Tuesday, 8 November 2016

What would a Trump Victory mean for Political Philosophy?

As a person of Indian origin who grew up under Indira Gandhi's hawk like gaze, I am naturally drawn to strong female leaders. Still, I have to accept that Hilary mightn't get in.

Which raises the question for me, what would a Trump victory mean for Political Philosophy?
The Left, of course, will congratulate itself on having concentrated entirely on fostering politically correct 'safe spaces' on campuses the better to protect young people from reality. Their bolt hole has been secured in advance. They can devote themselves to repeating as farce the tragic history of the Frankfurt School in the Thirties.
What about the Libertarian and Neo Conservative Right? Have they equally commodious storm shelters?
Perhaps.
After all, disengagement with Reality- more particularly when that reality is Democratic- is what pays the rent for both the Ivory Tower and the Crack Den.

A straw in the wind is this favourable review in the New Yorker given to 'Against Democracy' penned by my old bete noire, Jason Brennan who had previously argued that there is no moral duty to vote and has now come out against representative democracy tout court.
This extract from the New Yorker article gives the flavour of his argument. My comments are in bold.

Why do we vote, and is there a reason to do it or a duty to do it well? If a person believes deontics is non-empty, then, provided there is at least one possible state of the world where there is a causal chain between voting and the realisation of at least one deontic proposition the person might affirm, then the answer is yes, and yes.  Why? Because a duty is no less a duty if it scores a low probability in a consequentialist calculus. Otherwise, deontics is empy and only consequentialism obtains as a viable Ethical theory. It’s been said that voting enables one to take an equal part in the building of one’s political habitat. Brennan thinks that such participation is worthless if what you value about participation is the chance to influence an election’s outcome; odds are, you won’t. One soldier doing his duty might not affect the battle's outcome. One credit card fraud might not bring down the Financial System. One more 'free rider' won't lead to the collapse of Public Good provision. If deontics is empty- fine! We can do purely consequentialist mechanism design. But, in that case, Brennan's book is worthless. Yet he has previously written that participation can be meaningful even when its practical effect is nil, as when a parent whose spouse willingly handles all child care still feels compelled to help out. Deontic logic has always understood that the performance of supererogatory duties has two quite separate effects- firstly a 'signalling' function from which reputational and 'demonstration effect' type benefits, within a pooling equilibrium, can be gleaned, and secondly, in the case of 'costly signals', a 'separating equilibrium' arises such that the agent's preferences, their inward 'ethos', changes in line with meta-preferences. This may yield far greater 'arbitrage' type benefits because the agent now straddles both a co-ordination and a dis-coordination game and can function as a 'market maker'.  In other words, the performance of supererogatory duties, or ones which are known to be 'inconsequential' can still have massive signalling effects. Brennan claims that no comparable duty to take part exists with voting, because other kinds of good actions can take voting’s place. He believes, in other words, that voting is part of a larger market in civic virtue, the way that farming is part of a larger market in food, and he goes so far as to suggest that a businessman who sells food and clothing to Martin Luther King, Jr., is making a genuine contribution to civic virtue, even though he makes it indirectly. This doesn’t seem persuasive, in part because it dilutes the meaning of civic virtue too much, and in part because it implies that a businessman who sells a cheeseburger to J. Edgar Hoover is committing civic evil.
The real problem with Brennan's argument is that it is based on Expectations. His argument only goes through if it is rational for us to believe that our vote can't affect things much.  However, if John Muth's notion of 'Rational Expectations' is correct- i.e. if our expectations should match the expectations we would have if we subscribed to the correct economic theory (which is only correct if everybody's subscribing to it would result in an optimal outcome)- then it is irrational for us to believe our vote would have no effect.
Brennan appears to be producing an 'economic' argument- based on the selfishness of the atomised voter- but Economic Theory turned its back on this type of supposed 'Rationalism' before Brennan was born. More than once, Brennan compares uninformed voting to air pollution. It’s a compelling analogy: in both cases, the conscientiousness of the enlightened few is no match for the negligence of the many, and the cost of shirking duty is spread too widely to keep any one malefactor in line. Actually, uninformed choice features in Economics as 'noise'. It cancels itself out.  Unlike air pollution, which is an 'externality' in the sense of harming agents not party to the information aggregation of the relevant social choice mechanism (i.e. the Planning Ministry in the case of Command Economies or the Market for Laissez faire regimes) uniformed choice in any information aggregating collective choice mechanism has no externality effect. It is internalized simply.
Your commute by bicycle probably isn’t going to make the city’s air any cleaner, and even if you read up on candidates for civil-court judge on Patch.com, it may still be the crook who gets elected. But though the incentive for duty may be weakened, it’s not clear that the duty itself is lightened. The whole point of democracy is that the number of people who participate in an election is proportional to the number of people who will have to live intimately with an election’s outcome. It’s worth noting, too, that if judicious voting is like clean air then it can’t also be like farming. Clean air is a commons, an instance of market failure, dependent on government protection for its existence; farming is part of a market.

But maybe voting is neither commons nor market. Perhaps, instead, it’s combat. Relatively gentle, of course. Rather than rifles and bayonets, essentially there’s just a show of hands. But the nature of the duty may be similar, because what Brennan’s model omits is that sometimes, in an election, democracy itself is in danger. If a soldier were to calculate his personal value to the campaign that his army is engaged in, he could easily conclude that the cost of showing up at the front isn’t worth it, even if he factors in the chance of being caught and punished for desertion. The trouble is that it’s impossible to know in advance of a battle which side will prevail, let alone by how great a margin, especially if morale itself is a variable. The lack of certainty about the future makes a hash of merely prudential calculation. It’s said that most soldiers worry more about letting down the fellow-soldiers in their unit than about allegiance to an entity as abstract as the nation, and maybe voters, too, feel their duty most acutely toward friends and family who share their idea of where the country needs to go.
One way of sublating the Deontology/Consequentialism dichotomy is by giving salience to Hannan consistent 'regret minimization' (which is linked to Evolutionary Stable Strategy) as against 'Utility maximization'- which is productive only of Game Theoretic paradoxes.
Add in Muth Rationality- shorn of Lucas Sargent & Wallace type silliness- and we see that Brennan type polemics has no basis in current economic theory. 
Still, if the New Yorker is taking him seriously, perhaps the notion of an 'epistocracy'- Straussian Guardians shorn of neo-con enthusiasm for 'regime change'- is one way in which a Trump Victory will influence political philosophy.

The same New Yorker article critically mentions Estlund's work to give legitimacy to a notion he himself resists.

'Jamming the stub of the Greek word for “knowledge” into the Greek word for “rule,” Estlund coined the word “epistocracy,” meaning “government by the knowledgeable.” It’s an idea that “advocates of democracy, and other enemies of despotism, will want to resist,” he wrote, and he counted himself among the resisters. As a purely philosophical matter, however, he saw only three valid objections.

First, one could deny that truth was a suitable standard for measuring political judgment. This sounds extreme, but it’s a fairly common move in political philosophy. After all, in debates over contentious issues, such as when human life begins or whether human activity is warming the planet, appeals to the truth tend to be incendiary. Truth “peremptorily claims to be acknowledged and precludes debate,” Hannah Arendt pointed out in this magazine, in 1967, “and debate constitutes the very essence of political life.” Estlund wasn’t a relativist, however; he agreed that politicians should refrain from appealing to absolute truth, but he didn’t think a political theorist could avoid doing so.

The second argument against epistocracy would be to deny that some citizens know more about good government than others. Estlund simply didn’t find this plausible (maybe a political philosopher is professionally disinclined to). The third and final option: deny that knowing more imparts political authority. As Estlund put it, “You might be right, but who made you boss?”

It’s a very good question, and Estlund rested his defense of democracy on it, but he felt obliged to look for holes in his argument. He had a sneaking suspicion that a polity ruled by educated voters probably would perform better than a democracy, and he thought that some of the resulting inequities could be remedied. If historically disadvantaged groups, such as African-Americans or women, turned out to be underrepresented in an epistocratic system, those who made the grade could be given additional votes, in compensation.

By the end of Estlund’s analysis, there were only two practical arguments against epistocracy left standing. The first was the possibility that an epistocracy’s method of screening voters might be biased in a way that couldn’t readily be identified and therefore couldn’t be corrected for. The second was that universal suffrage is so established in our minds as a default that giving the knowledgeable power over the ignorant will always feel more unjust than giving those in the majority power over those in the minority. As defenses of democracy go, these are even less rousing than Churchill’s shruggie.

Estlund is a particular type of political theorist. I have argued elsewhere that his ideas are not compatible with current economic theory. It may be that there are issues with no economic dimension which nevertheless define the essence of 'political theory'. If so it doesn't use up scarce resources. People doing it can do nothing else. A Trump Victory will just make this blindingly obvious. 

By contrast, 'Political Economy' can respond in a fruitful way to the spectre of a Trump Victory. To start with, it can update the notion of 'the Social Contract' to reflect recent advances in the theory of incomplete contracts. It can turn back the clock on Maskin & Tirole's result re. residuary control rights by accepting that Revealed Preferences can change strategically- thus stochastically, if a mixed strategy is optimal. It can insist that no Rights or Entitlements are 'universal' but rather tied to the incentive compatible provision of a remedy which can't be allowed additional appropriable rights of control by the underlying vinculum juris. It can incorporate Chichilnisky's results re the limits on preference diversity. Most importantly, it can get back to things like Muth Rationality, Aumann agreement, Baumol fairness, Hannan consistency so as to get rid of normative op-ed shite and bogus breast-beating.


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