Learning to harass

Today as I was walking to the supermarket I happened to pass a group of young men. It was as I was about to walk up a set of steps, and four were sitting on the rails at the base of the steps, and another was sat on the rail at the top of the steps.

These are shallow steps, and running alongside them is a ramp for wheelchairs and prams and suchlike. It was late afternoon. The sky was overcast.

It should further be noted that when I describe these as ‘young men’, I mean they were probably – oh, I don’t know – 13 to 15 years old.

As I passed them heading up the steps a woman was walking down the steps. As she walked past him, the one sat perched on the rail at the top of the steps shouted down to his mates:

Oi Danny! I’d say that was at least a eight out of ten!

Or words to that affect.

In case the context isn’t clear, he was passing comment on the woman’s appearance and shouting his opinion of same down to one of his companions, while she was still very much within earshot.

As I passed the 14 (?) year old boy I considered pushing him slightly so that he fell off the railing. I then admonished myself for even considering such a thing. If I had done so he could easily have fallen onto the tarmac and split his skull. I then admonished myself for not telling him not to harass women in public.

In all honesty, I was never any more likely to give him a Good Talking To than I was to push him off the railing.

Then I went to the supermarket and bought my groceries, and thought no more about it until now.

What made me think of this again was reading this tweet by Laurie Penny:

I’ve seen enough instances of harassment of women by men to know that this must be a severe and ubiquitous problem. The fact that I – a man – have happened to witness this sort of thing going on several times must mean that it goes on all the time.

Cowardice and selfishness will always prevent me from “stepping in” when I see harassment happening*. I know how groups of stupid men act when they can claim to themselves they have been attacked by other men. I also know how individual men act in such circumstances. This is especially true of the kind of men who verbally harass women in the street.

Obviously this demonstrates that I am a terrible and inadequate person; I knew that anyway. But it also demonstrates something else.

What made me remember that particular incident was how young these lads were. I say 14 to 15, but they could have been even younger for all I know. A few years ago they probably thought girls were icky. And now they’ve learnt to treat women as objects in public.

Perhaps this particular chap will grow up and develop impulse control and spend less time hanging around on streetcorners with his mates. Perhaps he’ll learn to behave decently. Perhaps. But there’s a good chance he won’t. But he learnt to behave like this so quickly. It only took a couple of years to transform an innocent kid into a misogynistic gobshite.

This is patriarchy, I guess. Or an aspect of it.

I genuinely don’t know how to solve this problem. I suspect if it ever gets solved it will be through an endlessly frustrating, grindingly difficult process of teaching boys to be better men, and letting the bad men die off slowly.

* Excepting instances of out-and-out violence, where it’s obvious I’m the only person present able to do anything to stop the woman getting severely injured.

Morality, inequality, and charity

If Tim is correct that he has a higher IQ than Polly Toynbee, then this is unfair. Dissembling nature has blighted Polly with lesser abilities to perform certain kinds of cognitive acts, abilities that Tim has in such abundance that he is able to demolish my feeble arguments in less than a paragraph.

Polly and I both have powers of reasoning inferior to that of Tim Worstall. These are brute facts of reality. We are each born with a different set of endowments, and this places limits on what we can achieve. Life is unfair. And Tim is right that calling these brute natural inequalities “immoral” is a misuse of words, and I concede the point.

Something can be unfair without necessarily being immoral. We speak of something being “immoral” when it falls within the realm of human choice. It is unfair that Tim is cleverer than Polly Toynbee (as he assures us he is), but it wasn’t Tim’s decision (or anyone’s decision) that this should be so.

But sometimes things are both unfair and immoral. Society, being the product of human choice, is a realm in which we can say that because something is unfair it is immoral. Society is the way it is because people have chosen that it should be that way. Our society is riddled with inequalities of power and wealth that are not the result of nature. And this is unfair and immoral.


Readers will be familiar with the arguments of the philosopher John Rawls, whose big idea was that justice is fairness. There are arguments along Rawlsian lines that a certain degree of inequality is justifiable, because it is necessary to reward those gifted individuals who can improve the collective human condition to such an extent that even the very poorest are made better off than they would be in a more equal situation. But these arguments only enter into consideration after we have established the idea that the first and fairest way of distributing humanity’s finite resources is equally. Equality of resources should be the baseline, and any deviation from that equality should be determined on a case-by-case basis.


Put it like this: if, at some point in the future, humanity develops technologies that enable us to improve our cognitive capacities in various ways, including perhaps elevating poor old Polly Toynbee to the intellectual heights of the likes of Tim Worstall, then it would be fairest to distribute that technology as equally as possible. It would, I think, be immoral to restrict such a technology to only those with enormous wealth and power. At this point one’s IQ would cease to be a brute fact of nature, and would become a question of fairness. We – that is, humanity – would have  to choose how to distribute the gifts of intelligence, just as we now choose how to distribute the gifts of material wealth.

And this brings us back to charity. If you accept that chosen inequalities are morally objectionable, then any situation where one person has surplus wealth that they can choose to give to someone in need of that wealth, in turn becomes morally objectionable. Charity becomes an issue of private virtue and public vice. On an individual basis, charity is laudable, but when politicians start praising charity or calling for a ‘big society’, we should be more condemnatory. Politicians should be in the business of making a better society, not in perpetuating the inequalities of existing society. The better society is one with robust and non-voluntary social supports, not soup kitchens.


Anyway, Merry Christmas.



Worstall’s cold, grey, loveless thing


Tim Worstall asks:

And what the fuck’s wrong with voluntary collective action rather than State enforced collective action?

Answer: charity presupposes a condition in which some people have stuff which they can do without, and some people lack stuff that they really need. This inequality (which, like all inequalities, is morally objectionable on the face of it) is only sustained by the actions of the capitalist state in enforcing property rights through its monopoly on the legitimate use of force. In a more just world, there would be no need for charity because you would not have a situation in which some people have, whilst others need.

Aside from this obvious point, I honestly don’t see any moral difference between a spontaneous, voluntary urge to do good on the part of certain individuals, and a reflective, truly collective urge to do good as manifest in a legal requirement to provide support to those in need through the existing system of taxation and welfare.

There is however, a practical difference, in the sense that the former option has more failure modes than the latter. If we, as a community of individuals, choose to rely on charity as the means to ensure that those in need do not starve, then there is a greater chance that certain unfortunates will slip through the system, or be denied what they need because they’re ugly, or smell bad, or are for whatever reason thought to be undeserving by the ‘charitable’ individuals left to dispense their support.

As Britain’s greatest ever prime minister once wrote:

Charity is a cold grey loveless thing. If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim.

In praise of hierarchies

In which your humble correspondent has a minor disagreement with Chris Dillow.

Blogging titan Chris Dillow does not like managers.

As you would expect from such a luminary, Chris’s reasons for disliking the Boss Class are astute and well-thought-out:

The pursuit of efficiency – managerialism’s main goal – cannot be a value-free exercise. “Efficiency” has many conflicting meanings. Does it mean increasing GDP per head, Pareto-optimality, utilitarianism, maximizing Rawlsian primary goods or maximizing capabilities, in Amartya Sen’s sense? How do we choose a meaning of efficiency from this menu? And if we choose utilitarianism (as managerialism often does) what is the moral justification for imposing costs on some – up to and including death, Mr Hoon – so that others can gain?

Chris makes the important distinction between managerialism and management. Managerialism is the ideology of the managerial class, and as such is the ruling ideology of our age. Management, or technocracy, is the application of science to the problem of achieving certain ends given certain resources, and is therefore a branch of engineering*.

I disagree with Chris that all top-down management is harmful. My reasons for thinking this are as follows.

An industrial society requires specialisation. Our world is too complex for one individual intellect to encompass any more than a tiny fraction of it in any depth. In order to function, our industrial society requires that people specialise and develop expertise in particular areas. We need teachers, nurses, paramedics, electrical engineers, baristas, taxi drivers, geologists, science fiction writers, booksellers, economists, entertainers, and economics bloggers. No one (contra Heinlein) can learn how to excel in every one of these areas.

Specialisation requires informational transfer. Individual people, with their individual specialisations, need a way of communicating. It is only through communication that these individual experts will be able to co-ordinate, and it is only through co-ordination that they will be able to deliver the products, projects, and services that we desire.

How is this co-ordination to be achieved? There are two broad answers to this question. One is hierarchy, and the other is… Something. I’m not going to say ‘markets’ because I’m fed up with that word. Call it decentralised co-ordination.


I know what a hierarchy is. I understand what a hierarchy is. It is a situation in which one person is vested with authority, and this authority entitles them to tell other people what to do, and it requires that those people do actually do what the first person tells them to do (within various limits and subject to various contextual caveats yaddah yaddah…).

But what is a market?


At this stage a market might as well be an invisible unicorn that grants magical wishes, or a pair of intersecting lines on a page of a textbook, or a place you go to at weekends to buy overpriced honey with bits of honeycomb left in it. I honestly don’t know any more. “The market” means so many things to say many different people that I give up on trying to understand it.

So instead of market, I will use the term decentralised co-ordination. This encompasses a much broader set of behaviours than just whatever markets are taken to be. When motorists are traversing a roundabout they are engaging in decentralised co-ordination. The crowds who walk down Oxford Street are engaging in decentralised co-ordination when they avoid bumping into each other (most of the time).


De-centralised co-ordination has a problem. This problem is best illustrated by an example. Suppose we want to build an aeroplane. This is a complex task and therefore requires specialisation. Specialisation requires co-ordination. Co-ordination requires communication. The problem is that within a completely  decentralised system of co-ordination each individual would have to communicate with each other individual. This results in a combinatorial explosion in the amount of communication that has to go on.

If you have, say, 300 engineers working on the design, manufacture, and commissioning of your aeroplane then, in a completely decentralised situation, each engineer would have to engage in 300! interactions (that’s factorial 300) in order to co-ordinate her individual efforts with her fellow engineers.

How much is 300 factorial? If we assume that each interaction will be a “brief chat”, how many “brief chats” will our engineers have to engage in so as to design, manufacture, and commission our aeroplane?

According to Wolfram Alpha, about this many:











Wow. OK.

So, what do we do?

A far more sensible option is to divide the engineers into functional groupings and have each group sub-divided into smaller groups, where each group reports to one particular engineer who digests their information and then passes it up the chain, whilst receiving instruction from those above based on what she has told them; in other words, a hierarchy.

If we have one engineer at the top of the chain, and if she has seven engineers reporting to her, and they have seven engineers reporting to each of them, and they have seven engineers reporting to each of them… we end up with a potential capacity of 1 + 7 + 49 + 343 engineers. What are the total number of “brief chats” required now?

Well let’s see, we have one to seven, then each one of those seven to seven, then each one of those seven to (substantially less than) 343.

So it’s 7 to the 4 right? That’s how many brief chats are going to have to take place. Which according to Wolfram Alpha is:


Which is a lot, yeah? But a lot less than we’d be dealing with if we expected our engineers to communicate on a completely non-hierarchical basis. Two thousand four hundred and ten is a tractable number. You can do business with that kind of number.

This is why hierarchies exist. They are more informationally efficient than non-hierarchies. We have managers because if we didn’t, we couldn’t have cheap flights, we couldn’t have a nuclear deterrent, we couldn’t have the Internet, we couldn’t have electricity. We couldn’t have almost all of the goods and services afforded by our wonderful industrial society.

Bosses exist for a reason; if we didn’t have them, we’d have to create them. Or live in mud huts and grow all our own food.

This may sound strange. Many people think of hierarchies as barriers to communication. We see them as controlling, fusty, bureaucratic, and inefficient.

But really they’re not. Like democracy, hierarchies are the least bad solution to the problem they are intended to solve.


Some guy on Twitter disagreed with my disagreement with Chris. So what about Kaizen? Well Kaizen is all very well. But the other pillar of the Toyota production system is something called Just In Time. JIT is not a system that spontaneously arose because of the self-interested actions of atomistic individuals working as equals. JIT requires enormous amounts of discipline, morale, and managerial gumption to implement in the first place, and then requires that workers maintain that level of discipline consistently for a long period of time.

So how does one ensure that the workers maintain that level of discipline? Whose responsibility is it to ensure the workers are kept in line?

Well, the bosses, of course.

Once again, the question devolves to an issue of who benefits. Are workers better off for being corralled and controlled? Are the fruits of hierarchical, specialised industrialisation such that workers are – on the whole – better off for being managed? I honestly don’t know.

The real problem here is…


Chris has a point. Left Outside has a point. Hierarchies lend themselves to rent-seeking and power-grubbing. Here’s a points from Left Outside:

I’m thinking more along the lines of avoiding bad news, important people overriding the more knowledgeable.

This happens. But I submit that this will happen in basically any situation involving human beings ever. This is a problem of power, not hierarchy, per se. The problem, as ever, is politics. It is about the morality of the right of some people to dictate to others, as opposed to the effectiveness of the right of some people to dictate to others.

Kaizen is a good thing to have, but it only works if you treat your employees with respect. I don’t know what ‘respect’ means in this context. Some people would argue that demanding that people work for a capitalistic enterprise is inherently disrespectful, but there you are.

Bosses are always going to exist. I’d rather they were all elected by their peers, rather than being appointed by our capitalist overlords; but the fact remains they are necessary. Any socialist utopia worth living in will have bosses, because any socialist utopia worth living in will need the kinds of products, projects, and services that can only be provided by hierarchical organisations.


Like any technology, hierarchy can be used for malicious and anti-social purposes. But that doesn’t mean the technology is intrinsically harmful or that it isn’t worth using in the first place.

*Chris calls technocracy a practice, in the sense used by Alasdair MacIntyre.

In which our hero mansplains to feminists

I left a comment at this post on the blog of someone called Jem Bloomfield:

So this piece highlights a lot of problems I have with the feminist movement, or at least with the online/Twitter wing of the feminist movement. Take this, for example:

They can’t imagine not being the heroes of the movement.

Or this:

For white cis men, one of the most important things we can realize about feminism is that it is not about us. We can contribute, we can co-operate, but we can’t lead it, win it or set the agenda. We can’t embody it or introduce it to the big time. We can’t be feminism. If we ever did, it would stop being feminism.

This strikes me as a deeply counter-productive position. It seems to imply that feminism is some exclusive club, rather than a political ideology. As such, there is no ‘agenda’. There is no need for ‘leaders.’ A set of moral or ideological propositions constitutes an agenda in and of itself. A political ideology succeeds through persuading as many people as possible to adopt its tenets, and not through the creation of charismatic leaders.
Political movements succeed by building coalitions of interests and coalitions of agreement. If feminism is to succeed it must include men, and it must make itself appealing to men.
I know that this last sentence will probably outrage a lot of people, but the facts are that men are approximately 50% of the human race and represent rather more than 50% of the existing power and wealth of the human race. Is this a good thing? No. In the best of all possible worlds, would it be the case that there existed such an inequality of power? No. Do we live in the best of all possible worlds?

To succeed in making a better world, feminists must co-opt men and ensure that men are ‘on board’ with the feminist movement and with its ideals and objectives. As has already been mentioned, it’s mostly the actions and behaviour of men that results in a need for feminism in the first place. If men feel like feminism is ‘something for women’ they won’t care about, or they will dismiss it, or (perhaps worst of all) they will simply continue to be indifferent to it.
Men like to be heroes. They like to see themselves as heroes. Women probably like to be heroes too. So what’s the harm with encouraging people (including men) that they are the heroes of a morally righteous political movement? It’s the sort of thing that gets the juices flowing. It’s the sort of positive vision that people could actually feel enthusiastic about supporting.

If we[1] don’t have a problem taking into account another person’s special expertise in a setting like that, surely we should be even more keen to acknowledge their right to speak about their own experience.

There is a difference between data (e.g. a woman’s particular experience of sexism in a patriarchal world), and doctrine (e.g. feminists must oppose Page 3). The latter, unlike the former, is the subject of debate and argument, and the quality of an argument is independent of the person making it.
Look: I know that this comment probably sounds incredibly trollish, and I apologise for that; but I’d sincerely like to hear someone explain why I’m wrong, if I am.

I'm a white male, age 18 to 49. Everyone listens to me, no matter how dumb my suggestions are.

“I’m a white male, age 18 to 49. Everyone listens to me, no matter how dumb my suggestions are.”

Markets vs. central planning: some distinctions

I left the following comment on Unlearning Economics’ post at Peria:

As I see it, there are three intermingled debates going on here. They are: 1) An argument about the relative information-theoretic and allocative abilities of centralised hierarchical systems on the one hand and decentralised market systems on the other; 2) an argument about the intrinsic ethical and moral status of various types of political economy; and 3) an empirical argument about which nation states have killed the most people, and been responsible for the most suffering.

On the subject of argument 1): Free markets are not the same thing as capitalism. Central planning is not the same thing as communism. There has been a tendency for capitalist countries to exhibit far greater decentralisation of decision making and a greater reliance on some form of market system; but this historical fact doesn’t mean that ‘private ownership of the means of production’ necessarily requires a market system, nor does it mean that the historical tendency for communist countries to adopt central planning means that *all* future communist or socialist economies must be built around central planning.

I would also note that the most economically successful countries have historically used *both* central planning (in the form of large, centralised private firms; large, centralised government departments; and government-directed industrial policy) and decentralised market systems. Markets and hierarchies are tools, and different jobs require different tools.

I recommend ‘The Market System’ by Charles Lindblom on this subject. ‘The Origin of Wealth’ by Eric Beinhocker is also very good.


Capitalism vs. communism and markets vs. central planning

Reading the comments under this excellent article by Unlearning Economics, I am struck by the fact that most of the arguments in the capitalism vs. communism debate are let down by the two sides failing to lay out rigorous definitions from the outset. In order for a proper debate to take place, both sides must specify what they consider to be the necessary and sufficient conditions for an economy to be considered ‘communist’ or ‘capitalist.’

I have pointed out before that markets are not the same thing as capitalism; it would be useful now to note that central planning is not the same thing as communism. Historically, most so-called communist states have attempted to engage in central planning, rather than in market-based solutions to problems of resource allocation; but this does not mean that all conceivable communist states must necessarily engage in central planning.

I’ve just realised I used the phrase ‘so-called communist states’ in my previous paragraph; in doing so, I could be accused of ‘special pleading’, and claiming that ‘true communism’ has never existed. This wasn’t my intention, which was to highlight the fact that just because people give something a particular name doesn’t mean that the name is accurate or descriptive.

So what is communism?

I’m not entirely sure. I can think of several highly limited and unsatisfactory definitions off the top of my head. Marx himself was somewhat vague on the subject of exactly what communism would look like. This continuing vagueness is part of the problem; communism can mean lots of things to lots of different people, just like capitalism. All this just shows how important it is to lay out rigorous definitions at the outset.

Politics is shit

Politics is shit.


When human beings live together they generate conflict, and politics is the resolution of conflict. Just as conflict needs to be resolved, so shit needs to be shovelled. Shovelling shit is necessary whenever a sufficiently large number of human beings live together. You need – somehow – to deal with all the shit. Similarly, when a large number of human beings live together you need – somehow – to deal with all the politics.

I am glad that we live in a civilization where politics is (for the most part) performed indoors sitting down, rather than out on the streets. I am thankful to those who spend their time engaging in the business of politics, although I wouldn’t necessarily want to spend time in their company. I am the privileged beneficiary of many centuries of development in the science and art of politics. If politics is badly executed, it can lead to large numbers of people dying horribly. All these things can also be said of the noble art of waste management.

I do not like politics. On a personal level, I do not enjoy or relish conflict. So from my point of view, the whole business of politics is something I would like to see dealt with as efficiently and quickly as possible, with minimal harm and minimal spillover.

This attitude colours my entire perception of political debate. I see ‘politics’ as an unpleasant necessity, rather than a hobby. Politicians desire to wield power over other people, and even if that power is directed to good and useful ends, there remains the uncomfortable fact that politicians still desire to wield power. That’s why they’re politicians. Yes, they might be doing it for what they consider to be good reasons, but they’re still seeking to wield power. In this respect, politics is unlike shovelling shit, because some people enjoy it.

The fact that some people enjoy politics for its own sake – the fact that some people enjoy conflict – is a problem. Perhaps its one of those deep and ineradicable problems of human nature. Or perhaps a better world is possible. The victory condition of human civilization must be to have as few people shovelling shit as possible. Civilization advances by increasing the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them, as someone said. So how do we go about reducing the need for politics? How do we reduce conflict?

Or: how do we reduce the causes of conflict? Right now, as far as I can tell, the only thing we know of that actually reduces conflict is technological progress. Technological progress has the potential to make everyone richer, and – ceteris paribus – richer people are less likely to get so angry and wound up that they end up attacking each other.

This is not to say that technological progress is necessarily going to solve all our problems. Technology is the harnessing of scientific knowledge to human purpose, and human purposes can be good and bad. But technology gives us room to manoeuvre. Better ways of shovelling shit ultimately mean longer lifespans and less human misery. As does better politics.

In conclusion, I see the humanity’s victory condition as being a reduction in the need for politics, and a reduction in the need for conflict. This observation is neither original nor helpful, but I like to keep things simple. Politics then, is only worth engaging in to reduce the need for politics. Insofar as blogging is political, it should be undertaken with the long run desire to render it unnecessary.

Markets are not the same thing as capitalism

Many left wingers are, broadly speaking, against markets. This is unfortunate, because markets are powerful tools for solving particular problems of collective action. Markets can enable diverse agents to engage in cooperation, on a more-or-less equal basis, in a fashion that leads to every participant agent being better off than they would be in the absence of the market.

So why are left-wingers so suspicious of markets? After all, as Chris Dillow argues, markets encourage many of the behaviours and outlooks that left wingers eulogise; individual freedom, consideration for the needs of others, and co-operation in pursuit of general prosperity. So it is perhaps surprising that there is so much hostility to market solutions on the left.

I suspect that the reason for this is that right-wingers have successfully elided capitalism and markets in popular debate on the subject, with the result that many left-wingers believe arguing against the iniquities of capitalism requires that they also argue against the use of markets. This view is reinforced by the historical observation that the rise of the ‘market system’ occurred alongside the rise of capitalism.

But it is important to note that capitalism and markets are not the same thing, nor is one a necessary condition for the other. Capitalism is a social system in which the means of production are privately owned, and in which those means of production grow and accumulate over time. Markets are a social technology whereby individual agents aggregate knowledge and so optimise the allocation of a given set of resources. The knowledge they aggregate consists of information about their abilities and resources, and information about their desires and needs.

It is possible for a social system to be capitalistic and simultaneously lack free markets. The ‘market’ for oil in the US at the beginning of the twentieth century was such a social system. The means of production were owned by one company, which largely dictated the price of oil. Similarly it is possible for markets to exist in social systems that are not capitalistic, for example one can conceive of a social system consisting of worker-owned cooperatives which interact with each other through market interactions.

So markets are distinct from capitalism. Capitalism is a social system with characteristics that many find iniquitous. Markets are a tool – a very powerful tool – for resource allocation, and like all powerful tools they need careful monitoring, maintenance, and oversight for them to work properly. Furthermore it is important to use the right tools for the job, and to recognise those problems for which markets are not a suitable solution.