Why am I writing this?

  • Real potential for civil war
    • Violence between leftists and right wingers
      • Portland, OR
      • Kenosha, WI
    • Closest historical analogy: clashes between leftists and fascists in Weimar Germany.
    • Trump contested election scenario
  • History makes it clear that liberal democracy is the exception – not the norm.
    • It’s very possible that the US will degenerate into a hellish state of anarchy (followed by totalitarianism).
    • There’s no reason to think we’re immune to this.
  • Building and maintaining a free society has always required effort.
    • Past generations fought wars or built institutions.
    • What are we called on to do?
    • The very least I can do is to speak my mind.
  • In the midst of America’s fraught politics, I want to go on the record in favor of:
    • centrism
    • pluralism
    • gradualism
    • democracy
    • capitalism
  • I suspect most people are in favor of these. But a small number of loud extremists at both ends of the political spectrum have muddied the water for everyone else.

My position

I have political views. But I also have perspectives about political views. I call these “meta-political” views.

My political views are subject to change. But my meta-political views change very rarely.

“Meta-political” views

  • A conservative disposition, based in history and a respect for complexity
    • Somehow, western civilization stumbled into a wonderful way of organizing itself. I’ll call this liberal democracy as a shorthand.
    • We have some educated guesses about the things that make liberal democracy work so well:
      • Government by consent of the governed
      • Individual human rights
      • Rule of law, property rights, enforcement of contracts
      • etc.
    • It didn’t start perfect, and it isn’t perfect yet. But it is a hell of a lot better than any other system in recorded history. And it has improved a lot over time.
    • Let me emphasize: no other system has promoted human dignity and material wellbeing like liberal democracy. And it’s not even close. This is an empirical fact.
    • Liberal democracy is unprecedented in history. There is no reason to think that it’s permanent.
    • At the same time, human society is complex and we only partially understand it. We should be skeptical of utopian thinking – of imagining that we can design the perfect society.
    • For these reasons, I’m inclined toward caution and slowness when it comes to “adjusting the knobs” of liberal democracy. And I don’t trust extremist views of any stripe.
  • Pluralism
    • Both progressives and conservatives have worthwhile roles to play in our society.
      • Roughly: conservatives tend to maintain existing institutions, while progressives seek to reform or improve them.
    • On the surface, pluralism may seem naive or “Kumbaya”.
    • However, I think it arises from a nuanced understanding of how a civilization sustains itself.
      • No society is “perfect,” so the progressives will always have a role to play.
      • Our existing institutions are the best in human history, and should not be tampered with lightly. So the conservatives have a role to play.
      • An ongoing dialogue between these two viewpoints is crucial for maintaining (and improving) liberal democracy.
    • Pluralism leads me to tolerate other people’s belief systems. I sometimes wonder “why does person X believe Y?”; but I also like to ask myself “under what circumstances could people who believe Y benefit society?”
  • Technocracy
    • When we entrust government with a responsibility, it ought to carry out that responsibility competently.
    • I think government decision makers should digest information and make decisions in a systematic way.
    • I think expert opinion and technology can eliminate unnecessary inefficiencies from government.
  • American exceptionalism (in some sense)
    • I call myself an American exceptionalist in the sense that I think America has a lot of good things going for it, and is unique in that regard.
      • Our political and economic system is organized on pretty good principles (i.e., liberal democracy).
      • We have vast natural resources.
      • We have a large, educated population and a culture of productivity.
      • We (currently) have the best universities and most productive businesses in the world.
    • I think America has, historically, offered something special to the rest of the world.
      • A voice of reason
      • Prosperity through trade
      • Defense of liberal democratic values
      • Art, culture, science, and technology.
    • This is an aspirational description – America sometimes falls short of it. But in an average sense, I really do think America has been a force for good in all of these dimensions.

Concrete political views

  • Pragmatic libertarianism
    • Roughly: socially progressive, fiscally conservative.
    • An enthusiasm for voluntary enterprise without government coercion.
    • A recognition that government has important roles to play. Especially in the stewardship of public goods.
      • Infrastructure
      • Defense against human and natural threats (e.g., pandemics)
      • A safety net for the unlucky and the infirm
      • Very long term investment: e.g., basic scientific research without immediate commercial value.
  • Who am I voting for?
    • Joe Biden. Without a doubt.
    • I don’t like Joe Biden. But I dislike Donald Trump much more.

If I’m forced to summarize my views in one word, I call myself “centrist.” It’s not very descriptive.

Some bad ideas and my responses

  • Trumpism
    • Steel man: The Washington establishment was out of touch with reality and needed to be disrupted. Donald Trump was a much-needed departure from the status quo. Sometimes it’s necessary for things to become worse before they become better.
    • Me: Washington politics were disfunctional, but Donald Trump promised an entirely different kind of disfunction. A narcissistic, nepotistic, boorish flavor of disfunction. He has no respect for the norms or institutions that make American politics function at all. Worse yet, America has lost its credibility on the world stage. Liberal democracies have historically looked to us for leadership, but we have failed them. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this painfully clear. I don’t see Trump’s politics leading to the better future anyone may have hoped for.
  • “Defund the police”
    • Steel man: The police have been an instrument of systemic racism. They do more harm than good. We should divert funds away from police and toward community-building efforts and social work.
    • Me: Let’s simulate this forward a little bit. If the police are bad now, then reducing their budget will only make them worse. Police departments will have fewer, more poorly trained officers. Less pay means that they will be unable to attract better talent. There’s a decent chance that weaker policing would lead to more violent crime.
  • Ibram X. Kendi’s “antiracism”
    • Steel man: American institutions remain systemically racist. Racism can persist in our institutions even when no individual person acts on racial animus. We need to judge actions by their outcomes – anything that results in racial inequality is racist. On the other hand, actions that produce equality are antiracist. Everything falls into one of those two categories.
    • Me: I agree that it’s possible for an institution to perpetuate racial inequality even when there are no racist individuals within it (complex organizations sometimes have a mind of their own). But I don’t think it’s useful to expand the definition of racism in this way. “Racist” is a highly morally charged word. It’s about as toxic as “pedophile”. Meanwhile, it’s very difficult to predict the long-term outcomes of a policy. People with the best of intentions can make mistakes, despite their best efforts. It doesn’t seem useful to call these people racist.
    • Furthermore, I’m skeptical of equality-of-outcome as a policy objective. For illustration, consider affirmative action at elite universities. Affirmative action may increase the enrollment of underrepresented groups, but it’s common for those students to drop out at higher rates – they may feel out of place or less competitive than their peers. In my opinion, the jury is still out as to whether affirmative action has been a net positive.
    • Equality of opportunity seems like a more constructive goal. It’s harder to measure or enforce, but it addresses root causes.
  • Rejecting capitalism; socialism
    • Steel man: American capitalism is corrupt. The majority of wealth is held by a tiny minority of individuals. These individuals in turn exercise their influence on the political system, consolidating their power. Nothing short of an overhaul can fix this system. Some flavor of socialism seems better.
    • Me: The money in American politics is very problematic, but it’s always possible for things to be worse. Abrupt, violent change usually does make things worse. I think it’s still possible to reform the system gradually, from within. I’ll address democratic socialism – the stricter forms of Marxism have much more obvious critiques. People usually point to the Nordic countries as examples of high-functioning democratic socialism. However, I’m skeptical of democratic socialism’s ability to scale to a country as large and diverse as the USA. The Nordic countries are, in comparison, much smaller and more homogenous. Their citizens have a stronger sense of shared cultural identity than do Americans. This makes it easier for them to tolerate collectivist ideas. I expect American social welfare to look different from those of other countries.

Some voices of sanity

  • Jonathan Haidt
  • Tyler Cowen
  • John McWhorter
  • Douglas Murray
  • Christina Hoff Sommers
  • Sam Harris

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