The atomised-individual dynamic

Karen Stenner’s The Authoritarian Dynamic is a seminal collection of evidence on when and how authoritarianism affects polities, but the nuance that she offers above and beyond previous investigations into authoritarianism begins to invite questions about whether it is “authoritarians” who are truly the voters that should puzzle political psychologists.

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Karen Stenner’s 2005 The Authoritarian Dynamic received an unexpected jolt into the spotlight on 8 November 2016. Almost every poll had predicted that Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 presidential election; almost every credible pundit had argued that Trump was unelectable. And then, as if out of nowhere, a sizeable chunk of the US population elected the vulgar former head of a reality show into the Oval Office. Who could have predicted such an event? As it turns out, Karen Stenner.

Earlier analysis of the “authoritarian personality”—i.e. a theory that predicted some individuals would consistently express authoritarianism as a deep-seated aspect of their personality—were unable to account for the unexpectedness of Trump’s victory. Indeed, they were unable to account for much at all, since a stable personality trait like “authoritarianism” should predict behaviour consistently across time, and few investigations yielded any real stability in whatever measure of authoritarianism they posited. People did not appear to exhibit particularly consistent racist animosity or willingness to use the strong arm of the state to enforce morality. And indeed, there was little observable anti-establishment sentiment in the US polity in 2015—it would be difficult to attribute Trump’s win to Americans who had acted in a consistently authoritarian way prior to that point.

Here enters Stenner’s concept not of an authoritarian personality but of an authoritarian dynamic. What drives authoritarianism, per Stenner, is not fundamentally racism or a love of strongmen or a punitive moral compass—it is a psychological predisposition towards oneness and sameness. Authoritarians want to be assured that we are all fighting for the same team. Who “we” are is not so salient as the desire for groupishness per se—“it is a groupishness that generally comes from wanting to be part of some collective, not from identification with a particular group” (p.18)[1]. But authoritarians will fail to meet this need for groupishness under conditions of “normative threat”—i.e. a sense of the polity’s coming apart, be it through substantial divergence of public opinion, untrustworthy political leadership, or “diversity and freedom ‘run amok’” (p.17). Authoritarians are not more likely to perceive normative threat than are other citizens, but once they do perceive it, they will immediately man the barricades in defence of a reestablishment of a normative order—indeed, any normative order—that will return the community to a state of oneness and sameness.

Stenner marshals impressive evidence in favour of this point. To measure authoritarianism—i.e. a fundamental desire for oneness and sameness—she uses survey respondents’ endorsement of obedience, courtesy, and respect for elders as childrearing values, as compared with endorsements of the child’s taking responsibility for his own actions, his curiosity, or his following his conscience. Using this apparently minimal measure, Stenner shows that it is specifically the presence of normative threat that drives authoritarians to endorse traditionally authoritarian attitudes, such as an emphasis on “law and order” and a desire to crackdown on “deviant groups and troublemakers”[2]. If authoritarians are encouraged to believe that their polity is united and their leaders are honest, then they are indistinguishable from their more “libertarian” (Stenner’s term, used idiosyncratically) counterparts in their expression of authoritarian beliefs. Further, Stenner derives some impressive real-world results from this minimalist measure: using purely the respondent’s endorsed childrearing values, Stenner can predict a substantially higher level of general intolerance of difference than using almost any other single variable, including years of education, one’s social class, one’s religiosity, or one’s political views. What’s more, she can predict it across a large number of diverse polities—from the Anglosphere through into Eastern Europe through to East Asia. In other words, Stenner appears justified in claiming to have identified a true fundamental psychological contributor to citizens’ authoritarian predispositions the world over.

From this model, Stenner makes some fascinating, if controversial, deductions. For instance, she suggests that the “genocide formula”—i.e. the preconditions for a country’s committing genocide—may not lie so much in average levels of ethnic prejudice so much as in the variance in public belief, since only the latter would indicate normative threat. In Stenner’s 1990–1995 survey data, “none of the six Yugoslav republics displayed especially high levels of authoritarianism on average… But Serbia is unparalleled across the eighty samples in terms of variance in authoritarianism” (p.113). In other words, it may not be deep-seated and widely shared prejudices that drive authoritarian actions. It may simply be that the proportion of the population predisposed to authoritarianism is driven their extremes of behaviour by the presence of normative threat.

Potentially even more controversially, Stenner suggests that “much of what we think of as racism, likewise political and moral intolerance, is more helpfully understood as ‘difference-ism’.” (p.276). Since racial differences, differences in sexual expression, and so on are necessarily socially salient deviations from an authoritarian’s conception of normality, they constitute a normative threat, and it is in that sense—not in the sense of a learned or structural prejudice, nor in the sense of a specific hatefulness towards that minority—that authoritarians’ prejudicial behaviours should be understood.

The other major contribution of Stenner’s work is to distinguish the psychological drivers of authoritarianism, status-quo conservatism, and laissez-faire conservatism (the latter two are Stenner’s terms). Just as authoritarianism is driven by a fundamental psychological need for oneness and sameness, status-quo conservatism is driven by a fundamental psychological need for stability. Status-quo conservatives do not particularly mind however much oneness and sameness there is in the polity, so long as the amount is not very different today to how it was yesterday. Laissez-faire conservatism, by contrast, is perhaps best not given the moniker “conservatism” at all and is identified most strongly by support for specific laissez-faire capitalist policies. Although contemporary conservative parties are often alliances between each three of these drivers as a matter of political convenience—think, for instance, of the Trumpian, moderate, and corporatist elements of the Republican Party—they are largely uncorrelated and separate at the level of individual voters. Contra the often sloppy analysis by political scientists and psychologists, neither status-quo nor laissez faire conservativism are particularly predictive of prejudice once one accounts for a predisposition to authoritarianism.

Stenner’s argument begins to drift, however, when it comes to characterising what authoritarianism (and its counterpart, libertarianism) actually are.

Stenner identifies the fundamental psychological driver behind authoritarianism as a psychological need for oneness and sameness, but she argues the predisposition is content neutral beyond this point: authoritarianism merely means that “whatever it is that we stand for, we must all stand for it” (p.142). Symmetrically, libertarianism is merely the fundamental desire for “freedom and difference” (p.81), and it is that per se that libertarians desire. But it is obvious in neither case why these would be fundamental psychological needs in the first instance—leaving aside briefly libertarians’ need for freedom, there is no obvious reason why anyone would have a need specifically for oneness and sameness, nor for difference. Perhaps appropriately given its title, The Authoritarian Dynamic provides no account of why libertarians would desire diversity other than that they are “excited and engaged” (p.217) by difference. For authoritarianism, however, we see a slightly more fleshed-out picture. Modern liberal democracy engenders a “diversity of lifestyles and beliefs… [which] may be frightening, overwhelming, or isolating for many individuals, who may wish to divest themselves of the fear, stress, or loneliness of their own freedom, and/or to avoid the diverse and unpredictable consequences of the freedom of others” (p.143). This effect is compounded by authoritarians’ tendency to score lower on cognitive tests: in a sense, the diversity of modernity is more cognitive load than they can handle.

There is a strangeness to this case, however, compounded by her specific operationalisation of authoritarianism and her definition of normative threat. In one operationalisation, authoritarianism was measured by choosing the following as important (against the alternative in brackets) on a list of childrearing qualities[3]:

  • “that a child obeys his parents” (“that he is responsible for his own actions”)
  • “that he has good manners” (“that he has good sense and sound judgment”)
  • “that he is neat and clean” (“that he is interested in how and why things happen”)
  • “that he has respect for his elders” (“that he thinks for himself”)
  • “that he follows the rules” (“that he follows his own conscience”)

Recall that Stenner defines authoritarianism as a fundamental preference for oneness and sameness, but a cursory glance over these items appears to bear minimal resemblance, if any, to oneness and sameness so much as to a tendency towards “interdependence” instead of “independence”, to use Markus and Kitayama’s terminology (alternately, towards “collectivism” instead of “individualism”).

Markus and Kitayama’s “interdependent and independent representations of the self” model. Source: Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review, 98(2), 224–253. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.98.2.224.

Stenner may well argue that to define authoritarianism in terms of preference for collectivist over individualist childrearing values is to make our operationalisation “tautological with the dependent variables it is designed to explain” (p.21), as she does for the Altemeyer’s Right-Wing Authoritarianism scale, but there are two responses to this. The first is that this does not address the substantial independence of her operationalisation and any measure of “oneness and sameness”. But the second relates to what Stenner claims to measure, namely the desire for “oneness and sameness” at the level of the polity. In some meaningful sense, a necessary condition for a group’s being a community is that it be defined by a “oneness and sameness” about something: a religious community cannot be a religious community without a substantially shared religious outlook, a town community cannot be a town community without a substantially shared set of social norms, and so on. It is intuitive that individuals who value interdependent childrearing values would value strong collectivism at the local level (i.e. for their immediate community); it is not obvious that they would generalise this to the level of the polity as a whole. Stenner’s analysis of how childrearing values predict authoritarian attitudes, then, would show that individuals who are more interdependent at the local level are also more interdependent at the political level—i.e., individuals tend to see both their local environs and their polities as communities in the sense of “united under one and the same normative framework”, or they tend to see neither as communities in this sense. That her measure of authoritarianism appears to be measuring the desire to have one’s polity be a community becomes doubly apparent when one remembers that Stenner’s definition of normative threat included not only divergence of public opinion, which is a per se threat to oneness and sameness, but also questionable authorities, which are not a per se threat to oneness and sameness but are a per se threat to a community in the thick sense of the word.

This seemingly minor distinction matters immensely when we recall Stenner’s claim that “the targets and content, though not the general form and function, of [authoritarianism’s] expression can vary depending on who ‘we’ are and what ‘we’ stand for” (p.142). This claim will only be true necessarily if it is oneness and sameness per se that they value. If what they value instead is that their polity be a community, then the specific contents of the community’s norms and values will substantially influence which normative orders will cause them to man the barricades.[4]

Note that most of Stenner’s analysis would apply as well to the above framing as to hers—I am not seeking to dispute her empirical results, which are formidable. It is very plausible that those with lower cognitive ability would rely more heavily on the predictability that comes from individuals’ sharing a single normative framework in the one community. If we account for the fact that race has for the past several centuries been an unfortunate dividing block of populations into sub-communities, much of her “difference-ism” analysis is perfectly transparent as “anti–non-community-member–ism”. And, perhaps most importantly, it makes the explanandum of her political psychology far easier to answer: the question becomes less “why are there authoritarians (qua collectivists)?” and more “why are there libertarians (qua WEIRDos)?”.

In case this last remark seems bad-faith, Stenner appears to define as authoritarian anything other than a purely morally relativist individualist liberalism. For instance, Stenner includes as authoritarian coercion a desire for “favourable treatment for those conforming with conventions” (p.90; this would seemingly include, for instance, only extending marriage rights to monogamous couples), sees any religious belief “beyond personal faith and individual codes of conduct… that is, a need to regulate other people’s behaviour” as necessarily authoritarian (i.e. she defines all religious belief as it has always been traditionally understood by religions themselves as necessarily authoritarian), and explicitly includes several items endorsing moral realism in the abstract under her measure of authoritarianism[5]. Stenner explicitly cites a example of how one paradigmatic libertarian (i.e. an individual who selected mostly individualistic childrearing values) differed from the authoritarians in interviews: “I don’t think that people are any more or less moral by today’s standards than people a hundred years ago were by their standards. I just think our standards have changed” (p.235).

If this is her exemplar of authoritarianism’s negative, then it is hardly ambiguous why one might be attracted to Stenner’s formulation of authoritarianism. It is comprehensible (and not at all obviously “authoritarian” in the conventional sense) why a citizen would not want the government to be completely agnostic on the question of the good life. It is comprehensible why a citizen would want the polity to be (even if at a minimal level only) a community, and not simply a legal structure with associated institutions. Stenner argues that “authoritarians are never more tolerant than when reassured and pacified by an autocratic culture” (p.334), but in light of the above, this is perfectly limpid—her statement is equivalent to noting that authoritarians do not want their government (i.e. the body that determines their schools’ curricula, has an outsized impact on social norms, and determines funding decisions for key norm-making bodies) to be wholly morally relativistic. In Stenner’s analysis, only an individual willing to wholly abandon community at the political level and willing to wholly embrace atomised-individualistic politics will register as truly non-authoritarian.

This does not repudiate that authoritarians in the sense Stenner describes—i.e. those who have no allegiance to any specific normative order but merely oneness and sameness per se—do in fact exist. We simply have no means in Stenner’s operationalisation of distinguishing them from those with an intuitive sense of moral realism, from those who adhere to any collectivist set of norms, or even merely those who do not want their government to be entirely neutral on conceptions of the good. As such, perhaps our takeaway from The Authoritarian Dynamic should not be determining how to address “the negative consequences we all suffer on account of [authoritarians’] neglect and discomfort” and instead should be to consider that some of them might have a point.


[1] All page-number references are to: Karen Stenner, The Authoritarian Dynamic, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), paperback edition, ISBN: 978-0-521-53478-9.

[2] For the full details of Stenner’s measure of right-wing authoritarian attitudes, please see the “Right-Wing Authoritarianism” section here: https://9bb6f4fe-ee8e-4700-aaa9-743a55a9437a.filesusr.com/ugd/02ff25_daa610e921374deab8ade3b99ae8bf9e.pdf

[3] Full details of the operationalisation can be found on Stenner’s personal website here: https://9bb6f4fe-ee8e-4700-aaa9-743a55a9437a.filesusr.com/ugd/02ff25_daa610e921374deab8ade3b99ae8bf9e.pdf

The other operationalisations are very similar in nature, they can be found here (https://9bb6f4fe-ee8e-4700-aaa9-743a55a9437a.filesusr.com/ugd/02ff25_0ad4c453e3a546e680d560ea56d13608.pdf) and here (https://9bb6f4fe-ee8e-4700-aaa9-743a55a9437a.filesusr.com/ugd/02ff25_1be2f9b79a414d4383563540393e7230.pdf)

[4] Stenner’s main counterevidence on this point comes from her Multi-Investigator Study 99 (MIS99), in which authoritarians were primed with a story in which there was “belief diversity” (i.e. Americans, in the abstract, agreed with each other less than before), “stable diversity” (i.e. Americans, in the abstract, disagreed but had a stable society), and “changing together” (i.e. Americans, in the abstract, were in a changing society that was coalescing in its desires). Stenner found that “belief diversity” and “stable diversity” caused greater expressions of authoritarian attitudes and was related to lower levels of desire to preserve the existing political system than was “changing together”—i.e. authoritarians acted more authoritarian when the polity disagrees, and authoritarians are happy to change social structures entirely so long as everyone does it together. Notably, however, the stimuli in this experiment deliberately avoided reference to any specific change in social structure—the language in question was “pulling together” or “falling apart”. Given that my claim is simply that authoritarians are not agnostic to the content of a normative order, not that they are wedded to every aspect, I do not believe that the MIS99 constitutes a decisive blow against my argument. The specific text of the stimuli can be found on pages 46–47 of The Authoritarian Dynamic.

[5] In particular, “There is no ‘ONE right way’ to live life; everybody has to create their own way” and “It is wonderful that young people today have greater freedom to protest against things they don’t like, and to make their own ‘rules’ to govern their behavior.” For any form of moral realism that includes religion, also see: “Some of the best people in our country are those who are challenging our government, criticizing religion, and ignoring the ‘normal way’ things are supposed to be done” and “It would be best for everyone if the proper authorities censored magazines so that people could not get their hands on trashy and disgusting material.”.

The theodicy of Dark

Dark fulfils the theodicy expressed by Dostoevsky: Evil exists because of the lies of Man, and all the suffering of innocents is preventable, but at the end “there will occur and be revealed something so precious that it will suffice for all human hearts”.

How much unjustifiable cruelty is the world’s salvation worth? This is the question that Ivan Karamazov poses to his monastic brother Alexei in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. If God plans for the salvation of mankind, then how can innocents like children be tortured and tormented? How can a good God allow for unjustifiable suffering? What theodicy—what reason for the suffering—could we possibly give?

Tell me straight out, I call on you—answer me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fist, and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears—would you agree to be the architect on such conditions? (p.245)[1]

The Brothers Karamazov understands that this is not a question that is answerable in a rational way. One can either accept the whole wretched injustice of the world, or one can (as Ivan does) “most respectfully return [to God] the ticket” (p.245).

Adam, the arch-villain of Dark, who wants to “most respectfully return [to God] the ticket”

This acceptance of being unable to rationally answer this question is mirrored by Netflix’s time-travel drama Dark (huge spoilers to follow). Through seasons one and two, it is revealed that the ostensible hero Jonas in fact will inevitably become the arch-villain Adam. Having discovered that his soulmate Martha is in fact his aunt, having realised that he inadvertently triggers his father’s suicide by going back in time to save him, having watched his aunt-soulmate Martha be killed by his older self, and having at every turn been thwarted by his attempts to set the world right, Jonas—as do Ivan and contemporary thinkers like David Benetar[2]—eventually concludes that the wretched mess of the world would be better off never having existed. Accordingly, Adam does unforgivable things to bring about his ultimately compassionate goal of euthanising the world.

One parallel universe over, Jonas never existed, and Martha assumes the hero role that had been held in Jonas’s universe by Jonas. Eventually, Martha too falls from innocence—she conceives a child with Jonas, and after being forced by her older self to kill Jonas, her heart hardens and she becomes “Eve”. Unlike Jonas/Adam, Martha/Eve answers the unanswerable question in the affirmative: existence—in the form of her child—is worth it, so she will do unspeakable things not for the compassionate goal of ending existence, but for the compassionate goal of preserving it.

Martha/Eve as a teen, adult, and old woman.

In this way, Jonas/Adam and Martha/Eve represent the two options that seem available to us (and to Ivan) in the face of the ineradicable and inexcusable misery of the world. We can sell our soul by admitting Evil as part of God’s plan, or we can sell our soul by rejecting God’s creation. Both options are borne of compassion, and both options end in apocalypse.

The beginning of the apocalypse.

Of course, in our world, in The Brothers Karamazov, and in Dark, Evil is simultaneously a cosmic force and a conscious choice that we freely make. Jonas/Adam and Martha/Eve certainly conspire to ensure that the free choices of individuals lead to their ruinous ends, but they often rely on individuals’ cowardice and deceit to do so. In neither world would the apocalypse have taken place if not for Alexander’s succumbing to Hannah’s blackmailing, or the four families’ refusal to convey information to one another during the earlier seasons, or Ulrich’s (many) affairs. As Katherina notes, the entire city is “like an ulcer, and we are all a part of it”; as Franziska notes, “that’s exactly what’s ruined everything—all your fucking secrets”. The causal chain runs inexorably back and forth through time to ensure that precisely the miseries that have happened will happen again, but the causal chain is only inexorable because nobody chooses to stop it by telling the truth.

Franziska confronts her parents over their repeated deceit.

In this sense, too, Dark fulfils the theodicy expressed by Dostoevsky:

There is only one salvation for you: take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men. For indeed it is so, my friend, and the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see at once that it really is so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all. Whereas by shifting your own laziness and powerlessness onto others, you will end by sharing in Satan’s pride and murmuring against God. (p.320)

But Dark does not end with an admonition towards responsibility. In Dark’s finale, it is revealed that the entire wretched knot of causal connections that has caused such unjustifiable and heinous suffering all stems from father’s grief over a car accident that killed his son (Marek), daughter-in-law (Sonja), and granddaughter in the “overworld”. Hubristically trying to reverse time and bring his family back, the father accidentally split the overworld reality in two and created the two ulcerous worlds that cause such misery both for themselves and for one another. A not-yet-fallen Martha and Jonas venture to the overworld and impede the son’s passage, thereby preventing the car accident. But in their interaction, Martha and Jonas see their souls reflected in Marek and Sonja respectively[3]. There are reflections of the ulcer in the overworld, but the reflections are not yet distorted and twisted. We see the world before the unjustifiable suffering has ever occurred.

Martha and Jonas (left) save Sonja and Marek (right).

Indeed, the salvation of Marek and his family in the overworld fulfils all the empty vacuous promises in the ulcerous worlds. The henchman Noah becomes correct when he promises that God has a plan for each of them, Adam becomes correct when he promises deliverance into paradise, and Jonas is finally vindicated in his belief that he and Martha are soulmates. In one of the most touching scenes of the series, Adam reveals to Eve that they can both finally lay down their swords. He reveals that Jonas and Martha have been sent to the overworld and ulcer will finally be lanced: he will win, in that their worlds will be no more, and she will win, in that a world will remain. They have fought the good fight, they have finished the race, and they have kept the faith.

Adam and Eve reconcile before they cease to be.

Following her and Jonas’s saving of Marek and his family but before the ulcer ceases to exist, Martha hauntingly asks “will anything of us remain?”. But this is perhaps asks the wrong question. Had she asked instead whether anything of the misery and suffering of their worlds could be justified, she could have answered as Ivan had wanted to:

… I have a childlike conviction that the sufferings will be healed and smoothed over, that the whole offensive comedy of human contradictions will disappear like a pitiful mirage, a vile concoction of man’s Euclidean mind, feeble and puny as an atom, and that ultimately, at the world’s finale, in the moment of eternal harmony, there will occur and be revealed something so precious that it will suffice for all human hearts, to allay all indignation, to redeem all human villainy, all bloodshed: it will suffice not only to make forgiveness possible, but to justify all that has happened with men.  (p.235–236)

“Wir passen perfekt zusammen. Glaub nie etwas anderes.”

“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”


[1] All page numbers cited are in reference to: Dostoevsky, Fyodor. 1992. The Brothers Karamazov. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Penguin Random House.

[2] See, for instance, his book Better Never to Have Been (Wikipedia page here).

[3] For more on this specific plot interpretation, see here or archived version here.

Why conservatives should listen to Max Richter

Let’s say you’re a conservative who has begun to worry that he or she might be in an echo chamber. All your friends post about how lefties are just SJWs, and you’re getting worried they might be simplifying things. So you want to listen to some opposing voices: where should you start? I argue: composer Max Richter.

I wrote a thread about this on Twitter, but I purge my Twitter pretty regularly and wanted a more stable version stored somewhere.

Let’s say you’re a conservative who has begun to worry that he or she might be in an echo chamber. All your friends post about how lefties are just SJWs, and you’re getting worried they might be simplifying things. So you want to listen to some opposing voices: where should you start?

Source: Bruno Bollaert, Flickr, link

I think it would be a mistake to follow left-wing politicians as your first point of call, or to follow left-wing media. Just like right-wing politicians and media, they preach to the choir, so you’ll see the obvious flaws in their arguments (c.f. do they know that governments aren’t always beneficent?) and feel like they’re misrepresenting you [a conservative] in about three seconds. There are some excellent left-wing commentators whom I follow and whom I would recommend, but unless you understand where they’re coming from, they too can seem like they just “don’t get it”.

One fairly apolitical starting point I’d recommend would be Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, which explores the underlying psychology of political thinking (and why we’re all more biased and less reasonable than we think). But today I want to recommend someone different, someone more overtly political: composer Max Richter.

Richter himself seems quite firmly on the left, and it’s reflected in the political nature of much of his work. The Blue Notebooks, his second album, was a protest album against the Iraq War; VOICES, his latest, is an exaltation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But Richter’s work is rare among contemporary classical music (and among contemporary art more generally) inasmuch as it is overtly political while also being genuinely sympathetic and uncynical. The Blue Notebooks may have been a protest album, but it has none of the angry hubris one can easily associate with protest. It’s an expression of sympathetic and uncynical sorrow—sorrow that things clearly aren’t as they were meant to be. That grief against a fallen world—not a patriarchal world, or a capitalist world, or a racist world, but a fallen world—is something most conservatives can easily relate to.

“On the Nature of Daylight”, the most famous piece from The Blue Notebooks.

Unlike so much contemporary art, Richter’s aim is explicitly to take you with him. Richter is not an elitist, and unlike much of the commentariat, he wants his messages to be open to everyone. As such, his music is transparently beautiful. To be clear, it’s technically proficient and he is situated in an esteemed musical tradition, exhibiting influences from Pärt, Bach, Glass, and many others. But you don’t need to know that, or them, to love Richter. His beauty stands on its own.

Songs from Before is, in my view, Richter’s most beautiful album, and “Sunlight” is one of its most beautiful songs.

In a move conservatives would approve of, Richter unabashedly reaches backwards just as he reaches forwards. He does not seek clean breaks with the past, nor a complete reinvention of musical forms. Instead, he seeks to synthesise modernity and history in a way that brings out the beauty in both. A Burkean composer for our age!

Richter’s Vivaldi Recomposed retains the original’s Baroque character while integrating it with contemporary musical traditions.

Richter’s political vision is also not frantic or ecstatic. He composed Sleep, an eight-hour long orchestral composition that lends to its listener a surreal and almost dreamlike mood, in good part as a reaction against the aggression and intensity of modernity. He sees what we have lost in the march of progress, and he looks to restore it.

On a day when you don’t really have to speak to anyone, it’s worth listening to Sleep the whole way through. It really does feel like you’ve stepped outside modernity for a day and into ataraxia.

Many conservatives, myself included, are somewhat tired of the way many left-wing politicians talk about human rights. There are ever more commissions enforcing ever narrower understandings of The Good on ever broader segments of society. So it can be tempting to write off human rights as a “left-wing” concept. Richter reminds you of why that is impermissible: he reminds you that human rights are based in the fundamental respect for the dignity and divinity of all human beings, and that only our cynicism and anger could have let us forget that.

VOICES has individuals worldwide read sections from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It is worth listening to Richter first, so as to understand the sentiment driving him, and then reading his views on politics. If you start with Richter’s music, it is easier to understand that his politics, too, are uncynical and in that sense innocent. His politics know sorrow, understand fallenness, and do not offer cheap slogan-based solutions. But nonetheless they maintain their utopian hope in a better world. If there is something conservatives forget too easily, it is this: while traditions serve us well and progressives are too rash to upend the foundations of society, this world is not as it should be, and it never has been. The utopianism that we reject is often dangerous and hubristic and sectarian, but if we reject utopianism completely and reject the possibility of mending this broken world, we harden our hearts. Understanding that is, I think, key to understanding the best parts of the left, and Richter provides the return to innocence needed to entertain that worldview. “And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, and said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

“Mercy”, the first piece composed for VOICES, was originally written against the activities in Guantanamo Bay.

Review of Economics in Two Lessons

In short, this is a deeply inadequate economics primer that the “uninitiated” should probably not read, least those who already sympathise with Quiggin’s policy prescriptions. If you want a “balanced” economics primer, you’d be better off starting any of the many better options (suggestions down the bottom).

Reposted from Goodreads here.

In short, this is a deeply inadequate economics primer that the “uninitiated” should probably not read, least those who already sympathise with Quiggin’s policy prescriptions. If you want a “balanced” economics primer, you’d be better off starting any of the many better options (suggestions down the bottom).

In discussions I have with well-meaning friends who have not formally studied economics, I often find myself coming to a point where I’ll say something like “But obviously a firm will not employ a worker if the hourly revenues generated by that worker are exceeded by the wage of that worker”, the friend will give me a blank look, and I will promptly remember that I have no good economics primer to lend to them. To remedy this situation, I purchased Quiggin’s Economics in Two Lessons and its predecessor, Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson, since I was concerned that, even though Hazlitt is the classic and substantially shorter than Quiggin, Economics in One Lesson might be unbalanced. On that basis, I wanted a “back-up”, albeit one with less renown or conciseness. After having read both, I am astounded to say the dead opposite: despite my broadly centre-left policy views, I found Hazlitt to do exactly what an economics primer should do (dispel common economic falsehoods that echo around the mediascape and introduce its readers to the “economic way of thinking” with minimum bias) and Quiggin to do exactly what an economics primer shouldn’t do (heavily reinforce a specific policy prescription without giving a sufficient grounding to enable readers to discern for themselves which economic statements in the mediascape are still equivocal and which are assuredly false).

Quiggin isn’t entirely accurate in what kind of book he’s trying to write, and he doesn’t portray his opponents with any degree of fairness, and the combination of those two would lead someone with no economic background deeply astray.

What do I mean by “he isn’t accurate in what kind of book he’s trying to write”? Well, to explain by way of contrast, Hazlitt is very clear about what his book will accomplish:

This book is an analysis of economic fallacies that are at last so prevalent that they have almost become a new orthodoxy… When analyzing fallacies, I have thought it still less advisable to mention particular names than in giving credit. To do so would have required special justice to each writer criticized, with exact quotations, account taken of the particular emphasis he places on this point or that, the qualifications he makes, his personal ambiguities, inconsistencies, and so on. I hope, therefore, that no one will be too disappointed at the absence of such names as Karl Max, Thorstein Veblen, Major Douglas, Lord Keynes, Professor Alvin Hansen and others in these pages. The object of this book is not to expose the special errors of particular writers, but economic errors in their most frequent, widespread, or influential form. Fallacies, when they have reached the popular stage, become anonymous anyway. The subtleties or obscurities to be found in the authors most responsible for propagating them are washed off. A doctrine becomes simplified; the sophism that may have been buried in a network of qualifications, ambiguities or mathematical equations stands clear. I hope I shall not be accused of injustice on the ground, therefore, that a fashionable doctrine in the form in which I have presented it is not precisely the doctrine as it has been formulated by Lord Keynes or some other special author. It is the beliefs which politically influential groups hold and which governments act upon that we are interested in here, no the historical origins of those beliefs. (p.7-11, emphasis mine)

This last sentence is especially salient, as it means that Hazlitt is free to criticise economics as it is crudely discussed in the press and in politics without necessarily arguing that such crudeness is endemic to an entire school and without attacking specific individuals where Hazlitt believes such an attack is unwarranted. Quiggin makes no such qualification, and in attacking “One Lesson” economists (his term for “laissez-faire” or “free-market”), he tars with the same brush everyone from corporate lobbyists through to well-meaning academic economists who are simply sceptical of government power. As a result, Quiggin jumps between views that almost all laissez-faire economists would genuinely hold (e.g. “governments will generally be less efficient than private enterprise in implementing the same project”) and views that virtually none of them would hold (e.g. “all people are literally Homo economicus”). He spends most of the book therefore attacking a straw man and therefore pleasantly avoiding having to respond to the best criticisms of the laissez-faire group. An example of the ridiculousness this leads him to is best exemplified in his repeated claims that “One-Lesson” economists have apparently failed to study what would constitute basic components of any undergraduate economics major:

The difference between One Lesson and Two Lesson economists is neatly reflected in the theory of welfare economics. One Lesson economists read the theory as far as the First Fundamental Theorem [of Welfare Economics] and then close the book, satisfied that they have discovered everything they need to know. They ignore the more important and interesting Second Theorem and fail to recognise that the allocation of property rights is the critical factor in determining which of the infinite range of possible market equilibrium outcomes is realised. (p.148)

What?! Like, by all means, I’m sure some poorly read conservative politicians genuinely think that “free markets always without exception lead to efficient prices”, but anyone who actually knows what the First Fundamental Theorem of Welfare Economics is would absolutely know what the Second Fundamental Theorem is! They’re generally presented in the same lecture in a second- or third-year microeconomics course!

Again, Hazlitt can get away with his more polemical style because he’s clear in predominantly attacking lobbyists, and he’s very clear when he’s attacking a specific economist whose specific view he doesn’t like. Quiggin just seems to genuinely believe that everyone to the right of Elizabeth Warren is genuinely motivated by cartoonish stupidity and selfishness.

On that point, this book contains a simply astonishing amount of ad hominem. Economists like Hayek are respected by modern laissez-faire economists, but they’re not held as infallible prophets whose works are scripture — the only people who act like that are politicians and lobbyists (again, this is the danger of attacking all your intellectual opponents with the same brush). In spite of this, Quiggin devotes an astounding amount of time irrelevantly attacking historical economists as people. A few choice selections:

The idea of opportunity cost was brought into the mainstream of economics by Austrian and Austrian-influenced economists, most notably F.A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Lionel Robbins. Unfortunately, all three were dogmatic One Lesson economists, who stripped von Wieser’s idea of its egalitarian implications. (p.27)

Before explaining this [Pareto-efficiency], it’s important to understand Pareto’s broader body of thought, one that led him in the end to support the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini. (p.145)

Over time, however, the view that many, perhaps most, labor markets are monopolistic has gained ground, at least among those economists open to empirical evidence. (p.186, emphasis mine)

Again, to those who know nothing about economists, maybe these seem like relevant points, but if you do know anything, they clearly aren’t! If you don’t know anything about Hayek, maybe it seems reasonable to decry him as an dogmatic “amoral free-marketeer” (as opposed to someone who certainly saw a substantial role for government, though in certain circumscribed spheres, and someone who cared deeply about the welfare of all). If you don’t really know what Pareto-optimality is, maybe the fascist connections of Vilfredo Pareto seem relevant (even though they’re clearly not, since Pareto-optimality can be introduced as a bland technical definition, and in the first instance is introduced in virtually all economics courses in the context of “you want to exhaust all possible Pareto-optimal options first since nobody is worse off, though clearly the distribution of wealth matters a lot too”). If you don’t know the literature, maybe it seems like there is an overwhelming empirical consensus that labor markets are all monopolistic, meaning minimum wages can be introduced without penalty (even though this isn’t unequivocal, as is demonstrated by the Seattle minimum wage study). This is a big problem with Quiggin’s book: because this is an introductory text, most readers won’t know enough to differentiate between his genuine argument and his polemic. These ad-hominem attacks are virtually all presented in advance of the dissection of the authors’ key ideas, if the key ideas are presented at all, which reinforces Quiggin’s contention that “One Lesson” economists are all evil corporatist trolls but hardly helps a reader to know truth.

In addition to all of this, Quiggin seems more keenly motivated in some sections by self-aggrandisement than by a desire to educate, which makes his already polemical and scattered work even more polemical and scattered. For instance, he has a bad habit of needlessly giving etymologies or original-language equivalents even when it adds nothing:

The same cannot be said of Friedrich von Wieser, the Austrian economist who coined the term “opportunity cost” (Opportunitätskosten in German)… (p.26)

A similar mix of private and common property is found in an apartment complex organized as a condominium (the term is derived from the Latin for “shared property”). (p.104)

The term “monopoly” means “one seller” (from Greek). (p.177)

He spends a large section of the book poorly outlining the science of climate change, even though a.) this will clearly convince nobody who was not already convinced, b.) it substantially lengthens an already lengthy section on negative externalities where the simple acid rain example would have served perfectly adequately, and c.) it seems to be there mostly so that he can accuse One Lesson economists of being climate deniers, which is clearly not universally or even mostly true (there are obviously many economists who are merely sceptical of the capacity of the government to remedy the problem rather than being sceptical of the underlying science). Even outside the self-aggrandisement, his polemic results in his giving sloppy definitions that would certainly confuse an uninformed reader (for instance, he defines a public good as something that “must be supplied equally to the entire population”, which a.) confuses the normative and descriptive uses of “must” for someone who doesn’t know he’s speaking descriptively b.) would confuse a reader new to economics since “public education” appears by this definition to be a public good).

In short, I don’t know whom this book would actually help. Hazlitt provides a good defence against really bad lobbyist arguments if that’s what you want out of an economics primer. Something like Economics Rules by Dani Rodrik provides a relatively accessible introduction to how academic economics could be better (hint: he doesn’t just accuse them all of being “One Lesson”). Someone like Tim Harford in The Undercover Economist does as good a job of explaining economic intuition and opportunity cost without diverting into ideological and misrepresentative tirades. If you want a good critical introduction, go for John Kay’s “The Truth About Markets”. Put this book down. Get something better.