Where my beliefs come from

Sam Bowman
Sep 23, 2016 · 5 min read

(In no particular order.)

Practical Ethics — Peter Singer, especially this chapter on taking human life. I think utilitarianism is true, although I sometimes wonder if my preference utilitarianism is in fact hedonic utilitarianism (if a preference is satisfied but its owner doesn’t realise it, is the world better off?). That question aside, Singer gives the clearest and most interesting discussion of difficult moral questions that I have read. His position on abortion and infanticide is well-known and I find it difficult to disagree with him. I also find it frustrating when other people who are pro-abortion use evasive language or reasoning to avoid what seems to me to be the logical (if repugnant) conclusion of their positions.

What’s Wrong With Libertarianism — Jeffrey Friedman. Friedman argues that libertarians attempt to ‘waterproof’ their worldview by shifting from a consequentialist ‘This is the best way to a rich, happy world’ position to a ‘This is synonymous with justice’ position based on natural rights or something like them. The latter is easy to defend but is also nonsense, and pushes them towards an extreme dogmatism and self-confidence that is unwarranted by the facts. Friedman suggests that this ‘superstructure’ needs to be dismantled, and I agree. This has had a big influence on my own ‘libertarianism’.

Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed — James C Scott. A grim but fascinating history of ‘high modernism’, a political ideology focused on making ‘messy’ societies and economies more ‘rational’. A highlight is the chapter on Le Corbusier, the ghastly French city planner, and the chapter on Tanzania’s ujamaa villagization programme.

Monetary Policy in the 2008–09 Recession — Robert Hetzel. This chapter of Hetzel’s book more or less convinced me that monetary policy is what turned the financial crisis into a long, deep recession.

A Crisis of Politics, Not Economics: Complexity, Ignorance and Policy Failure — Jeffrey Friedman. An excellent account of the 2008 financial crisis that is used as a hook for a broader point about the fundamental problem with regulation that ignorance in a complex world poses.

Democracy, the Market and the Logic of Social Choice — Samuel DeCanio. If we know very little about the world (which is complex and constantly changing), we need some way of learning about it and deciding how to use resources. This paper argues that markets, having numerous different products and production methods, offer a better system of ‘trial-and-error’ to the collective decision making that takes place through political mechanisms.

The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics — Philip E. Converse. Most people are very ignorant about politics. This might imply that we should have rule by elites. This paper suggests that there is a trade-off between knowledge and open-mindedness that undermines that implication. I’ve written about this here and here.

The Constitution of Liberty — FA Hayek. This book makes a strong case for individual liberty to facilitate progress, because individual ‘experiments in living’ (both social and economic) allow for the sort of trial-and-error process that we need to learn about the world and improve on things. The third section of this book is a slightly strangely mundane political-economic reform agenda, and is now quite anachronistic, but what is interesting about it is just how unlibertarian so many of Hayek’s policy recommendations are.

The Use of Knowledge in Society — FA Hayek. A classic paper about the distribution of knowledge among individuals and the difficulty people face in trying to make decisions about things on a large scale. I think Hayek over-emphasises the role of ‘local knowledge’, though, and now prefer to think in terms of total, uniform blindness that is basically only overcome by accident (‘trial and error’ yet again!). A lot of Hayek’s work was basically ignored by mainstream economics but this article made an impact.

Are banking crises free‐market phenomena? — George Selgin. Historically, regulated banking systems have been more prone to banking crises than unregulated ones. The two key charts are here.

Why Nerds are Unpopular — Paul Graham. This could alternatively be called ‘Why school is awful’.

The Triviality of the Debate Over ‘Is-Ought’ and the Definition of ‘Moral’— Peter Singer. I have trouble with meta-ethics and wonder if any meta-ethical position is really defensible, but I think Singer’s position (which I believe is just a restatement of RM Hare’s) is probably the most acceptably simple.

The Selfish Gene — Richard Dawkins. This is very persuasive on individual vs group selection and the implications that this has for understanding human and animal behaviour, and helped me to think clearly about how natural selection works and might also apply to non-natural phenomena (like Dawkins’s cultural memes). The ideas in this are explored in two other books I like, The Red Queen and The 10,000 Year Explosion.

How Richard Dawkins Got Pwned and An Open Letter to Open-Minded Progressives — Mencius Moldbug (Both very long.) I am not a neo-reactionary, and loathe the ‘alt-right’, but Mencius Moldbug is an extremely interesting writer. I once said he was ‘the greatest living political thinker’ — half-jokingly, and half commenting on the rest of the world’s political thinkers. His argument that progressivism is a non-theistic sect of Protestantism, with all of Protestantism’s evangelism and intolerance of heresy, is pretty interesting. I also think ‘neocameralism’ is quite a cool model for a state and I’d like to see it tried out somewhere.

Economics and Emigration: Trillion-Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk? — Michael Clemens. A review of existing estimates of how much wealth could be created by abolishing controls over international trade, capital flows and labour mobility. The gains from free movement of labour are so enormous that it confuses me that so many libertarians are indifferent to migration controls, even if they have (legitimate but overstated) concerns about certain kinds of immigrant.

The significance of monetary disequilibrium — Leland B. Yeager. This paper more or less explains why price and wage stickiness are really important and interact with fluctuations in NGDP to have an enormous impact on the wider economy. Goes well with the Hetzel paper above.

There is no substitute for profit and loss — Jeffrey Friedman. Most NGOs, including many think tanks, are pretty bad. They are wasteful and generally ineffective, particularly because the relationship between success in their goals and success at fundraising is very, very weak. This paper discusses this problem. I do not know if we’ve overcome this at my think tank but we are very conscious of the problem.

Right is the new left — Scott Alexander. Scott is probably the best blogger on the internet, and lots of his posts are very interesting and enjoyable. But this is my favourite, because it describes me and a group of my friends very well and makes us sound like cool hipsters.

The role of monetary policy and The methodology of positive economics–Milton Friedman. I used to be more Austrian than I am now, in terms of economics. I eventually decided that the empirical basis for Austrian claims about macroeconomics is very weak, and Friedman’s macro is much stronger. I also like very much his methodology, which more or less says that it doesn’t matter if a model of the world has weird assumptions: what matters is its predictive power. You make a guess, and if it disagrees with experiments, it’s wrong.

Sam Bowman

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Policy and technology at Fingleton Associates.