February 14, 2017
Three Philosophers on Trump

Bonevac for Trump

We can start with the most straight-forward piece, Daniel Bonevac on why he voted for Trump. (There’s also an earlier piece in the Washington Post, on “what it’s like to be a college professor who supports Trump“.) As Eric Schliesser has previously noted, Bonevac’s Trump is somewhat unrecognizable: Bonevac describes him as a Lockean defender of natural rights and the constitution, an upright supporter of freedom of speech, a fighter for the dispirited and left-behind; claims that Trump peddles racism or crude conspiracy theories, Bonevac suggest, are false or overblown.


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.

February 1, 2017
Various Links

These are some terrifying opinion poll numbers about Trump’s immigration ban: 48% of the population, including 82% of Republicans and 44% of Independents, agree with it, while only 41% oppose it. So while it’s fair to call it a controversial policy, it’s also wrong to call it unpopular. (Support/opposition depends a bit on the wording, but the general tendency is clear.)

If you’re like me, then probably all your friends are horrified by Trump’s executive order. But on the basis of these numbers, don’t be too surprised if Trump’s popularity doesn’t take a long-term hit over it. You should also not expect people like Paul Ryan to speak out: Republican representatives might commit electoral suicide if they opposed the ban too loudly, given these numbers.

That’s the (pessimistic) message. Tribalism/nationalism is simply that powerful, and this is easy to underestimate if you come from the liberal-cosmopolitan bubble.

Wilkinson looks at some of the data of who voted for Trump, and he tries to locate this in a wider sociological narrative about cultural change, and a growing economic and cultural divide between American cities and the American countryside. Even if you distrust the broad-brush cultural labels Wilkinson uses to classify different value schemes, he manages to tell a worrying story about the growing divide. Wilkinson’s piece is also full of useful nuggets of information, like this one:

The growing gap in economic output between big cities and the rest of America implies that Republican-leaning counties account for a dwindling share of the national product. According to Muro and Lui, in the 2000 election, which also featured a split in the popular and electoral votes, Bush won 2397 counties, accounting for 46% of GDP, while Gore won 659 counties accounting for 54% of GDP. In the 2016 election, the general pattern repeats: the Republican candidate wins many many more counties responsible for a smaller share of American economic output, but the asymmetry has become even crazier. Clinton took just 472 counties, which account for 64% of GDP, while Trump took 2584, which account for just 36% of GDP.  That’s amazing.

Amazing indeed.

A short piece in which Horwitz suggests that libertarians should pay more attention to the badness of Trump, and the structural damage he is likely to cause to the American constitutional system.

Frum’s argument is long and full of insights, so I won’t summarise it. But here’s one particularly challenging passage:

Whatever else happens, Americans are not going to assemble in parade-ground formations, any more than they will crank a gramophone or dance the turkey trot. In a society where few people walk to work, why mobilize young men in matching shirts to command the streets? If you’re seeking to domineer and bully, you want your storm troopers to go online, where the more important traffic is. Demagogues need no longer stand erect for hours orating into a radio microphone. Tweet lies from a smartphone instead.

“Populist-fueled democratic backsliding is difficult to counter,” wrote the political scientists Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz late last year. “Because it is subtle and incremental, there is no single moment that triggers widespread resistance or creates a focal point around which an opposition can coalesce … Piecemeal democratic erosion, therefore, typically provokes only fragmented resistance.” Their observation was rooted in the experiences of countries ranging from the Philippines to Hungary. It could apply here too.

Frum suggests that gradually “backsliding democracies” like Hungary and Venezuela provide a good comparative model to predict a possible American future (rather than somewhat hyperbolic comparisons with fascism). On this scenario, we won’t see the outright abandonment of the American institutional system—e.g., separation of powers, a free press—but rather a successive hollowing-out of the conventions that underlie the system. If this is true, then some of the main damage Trump could do might have already occurred,  by crossing many of the invisible conventions that buttress a healthy democracy—e.g., transparency in one’s financial dealings, a broad commitment to the truth, and openness to media criticism. Highly recommended reading.

A no-nonsense summary of how Russian propaganda works, supported by observations from psychology of common weaknesses in information processing. The application to Trump-style “alternative facts” propaganda isn’t raised in the piece, but should be obvious. Paul and Matthews explain many less obvious characteristics of propaganda—e.g., that propagandists don’t seem to care about contradicting themselves, and why propaganda emphasises quantity and repetition.

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.


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.


January 29, 2017
The Demands of Political Competence (part 3)

Competence Reconsidered

So let’s reconsider the question of competence. Voting in an election is a type of choice, similar to many other important choices—e.g., which university to apply for, whom to marry, or which house to buy. So I suggest we follow some broadly decision-theoretic notions in outlining what it would mean to be competent in making a choice. We can classify the demands of competence into four categories:

  1. you need to know the major options open to you (knowledge about choices),
  2. you need to be aware of the consequences of each option, or at least have a rough sense of some of the possible outcomes of the major options, and a sense for which of these outcomes are more likely than others (predictive model),
  3. you need to be able to evaluate the desirability of the relevant outcomes, in a way which allows you to make at least rough comparisons across outcomes (evaluative model), and lastly,
  4. you need to be able to form coherent, all-things-considered judgments regarding the desirability of different options on the basis of (i) to (iii) (integrated framework).

This account is still quite generic. But it’s possible to fill in some more of the details if we look at the specifics of voting.


January 29, 2017
The Demands of Political Competence (part 2)

Competence in the Literature

I’ll start with a quick and selective account of how some other theorists, especially political scientists, have approached the question of competence. The debate is a bit hampered by the fact that there is little agreed-upon terminology, and competence overlaps with a number of other phenomena, such as (political) knowledge, (political) information, (political) sophistication, and education. (Some attempts at conceptual ground-clearing are here and here.)

Still, a few general lines can be discerned. We can start from Jason Brennan’s four conditions for voter competence:

  1. Voters should act on widely available, good information […].
  2. They should avoid mass superstition and systematic error.
  3. They should evaluate information in a moderately rational, unbiased way […].
  4. Voters should be aware of their limits, and thus always look for more and better information on any high-stakes decision. (165)

These are pretty generic demands. They are also relatively minimal—they look like necessary, but certainly not like sufficient conditions for competence.

To be fair to Brennan, he isn’t interested in developing a full account of competence; it might well be that he would wish to add further conditions if he turned to that task. Relatively undemanding accounts of competence, however, are a recurring feature in empirical research on voter competence.


January 29, 2017
The Demands of Political Competence (part 1)


It is a natural thought that political competence is important to democracy. We are troubled by the idea that voters are not competent, and it is normal to stress the importance of political education. However, I have found that it is surprisingly difficult to state in a satisfying way when individuals are competent voters. This is the issue I’ll aim to shed light on.

Most adults are of course legally competent—that is, we think they possess the minimal mental capacities necessary to be responsible for their own legal choices. But it’s a separate issue whether people are competent at voting. I take this issue to be the following: (when) do individuals possess a certain kind of skill in tackling a certain kind of task, namely, the task of voting?

Here’s a troubling possibility I will explore: political competence is highly demanding, and very few people are capable in making competent political choices. In the voting booth, you might make choices, but it is unlikely that you make a well-informed, competent choice.

Political scientists have long stressed that people are uninformed about politics. They find that anywhere between a quarter to a third of the population are “know-nothings”. But once we realise the true epistemic demands of governance, it might turn out that even more people are not able to competently vote. (I would not think myself competent in such a way, if the argument is true.)

This sets a clear agenda. After looking at some existing accounts of competence (part 2), I’ll argue that political competence might be very rare (part 3). This is a surprising result, but perhaps not too surprising (part 4). In response, you might try to weaken the demands of competence (part 5). But I think more plausibly, we might try to develop democratic theory that entirely works its way around the notion of individual competence (part 6).

Continue to part 2

January 23, 2017
Defining “fact”

Kellyanne Conway has termed a new, 1984-style neologism, that of “alternative facts”. That’s as silly as it is outrageous. But the response to Conway hasn’t been always intellectually up to par. Here’s Politico:

Merriam-Webster poked at the Trump administration through its Twitter feed, appearing to take senior adviser Kellyanne Conway to task for saying that press secretary Sean Spicer was offering up “alternative facts” about the crowd size at the inauguration.

“A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality,” the dictionary company said in a pinned tweet that linked to a Merriam-Webster posting about how lookups for the word “fact” spiked after Conway’s comment.

Unfortunately, “a piece of information presented as having objective reality” is an outright terrible definition of “fact”. Indeed, the claim that 1.5 million people attended Trump’s inauguration can well be a fact on this definition, as long as it is “presented as” having “objective reality”, which Trump’s press secretary might well have. And some things which are clearly facts—e.g., that I own a copy of Ulysses—fail to be facts on this definition, as they are not presented as anything to anyone. That’s because facts are facts: they just are, independent from whether they are presented in some context or not.

This is not an exception. I tell undergraduates over and over again not to use dictionaries for serious intellectual work. This is because dictionary definitions, while good for obscure words and teaching usage, are normally sloppy, often outright terrible at accuracy, at least the kind of accuracy needed for academic writing. Generally, dictionaries are poor guides to resolve intellectual disagreements; they are normally not even good guides to resolve disagreements over definitions. Bashing Conway & Co. is one thing—but at least you should get your facts (ahem) straight.