Saturday, July 9, 2016

Some methodological errors in the thinking of David F. Brooks

John Agar in Nathan H. Juran's The Brain from Planet Arous (1957). Via Chandler Swain Reviews.

David F. Brooks is still writing that column about how somebody needs to give Western society a makeover, because it's getting awfully tatty and mean. As a matter of fact the column is getting pretty tatty too.

This time it is called "The Power of Altruism", under the influence of the French biologist and Vajrayana monk Matthieu Ricard, whose Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World came out in English just a year ago, horrible self-help book subtitle and all (the French title, Plaidoyer pour l'altruisme: La force de la bienveillance, sounds a lot more dignified, presented as a lawyer's brief for the defense, and using the noble "benevolence" instead of the sickly "compassion", and omitting the self-help how-to coda).

I am totally on board with the idea that it would be a good thing for all of us to spread around a little more of that "love and kindness" as my girl Hillary Clinton likes to call it, if we can, and loath to cast any doubts on the soundness of Ricard, who is a trusted French translator for the Dalai Lama, but as far as Brooks goes, you know, odds are always that he's doing it wrong, whatever it may be, and this train of thought as he represents it is no exception. Indeed, the new piece presents an especially clear opportunity for explaining Brooks's inability to understand what societies are, how they work, and what could be done to improve them, starting with his bizarre first sentence:
Western society is built on the assumption that people are fundamentally selfish.
First, it isn't built; I mean, it isn't built by anybody, under some particular set of assumptions. Built by whom? When somebody sets out to construct a society on a theoretical basis, we know about it, and it comes to grief, generally sooner rather than later: Robespierre or Mother Ann Lee, Mao Zedong or Pol Pot. In the main, societies grow, pushed by their environments, in thousands and millions of individual transactions, whether you think of these transactions as forced to begin with by the dictates of power relations, as Hobbes thought, or originally agreed on in the faith that people will live up to their contractual obligations, in the view of Locke or Rousseau. Speaking of Hobbes,
Machiavelli and Hobbes gave us influential philosophies built on human selfishness. 
Second, building a philosophy isn't the same thing as building a society.

Machiavelli's political work, based on observation of the collapse of the central and northern Italian city-states in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, gives you advice, but it's individual advice on how to deal with the situation as it is, in The Prince; specifically, how to be like Cesare Borgia and come out on top of the chaos (Cesare didn't, but died in the trivial mishandling of a siege, at the age of 31). Or in The Discourses, how to preserve the traditional republics from people like the Borgias (Brooks "teaches" Machiavelli in the Grand Strategy program at Yale, I think, and it's amazing to me that he still hasn't learned that Machiavelli wrote two books on political theory, for different audiences).

Hobbes, similarly, lived through the chaos of the English Civil War, Commonwealth, and Restoration, and described the perpetual situation of dog eat dog and people's need to subordinate themselves to a single masterful ruler on that basis. He didn't admire such a social situation, any more than Machiavelli admired his; he believed that was the natural human condition, and people just had to learn to live with it.

Locke, living through more or less the same period, concluded that the people could force the ruler to stick with an agreed set of principles, and in the long run his view was far more influential than Hobbes's. On the other hand, while he made an immense contribution to the shaping of future governments around the world, he didn't "build societies" either.
Sigmund Freud gave us a psychology of selfishness. Children, he wrote, “are completely egoistic; they feel their needs intensely and strive ruthlessly to satisfy them.”
So did Brooks's favorite theologian, Augustine of Hippo:
What then was my sin at that age? Was it perhaps that I cried so greedily for those breasts? Certainly if I behaved like that now, greedy not for breasts, of course, but for food suitable to my age, I should provoke derision and be very properly rebuked. My behavior then was equally deserving of rebuke.... The only innocent feature in babies is the weakness of their frames; the minds of infants are far from innocent.
Just sayin'. But neither Freud nor Augustine designed babies. They observed them and interpreted their behavior in the light of their own biases and preoccupations. Anybody who has ever lived with a baby (ask Mrs. Brooks, if she's still speaking to you) will tell you they were onto something, too, though no baby is likely as creepy as Augustine seems to think he was. Then again, he had a pretty screwy mother.
Classical economics adopts a model that says people are primarily driven by material self-interest.
Actually, no, it doesn't, in general. It just doesn't examine the other drives; it tries to limit the discussion, rather, to the primarily economic aspects of human behavior, and ignore the rest, as a way of avoiding irrelevant complications; in John Stuart Mill's words, it
does not treat the whole of man’s nature as modified by the social state, nor of the whole conduct of man in society. It is concerned with him solely as a being who desires to possess wealth, and who is capable of judging the comparative efficacy of means for obtaining that end.... [and who] inevitably does that by which he may obtain the greatest amount of necessaries, conveniences, and luxuries, with the smallest quantity of labour and physical self-denial with which they can be obtained.
You can say it's wrong to do that, and I won't argue with you, but I think:

Third, a much bigger defect than the selfishness focus is the insistence on the rationality of Homo economicus

Love and altruism are really not an important part of our economic behavior, our relationships with the people we buy stuff from or sell stuff to, so it's not important to consider it in the consideration of value and trade and price movements, but when economists speak of a subject who is able to maximize utility in one direction and profit in the other with perfect efficiency, I think they're over the edge into the cray-cray, and behavioral economists, economic anthropologists, and revisionists like the Keynesians are all a better guide to what actually happens in the world.

Needless to say, when economists study people as if they were purely rational utility-maximizers, they are not magically creating a society that actually consists of purely rational utility-maximizers, as Brooks seems to imagine they are; merely describing something that doesn't quite exist. Brooks's picture of people becoming less altruistic in recent years doesn't hold up at all empirically either, surprise surprise.

Annual US charitable giving in $US billions, 1954-2014. From Business Researcher. Note the remarkable spike defined by the Clinton administration.
Political science assumes that people are driven to maximize their power.
Really? If that means that an economistic rational choice theory is dominant in political science, that may have been close to true for a while around the time David Brooks was in college, but it is far from true now, as Susanne Lohmann clarifies for readers of the New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics:
In its high-brow (esoteric) variant, rational choice is on the way out in political science. In its low-brow (sensible) variant, rational choice is here to stay, not as the dominant approach, but as one of three equal, and complementary, approaches: the rationalist approach, which focuses on individual agency; the culturalist approach, which centres on collective identities; and the structuralist approach, which emphasizes historical institutionalism.
And a good thing too.
But this worldview is clearly wrong. In real life, the push of selfishness is matched by the pull of empathy and altruism.
So you can stop worrying about it.

Fourth, what the social or political scientists observe should not be confused with what they recommend. Description and prescription are two different universes.
In 1776, Adam Smith defined capitalism as a machine that takes private self-interest and organizes it to produce general prosperity.
Smith's work in The Wealth of Nations was to observe the emerging system of capitalist production and describe it in the most elegant and generalizable possible way. The book is not a cookbook intended to coach capitalist politicians, but a guide to explain to people what had been happening in Britain over the course of the 18th century, through those thousands and thousands of independent negotiations, in a process akin to what would become known as natural selection.

Fifth, the teleological fallacy: you can't conclude that capitalist production was designed to create societal wealth, since nobody designed it. You can conclude only that it survives and spreads because it's adaptive, up to some uncertain point where it may eventually collapse.

Moreover, Smith wasn't at all averse to moralizing and telling people what they ought to do, but when he did it was in a different book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. And he advised citizens and in particular governments to work counter to the machine for industrialization and growth, correcting its excesses and cruelties, according to a theory of "enlightened self-interest" which holds that our individual altruism benefits society as a whole by making it a better place and therefore indirectly benefits ourselves. You might call that a "trickle-up theory".
A few years later America’s founders created a democracy structured to take private factional competition and, through checks and balances, turn it into deliberative democracy. Both rely on a low but steady view of human nature and try to turn private vice into public virtue.
In the same way, those Founders worked to counter the factional tendencies of Homo politicus—not to "turn private vice into public virtue", but to use public virtue, moral sentiments of honor and friendship,  as a corrective to the private vice. They weren't designing a selfish society, but taking a selfish society as a given and trying to channel it into a more altruistic operation, that being how they saw the functions of government (to secure the rights that an uncontrolled power structure would leave unprotected).
But back then, there were plenty of institutions that promoted the moral lens to balance the economic lens: churches, guilds, community organizations, military service and honor codes.
If we're voting for more liberal churches, more trade union membership, and better government funding for community organizations, you can count me in on that one. I trust by honor codes you don't mean dueling, but things that actually exist, like the Yale Code on Cheating and Plagiarism. If you're not, why don't you just stop kvetching and get yourself a real job? At long last.

Driftglass wonders why Brooks doesn't, you know, tell it to the Republicans. We hippies never had anything to do with this economism shit in the first place (got our economics from Herbert Marcuse).

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