Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Happy birthday, Jane.

Google doodle, 4 May 2016.
Today would have been Jane Jacobs' 100th birthday.

Jacobs taught us, more than anything, about the importance of people - even and especially ordinary people - over plans. She saw her work as a contribution to economics, and her inductive, heterodox approach to the subject offers insights that too-mathematical training is apt to miss.

If nothing else, she made us think harder.

I've just finished reading Deirdre McCloskey's The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce. One of the most frustrating things about the book is that it passes over Jacobs' work completely even though Jacobs dedicated her 1994 book, Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics, to the same topic (broadly speaking). Jacobs was like a bourgeois virtues hipster (those glasses!), writing about them before they were cool. Systems of Survival is, along with The Death and Life of Great American Cities and The Economy of Cities, one of her most important books.

Below is an extended excerpt from Systems of Survival, explaining the radical implications of establishing commercial rules and norms in a previously hierarchical-only society, and on the economic logic behind equal individual legal rights.

To celebrate Jane Jacobs' life, consider taking part in a Jane's Walk in your city this weekend.

Thanks, Jane.
"The contractual law we inherited from those medieval merchants contained radical conceptions. Not only did it apply alike to all individuals, no matter who they were or what their social status might be, but it was available to individuals for no other reason than that they were individuals, making contracts. That second notion is so inseparable from our contractual law that we even have the fiction that a corporation is a person. That's so corporations, like individuals, can make contracts and carry on commercial life under protection of civil law. To realize how radical the Custom of Merchants was, we only need to think about some of the battles to extend the jurisdiction of contractual law.
"For instance, slaves lack rights as individuals. After slaves in the United States were freed, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution theoretically gave them access to all the rights of individuals available under contractual law. But by custom, hierarchical law, the rule of rank, still prevailed, so freedmen and their descendants seldom enjoyed the benefits of contractual law. Every time a black homeowner was driven from his legally purchased house in a white neighborhood he was being treated as if hierarchical law, derived from social status, prevailed. Every time effective barriers were thrown up against black-owned businesses, and they were, more often than not, or against employment of qualified blacks, or they were excluded from labor unions and apprenticeships controlled by unions, it was as if contractual law did not exist for African Americans. As someone has said, even buying a loaf of bread is a contract. So is being served a meal in a restaurant. A bus ticket is a contract, but if you have to stand instead of sit because of your color, that's the rule of rank, not contract. So many of what we call civil rights are actually rights to make contracts as equals.
"A generation ago," Hortense continued indignantly, "large numbers of American women began to create businesses of their own. To their outrage and disbelief, many discovered they were blocked from signing commercial leases or borrowing commercial funds on their own responsibility. Banks and landlords demanded a male cosigner, usually a husband or father. By custom, sexism was excluding women from individual rights under contractual law. Another variety of sexism has often denied homosexuals the benefits of contractual law; those battles still continue.
"Neither rulers nor philosophers invented individual rights. Nor did nature invent them. Not Rousseau or Thomas Paine or Thomas Jefferson, much less the barons who extorted the Magna Carta from King John on grounds of the rights their rank entitled them to. The strange idea of rights unconnected to status was what medieval servs referred to when they said, 'City air makes free.' By getting to the city and subscribing to its extraordinary customs, they wiggled out of hierarchical law and into contractual law. I don't need to tell you individual rights still frighten many governments. They also frighten economic oligarchies. It's no wonder the very idea had to emerge outside the government - and even then as a by-product of other practical purposes."
Vintage Books edition, p. 39-40, in chapter 3: Kate and the Commercial Syndrome.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Hayek was not a conservative. Here's why.

Hayek's essay 'Why I Am Not a Conservative' is often misremembered as a defensive claim that says conservatives are invested in traditions while liberals want to move forward, and since Hayek considers himself a liberal (in the original sense of the word), he does not want to be mistaken for a conservative. Because Hayek was an advocate of emergent orders who argued against remaking them wholesale, this argument would set him up to fail. But it's not his argument.

'Liberal' and 'conservative' as they're used colloquially don't fit Hayek's definitions. As political identifiers, both are increasingly vacuous. These terms need to be defined, not because one is good and the other is bad, but because both are useful. The essay isn't mounting a defence, it's setting out definitions.

If you could say to Hayek, "But you aren't describing what conservatives believe now!" I think he might respond, "Of course not. That's why I wrote the essay." Conservatism has real meaning, but it doesn't imply a timeless set of concrete policy proposals.

Can productive rhetoric defeat the smug?

I was talking with a friend yesterday about political labels, and it got me thinking about why I've, apparently, decided to dig in my heels for them. This article on 'The smug style in American liberalism' over at Vox just crystallized it for me.

If we don't have meaningful language to describe political principles and how and why policy goals are pursued, this is what can happen: We dismiss our opponents as evil. As stupid. We assume that they only reason that they could disagree with us is that they are openly hostile toward the things that we 'know' are good, or that they are simply ignorant of the 'right' information that will help the scales fall from their eyes. We set out to 'fix' people rather than inform them and ourselves.

I don't think this is exclusive to modern American liberals, even if they're the ones who may have best transferred the attitude into popular culture. I have met and know many conservatives and real liberals who are just as guilty. There is a powerful seductiveness to the idea of being so right that ignorance and evil are the only things that could make someone disagree with you.

This environment is corrosive to the democratic debate that forms the backbone of a functioning liberal democracy. It is corrosive to the stable set of rules for governance that help encourage positive, rather than negative or ungrounded, change. It replaces them with disdain and encourages unbound populism. And it makes people mean.

No one is perfect when it comes to how they engage with their interlocutors, but try to recognize when you've failed to see the merit behind an opposing point of view. Assume good intentions, and try to rein it in your reflexive indignation . Push back against vacuous language. Treat each other like humans. And I think things can get better.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The problem with the relative-merit defence of Harper's government

Here's, I think, my issue with Conservatives' demand that those of us unhappy with Harper's policies and Trudeau's policies hold back on critiquing what Harper did because the alternative was X, The-Even-Worse-Big-Government-Program from a Liberal or NDP (or both) government.

Like, sure. Fine. If all democracy is about is voting and passing laws, then I guess that might be the choice.

But it doesn't seem like it was the choice, does it? We didn't get Bad Conservative Policy Y instead of Worse Liberal Policy X, we got Bad Conservative Policy Y and then Worse Liberal Policy X. Nothing was prevented. So why, exactly, should people unhappy with both withhold criticism if they think the Harper government's bad policy was not literally the worst we could do?

The hard work against Worse Liberal Policy X includes a critique of Bad Conservative Policy Y when they're bad and worse forms of the same bad idea. The hard work of policy debate in a democracy determines what 'menu' of possible policies. The easy work of shoving a piece of paper in a ballot box just makes a choice from that narrow range. Democratic policy debate can't take place without criticism.

The Harper Conservative government (and all those who continue their reflexive opposition to its criticism) act as though they have to be judged by the relative options on the table at the time, as though this was an extraneous factor. But it wasn't, and it isn't. Demands for loyalty then and now have done serious damage to conservative and at least some real liberal participation in the much more meaningful process of deciding what's on the table by demanding shelter from the criticism due to bad policies.

You need to let people talk about why a policy is a bad idea, even if your party passed a law enacting it in the past, if you want things to improve in the future.