
The goal of the website is to make the arguments for open borders, and also to explicitly discuss many arguments against open borders, evaluate their validity, and determine ways to tackle the objections.
Living abroad has made this issue more and more personal to me, but I know my experience overall hasn't been too bad. There are millions of people who are not so fortunate.

We need more people who are actually willing to say, "I support open borders." In the Western world, there are far too many intellectual forces which breed prejudice against free immigration, and they often come from what we think of as opposite sides of the political spectrum. On the one hand, you have nationalism, which comes in many forms. Some argue that the state should be obliged first to the economic well-being of its own citizens, and that any disadvantage caused by immigration should be a concern to the state. Others argue that every nation has the right to preserve a certain culture, language, or intellectual or spiritual tradition, and that free immigration would deny this right. Still others argue that it is simply too impractical to allow a pure "melting pot" experiment, in which people from different cultures all try to get along under on state. I call all of these arguments generally "nationalist," even though they may be more or less so.

On the other hand, you have social democracy, which can indeed get in the way of free immigration. If the state has the responsibility to care for the general well-being of all of its citizens, it is naturally going to be difficult to accept a large mass of new citizens. You end up with the paradoxical and sometimes overwhelming tension of a society so compassionate that it can't accept any more strangers.

I think it would be a great moral victory to see the world embrace open borders. I suspect it will happen (if it ever does) more gradually than other moral victories such as the illegalization of slavery.

Morality needs to take a central role in the debate. I am frankly always pessimistic about the average person's ability to understand the economics involved, and even if the whole world were well-informed on economics, maximizing utility functions is hardly an inspiring argument for changing laws. For some on the left, the case for open borders might come down to a sort of cultural relativism in which there really shouldn't be any national distinctions. I don't find this especially convincing, myself. Rather, I think adopting open borders would be the best expression of the values our Western civilization has cultivated over the ages (in particular our Christian values), and I don't think we should be ashamed to say so. We should welcome the stranger, not because cultural differences don't matter, but precisely because our civilization is capable of welcoming others to adopt our way of life. Of course, to invite the stranger is to invite cultural evolution, but there is no ultimate danger in this if one has enduring beliefs that inspire admiration in all. In particular, there is no reason to be shy about saying that all people long to be free, and we should welcome others to share in the freedom for which our ancestors fought hard.

Again, I'm excited this web site exists. Note that it includes every kind of argument you could possibly want: libertarian, egalitarian, utilitarian, conservative, and so on. We live in exciting times, for anyone aware of the intellectual movements going on.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

First impressions on reading Democracy in America

I've always wanted to read Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, and now I'm taking advantage of my new-found French speaking ability to read the book in French. I haven't gotten very far, but I already have some pretty striking impressions. Here they are.

  • Despite claims to the contrary, it seems pretty legitimate after all to say America is in some sense a Christian nation. Sure, you can point to the theology of the Founding Fathers and say, "Hey, it's all just deism," but Tocqueville is more concerned with the angloamericans who founded places like New England. You can't look at the early settlements without seeing an explicit reference to Christian beliefs in both their goals and even their laws. If "the founders" are people like Washington and Jefferson, then okay, maybe we're just a deist nation. But if "the founders" are the Anglo-Saxons who first came to America, then we are definitely a Christian nation.
  • Tocqueville's general comments on religion strike me as true today just as they were during the Enlightenment: religion was originally the friend of freedom and equality, then it became an ironic enemy, but in many ways it is still a friend and should be more so. The narrative he tells is something like this: Christian beliefs gave people access to a higher power than political power and a belief in inherent human dignity that transcends culture. This was the first step toward defeating tyranny. The next step is democracy, which Tocqueville seems to be best displayed in America, particularly New England.
  • Freedom is not the ability to whatever you want, but rather the ability to do what is right. Tocqueville thus speaks highly of the strong (and religiously motivated) emphasis on education, which he says fosters freedom in the new republic.
  • Townships are the nexus of democracy. Americans in the eyes of Tocqueville are successful in democracy because they build it from the ground up. In fact, Tocqueville marvels precisely at how active the local government is in the life of the people, in contrast to his own French government.
  • Tocqueville gives one of the best descriptions of the modern libertarian ideal you can find. America is founded on allowing individuals to be sovereign in all things which pertain only to them, and likewise for all levels of the federal structure (towns, cities, states, and finally the federal government). Thus there is as little intervention from the top as possible.
  • At the same time, Tocqueville praises townships for having governments which provide an ever-expanding array of services. It may or may not be difficult to reconcile this with modern libertarianism. (Does the growth of federal government actually get in the way of healthy, active local government?)
  • Equality is practically synonymous with freedom. Tocqueville insists that there is probably no group of people on earth that has ever achieved more equality of circumstances than the Anglo-Americans. Yet he also claims that they would be the last people on earth to claim that equality of wealth is a goal worth pursuing. Equality of results is, for him, an outgrowth of freedom, but it's also more than that. In some sense, it is freedom, by definition. Freedom means that no one has any special authority given from above, which is the same as equality.
  • From the very beginning there was a large difference between the North and the South. A lot of people talk about "America's" guilt in tolerating slavery, but as time goes on we seem to get less and less clear on how striking the regional differences actually were. New England, for example, never had slavery. You have to wonder if we weren't asking for a Civil War just by uniting north and south under one Constitution. (None of this is to say racism didn't exist in the North.)
  • Tocqueville is highly critical of slavery, not just because of its consequences for slaves (which is the obvious criticism), but also because of its consequences for society in general. It creates a society which is less free and less progressive for everyone, not just for the enslaved. I believe he says that it makes the society less industrious, which is almost certainly correct.
Some of these impressions might be off base, who knows. What I'm mostly left with is a desire to see more of the vibrant local civic life that Tocqueville seems to love so well in young America. But how do you pull that off in an increasingly transient and mobile society? How do you unite people together by common values? And is there still room in the modern world for communities formed by common religious beliefs?