Illiberal Reformers

Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era

[Amazon Link]

A rare occurrence: the University Near Here actually owned a recent non-fiction title that I wanted to read. I didn't have to bug the Interlibrary Loan people. Good for them.

Published earlier this year, Illiberal Reformers is a scholarly critical look at the roots of the US Progressive movement in the late 19th and early 20th century. The author, Thomas Leonard, is a lecturer at the Department of Economics at Princeton. He covers much the same ground as Jonah Goldberg did in Liberal Fascism, but (as far as I can tell from the reviews at Amazon) to much greater mainstream respectability. (See Jonah's comments on that.)

Leonard acknowledges the "good work" accomplished by those early Progressives: workplace reforms, safer food, women's suffrage, trust-busting, etc.) We might differ, of course, on how much of that progress would have occurred anyway, as a result of increased prosperity.

But—and this is a huge but—these early reformers were also endowed with massive amounts of hubris about their abilities to reshape American society, and the American economy, more to their liking. They weren't socialists, by and large. But they were united in their arrogant contempt for laissez-faire free-market economics specifically, and individualism (generally); they simply knew that their conscious "reality-based" designs and plans would produce superior results. Why wait for Adam Smith's magic Invisible Hand to produce results when you can grab control of the state, and directly use its Visible Fist to get the superior outcomes you desire? Why not push people around in the name of the collective good-as-you-see-it.

This required, naturally, a national government endowing itself with vast new powers, damned be the Constitutional niceties. Woodrow Wilson is one of those damners, quoted as arguing that the Constitution and its government be viewed as a living thing, evolving via Darwinist processes, rather than the old constraining fuddy-duddy Newtonian rules envisioned by the Founders.

This alludes to another feature of the early Progressives: they were devotees of the junk science of the day. The poor understanding of evolution combined with unsophisticated economics resulted in "scientific" racism and an obsession with all things eugenic. This manifested itself in all sorts of nasty policies: racial segregation, stupid immigration restrictions, minimum wage laws designed to keep the "unfit" out of the workplace, etc. While the Progressive movement was fine with women getting to vote, they were largely opposed to their presence in the workplace: a functioning family had the father earning a "living wage", while the little lady stayed home, baked, and tended the kiddos.

Now: Progressivism was far from a uniform movement. For example, not all Progressives championed Prohibition—but a lot did. And Progressives were not the only racists in the American tent—but they were clearly on the wrong side, and their shimmering belief in their own moral rectitude makes it somehow unforgivable.

Leonard is obviously interested in promoting his thesis, but he does this effectively by quoting the Progressives' own self-incriminating words, with only a gloss of his own interpretations. Irony: Leonard teaches at current-day Princeton, but one of his main victims is a previous President of Princeton, the aforementioned Woodrow Wilson.

If I had one complaint about Leonard's approach, it's that he doesn't go far enough. It's to easy for modern Progressives to scoff: well, except for all that early eugenic stuff, our movement was just fine. I have high hopes for his future work, though: see, for example, his review of Nudge by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, taking on the paternalistic conceit of two modern Progressives.


Last Modified 2016-12-04 5:31 PM EST

Nine Princes in Amber

[Amazon Link]

I've recently finished up two reading projects (John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee series and Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer novels). So what better to do than embark on another one: Roger Zelazny's Amber novels. The first five "Corwin Cycle" books were written between 1970 and 1978; I remember gobbling those up as they appeared as paperbacks. Zelazny followed up in 1985-1991 with five books in the "Merlin Cycle"; I don't remember how many of those I read. He passed away in 1995.

Sobering thought: given my age, and all the other stuff in my to-be-read lists, I may not finish this project. Call it hopeful optimism that I'm even starting.

This first book starts out normally enough: Corwin, our hero, awakens in a private hospital out of a drug-induced stupor. He has a nasty case of amnesia, all he can remember is being in a car accident. But his injuries seem to have healed remarkably well. After some violence and fast-talking, he escapes and heads to the home of the woman who apparently was responsible for keeping him sedated. Who turns out to be his double-dealing sister.

Corwin slowly gets up to speed on the true nature of his predicament: he's on "our" Earth, but that's only a shadow of the True Earth, which holds glorious Amber. And he's not some ordinary schmoe, but a prince. (There a number of other princes, for a total of … oh, I don't know, somewhere in the high single digits.) Also, princesses. All sons and daughters of Oberon, the long-missing King of Amber.

Corwin discovers that his exile on our Earth is a plot by brother Eric to grab Amber's throne. What follows is Corwin's efforts to return to Amber through the Shadows, thwart Eric, and sit on the throne himself.

This involves massive violence involving the inhabitants of various Shadow worlds. When you're a prince, these short-lived creatures—remember, you and I are examples—are pretty much cannon fodder whose lives are cheap when expended in a quest for power. (It's never clear exactly what's so damn cool about being in charge in Amber. It's just something princes think they're entitled to do.)

A fun read, and a neat ending though.

You Suck

[Amazon Link]

This book is a sequel to Bloodsucking Fiends, which I read back in 2011. Some sequels stand OK on their own, but (consumer note) I would recommend reading this series in order. Unless your memory for plot details is better than mine, I wouldn't recommend waiting over five years between reading the two, either.

At the end of the previous book, vampire Jody had "turned" her Renfield, young aspiring writer C. Thomas Flood, and as this book begins, he's pretty peeved about that. But that only lasts about three paragraphs, because being a vampire in San Francisco does have its advantages. But the logistical details are daunting. You need to keep track of sunrise times, lest you be burnt to a crisp. And there's the need to feed, which is problematic if you have scruples about killing people. Plus, your old buddies on the night shift at Safeway were useful allies in combatting Jody's old mentor, Elijah. But now you're perceived as part of the problem. Elijah (as it turns out) wasn't totally defeated in the previous book. And two corrupt cops are hovering around as well.

There are a few new characters: "Abby Normal" is a profane young teenage Goth, who gets recruited to assist. And there's also "Blue", a hooker imported from Vegas by the non-vampire Safeway workers, who have quickly blown their ill-begotten windfall from the previous book on her.

Moore is, as usual, hilarious and filthy, with a core of sweetness. I keep wondering if they'll ever manage to make a movie or TV series out of his books. Much of the humor is in his prose, though, so I'm not sure how well it would work.

The Golden Bough

A Study in Magic and Religion

[Amazon Link]

Sometimes enough time elapses between me (a) putting a book on the should-read list and (b) actually reading it, that I forget what the reason for (a) was. That's not the case here! National Review's Summer 2016 reading recommendations had this from rock star Kevin D. Williamson:

Consider neutralizing this ugly and stupid political season with a few beautiful and intelligent books about politics that aren’t exactly books about politics. The best book about politics that isn’t a book about politics is James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough, and it contains within it everything you really need to know about presidential campaigns. The book explores the most ancient foundations of religious thought, and argues that the earliest religions were fertility cults organized around the person of a sacred king. When the crops failed or the rains didn’t come, it was concluded that the sacred king had somehow failed in his duties — that the gods were not satisfied — and he was ritually sacrificed. All their careers ended the same way, and yet the position was a coveted one. You may notice that Colonel Kurtz is reading The Golden Bough before the unfortunate events at the end of Apocalypse Now.

Good enough for me! Google tells me that Kevin has, over the years, recommended The Golden Bough again and again.

There are a number of options for the potential reader. The original two-volume work was published in 1890, but Fraser kept dinking with it. By 1915, it was 12 volumes. In addition, its history includes removal and restoration of material on Christianity, which was judged by many Victorians to be scandalous. See Wikipedia for details. I wound up with the 1994 abridgment ("It restores the material on Christianity purged in the first abridgement.") because if you've watched The Simpsons, you can't be offended by Fraser's mild sacreligiousity.

I didn't get off easy, though. Even the single-volume "abridgment" is north of 800 pages of main text, small type, narrow margins, and paragraphs that span multiple pages. So I took it slow, roughly 25 pages/day over 32 days. Still, it was a slog. Yes, you can pull Williamson's insight out of it. A book this long, you can pull just about any thesis out of it.

Essentially: Fraser looks for grand themes uniting the religions, rites, customs, festivals, etc., worldwide and throughout history. He finds those grand themes, but this involves relating—literally—hundreds of tales from mythology, history, and anthropology. The activities involved are (variously) elaborate, foolish, disgusting, gory, wasteful, and (most importantly) nearly always pointless in accomplishing anything of benefit to the participants. This gets a little mind-numbing at times: I lost track of how many times he relates the ritual of Aztec human sacrifice. (They always manage to rip out your heart, though.)

You can get a slight amount of amusement from the Victorian-era prose. Fraser is workmanlike in relating most historical details, but occasionally bursts into Bulwer-Lytton-style flowery descriptions of some idyllic scene when it strikes his fancy. He's also refreshingly non-PC: savages are "savages", primitives are "primitives". But also: bumpkins are "bumpkins", clod-hoppers are … well, you get the idea.

More importantly, there are little signals throughout that Fraser is straining to make the anthropological facts fit into his overall thesis. The book is rife with speculative phrases like "it is not unreasonable to assume that", "it is quite possible that", "seems to be best explained by the hypothesis that". That ain't a confidence-builder, Jimmy.

While out walking the dog, I amused myself by wondering how some future Fraser would describe the present day.

Early 21st century inhabitants of New England were obviously devoted to pagan celebrations on the eve of All Hallows' Day. As shown in the so-called "comic strips" and "television specials" of that era, children with unusually large heads would worship the "Great Pumpkin". In sympathy with this cult, a tradition of leaving pumpkins on one's doorstep was established; the gourds would be left on stoops for weeks afterward, to be consumed, bit by bit, by squirrels and raccoons. There can be little doubt these creatures were considered to be disciples of the Great Pumpkin himself.

But I'm glad I read it.

On Inequality

[Amazon Link]

I read Harry G. Frankfurt's delightfully-titled On Bullshit a number of years ago, so this title was self-recommending. As always, I'm extremely grateful to the University Near Here for allowing me to maintain my library privileges in retirement, and thanks to the Interlibrary Loan people who wangled a dead-trees copy up here from Rivier University down in Nashua.

It's a very slim volume, 89 pages of main text. And those pages are small, the margins are wide, and the type is normal-sized. But don't be fooled: Frankfurt is a Professor (Emeritus) of Philosophy at Princeton, and (as you would expect) his argument is carefully made and tightly argued. And, good news, it's easily accessible to anyone who (like me) can appreciate philosophical discussions at a "dilettante" level.

Frankfurt's main point: equality is not a fundamental moral good. Hence, inequality is not inherently objectionable. Arguments about inequality's dreadfulness are just about always actually about something else.

Specifically, economic inequality (whether based on wealth or income) isn't inherently bad. What's bad is that people don't have "enough" economic resources to live a decent and fulfilling life. That's demonstrably bad, Frankfurt argues, and is bad without reference to what resources other people might have.

There is a utilitarian argument against economic inequality based on the diminishing marginal utility of money: If you have merely $5, an extra $1 is a huge deal; if you have a million, that extra buck is near-negligible. Hence, utility is maximized when everyone has the same.

Frankfurt shows the holes in this argument deftly. Even assuming utilitarianism is valid (I don't think it is, by the way), the further assumptions about what money-utility looks like are false or unsupportable. (And, in any case, the specter of the Redistribution Police wandering the countryside with their Utility Meters, making sure everyone doesn't vary from equality… that's a little dystopian, right?)

Once Frankfurt disposes of economic inequality, he proceeds to take a buzzsaw to inequality by other measures: inequality of "rights", of "respect", of "consideration", of "concern", of …. In no case can "equality" be shown to be the fundamental issue. There's simply no reason to assign the same (say) "rights" to two totally different people with differing life histories, values, desires, etc. Only when we are considering generic "Person A" and "Person B" can we, kind of, argue that there's no reason to favor A over B, or vice versa. But that's working from ignorance; the actual primary moral value at work is impartiality, not "equality".

So, recommended.

Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom

[Amazon Link]

I can't quite remember how this got into my to-be-read list, probably this post by Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution. Thanks as always to the University Near Here Interlibrary Loan staff.

Jacob Levy is a PoliSci prof at McGill and posts at Bleeding Heart Libertarians (which I haven't read in the past, but will now start). Prof Levy admits up front that he's written here for his fellow scholars, so I have nobody to blame but myself.

Why do I say that? Here's why: my understanding of political philosophy is at the dilettante level. It has been there for decades, and I don't see the needle budging off that value anytime, sooner or later. Yet, I keep reading stuff, hoping that at least some of the material will stick. That sometimes gets me into trouble, as with reading Richard Epstein on matters legal. And it did here. I probably wouldn't pass a test on the material, Professor. But I swear, I looked at every page. Given that I may be displaying my ignorance in what follows…

The book discusses the role of "intermediate groups" in liberal polities: religious/ethnic/charitable organizations, universities, and the like. We tend to take "freedom of association" for granted among our rights, which includes, of course, the freedom to be a member, or not to be a member of such groups.

And the reverse is at least roughly true: those groups have a right to define themselves, which includes the right to restrict their membership to those they choose, and to remove members that fail to follow their rules.

And therein lies some conflict: such groups, even in the midst of liberal states, can have highly illiberal structures and policies. Could that be a problem? Levy plausibly argues so.

Also: the mere existence of such groups is in inherent tension with the state(s) in which they are embedded. The state likes to be in charge, and any outside powers and authorities represent a possible challenge to that.

Levy takes us on a historical tour of these conflicts, showing how the a range of political philosophers tackled this issue. It dates back to the rise of the modern state only a few centuries ago, when the statists of the day had to prevail over the existing political institutions in order to succeed. So there is (and has been) no arguing from fundamental principles possible here: everything's tied into actual historical events and how things played out in different countries, mostly in Europe.

Here's where I was especially weak. Levy namedrops names and movements, assuming you're as familiar with them as kids today are with the movements of Kanye, Taylor, and Beyonce. Jansenists? Let me check Wikipedia…

Does Levy have a solution? No, he does not. He convincingly argues that neither "pluralists" (roughly, advocates for strong, relatively unfettered intermediate groups), nor "rationalists" (advocating strong state control or prohibition of such groups) have correct arguments. Essentially: the struggle is unresolvable, involving incommensurable (but valid) human values, and the best course of action is to admit there are no "ideal" solutions that pop out of the dialectical mist.

Fine. I just recommend that my fellow amateurs might want to wait for Prof Levy's "… for Dummies" book.

The Lonely Silver Rain

[Amazon Link]

Another windup to a years-long re-reading project: all of the Travis McGee novels by John D. MacDonald, in order. The Lonely Silver Rain was published in 1985, and Mr. MacDonald passed away the next year.

Travis is hired by a rich acquaintance to find and recover a stolen luxury yacht. The task turns out to involve a lot of aerial reconnaissance and tedious scanning of the resulting photos. (If updated for the 21st century, I'd imagine Travis would have a gray-hat hacker tap into a satellite feed and have an AI program scan the images.)

But finding the yacht is straightforward. When Travis boards the abandoned vessel, he discovers long-dead, badly abused, bodies and piles of counterfeit dough. Everything screams "drug deal gone bad". Which would be fine, except for the subsequent nearly-successful attempts on Travis's life. He'd like to get that to stop, if possible. This effort takes him on an odyssey through the cocaine trafficking biz, as it was in the 1980s.

This is all accompanied by McGee's general angst about his personal life. A lot of his old friends from Bahia Mar Marina have moved on, and the new crowd … well, they're not his type. How is he to grow old gracefully, when for decades he's scornfully eschewed everything resembling a normal middle-class life? You can only boink so many beach bimbos before that gets tired. Or so I'm told.

When I reached the end, I couldn't help but notice how perfect it was as a "final" sendoff book. Allegedly—beware, spoilers at the link—that was not necessarily Mr. MacDonald's intention. But fans can now imagine Travis shambling off into new sordid scrapes as they wish, dispensing rough justice, disguised as "salvage work".

The Blue Hammer

[Amazon Link]

Long ago, I dumped all the Lew Archer novels written by Ross Macdonald (the pen name of Kenneth Millar) onto my to-be-read pile. (In that case: the to-be-reread pile). That's a slow-motion process. There are 18 of them. I checked off the first 15 of them by 2004, reading the last three in 2008, 2012, and this final one, 1976's The Blue Hammer, just now.

This last story finds private investigator Lew short on wisecracks and long on melancholy. He's been summoned to a copper magnate's mansion in the hills above Santa Teresa to find a missing painting of a beautiful, also naked, woman. It was possibly painted by Richard Chantry who disappeared from Santa Teresa twenty-five years previous. The plot rapidly gets complex: the magnate, his wife, and Chantry himself all knew each other in Arizona decades ago. If you're an Archer fan, you'll already guess that there were shady things going on back then that nobody wants to talk about, but that Archer must diligently uncover.

There are a bewildering array of characters: the magnate's drug-addled daughter; her earnest art-student boyfriend who seems obsessed with Chantry; the boyfriend's alcoholic dad and belligerent mom; the shady art dealer who sold the painting; Chantry's widow, also relocated from Arizona to Santa Teresa; the newspaper society reporter who senses an important story. And many more. You may want to take notes as you go, maybe draw up a family tree.

Kenneth Millar wrote this as he was descending into Alzheimer's, but it doesn't really show. (There are apparently some contradictions in the text, and more ironed out in editing.) He died at age 67 in 1983, before it was common to continue a popular character using another author. I guess I'm OK with that.

The Kingdom of Speech

[Amazon Link]

Acting only on the strength of the author's name, Tom Wolfe, I requested this book from the University Near Here's interlibrary loan; it took over a week but it finally showed up, all the way from Texas Tech University in sunny Lubbock. It's surprisingly short, about 170 pages of main text, with unsmall fonts and unnarrow margins. It's a lot of fun.

It's a bit of a stretch for Mr. Wolfe, whose previous non-fiction words have been about art, architecture, and observations of modern American culture. Here, his general topic is the quest to merge the phenomenon of syntactical language, only appearing in a single species (us), into the classical constraints of Darwinistic evolution. His outrageous assertion: such efforts have failed, and they're likely to keep failing.

His argument is wide-ranging, starting with the beginnings of modern evolutionary theory in the mid-19th century. He tells the story with an entertaining and iconoclastic twist: Alfred Wallace, a "flycatcher" naturalist trudging in the nasty swamps of the Malay peninsula comes up with the theory of natural selection while in a malarial fever. He writes his idea up, sends it back to England, where Darwin gets a pre-publication whiff. As it turns out, it's pretty much the same idea he's been working on, without publishing, for decades since the voyage of the Beagle. A little legerdemain, and he wangles publication in the same prestigious journal as Wallace's article. And goes on to grab the lion's share of scientific fame and glory.

Wolfe doesn't bow to Darwinism; he echoes the criticisms it has faced through the years, most tellingly the "Just-So Stories" that it adopts to account for evolutionary outcomes: this is a plausible explanation, so this is what must have happened.

Fast-forward to post-WWII MIT, where Noam Chomsky is developing modern linguistics. He's the acknowledged guru of the field, kind of like physics' Feynman. He postulates a brain-based "language organ", implementing a universal syntax, accounting neatly for all possible language permutations, so game pretty much over. Except nobody can nail down the language organ. And, worse, Daniel Everett, another "flycatcher" working in the remote Amazon, finds a primitive tribe, the Pirahã, whose language doesn't fit into Chomskyite theorizing at all. Confounding all who look for confirmatory evidence of the "evolution of language".

Wolfe's contention: language isn't part of natural evolution. It's a human-made artifact, like a pencil or a Buick. Wolfe gets quite lyrical about this; for all I know, he might be right. I'm pretty sure the fans of Chomsky and Darwin are on the attack.

Does Wolfe do all this with his trademark pyrotechnical prose? Yes, he does. (I wish Wolfe narrated the Audible version of this book; it would be a blast to listen to him read his own stuff; unfortunately, someone else does it.)

A side note: back when I was in high school, I snagged a $2.95 copy of Mortimer J. Adler's The Difference of Man and the Difference it Makes, touching much the same issues. It's followed me from Nebraska, to California, to Iowa, up to New Hampshire, down to Maryland, back to New Hampshire. Now, nearly 50 years later, it might be time to reread it.

Against Democracy

[Amazon Link]

Against Democracy? You might think this might be a very short book. Page one: Democracy has given us Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as major party nominees this year. Democracy sucks. Q.E.D., baby!

But Jason Brennan, a professor at Georgetown U, probably wanted to deliver a more scholarly takedown, and he has. It's difficult to avoid noting that, even though a lot of the book was probably written before 2016, it's hard to read it without finding current events illuminating and supporting his thesis.

Brennan is immune to the feel-goodness and bovine sacredness of the word "democracy". Let's ignore all that, he says, and ask the sober question: what does democracy have to recommend it? Not that much, he argues. As individuals, the democratic poltical power we wield is insignificant, but it does tend to "stultify and corrupt" us, turning us into "civic enemies" with excuses to despise our neighbors.

Worse, our votes are woefully outnumbered by the thoughtless and irresponsible. (The data is irrefutable.) What possible argument could there be allowing those masses to hold political sway over us? We wouldn't pick a random person from the phonebook to do our plumbing or to remove our appendix — why do we entertain the idea that they're entitled to have a say in national issues of peace, prosperity, and liberties?

Brennan's an entertaining and accessible writer, aiming (I think) at the bright-undergraduate level. I appreciated the Monty Python reference to the "women lying in ponds distributing swords" form of government. More seriously, he divides the populace into "Hobbits", "Hooligans", and "Vulcans". Hobbits are apathetic and ignorant about matters political. Hooligans are the "rabid sports fans of politics"; they are too interested, cheering on their side, unable or unwilling to consider alternatives. Finally, Vulcans are the holy grail of political participants, making their views dependent on evidence, self-aware of their own limitations and uncertainties. (But even Vulcans, I think, can have incompatible political visions and values.)

Brennan convincingly argues that Vulcans are nearly invisible and have at best minor influence.

The cliché is: democracy is the worst system of government, except for all the others. Brennan feels the force of that argument, but asks us to consider various possible schemes of epistocratic government; granting a larger share of political powers to those who (in some manner) shown themselves more likely to exercise them responsibly.

One approach I wish Brennan would have considered more carefully: instead of restricting the political power of voters, approach things at the candidate side. A requirement for running would be to subject yourself to a battery of tests to measure your intelligence (maybe an IQ test); general knowledge and academic achievement (something like the SAT); maybe a quiz on current affairs (where's Aleppo?) or general civic knowledge; maybe specialized queries on economics or science.

You wouldn't disqualify anyone based on test scores, but you would publicize everyone's scores. Would voters pay attention? Maybe enough on the margin to improve results.