Modernity Under Attack?

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
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Helen Pluckrose and James Lind... Bryan Caplan on the Case Again...

by Alice Temnick

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In this week's episode, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay discuss the threat to modernity, the increasing polarization of society and associated break-down in discourse as a global phenomenon. Host Russ Roberts probes with questions about the pre-modern and post-modern extremists and the challenges faced by the spectrum that makes up the middle. Where do you fall on the political spectrum? How do you see modernity's influence on human flourishing?

1. The Oxford English Dictionary defines manifesto as a public declaration of policy and aims. Is the authors' support of modernity an anti-authoritarian claim against the political far-left and/or far-right? Is it a call for moderates from across the political spectrum to come together? To what extent is collective action a concern to Pluckrose and Lindsay?

2. Is the sense of increasing polarization of society an illusion or reality? How do our tribalistic tendencies shape our meta-narratives feeding into this possible illusion? How do our tribal affiliations shape our attitudes toward liberty?

3. Lindsay claims "....and it's just a matter of finding out what those truths about human behavior are and what the right degrees are and then coming up with a system for managing them". Roberts's "nit that he picks" is that we have never been good at managing this. Is a better "nit to pick" to question whether we should aim to manage human behavior at all? Why?

4. Do Pluckrose and Lindsay insinuate that belief in science would lead people to share the same beliefs ("converge closer and closer to whatever these truths are, and strategies for working with them")? Or do our ideological differences arise from interpretations of scientific findings that influence the value-laden actions we desire?

5. Besides ignoring extremists and avoiding the promotion of tribal outrage, what other actions should we take as free and responsible individuals to encourage civil discourse?

Alice Temnick teaches Economics at the United Nations International School in New York City. She is an Economics examiner for the International Baccalaureate, teaches for the Foundation for Teaching Economics and Oxford Studies Courses and is a long-time participant in Liberty Fund Conferences.

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COMMENTS (7 to date)
Wolf D writes:

There seems to be a tension between the individual liberty the guests espouse and their view of the individual as the basic unit of society, which to me implies that society legitimates or gives meaning to the individual rather than the other way round. Likewise, calling for a convergence around the "rational center" has a faint ring of the very authoritarianism the guests denounce in pre/postmodernism (like the nationalist/globalist dichotomy: what if one is neither?).

Is "modernity" even a coherent concept? Certainly reason is not "modern" at all (see e.g. ancient philosophies of Greece, India and China) unless it is taken to exclude faith or the spiritual. Perhaps this is where the postmodern critique is most pertinent, if ultimately unconvincing.

On another note, I think there is a basic difference between truth and facts and the two terms are not interchangeable. Facts are the preserve of science and can be either established or refuted, and there is no need to get emotional about them. But truth is altogether less tangible and more personal and is the preserve of philosophy and spirituality. We can and should agree on what is real and factual, but surely agreeing on what is true is a lot trickier.

Andy McGill writes:

I can't believe how much of this interview went unchallenged. Anybody who listens to NPR from the 1970s knows that NPR always explains what right wing people mean by asking far left wing interest groups what they heard. They NEVER give a long quote from the group itself, but always give short 5 word quip and then ask their usual group of far left advocates what that meant.

The fact that Fox News did the same thing and totally destroyed the reputation of the left wing media is what truth does to mythology. Fox News may not be the whole truth, but it surely deserves to tell the other side of the story that for so long was suppressed and lied about.

Today the Washington Post demands that revelations about the FBI spying be hidden from the public to protect the "reputation" of the FBI. This company purchased the name of the newspaper that fought for the release of the Pentagon Papers. You can't make up this hypocrisy.

I would strongly disagree with how these authors portray "conservatives" based upon their hatred of their neighbors in Tennessee, but that is another story.

Let's just ask, when you get cancer, do you want treatment from the white male Western tradition of medicine, or do you want treatment that takes into account all the vodoo and ancient remedies of all the different races and sexes and unheard voices.

Bernhard writes:

@Andy: This could not be better. Your comment above could be a real world example pulled out of Helen and James' essay. Thanks for that! You definitely contributed to the discussion.

Dr Golabki writes:

Andy & bernhard

I think Drawing an equivalency between NPR and Fox News is a big part of the problem. Russ did something similar during the podcast with The NY Times and Fox News (not sure if it was intentional).

I think it's very fair to say NPR and The NY Times have some liberal biases... But Fox News is pretty clearly doing something fundamentally different.

I'm left leaning and I have the same problem... I'm much more easily offended by peggy noonan than by similar people on the left. I think we all need to work hard to check ourselves before we wreck ourselves.

William B writes:

As a self-identified libertarian (not a left-libertarian, since that's a self-contradicting term), I find this episode frustrating.

First, Helen and James seem to consider the middle-of-the-road policy of the last 100 years as "modernity" and even imply that it represents classical liberalism, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Policies have become more and more in line with the progressive agenda over the course of that time, and conservatives are not, as they imply, moving further right. The whole set of dictates from Washington is moving further left. (See the "Old Right", for reference.)

At one point James refers to "authoritarian libertarianism", yet I've never encountered any libertarian that wants to impose his viewpoint on others except through rigorous reasoning and debate. Anti-government libertarians aren't trying to overthrow the government, they are trying to convince others of the nature of the state and the difference between a state and a government.

At another point, Helen laments the fact that people are abandoning centrism. That's not a classical liberal viewpoint, since modern centrism has already abandoned common law in favor of an activist judiciary and been responsible for a crumbling welfare state and $20T in debt.

In the end, James and Helen seem to have taken no stance at all except for maintaining the status quo under the guise of "science and reason", neither of which has been applied in the last 100 years of policy. (Unless they mean "scientism".)

Dr Golabki writes:
"As a self-identified libertarian (not a left-libertarian, since that's a self-contradicting term), I find this episode frustrating.

First, Helen and James seem to consider the middle-of-the-road policy of the last 100 years as "modernity" and even imply that it represents classical liberalism, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Policies have become more and more in line with the progressive agenda over the course of that time, and conservatives are not, as they imply, moving further right. The whole set of dictates from Washington is moving further left. (See the "Old Right", for reference.)"


You seem to have a very specific view of what "right" and "left" mean, but I'm not sure it's obvious to anyone else. I think you can make the case that Obama was more pro-free trade than Trump... does that mean "free trade" is now a leftist issue or that Republicans are leftists or that things are crazy and trying to plot politics on a 1 dimensional graph is an exercise doomed to fail? Regardless, polling pretty clearly shows that both parties have become more partisan... which is I think what the authors were getting at.
"At one point James refers to "authoritarian libertarianism", yet I've never encountered any libertarian that wants to impose his viewpoint on others except through rigorous reasoning and debate. Anti-government libertarians aren't trying to overthrow the government, they are trying to convince others of the nature of the state and the difference between a state and a government."
The authors said a few times that their complaint is with very small minority of people on both political extremes. They certainly did not say that most libertarians are authoritarian... quite the opposite.
"In the end, James and Helen seem to have taken no stance at all except for maintaining the status quo under the guise of "science and reason", neither of which has been applied in the last 100 years of policy. (Unless they mean "scientism".)"
I think the authors are advocating to flip a lot of these debates from right v. left to pro-Mordenity or anti-authoritarian in order to help people to see where there's actually quite a large degree of agreement between people on both political sides.

To the point... you seem to be complaining about the last 100 years, but in that time...
1. We've have the greatest scientific and technological revolution in the history of the world.
2. We've seen women get the right to vote and an end to jim crow in the US.
3. We've seen the end of communism.
4. We've seen much greater appreciation for the value of free trade and a broad understanding that blocking trade or fixing prices will destroy wealth.

What exactly was so great about 100 years ago? I know federal income taxes are higher... but lets not miss the forest for the trees.

William B writes:

Dr. Golabki, I won't get into much of a debate here but will give you my quick thoughts on your bullet points.

To the point... you seem to be complaining about the last 100 years, but in that time... 1. We've have the greatest scientific and technological revolution in the history of the world. 2. We've seen women get the right to vote and an end to jim crow in the US. 3. We've seen the end of communism. 4. We've seen much greater appreciation for the value of free trade and a broad understanding that blocking trade or fixing prices will destroy wealth.

1. True, but it was all on borrowed time. The $20T in debt was a trade-off between benefits now and cost later. The Fed has also created a serious imbalance in our economy where some of the brightest minds move into trading and financing rather than productive endeavors. We will pay for it with an equally unproductive period eventually.
2. Yes, those are great but would have happened regardless. Specifically I'm talking about public policy for the last 100 years, not certain social changes.
3. Yes and no. The communists have just been replaced with cultural Marxists. And that seems like only an intermediate step in a longer term plan.
4. While I agree with the idea of free trade, it comes at the expense of redundancy. (See Taleb.) Pure free trade works when all parties are trustworthy, but we've traded self-sufficiency and capital to untrustworthy partners for stuff that makes us happy in the short term. Not to mention China, for example, maintains the dollar peg, which is not free trade. Free trade requires sound money on all sides to really work.

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