Asian Values

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World Values Survey Cultural Map of the World (2005-2008)

Any real discussion involving the concept has to start with the realization that it’s a profoundly silly term. I mean, what are Asian Values? Other than the “obvious” idea that such a thing exists and is superior to the “moral depravity” of the West, most people find it difficult to enumerate precisely what they are, or how they came to be common across such a range of countries, cultures and religions. Wikipedia suggests that the term came about

“to justify authoritarian regimes in Asia or to defense from the politically designated western concept of ‘human right’, predicated on the belief in the existence within Asian countries of a unique set of institutions and political ideologies which reflected the region’s cultures and histories”.

It then lists a bunch of values which seem rather designed for that purpose.The list is not worth reproducing but largely reduces to the elevation of the collective (family, clan, firm, country) over the individual.

The problem is, calling these “Asian values” obscures the fact that these were almost universal values for thousands of years! Insofar as the West has de-emphasized the collective and emphasized the individual (and this is by no means a universal characteristic of the West, either), this has occurred purely in the last 300-400 years, since the Enlightenment, and particularly coinciding with the sudden growth of their economies during the Industrial Revolution.Perhaps the following is a better description of what most people consider Asian Values:

TYPE *B* folks travel less, and move less often from where they grew up. They are more polite and care more for cleanliness and order. They have more self-sacrifice and self-control, which makes them more stressed and suicidal. They work harder and longer at more tedious and less healthy jobs, and are more faithful to their spouses and their communities. They make better warriors, and expect and prepare more for disasters like war, famine, and disease. They have a stronger sense of honor and shame, and enforce more social rules, which let them depend more on folks they know less. When considering rule violators, they look more at specific rules, and less at the entire person and what feels right. Fewer topics are open for discussion or negotiation.

Type B folks believe more in good and evil, and in powerful gods who enforce social norms. They envy less, and better accept human authorities and hierarchy, including hereditary elites at the top (who act more type A), women and kids lower down, and human and animal slaves at the bottom. They identify more with strangers who share their ethnicity or culture, and more fear others. They are less bothered by violence in war, and toward foreigners, kids, slaves, and animals. They more think people should learn their place and stay there. Nature’s place is to be ruled and changed by humans.

That is simply Robin Hanson’s list of “farmer values”, as opposed to forager values, which (as he notes) maps rather well to the conservative vs liberal divide in most of Western politics. There is nothing uniquely Asian about Asian values. There is nothing inherently wrong about them, either, aside from their tendency to lose out against forager values (do read that post) as people tend to get richer. But any argument -particularly amongst Asians- that attempts to draw its strength from “Asian values” should be well aware of the origin and limitations of the concept.

A Guide to the Legitimacy of State Authority for Minarchists

The point of a legitimate monopoly on the use of force is, at a fundamental level, to limit the level of violence. Insofar as it accomplishes this aim the state is superior to anarchism; insofar as this monopoly unleashes unchecked or insufficiently checked violence, it is not. In a situation where multiple agents try to extract rents through the use of force a state modeled simply as a stable protection racket- forget theories of justice or any larger scope of political philosophy- still pays for itself; in a society that largely understands the virtues of cooperation where apathy and where badly calibrated moral outrage over, say, drug laws leads to the disproportionate incarceration of millions of lower-class citizens of minority backgrounds, it does not.

Inspired by: , although I didn’t read the whole thing, because it says far too little in far too many words.

Political Economy is Depressing

I don’t want to turn the overall tone of this blog more conservative, especially as I’m detecting a slow but certain leftward trend in my political views, but I’m afraid this is going to be another conservative post. This is not, however, an anti-Occupy-Wall-Street post, just an anti-Marxism one.

Partly due to Occupy Wall Street, I was reading some Marxist theory-distilled, condensed, simplified, etc, but in book form, and it seems to cover the basics- and it’s really startling to see how so many of the arguments have remained essentially unchanged. Post-scarcity economics has always been a contradiction in terms but at least it is something that can be considered in a science-fictional setting; however, a similar optimism about the abundance of the industrial age and the bounty of the coming era seems to me to be woven into much of Marxist theory.

The basic idea that wealth becomes ever more concentrated and that this is the inevitable product of the system and so on is something that I have a certain amount of sympathy with, but on the other hand, the clear failure of Marx‘s theory that wages will always be pushed down to subsistence levels and that productivity gains will always be captured by capital and not labour do not seem to be sufficiently impressed in the minds of those who continue to call themselves Marxists. Even more, the simple fact that Marx’s theory of human nature- human nature having always been the largest and most obvious impediment to the success of practically every alternative to plain old capitalism that has ever been suggested or implemented- was wrong doesn’t seem to be fazing anyone in the slightest. Clearly, though, the less-than-necessarily-pliant selfishness of man is a fact that most people grow up to accept (I have always thought this rather than a decreasing sympathy for unfortunates was at the core of that old joke: “if you’re not a socialist before 20, you have no heart; if you are a socialist after 20, you have no head.”)

This, then, is why the “why don’t these people have any actual demands?” question is worth asking, all rhetoric about pushing “the idea” and “maintaining unity” and “not allowing ourselves to be boxed in” aside. (I feel fairly comfortable calling it rhetoric because after all the focus on rhetoric is precisely what “momentum” and “the idea” are all about.) I can accept their premises in the narrowest sense: inequality is widening, and this is bad. I can’t accept their details because the details vary with every telling*, and I can’t accept their solutions because there aren’t any**. Capitalism-as-she-is-practised may well be a system nobody wants, but neither an alternative workable system nor a feasible transition to it (the bigger hurdle, in my opinion) seem to be on offer.

PS: This isn’t to say there’s nowhere to go from here, of course. The system could use more than a few tweaks, and a fair bit of re-shaping. It’s not going to change it’s essential incentive-based structure, that’s all.

PS2: And, of course, burning books is bad.

* I mean, of course crony capitalism is bad, of course banks shouldn’t be given bailouts and then turn around and hand their executives huge bonuses, of course we should avoid moral hazards and try for a more stable, better balanced financial system- but yet again, these aren’t details, those are practically tautologies!

**Some solutions that have been proposed by some people, like a well-targeted debt jubilee, I actually think make sense. (I will, however, wager a small sum of money that no broad-based debt jubilee will happen in the United States for the next 5 years.) The same goes for a reasonable tax increase, although I have a better sense for the numbers than to suggest that it can be restricted to the top 1% and still be sufficient to reduce the deficit.

Ooh, and here’s an inkling of the sort of crap I’m talking about.

The Undue Simplification of Political Discourse

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Maybe you don’t want to get as complex as that title, but you could do with being a teensy bit more complex than this:

“I hear all this, you know, ‘Well, this is class warfare, this is whatever. No. There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody.

“You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police-forces and fire-forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory — and hire someone to protect against this — because of the work the rest of us did.

“Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless — keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

Who’s saying otherwise?[1] Rush Limbaugh isn’t even saying otherwise, he’s just ranting at perceived tonal issues and liberals and Marxists. Most minarchists still think you need a state for providing security and some subset of those think you need one for public infrastructure. This isn’t really news. This isn’t something that anyone but the odd anarchist needs convincing about. Of course you set aside a certain amount of your earnings for public goods. The problem isn’t to convince people that they need some sort of a state. The problem is to convince people that this state should do all the things it does today, and that they have to pay for it.

PS: Of course Elizabeth Warren isn’t the only one “unduly simplifying” the debate. She isn’t even on the list of prime offenders. But this is the sort of simplification that even otherwise intelligent people feel the need to produce as a manifesto, hence the post.

[1]Aside from objecting to “the rest of us”-what, factory owners don’t pay taxes- and “paying it forward” framing vs “paying back”, at least.

Rationality and Libertarianism: Why Nobody Loves Us

Will Wilkinson went through a paper written by Jon Haidt and interpreted it to mean (fairly, I think) that “Libertarians are liberals who like markets”. It had quite interesting results:
Libertarian Moral Psychology

Haidt et al found that the results supported their hypothesis about liberals and conservatives. Liberals care most about the Harm/care and Fairness/reciprocity foundations and accordingly largely refused to make trade-offs on the items that reflected these concerns, but were more willing to perform actions that violated the three “binding” foundations — Ingroup, Authority, and Purity. Conservative concern was spread more evenly over the five foundations, and they were less willing than liberals to violate Ingroup, Authority, and Purity for money.

What about libertarians? Here’s what they say:

Because we had a large sample of libertarians, who are usually ignored in political-psychological research, we compared their sacredness reactions to those of liberals and conservatives. Overall, libertarians showed less refusal to violate the five foundations for money that did liberals or conservatives. Each of the five average never scores for libertarians was lower than the corresponding score for conservatives, and each was lower than the corresponding concern for liberals.

Further down they report:

A further novel finding of the present study was that libertarians had the lowest sacredness scores on all five foundations. This finding supports Tetlock’s predictions [see here] that free-market libertarians would be the least outraged and most open to contractualizing moral violations. The differences were particularly stark between libertarians and conservatives on the three binding foundations. Libertarians may support the Republican Party for economic reasons, but in their moral foundations profile we found they more closely resemble liberals than conservatives. [Emphasis added]

Jon Haidt commented on the post to discuss his new paper, which also sounds quite interesting.

Great post, great use of our findings. We actually had a lot more information on libertarians in the original draft, but the editor asked us to cut it, thought it wasn’t important enough, wanted us to focus on liberal conservative differences. So now we’re writing a paper comparing libertarians to liberals and conservatives on dozens of scales, and finding so many interesting things. Here’s a preview: Libertarians are liberals who lack bleeding hearts. Libertarians look much more like liberals than like conservatives on most measures, EXCEPT those that have anything to do with compassion, on which libertarians are lower than liberals AND conservatives. The lower levels of compassion, and higher levels of need for cognition and tendency to “systemize” rather than empathize, are probably related to the love of markets.

Thanks again,
Jon Haidt

This also totally explains why, say, Eliezer Yudkowsky is a “better libertarian” than I am 🙂

Take Control of Your Life and Live Longer!

Via the Art of Manliness:

The need to feel in control in our lives cannot be overstated. In Stumbling on Happiness, Dr. Daniel Gilbert argues:

“Being effective-changing things, influencing things, making things happen-is one of the fundamental needs with which the human brain seem to be naturally endowed, and much of our behavior from infancy onward is simply an expression of this penchant for control…The fact is that human beings come into the world with a passion for control, they go out of the world the same way, and research suggests that if they lose their ability to control things at any point between their entrance and exit, they become unhappy, helpless, hopeless, and depressed. And occasionally dead.”

The dead part refers to a pair of studies done to test the link between feelings of control and health.

In the first study, the elderly residents of a nursing home were each given a houseplant and divided into two groups-the high control group and the low control group. The high control group was told that the plant’s care was in their hands while the plants in the low control group were taken care of by a staff member. The results at the end of the study were startling-30% of the members of the low control group had died, compared to only 15% of the members of the high control group.

A follow-up study garnered similar results. College students were paired with residents at another nursing home. One group of the elderly residents (the low control group) could not control when the students would come; the student would set the appointment date. The high control group was able to dictate when the students would visit. “After two months, the residents in the high control group were happier, healthier, more active, and taking fewer medications than those in the low control group.”

Two observations that should probably have been made via the comments page on their site:

  1. Whoa. You can KILL people by not letting them have control over their lives, even if the decisions you make are probably better for them? (Of course, they’re not really dealing with that aspect, but it’s easy to imagine how it could work that way, for a small enough increase in well-being.) This deals a rather big blow to my endorsement of futarchy over democracy. (I realize that people living in democracies hardly feel as if they have full control over their lives; but they probably would feel more in control than under futarchy, although their lives would probably be better on most other parameters.)
  2. If they could have predicted the effect of these experiments at the nursing home- if they at least had some intuition as to the results, which they surely must have had- then isn’t it grossly unethical to perform this sort of experiment at all? And on a related note, shouldn’t this have major implications for the care of the sick and the elderly (and children), who all have control over their lives routinely taken away from them by their caretakers in some way or the other? 

PS: They do, right? This is just what I have observed from my limited exposure to these institutions in my very small part of India, I have no idea how they are in the rest of the country/world.

Treacherous Evidence

Paul Krugman pushes out a post assuring his loyal readership that the Republicans will not, in fact, storm back to power in 2010. Which seems likely, because the party is if anything getting even more reactionary, on average. But I find it strange that he would use this graph to argue for his position:

If we look at Obama’s personal position, it seems to have stabilized — and as the Pew people point out, he’s in relatively good shape:


By which I mean, look at Bush! More precisely, this was a man who was so roundly hated all over that you could get a Nobel Peace prize just for displacing him, and his numbers at the start of his term are so close to Obama’s numbers now.

America is a strange place.

Politics,Popularity and Fanaticism

This is an old post from Overcoming Bias, but it’s been a while since I’ve read something this well-written and coherent and NEW. It’s been a draft for a while now, and I was planning on putting this up before the US Election got over, but I don’t really think I have anything to add whatsoever. The analogy has not been explicitly extended in my excerpt, but it should be fairly obvious. It’s a lot more pessimistic that my default worldview,though.

The Two-Party Swindle

Consider, in this light, the episode of the Blues and the Greens in the days of Rome.  Since the time of the ancient Romans, and continuing into the era of Byzantium and the Roman Empire, the Roman populace had been divided into the warring Blue and Green factions.  Blues murdered Greens and Greens murdered Blues, despite all attempts at policing. They died in single combats, in ambushes, in group battles, in riots.


Who were the Blues and the Greens?

They were sports fans – the partisans of the blue and green chariot-racing teams.

It’s less surprising if you think of the Robbers Cave experiment.  Favorite-Team is us; Rival-Team is them. Nothing more is ever necessary to produce fanatic enthusiasms for Us and great hatreds of Them.  People pursue their sports allegiances with all the desperate energy of two hunter-gatherer bands lined up for battle – cheering as if their very life depended on it, because fifty thousand years ago, it did.

Evolutionary psychology
produces strange echoes in time, as adaptations continue to execute long after they cease to maximize fitness.  Sex with condoms.  Taste buds still chasing sugar and fat.  Rioting basketball fans.

And so the fans of Favorite-Football-Team all praise their favorite players to the stars, and derogate the players on the Hated-Rival-Team.  We are the fans and players on the Favorite-Football-Team.  They are the fans and players from Hated-Rival-Team.  Those are the two opposing tribes, right?

And yet the professional football players from Favorite-Team have a lot more in common with the professional football players from Rival-Team, than either has in common with the truck driver screaming cheers at the top of his lungs.  The professional football players live similar lives, undergo similar training regimens, move from one team to another.  They’re much more likely to hang out at the expensive hotel rooms of fellow football players, than share a drink with a truck driver in his rented trailer home.  Whether Favorite-Team or Rival-Team wins, it’s professional football players, not truck drivers, who get the girls, the spotlights, and above all the money: professional football players are paid a hell of a lot more than truck drivers.

Why are professional football players better paid than truck drivers?  Because the truck driver divides the world into Favorite-Team and Rival-Team. That’s what motivates him to buy the tickets and wear the T-Shirts. The whole money-making system would fall apart if people started seeing the world in terms of Professional Football Players versus Spectators.


Imagine two football teams.  The Green team’s professional players shout the battle cry, “Cheaper tickets!  Cheaper tickets!” as they rush into the game.  The Blue team’s professional players shout, “Better seating!  Better seating!” as they move forward.  The Green Spectators likewise cry “Cheaper tickets!” and the Blue Spectators of course cheer “Better seating!”

And yet every year the price of tickets goes up, and the seats get harder and less comfortable.  The Blues win a football game, and a great explosion of “Better seating!  Better seating!” rises to the heavens with great shouts of excitement and glory, and then the next year the cushions have been replaced by cold steel.  The Greens kick a long-range field goal, and the Green Spectators leap up and down and hug each other screaming “Cheaper tickets!  Hooray!  Cheaper tickets!” and then tomorrow there’s a $5 cost increase.

It’s not that there’s a conspiracy.  No conspiracy is required. Even dishonesty is not required – it’s so painful to have to lie consciously. But somehow, after the Blue Professional Football Players have won the latest game, and they’re just about to install some new cushions, it occurs to them that they’d rather be at home drinking a nice cold beer.  So they exchange a few furtive guilty looks, scurry home, and apologize to the Blue Spectators the next day.