Dialogue on the Metaphyics of Virtues
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Calvin and Hobbes was the comic of my childhood; there is no competition. I got my hands on every collection I could find, from Scientific Progress Goes “Boink” to Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons (which my beagle, perhaps annoyed at my lack of devotion to Snoopy, chewed up at the first opportunity). As a child, Calvin’s wild imagination was an inspiration; I could get lost in it for hours and it was something I aspired to in my own games, especially with fellow fans. As an adult, I’m amazed at how the comic speaks so directly to both 6-year-olds and 28-year-olds, and everyone between and beyond. I am also amazed at the care Watterson took in painting his sprawling, colorful landscapes that served no functional purpose beyond being the background to some philosophical musings of the titular characters. He is a true craftsman, a cartoonist for the ages.
His devotion to craftsmanship is so strong that it would be all to easy to read him as anti-commerce, anti-business when it comes to the influence those things on the art of comics. Most famously, he is very anti-licensing, and as a result we have had no Calvin and Hobbes cartoons, or Spaceman Spiff backpacks. Nevertheless, I think there is more to his position, as I understand it, than this simplified story. I think that even if we cannot reconcile him with the notion that commerce is beautiful, we can nevertheless find in his arguments a version of the bourgeois virtues.
My point of reference is his 1989 speech at the Festival of Cartoon Art, “The Cheapening of Comics”. I realize I may be critiquing a 1989 version of Watterson which the man alive today may well have moved on from. In fact, I am excited by the upcoming documentary on the state of comics that he will be participating in, precisely because I can’t wait to see how his views have evolved. Nevertheless, I found the speech so interesting that I can’t help myself, I must comment on it.
Watterson begins his speech by discussing the comics that inspired him early in his life; he does so not simply to achieve the rhetorical end of making himself more approachable, but to lay the groundwork for his argument that there is a place for the sacred in comic strips. Peanuts is the greatest example he has to offer in this regard:
Peanuts is about the search for acceptance, security, and love, and how hard those self-affirming things are to find. The strip is also about alienation, about ambition, about heroes, about religion, and about the search for meaning and “happiness” in life. For a comic strip, it digs pretty deep.
Pogo and Krazy Kat are his other two icons of pure expression in comic strip form, with different approaches but nevertheless still reaching towards the sacred. Of the former, he said “The strip had a mood, a pace, and atmosphere that has not been seen since in comics.” Of the latter:
The strip constantly plays with its own form, and becomes a sort of essay on cartoon existentialism. The background scenery changes from panel to panel, and day can turn to night and back again during a brief conversation.
From here, Watterson proceeds to lament the state of comics at that time, making the tired argument that the golden era has already passed:
Amazingly, much of the best cartoon work was done early on in the medium’s history. The early cartoonists, with no path before them, produced work of such sophistication, wit, and beauty that it increasingly seems to me that cartoon evolution is working backward. Comic strips are moving toward a primordial goo rather than away from it. As a cartoonist, it’s a bit humiliating to read work that was done over 50 years ago and find it more imaginative than what any of us are doing now. We’ve lost many of the most precious qualities of comics. Most readers today have never seen the best comics of the past, so they don’t even know what they’re missing. Not only can comics be more than we’re getting today. but the comics already have been more than we’re getting today. The reader is being gypped and he doesn’t even know it.
I do not buy this argument, for the simple reason that Watterson himself was at this point squarely in the middle of Calvin and Hobbes’ phenomenal run! Like all “golden age gone by” arguments, there is a huge survivorship bias in comparing the few from the past that have survived to the present, to the many that are alive today. Watterson thinks that comics like Peanuts must have hit the comic reading community like a bombshell when they first arrived, but it is much more likely that it was simply one among many, and its greatness was not appreciated until later. Couple Sturgeon’s Law with survivorship bias and you’ll see why these types of arguments always sound persuasive no matter what era you happen to be living in.
Nevertheless, Watterson’s main argument is much deeper than reminiscing about the good old days. Watterson is frustrated by the state of the comics business, and its influence on the work that is getting done. I would summarize his point of view in the form of three arguments: first, the comics industry today is not euvoluntary. Second, at present, the sacred is being entirely sacrificed to the profane. Finally, comic artists and their business partners can do better, and should.
Watterson argues that syndicates take advantage of aspiring cartoonists in a number of ways. The original, and cardinal sin is demanding that the cartoonist sign over all the rights to their creation up front. This preemptively takes away any leverage that the creator might have should their creation ever take off in popularity. If the creator doesn’t want to license their work, or doesn’t want to let business considerations change the direction of the strip, they can simply be replaced.
Watterson considers this a very bad bargain, and his arguments echo the tropes examined by Mike Munger and Sam Wilson over at Euvoluntary Exchange. On the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA) that a young cartoonist in 1989 had against taking the poison pill offered him by syndicates, Watterson states:
Why does this happen? As the syndicates will tell you, no cartoonist is forced to sign the ridiculous contracts the syndicates offer. The cartoonist is free to stay in his $3.50 an hour bag boy job until he can think of a better way to get his strip in the newspapers. Simply put, the syndicates offer virtually the only shot for an unknown cartoonist to break into the daily newspaper market. The syndicates therefore use their position of power to extort rights they do not deserve.
Watterson also notes the shrinking number of newspapers, and the shrinking amount of space that they provided for comics, as compounding factors. But this also illustrates the risks and costs faced by syndicates, who did the hard work to lower transaction costs to proliferating a comic across newspapers at a time when such costs were prohibitive. A brand new comic strip faced very low odds of success at the outset, and any space it took up was space that another comic, which may have actually succeeded, could be taking up. In order for the expected return of any one comic to break even, the artists had to offer up the option value of ownership.
It need not be that way, however, as Watterson points out: the book industry offers far less onerous terms to new authors.
Now, can you imagine a novelist giving his literary agent the ownership of his characters and all reprint, television, and movie rights before the agent takes the manuscript to a publisher? Obviously, an author would have to be a raving lunatic to agree to such a deal, but virtually every cartoonist does exactly that when a syndicate demands ownership before agreeing to sell the strip to newspapers.
This is interesting, given that the BATNAs here should be similar—but perhaps they are simply not perceived as such by the respective creators in each industry. From this perspective part of Watterson’s argument could be seen as a plea for creators to take their alternatives more seriously when coming to the bargaining table. And indeed, this is the major thrust of his argument, as we will see further down.
But first, to his second argument: the potential of comic strips for inspiring agape, for allowing creators to be driven by the ethic of the craftsman, is being sacrificed at the altar of “efficiency, mass marketability, and profit, profit, profit”. He is not quite so crassly anti-commercial as he first appears, for he says early on that:
The comics are a collaborative effort on the part of the cartoonists who draw them, the syndicates that distribute them, and the newspapers that buy and publish them. Each needs the other, and all haves common interest in providing comics features of a quality that attracts a devoted readership. But business and art almost always have a rocky marriage, and in comic strips today the interests of business are undermining the concerns of the art.
Note the implication that business interests do not have to undermine the concerns of art, just that they are at present, and perhaps did not do so in the past (during his golden era of Peanuts, Pogo, and Krazy Kat). I read the “rocky marriage” of business and art as a nod to the reality of trade-offs. Sometimes a balance is struck in which great art is promoted in a profitable manner. Sometimes a balance is struck where profitable strategies are arrived at which sacrifice too much artistic integrity. And sometimes the balance of the moment is neither very profitable nor very artistic, though this balance cannot last forever. It’s getting stuck in the second balance that Watterson is afraid of.
There are several ways in which the profane has intruded upon the sacred in Watterson’s worldview. The first goes back to the ownership problem; syndicates have ultimate creative control. When they say jump, if the creator does not say “how high?” on cue, they can be replaced at a moment’s notice by someone from the sea of unemployed cartoonists out there.
The second debasement comes from merchandise licensing, which Watterson is so famous for abstaining from.
Some very good strips have been cheapened by licensing. Licensed products, of course, are incapable of capturing the subtleties of the original strip, and the merchandise can alter the public perception of the strip, especially when the merchandise is aimed at a younger audience than the strip is. The deeper concerns of some strips are ignored or condensed to fit the simple gag requirements of mugs and T-shirts. In addition, no one cartoonist has the time to write and draw a daily strip and do all the work of a licensing program. Inevitably, extra assistants and business people are required, and having so many cooks in the kitchen usually encourages a blandness to suit all tastes. Strips that once had integrity and heart become simply cute as the business moguls cash in. Once a lot of money and jobs are riding on the status quo, it gets harder to push the experiments and new directions that keep a strip vital. Characters lose their believability as they start endorsing major companies and lend their faces to bedsheets and boxer shorts. The appealing innocence and sincerity of cartoon characters is corrupted when they use those qualities to peddle products. One starts to question whether characters say things because they mean it or because their sentiments sell T-shirts and greeting cards. Licensing has made some cartoonists extremely wealthy, but at a considerable loss to the precious little world they created. I don’t buy the argument that licensing can go at full throttle without affecting the strip. Licensing has become a monster. Cartoonists have not been very good at recognizing it, and the syndicates don’t care.
Emphasis by me.
The final sin is a variation of the first, but perpetuated by cartoonists rather than by syndicates. It is hinted at in the passage above with the mention of “extra assistants” and “having so many cooks in the kitchen”; the established cartoonist hires assistants to produce his work for him, and merely signs his name on it once it is ready to go to print.
All of these dynamics have grown exponentially since 1989. The replaceable nature of specific creators in a franchise has been honed and perfected; turning a successful creation in one medium into every other medium conceivable has as well. And the James Pattersons are famously accused of being in a coma somewhere while a staff of ghost writers continue producing books using the highly predictable formula the actual author made his name using.
I want to push back here for a moment. I am very sympathetic to the points that Watterson makes but I happen to think that the sacred and the profane work together here in more subtle ways than he allows. There is a role for immortal business-owned franchises as well as mortal creator-owned characters. Licensing can and often does coexist with legitimate creative vision and execution. I’ll admit that there’s something fundamentally dishonest about ghostwriting, but the more charitable take is that some “creators” become a brand name for a certain quality of product, making it possible for audiences to gain a degree of predictability in finding something they know they like that would otherwise be lacking.
Moreover, there is sacredness here, for creators working their way up in the world. Just as fanfiction writers today hone their writing by borrowing other creators’ characters and worlds, so too do professional writers working for Marvel or DC comics get to hone their writing—and get paid for the trouble—by writing storylines for cherished classic characters.
Given Watterson’s feelings about the potential for art in comics involving elementary school angst and goofy alley cats, he displays a remarkable snobbery towards comic books, making an offhanded reference to “miserably done super-hero comics.” But it is clear to children who grew up reading such comics that the spark of the divine can be found here, as well. You can see it in an interview with Joss Whedon getting choked up talking about his pitch for a Batman movie that got rejected—people invest a lot of feeling into these franchises, and as creators they want to make their mark.
I also reject Watterson’s special concern for licensing as a source of corruption, as it implies art is only pure when there are no external influences on the creator. He asks us how we can trust that a creator’s characters are saying what they say because of values internal to the creation rather than because it will sell well on a coffee mug, but this is all too convenient a stopping place. How do we know that Calvin said what he said because it worked well with an artistic vision rather than because Watterson didn’t want to make it marketable? This is no reductio ad absurdum—Brian K. Vaughan specifically chose the opening words for the excellent comic Saga in order to dissuade agents from thinking about optioning it for a film. And it doesn’t detract from Saga’s greatness at all—nor does Charlie Brown appearing on MetLife commercials detract from the greatness of Peanuts.
Art, like virtue, is a balancing act—you must balance internal considerations for what you desire to accomplish with the plot, how you want your characters to develop, what sort of visual impacts you want to create, and so on. These are as much a “rocky marriage” as the marriage between them and more external considerations—who your implied audience is, whether there are enough such people to pay your bills, and if so, whether your agent or the syndicate or a publisher can be persuaded as such. To name but a few.
Art is the balance that is struck across all of these factors, not just the internal ones. Sometimes this means taking the Austin Kleon approach (or the one I recommend here) and keeping a day job unrelated to your art, so that what you actually create focuses primarily on striking the internal balance. That is ultimately where Watterson ended up, after he left the public limelight at the end of Calvin and Hobbes’ run.
Often, though, the things we think of as truly great were created by striking the best balance creators were capable of out in the marketplace—in partnership with the many merchants and middlemen who operate in that space. If we judge this process by the average quality of its output, for a sufficiently high standard of quality, we risk falling into the same Sturgeon’s law plus survivorship bias trap that Watterson did.
Of course most art created in the market is mediocre. Most art is mediocre, period. But the aspirational ethic of the craftsman can and does persist and thrive in an atmosphere of beautiful commerce.
Nevertheless, no morally serious conversation around creators and creations should ignore the ultimate aim of Watterson’s speech.
The last section of the speech is what you might think of as a call to arms. With a humble admission that he is not a businessman, Watterson lists a few ideas for how the comic business might be changed in order to better promote the artistic values that are important to him. One example:
But suppose someone published a quality cartoon magazine. Imagine full-color, big comics in a lush, glossy format. Why not?
This was already an established practice—though usually not full-color, at least not for every issue—in Japan. The culture of comics and animation in Japan has been different from America’s for a long time, in ways that Watterson would approve of. For instance, they do not consider comics to be primarily a children’s medium.
Watterson’s examples are laden with a lot of anti-commercial rhetoric, but when he comes to his ultimate point it’s a different story:
My point is simply that cartoons are not necessarily doomed to increasing stupidity and crude craftsmanship. With the right publishing, comics can move into whole new worlds we’ve never seen. Moreover, I think any effort to improve the quality of comics would very likely be rewarded in the marketplace. Think of the people who cut out certain comics to put on refrigerators, or to put in scrapbooks, or to send in letters, or to stick on their office walls. Give them a nicely printed, big color comic on good paper and see if they don’t jump. I think the public would respond if there was a publisher out there with an ounce of vision. For too long, syndicates and cartoonists have been congratulating themselves whenever things don’t get worse. I don’t think that’s good enough. This very weekend we’ve got syndicate executives, cartoonists, readers, and newspaper people all together. let’s knock some heads together and see what we can do. Let’s ask people what they’re doing to improve the state of comics.
Folks, if Deirdre McCloskey is right, this is the attitude that lifted hundreds of millions of people out of the subsistence farming of their ancestors. This is the vision of a better future, the willingness to imagine that circumstances are not fixed. This is the living and breathing bourgeois virtues, still with us and still very important.
And Watterson was not just talk—he walked the walk where licensing was concerned. And he fought for every square inch of Sunday comics he could get in order to be able to do his beautiful, sprawling landscapes despite the huge premium on space.
The comic industry has not stood still since 1989, as I’m sure the upcoming documentary Watterson is a part of will discuss. Creator-owned brands like Image have popped up. Webcomics have provided a new option for the creator who wants at least one project where they needn’t take into consideration marketability. Things like Humble Bundle and ComiXology and Paypal make it easier for creators to sell their creations to an audience directly, and Kickstarter makes it possible to get per-project funding up front. These things all came about from a combination of prudent business dealing and aspirations for building a better world.
I see “The Cheapening of Comics” as a prime example of how important McCloskey’s project is of reviving a morally serious conversation about the morality of bourgeois life. The bourgeois virtues are all in there, they are, but they’re stuck in the anti-commercial narratives that we’ve all been fed by the writerly class since the middle of the 19th century. It’s time to move on. Let’s begin again with a conversation on the marriage of artistic aspirations and beautiful commerce.
Hustle is in many ways the master virtue of New York City, and especially of Manhattan. So it may come as a bit of a surprise when I say that most of my struggle with this sometimes-virtue, sometimes-vice occurred before moving here.
2008 was a year that required a great deal of hustle from me. I met Catherine, and so began that terribly awkward dance that is what passes for wooing on my part. I got my first non-retail job, 40 miles away from where I was living at the time. I started grad school, which involved two or three night classes a week, more than 40 miles away from where I worked. And at that point, I was living about a half hour drive away from where Catherine was.
There was a lot of time spent on the road. So much so that I moved on from the family car to a brand new one I bought myself. Nevertheless, it was a tiring thing, to drive so very much. I very quickly grew sick of it, though podcasts helped to ease the pain.
Crunched for time on so many sides, I embraced hustle to what was in retrospect an unhealthy degree. My average driving speed, when traffic allowed it, was 80 mph. That was the average, to repeat—I frequently exceeded it. I fought for even inch of gain I could, weaving around slowpokes (by my skewed standard of slowness) without hesitation.
This embrace of hustle went beyond my driving. I would push my way past people into elevators, almost knock people over on the sidewalk, and so on. Got into a couple of nasty spats for no good reason.
I was already in the process of dialing back on this when we came to New York, but coming here actually helped me get to a healthier place in a number of ways. First of all, I was no longer driving regularly, though I’d like to think I would be more responsible and more calm on the road even if I was. Second, it is impossible to be the person with the most hustle in New York City. It just is. It’s a fractally nested hierarchy of hustle. There’s no point trying to be at the top, so you just shouldn’t.
Finally, it became clear to me, as it already had been becoming clear, that unbalanced hustle doesn’t help anyone. Peace of mind matters, and so does being charitable to strangers. Today, for instance, I’m willing to accept a longer commute in order to avoid having to switch trains, or to minimize the amount of times I do so. In the past, I would try and fight for every minute I could get—but in the end I have to ask myself, what’s the point? I’d rather be relaxed and leave a little earlier if I have to than give up my peace of mind to shorten my journey by five or ten minutes. And I don’t want to remember myself as the asshole who knocked someone’s grandmother off her feet so he could achieve his aspirations of being a minute faster.
Hustle is part of New York’s charm and also one of its frustrations. Like all virtues, it must be balanced with the others; such as temperance, prudence, and love.
A few years ago, when I was shelving books at Borders, Oprah’s Book Club—that gold standard of the book biz—had a bit of a scandal. A Million Little Pieces, a book about the author sinking into a life of drug abuse and crime and then finding redemption, turned out to be basically fabricated (Wikipedia charitably calls it “semi-fictional”). And this after Oprah’s endorsement—how embarrassing!
But why would anyone pretend to have sunk to lower depths than they really had? What is this modern fascination with redemption stories?
Redemption stories are nothing new, of course, and a taste for them is far from unique to we moderns. Witness the Prodigal Son, a story told to christendom for thousands of years. But I do think there is something particularly modern about our craving for stories like A Million Little Pieces, aside from those elements of the story which are, of course, specific to our era.
There’s an element of voyeurism and virtuous people living vicariously through other people’s stories of debauchery, of course. This less than noble but fairly harmless impulse is behind such recent successes as Netflix’s House of Cards. Or, in history, behind the success of Milton’s Paradise Lost.
But I believe that there’s more to it than that, even. We live in a morally uncertain era. Despite the continuing existence of Christianity, the West is for the most part post-christian in its moral reasoning—even among most practicing Christians. We have gone from having the laws of right and wrong inscribed in the cosmos by an Almighty God to the little gods conjured up by Reason. These little gods do not really persuade; for one thing, they rarely have anything to say about actual decisions made in the course of a human life.
What draws us to the story of redemption is the power of the virtues required to walk down that path. It takes less self-command to avoid doing drugs in the first place than it does to overcome an addiction nursed over many years. It takes less courage to “Just Say No” than to try to rebuild the trust that you have squandered, with the knowledge that at best it will take years and at worst you may never be able to get it back. It requires a greater sense of justice to take responsibility for your own actions when those actions have caused a great deal of harm, than when they have not. And, perhaps most crucially, it requires greater generosity to forgive such a person, allowing the audience to indulge in feeling virtuous after indulging in vicarious sin.
The addict and criminal struggling for redemption shines brightly, much more brightly than those who had the prudence to avoid such debauchery in the first place.
This is not healthy. The man who works three modestly paying jobs to provide for his family, and never allows himself to fall into a cycle of self-destruction, has a moral fiber a thousand times greater than those who fail to destroy themselves and manage to find their way back to the light. The woman who lives modestly for many years to get her PhD and then works hard to pay off her student loans is incalculably superior to even the greatest Saint of Redemption.
Our fixation on such stories is the fault of our storytelling class, who Deirdre McCloskey refers to as “the clerisy”. I share McCloskey’s goal to revive “a serious ethical conversation about middle-class life, the life of towns, the forum and agora.” The conversation about this bourgeois life of ours has not been ethically serious since at least 1848. This does not mean that bourgeois life has been immoral—just that moral thinking on the questions that matter to our daily lives has been confused, to say the least.
We should not need to hit rock bottom to discover what a good life looks like, nor should we require others to do so. I understand the appeal of the redemption story—I have lived one myself (a very, very tame one by the standards of A Million Little Pieces). It is indeed praiseworthy to turn your life around; it should not be forgotten that many who walk down the road of self-destruction never manage to return. But whatever praise we may feel someone deserves for it must be balanced against the harm they did to the people around them, and to themselves, before being redeemed.
At the beginning of the year, Eli and Jerry asked if I would write for an online magazine they were going to launch. The Ümlaut launched at the end of January with a piece I wrote on the long tail. I reread Chris Anderson’s book for the piece, which was a fun exercise as I was really just beginning to explore the digital landscape when the book was originally published.
It was very humbling to be asked on board by Eli and Jerry, as, if I may say so, those guys are a way bigger deal than I am—they’ve drawn more attention to themselves, they’re known in the technology and policy space, and they have an institution like Mercatus behind them. I’m just a guy writing about the stuff I’m interested in when I’m not at my day job.
When I started writing for The Ümlaut, I wondered if I would be able to keep it up for the once a week pace that they originally had all the initial authors stick to. I also wasn’t too sure if I could be disciplined enough to write 600 to 1,000 word pieces. At the time, my writing had slowed down to once a month at most, and it usually came in the form of 2,000 to 3,000 word pieces, and beyond—like this one.
It’s actually surprised me how easy it has been. I have questions on my mind, I always have. I deal with such questions by reading, talking with people online and in person, and then writing about them. Churning out a piece week after week has allowed me to follow lines of thoughts much further than I otherwise would have, in the space of a year. Writing pieces between 600 and 1,000 words long has forced me to focus; what might have been a 2,000 word piece might work fine as two or three shorter pieces. In fact, so far, it has been better.
In fact, I ended up writing more than necessary. My natural state this year has been, for the most part, two or three weeks ahead of where I need to be. And I’ve still written the odd longer piece—I just bring it back over here to do so. And I write personal pieces over here, and some geeky things that wouldn’t really be appropriate even for The Ümlaut’s very broad mandate.
Writing pieces like this has become like second nature to me. When I burn through my queue and only have a day or two left before Monday, I’ve found that I can usually churn out a first draft of a 600 or more word piece in less than an hour. It’s no exaggeration to say that I think about and talk about this stuff fairly constantly, with Twitter being a perpetual conversation machine in this regard. So I usually have two or three partly baked ideas that I can get something from in a pinch.
I had such an easy time that I thought it might be high time to start working towards getting to that same point for fiction writing. My idea for doing this was fairly straightforward: writing nonfiction four times a month had been a great experience, maybe doing that for fiction would help me develop in that area.
I’m not really satisfied with the results. I didn’t think I was being very demanding of myself—I told myself I could write literally any length of fiction, even a single paragraph, as long as I did it four times each month. But in practice since I didn’t give myself a set time when I’d do it (since I didn’t give myself a set time for writing nonfiction) I just put it off and then it started to feel kind of like a burden. While I’m glad I finally did get myself to write some fiction, the fact is that I didn’t write anything of the sort in November or December.
I’m not going to give up, though. I’m actually OK with a creative process that has fits and starts, I just also think that I need to build good habits if I want to get anywhere. So I’m going to be drawing some inspiration from Austin Kleon and change things up a bit in 2014.
I can’t overstate how happy I am with the experience of writing at The Ümlaut, though. I’ve got 49 pieces and growing over there. Some questions I’ve looked at:
Is mankind tending towards more diversity or more homogeneity, and if the latter, does this mean that we are globally becoming a single point of failure? Pieces in this topic:
This year I also struggled with the question of what role stories play in human affairs—and under “stories” I also put things like theory and ideology.
Last year I intended to write a paper that combined ideas from Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations, Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty, and Sowell’s Knowledge and Decisions. Life got in the way, and I didn’t end up writing that paper. But writing at The Ümlaut gave me the opportunity to following related trains of thought.
How do you live with the knowledge that you’re fundamentally biased and flawed?
There’s a bunch of posts that fall under the header of—what is a good life? How can we improve our lot, make the most of what we have? Maybe it’s a sign of getting older, but I’m finding this question increasingly more interesting than larger, ideal-policy type questions.
There were also a couple of one-off pieces I was proud of that don’t quite fit neatly into the threads above.
Writing has always been a part of my life, since I was a little kid. But very lately I have begun to feel the payoff of having spent so many years on it, and it makes it so much more enjoyable to invest yet more time into it.
I can’t wait to get started writing stuff for 2014.
Fellow Ümlauteer Eli Dourado is not just your garden variety GMU-trained, public-choice-heavy, anarcho-curious libertarian. He also comes to any discussion with an interesting, deeply structuralist view of human social systems. As The Ümlaut closes out its first calendar year, I thought it might be fun to dig into the larger story that emerges from across Eli’s writings on the web.
Eli is an affirmed philosophical anarchist, and from what he has written publicly and from our overlapping GMU education, I can surmise where he stands on anarchy as an ideal. I think Eli’s ideal governance arrangements look like the “ordered anarchy” revealed in the work of people like Bruce Benson; both in the private law in places like pre-Battle of Hastings England, and the private international law such as the Lex Mercatoria.
These systems have the benefit of removing outright coercion while also providing mechanisms to defend against violent crime, theft, and all the other things we tend to believe a government should protect its citizenry from. He does not believe these systems as they existed historically were without their serious flaws, but no system is perfect.
His main reason for being merely “anarcho-curious”, as far as I can tell, is that there doesn’t appear to be any practical path to old school ordered anarchy in any countries currently existing on the planet. We’re certainly not going to get there through the democratic process. And even if by some fluke some small enclave of ordered anarchy sprung up on some corner of the Earth, the current underlying structure of human affairs would probably doom it before long.
The post of Eli’s that had the greatest impact on my own thinking was written two years ago. It is called Technologies of Control and Resistance. The piece is framed against the then-recently published Race Against the Machine by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, and The Great Stagnation by Tyler Cowen. The former argues that technological innovation has been accelerating, the latter that it has been stuck in a rut. Eli makes a can’t-it-be-both argument by distinguishing between two types of technological innovation.
Let’s start with the first:
The first kind of innovation is geared toward brute maximization of production. It is typically centralized and makes use of economies of scale. Examples might include an assembly line factory or a big, coal-fired power plant. Because these innovations tend to be centralized, they introduce points of control. The capital is typically fixed and therefore easy to tax and regulate. It’s well known in the development literature that it’s really hard for governments to control rural peasants who live off the grid. Once they move to the cities and plug into centralized services, it is easier to require them to send their children to school, for instance. Because these innovations introduce points of control, I will call them technologies of control.
Eli’s story of the Industrial Revolution goes something like this: there was a sudden explosion in the development of technologies of control. This expanded pure output to a phenomenal degree; I will here refer you to Deirdre McCloskey’s conservative estimate that US standard of living has increased sixteen-fold since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. It is hard to understate how big a discontinuity this was from previous human history.
However, there are no free lunches, even in gigantic welfare improvements. Back to Eli:
What determines how invasive the state will be? Call me a cynic, but I think it correlates strongly with the availability of points of control. When factors of production are fixed, when demand for government supplied public goods is inelastic, when there are lots of points of control, the government will exercise more control.
So many explanations for the growth of government draw on the rise of specific ideologies or the specific history of a country like the US. But as GMU’s John Nye has put it, growth in government spending as a percentage of GDP was far too global, far too cross-cultural, for any of these explanations to make much sense.
Eli makes the more persuasive case that growth in government came on the heels of the Industrial Revolution as its impact was felt around the world. For it is intricately linked with technologies of control, which provide big fat high-population density, enormously wealth-producing targets.
Moving on to the second form of innovation that Eli describes:
On the other hand, not all innovations are about brute maximization of production. Some are about producing things that we already know how to produce in ways that have ancillary benefits. An important ancillary benefit is evading control. Examples of these innovations include 3D printers and solar power. The evasion of control that is possible with 3D printers is the subject of Cory Doctorow’s short story Printcrime. And portable solar power cells can make people harder to control by supplying electricity without the need to register an address, have a bank account, stay put, and so on. These are obvious examples, but control can be evaded through more subtle innovations as well. I will call innovations that circumvent points of control that can be used by governments or monopolies to exploit, tax, or regulate technologies of resistance.
In Eli’s view, Brynjolfsson and McAfee are correct that innovation has been accelerating, but Cowen is also correct because it has been accelerating in an area that does not produce much in the way of output, proportionately.
The stagnation debate was in many ways just a set piece with which to present this dichotomy, which is far more important to Eli’s larger view of things. In another piece, Eli reveals his practical programme for promoting a more libertarian world:
Imagine a world in which all factors of production were as mobile and elastic as financial capital. If labor and physical capital could flea instantaneously and at low cost from bad policies, there would be little danger from either the predatory or incompetent state. In short, it would be a libertarian utopia.
This utopia seems hard to realize. It’s hard to believe that labor and physical capital could ever be as elastic as financial capital is today. Nevertheless, I think this framework provides a way forward for libertarians who have given up on political reform (and maybe even those who haven’t yet). Even if we can’t make the supply of most factors of production infinitely elastic, maybe we can make their supply more elastic. To the extent we succeed, we reduce the power of governments around the world.
Bold added by me.
In fact, Eli is all about giving up on political reform. The far ideal of infinite elasticity provides more concrete possibilities for an ideological minority like libertarians. In the previously quoted post, he lists a few examples of how we might move in that direction; everything from refining 3D printers and solar cells to promoting a global lingua franca.
He has returned to this theme several times. Back in July of this year, he asked Can We Engineer for Liberty?
If 3D chemical printers become commonplace, say goodbye to the War on Drugs. If Bitcoin succeeds, it will be more difficult to censor unpopular speech by prohibiting payments. If solar power becomes cheap and ubiquitous, it will be easier to literally live off the grid. If mesh networking gets good enough, the government won’t be able to deputize ISPs to enforce unjust laws or to spy on people. As robots improve, it will be harder to enforce labor regulations, because businesses will just switch from labor to capital as the implicit price of labor increases. And ubiquitous private drones equipped with cameras will place limits on police brutality and misconduct.
Nevertheless, Eli is fully aware that technology in the 21st century so far has hardly been entirely of the resistance variety.
While most of us have until now considered the Internet a great force for individual empowerment, it has also become history’s most effective government surveillance apparatus. Where the ultimate balance of power lies depends crucially on both political and technological choices going forward—on decisions about the Fourth Amendment and about the use of encryption and decentralization.
Plus, the people who have the know-how to actually build these technologies are not necessarily a predominantly libertarian sort—they have to be persuaded, and Eli is deeply skeptical of our ability to succeed by persuasion.
The successes we have had so far have been structural in nature, not persuasive. For instance, the Wikileaks and Snowden strategy:
The Snowden leaks are instructive for a couple of reasons. First, there is good evidence that they have made it harder for the United States intelligence apparatus to function. Congress may limit contractor access to highly classified material, and the NSA has implemented a buddy system for accessing sensitive documents.
Cheap storage and the Internet, plus the sheer number of people who have access to any government agency’s data, make those agencies fundamentally vulnerable to leaks. By leaking that data to the public, rather than using it privately for personal profit, Snowden and Wikileaks reveal the points at which these agencies are vulnerable. The measures that agencies must take to avoid such leaks in the future significantly reduce their operational effectiveness.
The components of Eli’s point of view that we’ve looked at here can be boiled down, more or less, to two fairly straightforward assertions.
First, econ 101 is basically right—if you lower the cost of an activity by a lot, people are probably going to engage in that activity more than they had been, and vice versa. If the cost of raising tax revenue falls, governments will raise more money, and subsequently spend more. If it’s easier to impose regulations than it was before, you will get more regulations. If the costs of taking care of people in their last year of life explodes, people will find ways to shorten that year. If we have to obtain permission from slow-moving bureaucracies before we can engage in anything innovative, we will get less innovation.
Second, there an underlying structure of institutions, Hayekian dispersed knowledge, and economic interdependencies—to the extent that these things are even separable—that explain the lion’s share of why anything happens larger human affairs throughout history.
Though anarcho-curious, he does not seem to believe in some notion of rights that are embedded in the very fabric of the universe. Take his most recent piece of Property Rights versus Property Institutions:
[I]t is necessary to revise the shallow lesson of the Cold War—property rights are good—with a deeper lesson: good property institutions are important. The Soviet Union’s property institutions failed to assign rights where they were necessary. But it is an equal and opposite error when our property institutions assign rights that impede human flourishing. Taxi medallions are an indictment not of the idea of property but of the quality of the government that decided to limit taxi service. We have poor rules for spectrum allocation because the FCC is terrible at centrally planning a system of property for spectrum. We have generally efficient rules for property in land because the common law has refined a large series of cases and controversies into an effective body of property law. In every case, what matters is the quality of the institutions that defines the exact contours of property rights.
At the bottom of this is a belief that the best institutions are those that respond to the ever-changing states of technology, individual preferences, and anything relevant to human affairs. As he said recently of the Lex Mercatoria:
In our most successful legal and governance structures, principles are discovered, not stated from the outset.
Sadly, the modern administrative state does no such thing and is, in fact, quite popular. Since it is also usually tied to some form of democracy, this means it is unlikely to be departing any time soon—hence Eli’s yearning for technological solutions to constrain its ability to raise revenue and tell us what to do generally.
If we could half the distance between our present state and the utopia of infinite elasticity, the result would not be chaos. No, as history has demonstrated, the result would undoubtedly be more institutions like the Lex Mercatoria.
And so Eli’s structuralism comes back around to his anarcho-curious side; it’s just that the only sustainable path to get us there is if we manage to reliably win the arms race between those investing in technologies of resistance and those attempting to adapt the infrastructure of control.
The first big influence on how I thought about the world was my dad (of The Fifth Wave and the now-neglected but still excellent Vulgar Morality). Arguments I had with people in High School (in person and online) usually consisted of appropriating an informed opinion that he had and bullshitting my way around it from a substantially less informed point of view. After I started to grow up and actually take reading up on the things I talked about more seriously, I held onto Burkean traditionalist instincts and an interest in specific thinkers such as David Hume that I had first heard about from him when I was too young to approach their writings myself.
I learned about the blogosphere from him first (he was a media analyst by trade), and started my own blog, Sophistpundit; the name derived from the Greek sophists, which he was reading a great deal about at the time and talking about constantly, and Instapundit, a blog he introduced me to. The start of that blog marks the beginning of the time I began to take the matter of discovering my own point of view seriously, as the simple act of writing about it regularly restructured the way I thought.
I’m a storyteller by instinct; even when I was just bullshitting my way around arguments as a teenager I was trying to take things I wanted to be true and fit them into an overall framework. I wasn’t satisfied with one-off explanations or answers or arguments. So when I began to really read works of philosophy and social science, and write about it, I started seeing things about the individual components of what I thought that dissatisfied me. Whether intellectually, or from a storytelling point of view, I couldn’t tell you. I’m not sure I know the difference.
My introduction to serious philosophy began with Karl Popper. I picked up a collection of his essays and was hooked. He had a very accessible style and his ideas seemed incomparably elegant. For a brief time, I was completely won over; I thought I had found the keys to unlocking the universe. Ultimately, Popper was just a great place to start, and though it wasn’t too long before I started drifting from his (quite rationalist) point of view, I’m still glad that I started with him. He was a great place to begin.
From then on I had a fairly regular diet of nonfiction books ranging from classics of philosophy (like David Hume) to more popular stuff (like the Long Tail). Not to mention reading a ton of politics, economics, technology, and personal blogs.
The next big change that came into this brain of mine was libertarianism. And big it was; I’m still reeling from it years after its onset.
I was always generically small-government minded, in the way that most Burkean types are, I think. But there were key differences between where I was and where the libertarians I had exposure to were. For one thing, I was a hawk on the war at the time. For another, I had vague acceptance for labor regulations such as the minimum wage. I also respected traditions generally, including traditions of government. And I was very strongly pro-democracy. Perhaps most crucially, I viewed libertarianism as a rationalism, and I was (and remain) strictly anti-rationalist.
The crucial moment came when I was still working on my BA in history at GMU. I knew I wanted to go into economics by that point, but opted to finish my BA and go for the MA in econ. In the meantime, I would take the prerequisite undergrad courses, starting, of course, with introductory level economics.
The 101 and 102 level courses at GMU are taught by Dr. Thomas Rustici, who is an excellent communicator of economic theory but also a firebrand-style preacher of libertarian ideology. I was made a convert practically before I even realized what was happening. The process was both fast and gradual, in a way. I kept looking at the margin between my positions and full blown, all-encompassing libertarianism and telling myself that I hadn’t been truly converted, but slowly and steadily that margin was chipped away.
I think in retrospect that Dr. Rustici was simply responsible for the initial breech, and the rest of the erosion of that margin came from going straight into the MA program in economics at GMU. The effect was stronger there, less due to the ideology of the professors particularly, and more because of the fact that said ideology (in some form) was widely shared by the peers I encountered there.
Looking back now, it kind of feels like libertarianism was an invading force that entered my mind and started pretty substantially rearranging things. I used to think Richard Dawkins’ theory of religion as a mind virus was just condescension, but frankly it feels apt here; it’s like I came down with a chronic case of libertarianism. It got to a point where arguments I had previously mocked now seemed like the only point of view that made sense. At its pinnacle, I had that “I have the answer to everything” feeling I got from Popper, only much, much more so. Libertarianism (the variety popular among GMU types) is far more all encompassing as a theory of everything from human behavior to morality to history.
With time and distance between myself and GMU econ, I’ve slowly begun to shrink the size of this ideology’s partition of my mind. It will always be part of the pantheon, but I’m starting to move on to other things. I suspect that those other things will be far messier, less internally consistent than libertarianism. But that’s OK; it’s a messy world and even as a storyteller I was always wary of how very clean the ideology is.
Lately I’ve been swayed by people like Nassim Taleb and Nate Silver who think probabilistically about things; an approach that helps me think about challenges to libertarianism posed in forms like this. I’m also exploring more and more of the social sciences beyond the boundaries of economics. And I’m going back to the classics of philosophy I never got to; I recently read Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic, and I’m hoping to read something on Epicurus’ philosophy next.
Talking with Noah Smith yesterday got me thinking about all of this even more, as he seems (from my limited exposure) as ideology-free as is possible for a human being to be. His beliefs seem to have some themes consistent with modern progressivism, techno-futurism, and a dash of libertarianism, but for the most part it appears as though he’s got a grab bag of ideas he more or less believes in that don’t add up to a consistent story. When I asked him what his most absurd belief was, he had trouble answering because it seems he wasn’t quite sure what his beliefs were. This is neither good nor bad, but it’s kind of interesting. I don’t think I have it in me to be that way—the more stories I gather, the more I instinctively try to edit and combine them in my brain to see if I can make a single consistent one. Anti-rationalist though I desire to be, I’m a cathedral builder at heart.
I’m not sure I could tell you what this all adds up to or why this blog is an expression of these ideas. But I like the idea of a consecrated but untamed place, and the spiritual development the term implies, not impressed by a conquering army, or ritual defenestrations, but by those who hoped that one day others might enjoy a cathedral of their own.
-J Arthur Bloom, missionary ground: A brief word on this blog’s title
Jordan’s post made me realize that I have always sought to make my little corners of the web into missionary ground, in the sense that he is describing.
Growing up, I would tell my dad about the stuff I had learned in history (mostly) or English, and he would say something to the tune of—”That’s totally wrong. But remember it because it’s what your teacher will want you to say on a test.” I found this very troubling. Teachers were authority figures, but my dad was the king of authority figures. That their stories did not line up—that they straight up contradicted one another—was really quite unpleasant.
Since that time I have consistently sought certainty in a world where so many stories are presented as though they were born of the true knowledge of the storyteller. Any certainty would do; even a Pyrrhonian certainty that no one knows anything at all. I’ve tried that one on for size many times, and it will always have a hold on me.
In 2004 I set out to conquer the untamed stories by declaring a little corner of the Blogger empire my missionary space—again, in Jordan’s sense. I was not looking to convert the world—I was looking to build my cathedral.
And I did attempt to build it. First, from Protagorean foundations. Then, from Popperian ones. Then, from Humean and social science inspired ones. Between these episodes of attempted craftsmanship was a virtual ocean of reading, quoting, linking, writing, and arguing. Between attempts to raise up an elegant edifice was messy trial and error, and intense devotion to particular ideas for brief and longer periods of time.
The truth is in the mess, and not the edifice. No matter how many cathedrals I start I am always living in the untamed lands, where stories vie for my allegiance. Where sometimes I think Pyrrho was right and we are all little more than dreamers and storytellers, and the rest of the time I am merely certain that my own mind is systematically working against me.
Writing at The Ümlaut this year has been good for me; I have followed trains of thought in a far more focused, less messy manner. Still, I scrutinize my work and wonder whether they form a whole or if they are incompatible pieces to entirely distinct puzzles. Are this, this, and this part of one story or am I contradicting myself? What about this and this? I often have trouble trusting my answer to this question.
Still, I continue to work on my next cathedral, clinging to the hope that this will be the one. I feel I have made a great deal more progress than the last time I made the attempt. But is this an accurate reading of my circumstances or is this the same false confidence I always feel when setting about a task of this sort?
If I have given the impression up until this point that I have some sort of anxiety on this score, I hope you’ll forgive me for that bit of stylistic indulgence. I actually love it down here, in the untamed lands, where I’m never more than half-sure of anything. I don’t know if I’m going to ever finish a cathedral with solid enough foundations to last long, but I do know that I am so much better at navigating these parts than I was even a year or two ago. And I am incomparably better than the 19-year-old kid who planted a flag in the blogosphere nine years ago.
When it comes to cognitive biases and imperfections, I have grown comfortable thinking of my mind as a table at which many strange characters sit. One of those is GMU-style libertarianism, informed largely by people like my friend Eli and the GMU professors who have a large presence in the blogosphere and on Twitter. Then there are people close to me in my life, whose idiosyncrasies I know well; I often think about how any one of them might react to a particular story I have read. Then there are the people I seek out who often force me to experience the cognitive dissonance of disagreement when I know the person I am disagreeing with is intelligent—people like Noah Smith, Claudia Sahm, Bernard Yu—they are numerous these days, I am proud to say. And there are others.
This isn’t to say that I have cataloged the sources of my biases and elevated myself above them—I am just as imperfectly human as anyone else. But I am more comfortable living with my biases than I used to be.
I really am serious about this next effort to build something, but I am also keenly aware that a cathedral is something that no individual can build alone—indeed it cannot even be built in a single generation. We speak of people like Daniel Kahneman or Everett Rogers—to say nothing of Adam Smith or Charles Darwin—as having done immensely important work because after decades or centuries of other people building on top of what they did, we now know that their work was, indeed, important.
So I will continue to do work in the hopes that I can add a few pieces to something bigger than I could ever possibly accomplish on my own.
And in the meantime, I will revel in the madness of this perpetually untamed space of stories and uncertainty.