Wednesday, May 31, 2023

To what extent do international differences in personal freedom reflect people's values?


The accompanying graph shows that personal freedom tends to be greatest in countries where people hold the most emancipative values (on average). However, it also suggests that in some countries personal freedom is much less, or much more, than might be expected on the basis of the values commonly held by the people. For example, there is less personal freedom in Belarus than might be expected, whereas there is more personal freedom in Armenia and Georgia than might be expected.

Before going further, I need to explain what emancipative values and personal freedom actually measure.

The concept of emancipate values was developed by Christian Welzel to measure the beliefs that people hold about such matters as the importance of personal autonomy, respect for the choices people make in their personal lives, having a say in community decisions, and equality of opportunity. Welzel’s research, using data from the World Values Survey, suggests that larger numbers of people have tended to adopt emancipative values in an increasing number of societies as economic development has proceeded. The strengthening of emancipative values is explained by growth of action resources (wealth, intellectual skills, and opportunities to connect with others) rather than civic entitlements such as voting rights. As emancipative values have strengthened, more people have come to recognize the value of civic entitlements and have used their growing material resources, intellectual skills, and opportunities to connect with others, to take collective action to achieve such entitlements. The process has been ongoing, with people showing greater concern for promoting more widespread opportunities—including greater opportunities for women, ethnic minorities and the disabled—as material living standards have risen and emancipative values have strengthened. (There is more information about Welzel’s research on emancipative values here.)

The personal freedom component of the Fraser Institute’s Human Freedom Index incorporates indicators of rule of law, security and safety, freedom of movement, freedom of religion, freedom of association and civil society, freedom of expression and information, and relationship freedom.

As already noted, international differences in personal freedom don’t always reflect people’s values. The reason why that is so is fairly obvious when one looks at the country labels I have shown on the outliers in the graph. What is it that Armenia, Cyprus, and Taiwan have that Egypt, Iran, China, Belarus and Vietnam do not have?   Representative government. 

Two cheers for democracy!

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Do people now have greater economic freedom in Sweden than in the U.S. and Australia?


When I think of Sweden, what comes to mind is a big government welfare state, with higher priority being given to economic security than to economic freedom. I was therefore surprised when I saw the Heritage Foundation data reproduced in the accompanying graph, which shows that economic freedom in Sweden is now higher in the United States and Australia. I expect that many readers would be similarly surprised.

The substantial decline which the graph shows for economic freedom in the U.S. and Australia since 2020 is presumably associated with government policies restricting freedom during the Covid19 pandemic. However, economic freedom in Sweden has apparently maintained an upward trend during that period.

In order to come to grips with this new information I thought it might be helpful to consider alternative economic freedom estimates and to take a look at the components of the Heritage Foundation’s economic freedom estimates.  

Comparison of Heritage and Fraser estimates   

 Some of those who feel uncomfortable with the idea that people may now have more economic freedom in Sweden than in the U. S. and Australia might obtain some solace from the fact that the latest economic freedom estimates of the Fraser Institute has Sweden (in 33rd place) ranked far behind both Australia (6th) and the U.S.  (7th).  Some of the differences between the Heritage and Fraser estimates may be attributable to timing. The Heritage estimates for 2023 are based as far as possible on data for June 30, 2022, whereas the latest available Fraser estimates are for 2020. However, there are also differences in the aspects of economic freedom covered by the indexes. For example, the Heritage estimates incorporate Fiscal Health (deficits and debt) which is an aspect of economic management not incorporated in the Fraser estimates.

I was not surprised to see Sweden ranked first in the Fraser Institute’s index of personal freedom, well ahead of Australia (17th) and the U.S. (33rd). The Human Freedom index (which combines economic freedom and personal freedom) has Sweden ranked 6th, ahead of Australia (11th) and the U.S. (23rd).

Comparison of scores on various aspects of economic freedom

The comparison of scores on the accompanying graph indicate that aspects in which Sweden performs relatively well, by comparison with Australia and the U.S. are fiscal health and government integrity. As might be expected from Sweden’s welfare state reputation, the aspects on which Sweden performs relatively poorly include tax burden and government spending.


The answer to the question I posed at the outset depends on which economic freedom index one looks at. The Heritage Foundation’s index clearly has people enjoying greater economic freedom in Sweden than in the U.S. and Australia, but that finding is not confirmed by the Fraser Institute’s index. Whatever Sweden’s current ranking relative to the U.S. and Australia, it is worth pondering how Sweden has managed to maintain relatively high levels of economic and personal freedom, despite having a large welfare state. At this stage, there is not much evidence that Sweden is in grave danger of sliding down the slippery slope to serfdom. 

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

What is holding back the growth of economic opportunities in PNG?


Why should you care about the economic opportunities available to the people of Papua New Guinea?  Perhaps some readers didn’t even know the location of Papua New Guinea (PNG) before looking at the accompanying map.

There is a lot to be said for the view that the people of PNG should be left to solve their own problems for themselves. However, one of the problems the people of PNG need to solve is how to reduce their dependence on foreign aid. Another problem they need to solve is how to cope with living in a part of the world in which China and the United States are increasingly competing for influence.

Joe Biden, the president of the United States is to visit Port Moresby, the capital of PNG, on May 22 for discussions with Pacific Island Forum members, while on his way to Sydney for a Quad meeting.

My personal interest in the economic opportunities available to people in PNG stems from having worked there as a consultant on economic policy, having visited as a tourist on several occasions, and not least, from having relatives who live there. I maintain an interest in economic and social development in PNG and have written about it on this blog in the past (here, here, here, and here).

In this article I suggest that opportunities for human flourishing in PNG are less promising than recent macroeconomic indicators might suggest. After considering some macro-economic indicators, I briefly discuss population statistics, corruption and profligacy, the law and order problem, poor opportunities for young people, and lack of economic freedom.

Macro-economic indicators

The World Bank’s latest Economic Update paints a fairly rosy picture, with economic growth of 4.5 percent for 2022. Government revenue from mining and petroleum taxes surged (reflecting the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on natural gas prices). The increased revenue led to a reduction in the fiscal deficit. The magnitude of public debt remains a problem, with interest payments exceeding public spending on both health and education.

Inflation at around 6 percent per annum is not unduly high by comparison with other countries, but rising food prices have made life increasingly difficult for many people in urban areas. Foreign exchange rationing, associated with pegging of the Kina against the USD, has been a hindrance to business.

Population statistics

I mention population statistics mainly because questions that have recently been raised about the reliability of official estimates of the population illustrate the existence of deep-seated problems in public administration. The official estimate of population for 2022 is between 9 and 11 million. However, a leaked UN report has suggested that the population could be as high as 17 million. In this instance, the official estimate seems more likely to be correct. However, the last credible census took place 20 years ago, so no-one really knows the size of the PNG population.

It is widely accepted that the population of PNG has been growing rapidly and that the majority of people are relatively young, probably under 25 years old.

Corruption and profligacy

Corruption is still a major problem in PNG, although there seems to have been some reduction over the last decade. Of the 180 countries included in the Corruption Perceptions Index, only 50 were rated as more corrupt than PNG in 2022.

Profligacy in spending of public money by some government ministers is legendary. For example, in 2018, when PNG hosted the APEC summit, Justin Tkatchenko attracted controversy by purchasing 40 custom-made Maserati luxury cars. He claimed that they would sell like hot cakes after the event. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. More recently, the same minister again attracted criticism for taking an overly large contingent of people with him, at public expense, to the coronation of King Charles III. It was his intemperate response, labelling critics as “primitive animals”, which eventually led to his resignation from the position of Foreign Minister.

The law-and-order problem

There has been a law-and-order problem is PNG for many years. In 2015 I wrote:

“It is unsafe for tourists to walk around most parts of Port Moresby alone except within the boundaries of major hotels, modern shopping malls and other locations where security is provided. The same applies to local residents. Tourists are more fortunate than most of the locals because they can afford to be transported safely from one secure area to another.”

It is particularly unsafe for women and girls to be in public places. A recent article on DEVPOLICYBLOG by Sharon Banuk, a university student, describes the nature of the problem that she has faced in staying safe.

PNG is ranked second, behind Venezuela, as the country with the highest number of reported crimes per 100,000 people. The ranking of PNG seems to have remained the same since 2017, having risen from 16th place in 2015.

Poor economic opportunities for young people

The law-and-order problem has been linked to the increasing problem of youth unemployment in an article by Ms. Julian Melpa for the National Research Institute. A recent study found 68 per cent of people aged between 14 to 35 in Port Moresby were unemployed. Even people with tertiary qualifications often find it difficult to obtain employment.

The difficulty of finding employment is illustrated the accompanying photo of job seekers, published with a report in The National newspaper on Feb 6, 2023. The crowd were competing for a few advertised vacancies at a hotel in Port Moresby.

Lack of economic freedom

International agencies tend to label the main deficiencies in economic freedom in countries like PNG as governance problems. That labelling may make their advice more palatable to politicians who have ideological hangups about free markets but it obscures the adverse impact of lack of economic freedom on incentives to invest, innovate and create greater opportunities for human flourishing.

Only 36 of the 176 countries included in the Heritage Foundation’s index of economic freedom have a lower ranking than PNG. A similar picture emerges from the Fraser Institute’s economic freedom ratings. Only 43 of the 165 countries included in the Fraser index have a lower economic freedom rating than PNG.

PNG has particularly low ratings for rule of law (covering property rights, judicial effectiveness, and government integrity) business freedom, and investment freedom.

PNG governments have obviously been having major problems in performing the core functions of government in protecting natural rights of individuals to be safe and have opportunities to flourish. Governments face a formidable challenge in protecting economic freedom in PNG, with most of the population living in village communities and having little contact with the market economy.

However, similar challenges face governments in some other countries. Some African countries which face similar challenges now seem to be performing better than PNG in facilitating growth of economic opportunities.


Readers who are interested in a more comprehensive picture of the well-being of people in PNG should visit the relevant country site of The Legatum Prosperity Index. For the purpose of the Legatum index, prosperity is defined broadly as occurring "when all people have the opportunity to thrive by fulfilling their unique potential and playing their part in strengthening their communities and nations".

My article mentions a visit to PNG by Joe Biden, which was scheduled for May 22. Unfortunately, this  visit will not occur as planned because he has given higher priority to political negotiations over the U.S. government debt ceiling.  

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Is Vipassana meditation consistent with self-acceptance?

Vipassana is an ancient form of meditation based on practice of equanimity in observation of physical sensations and thoughts. As people who practice Vipassana observe sensations arise and pass away, they experience a lessening of both aversion of unpleasant sensations, and of craving for pleasant sensations.  The Vipassana tradition has been kept alive since the time of the Buddha, and popularized over the last 50 years by S. N. Goenka, who died in 2013. The practice is taught in 10 day residential courses.

People who hold views that are incompatible with the Buddhist principle of anatta, or no self, are not excluded from attending Vipassana courses. I have practiced Vipassana meditation, with varying consistency, for about 25 years, and associate the practice with self-acceptance rather than loss of a sense of self. Moments of self-forgetfulness, accompanying feelings of goodwill towards other beings, could be described as quieting the ego rather than abandoning it. It seems to me that Scott Barry Kaufman may be on the right track in his suggestion that “those with the quietest ego defenses often have the strongest sense of self”. (See Transcend, p 204-5).

However, when Goenkaji was asked why he only spoke of the ego in negative terms, he replied:

“Now it seems to you that there must be an 'I' who feels, but after beginning to practice Vipassana, you will reach the stage where the ego dissolves. Then your question will disappear! For conventional purposes, yes, we cannot run away from using words like 'I' or 'mine' etc. But clinging to them, taking them as real in an ultimate sense will only bring suffering.”  

That raises interesting issues. In this article I will briefly discuss the concept of no-self, illustrate similarity between the practice of Vipassana and a psychologist’s approach to self-acceptance, consider how Vipassana meditation might be viewed from an Aristotelian perspective, and end with some observations about the nature of the inner game involved in acquiring equanimity and practical wisdom.

The No-self idea

In their book, Classical Indian Philosophy, Peter Adamson and Jonardon Ganeri note that the Buddha sought to differentiate his view from those who say that we are identical to our bodies and from those who say we have souls that lack connection to anything else. They write:

“To express his own view, the Buddha offered similes: a person is not like the thread running through a necklace of pearls, but like the flowing of a river or the flickering of a candle flame.”

The river metaphor captures the idea that to grasp on to feelings, perceptions, or mental fabrications of the self is as futile as it would be for a person to try to avoid being swept down a swiftly flowing river by grasping on to grasses etc. growing on the banks.

I am attracted to a different river metaphor which reconciles my observation that impermanence is pervasive with my inability to doubt my own existence, and perception of my “self” as having continuity (at least while I remain alive). I have written previously about Richard Campbell’s suggestion, in his book The Metaphysics of Emergence, that Plato may have misrepresented Heraclitus in claiming he said, “You cannot step into the same river twice”. Heraclites may have been trying to convey the insight that the river stays the same even though it consists of changing waters. Campbell suggests that rivers exemplify “that the continued existence of things depends on their continually changing”. It makes sense to understand consciousness as a flow, and to perceive ourselves as complex processing systems.


In explaining Vipassana meditation, Goenkaji emphasized that attempts to escape from misery by diverting the mind to another object did not provide lasting benefits. He explained:

“The object of meditation should not be an imaginary object, it should be reality—reality as it is. One has to work with whatever reality has manifested itself now, whatever one experiences within the framework of one's own body.”

It seems to me that the Vipassana approach of observing thoughts and sensations with equanimity has much in common with the approach to self-acceptance recommended by the psychologist, Nathaniel Branden, in The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem:

“At the most fundamental level, I accept myself. I accept the reality of my thoughts, even when I cannot endorse them and would not choose to act on them; I do not deny or disown them. I can accept my feelings and emotions without necessarily liking, approving of, or being controlled by them; I do not deny or disown them.” (p 163)

An Aristotelian perspective

It is clear from the passage quoted at the beginning of this article that Aristotle thought it inconceivable that a person could doubt his or her own existence.

However, Vipassana’s emphasis on equanimity as a desirable frame of mind has much in common with Aristotle’s view of temperance as a virtue. An equanimous person could be expected to be temperate in emotional expression – to be able to avoid excessive anger, fear etc. The techniques involved are also similar in respect of the emphasis placed on practice of the relevant frame of mind and associated behaviors.

As I see it, one possible difference between an equanimous person and a temperate person is that the latter would be less inclined to accept that there should be no craving. In accordance with Aristotle’s teaching, a temperate person could exercise his practical wisdom to crave the things he ought, to the extent he ought, as he ought, and when he ought.

Nevertheless, I have not found the practice of Vipassana meditation to be an obstacle to exercising practical wisdom to pursue personal goals enthusiastically. When I meditate conscientiously early in the morning that tends to promote clarity of thinking which serves me well later in the day.

The inner game

How is it that a person who lacks peace of mind (equanimity) can learn to observe troubling sensations and thoughts with equanimity? How can it be possible to adopt a frame of mind which requires the exercise of a quality that you perceive yourself to lack? It seems to me that the people who do such things must be drawing on inner resources that they didn’t fully realize that they had.

Tim Gallwey, the inner game guru, has helped many people to draw upon resources that they didn’t realize they had. Gallwey is recognized as a pioneer of sports psychology, and is the author of books applying inner game concepts to a range of activities including tennis, golf, work, and stress management. The aim of the inner game is to improve the internal dialogue that people carry around with them. For example, if an individual’s internal dialogue is infected by self-doubt, they can improve their performance in sport by observing what happens when they trust their unconscious minds to coordinate their muscles.

The general pattern of the inner game is to recognize that performance is being adversely affected by mental interference associated with false beliefs about one’s self – the lack of a desired quality – and then to observe what happens when that quality is expressed. People improve their performance as they discover qualities, or inner resources, that they didn’t know they had.  (Readers who want to know more about Tim Gallwey’s inner game approach may be interested to listen to a podcast I have prepared.)

The point that needs to be emphasized is that if we assert that we are inherently lacking in desired qualities (wisdom, temperance, integrity, courage, self-trust etc.) we are fooling ourselves. We all have potential to demonstrate qualities that we perceive to be lacking by asking ourselves what we would be thinking or doing if we believed that we possessed those qualities to a greater extent than at present.

So, I ask myself: If I was a wiser person, what would I be thinking right now? I am thinking that it would be wise to end this now and leave readers to contemplate their answers to that question. 

Monday, April 10, 2023

Can cottage industries exist in a machine age?

 J C Kumarappa posed that question his book, Economy of Permanence, which was first published in 1945. He argued that in the final analysis “values and valuation” would determine the direction to be taken. He viewed the choice between cottage industry and large-scale production as an ethical choice as to which type of economy would be preferable. He associated cottage industry with “permanence and non-violence”, and large-scale production with “transience and violence”.

Kumarappa has been described as an ecological economist. He was a follower of Mahatma Gandhi, who wrote a foreword to his book.

Some of Kumarappa’s views seem to have been largely a product of the context in which he lived, but others resonate more broadly. Similar views have been taken up by many affluent consumers in high-income countries. In what follows, I will discuss first why Kumarappa associated large-scale production with violence before considering why he associated it with transience.


Kumarappa recognizes the potential for specialization and market transactions to be mutually beneficial for the people involved. On that basis, readers might expect him to view wealth accumulation via specialization, trade, and market competition to be a peaceful process.

However, Kumarappa argues that large-scale production prompted industrialized countries to hold other countries in political subjection to obtain materials. He also suggests that large-scale production “is the root cause of wars”. He claims that machines must make full use of productive capacity, rather meet market demand. That results in surplus production. Wars are started to capture markets.

I see several problems with that line of reasoning, but I will only focus on the most obvious one here. Kumarappa seems to assume that manufacturers have control of armies that can be used to ensure access to raw materials and markets. That seems to me to be a strange assumption to make, but I can understand why an Indian economist might see things differently in the light of the history of British colonial rule.


Kumarappa argues that an economy based on large-scale production is built on the “quicksands” of “profit, price, purchasing power, and foreign trade”. He suggests that material standards of value and personal feelings of consumers cannot have “any degree of permanence” because people change and are perishable. For permanence to be achieved, the standard of value must be objective and controlled by ideals that have enduring qualities. He claims that civilization had endured in China and India because it was based on altruistic and objective values.

The value that Kumarappa places on permanence may require explanation because Hinduism, the dominant religion in India, shares with Buddhism the doctrine that everything is in a constant state of change. Kumarappa was a Christian, but I don’t think that explains as much as his reverence for what he describes as “the secret of nature’s permanency”.  He was referring to ecological factors which “function in close cooperation to maintain the continuity of life”.

Kumarappa was particularly concerned about the impact that the products of large-scale production were having on traditional village life. He argues:

“We are often led away by low money prices ignoring the great gashes in our economic and social organisation made by such short-sighted choice of ours.  … Money value blinds the vision to a long range social view, so that the wielder of the axe fells the branch on which he is standing”.

Kumarappa argues that moral values are attached to every article sold in the market. We should not ignore such values and say “business is business”. Accordingly, anyone who enters into a commercial transaction has a grave responsibility to ensure that she does not become party to circumstances that she would not consciously support. He believed that the consumer is only able to bring her scale of values into play when goods are made locally.

Different views of progress

Kumarappa had a very different view of economic growth than is presented in my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing. It may be worthwhile to try to pinpoint the reasons for this.

I don’t think Kumarappa would have any problems with my definition of progress as the growth of opportunities to obtain the basic goods of a flourishing human. He would probably agree, more or less, with my list of the basic goods – wise and well-informed self-direction, health and longevity, positive relationships with others, living in harmony with nature, and psychological well-being.

Kumarappa would probably begin to object at the point where I assert that economic growth counts as progress to the extent that people aspire to have the goods that it offers. He might suggest that people who aspire to have those goods are mistaken because they could flourish to a greater extent by maintaining a simple lifestyle. The more powerful argument he would offer is the one presented above - that the products of new technology are disruptive to existing economic and social organisation.

I would respond by referring to what Deirdre McCloskey has referred to as the bourgeois deal. People in industrialised countries have been willing to accept the possibility that the introduction of new technologies might disrupt their lives because they have good reasons to expect that they, and future generations, are likely to benefit from the expansion of opportunities that it provides.

If that line of argument had been presented to J C Kumarappa in 1945 I imagine he would have viewed it as “pie in the sky”. I am less sure that he would hold the same view today.

Cottage industry

I don’t know much about the economic health of cottage industry in Inda today, but it does continue to exist. The photo shown at the top of this article was taken at Kalra’s Cottage Industry in Agra, when I visited there last year. (By the way, the service offered was excellent. The hand-knotted floor rug I purchased was delivered to my home in Australia without any problems, and in perfect condition.)

My point is that as their material standard of living rises, many people are willing to pay more for high quality products of cottage industries than for mass produced items. Many people also become increasingly concerned about such things as the levels of remuneration of workers who produce the products that they buy and potential environmental damage of production methods. People tend to pay greater attention to such concerns when they feel that they can more readily afford to do so.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

How can you develop the personality traits needed to resist social pressure?


This guest post by my friend, Leah Goldrick was first published on her blog, Common Sense Ethics. Leah has an interest in Stoic philosophy, and is one of the editors of the Stoicism Today, book series. The passage quoted above is by Bruce Levine, author of Resisting Illegitimate Authority.

Leah writes:

In the 1950s psychologist Solomon Asche conducted a famous social science conformity experiment. While there are some variables, Asche concluded that roughly 3 out of every 4 people will conform to social pressure in a given situation.

Many of us are inclined to follow the majority or yield to social pressure because of our evolutionary biology. When our ancestors lived in tribes, we learned various skills by watching others and there were significant risks to our survival for being ostracized from the group. While there are fewer risks to our survival for not conforming with the majority today, there are still risks of being ostracized socially when we disagree. There are also psychological factors at work. People conform because they want to be right, because they want to be liked, or at the very least, because they don't want to seem eccentric or strange.

The ability to resist social pressure is quite important, because it determines what we will do in many contexts and how much backbone we have. While there may be some social drawbacks to resisting peer pressure, there are many benefits as well, such as not always seeking other's approval, thinking more openly, standing up for yourself in situations that matter, living a more authentic life, avoiding potential harm, and perhaps having more opportunities or career success.

Some people naturally have personality traits that make them more resistant to social pressure, but anyone can develop these traits with practice. Here, I'll discuss the stop 5 traits of peer pressure resistant people and how you can develop these traits:

1. Mental Toughness

Mental toughness is essentially is courage, but also grittiness or the ability to stick to your guns. Mental toughness is a prerequisite for every other trait that follows below. In fact, resisting social pressure is pretty much impossible without having or developing some level of courage.

The good news is that courage is easy to develop little by little over time. First, think about what it is you fear if you speak up against some majority opinion. Imagine the worst case scenario and how you would react. Usually the worst doesn't even happen and your fear is basically a non-issue.

Each time you overcome your fear or put yourself out there in some way, you develop more courage.

2. Contrarianism

Socrates, Plato, Diogenes, Epictetus, and many of the other philosophers I write about here on Common Sense Ethics have something in common - they are all contrarians. What is a contrarian? There are many definitions; some positive and some negative. In a nutshell, a contrarian is someone who takes an opposite viewpoint from the majority; the opposite of a conformist.

My own view is that being contrary about everything as a rule will make you quite a difficult person to be around. However, true contrarians are pragmatic, not people who hold their opinions just for the sake of rebellion. They are contrarian about things that really matter to them. Contrarianism can be a helpful trait when the group is wrong, when your values differ from those of the group, when you want to look for opportunities the majority don't see, and/or when going along with social pressure will impact you as an individual negatively in some way.

Contrarians realize they risk social isolation because of their differing viewpoints. They are usually comfortable embracing this risk anyway when the circumstances necessitate it. So, this trait goes right along with trait number 1, courage or mental toughness. Contrarians have courage in certain situations and are comfortable resisting social pressure when it benefits them as individuals. 

To become more contrarian and get better at resisting peer pressure, ask yourself "What can I do differently in this situation which may benefit me?" or "Is this right for me just because it is right for the majority?"

3. Critical Thinking

Socrates said, "To find yourself, think for yourself." Critical thinkers are less likely to go along with social pressure if they have thought deeply about the issue at hand.

Critical thinking is difficult to define, but it is basically the ability to periodically question your own assumptions and to make sure your are thinking clearly and reasonably about something. I've been interviewed about critical thinking and also done a video interview on critical thinking here. Here is a longer definition of critical thinking from that interview:

When I say critical thinking, strictly, I'm referring to logic, or the science of how arguments need to be formed in order to be correct. I'm also referring more generally to skills like being slow to form opinions, having standards of evidence, separating truth from falsehood, being able to accurately evaluate other people's arguments, being open-minded, not being afraid to be wrong, changing your mind in light of better information, and thinking with a degree of detachment (rather than from a dogmatic or emotionally driven mindset). I would also add to this a working knowledge of cognitive bias and group dynamics. All these things are helpful for being able to think more clearly.

It also doesn't hurt to have a good understanding of propaganda and how it is used to influence us, so check out my article on that as well to bolster your critical thinking ability.

4. Disagreeableness

Disagreeable personality types are more resistant to peer pressure because they don't shy away from conflict. They also may be more successful career wise.

Research indicates that people who are higher in disagreeableness may be more successful in their careers, particularly when it comes to moving up the corporate ladder to an upper management position. While this isn't everyone's goal (and in my mind isn't a particular marker of "success," either) being disagreeable can have other advantages too.

People are less likely to pressure a disagreeable person because they know that person probably won't change their mind. Disagreeable people may also give you an earful if you push them too far.

Note that I'm thinking less about being peer pressured to do innocuous things like "You should see x new movie, it's really great." I'm thinking of more troubling forms of social pressure, as it relates to medical decisions for instance: "You should really take this new drug x that everyone must have," (regardless of your unique medical history or other valid reasons you may not want or need new drug x). No matter the situation, a more disagreeable person is less likely to comply.

It's important to note that being somewhat disagreeable doesn't mean you should try to get into conflicts. It does mean that you aren't afraid to assert yourself when someone crosses the line however. Ideally, you should work on your delivery so that you are tactful yet assertive when standing up for yourself or when giving criticism.

If you are a very agreeable person, you can develop a little more backbone by saying no or standing up for yourself in an assertive yet tactful way. In the beginning, this might be uncomfortable, but you will get used to it more over time. It can help to rehearse important conversations ahead of time and think about what you want to say in a given situation.

5. Healthy Skepticism for Authority

Why does skepticism of authority matter for resisting social pressure? Because social pressure is often brought to bear as the result of what some authority says, or on account of the perceived authority of majority opinion.

I want to be clear that I don't think that all authority is inherently negative - authorities can be good, bad, neutral, or anywhere along that continuum. And obviously I'm not talking about situations where questioning authority would put you in harm's way either. If a cop tells you "Put your hands up or I'll shoot," you had better do it.

However their are many circumstances where we should not cede our critical thinking ability to an authority or expert without due consideration. Can we find other experts or authorities who disagree with the first authority? What if an authority or expert is mistaken? What if they have a conflict of interest? What if an expert or authority has proven themselves to be untrustworthy and has a poor track record? All of these things should be in our mind when we consider which authorities we can trust.

Psychologist Bruce Levine writes that the capacity to comply with abusive authority is humanity’s fatal flaw. An abusive authority is one which has shown itself to be dishonest or malevolent in some way. To overcome this flaw and develop a healthy skepticism of authority, we can get into the habit of asking ourselves the questions above.

I hope that this post will help you flex your contrarian muscle more and resist social pressure when it matters. Thanks for reading!

Saturday, March 4, 2023

What does it mean to be an Aristotelian?


In my view,  Aristotelians are people who seek guidance from Aristotle's ethics in considering how to live their lives. Please read on for an explanation.

I was prompted to pose this his question by an article by John Sellars entitled ‘How to be an Aristotelian’ (recently published in Antigone).  While thinking about the question I read Sellars’ new book, Aristotle, Understanding the World’s Greatest Philosopher. By coincidence, at the same time I was reading Stoicism Today, Volume 4, which contains an article by John Sellars entitled ‘Hard Truths and Happiness’. I mention the Stoicism article because the approach that Sellars adopts in discussing what it means to be a Stoic seems to me to be relevant to considering what it means to be an Aristotelian. (I also think many of the articles in Stoicism Today are worth reading. It is fascinating to read about how people seek to apply this ancient philosophy in their daily lives.)

This article will meander around, so it is particularly important in this instance to foreshadow what I am going to tell you before I tell it to you. I will begin by outlining Sellars’ view about what it means to be a Stoic. I will then discuss the view Sellars presents of what it means to be an Aristotelian in his Antigone article before moving to a discussion of the approach he adopts in his book. I will conclude with some personal comments on what it means to be an Aristotelian.

What principles do you need to accept to be a Stoic?

In his Stoicism Today article, John Sellars’ argues that Stoicism is a philosophy that is guided by the idea that people want to live well. Stoicism is a philosophy which makes claims about the nature of the world. It is a way of living, not merely a collection of exercises, or therapies, aimed at making people feel happy. Stoics believe that learning to live well within the world involves understanding what it is and how it works. However, Sellars implies that means more than just a commonsense understanding. He argues that if you want to get to grips with Stoic philosophy as a way of life, you need to get to grips with the fundamental principle that “everything is ultimately matter in a process of continual change”.

Everything in this world does seem to be in a process of continual change. Perhaps everything in the cosmos is matter. Who knows? I am not even sure what that means. In any case, I don’t understand how trying to get my head around the ultimate nature of the cosmos would make me a better human. It is interesting to read about the Higgs boson etc. but that seems to have less relevance in considering how I should live my life than the views of Robert Higgs on Facebook.

What principles do you need to accept to be an Aristotelian?

In his Antigone article, John Sellars makes what he describes as “a wild claim” that Aristotle “is the single most important human being ever to have lived”. To support that claim he finds reasons to rule out Jesus and other possible candidates. However, his main argument is that Aristotle shaped the way we think about so many things including by laying “the foundations for all empirical science”.

In considering what it means to be an Aristotelian, Sellars suggests that there are two ways in which we can use the word Aristotelian. The first involves “dogmatic Aristotelianism” – to subscribe to the truthfulness of the assertions that Aristotle made in the texts that he left behind. The second simply involves joining Aristotle in the ongoing process of trying to understand the world in which we live.

A few weeks ago I drew attention to the Antigone article in a Facebook post. In his response, Roderick Long, a philosopher, wrote:

Seems like a false dichotomy:  either being an Aristotelean means being a rigid, dogmatic adherent of a fixed and detailed Aristotelean system, or else it means something so watered down that any sincere seeker after truth counts as an Aristotelean.  Neither of these, of course, is what we who call ourselves Aristoteleans mean by Aristoteleanism.  Sellars is unfortunately failing to reckon with the possibility that we can learn not just from Aristotle's truth-seeking attitude but from his actual arguments.”

My response to Roderick: 

“I am inclined to agree with you. However, when I praise Aristotle’s arguments about happiness, ethics etc. I am sometimes reminded (by people with science training) of all the things that Aristotle got wrong. So, if a case can be made that he was an early advocate of scientific method (rather than a dogmatist) that does seem an important rhetorical point”.

I added that I was interested to read Sellars’ book, to see what he writes there about Aristotle’s arguments.

What does Sellars’ book say about Aristotle’s arguments?

John Sellars’ book is a short intellectual history of Aristotle. It is intended to serve as an introductory text but some people who already have some knowledge of Aristotle’s writings may also benefit from reading it. I found it enlightening because I had not previously considered how one thing may have led to another in the development of Aristotle’s views at different stages of his life. For example, the time Aristotle spent studying animals on Lesbos seems to have been important in his rejection of reductive materialism and the development of his thoughts about the purposes of living organisms, including humans.

In the book, Sellars provides an account of Aristotle’s struggle with Plato’s views and the development of his own ideas about being, substance, the idea that natural entities have intrinsic purposes (natural teleology) and the difference between actuality and potentiality. He summarises thus Aristotle’s argument about what it means to be a human being:

“So, a human being is a living thing with a certain set of capacities: the ability to grow, move, and reproduce. These capacities are ones that we share with other animals. The distinctive capacity of humans, Aristotle says, is the ability to reason: humans are rational animals. The defining characteristic of humans, then, is the ability to think rationally. The vast majority of adult humans have this capacity; we are all, we might say, potentially thinking beings. However, we are only truly thinking beings when we are actually thinking, when we actualize that potential and use the capacity. In short, to be a human being is not to exist statically, but instead to engage in a whole range of distinctively human activities, the most important of which is thinking.”

However, the book also presents Sellars’ view, referred to above, that there are two different ways in which we can use the word Aristotelian and that he prefers the second view - being an Aristotelian simply involves joining him in the ongoing process of trying to understand the world in which we live.

While I think Sellars view of what it means to be an Aristotelian is excessively broad, I think he performs a useful service in demolishing the view that Aristotle was a dogmatist. He notes that some thinkers in the 16th century, who were critical of clerical dogmatism, were aware that Aristotle was a champion of observation and open inquiry. He notes that even Galileo was happy to describe himself as an Aristotelian because he knew that Aristotle recognised that every theory is open to refutation by further observation.

My view

As already noted, I find it difficult to accept that everyone who is trying to understand the world in which we live is an Aristotelian. I think that is a necessary condition to be an Aristotelian, but not a sufficient condition.

It seems to me that Aristotelians accept certain philosophical principles, such as natural teleology, that are not accepted by everyone who is trying to understand the world. Unfortunately, my knowledge of Aristotelian philosophy is not sufficient to enable me to advance that argument with much confidence. Perhaps I am wrong. If you think that is so, please tell me why.

My main point is that in considering what it means to be an Aristotelian it is appropriate to adopt a line of argument like that adopted by John Sellars in considering what it means to be a Stoic. Like Stoics, Aristotelians are also guided by a philosophy which is concerned with what it means to live well. That philosophy is Aristotelian ethics.

The passage from Sellars’ book about the nature of a human being (quoted above) describes the philosophic foundation for Aristotelian ethics.

Many people who are trying to understand the world have no understanding of Aristotelian ethics and obtain no guidance from it in how they live their lives. I don’t think it makes sense to view such people as Aristotelians.

Monday, February 27, 2023

How authoritarian are American political leaders?


A few days ago, I took the Political Compass test for a second time. The test, devised by , requires individuals to respond to questions which indicate where their views place them on scales labelled Authoritarian - Libertarian and Left - Right. My position had not changed since I last took the test 7 years ago (see below) but as I looked around the site, I noticed the chart (reproduced above) which suggests that the main contenders in the U.S. 2020 election held relatively authoritarian and right wing views (with Biden somewhat less authoritarian than Trump).

Does the political compass make sense?  The horizonal axis measures economic freedom, with people at the right end favoring more economic freedom. That corresponds, more or less, to the conventional left-right spectrum. The vertical axis measures personal freedom, with people whose views place them at the top end favoring greater restriction of personal freedom. It seems to me that the positioning of a person on a political compass incorporating a personal freedom axis is much more informative than attempting to position them on only one axis.  However, the labelling adopted is not ideal. To be considered a libertarian, in my view it is necessary to advocate economic freedom as well as personal freedom.

I was somewhat surprised by the placement of both Biden and Trump as favoring a relatively high level of restrictions on personal freedom. I don’t follow American politics closely enough to dispute how accurate that placement might be within that context.

However, by international standards, it would make little sense to view Biden or Trump as advocates of authoritarian policies. The policies they have advocated in their efforts to win votes have not been greatly different from those currently prevailing in the United States. By international standards, people in the U.S. have relatively high levels of personal and economic freedom.

The results of the latest Human Freedom Index, published by Cato and the Fraser Institute, can be used to illustrate the point. The Human Freedom Index is the result of painstaking efforts to compile a vast amount of data relating to economic freedom and personal freedom in 165 countries.

It is interesting to see the relative position of various countries in a comparable scatter diagram showing economic freedom and the x axis and personal freedom on the y axis. In the diagram below, which I have labelled “Ideological Map of the World”, the values on the personal freedom axis are in reverse order to make it comparable to the political compass. The horizontal and vertical lines drawn on the diagram are positioned at median levels of economic and personal freedom.

The position of the U.S. is clear from the chart. The levels of both personal freedom and economic freedom in the U.S. are comparable to those of other liberal democracies, and far greater than in China or Russia.

My libertarian friends in the U.S. may have good reasons to view their national political leaders as excessively authoritarian, but they are competing for the votes of people who, by international standards, enjoy relatively high levels of personal and economic freedom.

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Could polycentric defence protect us from monsters?

The accompanying photo depicts the views of a couple of protesters who were opposed to Australian involvement in the United States led invasion of Iraq in 2003. I still don’t support defacement of the Sydney Opera House but, in retrospect, the actions of the protesters seem more defensible than those of the Australian government at that time. The government attempted to justify the invasion on the flimsiest of evidence that Iraq still possessed weapons of mass destruction, and then sought to blame its decision on poor intelligence. The net impact of the invasion was to further destabilize the Middle East, including by generating a new terrorist organisation.

The Iraq invasion is part of a pattern of pathetically unsuccessful military operations in which Australia has participated, in partnership with the US, over the last 60 years. Few readers will need to be reminded of similarly unsuccessful military adventures that occurred in Vietnam and Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, a case can be made that involvement in those conflicts has served Australian interests by encouraging US governments to view this country as a staunch ally in pursuit of well-meaning global objectives. Australia is a sparsely populated country that is not easy to defend, so it is understandable that Australians should seek to have great and powerful friends who share similar values, who might come to their aid if they are bullied by a monster in their region. That strategy might come unstuck, however, if public reaction in the US to adverse outcomes of military interventionism results in adoption of an isolationist policy by the US government. Hopefully, the US will find a better approach to foreign relations, rather than resort to isolationism.

Christopher Coyne’s book

I was intensely interested in the consequences of military interventionism during the Vietnam war, but have not spent much time thinking about such  matters since then. The question I have ask above, of whether polycentric defence could protect us from monsters, was prompted by my reading of Christopher Coyne’s book, In Search of Monsters to Destroy.

Anyone seeking a better understanding of why so much US military intervention has been counterproductive should read Coyne’s book. From my perspective, one of the most illuminating contributions that Coyne makes is to draw attention to the relevance of Friedrich Hayek’s views about the hubris of economic planners to the “nation building” efforts that have followed military intervention.  Hayek pointed out that economic planning often has unintended consequences because economic planners can never have “the knowledge of particular circumstances of time and place” that is reflected in the decisions of individuals in a market system. Similarly, nation building efforts have unintended consequences because the architects of such efforts lack the knowledge of how to design and implement policies supporting rule of law, property rights, free speech etc. in settings with different belief systems, values, and ideals.

Rather than attempt a comprehensive review of the book, I want to focus here on polycentric defence, the approach Coyne suggests as a potential path forward. (Several podcasts are available for readers interested in hearing Christopher Coyne discuss his book. I recently listed to his discussion with Jeffrey Sachs and was pleasantly surprised by the extent to which Sachs agreed with Coyne.)

Polycentric defence

Christopher Coyne claims that his position is inherently non-isolationist:

It is not a retreat from the world, but a call for global engagement by means other than militaristic imperialism and the associated hubris which assumes the world can be controlled by Western government elites”.

He advocates a culture of peace which requires “shedding the belief that the military operations of the nation-state are the central source of security in a free society”.

As an alternative to the current “monocentric order” where there is only one centralized decision-making unit with a monopoly on the use of violent force, he proposes a polycentric system “involving numerous decision-making units – each with autonomy in action – operating within a shared set of rules”.

I see this as a utopian ideal, but one that is worth moving toward. Coyne points out that polycentric defence already exists to some extent because ordinary citizens engage in a diverse range of security activities, individually and in collaboration with their neighbours, to protect themselves against violence and plunder. He reminds readers that non-violent action has sometimes been used successfully against foreign invaders as well as internal usurpers. He also notes that polycentric defence already exists at an international level because nation-states exercise autonomy in decision-making.

The main point that Coyne is making is that a culture of military interventionism has had perverse consequences, unintentionally eroding liberal values and creating enemies abroad. He suggests that we view the search for a stable peace as an ongoing project “entailing self-governing individuals engaged in an active process of discovery, experimentation, and practice to navigate conflicts without resort to violence”.

 What about Ukraine?

In the epilogue to his book, Christopher Coyne expresses disappointment that the Russian government’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has “led to renewed calls for the reassertion of American empire”. He regards that response as “speculative, first best theorizing about international relations” which could potentially devolve into violent conflict between nuclear powers.

My view is that this time it is different. The West’s supply of arms to Ukraine to help it defend itself against Putin’s aggression is far removed from the examples of military interventionism that Coyne discusses in his book. It would obviously be crazy to attempt to destroy an invading monster with nuclear weapons at his disposal, but it would be equally crazy, it seems to me, to avoid giving the victims of his aggression the support they need to defend themselves.


Christopher Coyne makes a strong case that much of the military interventionism of the United States and its allies has had the unintended consequence of eroding liberal values and creating enemies. Attempts to impose the institutions of liberal democracy on people with different belief systems, values, and ideals were doomed from the outset.

Coyne suggests moving away from this interventionist culture, which assumes that the world can be controlled by Western government elites, to a system of polycentric defence. It seems to me that the appropriate answer to the question of whether a polycentric defence system can protect us from monsters depends on how we view polycentricity. It is difficult to see how the governments of the liberal democracies could abandon centralized decision-making on national defence without weakening the ability of their citizens to defend themselves against the autocratic monsters outside of their borders. However, a system in which nation-states exercise autonomy in decision-making on national defence is not far removed from what we have at present. Rules of just conduct that have evolved via diplomatic efforts within this system have done much to promote peaceful coexistence among nations. A system in which nation-states exercise autonomy can do much to protect us from monsters when nation-states are willing to act in concert to punish overt violations of international law.   

Sunday, January 22, 2023

How did the gold fever of the 1850s affect Australian Aborigines?


I began thinking about this question while reading Michael O’Rourke’s recently published book, Passages to the Northwest, The Europe they left and the Australia they discovered 1788-1858, A miscellany and scrapbook of national, regional and family history, From Ireland, Scotland, England and Germany to Liverpool Plains in colonial New South Wales, Volume II.

The full title provides an accurate picture of the nature of the book and what it is about. The history of how Michael’s family came to live on the Liverpool Plains, in the north-west of NSW, is central to the book but its focus is mainly on the context in which family members lived. I suppose Michael tells readers as much as he has been able to glean about the lives of individual family members. However, as anyone who has dabbled in family history would know, it is difficult to find much more than names and dates pertaining to ancestors unless they happen to have been rich, famous, or infamous.

Michael explains:

“I was able to pour the genealogy, almost like cream, into the dry chronicles of local history while also keeping an eye on social changes and the national political and cultural scene, especially in Australia and Ireland”.

I agree with the author’s suggestions about who might benefit from reading the book. He suggests that apart from his family and relatives, those who might benefit include people who are interested in detail about the impact of European occupation on Aboriginal people, and people who live in the north-west of NSW. Some people who are heavily involved in family history research might also find the book useful to provide context for names and dates.

Michael has provided an index of topics at the front, and a detailed index at the back, which I found helpful. I have only read those parts of the book that particularly interest me at present. I expect that is probably how the author would expect most readers to approach it. At some later stage (perhaps when I am pondering the injustices that my ancestors may have suffered) I will probably go back to read more of what Michael has written about Ireland and Scotland.  

European occupation

I was particularly interested in Michael’s discussion of the relationships between Aboriginal people and European pastoralists (sometimes referred to as squatters, settlers, or invaders) in the Liverpool plains area. By 1835, the European occupation of Aboriginal land had extended beyond Narrabri, up to 550 km from Sydney. There was violence, but as Michael describes it, the incoming settlers “so effectively swamped the locals that there were only rare clashes, peaking in 1836-38”.

Introduced disease had a devastating impact on the Aboriginal population. An epidemic (probably smallpox) killed many during 1830-31. Venereal disease became rife, as convicts - who became shepherds living in remote outstations - infected Aboriginal women.  

The pastoralists were known as squatters because they originally occupied the land without approval of the colonial government. By 1836, however, they were able to exercise sufficient political influence to have the government grant them short-term pastoral leases.

By 1850 the remaining Aboriginal population had apparently established their home bases near to the pastoral stations. Pastoralists employed Aborigines as shepherds during the 1840s but also employed Chinese in that role.

Gold fever

With the discovery of gold in 1851, many Chinese and European workers left the pastoral properties abruptly to go to the diggings, sometimes apparently leaving flocks they had been tending to the mercy of dingoes. The flocks became scattered before the owners were aware of the situation. Michael quotes from the published account of what followed according to Mary Jane Cain, a mixed-race matriarch:

 “The squatters had to go practically cap in hand to the blacks they had dispensed with, and entreat them to again assume the role of shepherds. They got the flocks together, and generally made a good save. After that the squatters steered clear of Chinese labour for a long while”.

The discovery of gold apparently led indirectly to a substantial improvement in economic conditions for aboriginal people living on the Liverpool Plains.

Michael’s account of the indirect impact of gold fever led me to look further for other information on the impact of gold discoveries on the lives of Aborigines. Some accounts view it as “a second wave of dispossession”, but also note an increase in demand for the labour of Aboriginal people on pastoral properties at that time. Aborigines became employed as police on the goldfields. They sold food and clothing to the miners and were employed as guides. They also became expert gold seekers.


The illustration at the top of this article is a painting by Edward Roper, which depicts the gold rush at Ararat, south-west Victoria, at its peak in the late 1850s. At the centre of the scene, an Aboriginal family observes the activity around them.

Michael has included the illustration in his book. I thought it appropriate to have it accompany this article because some of my ancestors came to the Ararat diggings in the 1850s and later settled in that district.


The more I learn about the detail of the impact of European occupation of Australia on Aboriginal people, the more persuaded I become that “European settlement” is an inadequate description of what happened. Words like “conquest” and “invasion” are also inadequate because they conjure up images of warfare that have little resemblance to the sporadic resistance that some of the occupants of this country offered to the European squatters. The detail includes massacres, but disease seems to have been a much more important cause of depopulation. The best option for the indigenous people was co-existence with the new occupiers, but that required a radical change in their lifestyles.

Seen in that context, the advent of gold fever in the 1850s opened new opportunities for Aborigines to become more heavily involved in pastoral activities. I see this as an interesting example of the way disadvantaged people can respond to new opportunities. I hope there were lasting benefits for at least some of the families involved but I have no evidence of that.