Racisms, Liberties and Bulk Phenomena

So much for mathematics: I seem to be on a bit of a politico-philosophical bent this week. Today’s article “Grand Racist Party?” in The Economist‘s “Democracy in America” series is rather interesting to me, for two main reasons plus one footnote.

First, citing Alex Tabarrok, John Sides and Reihan Salam, the article takes issue with the standard (at least on the USA’s political left) and simplistic assumption that “racist Americans are almost entirely in one political coalition [i.e. the Republican Party] and not the other”. The correlation is (a) weaker and (b) more complex than it is assumed to be, and it’s point (b) that I particularly like. I always like it when someone realises that assuming uniqueness is screwing up their understanding of a problem: it’s not racism, it’s racisms. Quoting Reihan Salam:

“[The] changing demographic composition of the U.S. population, and the changing cultural landscape, has given rise to other intercultural frictions, e.g., between non-Latino black Americans and Latinos, between non-Asians and Asians, etc. As we take into account these other forms of prejudice, one assumes that a very complex picture would emerge.”

In other words, when you try to map a whole multi-nodal network of interactions down onto a simple left-right political axis, you grossly over-simplify the problem and get it wrong. Straightforward white–v.–black prejudices might stand a chance of correlating well to a two-party split; the full complexity of American culture stands no such chance in my view.

The second half of the article, which is more about the evolution of the author’s opinions on these matters, contains another point that I rather like concerning trying to square individual freedoms (even to be prejudiced) with society-wide consequences:

“Eventually I realised that actions that are individually non-coercive can add up to stable patterns of behaviour that are systematically or structurally coercive […]. In fact, rights-violating structures or patterns of behaviour are excellent examples of Hayekian spontaneous orders — of phenomena that are the product of human action, but not of human design. This shift has led me to see racism and sexism themselves as threats to liberty.”

I’m generally suspicious of appeals to “rights” (noun) as opposed to “right” (adjective), but I like the admission that ethical propositions may not scale well from the level of individual agents to that of entire societies. In this sense, I think that Ayn Rand erred when she opined that “Rights are not a matter of numbers — and there can be no such things, in law or morality, as actions forbidden to an individual, but permitted to a mob.” To emphasize: I am not claiming that individual liberties are bogus and that only group liberties are valid, only that the scaling relationship between them is nowhere near as simple as hard-core libertarians would claim that it is. In this sense, I see a similarity with the cautionary tale of Schrödinger’s Cat: naïvely treating large systems (cats, societies) with the same tools as small systems (electrons, individuals) can lead to counter-intuitive, unrealistic, or just plain wrong results.

My footnote is this: I’ve long been disturbed by the way that commentators on the political left describe their opponents on the political right using rhetoric that is formally identical to that of the prejudice that they claim to abhor. As a simple exercise, go through the next description that you find of some low-life Republican bigot or piece of Tory scum, and mentally substitute {black, disabled, woman, Jewish, Muslim, …} for {Republican, Tory, ….}.


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