Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Reverse Nixon

Anti-Iraq-war realist types are often accused of being negative all the time. We hear it all the time: where's your alternative to belligerent neo-con/neo-lib moralizing? It seems it's not enough any more just to avoid doing stupid things.*

The Pithlord was delighted, therefore, to see Daniel Larison* arguing for a new grand strategic alliance of the US, Russia and India to counter-balance China. A component of this new axis-of-lesser-evil would be rapprochment with Iran (presumably on a normalization-in-return-for-not-going-nuclear deal), which is pally with Moscow and New Dehli (and, of course, our friends in Baghdad -- but why get into that sore point). Larison doesn't mention it, but, in addition to stragic rivalry with China, the West has some possible future issues with Pakistan that Russia and India might be able to sympathize with.

This would, of course, invert the Nixonian strategy of linking up with China (via Pakistan) to counterbalance the Soviets (then, as now, friendly with India). But it would be an application of the old bastard's way of approaching things to present-day circumstances.

The danger, as always, would be Cold War nostalgists turning these sensible alignments of interest into some Manichean death match with the panda. It doesn't have to be that way -- Nixon was able to combine strategic rivalry with Moscow with significant progress in advancing US interests where Brezhnev could see a non-zero-sum solution.

It's perfectly true that behind most of the West's security problems lies a Chinese client. But in addition to the obvious economic interdependence, we could do a number of deals along the lines of SALT and the ABM treaty. The West's primary interest has to be saving the non-proliferation treaty. Banning anti-satellite weapons has obtained a new urgency. And replacing Kim Jong Il with a saner Stalinist puppet of Beijing would be lovely. We have to recognize both that China is a threat, and that it has legitimate interests, which lead it to be a pain.

There will be much bitching about disappeared journalists and Chechnya if we follow down this path. What this misses is that societies tend to imitate what they perceive as success: right now -- and at least in part as a direct result of the insane Wilsonianism periodically followed by Clinton and wholeheartedly endorsed by the Cheney administration -- China is widely seen as more successful and more stabilizing that the US. I think this perception is wrong, but it does a lot more damage to the prospects for human rights and free markets than a realist foreign policy would.

*Although the Pithlord has increasingly come to the cranky old-fashioned conservative view that just such prudent inaction constitutes 90% of the art of promoting peace, order and good government.

**Larison claims to be taking a break from blogging on the unlikely basis that he is human and needs to devote time to his professional responsibilities and sleep.

Update: Ross Douthat makes the interesting observation that while the Iraq war is unlikely to have any impact on the hubristic Wilsonianism of baby boomer political elites, it is having a big impact on his own under-30 generation. More sympathy for "isolationism" and "realism" on the right, and for what he calls McGovernism on the left. Makes a grizzled 36-year-old optimistic. The kids are alright.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Osgoode launches SCC review website

The lonely world of Canadian law blogging has a new, institutionally-backed entrant. Readers into that sort of thing are advised to check it out.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Who Designed the Blind Watchmaker? Does He Mind the Watches?

Last week, Harry Brighouse of Crooked Timber sparked an interesting discussion when he reviewed Phillip Kitcher's new book on the theological implications of Darwin.

Harry says Kitcher shows that Darwinism - while consistent with a strictly "spiritual" belief in God - is a threat to "providentialism", the view that "the universe was created by a Being who has a great design, a Being who cares for his creatures, who observes the fall of every sparrow and is especially concerned for humanity. "

I haven't read Kitcher's new book (I found his 1980s attack on sociobiology convincing when I read it fifteen years ago, but it has not held up well. ) But my amateur take is that his argument is wrong. Darwinism wouldn't have bothered Augustine or Aquinas, who were clearly providentialists by the above definition.

Aquinas believed that the ultimate cause for everything that happened was divine will (the "universal cause"). But the divinity normally wills that events should follow each other in accordance with regular laws of nature (the "particular cause"_- laws subsequent scientific inquiry has shown have a startlingly simple and symmetrical mathematical structure: ST, Q.22, Art. 2

What Darwin and his successors showed is that biological "design" can be accounted for by the mechanistic process of natural selction acting on many generations of entities replicating with significant but not perfect fidelity and with differing success. The insect eye and the human brain are "designed" by this purely impersonal process.

Darwinism is critical to the reduction of biology to chemistry and physics. But natural selection relies on the fact that physical laws are reliable (if, perhaps, fundamentally statistical) and intelligible. Otherwise, DNA couldn't replicate, and no feature would provide a selection advantage over any other.

As Dawkins and Dennett both concede, what Darwin showed was that - under certain conditions - order generates design. He didn't explain the origin of order.

For Aquinas, this would be enough to get his proofs off the ground. If the world has an intelligible structure, then the principle ultimately responsible for it must, in some sense, be intelligent. Why else does math - which appears to be a product of intellect, although independent of any individual intellect - describe the universe?

There is obviously a gap between a principle that is "intelligent" (in a sense somehow analogous to the way in which we are intelligent) and a providential intelligence that cares about sparrows. After all, Darwin shows that the sparrow came to be because of the winnowing of lineages, not because a particular intellect thought through sparrow design.

But if Aquinas had been familiar with his Darwin, he wouldn't be fazed. Perhaps the standard model of particle physics (or whatever model Lee Smolin's students ultimately come up with) and appropriate initial conditions amount to a more economical way of making sparrows (and all other creatures great and small) than individualized special creation. Who are we to argue? Where wast thou when He laid the foundations of the earth?

Maybe Kitcher objects that, however economical, natural selection is a cruel way of meta-designing sparrows and people. Natural selection gave us pain. It gave us desires we cannot satisfy, or can only satisfy at other people's expense. It made us selfish unhappy bastards, and we are lucky among animals. Whether or not Aquinas has a good answer to this objection, he hardly needed Darwin to be aware of it. It is just the problem of evil, and it is an existential rather than intellectual problem. Shall he that contendeth with the Almighty instruct him?

What Darwin might help us see is that there is no way for creatures like us to exist (because we wouldn't be us if we weren't animals evolved through natural selection) without both natural and moral evil. Neither type of evil can exist without evolution - there is no pain and no deceit on Mars. Differential reproduction creates - even among bacteria - an entity with interests. At some point a niche develops in which a central nervous system with the possibility of pain becomes more helpful than not in defending these interests. At a later point, both the ability to appeal to moral norms and the propensity to violate them also pass the benefit/cost threshold. That's when we appear -- perhaps the moment the Standard Model was designed to bring about. Man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward.

Lee Smolin's The Trouble with Physics

My brother gave me Lee Smolin's polemic against string theory for Christmas. I now have to read in 2 minute bursts, but I finally finished it.

Smolin's basic point is that string theory has predicted no experimental result, and on its own account it is a highly incomplete precursor to a deeper "M theory" that no one has actually formulated. He makes a good case that its continued domination of theoretical physics is because of the political economy of the university, not its promise as a research program.

Obviously, I can say no more than that the man sounds plausible. If I can get more out of it than that, it is on points he raises in passing. For instance, à propos the Summers controversy, he testifies that in his experience, gender and racial biases are common in hiring decisions in physics.

He doesn't like the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics which so intimidated we philosophy students who couldn't understand it when I was a lad, and it is from him that I learned von Neumann's supposed proof that no hidden deterministic variables could explain quantum results was disproved by David Bohm.

Most interesting to me is his discussion of the "anthropic principle". As it has become clearer that string theory leads to a "landscape" of possible universes, the idea that the basic physical structure of the world can be explained on the basis that otherwise our existence would be impossible has become highly respectable.

The anthropic principle lends itself to at least two metaphysical interpretations. One is that God so ordered things because embodied intelligence was part of his plan. The other is that there is an infinitude of universes with other structures beyond the possibility of causal interaction with us, but we only observe one in which we could exist. These alternatives would have been familiar to the ancients. It seems clear that no experiment could decide between them - that the choice is one of preference and speculative argument - and therefore beyond science.

Smolin deplores the explanatory use of the anthropic principle, and I think he is right to do so. Whatever we use to explain is itself unexplained. If science gets to the point where it takes our existence as the explanans, rather than the explanandum, it is conceding a rather major defeat. Why should it do so unless it has absolutely no other choice? I agree with Smolin that positing an infinitude of causally-isolated worlds -- while perhaps true -- isn't science, because in principle no experiment could shed light on it one way or the other.

The best objection to Intelligent Design theory is similar to Smolin's objection to the anthropic principle. An intelligent (but inscrutable) designer explains everything and therefore nothing. No experiments are suggested: as John Derbyshire pointed out, it can't discover anything, Neither are science -- both are statements that science can't do something when we don't really know until it tries. Since science has discovered lots of stuff in the past, and shows no sign of slowing down, this seems like unwise defeatism. Smolin's plea to put resources behind other approaches that do not need the anthropic crutch therefore seems like a sensible one. (Perhaps a version of string theory can be developed that won't need it either.)

Of course, Smolin admits that his expectation that a theory in which our world comes out of the math, and not out of our (unexplained) presence will be developed is a matter of faith. It is perfectly possible that no such theory exists, or that it will never be discovered by human beings. But he'd say his faith is a healthy one for the scientific community, while a belief in string theory willing to sacrifice basic scientific method is an unhealthy faith.

Viewed as a philosophical proposition, rather than a rival scientific theory (as Daniel Larison wishes it would be), Intelligent Design does well especially if Smolin's faith is ultimately found to be justified. For if the world comes right out of the math, then we still have the mystery of how the physical can be so amazingly described by an intellectual construct like math. The unexplained fact is that facts can be explained, that they manifest an intelligible order. Here's a mystery that I doubt science could ever explain.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Folkways of the Pathan, Law and Humanitarioimperialism

The Economist publishes two thick issues at the end of each December. "The World in ---- [next year]" invariably sucks. But the Christmas double issue is snooty English journalism at its best.

This year, they had a must-read article (subscribers only) on the customary law of the Pushtuns (formerly Pathans), the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, and the source of the Taliban.

Why is it a must-read? Well, I have some legal positivist readers (BKN and Fred S.) who think that law is the command of the sovereign, and it would be good for their souls to read about a longstanding legal system that functions without any sovereign at all. I don't want to spoil the ending, but customary arbitration can be pretty hardcore.

Not to say that all is well. Any paleo-anarcho-libertarian readers would also benefit from reading about how the Pathan clans resolve their disputes -- first by killing each other in nasty ways and, once they have tired of that, by trading their women.

But the most important audience would be the naive democracy promoters. I, for one, would be happy to have the Pathans continue in their folkways. Those folkways are the main obstacle (and main target) of the legalistic and textual Talibs. But those folkways are obviously a million miles from our ideas of human rights. The Taliban, unlike the tribes, are connected into an international jihadist network that would like to kill you and me, gentle reader, so I see some point in fighting them. But we shouldn't get all moralistic about it. The society they are reacting against is just as foreign to us as they are.

A Disgrace

The US government appears to be asking clients of firms that represent Guantanomo detainees to pressure those firms to drop their representation.

Conservative lawyers in particular have a duty to protest this.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Fan Linking

This Daniel Davies post on why he hates progressives is positively brill.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

I am Clark, Scourge of Tigray, Hammer of the Oromo

Canadian public policy circles tend to discuss African politics as a backdrop to a familiar argument about a proposed "Duty to Protect". "Internationalists" are all telling us that state sovereignty is completely outmoded and that if Canadians weren't such sorry selfish wusses, we would be spending half the GDP on invading various impoverished places and sorting out their governance and identity issues. Africa is a handy example for them to use, because it indeed has and has had serious problems of predatory states and ethnic-based slaughter.

But what few of us talk about is that Canada's historic role in Africa has frequently been to actively promote predatory states and ethnic-based slaughter. It's at least arguable that the real lesson should be "first, do no harm."

Trudeau and his foreign minister Mitchell Sharp strongly supported the federal government in Nigeria when it starved and bombed Biafra, homeland of the Igbo (the "Jews of Africa"), into submission. Trudeau and Sharp saw the situation in Nigeria as analogous to Quebec secession, and they were prepared to countenance a bit of ethnic massacre to prevent a bad precedent. (Another possibile motive is raised by this report from the BBC. Apparently, the Biafran conflict was an Franco-British proxy conflict, even though such things were no longer supposed to be going on in 1970. Trudeau in 1970 saw France as Canada's major foreign antagonist.)

The Progressive Conservative and NDP opposition protested Trudeau's stand in Biafra. But the most shameful episode was tripartisan. In the mid-eighties, the military-communist government of Ethiopia repeated Stalin's forced collectivization experiment in 1930s Ukraine, with similar results. The Reagan administration was mildly critical. The Trudeau and Mulroney governments -- for different reasons -- saw their African policy as a way of distinguishing themselves from the US.

This led Canada to knowingly finance forced resettlement programs. Disfavoured ethnic groups -- the Oromos in particular (since the Tigrayans and Eritreans could defend themselves) -- were dumped Soviet-style far from their homes with generous assistance from the Canadian taxpayer. Much well-meaning rhetoric about "overpopulated areas" was forthcoming, on the theory that Canadian bureaucrats know better than Ethiopian peasants about what land is overpopulated.

Biafra and the mid-eighties famine in Ethiopia are hardly minor black spots in the recent history of Africa (and our intevention in Somalia didn't work out perfectly either). In both cases, we did something in Africa for reasons that have more to do with our own obsessions than what was going on there. But it will always be thus. Canadian politicians react to Canadian political realities. Even if an intellectual could design the ideal humanitarian intervention in her head, it would never be what was in fact delivered.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Ethioblogging -- A few things I know about the current crisis

I'm not the first to observe it, but there is something liberating about the ignorance on display on the Internet. I don't really know much about the Horn of Africa, for instance: I visited Ethiopia for ten days once, and I know people (both Ethiopian and ex-pat) who know a lot about that country. Which certainly should not be confused with real knowledge. As Sidney and Beatrice Webb demonstrated, no one is as ignorant as the tourist. All I can say for sure from that experience is that the Ethiopian Federal Police look scary and Addis Abbaba has traffic problems that make Istanbul look like Reykjavik. And I wouldn't claim that my more knowledgeable informants are exemplars of dispassionate objectivity.

But in the blogosphere, all expertise is relative. Not everyone willing to share their opinion could distinguish Eritrea from Madagascar. So I feel emboldened. Here are a few points I think are worth bearing in mind.

1. Ethiopia is, at bottom, an old-time Communist country, an ethnic-Leninist party-state.

This isn't something you hear much on the right-wing blogs cheerleading Meles Zenawi, and it is subject to a few caveats, but it's true and important.

The caveats are that the current gang (really the Tigrean People's Liberation Front (TPLF), but more politely known as the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)) got rid of a worse bunch of reds, Mengistu's Derg (in 1991), and that they have ruled ever since with a patina of market economics, elections, free expression, federalism and an independent judiciary. At least in the past, there have even been elements of reality to each of these things. But they were always subordinate to the reality of state ownership of land and a democratic-centralist Tigrayan party that would interfere with markets, federalism, judges or elections when it suited them. And since the elections of 2005 -- which the ruling party clearly lost -- there has been a lot less velvet glove and a lot more iron fist.

The best thing that can be said of Meles and his crew is that (at least until recently) they have been nowhere near as bad as a reasonable observer would have expected them to be.

As readers of Lenin and viewers of The Life of Brian will hardly need reminding, communists can be a fractious lot. The Derg (1974-1991) were plain old Brezhnevite commies. As Robert Kaplan (before he went completely nuts) pointed out, they were the first serious commies to take power in Africa. The famine that inspired Band Aid and Live Aid and so on was an exact replica of Lenin and Stalin's politically-induced famines. It was part deliberate civil war tactic and part inevitable consequence of ideolgically-driven collectivization.

The Derg were also Amhara-dominated. The Amhara are an aristocratic-looking people of ancient Christian heritage from the highlands who believe they conquered the other races of Ethiopia fair and square. Their cousins the Tigrayans also think of themselves as born to rule. Marxists Tigrayans (and Eritreans) couldn't look to Moscow for guidance because the Soviets were supporting their Amhara enemies. They also had a falling out with China. So they adopted Enver Hoxha's Albania as the sole socialist motherland. Not encouraging.

However, the TPLF took power in 1991 at a low point for communism of any stripe. Ever since, they have tried (and for the most part succeeded) in being ideal Anglo-American clients. They also realized that the promise of ethnically-based federalism was a good was a good way to get support from all the ethnic groups that hated the Amhara but were suspicious of the similarly Semitic-speaking highlander Tigrayans.

Fortunately for the TPLF, Lenin himself provided a bit of a solution to the trick of being on the Anglo-American good boy list, while remaining red. As all good Trotskyist boys and girls are taught, prior to 1917, Lenin did not think that Russia was ripe for socialist revolution. The next stage had to be a "democratic" revolution getting rid of Tsarism, but leaving capitalism intact. But unlike the more orthodox Mensheviks, he also didn't think that Russian liberal democrats were up to doing this. So he called for a "democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry" under the firm guidance of a "democratic centralist" Leninist party. The dictatorship would be "democratic" -- not in the conventional sense of being subject to removal by popular vote -- but in its historic tasks of getting rid of the monarchy, landlords and promoting industrial development.

In 1991, Meles figured that Lenin's formula made sense for Ethiopia. Western development experts and Arab, Western and Chinese investment were welcomed. But in all the critical ways, the country remained communist. The neighbourhood cell structure and the Leninst party remained. In contrast to China, land -- obviously the most critical asset in an overwhelmingly agrarian country -- stayed nationalized. But Lenin's formula could be consistent with being buddies with the USA and Britain. Which leads to the next point...

2. Western leaders have an unfortunate need to have African friends.

In terms of pure power, Meles has nothing compared to Bush and Blair. But there is a strong psychological need to think that some African leaders are good guys. Blair needed a leader of a regional African power on his commission, and he'd pissed off Mbeki. And Bush wants to think there are good Third Worlders fighting Islamofascism with him. So we have the US military stregnthening the already fearsome Ethiopian military.

As Wikipedia points out, Meles doesn't lack for "international accolades".

3. The TPLF/EPRDF is past its "best before" date.

You can get somewhere in life being better than your predecessors. And the TPLF/EPRDF were not quite as evil and extreme a bunch as the Derg they got rid of. And even if you dislike them and they are keeping your country poor, it's hard to get rid of well-organized Leninists with a solid base of support among their co-ethnics.

In 2005, the opposition (fractured, naturally, on ethnic lines) got itself together and won the May elections. But the TPLF/EPRDF figured that they came to power through insurrection and civil war, and they were damned if they were going to give that up just because somebody else one an election. So they stole the election, massacred hundreds of unarmed demonstrators and shut down the Amhara opposition press (the English business-orinted media is still allowed polite criticism of the government).

Meles isn't an idiot, and realizes how fractured his country is. He has had to have some continued negotiations with the opposition. But the present situation can't go on forever. Either a full-scale dictatorship is set up, or the opposition (with the support of the diaspora) comes to power.

One thing that could prolong the TPLF/EPRDF's rule would be a security crisis. Widespread jihadi terrorism in the country would be bad for the country, but not necessarily for the regime.

4. Somalis don't like Ethiopians or jihadis

The liberal media is correct that Somalis resent Ethiopia. In the late nineteenth century, Menelik II kicked some Somali butt and many ethnic Somalis live within the borders of Ethiopia. When Haile Selaissie fell to the Derg, Somalia unsuccessfully tried to take advantage of the confusion to win this territory back. The prospect of a Greater Somalia is remote, given the ovewhelming military superiority of Ethiopia. But Somalis don't like highland Semitic-speaking Christian types one bit.

What the last couple weeks revealed is that they may dislike madrassa students even more.

So where does this leave us?

First, the Ethiopian intervention was unjust. International law may permit crossing borders to help the "legitimate" government, even when it has no de facto authority, but any sensible just war theory will reject this legalism. Ethiopia was not aggressed against, and so it had no right to interfere in what type of awful regime Somalia should have.

Second, America's interests (and by extension those of the bourgeois West in general) may or may not be served. The Islamic Courts government might have accepted a deal in which it would keep al Qaeda types out of the country in return for not experiencing what just happened. A chaotic ineffective Somali pseudo-state doesn't have the power to deliver a deal like that.

Third, Meles is a clear winner. He has a more decisive military triumph than he could possibly manage against Eritrea. He has a security rationale for internal crackdown. He has the secure backing of the US.

Fourth, since Meles is a clear winner, the people of Ethiopia are the losers.

Somalis avoid religious tyranny. But they get continued chaos.

Update January 15, 2007: Via Matt Yglesias, I see that the Weekly Standard wants to overthrow the government of Eritrea. Wonderful.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Federalism and Uniformity: Feature <> Bug

Matt Yglesias complains that federalism doesn't always lead to policy diversity: as he points out, in their remaining areas of jurisdiction, American states often do the same stuff as other American states.

Yglesias's commenters point out that he leaves out a lot of important counter-examples -- the death penalty comes to mind.

But the bigger point is that policy uniformity in matters of provincial/state jurisdiction is the system working as it should. On a lot of issues, the preferences of the median voter will be the same everywhere. On other issues, there are market pressures to do things the way the others do. What Yglesias's point shows is that even when the benefits of uniformity outweigh the benefits of diversity, the lower-level units are likely to deliver it. As a result, one of the main arguments against federalism/for high degrees of centralization is wrong.

The phenomenon of policy convergence demonstrates one of the fallacies of asymmetrical federalism fans. They correctly point out that Quebec is different from the English Canadian provinces in more ways than they are different from each other. But this doesn't mean Quebec needs different powers, just that it is likely to use the same powers differently.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Very Silly Person Watch

The intelligent libertarian bloggers have correctly determined that Ann Althouse is a very silly person, and very much not worth talking to.

Pith & Substance has already been on the case, although I can't claim to have devoted as much time to it as these people.

I Blame Peter, Paul and Mary

When you have small children, you enter a different culture. One of the features of this culture that seems worse this time around is the plethora of cutesy dragons. Maybe it is specific to boys -- their pajamas seem to have nothing else.

The old fart in me wonders how this generation is going to be able to have the same reaction I did when I first read The Hobbit and the fearsome Smaug finally appeared. Dragons are supposed to be scary, but I can't imagine that popular culture has created a sinister dragon since 1959.

It was their scariness -- and therefore misunderstood "otherness" -- that made sense of the friendly dragon theme in the first place. But the self-reflexive parasitical nature of this kind of counter-culture ultimately undermines itself, just like Cardinal Ratzinger said it would. Who's scared of dragons now?