Category Archives: Philosophy

Jerry Z. Muller – The Tyranny of Metrics

Jerry Z. Muller – The Tyranny of Metrics

This short book is one of the most useful I’ve read in recent years. I will be citing it often. Measurement is a good and useful thing, but it has its limits. Muller’s job in this book is to remind people of those limits. For example, improving school test scores sounds like a good idea, and was a key part of President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind education bill. But teachers started teaching to the test, ruining the purpose. This on-the-ground was entirely predictable, but regulators were so intent on using metrics to measure performance, they didn’t think it through.

One key point has to do with social science research. Few journals will publish papers that don’t measure anything–but not everything is measurable. This means that when policymakers and pundits are evaluating a policy, they can leave out important policy impacts. Either they dismiss non-measurable concerns because there is no published empirical research on it, or such concerns never enter their minds in the first place. Like a drunk looking for his lost keys, they only look where the light shines. Better to admit that things exist outside of that light. Better still to create one’s own light and see what is out there. Statistical significance matters, but it should not replace human judgment. It is a complement, not a substitute.


Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson – The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson – The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life

Brutal honesty has been a running theme of Hanson’s career, and he has caused some controversy because of it, though it is nearly always overblown. Simler has a similar approach in his research, and the two make a good pair in this book. Mostly a blend of psychology and economics, Simler and Hanson explore why people lie to themselves as well as to others in justifying their actions in a number of spheres, from work to romance to everyday life.

The drawbacks of this are obvious, from the lies themselves to the bad behaviors they can enable and rationalize. But the benefits are an avoidance of cognitive dissonance and negative views of self and others. Total honesty would decimate nearly everyone’s sense of self-worth, as well as peoples’ ability to trust and interact with others.

In that sense, Hanson and Simler have put together a view of human nature that mixes Hobbe’s nasty and brutish view of human nature with a David Hume- or Adam Smith-style emphasis on humanity’s inherent need for social interaction. As Smith put it, people need both to love and be lovely (by which Smith means worthy of being loved). Reconciling the two is a messy business, but Hanson and Simler do it uncomfortably well, backing their arguments with plenty of empirical research.

Healthy Attitudes of Inquiry

From p. 6 of Vlad Tarko’s 2017 book Elinor Ostrom: An Intellectual Biography:

Good social scientists are like tourists who have yet to familiarize with the local rules or a little bit like children, asking funny questions about what everyone else just takes for granted.

This is a much healthier attitude of inquiry than the capital-C certainty many analysts have in their answers to social problems.

Peter Boettke – F. A. Hayek: Economics, Political Economy and Social Philosophy

Peter Boettke – F. A. Hayek: Economics, Political Economy and Social Philosophy

Boettke has both revived and deepened my appreciation of Hayek. He emphasizes the importance of institutions and rules of the game that I (and many others) thought Hayek had overlooked, at least in comparison to Douglass North, James Buchanan, Mancur Olson, and other thinkers.

He also clears up the common misconception that The Road to Serfdom is a slippery slope argument. Instead, Boettke argues it is an outgrowth of the great socialist calculation debate that dominated the economics profession in the 1920s and 1930s. Hayek’s teacher Ludwig von Mises argued that socialism is impossible because it has no price system. Without prices, any semblance of efficient resource allocation is impossible. Abba Lerner and Oskar Lange countered that not only is a planned economy possible, but experts can have fewer errors, redundancies, and other inefficiencies that come with free markets.

1944’s Road to Serfdom, looking back at this debate, argues that in addition to Mises’ calculation problem, a planned economy is incompatible with liberal institutions. Mises was right about the calculation problem, and Hayek expanded on Mises with his emphasis on knowledge problems, and by thinking of markets as an ongoing discovery procedure, rather than a static equilibrium.

But Hayek’s main point in Road to Serfdom is that the powers an authority would need to exercise to plan economy are incompatible with democracy, and with most forms of personal and economic choice. Planned economies and illiberal governments are a package deal. If a country chooses that package, it can always go back on it—which is why Hayek isn’t making a slippery slope argument. But if you want a planned economy, you cannot also have a free society. And if you want a free society, you cannot have a planned economy.

Chapter 10 I found genuinely inspiring. Boettke reminds the reader that liberalism must be liberal. It is not conservative, it is dynamic, forward-looking, outgoing, and inclusive, even if people look different, come from different countries, or speak different languages. Liberalism is also not progressive. Liberalism emphasizes bottom-up emergent orders over expert plans.

Liberals—in the correct, classical sense—and conservatives formed an alliance in the mid-20th century based on shared anti-communist beliefs, but they have little in common beyond that. Hayek’s essay “Why I Am Not a Conservative” is a key document here. But Boettke, in prose much more passionate than his usual restrained manner, argues that this odd alliance was overdone in Haeyk’s time, and is irrelevant now that communism is gone.

As a result, some thoroughly illiberal people are using the libertarian label to promote illiberal ideas on race, discrimination, immigration, trade, and other issues. This thought problem is causing a major marketing problem for liberals—not to put too fine a point on it, but as one example, many people confuse the Ludwig von Mises Institute’s ideas for those of Mises himself. This is a problem liberals have created for themselves, and the damage that alliances with shadier parts of the right have inflicted to the liberal cause will not be easy to undo.

Ideology, Evolution, and In-Groups

Joel Mokyr points out a strange tendency among ideologies on p. 51 of his 2016 book A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy:

Cultural beliefs tend to occur in clusters. For instance, those Americans who adhere to evangelical religion commonly also think that widespread gun ownership is desirable, that marriage should be confined to heterosexual couples, that climate change is not a reality, and object to large scale federal redistribution policies, although logically these beliefs are not all obviously connected.

This tendency is not specific to religious conservatives. Other groups across political, national, and religious identities have their own similarly odd belief clusters. For many people, affirming their group identity is more important than evaluating the merits of a given policy.

We’re evolved to think that way, and it won’t change anytime soon. Even those of us without religious or partisan affiliation think that way; we’re human, too.

A big part of the greater Enlightenment project is raising awareness of this cognitive tendency among people. If people are more aware of what they’re doing, they are more likely to take a step back and evaluate policies with a cooler, more rational head. There are healthier ways to feel part of a group.

Herbert Spencer – Social Statics

Herbert Spencer – Social Statics: The Conditions Essential to Human Happiness Specified, and The First of Them Developed

Spencer was only about 30 when he wrote this 1851 book. Frankly, it shows. His thoughts on land and property rights are a muddled mess, which was common in those days, though his system stands out even among that disappointing lot. Spencer’s overall thought is much better. In a nutshell, it is classical liberalism heavily influenced by the natural sciences and especially evolution. It is full of nuances and subtleties that are easy to miss or misinterpret—something many of his critics almost seem to have done intentionally.

At this early point in his career, Spencer didn’t quite have the full command of the implications of his own philosophy, nor had he developed the ability to phrase them tactfully. He also shared some sloppy intellectual tendencies common to Victorian Britain, for example thinking of many nationalities or races as groups rather than individuals. All Native Americans, for example, apparently have hot tempers, according to Spencer. Though he rightly complained about being misunderstood, there are places where Spencer dug his own grave.

Despite these cringe-worthy moments, Spencer was a very much a liberal, especially by the stuffy standards of his time. He favored equal rights for all individuals of all races (even ones with hot tempers), and for all women. This consistent liberalism was as rare as it is consistent, even in the age of John Stuart Mill.

He opposed colonization and empire, was an ardent abolitionist, and believed deeply in poverty relief, even as he thought government incapable of handling the task competently or fairly. While Spencer distinguished between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor, he still advocated helping even the people he tactlessly calls undeserving. They are individuals, and all individuals have the same rights. Spencer is nothing if not consistent and, in a weird and off-putting way, compassionate.

Despite his heavy reliance evolutionary thought, Spencer also opposed eugenics programs to improve the species. This means Spencer opposed the very thing he is most criticized for supporting. Eugenics would instead become popular among progressives a generation or so later. The idea would persist long enough that Gunnar Myrdal’s advocacy, for example, led to 60,000 of his fellow Swedes being sterilized, and he pushed for similar policies for African-Americans. Myrdal would co-win the economics Nobel—in 1974. Spencer’s reputation as a social Darwinist turns out to be untrue, something I was unsure of when I picked up the book, and was relieved to discover. Some of his ideological opponents turned out to be less innocent.

The confusion likely results in part from Spencer’s stated belief in evolutionary progress towards perfection, an idea that seems to me influenced by Condorcet’s exaggerated Enlightenment-style belief in progress leading inevitably to perfection, and a prefiguring of economic equilibrium theory along the lines of what Walras would popularize during Spencer’s lifetime. The fact that Social Statics pre-dates Darwin means that few people had a sophisticated understanding of how natural selection works, let alone the ability to apply it to social processes, such as customs and norms. Spencer would have greatly profited from having access to the works not just of Darwin and Huxley, but later thinkers such as Sagan, Dennett, or Dawkins.

Spencer also used the term “fitness” not as a positive or negative value judgment, but as a descriptor. An herbivore with flat teeth is more fit to its plant-based diet than one with sharp teeth. Regardless of one’s personal opinion on the matter, this will show in their survival rates. One type of business or person is not inherently better than another, according to Spencer. But a business with lower prices will attract more customers in world where that’s what customers prefer. A person who works hard is more fit to a society that rewards hard work, and poorly fitted to one that punishes it. This will be true regardless of whether one thinks this a good thing or a bad thing. It’s a little bit like how many people struggle to tell the difference between a fact an opinion.

Another is a confusion between thinking in terms of groups versus thinking in terms of individuals. Spencer does seem to have believed in inherent racial differences. Such groups share common characteristics. I do not share this belief, nor do most people today. Despite this group-thinking, Spencer’s entire system is based on individual rights. Regardless of what group a person comes from, an individual has the same rights as all other individuals, and deserves to have those rights respected. But even where Spencer is flat-out wrong in his group-thinking, he remains an individualist. Spencer could have avoided this trap by simply taking the modern view that every individual is different regardless of what socially constructed group they belong to. But at least he believed in everyone’s individual rights.

I’ve only read selections of Spencer’s later works. Time permitting, I look forward to finding out if his thought, ahem, evolved out of its immature aspects and Victorian conventions in Social Statics, or if I will continue to roll my eyes at some parts while being moved in others by his compassion and drive to make things better for as many people as possible, regardless of race or gender.

Roger Koppl – Expert Failure

Roger Koppl – Expert Failure

Koppl uses the role of experts to explain the difference between approaching social problems from the top down, versus from the bottom up. Koppl defines an expert as anyone who is paid for their opinion. This is not tied to any credential, degree, affiliation, or any objective measure of knowledge. If someone sees fit to pay you for your opinion on something, you’re an expert on that something. For Koppl, experts play a crucial role in the economy and in the political process. But they should not be given too much power.

One way to do this is through competition. Experts should not be given a monopoly or any guild-like structure that limits competition. Certifications and credentials are useful, and they rightfully impact an expert’s perceived credibility. But they should not be mandatory; schooling and education are often very different things. Allowing an open competitive process in markets for experts will help the fields evolve the best way to signal credibility, and as knowledge and professional consensus evolve, send out the old in favor of the new. This brings to mind the stuffy old adage about science advancing one funeral at a time.

Koppl also offers a quality intellectual history not just of expertise from a bottom-up perspective, but the entire spontaneous order tradition from Bernard “Fable of the Bees” Mandeville’s cynicism to Adam Smith’s idealism, to Hayek’s wide-ranging advancements in emergent order theory. Not the easiest read, but sticking with it pays large dividends.