History Lessons

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There’s a great discussion on today’s Spectator Podcast (and a linked article in this week’s Spectator) around Sahil Mahtani’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek idea that 25% more students with Norman family names go through Oxbridge than those with Anglo-Saxon names, which leads to the Norman descendants earning significantly more through their lives. He argues that if we are to follow the logic of reparations for past crimes and misdemeanours of colonialism, the Norman families should be taxed and money shared amongst the Anglo-Saxons.

In the podcast Sahil defends his position against that of Nadine Batchelor-Hunt, who argues that there is a definite causal link between the old days of colonialism and slavery, and, in particular, the demand for Haiti to repay exorbitant amounts of money to re-attain it’s independence in the early 1800s, which it only finished paying in 1947, and the high levels of poverty there today. She argues that there is a direct and tangible link, her observations being based on ‘compassion and logic and common sense’.

This is the sort of rational/logical thinking that I believe is inherently dodgy. How many decisions and actions have been made by many hundreds or even thousands of people in Haiti, that has got them to where they are now, some 72 years after the final payments had been cleared? We can never know that amount of detail, just superficial simplifications which will always have gaps (which our minds are very good at filling).

Now, I don’t know what the reasoning is for Nadine’s trail of thought and I’m certainly no expert on the history of Haiti, and it may be the provable that there is a direct link between the poverty we see today in Haiti and the fact that they were crippled with debt until 70 odd years ago. But with our old friend the Extended Order ever lurking, I don’t believe that it could ever be that simple to know the hearts and minds of everyone who has led Haiti in past 70 years and have apparently failed to get their people out of poverty.

It probably sounds a bit harsh of me to say all this, but I think there is a danger in looking at history and drawing logical conclusions based on the evidence found. I do like to read and listen to historical books and arguments, but I always wonder a) is this really the full picture (because unless you are superhuman, you could never really take in all the detail, even if you were able to ascertain it)? and b) what is the agenda (because there will always be one; whether the author intends it or not, their unconscious biases will come out)?

I did very much agree with Nadine that, instead of trying to put some figure on reparations, we should be more forward looking and, post-Brexit, look to re-establish and build the links with countries such as Haiti, to work with them to get them out of poverty in a positive way. I would hope that with the amount of money we spend on foreign aid, we are already doing something towards it, but building trade with these countries could bring all kinds of untold benefits we’ve yet to imagine for everyone involved.

Blind faith

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Diving back into Dominic Cumming’s epic blog post, while taking a sidelong look also at Alastair Heath‘s piece in the Telegraph yesterday, I noticed an aligning of ideas that answered something that has been bothering me for a while now.

In Dominic’s post, he quotes Bret Victor on the quality of political debate that often goes on these days. The bigger picture, as Dominic points out, is that the quality of information being presented to MPs is woeful at best, which is worrying when these people are often making life and death decisions, that can have ramifications for generations to come.

Victor, talking of many self-proclaimed ‘experts’ in climate change, says: ‘And why trust them? Their rhetoric is catchy, but so is the horrific “denialist” rhetoric from the Cato Institute and similar. When the discussion is at the level of “trust me, I’m a scientist” and “look at the poor polar bears”, it becomes a matter of emotional appeal and faith, a form of religion.’

This quote really struck a chord with me, and has been bouncing around the old cerebellum for a couple of days now.

Meanwhile, yesterday, Alastair Heath writes about how left and right often misunderstand each other because they emphasise different core moral values. He writes:

‘The seminal works here are the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, as well as his more recent The Coddling of the American Mind. As Haidt points out, there are six main moral intuitions: fairness, justice, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. The Left judge almost everything by the first two – and don’t really realise that there are moral intuitions other than their own, fuelling their anger – the Right by the last four, though they are usually more aware of the first two, which makes them more puzzled than angry. Such self-awareness is a key differentiator between Lefties, conservatives and libertarians.’

This was a bit of a light bulb moment for me. The reason being that having immersed myself so thoroughly in Hayek for the past year or so, certain things didn’t feel quite right, and one of them was his argument that intelligent people tend to be socialists because they are intelligent and rational, and if you are intelligent and rational, you can’t accept that you don’t know everything.

Yet, the level of debate I’ve had with a lot of people around Brexit has been of a similar poor quality. Now, I know that I said here before that the part of the brain that deals with decision making doesn’t deal with language, so it’s often hard to articulate why choose to like what we like. That said, it is usually possible for us to at least come up with something, even if we feel it doesn’t really do it justice. There is usually something rational we can salvage from it.

And yet, with Brexit, the two camps have definitely taken each of their core values and run with them at a visceral level, not really thinking things through logically at all. And so we find those in the remain camp in a situation of almost loathing people in the leave camp. I suspect this is because their core values of fairness and justice have been mortally affronted by the result. Those who adhere to the latter for end up perplexed as to the amount of vitriol they sometimes receive, as they adhere to the other four codes, that allow them to be somewhat more tolerant of people who disagree with them (though, not always!).

The problem is that in both cases, rationality has gone out of the window. As Dominic says, both parties need to up their game in terms of proper objective arguments based on sound contextualised data to make the best decisions.

As Hayek argues, the extended order operates somewhere between instinct and reason. In recent years, many, particularly on the left, have shied away from rationality and taken refuge in instinct. This is the thing that has confused me for a while. I expected these rational, intelligent people to have the answers as to why they voted to remain, and yet they didn’t. More often than not they had nothing but, ‘You’re wrong, you’re an idiot.’ End of argument.

It reminded me of a very young and naive me, in my days of being a bit of a God-botherer.

In that context, it almost feels like socialism has moved away from being the rationalist’s home to being the believer’s home. It’s become a religion. And many of the key issues of our day, including Brexit, climate change and veganism have also taken on the blind faith qualities of religion, with an anger to rival some of the fiercest fundamental Christians or Muslims.

Strangely enough, I’m writing this on the train, and have just looked up to see a headline in the Evening Standard, ‘Now to we have a nasty left to match the nasty right?’

We need to find the middle ground again, and the start of that is proper, well informed, rational debate based on the latest techniques in data modelling and forecasting. Not only that, we need to start telling some proper stories to reflect the truth in these facts and figures. Time to bring on the actuaries?

A challenge

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A few months ago, MP Sam Gyimah posted a short piece on Medium arguing for a second referendum. Yet the article, while it waxed lyrical about the disaster of Brexit and the calamity of No Deal, was very thin on the ground on facts and figures. I posted a reply, which surprisingly garnered a few claps (or whatever they are on there), asking him to elaborate and back up his assertions with some cold, hard facts.

He didn’t.

Even when the likes of Mark Carney and Philip Hammond and various people at the CBI keep peddling the same old warnings, the substance still feels very thin on the ground (which it really shouldn’t for these people). Now, I know I’ve gone on at length about the fact that Brexit is a choice made by our subconscious minds and we don’t always know precisely why we believe these things to be true for us, but people like the head of the Bank of England and the Chancellor of the exchequer, should really be able to back up these nebulous assertions with some kind of evidence.

Indeed, I think that if they did and they were presented in a straightforward, no-nonsense way, most sensible people would go, ‘Oh dear, we made a mistake, look at those terrible facts and figures, what were we thinking?’ And yet nothing is generally forthcoming, and so far the rather thin offerings of doom and dispair amount to little more than speculation and opinion.

So, here’s a challenge to everyone who wants to discuss Brexit, both Leavers and Remainers. When you get into a debate about it, or express an opinion, try to at least offer some kind of rational, evidence based argument. I would be more than happy to be wrong, if the evidence was presented to me. Yet, I’ve just not seen it.

Perhaps those clever boffins in London keep it all hidden away; no point showing to the ignorant masses, they wouldn’t understand it. Try us! We’re not as daft as you think.

Stories and Beliefs

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What we choose to believe and the choices we make are, by and large, controlled by our subconscious, based on the stories we tell ourselves and those that we’ve been told by our parents, our friends and those we respect and admire. These, along with our life experiences, the autobiographical information and memories we store about ourselves, and many other factors are all integrated into a whole in our heads.

There is often no rational reason why we choose to believe some things; it’s a blend of so many factors. This is why in some respects debates around politics and, topically, Brexit are circular and fruitless, and we’d be better off finding our common ground and moving forward from there.

Rationalist thinking that beliefs are somehow malleable when subjected to rational scrutiny is not helpful. We have to accept that the choices we make are often arbitrary and nonsensical, and trying to put them into words is more often than not, incredibly difficult.

Our beliefs run deep, and it takes a long time for anyone to change their minds on deeply held beliefs. I would argue that Damascene conversions are more likely people finally letting go of old viewpoints, where their new ones were either a bit scary for them, or they just didn’t realised they’d moved on, and then something has given them the excuse to drop the old beliefs – a shift in perspective of the group around them or a move to a new group of friends/colleagues etc.

This is why a second Brexit referendum is pointless. Very few people will have changed their minds. If anything, I think a lot of people felt bullied into voting to remain, and have since seen that, while there were blatant lies on both sides of the argument, the lies on the remain side were malicious and designed to put fear into people. Not a good way to build trust.

Evelyn Beatrice Hall in her biography of Voltaire wrote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This is a hard premise to live to, but as a libertarian I truly believe this to be the core of society and getting along. We will never agree on everything – how dull would life be if we did? But to rationalise and dig your heels in and point fingers on a wave of Noradrenaline and say, “You’re wrong!” is to miss out on the magic of life.