I’m going through a bit of a change at the moment. If you follow what I write, you may have guessed this from a couple of recent posts. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I got here.
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.