First Off, I Was Wrong

I consider it a mark of intellectual maturity to admit error. It doesn’t need to happen all the time, and it won’t. And of course it’s a cheapo to demand it on the grounds that you’re not intellectually mature until you admit your error and agree with me. I don’t care at all for folks who say stuff like that.

But when I’m wrong, I’m wrong. And what better way to kick off a new blog than by admitting it? So here goes: I was wrong in some very significant ways about the beliefs of Nick Land.

Nick Land is a neoreactionary. (If you don’t know what that is, then don’t read this post. Start here instead.) It is unlikely that you will find Land a sympathetic character, and I certainly don’t. It’s not likely that he even wants you to find him a sympathetic character. If you are reading this, he most likely thinks that you are wrong, and a fool, about nearly everything you believe about the society you inhabit, starting with democracy and moving on down the line through racial differences, the liberal conception of rights, the Enlightenment idea of progress, and so, so, so much else.

One thing Nick Land is not, however, is an ethnonationalist. I had accused him of as much here.[1] Shortly after, I stopped reading him entirely and gave him essentially no further thought. I recently had reason to take a second look, and when I did, it was obvious I’d made a mistake. Land does not advocate ethnonationalism.

How did my error arise? Partly it’s the company that, as a neoreactionary, Land appears to keep. In reading him early on, my lenses consisted of stuff written by Michael Anissimov and others of a decidedly ethnonationalist bent. Whenever I could, I fit ethnonationalist implications in as I read. Often I fit them in edgewise. I now see that this was far less than helpful, and I am finding that I may need to pick these implications back out again, a costly and time-consuming process. Anissimov might wear the label of ethnonationalist with pride, while also wearing the neoreactionary label, but Land is only the latter. Not the former.

Since I wrote that piece, I’ve learned a great deal about this new and – let’s be fair – frequently obscurantist movement. It no longer looks nearly as unified to me as it formerly did. It’s maybe not even all that interested in being unified. Land’s own very clear recent disavowals of ethnonationalism, even from those who seem like closely aligned neoreactionaries, have done a lot to convince me. I often insist on the importance of divisions within my own small, new, and often obscurantist ideological sect. It’s only fair that I recognize the divisions in others of the same ilk. Nick Land, I’m sorry. I screwed up.

I know it’s a lot to ask, but I’d like to hit the reset button. We certainly aren’t going to see eye to eye, but a productive conversation might still be possible. Who knows. (Would it help if I wrote up my critique of the Laws of the Cathedral? I’ve been accused by others of championing these laws, while mostly I find them to be various flavors of nonsense.)

I’m left with lots of questions, to be sure. For example, Land aligns himself with the Atlanteans, but I don’t feel like I quite understand what this means to him. I wonder whether the concept is not so big, and so vague, as to be unhelpful. (It may of course be true and unhelpful; and it may be helpful to others, just not to me. Neither is quite to the point. I want to know: What kind of thinking does this Atlantean grouping enable?) Whenever I try to imagine the Atlanteans, I find that I’m imagining a very big, very vague ethnicity, but again, I know that can’t be right. I would welcome more about what it means to him, or simply some further pointers about it. (And yes: I know I’ll have to get around to reading Alexander Dugin, who originated the term in its present usage, even if I expect to find him repulsive.)

Anyway. What follows is mostly unrelated to the above. I’ve put it here lest my friends come to fear that I am turning neoreactionary. I am not.

If there is one thing all neoreactionaries believe, it’s that democracy has been an unmitigated disaster. I am not nearly so pessimistic. I think democracy has very often failed to secure individual liberty, but its failure has clearly not been total, and there is reason to believe that things may get better after all.

Moreover, even if I am wrong to be hopeful, my sense is that neoreaction has not yet produced anything like the calm, rigorous, empirical examination of democratic institutions to be found in public choice economics. This seems a vastly more promising avenue of critique than any other to me. Yes, neoreaction is still young, and maybe it will come up with something more interesting and useful in time, but I’m not optimistic. As a group, their biggest pie-in-the-sky policy idea seems to be returning to monarchy.[2] This strikes me as foolish – perhaps for reasons that at least some neoreactionaries would appreciate.

The public choice school and neoreaction both criticize democracy for what amounts to its capture by perverse interests: Venal rent-seekers and demagogues alike take over the process, and the outcome is predictably stupid and horrible. This much is very often completely true. To the extent that it pains the advocates of democracy, well, it certainly should.

But here’s my problem. If I were to point to a rent-seeking society par excellence, it would be… Old Regime France. (See this, for example.) The Old Regime had a monarchy, thanks very much, a purportedly good, old-fashioned, pre-Enlightenment monarchy, with no admixture whatsoever of liberal ideology or of democracy. If this is how you propose to solve the problem of rent-seeking idiocracy… then you have not even begun to understand the problem.

I personally fear that the United States is coming more and more to resemble the French Old Regime, and particularly in this respect: To do nearly anything now increasingly requires the permission of the government, which by the very same token is increasingly the arbiter of social status. In the Old Regime, status prevailed over contract. The way to get ahead in life was in Tocqueville’s words to cut an official figure. Commerce and most forms of entrepreneurship were apt to be tagged with the French cognate word vil: They were the vile professions, at least as the official ideology had it. (Sound familiar? It should.)

Eventually all came to depend on the state. The result was not some sort of grand pride-in-hierarchy utopia. It was all the people of real ability conspiring to get out of business and turn themselves into a bunch of idle, sniveling, powdered-wigged courtiers. Why did the Industrial Revolution come so late to France? Rent-seeking.

Monarchy is not an effective defense against what the public choice school would call rent-seeking, or against what neoreactionaries would call demotism, which I take to be the rule of those who shortsightedly grab whatever they can, always in the name of the people.

Those disposed to either one will be perfectly happy if you throw them into the monarchist briar patch. As we all know, the French Old Regime did not end well, and plopping a monarchy down on top of American society, or on top of any subset thereof, will not make it resemble the Old Regime any less.

 

Notes

[1] If this seems like splitting hairs to some of you, particularly given that Land is generally persuaded by the claims of the human biodiversity movement, well, fine. Call it what you like. Human biodiversity enthusiasts are generally considered cranks by the scientists who know this stuff better than I do. Cranks they may be, but they are not identical to white or any other ethnonationalists.

As for me, I continue to think that even while there are some genetic differences that correlate to some degree with race, the optimal society remains color-blind. Comparative advantage and gains from trade swamp any possible effects to the contrary, and to find those gains, we need people to mix things up without fear of crossing any color lines. I am not aware of any differences that are innate, racially correlated, and also tending in their effects to erode the principle of gains from trade, a principle that is so robust that we are essentially powerless to annul it.

[2] The runner-up is the corporate state, more or less as found in anarcho-capitalism. I am not an anarcho-capitalist, for reasons I will get around to explaining in time. I don’t know whether it would work better or worse than democracy, but the attempt to institute it seems very dangerous in itself and likely to fail.

15 thoughts on “First Off, I Was Wrong

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  2. You point out rent-seeking in the Old Regime. Today in France the government takes about half the economy in taxes. Why? Universal suffrage seems like it played an essential role.

    Imagine Britain had not gradually extended the vote to larger and larger fractions of the population. Suppose only people of some amount of net worth had the vote. Would its government be as big and as intrusive as it is today?

    Something has gone very wrong in Western democracies and they look set to deteriorate further.

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  3. “Human biodiversity enthusiasts are generally considered cranks by the scientists who know this stuff better than I do.”
    No.

    I think it’s Important to distinguish between bigotry and racism.
    Litany of Tarski: “If the facts are racist,
    I desire to believe that the facts are racist.
    If the facts are not racist,
    I desire to believe that the facts are not racist.”

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  4. James James:

    The tools on offer at Less Wrong can be put to many uses. As you note:

    “If the facts are nonracist, I desire to believe that the facts are nonracist…”

    And so on. Clearly we need another tool to help us solve our dilemma.

    Let’s try Yudkowsky’s concept of the true rejection: Why is it, really, that I generally disagree with the HBD movement? Can we point to the one thing that would change my mind about HBD, if that thing were itself to change?

    And indeed, we can point to something. That thing is most emphatically not that HBD would have disagreeable consequences if it were true. Rather, it’s that scientific consensus tends to reject the claims of the HBD movement. That’s my true rejection: The scientists who know this stuff way better than I do have decided, and I will stand with scientific consensus.

    Rejecting that consensus would require adopting two very startling and improbable beliefs: First, that the scientists of the world were engaged in some sort of grand conspiracy to keep the truth from the public. And second, that I had somehow managed to outsmart them.

    That second one sure would be flattering, but it just isn’t true.

    As an aside, do note that scientists are in all other cases I know of quite willing to reveal horrid or ugly truths that they uncover: things like how to build atomic weapons, or the reality of anthropogenic global warming, or the expansion of the sun into a red giant, or the eventual heat death of the universe. If there were ugly racial truths lurking in their research, we would know about them, because they would tell us.

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    • >that the scientists of the world were engaged in some sort of grand conspiracy to keep the truth from the public.

      It doesn’t have to be grand; we have this recent related incident, the author being pushed out for associating to closely to HBD sympathetics
      http://www.vdare.com/articles/when-will-intercollegiate-studies-institute-disassociate-itself-from-notorious-racist-russell-kirk

      echoing Hal Lewis’ similar statements regarding the science community’s anti-skepticism regarding Climate change
      http://climatephysics.com/hal-lewis-my-resignation-from-the-american-physical-society/

      The irony of a science community being ‘anti-skeptic’ shouldn’t have to be pointed out. Science shouldn’t have to bend down towards politics, but it does, sometimes in concentrated insidious efforts, and sometimes in just the secondary influence needed to acquire funding. It’s not a grand conspiracy, it’s just a problem that needs to be checked for.

      We all should all know by now that science can follow some very arbitrary lines for significant periods of times and it is ALWAYS correcting itself. Phologiston was a consensus.

      How can people do work on HBD when the fact they even consider it a possibility validates professional and likely social ostracization?

      The funny thing is how closely it parallels the big example of religion blocking science if it inconveniently overlaps – evolution can’t be allowed at all because it contradicts the bible (and it’s uncomfortable to be made from monkey and not God); evolution after homo sapiens can’t be allowed because it contradicts liberal democracy (and is uncomfortably close to validating Nazi’s social darwinism).

      But still, it needs to be pointed out that human biodiversity IS a scientific consensus: that different human groups are biologically diverse is an accepted fact, it’s just an uncomfortable, touchy one. No one disagrees with the human genome project, so we all accept that Africans, Europeans and Asians belong to distinct genetic categories. The question isn’t of rejecting HBD, but of pursuing it further. That’s why it tends to be phrased as the “HBD movement”, it’s just wants to make room for more research to be done rather than let the field be quietly unfunded in a corner.

      We also accept uncontroversially that IQ can be measured to a fairly reliable degree:
      “Culturally neutral cognitive tests like progressive matrices are very tightly correlated (0.9) with IQ”
      http://intelligence.org/2013/08/31/stephen-hsu-on-cognitive-genomics/

      But when we take IQ and notice it reliably correlating to certain factors like income or race, you hit a wall, people to start to squirm.

      Actually, that same link has Hsu discussing it:
      “At the extremes, there are some academics and social activists who violently oppose any kind of research into the genetics of cognitive ability. Given that the human brain — its operation, construction from a simple genetic blueprint, evolutionary history — is one of the great scientific mysteries of the universe, I cannot understand this point of view.”

      He also comments on genetic cognitive ability:
      “In the worst case, it might be found that historically isolated populations of humans differ in their average genetic capacities for cognition, due to variation in allele frequencies. Let me stress that at the moment our understanding of the genetics of intelligence is far too preliminary to reach a firm conclusion on this issue.”

      So not only is the scientific consensus accepting the fact of HBD, but it also seems that we have at least one scientist working prominently in the field in a major university agreeing that it is an area still worth pursuing, ie he accepts the “HBD movement.”

      Which again is just the idea that, yes, there might be something here even if it might uncomfortably contradict some of our current social and political ideas (how valuable are they if they need to fight the process of science to stay in tact?)

      Yes, some people have agendas and they might profit from the findings, but so does the agenda of the people uncomfortable with the research. My sympathy is for placing science above politics; I don’t care if some people believe it’ll be easier to get climate change legislation through if we force a ‘consensus’ because a ‘conflicted front’ (a healthy state for any scientific field) might be used against them; or that it’s more important to shutdown neo-nazi movements who might use scientific research as evidence for their views than maintain a purity of research.

      Because what if we were wrong? What if our current plan to stop climate change might actually be contributing to it? Without a healthy room for peer review to test out the different hypotheses and findings (as opposed to a self-justifying acceptance of anything that follows with the singular, somewhat arbitrarily decided political program), we might be locking ourselves out of a long-term understanding for the sake of short-term action.

      Similarly, by ostracizing research into human genetics, we our cutting ourselves from the possible health and social benefits that clearly can be provided by a better understanding of ourselves, just because it conflicts with our contemporary viewpoint.

      I don’t see how this is any different than feeling squirmish about cutting open bodies, so I make a point to refuse to feel repulsed. There simply isn’t much reason not to accept the preliminary findings and recognize the importance for more research beyond ideological motivations (which are just as much the reason behind the overzealousness in attributing large importance to what is only initial research).

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  5. Randall Parker: I’m not sure we have much of a disagreement. I have argued that A has serious downsides. You have argued that B has serious downsides. I agree with you. It does.

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  6. It’s only fair that I recognize the divisions in others of the same ilk. Nick Land, I’m sorry. I screwed up.

    I know it’s a lot to ask, but I’d like to hit the reset button.

    Good enough for me. Especially as it’s far from clear I could be so magnanimous were the positions reversed.

    I think democracy has very often failed to secure individual liberty, but its failure has clearly not been total, and there is reason to believe that things may get better after all.

    I assert that where democracy has failed to bring disaster, it is where it has failed to be democratic. Similarly, the Soviet Union did not collapse immediately only due to remnants of capitalist habits and the failure of Lenin and Stalin to seriously curb the black market.

    I would like to see you be more specific about Old Regime France.

    Aside: the point isn’t to eliminate rent-seeking. The point is to limit it via formalization. Govs gonna rent-seek. Might as well be up-front about it so you can put it in the budget. I can easily show that modern America’s government is over half of all economic activity. That’s an awful lot of rent-seeking; indeed the problem of democracy isn’t so much how to improve it, but how you could possibly do worse.

    with no admixture whatsoever of liberal ideology or of democracy.

    This is untrue. Off the top of my head, the Russian Czar, a supposedly mon-arch-y monarch, fell exactly because he was far too liberal in the democratic sense.

    Louis’ ‘absolute’ monarchy was mainly propaganda, not reality. The Terror came about because the latter Louis was too squeamish to grasp the nettle, due partly to his own weakness and partly due to his liberal sympathies for the masses.

    “Although France in 1785 faced economic difficulties, mostly concerning the equitability of taxation, it was one of the richest and most powerful nations of Europe.[14] The French people also enjoyed more political freedom and a lower incidence of arbitrary punishment than many of their fellow Europeans.”

    They had it too good. Louis did not remind of the Gnon’s harsh law, they forgot, and so it fell to Gnon to remind them more directly. Thus the Terror.

    Rather, it’s that scientific consensus tends to reject the claims of the HBD movement. That’s my true rejection: The scientists who know this stuff way better than I do have decided, and I will stand with scientific consensus.

    This is untrue. At best, you have formulated a knockdown argument against consensus.

    Do you not believe that IQs vary across countries, and vary within countries by race?

    Do you not believe that IQ is strongly correlated with material measures of success?

    Do you not believe that IQ is strongly correlated with morality in the form of law-breaking, both within countries and across countries?

    Do you not believe that skull size, thus brain size, is correlated with IQ? Do you not believe that skull size across races is consistent with the IQ difference across races?

    Typically, I find those who do not believe these things have been comprehensively lied to. All of this is from peer-reviewed literature, and there are no professionally respectable challenges to it. I think I learned it from New Scientist back in the day, simply because I’ve know it since the 90s and I can’t imagine where else I would have found it. It’s now extremely difficult to find a respect-craving journalist who will touch the research even with a ten foot pole. The consensus among researchers in the field, such as it is, has become samizdat. You can see glimpses in things like the Richwine affair. Richwine stated what he thought was normal, settled science, but outside the insular field it’s radioactive, and as it happened he’d recently pissed off the wrong person, so they dug up his thesis and hung him with it.

    This is of course entirely separate from any moral differences between races in the sense of noble privilege. Murder is murder, regardless of race of criminal and defendant.

    (Teaser: “applied to the cream of America’s actual WASP-Ashkenazi aristocracy, genuine genetic elites with average IQs of 120, long histories of civic responsibility and productivity, and strong innate predilections for delayed gratification and hard work, I’m confident that this bizarre version of what we can call ignoble privilege would take no more than two generations to produce a culture of worthless, unredeemable scoundrels.” As indeed we see in the court fop culture of pre-Enlightenment times.)

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  7. Excellent piece. Enjoyed reading it for many reasons.

    In regards to “HBD” it’s important to note that certainly there is no consensus that condones the often racist interpretation of biological diversity that can be found in the so-called “HBD” blogosphere. That said, you will find many population geneticists that agree, contrary to the liberal model of tabula rasa, “race is a social construction”, “race” is indeed a real thing. Traits are inheritable, including personality. Insofar as why scientists may not proudly stand up for this reality should not be that difficult to understand; the implications are ripe for abuse by racists and the likelihood of social punishment for exploring this subject is extremely high. Nicholas Wade’s recent book is a great example of why it’s almost impossible to explore this issue without both sides intuitive moral predispositions hijacking the conversation.

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  8. Good points. But rent-seeking in the 18th century wasn’t exclusive to monarchical countries such as France. Switzerland, the Netherlands, Venice and Genoa were republics and rent-seeking in those states was widespread all the same.

    The fault most likely lies with the mercantilist and physiocratic economic theories that were popular at the time, not with this or that system of government. In fact, it could be argued that monopoly corporations a la Dutch East India Company had a greater influence on the governments of merchant republics than on the courts of sovereign kings.

    In any case, a 21th century absolute monarch would have no reason to base his policy decisions on 17th century economic thinking. They would most likely use textbook neoclassic economics with a technocratic bent. If rent seeking hurts economic performance, it hurts royal revenues, and hurting the king’s bottom line would not be tolerated.

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  9. Welcome to Neoreaction 😉

    Excellent signal of intellectual integrity, and excellent preliminary statement on Monarchy vs Democracy. Many of us actually agree with you, or at least would agree with this analysis, to a substantial part. I am somewhat agnostic on this question these days; stability and quality of government is clearly a very hard problem, and there is not silver bullet.

    I look forward to your contributions to our conversation.

    On HBD, my impression is that many scientists in the field *do* take HBD seriously, but have to dance around it and avoid the subject because being an HBDer is rather bad for one’s career. No conspiracy required, fashions are often self-stabilizing, especially with a vocal minority with a strong interest in coming to certain conclusions. Opposite situation in AGW.

    It really isn’t so hard to disagree with experts correctly if you understand the structures forming their opinions. Every time I’ve seen an actual argument, it’s obvious who’s right, and it’s usually the HBD-leaning scientists.

    Certainly there are many cranks and outright racists associated with HDB, and most scientists are right to distance themselves from that particular crowd, but that doesn’t make HNU any less insane.

    I think you’ll come around. Check out https://westhunt.wordpress.com/ for good HBD-leaning scientists.

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    • I get the sense that there’s a lot of Motte-and-Baileying going on in HBD: A few of the claims the movement likes to point to are very solid and accepted by scientific consensus. Many of the others are unsupported, outdated, wildly speculative, or otherwise rejected by scientific consensus. When HBD is under attack, its partisans retreat to the motte. “How can you criticize this solid science?” they ask. But then, when no one’s actively criticizing them, they entertain the wild speculations of the bailey.

      This is how much pseudoscience is conducted, and it stinks. It’s also far from my areas of expertise, which means that I will be bad at evaluating specific claims. Failing that, I defer to consensus. It’s less likely to be wrong.

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      • My sense is that the motte, if you state it straight up and without a lot of countersignaling, is enough to get you labeled as an HBDer and some kind of racist. So I don’t think the Motte-and-Bailey argument significantly undermines the claim that HBD is science.

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  12. Race is bollocks. That doesn’t mean humans aren’t biologically diverse. But I’m not even clear what the claims are being made here about HBD. Where’s the science for or against those claims? Otherwise, its just puff.

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