Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category

markets, opportunity, and justice

At the Winter commencement at Indiana University, one of our speakers, tech business leader Fred Luddy, made a very interesting comment. Basically, he said that life in a market isn’t fair, but there are always more opportunities. I am not sure if he appreciated the depth of the remark, but if you reflect upon it, you realize that it merits a lot of reflection.

Let’s start with the typical approaches to thinking about whether markets are just forms of interaction.  The classic Nozickian position is that markets are just because they are voluntary. If you voluntarily by or sell your property or labor, then the resulting state is just. The critics raise multiple objections. For example, many people think that extreme inequality is either inherently unfair (i.e., only mild deviations from equality are acceptable) or that inequality has negative consequences (e.g., perhaps the very wealthy can unfairly influence government).

I think the most profound response to the critics comes from Hayek, who argued that the “social justice” critique of markets misses an important point. Namely,  Hayek argued that to critique the market based social order you must assume that you know what the right order is and how to make it happen, and that’s a tall order. Still, Hayek’s counter-point to the social justice leaves a lot of people, including myself, a little cold.

Why? Maybe it is unwise to believe that some mystical central planner can know the “right way” to organize society, but it does seem to be the case that the market economy tolerates a lot of things that appear prima facie unjust. A lot of people can lose their jobs through no fault of their own, such as in a recession. Or there can be persistent discrimination against certain classes of people, such as women or ethnic minorities.

In my view, this observation – that markets tolerate substantial levels of injustice – is reasonable. This brings me back to Luddy’s point. What I think he was trying to communicate, in the context of a graduation speech, is that the valuable thing about markets isn’t that they create justice. Rather, they create opportunities you can pursue after you have experienced injustice. In his speech, for example, he described how a business partner had used a stolen identity to embezzle millions of dollars – which he had to pay back to investors. There was nothing just about the situation, but the interesting thing is that he still had more opportunities and could thus move on with this life.

The big idea is that a narrow Nozickian justice and other broader forms of justice are different and that markets are actually fairly good at the former but not the latter. If all we ask if that a chain of interactions be voluntary, then markets fit the bill. If we ask that all possible consequences be desirable, or that all bad actors are relentlessly suppressed and reformed, markets are definitely imperfect. But that doesn’t mean that markets should be rejected. Rather, Luddy’s comment indicates that they have a desirable trait that may promote justice along some margins. Economic opportunities, ranging from the modest taco truck to the next billion dollar start-up, are constantly being created. For many people who experience negative outcomes, they may be a way to move forward and that’s a good thing.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!


Written by fabiorojas

December 28, 2017 at 6:45 am

levy book forum 2: political theory and the nature of society

A few weeks ago, I began reviewing Jacob Levy’s new book Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom. The main point of the book is that you can’t have it both ways. A political liberalism that restrains the state can’t, at the same time, celebrate the civil sphere without qualification because civic associations themselves can become illiberal. Private groups can behave in fairly repressive ways that resemble what states do.

As I wrote, the book is lengthy and covers a lot of ground. In this part of the review, I want to delve a little into Part II, which examines how political theory has thought about the state. I think sociologists might enjoy this because it provides an alternative to how we think about states. In modern sociology, states, per Weber, are holders of legitimate force, or they are the place where ultimate authority is created and exercised. Perhaps a Bourdieusian might suggest that it is a place for statecraft, while a post-Bourdieusian view, like that espoused by McAdam and Fligstein (2012), would see it as an “ultimate” field that overlaps with other fields.

What does Levy draw from the discussion of states over the course of political theory? Perhaps most interesting to sociologists is the idea that modern states are not so much about violence, but rather the centralization of force and violence. Second is the response to centralization – things outside states are about self governance rather than governance by others. So, as we shifted away from the middle ages to modernity, we built big fat states, which encouraged people to assert independence in various forms (guilds, universities, etc.) There is much more to Levy’s analysis, but this captures a crucial starting point. Third, modern notions of freedoms are about trying to pull together all the concessions made to individual freedom by states during their formation. A lot of political theory is about trying to provide a more integrated account of freedom because in the middle ages freedom was defined in an ad hoc and disconnected way.

What should sociologists draw from this? One obvious lesson is that a crucial dimension of fields, such as states, is vestment in governance. In a particular field, or social domain, who has the authority? Is there a lot of self-governance? Centralized power? Or some sort of collegium model? Second, rights – political rights in Levy’s case – may be scattered or concentrated. Thus, in understanding fields, it is not about inequality or resources, but also about claims over resources and autonomy. As the case of political rights shows, rights can be broken up (e.g., right to trade, right to free speech) and effort (“institutional work” in modern jargon) must be expended to make the right more coherent in its context. The big lesson is that maybe field theory, and the sociology of states, focuses too much on resource inequality and should think more carefully about autonomy and control.

Next week, I’ll focus on Levy’s claims about the ills of private associations. Thanks for reading.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

Written by fabiorojas

November 9, 2017 at 5:01 am

jacob levy on nihilism and politics

Long time friend and political theorist Jacob Levy has a great op-ed in the LA Times. The issue? Don’t worry about hypocrisy (that much), worry about nihilism:

At its worst, hypocrisy can be a kind of furious projection of one’s sins onto others; think of the official filled with obnoxious self-righteousness about other people’s sexual behavior whose personal life turns out not to bear scrutiny. Or it can turn values into mere talking points, and drain them of any real force. But what the great Harvard political theorist Judith Shklar called “anti-hypocrisy” is a talking point of its own. It is a lazy substitute for making and defending real value judgments; I don’t have to be able to show which principles are good ones if I can just show that you violate your own. That strategy encourages a spiral downward; having higher standards always increases the chance that one won’t live up to them. In a culture that can’t agree on shared moral judgments but that delights in exposing hypocrites, the easy strategy might be to have no standards at all.


In a recent interview, the Fox News host Bill O’Reilly asked President Trump about his admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying “Putin’s a killer.” Trump’s reply was astonishing: “There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country’s so innocent?”


…Trump’s shrug abandons that striving idealism. Why bother to have standards? Why bother to treat political killings as even worth criticizing? Why bother to acknowledge that, even granting American misbehavior, Putin’s regime today is accused of doing far worse: murdering critical journalists, assassinating political dissidents, committing war crimes from Chechnya to Syria?

Excellent. I’ll take hypocrisy that makes the world better, over nihilism any day.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($5 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist/From Black Power/Party in the Street 

Written by fabiorojas

February 10, 2017 at 12:12 am

performativity in engineering: the case of moore’s law

Econtalk recently interviewed Richard Jones, a physicist who is a critic of transhumanism. In this interesting discussion, he makes the argument that Moore’s law was an example of performativity.

He uses the terminology of the self-fulfilling prophecy but his discussion is much closer to performativity. Basically, he, correctly, notes that Moore’s law is not a physical law. Microchips will not become faster by themselves. They only become faster because of the time and effort invested in them.

And why does this happen? The public discussion of Moore’s law, according to Jones. I am not knowledgeable in engineering to know if public discussion of Moore’s law did in fact drive chip development, but the point is well taken. At the very least, a belief in consistent improvement actually led to a real improvement by providing incentives.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

April 8, 2016 at 12:01 am

frederick douglass: open borders is justice

As usual, Frederick Douglass provides moral clarity on the issue of migration. In 1869, he spoke against growing anti-Chinese prejudice:

Do you ask, if I favor such immigration, I answer I would. Would you have them naturalized, and have them invested with all the rights of American citizenship? I would. Would you allow them to vote? I would. Would you allow them to hold office? I would. But are there not reasons against all this? Is there not such a law or principle as that of self-preservation? Does not every race owe something to itself? Should it not attend to the dictates of common sense? Should not a superior race protect itself from contact with inferior ones? Are not the white people the owners of this continent? Have they not the right to say, what kind of people shall be allowed to come here and settle? Is there not such a thing as being more generous than wise? In the effort to promote civilization may we not corrupt and destroy what we have? Is it best to take on board more passengers than the ship will carry? To all of this and more I have one among many answers, together satisfactory to me, though I cannot promise that it will be so to you. I submit that this question of Chinese immigration should be settled upon higher principles than those of a cold and selfish expediency. There are such things in the world as human rights. They rest upon no conventional foundation, but are external, universal, and indestructible. Among these, is the right of locomotion; the right of migration; the right which belongs to no particular race, but belongs alike to all and to all alike. It is the right you assert by staying here, and your fathers asserted by coming here. It is this great right that I assert for the Chinese and Japanese, and for all other varieties of men equally with yourselves, now and forever.


But I reject the arrogant and scornful theory by which they would limit migratory rights, or any other essential human rights to themselves, and which would make them the owners of this great continent to the exclusion of all other races of men. I want a home here not only for the negro, the mulatto and the Latin races; but I want the Asiatic to find a home here in the United States, and feel at home here, both for his sake and for ours. Right wrongs no man. If respect is had to majorities, the fact that only one fifth of the population of the globe is white, the other four fifths are colored, ought to have some weight and influence in disposing of this and similar questions. It would be a sad reflection upon the laws of nature and upon the idea of justice, to say nothing of a common Creator, if four fifths of mankind were deprived of the rights of migration to make room for the one fifth. If the white race may exclude all other races from this continent, it may rightfully do the same in respect to all other lands, islands, capes and continents, and thus have all the world to itself. Thus what would seem to belong to the whole, would become the property only of a part. So much for what is right, now let us see what is wise. And here I hold that a liberal and brotherly welcome to all who are likely to come to the United states, is the only wise policy which this nation can adopt.

“Rights wrong no man.” Amen.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power

Written by fabiorojas

December 29, 2014 at 5:32 am

Posted in ethics, fabio, philosophy

john danaher explains why he blogs

I often wonder: why should someone blog? Philosopher John Danaher explains that it helps him:

2. It helps to generate writing flow states: I appreciate that the term “flow” state is something of a buzzword. Still, it has a basis in psychological science and it is something that blogging can help generate. The psychological barriers to writing a blog post are much lower than the psychological barriers to writing an article for peer review. Yet, when writing the former you can get into a flow state that can then be leveraged into writing the latter. Many is the time that I have finished writing a blog post and jumped straight into writing a more serious article.

Agree. Writing a blog post is like a warm up. The whole post is worth reading. The rest of the blog is fascinating as well.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power 

Written by fabiorojas

November 1, 2014 at 12:05 am

sorry, but social science is actually a science

Every so often, you get the journalist, or academic, who loves trashing social science. The complaints are ritualistic – you can’t do experiments, people use jargon and math, and so forth. Well, Forbes has a nice article called “Enough Already with the Sweeping Claims that Economics is Unscientific.” It makes some obvious, but important points. Yes, some academics become divorced from reality with their models, but do you actually want people to study the economy without quantitative data or theory? These complaints also seem to ignore that economics actually does use experiments and much strives toward policy relevance:

Let me just start by pointing out that it is not the case that “almost nothing in economics is actually derived from controlled experiments”. Look at the CV’s of economists like John List and Esther Duflo and you can see there are plenty of experiments being done. In 2013, the study selected as the best paper from American Economic Journal: Applied Economics was for a randomized trial on how teenagers respond to HIV risk information.  If you want a concrete example of where this has made a difference, randomized treatment has been a central part of the research on the effects of charters schools. Unlike the field of astronomy, which Gobry must also think is not a science, economists do sometimes have more than observational data to go on.

And while it is true that a lot of research doesn’t use actual randomized trials, it’s also true that other kinds of research are very useful and informative. If his point was simply to argue that experiments and replication are important, and whether or not a body of research includes this should be one input among others in weighing the evidence, I’d have to agree. But of course you’d have to include external validity in there, which often counts against randomized trials. Instead of a relatively common claim about how it would be nice to have more experiments in economics, as is his style, PEG boldly overstates his case and makes incorrect absolutist claims about the importance of randomized trials.

Yes. Here’s the implication of this argument. Nearly every other social science, except history (which is a weird social science and humanities border case), has the same properties. We have ideas, we have data. Sometimes we do experiments. We collect other data. Sometimes we can replicate results. Sometimes we make progress and accumulate evidence, but other times not. This is, essentially, how science is done. The next time you hear someone trash sociology, economics, or another social science as unscientific, you have my permission to write angry tweets about them.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power 

Written by fabiorojas

October 10, 2014 at 12:01 am