Showing posts with label modern culture. Show all posts
Showing posts with label modern culture. Show all posts

Thursday, February 15, 2024

What makes a narrative good?


I asked myself the question posed above as I was reading Michèle Lamont’s book, Seeing Others, How to Redefine Worth in a Divided World. The passage quoted below seems central to Michèle Lamont’s book:

“The hegemony of the American dream manifests in the emphasis Americans put on neoliberal virtues of material success, self-reliance, individualism, entrepreneurialism, and competitiveness. These criteria of worth have gained more and more influence as “models of ideal selves,” and encourage many to internalize blame for the increasing precarity of their lives. This model can also lead people to seek out a scapegoat group to blame.” (p 31)

Those sentences seem to suggest that neoliberalism encourages people to either internalize blame for misfortune or to seek scapegoat groups to blame.

Internalizing blame

The author doesn’t explain why she believes neoliberalism can cause people to “internalize blame for the increasing precarity of their lives”, but she lists several references in the notes section which may support her claims. The one which seems likely to be most relevant is an article by Glen Adams, Sara Estrada-Villalta, Daniel Sullivan, and Hazel Rose Markus entitled ‘The Psychology of Neoliberalism and the Neoliberalism of Psychology’, Journal of Social Issues 75 (1), 2019.

Adams et al use the term ‘neoliberalism’ to refer to an economic and political movement that came to prominence in the late 1970s, advocating “deregulation of markets and free movement of capital with an emphasis on fluidity and globalization”. Such usage of ‘neoliberalism’ to refer to advocacy of free markets is now common, even though the term was once generally understood to refer to advocacy of left-leaning policies, e.g. a ‘social market economy’, rather than free markets. Like most advocates of free markets, I would prefer to be referred to as a classical liberal or libertarian, but I can usually assume that I am among good company when I am labelled as a neoliberal.

The authors argue that neoliberalism encourages “an entrepreneurial approach to self as an ongoing development project, an imperative for individual growth and personal fulfillment, and an emphasis on affect regulation”. I don’t object to that characterisation. It describes some aspects of the approach to human flourishing in Part III my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing.

However, the authors suggest that neoliberalism also supports psychological “responsibilization” - an ugly word for an ugly concept. The claim they make is that neoliberals advocate that individuals should not only accept personal responsibility for problems which it may be possible to ameliorate through behaviour change (such as obesity and substance abuse) but also to accept responsibility for misfortune more generally.

Neoliberals argue that free markets tend to reward individual effort, but that doesn’t mean that they believe that economic misfortune is always attributable to lack of individual effort. In fact, one of the characteristics of neoliberalism is recognition that social problems of poverty, unemployment etc. are often attributable to foolish government economic policies that are opposed to economic freedom.

I don’t know any neoliberal who would suggest that individuals should “internalize blame” for any disruption of their lives associated with innovation and competition. Neoliberals are more likely to suggest that people who lose jobs or other remuneration because of the disruptive impact of innovation and competition should view such setbacks as beyond their control. The potential for such setbacks is a price that previous generations have willingly paid to enable to enable their descendants to enjoy the benefits of economic growth. Deirdre McCloskey – a prominent classical liberal – has coined the term, ‘bourgeois deal’, to refer to the willingness of people to accept the potential for their lives to be disrupted by innovation and competition in exchange for ongoing expansion of economic opportunities. (See Bourgeois Equality.)

I doubt that many psychologists would suggest that their clients should “internalize” blame for all the bad things that happen to them. When psychologists suggest that individuals should take responsibility for their lives, I am sure that the vast majority would mean that individuals should focus on taking personal responsibility for problems that are within their locus of control.

Who is responsible for the scapegoat narrative?

It took me some time to work out why Michèle Lamont believes that neoliberalism encourages people to seek out scapegoat groups to blame for misfortune. Her reasoning evidently has more to do with her belief that Donald Trump is a neoliberal than with the beliefs of neoliberals.

On the page following the passage quoted above, Lamont writes: 

“From Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump, neoliberalism has come to be understood as a precondition for a successful society”.

I believe that free markets help societies to become and remain successful, but it is hard to understand how anyone could perceive Donald Trump to be an advocate of that view. While in office, Trump administered the final blow to the “neoliberal consensus” on international trade that characterised the post-Cold War period, and he currently favors further restrictions on international trade and international movement of labor.  

Lamont’s claim that neoliberalism encourages people to seek out scapegoat groups to blame seems to rest on the behavior of Donald Trump. She observes that in 2015 former president Trump advanced a false narrative in which immigrants from Mexico were rapists and drug dealers. (pp 51-2). During the 2016 campaign Trump appealed to “America’s forgotten workers” by recognizing their plight and “by blaming globalization and immigration for it”. (p 70)

Lamont also suggests that Trump provided “an empowering narrative” for the working class “who are often perceived as “the losers of the system”. (p 165). Early in the book, she notes:

“Instead of depicting ‘everyday Americans’ as ‘deplorables’, as Hillary Clinton was perceived to do in the 2016 presidential campaign, her opponent Donald Trump affirmed their worth in his various electoral speeches, explaining their loss of social status as a result of globalization and immigration.” (p 8)

Lamont’s narrative

The title of Lamont’s book, “seeing others”, refers to “acknowledging people’s existence and positive worth, actively making them visible and valued, reducing their marginalization, and openly integrating them into a group”. (p 6) She suggests that having one’s sense of worth affirmed “is a universal need that is central to our identity as human beings and our quality of life”. (p 7) She urges that we “bridge boundaries with those who are different” via “ordinary universalism”, or “emphasizing similarities over differences”. (p 144)

I don’t object to those sentiments, and I doubt whether many other neoliberals would either. It is certainly appropriate to recognize that ordinary universalism can be “a vital counterweight” to “Nationalist populism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia” which “are on the rise in many countries”. (p 146) As an advocate of ordinary universalism, however, I think it is unfortunate that the author was not sufficiently “inclusive” to recognize that anti-Semitism also belongs on that list.  

I also object to the idea that “individualist approaches” to improving wellbeing “may harm more than they help, since they pull people’s attention away from more meaningful efforts”. (p 48) The author seems to be suggesting that excessive attention is given to approaches that help individuals to improve their assessments of their own worth. Instead, she urges:

“We need to ask ourselves hard questions about how we decide who matters and what we can do to create a more inclusive society.”

It seems to me that people who are lacking in regard for their own worth are unlikely to make a positive contribution to ensuring that the worth of others is appropriately recognized.

Much of the book is devoted to a discussion of how it is possible to change hearts and minds in order to reduce stigmatization of marginalized groups, and thus build a more inclusive society. That discussion is largely beyond the scope of this essay.

In Chapter 7, however, the author discusses the result of a survey of the attitudes of Gen Z students (aged 18 to 23). She seems a little perplexed that Gen Z tend to “embrace some neoliberal ideals – hard work and success” but is pleased that they “combine personal professional aspirations with the promotion of collective well-being”.

The author claims that apart from “the wealthiest of the wealthy” every other group “finds itself reeling from an onslaught of difficulties, disappointments, and anxieties, grasping for dignity and stability”. (p 47) That is implausible and seems at odds with her message about destigmatization of marginalized groups. However, it fits well with another theme of Lamont’s narrative.   

As already mentioned, Lamont suggests that Trump provided “an empowering narrative” for the working class. She suggests that the Democratic party should counter that with “messages of solidarity and dignity”:

Redirecting working class anger toward the one percent is more likely to sustain fruitful alliances than driving wedges between diverse categories of workers who have so much in common.” (p 159)

Is Lamont’s narrative good?

It seems to me that appropriate criteria to consider whether a narrative is good include whether it encourages ethical behaviour and whether it is factually accurate.

Regarding ethical behaviour, Michèle Lamont seems to be seeking to “mobilize” good narratives when she suggests:

“We engineer our world together by mobilizing narratives that expand recognition of who is worthy.”

Leaving aside engineering, the message she is attempting to convey seems to be that narratives have a role in reinforcing the ethical intuition that we should respect other humans and behave with integrity toward them, irrespective of gender, sexual preference, race, nationality, religion, wealth, social status, political affiliations etc. I am not entirely convinced that she would include ideological opponents among those who are “worthy”, but she does acknowledge that “it is worth trying to understand even people we may strongly disagree with”. (p 159).   

On the question of factual accuracy, Lamont’s narrative, which suggests that the workers have reason to be angry with the wealthy one percent, seems to me to be just as questionable as Donald Trump’s narrative which suggests that the workers have reason to be angry about globalization and immigration. Neither of those narratives promotes an accurate understanding of economic reality.  


In this essay I have examined Michèle Lamont’s narrative that neoliberalism encourages people to either internalize blame for misfortune or to seek scapegoat groups to blame. My conclusion is that her claim that neoliberalism encourages people to internalize blame is baseless. Her claim about seeking to blame scapegoat groups seems to be based on the false belief that Donald Trump is a neoliberal.

Good narratives should encourage ethical behaviour and be factually accurate. One of Lamont’s objectives in this book seems to be to “mobilize” good narratives that reinforce the ethical intuition that we should behave with integrity toward all other humans. However, the factual accuracy of her narrative that workers have reason to be angry with the wealthy one percent is highly questionable. If accepted by governments that approach would encourage unethical redistributions of incomes and further dampen incentives that are essential to the ongoing growth of widespread economic opportunities.

Monday, January 8, 2024

Was British colonial government as bad as modern critics would have us believe?


Nigel Biggar acknowledges that British colonialism contained evils and injustices, but he judges it to have been much better than its modern critics would have us believe.

Biggar directs the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life at Oxford University. His aim in writing his recently published book, Colonialism: A MoralReckoning, was to provide a moral evaluation of British colonialism, rather than a history of it.

 As indicated in the passage quoted above, Biggar argues that many of the modern critics of British colonialism have an unscrupulous indifference to historical truth. He suggests that the controversy over empire is really about the present, rather than about the past. The real target of today’s anti-colonialists is “the Anglo-American liberal world order that has prevailed since 1945”. They denigrate the historical record of “the West” in order to corrode faith in it. He writes:

“What is at stake is not merely the pedantic truth about yesterday, but the self-perception and self-confidence of the British today, and the way they conduct themselves in the world tomorrow.”

Everyone who has regard for human rights, rule of law, and democracy should encourage British people to continue to be forthright in their advocacy of these ideals.

The focus of criticism

Biggar documents why modern critics of British colonialism are unfair in claiming that it was characterised by racism. He highlights three main examples:

The critics emphasize British links to the slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries, but overlook the leading role that the British government played in ending slavery in the 19th century.

The critics emphasize instances of appalling racial prejudice but ignore policies that were driven by the conviction of the basic human equality of the members of all races.

Some critics slanderously equate the actions of British colonial authorities with those of the Nazis by claiming that they were engaged in genocide. They don’t acknowledge the efforts of colonial authorities to protect native peoples from harmful encounters with settlers.

Benefits of British colonialism

Biggar also documents many benefits of British colonialism. One of the points he makes is that it “brought up three of the most prosperous and liberal states now on earth – Canada, Australia, and New Zealand”. My friends in the United States can take comfort from the fact that the American revolution served to educate the British about the desirability of allowing those former colonies to govern themselves.

More generally, British colonialism promoted free trade, created peace in the colonies, developed public infrastructure, made foreign investment attractive, disseminated modern agricultural methods, disseminated medical knowledge, and “provided a civil service and judiciary that was generally and extraordinarily incorrupt”.

I will focus here on the quality of the civil service and judiciary.

Quality of governance

As a classical liberal, I am inclined to the view that less governance is better than more, and that governance imposed by foreigners is particularly obnoxious. Could it have been possible for the quality of governance offered by the British to have been better than the alternatives on offer during the colonial periods?

That seems likely to have been the case in many instances. Biggar notes that many local rulers in India wanted the British to secure power to obtain advantage over their rivals - they preferred British rule to indigenous alternatives including ongoing local wars. It is not obvious that any real-world alternatives to British colonialism in Australia and New Zealand (e.g. colonization by another European power) would have provided greater protection to indigenous peoples. In the absence of British colonialism in Africa, it is likely that the slave trade would have persisted to a greater extent, aided by the expansion of militant Islam, and internecine wars that were an ongoing source of slaves.

It is not difficult to understand why people working for British colonial administrations in the 19th and 20th centuries developed a reputation for being largely incorruptible. It is even possible for me – a person who subscribes to the private interest theory of regulation - to understand that when organisations develop a culture that is strongly opposed to corrupt behaviour, individual members tend to obtain a great deal of satisfaction – a sense of mission - from upholding that culture.

Biggar notes:

“Back in the closing decade of the eighteenth century, Lord Cornwallis’ insistence that officials in the East India Company should live on their salaries, give up private trading and resist bribes ‘helped to create a civil service that became widely regarded as incorruptible and just, one that even Indian nationalist newspapers would later regard as ‘absolutely above suspicion’ and ‘the high water mark of morality in the public service of the country’, and as beyond being ‘bribed to do anything.”

Biggar devotes quite a few pages of his book to quoting subjects of colonial rule who were full of praise for British colonial rulers. He also notes that in the 1950s several million Chinese voted with their feet to leave the communist Chinese mainland and live under British colonial rule in Hong Kong.


The modern critics of British colonialism have no reason to be concerned that it is about to make a comeback. Their reason for seeking to denigrate it is to undermine the ongoing efforts of people in Britain, and some of its former colonies, to promote the ideals of a liberal world order. Nigel Biggar’s book makes an excellent contribution to public discussion of the issues by pointing out that many of the critics have an unscrupulous indifference to historical truth.

Saturday, September 30, 2023

What's wrong with people?


This question is posed in the title of Chapter 10 of Steven Pinker’s book, Rationality: What it is, Why it Seems Scarce, Why it Matters.

I enjoyed reading the previous 9 chapters but didn’t learn much from them. Those chapters were a painless way to refresh my memory about definitions of rationality, rules of logic, probability, Bayesian reasoning, rational choice, statistical decision theory, game theory, correlation, and regression analysis.

I particularly liked the approach Pinker took in discussing the research of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky which documents many ways in which people are prone to fall short of normative benchmarks of rationality. Pinker makes the point:

When people’s judgments deviate from a normative model, as they so often do, we have a puzzle to solve. Sometimes the disparity reveals a genuine irrationality: the human brain cannot cope with the complexity of a problem, or it is saddled with a bug that cussedly drives it to the wrong answer time and again.

But in many cases there is a method to people’s madness.”

A prime example is loss aversion: “Our existence depends on a precarious bubble of improbabilities with pain and death just a misstep away”. In Freedom Progress and Human Flourishing, I argued similarly that loss aversion helped our ancestors to survive.

Pinker doesn’t seek to blame the propensity of humans to make logical and statistical fallacies for the prevalence of irrationality in the public sphere. He is not inclined to blame social media either, although he recognises its potential to accelerate the spread of florid fantasies.

The mythology mindset

Pinker argues that reasoning is largely tailored to winning arguments. People don’t like getting on to a train of reasoning if they don’t like where it takes them. That is less of a problem for small groups of people (families, research teams, businesses) who have a common interest in finding the truth than it is in the public sphere.

People tend to have a reality mindset when they are dealing with issues that affect their well-being directly – the world of their immediate experience – but are more inclined to adopt a mythology mindset when they are dealing with issues in the public sphere.

When economists discuss such matters, they may refer to the observation of Joseph Schumpeter that the typical citizen drops to a lower level of mental performance when discussion turns to politics. They reference the concept of rational ignorance attributed to Anthony Downs and Gordon Tulloch. They may also refer to Brian Caplan’s concept of rational irrationality. (For example, see Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, pp 114-115).

Pinker doesn’t refer to those economists’ perspectives but offers interesting insights about factors that might lead people to adopt mythology mindsets. In summary, as a consequence of myside bias, attitudes to the findings of scientific studies often have less to do with scientific literacy than with political affiliation. The opposing “sides” are sometimes akin to “religious sects, which are held together by faith in their moral superiority and contempt for opposing sects”. Within those sects the function of beliefs is to bind the group together and give it moral purpose.

What can we do?

Pinker’s suggestions for combatting irrationality in the public sphere are summed up by his subheading “Re-affirming Rationality”. He advocates openness to evidence, noting the findings of a survey suggesting that most internet users claim to be open to evidence. He suggests that we valorize the norm of rationality by “smiling or frowning on rational and irrational habits”.

Pinker identifies institutions that specialize in creating and sharing knowledge as playing a major role in influencing the beliefs that people hold. Since “no-one can know everything”, we all rely on academia, public and private research units, and the news media for a great deal of the knowledge which forms the basis of our beliefs. Unfortunately, these institutions are often not trustworthy.

In the case of the universities, Pinker suggests that the problem stems from “a suffocating left-wing monoculture, with its punishment of students and professors who question dogmas on gender, race, culture, genetics, colonialism, and sexual identity and orientation”. News and opinion sites have been “played by disingenuous politicians and contribute to post-truth miasmas”.

It is easy to agree with Pinker that it would be wonderful if universities and the news media could become paragons of viewpoint diversity and critical thinking. However, movement toward that goal will require large numbers of individuals to enlist for a ‘long march’ to re-establish norms of rationality in institutions that specialize in creating and sharing knowledge.                                                                    

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.

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Do women value equality and security more than freedom?


Some things I have read recently led me begin to wonder whether there is a general tendency for women to value equality and security more highly than freedom.  As a social movement, feminism has obviously been more strongly associated with egalitarianism than with libertarianism. It might also be possible to construct an argument that the traditional roles of women in society might also make them inclined to have greater concerns for ‘sharing and caring’, and hence have a bias toward egalitarianism. The role of women in caring for children might also be expected to lead them to place high value on economic security.

However, such speculation does not shed much light on the question of whether there is a general tendency for women to value equality and security more highly than freedom.

As it happens, the World Values Survey has relevant data on the relative values placed on freedom, equality, and security for 59 countries, from surveys conducted over the period 2017 to 2022. The relevant questions were worded as follows:

  • “Most people consider both freedom and equality to be important, but if you had to choose between them, which one would you consider more important?”
  • “Most people consider both freedom and security to be important, but if you had to choose between them, which one would you consider more important?”

That wording leaves some ambiguity about the specific meaning that survey respondents attach to freedom, equality, and security. Nevertheless, the charts I have constructed using this data show some interesting patterns.

The chart presented at the top of this article plots the percentage of women who place higher value on freedom than on security against the percentage who place higher value on freedom than on equality. What do I observe?

  • First, there seems to be a general tendency for the value that women place on freedom relative to both equality and security to be higher in the high-income liberal democracies than in other countries.
  • Second, the percentages who view freedom as more important than equality are generally much higher than the percentages who view freedom as more important than security.
  • Third, some of the outliers are interesting. For example, in Zimbabwe a high percentage of women say that freedom is more important than equality, but only a small percentage say freedom is more important than security. Perhaps that reflects the existence of tyrannical government and distrust of egalitarian ideology, combined with a desperate economic situation and a high incidence of crime which leads women to place high value on security.

Are women less inclined than men to place a high value on freedom? The next two charts shed some light on that. Gender comparison 1 (below) shows the percentages of females and males who view freedom to be more important than equality. The comparison suggests that women have a tendency to place a slightly higher value on equality, but the differences between women and men are small in most countries.


 Gender comparison 2 (below) enables a comparison to be made of the percentages of females and males who view freedom to be more important than equality. This chart shows a much different pattern to that shown in Gender comparison 1. The chart shows that women have a tendency to place a much higher value on security, and that the differences between women and men are substantial in most countries.



In most countries, the percentage of women who value freedom more highly than equality is much higher than the percentage who value freedom more highly than security.

In general, women are only slightly less inclined than men to value freedom more highly than equality. However, women are much less inclined than men to value freedom more highly than security.

The results suggest to me that women’s support of liberty may be dampened by their concerns about economic security (if they perceive a trade-off to be required). However, the results do not support the view that there is a general bias towards egalitarianism among women in the high-income liberal democracies. 

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Who was Erasmus and why should we care?

 After I stumbled across that quote a few days ago, it struck me that Erasmus might have something relevant to say to people living today.

However, before I discuss the context in which Erasmus made that statement, it might be helpful to provide some relevant background information about him.

The man and his vocation

Erasmus was born around 1467 and died in 1536.  William Barker, the author of a recently published biography, Erasmus of Rotterdam: The Spirit of a Scholar, tells us that Erasmus had become famous by the time he reached his mid-fifties. Erasmus was a prolific author. The rise of the printing press helped him to establish an international reputation during his lifetime. At that time it was possible for a humanist scholar – one steeped in the literature and culture of ancient Greece and Rome – to have fame equivalent to that of an Einstein or Stephen Hawking in more recent times.

Although Erasmus was a priest, he remained independent of the church hierarchy. Patrons offered gifts and allowances, which he accepted, but he was not dominated by any person or institution. He had an aversion for scholastic theology, believing that the words of the Bible show the message of Jesus more clearly than could any scholastic commentator. He based his famous translation of the New Testament on ancient Greek manuscripts because he believed that some of the original reports written by followers of Jesus had become distorted in the official translation used at that time.

In addition to his Translation of the New Testament, Erasmus’ famous works include The Praise of Folly, and his compilation of Roman and Greek proverbs. The Praise of Folly takes the form of a speech by Folly, seeking to persuade us that she is basic to all our lives. Barker sums up the book as follows:

“The work begins with social criticism, a kind of genial mocking, but it ramps up to direct attacks on various interest groups in the political, intellectual and religious worlds, and, in the amazing final move, suddenly turns inwards, and pulls the reader towards the abyss found in the complete loss of self through a total religious faith.”

As I see it, theological disputes were a particular focus in this book. Erasmus wrote:

I [Folly] am often there, where when one was demanding what authority there was in Holy Writ that commands heretics to be convinced by fire rather than reclaimed by argument; a crabbed old fellow, and one whose supercilious gravity … answered in a great fume that Saint Paul had decreed … “Reject him that is a heretic, after once or twice admonition.” And when he had sundry times, one after another, thundered out the same thing, … at last he explained it thus … . “A heretic must be put to death.” Some laughed, and yet there wanted not others to whom this exposition seemed plainly theological … . “Pray conceive me,” said he, “it is written, ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.’ But every heretic bewitches the people; therefore …”.

Erasmus’ book of proverbs was also a vehicle for social criticism. For example, in his revised version of this book, his commentary on the proverb, “War is a treat for those who have not tried it”, is a passionate essay praising peace and condemning war. Barker notes, however, that Erasmus’ condemnation of war was not unbounded. He approved of war against the Turks during the 1520s when they had reached the outskirts of Vienna.

Context of the quote

The context of the passage quoted at the top of this article is explained by Paul Grendler in his article, ‘In Praise of Erasmus’ (The Wilson Quarterly 7(2) Spring 1983). The plea, “Let us not devour each other like fish” was in response to an attack by his former friend Ulrich von Hutten, who had become an associate of Martin Luther. Erasmus welcomed Luther as a fellow reformer in 1517 when he began to criticize greedy churchmen and the worship of relics. However, as Luther’s criticism of Catholicism became more abusive, Erasmus counselled moderation. Luther would have none of it:

“You with your peace-loving theology, you don’t care about the truth. The light is not to be put under a bushel, even if the whole world goes to smash”.

The papacy was not inclined to stand idly by while Luther “led souls to hell”. So, Europe went to smash!

Erasmus continued to try to mediate between Catholic and Protestant, asserting that he found much to admire in Luther while disagreeing with him about predestination. The Catholic response was that “Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched”.

Unfortunately, Erasmus was unable to persuade the contending parties to refrain from warfare. If political institutions had provide greater support to Erasmus’ message at that time, perhaps it would have been possible for Europeans to have avoided a few centuries of pointless religious warfare.

Contemporary relevance of Erasmus    

William Barker laments that the old discourse of humanism seems to have been eclipsed:

“Something has happened to the humanities and the old discourse of humanism in our time. The ideal of Erasmian humanism – a cosmopolitan, well-educated Republic of Letters – has moved to the margins of our cultural life. A shift in political, ethnic, gender and ecological values has led to a change in the cultural hierarchy.”

Nevertheless, he still sees Erasmus as relevant to the culture of our times:  

“Despite our hesitations and the new trajectories in our literary culture, there are aspects of Erasmus that still survive for us, that take him outside his historical moment and the programmatic frame of humanist education. We can still turn to him for his irony, laughter, and the free exercise of social criticism.”

I agree with all that, but I also see Erasmus’ message about refraining from war over theology as being highly relevant today. When Erasmus was alive, contending parties engaging in theological disputes were obviously willing to use coercive means to impose their will on their opponents. Today, not much has changed. Extremists among contending parties engaged in ideological disputes are still willing to use coercive power to impose their will on their opponents.

Few people who live in the liberal democracies have any difficulty condemning the authoritarianism of dictatorships which seek to prevent individuals from exercising freedom of conscience in their religious observance. However, there are many people among us who unwittingly engage in similar authoritarianism themselves. I am thinking particularly of politicians who are so certain of the correctness of their ideological beliefs that they struggle with the idea that those with opposing views are entitled to exercise freedom of conscience.

The exercise of freedom of conscience over the status of human embryos is the example that comes most readily to mind. I wrote about his in the preceding post. At one extreme, we have politicians claiming that pharmacists who refuse on conscientious grounds to supply medications that could be used to induce abortion are guilty of some kind of civil rights violation. At the other extreme we have politicians arguing that under no circumstances should it be lawful for a woman to exercise freedom of conscience to terminate a pregnancy.

Will this conflict end in open warfare? The only reason I can see for ideological and theological authoritarianism to result in less violent outcomes today than occurred 500 years ago is the existence of democratic political processes. Unfortunately, in some liberal democracies those processes may no longer be sufficiently robust to provide contending parties with appropriate incentives to moderate their extremist agendas.

at this time, those who regard freedom of conscience as of utmost importance should remember the efforts of Erasmus to promote peace 500 years ago, and endeavor to be more successful than he was. “Blessed are the peacemakers …”.

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Did Enlightenment thinkers believe that reason could illuminate all phenomena?


When I began to think about David Friedrich’s painting “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog”, there seemed to be something odd about it. The painting reminded me of a TV news report I saw recently showing an Australian politician walking along a beach wearing a business suit. Both the politician and the “wanderer” seemed out of place. Perhaps the politician had a busy schedule which prevented him from changing into beach attire, but how can we explain the symbolism of the painting?

László Földényi, a Hungarian essayist, has suggested that the painting reflects the longing of Romantics to retreat from the fog of prosaic life “and find in nature that universal connection which civilization was supposedly unable to provide”. Földényi implies that, contrary to their intentions, the Romantics’ view of nature was similar to that of Enlightenment thinkers who viewed it as the object of rational and scientific thought:

“If we look at the wanderer in Friedrich’s painting, he appears to be giving himself over to nature, and yet at the same time he is decisively isolated from it. And this indicates to us that the Romantic “deification” of nature, its enlargement into a metaphysical category results in a tendency leading toward the violation of nature just as much as the openly technicist viewpoint does. For there too in the background lurks the intention to call to account, to seek proof and persuasion, the desire for nature to become the likeness of humanity, to be the mirror of our soul. In a word, the desire for nature to be pliable to their conceptions of it—even if, in certain cases, these conceptions differ from those of the natural scientists.”

The quoted passage is from Földényi’s book, Dostoyevsky reads Hegel and Bursts into Tears. The book
consists of 13 essays in which the author seeks to examine “the experience of inscrutability to be found in depths of all cultural phenomena.” He is attacking the “belief in the omnipotence of reason that illuminates all phenomena” which he believes to be “the great inheritance of the Enlightenment”.

Hegel is a prime target.

The title of the book comes from an essay in which Földényi speculates that Dostoyevsky may have read Hegel’s lectures on the philosophy of world history while exiled in Siberia and writing The House of the Dead. Hegel viewed world history as having a rational purpose and argued that the character of some nations is such that they don’t belong within the purview of world history. He ruled out Siberia as a setting for world culture.

Dostoyevsky suffered greatly in Siberia but felt his estrangement from world history to be a form of redemption from the gray rationality of European civilization. Exile enabled him to obtain a better understanding of other Russians and of himself.

Hegel is also the target of criticism in the final essay which discusses Elias Canetti’s book, Crowds and Power.  Földényi discusses the difficulty of attributing a genre to this book, telling readers that it is distinguished by its openness to metaphysical questions - particularly the ancient question, “What is man?” - and a capacity for amazement at the world.

Földényi suggests that “Canetti almost appears to be sending a message” to Hegel. Canetti was disturbed by “the arrogance of concepts” and held examination of individual phenomena to be more important that generalizations. He claimed that the conceptual interested him so little that he had not seriously read either Aristotle or Hegel.

Hegel believed in the fulfillment of history, but Canetti’s book is “a great pessimistic expression of the viewpoint that man is irreparable”, as he continually repeats brutal acts “while employing ever more refined means”. According to Canetti, Europeans live in an ocean of myth, mistakenly thinking that their rationalism is the fulfillment of history.

I am glad that we do not have to choose between the views of Hegel and Canetti. In Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, I argue that although the roots of liberty run deepest in countries that recognize Western civilization as providing their cultural heritage, history gives us no grounds for complacency about the future of liberty in those countries.

The old horizons

The essay I found most illuminating is the one on belief in the devil. Földényi suggests that beliefs about God and the devil “took leave of their traditional metaphysical theater” toward the end of the 18th century. He illustrates the metaphysical theater with Goethe’s description of the demonic situation that Faust observed within himself of being torn between the sensual and the non-sensual. He suggests that Faust was “perhaps the last emblematic figure of European culture who … represented his own endangered mentality without losing sight of the Great Plan as envisioned by Pico della Mirandola.”

After that, Földényi claims that the “Good” lost its transcendental constraints and became limited to concepts of utility, advantage, and pragmatism, and “Evil” came to be understood as “anything impeding what general belief proclaimed as advantageous and useful.”

So, what was Pico della Mirandola’s Great Plan?  In the 15th century Giovanni Pico della Mirandola suggested that the goal of man - the reason God created humans - was to love the beauty of the world or to admire its greatness. However, man can do this in his own way. He can shape himself in whatever form he prefers. He can degenerate into a lower, more brutish, form of life, or “be reborn into the higher orders, those that are divine”.

It seems to me that the essence of the Great Plan can still be followed by those of us who are uncomfortable with the theology of Pico della Mirandola if we take care not to lightly dismiss intuitions that to be fully flourishing we need to transcend a focus on utilitarian considerations. My personal view is that such intuitions deserve to be taken seriously because they stem from fundamental aspects of human nature. Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing offers the suggestion that we may take pleasure in seeking to transcend utilitarian preoccupations “whilst rejecting the idea that it is appropriate to employ the metrics of pleasure and pain to assess the worth of our endeavors.”  

Final comments

I have selected only a few of Földényi’s essays to discuss here. Some readers might be interested to follow up his challenging views on melancholy and anxiety, or the sad story of Heinrich von Kleist who features as prominently as Hegel.

In my view, the author is successful in illustrating the poverty of rationalistic approaches in explaining cultural phenomena. However, in asserting that the Enlightenment is responsible for widespread belief in the omnipotence of reason, he is taking a Eurocentric view. Scottish Enlightenment thinkers certainly did not believe that reason could illuminate all phenomena. Modern followers of Frances Hutcheson, David Hume, Adam Smith, and Adam Ferguson are unlikely to feel that their views are under attack in this book.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Are social movements drivers of progress?


In considering this question my focus is on Mikayla Novak’s recent book, Freedom in Contention, Social Movements and Liberal Political Economy.

Mikayla describes social movements as “sustained collective engagement by multiple participants … aiming to effect change within society”. Mikayla provides an enlightening account of the nature of social movements, the role of entrepreneurship within them, the tactics they use, and of factors that contribute to their success. I focus here on Mikayla’s view that social movements have played a critical role in the realization of liberties enjoyed today in the Western democracies. That line of argument is central to the book, and closely linked to the question posed above.

Before going further, I should note that Mikayla uses an “entangled political economy” framework to examine social networks. That framework, developed by Richard Wagner, views individuals and groups as being intertwined in overlapping relationships of different kinds - collaborative or competitive, or consensual or exploitive. In pursuing their goals, social movements have an irrepressible tendency to entangle with other movements, and with economic and political organizations.

In making the case that social movements have contributed to expanding economic, political, and social freedoms, Mikayla discusses the historical role of some important social movements. The American revolution is discussed as the culmination of a movement resisting imposition of unfair taxation. The Anti-Corn Law League is discussed as a movement rallying public support in opposition to agricultural tariffs that benefitted landowners at the expense of consumers. The movements involved in progressive extension of the voting franchise, including female suffrage activism, are discussed as part of a struggle to gain recognition that all individuals should have equal standing to participate in politics. The success of the American Civil Rights Movement in expanding economic, political, and social freedoms is argued to have inspired subsequent movements including anti-war, environmental and feminist movements.

The author’s coverage of contemporary social movements highlights responses to regulation limiting voluntary productive entanglements of an economic nature. Movements discussed include the Tea Party and the campaign to counter restrictive effects of regulation on availability of medication for people living with HIV/AIDS.

Mikayla also highlights the ongoing challenges posed by cultural-institutional environments that fail to prevent those with political influence using it to obtain benefits at the expense of others, and which repress social movement activities. She paints an alarming picture of rising illiberalism:

“Economic freedom has waned, minorities and many other groups around the world are victimized by violent, reactionary backlash dynamics, and, increasingly, we are meeting the end of a police baton or are being haunted by the constant eye of the surveillance state. All in all, the disturbing trend is that illiberalism appears, again, on the rise.” (p 136)

However, that is followed immediately by a more optimistic message about the future of freedom:

“Nevertheless, it is our position that great encouragement should be taken from the demonstrated self-organizational abilities of ordinary people, worldwide, to formulate social movements to demand their liberties and human rights.” (p 136)


Although Mikayla does not discuss the concept of progress to any great extent, she makes the important point that social evolution tends to be discordant and discontinuous. As a liberal, she focuses on the role of social movements play in the evolution of free and open societies, and expresses strong opposition to “totalizing schemes (drawn up by social movement participants, and by others) aiming at wholesale change to society”.

I believe that social movements have been an important driver of progress, as the concept is defined in my book Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing.  I define progress as growth of opportunities for human flourishing – that means growth of opportunities for all individuals to meet their aspirations more fully. I don’t discuss the role of social movements explicitly, but note that social changes accompanying economic progress have played an important role in improving the opportunities available to women and members of minority groups.

My view of cultural evolution as largely benign and emancipative is consistent with the view of social movements that Mikayla presents. There is, however, a slight difference in emphasis. I view cultural evolution as the net result of progressive struggle and conservative resistance, and argue that conservative resistance serves a useful purpose in averting social changes that might later be widely regretted. Mikayla recognizes that counter-movements may be informed by ideological commitments rather than being reactionary, but she leaves the impression that they are more likely to oppose liberal freedoms than to advance them. (See pages 90-91.)

There is also an interesting difference between the items that Mikayla and I discuss as illiberal tendencies. As noted above, Mikayla emphasizes the tendency for minorities and many other groups around the world to be victimized by violent, reactionary backlash dynamics. The things I write about under this heading include cancel culture, attempts to suppress views of opponents, and terrorism. I think we are both right!

Summing up

Mikayla’s book makes an important contribution in reminding readers in the Western democracies of the emancipative role of social movements in realization of economic, political, and social freedoms that they now tend to take for granted.  In that context, social movements have been important drivers of progress, including the spreading of opportunities for more people to meet their aspirations more fully. Although I am somewhat concerned about the illiberal tendencies in some contemporary social movements, I share Mikayla’s optimism about the abilities of ordinary people to formulate social movements to advance and protect liberty.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

What purpose is served by utopian thinking?


If your immediate response is that no good purpose is served by utopian thinking, it may be because you have the wrong kind of utopianism in mind. Perhaps what has come to mind is the description of an ideal society which could only exist if all humans were angelic, or perhaps it is the failure of some utopians to consider the human costs of attempting to achieve their visions.

Anyone who considers the nature and characteristics of an ideal society is engaged in utopian thinking. In my view, there is one particular type of utopian thinking that has contributed massively to advances in opportunities for individual human flourishing and has potential to continue to do so.

Before I make the case for that kind of utopian thinking, however, I need to discuss the rise of anti-utopianism.

The rise of anti-utopianism

The main threat to discussion of the characteristics of an ideal society seems to be coming from people who view such discussion as irrelevant to the world in which we live. These anti-utopians argue that it is a waste of time to consider whether public policy is consistent with principles that should apply in an ideal society. They see such ideals as irrelevant because outcomes are determined by power struggles.

Anti-utopians do not necessarily subscribe to the view that “might is right”. Their belief that outcomes are determined by power struggles may just lead them to argue that “right” is irrelevant. Their beliefs differ somewhat depending on whether they come from the conservative or progressive side of politics.

Anti-utopians who inhabit the conservative side of politics tend to focus on contests between nations. They argue that such contests are inevitable, and that victory depends primarily on the ferocity of the warriors. They sometimes recognize that religion and ideology have a role in motivating warriors by reinforcing nationalist sentiments. However, they tend to view notions of human rights and morality as “rationalizations of philosophers” that weaken the ferocity of warriors.

Anti-utopians who inhabit the progressive side of politics tend to focus on power struggles between different groups in society - different ethnic and religious groups, women and men, people with different sexual orientation, and so forth. People on the progressive side of politics have traditionally presented a view of an ideal society where everyone has equal opportunities as well as equal rights, but the anti-utopians engaged in identity politics seek affirmative action to be carried far beyond the provision of equal opportunities. Ethical principles are downplayed in the struggle of particular groups to advance their interests at the expense of others.

The arguments of the anti-utopians can be challenged within the framework of the power struggle paradigms they present. For example, conservative anti-utopians tend to overlook the extent to which people are motivated to contribute toward national defence by considerations such as protection of human rights. Progressive anti-utopians tend to overlook the potential for single-minded advocacy of their own interests to encourage other groups to retaliate.

The purpose of utopian thinking

 The best way to challenge the arguments of the anti-utopians is to present some defensible utopian views.

  1. Since human flourishing is an inherently self-directed activity undertaken by individuals, an ideal society must recognize that individuals have the right to flourish in the manner of their own choosing provided they do not interfere with the similar rights of others.
  2. The flourishing of individuals depends on their ability to follow personal values, visions and aspirations that make their lives meaningful. Some of the most basic personal values of individuals – including respect for the lives, property, and liberty of others - are widely shared by people throughout the world.  
  3. Progress toward an ideal society occurs when individuals have greater opportunities to meet their aspirations.

If you would like to see those points explained more fully, please read my recently published book “Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing”. The concept of utopia is only referred to a few times in the book but, as I have just realized, much of the thinking that went into the book is utopian thinking.

Utopian thinking is intrinsic to human flourishing.  

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Who should read "Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing"?


I have dedicated the book to those who reflect on what it means to be a flourishing human.

When individuals think about their own personal development, they are reflecting on what it means to be a flourishing human.  I believe that reflection on what it means to be a flourishing human also holds the key to understanding the importance of liberty, and its role in economic development.

What is the book about?

The book explains how freedom (liberty) enables individuals to flourish in different ways without colliding, how it fosters progress and enables growth of opportunities, and how it supports personal development by enabling individuals to exercise self-direction.

The importance of self-direction is a theme of the book. The introductory chapter explains that wise and well-informed self-direction is integral to flourishing because it helps individuals to attain health and longevity, positive human relationships, psychological well-being, and an ability to live in harmony with nature.

Part I discusses natural rights and the evolution of freedom since ancient times. It explains how most people living in the liberal democracies today came to enjoy greater freedom than their ancestors.

Part II discusses progress. It explains how cultural change made economic progress possible by supporting the rule of law, liberty, and interpersonal trust, as well as the advance of knowledge, respect for innovators and tolerance of diversity. It notes that progress has led to increasingly widespread opportunities for people to meet their aspirations. It also discusses reasons for apprehension about the continuation of progress.

Part III considers how it is possible for individuals to meet the challenges of self-direction and to enhance their potential to flourish by investing in personal development. It explains that while the exercise of practical wisdom has always been integral to the flourishing of individuals, it has become commonplace for people to aspire to exercise meaningful self-direction over their lives to a greater extent than has ever been possible in the past.

The main message of the book is that people who live in Western liberal democracies should count their blessings. They have many blessings to count!

What are reviewers saying about the book?

Doug Rasmussen, a philosopher, and joint author with Douglas Den Uyl of a trilogy of books about liberty and human flourishing writes:

“Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing is a highly informed, but not an unduly technical, account of human flourishing and the need for a political/legal order that has the primary goal of protecting individual rights. This work is informed by not only philosophical but also by psychological and economic studies. This work provides an excellent entry point for deeper discussions of these fundamental claims.”

Readers who are seeking deeper discussions will find much to think about in the books by Rasmussen and Den Uyl: Norms of Liberty, The Perfectionist Turn, and The Realist Turn: Repositioning Liberalism.

Ron Duncan, a distinguished Australian economist with particular expertise in the economics and governance of developing countries, writes:

“With so much attention on identifying issues we should be unhappy about, Winton Bates' book is a welcome relief, given its emphasis on how much the lot of most people—particularly those in western liberal societies—has improved, why the improvements have taken place, and why they should continue. Its historical coverage of the philosophical issues underpinning the role of liberty in western progress should delight all serious thinkers.”

Ed Younkins, author of Flourishing and Happiness in A Free Society and Capitalism and Commerce writes:

“This masterful feat of integration of a wide range of literature from philosophy, economics, political science, and the social sciences will inspire scholars to bring their disciplines together to advance the argument for a free society.”

What are my qualifications to write such a book?

I am an economist. I first became professionally involved in broad issues concerning human flourishing in the early 1990s. Before then, my career focused on public policy relating to economic development, international trade, productivity growth and technological progress. Whilst retaining my professional interest in such matters, I have become increasingly interested in economic history, happiness economics, behavioral economics, self-help psychology, politics, and Aristotelian philosophy. I have written extensively about freedom and flourishing and have been blogging on this site for about 12 years.

How do I perform when interviewed about my book?

Potential interviewers who need to make such an assessment should take a look at me being interviewed by Leah Goldrick. The interview entitled “Freedom Helps us Flourish” has been published on Leah’s Common Sense Ethics channel on YouTube. The interview is also a useful source of background information about the book and its author.

Where can the book be purchased?

The book has been published by Hamilton Books and can be purchased at the Rowman and Littlefield web site:

It is also available from Amazon and some other booksellers.