Political Philosophy
October 11, 2017
Collective Competence: Some Initial Thoughts

This post expands on themes from a previous series of blog posts, “The Demands of Political Competence”.

No one person knows how to put someone on the moon, but the brilliant minds at NASA, as a collective, do. Similarly, one might suggest, while no one person is politically competent, the electorate as a whole possesses the necessary competence. If this can be established, one might argue, we should worry less, or not at all, about individuals not knowing much about politics, and not being individually competent to make political decisions. After all, we do not think it surprising or troubling that no individual NASA employee knows how to put someone on the moon; what matters is that NASA as a whole can. This analogy provides us with a comforting and appealing way to think about democracy. But is it true?

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June 2, 2017
On Hayek’s Road to Serfdom

Hayek’s Road to Serfdom still takes a regular place on undergraduate reading lists, is placed on lists of intellectually important books, and it still plays the role as a prophetic warning against socialism for many libertarians (see e.g., Glenn Beck). There’s no question that Road to Serfdom has been a historically important book. But like its rough contemporary The Open Society and Its Enemies, it’s a book which hasn’t aged well. The Constitution of Liberty is a much more timeless book, and also the philosophically much more sophisticated one. Here are some scattered observations on the book, and what’s worth reading in Hayek.

(The following is based on notes for teaching, and many of the points I’ll make can be found in secondary literature on Hayek. But the reader might find it useful to have some of it assembled in one place.)

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May 30, 2017
Some Thoughts on Ideal Theory (part 1)

I’ve recently found myself revisiting topics from Gaus’s Tyranny of the Ideal, which I’ve written about here. This is an area where recent literature has exploded. Instead of trying to do justice to the multitude of issues that have arisen in that literature, I’ll approach the topic idiosyncratically to order some of my thoughts.

In particular, I’ll look at the issue through the lens of a relatively simple metaphor. Like all metaphors, it obscures some issues and sheds light on others. I’ll leave it to the reader to judge the degree to which it succeeds, but I found worth thinking about.

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March 26, 2017
The Epistemic Pollution of Racism

I have recently finished Jeffrey Toobin’s The Run of His Life: The People v. O. J. Simpson, on which a similarly named television show is based. The book is a detailed blow-by-blow retelling of the famous court case that exercised America. One theme from the book stuck out to me: how all participants in the case—prosecutors, defendants, jurors, police officers, observers—had to battle with a constant sense of epistemic pollution by racism, and to some degree, celebrity culture.

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March 9, 2017
No Single Mind Can Capture The Truth

It is clear that none of us can know everything. Especially in politics, the extent of individual ignorance is significant. As I argued in a previous series of posts, I suspect that each of us is simply not competent to decide large-scale political issues. To put this in a slightly pretentious slogan, no single mind can capture the truth. A second observation I have stressed is that people strongly, deeply and reasonably disagree about the truth. Even where we do think we have captured the truth, we seriously disagree over what it is.

It’s useful to think about how these two different observations fit together. In some philosophical quarters, there is optimism that intellectual diversity is a good thing, rather than a disadvantage. The idea is that we all possess a different piece of the truth—disagreement indicates that we need to fit these pieces together. Call this the puzzle metaphor. On the puzzle metaphor, it’s not greatly troubling that we disagree and that no single mind can capture the truth, as long as we are decently cooperating in putting the puzzle pieces together. Disagreement is a challenge, but a surmountable one.

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February 9, 2017
Regulating the Marketplace of Ideas

Amongst ways to justify freedom of speech, the metaphor of the marketplace of ideas has often held a central place. The basic thought is simple enough: just as free markets are likely to contribute the most to social and economic progress, so a free market in ideas is most likely to allow us to discover truth.

You might question whether this analogy really works (what’s the “price” of an idea? etc.). But quite independent from these worries, I think that most people who use this metaphor fail to explore what it would fully entail.

Here’s a first problem: a marketplace for ideas would be a truth-conducive market only if there was demand for truth, or at least if truth was the primary feature in ideas that individuals demanded. It’s not at all clear that this is the case. People also demand ideas which comfort them, which rationalise their identity, their grievances, and their self-interest.

Marketplaces, if they work, deliver on what people want. So there’s no guarantee that a working marketplace of ideas is particularly good on delivering the truth. Indeed, that publications like the Daily Mail or Fox News are successful might be a sign that the marketplace of ideas is healthy and thriving.

That’s of course not a knock-down argument. Insofar as some demand is driven by a desire for truth, free competition between ideas in this area might still be the instrumentally best way to achieve truth. (Perhaps you are very optimistic and think this is the case for academia.) But our defence of a free marketplace for ideas has now become importantly conditional: it is under certain conditions and in certain respects that it delivers epistemically valuable results; but where the conditions do not hold, we might have no reason to favour a free marketplace over some other kind of organisation.

The second crucial point is that the analogy cannot at all establish unrestricted freedom of speech. Outside libertarian circles, few people will believe that markets should be totally unregulated. Indeed, a standard liberal (“ordoliberal”) idea is that the state should step in where markets fail. Governments should, for example, reign in monopolies, force companies to internalise external costs, and protect vulnerable market participants from exploitation. Markets in modern economies are free as much as they’re regulated, and most liberals think that this is as it should be.

So there’s no reason to think that we should not also regulate the marketplace of ideas. I’m not sure what precise regulations on free speech we should favour. But invoking the metaphor of the marketplace works very badly if you wish to argue for unrestricted freedom of speech, and in fact may show the precise opposite.

One might reply that there are no natural analogues in the speech case for the reasons why we wish to regulate markets in goods and services—what, for example, could it possibly mean that an idea has external costs? But once you accept that there are few meaningful analogies between real-world markets and the “market” of ideas, it would be better just to drop the analogy altogether.

January 29, 2017
The Demands of Political Competence (part 6)

Democracy without Individual Competence

If what I have argued is true, then being politically competent is highly demanding. Voters would need significant amounts of background knowledge, intellectual skill, moral impartiality, and access to reliable information to make competent political decisions. Only a tiny sliver of the population would count as politically competent.

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January 29, 2017
The Demands of Political Competence (part 5)

Weakening Competence

There are various strategies one might pursue to weaken the demands of competence. Some of these attempts have some force, but ultimately I am sceptical about the degree to which these strategies can be made to work.

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January 29, 2017
The Demands of Political Competence (part 4)

The Extent of Demandingness

Let me elaborate a bit on the demandingness of the account I’ve given. We’ve seen that empirical research consistently shows that a significant amount of voters—between a quarter and a third—already fails the first category of conditions (information about choices). We should be even more sceptical about people having sufficiently sophisticated predictive and evaluative models for competence. We have seen that voters have troubles with having minimally coherent belief systems. Lots of evidence suggests that voters base their choices on minimal, highly filtered amount of information, which they process in badly biased ways.

But I also think that most politically informed, highly-educated voters would not pass the competence test I’ve outlined. Focus on the politicos who keep up with political developments on a day-to-day basis, who have a good degree of civic knowledge, identify and organise along party lines, and participate in politics outside elections. Stereotypically, this is the person who reads a daily newspaper like the New York Times or Washington Post, consults “high-brow” political websites like Slate or Vox, and so on.

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