Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Happy upcoming Father's Day!

Several times over the past ten years or so my father has mentioned an old Horizon magazine article written by a British Labour MP. Sometimes he has paraphrased passages from memory, e.g.,

The point I am making is that although the doomwatchers say they are upset at the prospect of having to sacrifice freedom, their disregard of all serious argument against the need to do so, the indecent haste with which they embrace the authoritarian option, and the self-righteous passion with which they try to ram it down everyone's throat belie their words.
and sometimes wished he could check his memory of it. As is probably obvious from the wording of that quote, I have now successfully tracked down the article ("Getting Along With Doomsday" by Bryan Magee in the summer 1975 issue of Horizon magazine). Primarily I am smugly preparing to mail a photocopy as a more-thoughtful-than-usual-for-me Father's Day gift. Secondarily, though, I'll take the opportunity to remark about the article here.

The article is about general properties common to potential catastrophes which particularly alarm leftists, and common to the political agitation around them. It seems to me that the generalizations have held up very well over almost 35 years, so well that I'm surprised that no one has been motivated to reprint the article on the web. Instead the article seems to be completely invisible: my Google search for the quoted title string "getting along with doomsday" finds only two hits, both merely the tables of contents of entire issues of Horizon magazine. So I am apparently the first WWW author to recommend the article; go me!

Unable to hyperlink to it, I shall at least quote another paragraph, from the first page:

Having lived in the period when these views were popular, I am struck by several peculiarities about them. First, although most of them are logically unconnected, and some are mutually contradictory, they were all accepted and promoted by roughly the same people. And --- this may be merely a comment on the circles I happen to move in, but I do not think so --- their appeal seemed to be preponderantly to people of a certain left-wing persuasion. Many of my acquaintances moved from one to the next as each in its turn became fashionable. Some embraced two or more simultaneously. A few heroically muddled individuals tried to believe all of them at once.
Really someone should put this entire article properly on the web, blast it! It was hard to decide which of about ten paragraphs in a row (starting from this one) I wanted most to quote; and there are various rival paragraphs in other sections of the article too.

Besides securing the rights to post the original on the web --- well worth doing, I think, because part of the force of the article today is that it's a time capsule whose frozen analysis can be compared against developments since then --- it might be interesting if some thoughtful person wrote a generalized update. The generalization that I'd particularly like to see would be not only to critique the stereotypical leftist doomsaying as Magee does, but also to critique stereotypical vaguely-classical-liberal doomsaying. (Here by vaguely classical liberalism I mean a pretty big tent, including e.g. the authors of The Federalist). After all, we have a checkered record too. E.g., classical liberals have worried about standing armies making republican states hopelessly unstable, and about growth of state power being a one-way ratcheting garrote. Neither of those has been a really good predictor for the twentieth century. (The one-way ratchet isn't a terribly bad rule of thumb, but in the twentieth century as in the three centuries before it the exceptions were very important, and we're not doing very well at predicting the exceptions.)

Vaguely-classical-liberal folk have also done some doomsaying about absolute socialism causing absolute poverty. Such doomsaying seems now to be popularly discredited, considered to be overblown scare stories falsified by history. As far as I know, though, the most influential scare stories involving absolute poverty also involved truly absolute socialism, including things like absolutely eliminating money, and not merely Soviet-style 90% collectivization of agriculture, but absolute 100% collectivization of agriculture. Thus, it seems to me that the verdict of history is slightly unclear on the effects of such absolute socialism. The much clearer verdict is on how the ratchet tends to stop before you reach such absolute socialism, leaving grey market arrangements like private farming plots to play an important part in the economy.

The twentieth century does seem to have supported the vaguely-classical-liberal doomsaying about the dangers of strong states. States so strong that they wipe out most independent power centers have been extremely dangerous to their own subjects over the past 100 years; it's hard to use the twentieth century to support the proposition that there is any threat which justifies strengthening the state to the point that independent power centers start getting wiped out.

You could try to justify a very high level of state control by invoking the threat of conquest by an equally illiberal state. However, it's not so obvious that a supercentralized state is militarily stronger than a more liberal state. Nazi Germany is the obvious scary example to support the idea that supercentralized states can be ferociously strong in high intensity war. However, knowledgeable people seem to judge most of their relative effectiveness to have been due to getting tactics and doctrine right. The history of the last fifty years seems to support the idea that they're correct, and that the things the Wehrmacht got right are largely independent of fighting for a supercentralized state.

Incidentally, my wish for a more balanced update isn't intended as a criticism of Magee writing in 1975. Given his venue, his article was plenty long and ambitious. Also, the classical liberal bugaboos are mostly claims about economics and political science under different kinds of political systems. Today we have considerably more relevant and undisputed data on those subjects than we did in 1975: the passage of time has not only created much more economic data, but also unlocked previously hidden and disputed Soviet and Chinese economic data. So I'm only wishing for someone to take advantage of the analysis opportunities that we have in 2009, not complaining that Magee improperly left his analysis incomplete in 1975.

Finally, let me acknowledge that of course bad arguments or suspect motives do not suffice as a logical justification to deny an argued-for conclusion. Therfore, even if Magee correctly identified patterns of bad arguments or suspect motives, that doesn't suffice to disprove any conclusions. Sometimes, however, a pattern of bad arguments or suspect motives can suffice as a justification for becoming exasperated.