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Filtering by Tag: politics

Incentivizing good makes it bad?

I overheard two liberals talking about Nancy Pelosi; one said that she was corrupt because her husband is a wealthy businessman, and the other agreed immediately. I thought that was strange, since we wouldn’t say that about any non-politician. Because your neighbor or cousin marries a wealthy businessperson therefore she’s corrupt? In general, I get the impression that the reality just doesn’t matter—one way or another, someone will always find grounds to accuse Pelosi.

I noticed conservatives doing something similar to Christine Blasey Ford who is accusing Supreme Court nominee Kavanaugh of sexual assault. It’s almost like a script, how the far-right will instantly and without any actual evidence, claim that an accusation against a conservative is done from profit motive. Since there doesn’t seem to be any actual evidence that Ford has a profit motive, I hear them point to potential book sales as the source of the money.

The phenomenon generalizes pretty widely. Doctors supposedly only cure people from profit motive. This is why we should distrust what they say about vaccines. Car companies profit from sales. So we should assume the claim that their cars are safe is a lie. A politician wants to protect or foster an industry, and it is at least conceivable that somehow the politician is being paid to hold this position. Therefore the politician is only acting from money motive. Even in our private lives people can be quick to assume that a friend or relative does something out of self-interest based on no more evidence that self-interest was possible.

We really need to think about how our judgements and behaviors set up carrots and sticks for society. If personal gain, whether real or merely possible, is grounds for undermining a person’s character, that has the effect of not rewarding good people. As soon as you reward people for being good, the reward becomes a possible self-interested motive. Two things follow from setting up this inversion.

  1. We don’t encourage people to be good.

  2. We don’t give good people the extra resources to do more good!

Why is Mitch McConnell so successful in spite of his obvious corruption? He gets plenty of attacks in the media, but so does Pelosi, and they are nowhere near each other on the corruption scale. The function of how much damage your career takes … doesn’t depend on the variable of how corrupt you actually are! Everybody always gets attacked no matter what. So why not just be as corrupt as you can—you get the same amount of criticism but lots more reward. We don’t give fuel to good people in order to crowd out the McConnells.

It reminds me of something that seems completely irrelevant but I think is a nice analogy. How do you isolate the yeast used in bread and beer? It lives on most wheat crops, but so do a lot of other microscopic bugs. You want the particular kind of yeast that is good for you, Saccharomyces cerevisiae for instance, to grow and everything else to die out. The key is to identify some differentiating property and use it to separate the two out—or rather, to foster one and starve the other. That’s why you can mash wheat into a gruel with some water and let it sit until you see some bubbles from fermentation. That means the good yeast has eaten and grown a little, and is crowding out the bad. Feed it some more wheat and the new offspring eats and reproduces some more, crowds out the bad some more. Do it again and again and again, and you get a culture of only the good yeast. Now bake bread or brew beer with it.

I assume the analogy is by now obvious. By tearing down anyone who achieves any level of wealth or happiness in the process of doing good for society, we’re not feeding the good. And so in part, we’re to blame for why the good guys don’t win. We can’t just engage in a constantly negative project where we only attack people in power. We need a constructive project where good people get rewarded with power. Think of the alternative … or rather, you don’t have to because we’re living it.

Politics is hard y'all

There are some things that we do rightly take to be basic principles of decency.  These things, like treating good people well, we don't have to justify further.  Some things have to be fundamental, otherwise we would face an infinite regress of justifications.  But it seems to me politics is rarely a place where truly fundamental principles are at play.  It's too derivative of more basic moral beliefs, and of tough empirical questions like what makes the economy better and how to measure it. 

Yet increasingly it seems that a political disagreement entails a deep hatred.  It is so easy to anger either side and short-circuit any productive conversation that all of politics now seems like screaming and taking advantage of momentary power. 

I think the main thing I advocate for in politics now is that politics is hard.  We can disagree and still be good people.  Our deepest held values are located somewhere else, like in how we choose to treat neighbors and friends daily, not here in politics.  The salient judgment about people in a conversation isn't whether they're a liberal or a conservative, but whether they're sincere.  If a racist wants to have a sincere conversation, where she's truly open to introspecting, offering her honest reasons, and changing her mind with adequate evidence--I'll have that conversation gladly.  The same for a communist, a theist, and anyone else. 

Sincerity matters more than nearly anything else.

Free speech

I'm tutoring someone in Philosophy, focusing in free speech.  It's interesting to think about how you would defend an idea so absolutely fundamental to Western liberal society.  Former Supreme Court Justice Holmes put the problem as a cute paradox, which I will paraphrase as

If you know that you’re right about something important, while someone else contradicts you, and you know that you have the power to silence them, then it is natural to do just that. Put the other way around, if you do not silence someone’s speech, then you doubt either your correctness, importance, or power.
— Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, but not quite

My gut tells me there's an analogy to freedom of religion.  These two freedoms are both interesting in that they're not regulations of citizens but rather regulations of the government.  We forbid the government from forbidding religions or speech.  It's actually historically interesting that, in fact, all of the Bill of Rights in America are of this form. 

But I have in mind a deeper equivalence between freedom of speech and freedom of religion.  It seems to me these freedoms keeps people from warring with each other through the government.  Even if one religion is wrong, and the vast majority of citizens agree that it's wrong, we still refuse to persecute followers of that religion.  Even if the religion is harmful to its followers and others, we refuse to regulate followers' speech and beliefs.  One reason for this is that, in societies where people try to control the religions of others, we have always seen brutality and abuse come from people who believe in the righteousness of their beliefs.  It may be fine for a while if you're the one who gets to be brutal--maybe it's not fine, but those people think it is anyway, and would not be convinced by sympathy for the oppressed.  But I think they should be very concerned for the day, which seems to inevitably come, when they are vulnerable to another group with the same oppressive tactics. 

I think the same sort of idea is true for freedom of expression.  You might want to regulate Nazi hate speech, but by accepting that the group in power gets to dictate acceptable speech acts, you should worry for the day when people hold power and enforce a set of beliefs you don't like.  I think actually the analogy extends to a lot of other topics, like gerrymandering:  You might love it or at least tolerate it when your own party benefits, but we should all oppose it on principle, always, for fear of what happens when the other side can use the same principle. 

Oddly, I always thought I disagreed with Hobbes, and yet here I am thinking that one good reason for a lot of our rights and freedoms, and constraints on government is a very Hobbesian idea by which we all lay down our arms against each other simultaneously.