Technocracy is interesting

I’ve never met someone who claims to be in favour of technocratic governance. It seems like the only time the word “technocratic” is used, is when it’s used as a pejorative.

But every time I’ve heard someone criticize something as technocratic, I feel like it’s been something I could get behind. It’s always a criticism of letting a knowledgeable group of people make decisions about what they’re knowledgeable about. I for one feel like we could do with a bit more of that.

The accusation “technocratic” seems to be reached for by people on the left and right (and centre) alike. It seems as though the alternative to technocracy is seen to be greater freedom or a more thoroughly democratic society. I certainly see the appeal of that, and perhaps the corresponding danger of a more technocratic approach, but it does seem to me that it’s worthwhile not to jump to conclusions. I have an instinct telling me it could be valuable to withhold judgement for a moment to wonder whether there is something important here to see.

The example that immediately comes to mind for me here is central banks. (I’m sure that I am just rehashing old debates that have already been thought through at higher levels than I can manage, but for now this is the level of my ruminations.) Central banks were at one time more directly answerable to democratically elected politicians, with devastating consequences. It was once central banks were somewhat sealed off from the sort of democratic accountability they were previously subject to, and instead put under the control of experts with the relevant expertise, that economies came to be largely spared from the instabilities of the earlier time.

There is absolutely a place for rights and freedoms and for democratic control, and whatever that place is, we must never diminish it or threaten it. However, that doesn’t mean that every area should be directly under the power of the market or of democratically elected representatives. It seems highly likely to me that there are probably many areas where we would be better off if we were to turn much of the power currently under democratic accountability over to the relevant experts.

I realize there are risks, and arguments against what I’m saying. I don’t think everything should be turned over to experts. We need to proceed on a case by case basis, and in many instances it would no doubt be clear that the benefits of trusting experts would be outweighed by attendant disadvantages. But clearly, in some instances there is great value in insulating the knowledgeable against the caprices of the many; it seems that it would be thoroughly worthwhile to seek out such opportunities and make the most of them.

When it comes down to it, I’m a Platonist. I think that the people with knowledge will ideally make the decisions, and that the most knowledgeable people will be recognized and chosen by the knowledgeable community, not by those of us who are lacking in knowledge. We want to have the sailors choosing a captain for the ship, not the ignorant passengers. My prejudice is somewhat on the side of technocracy — not absolutely, but at least as a general rule.

Thinking against the Christian revaluation

Christian theology turns everything upside down. Honour is bad and humiliation is good. Wealth is corrosive and poverty is ennobling. Pleasure is harmful and pain is purifying. Strength is useless and weakness is powerful.

I grew up in a Christian community of strong faith and strong biblical literacy. I learned the upside-down world almost before I ever saw the right-side-up world.

My situation is unique in one sense, but in another sense it is similar to the situation of all of us who live in a world that has historically been deeply shaped by Christian thought. We remain often suspicious of beauty and strength and wealth and power and pleasure and pride, in ways that would have seemed bizarre to someone from before the biblical religions, even if we can’t always explain why we feel so.

I don’t think that Christian faith is bad for turning everything upside down. Certainly that’s one of the most wondrous things about it.

But as I entered adulthood I began to question whether the world should be simply inverted, whether even Christian theology itself should call for such.

It seems to me that the best thing is to be firmly rooted in the normal orientation of the world, let us call it the pre-Christian or pagan orientation, and at the same time enchanted by the Christian message. We could think of the Christian monarch as symbolizing this option. Second best is to be fully absorbed in the normal orientation of the world, perhaps like a king Saul or a king David. Third best is to live fully in the inverted world, as a monk or an anchorite. But worst is to try and blend the different orientations. That leaves a person disoriented, rootless, continually confused.

I think it’s an important effort of imagination that we have to make today, to try and see the world entirely apart from the lens of Christian theology. Most of us couldn’t imagine what that would entail or why it might be needful. Even those of us who might attempt it are likely to view it as some strange intellectual exercise, like trying to imagine a landscape where all the leaves are purple instead of green. But it’s so much more than that.

The way people used to see the world, the obvious way to see the world, is the default, and it’s probably the closest to correct from a human standpoint. Without that as a starting point nothing makes sense, including the fearsome claims of Christian revelation. It’s hard, and a little uncomfortable, but I think we really ought to try to learn to abstract away from our Christian heritage in a sincere and sympathetic way. It is the only honest place to start our thinking.

Admit the conspiracy theory

When every normal person you know is telling you that you believe a conspiracy theory, don’t try to say “But no, mine isn’t a conspiracy theory, because mine is actually true!”

That’s what every person with a conspiracy theory says. It’s boring, and predictable. It’s sad. You might as well be wearing a literal tinfoil hat.

I’ve never met a conspiracy theorist who didn’t try to convince everyone around that their conspiracy theory isn’t actually a conspiracy theory. I’m always embarrassed on their behalf.

Why not just own it?

To me, that would be an interesting and fun approach. I personally agree with all the normies who feel like believing conspiracy theories is bad for the conspiracy theorist, bad for the conspiracy theorist’s friends and family, and bad for the entire society. So I get why you would feel shamefaced and try to hide the fact that you hold to a conspiracy theory.

But there are some interesting and daring arguments that people have made to say that it is good for society to have conspiracy theories swirling around.

Again, I don’t buy that. But if you believe a conspiracy theory (or more likely, multiple conspiracy theories) then you definitely should agree with the people who think conspiracy theories can be a good thing. You’re allowed to believe it, and you have no reason not to.

So own who you are. Admit it. Show some courage. You might as well be honest. You might as well be interesting, right? Break a stereotype for a change.

Extremes and the centre

I’m fascinated by the ideological extremes, the far left and the far right, and also in a different way, by the centre. For several years I’ve been on a long slow journey to find the purest, most “steel-manned” version of each.

I don’t really like the attempt to wrench all of ideology into a one-dimensional spectrum. “Centre” doesn’t really fit; it’s a distinct position, not an averaging or compromising of two extremes. At the very least it’s probably better to think of the three positions I’ve mentioned on a two dimensional plane, as the points on a V, or the ends of a capital T.

In a narrow sense, I think we’d say that the centre is what works. Now, if it loses elections, it’s not working all that well, even if its theories are great. But if we want our politics to be effective and lasting, we need to keep an eye to the centre. I think of the centre as being more or less libertarian: the night watchman state, where the market solves the problems and deals with differences. It’s ideally the economists’ consensus. There’s room for more or less government involvement in the economy, but some ways of getting involved are much better than others, and in all cases the government’s involvement aims directly or indirectly at preserving or improving the economy.

The far left wants the government ruling the economy, making all people more or less equal, equal in money and equal in status and equal in opportunities. Too much of an effort in this direction is bad for the growth and competitive advantage of a given economy, but the far left won’t care as much about that, since the economy isn’t the goal in itself, but is secondary to the society of people.

I personally don’t think that everyone needs to have exactly the same amount of money, but you don’t have to believe that to be part of the far left. I do love the idea of making poverty a thing of the past, so that everyone has a right to subsistence level financial independence, no matter who they are or what they do, and also of making sure that people shouldn’t be able to go beyond some level of wealth easily; if you accumulate enough wealth that you and your family can live comfortably without ever needing to work again, you really don’t need any more wealth. I also love the idea of saying that the economy isn’t the point, but is always subservient to the needs of the people of whom the economy is composed.

And yet a centrist will say, with some justice, that if you care about the fair distribution of the rewards of the economy, you do need to have a working economy, and the better it works the more (and better) the goods and services are that can be shared. So the left cannot reject or forget what the centre proclaims.

And then it can be hard to say quite what the best quintessence of the far right would be, even though this is a problem I’ve been working at for some time. It’s hard to see past all the garbage that really is out there. I’ll take a stab and say that it’s about the prioritizing of the cultivation of civic virtue, and in particular of martial virtue. I’m by no means averse to those things either. A leftist will interject that if some parts of the population are stuck, eg, in poverty, then we will miss some opportunities for virtue to develop in those places, that irrational bigotry of the sort found on the right today will have the same negative outcome, and that needless inequality will lead to divisions in a population where ideally we should see unity. The best version of the right will take all these objections into account and will thus learn the best lessons from the left.

In this way, I feel, it is possible and even sensible and fair-minded to be interested in the best versions of the political extremes and the political centre, even though at first blush it can only seem absurd.

A modest case for classical education

There’s a classical school opening up close to where I live, just as my eldest child is almost old enough to enter kindergarten. I’m excited about it, and at this point I imagine there’s a good chance I might send my children there. I even gave serious thought to applying to work there this year. But if someone challenged me on it, I might be a little hard-pressed to explain why.

I’m familiar with some of the arguments against classical education, and from what I’ve seen so far, they are largely fallacious or based on premises I don’t hold. However, I’m also more than a little familiar with the arguments used by proponents of classical education, and I find them to be of much the same quality. Rousing rhetoric, perhaps, for the person who wishes to be persuaded, but still riddled with fallacies and questionable assumptions.

Still, caught in this aporia, I lean decidedly in the direction of classical education. Practically speaking, in my own adult life, I have basically chosen to pursue something like a belated classical education: studying Greek and Latin and major modern languages, especially modern European languages, and literature and philosophy from antiquity to the present, with a special emphasis on what might be called the Socratic legacy. Once more I must admit that I generally can’t say precisely why I lean this way, or at least nothing beyond vague impressions.

Let’s set out some of those impressions. An emphasis on virtue is one of the things that’s most attractive to me about classical education. They speak about this quite explicitly, and I believe it is valuable for a young person to learn to think about morality in such terms. That conviction is about as deeply rooted in me as anything that I believe.

The emphasis on learning languages is also attractive to me. My sense is that there is still less of it in the curriculum than I would wish, but nonetheless it is more than children would likely get in any other available model. I think learning languages is really good for a person, and I believe childhood is an ideal time for beginning to gain familiarity with a variety of languages. Even if these first two emphases, on virtue and languages, were all that set classical schooling apart, this would be sufficient to make it my option of choice.

But there are still two more things to say. One is that I really do think there is value in studying ancient and originary pieces of writing, rather than learning primarily about the current state of knowledge as summarized in a textbook. Learning about the discoveries that led to our current situation, and the way they grew out of what came before, gives a much deeper understanding in my experience.

And lastly, the most straightforward, boring, unpoetic consideration. Standardized test scores. Apparently there’s statistical evidence suggesting that students of classical schools have better test scores than equivalent students of, say, public schools. Apologists for classical schools make much too big a deal out of this, because there are many lurking variables muddying how meaningful this fact might be. Still, at the very least we can say that classical schooling does not seem to make it impossible for students to do well in standardized tests. If there was good reason to believe that classical education would seriously disadvantage students on measures that contemporary society judges representative of erudition, then I’d have to weigh that soberly in the balance against the benefits I’ve listed. But if we can say that students perform as well, or possibly even better, on those metrics, it makes it easy to say: let’s give this a try and see how it goes.

Back to the gym

Since early in 2020, I’ve been away from the gym, for a number of reasons.

I’ve been very diligent during that time in keeping a high step count, which has surely been a benefit to my health. I also went through a phase of nearly a year when I was doing a lot of calisthenics.

But now that I’m back at a university, paying for classes, there’s a gym I can go to anytime. It’s been good to be back.

One of my favourite things since I’ve been back, that I had forgotten how much I appreciated, is getting to see people at different stages of their fitness journey.

You see some people like me, who haven’t been in a gym for a while. We have the smaller weights, the flabbier bodies.

But then you also see a diversity of people who have been at this for some years, lifting big weights and moving around with developed musculatures.

It’s inspiring. I perhaps can’t exactly say why I think it seems desirable to be strong and somewhat bulky. Is it something I’ve learned from the society I’ve grown up in? Probably that’s part of it. Is it something we’re born with or something we learn naturally without encouragement? There’s probably some of that, too.

But there’s nothing like seeing people in real life who are having success in these precise goals to remind you of what you do admire and what you do wish for yourself.

The urgency of living healthily

When I was young, I thought healthy habits were for old people without the benefit of youthful immortality. I knew that my poor choices at the time were going to haunt me later in life, but I couldn’t bring myself to care about that much. Even then, though, my bad habits were already taxing me in ways that I couldn’t yet recognize.

Today it seems clearer than ever to me how important it is to make the decisions that promote health. The reasons that motivate me most are the ones that are least obvious, most subtle.

It’s amazing to me how unhealthy living can lead to a more shrunken existence, more pathetically, impotently angry. I speak from experience.

Being unhealthy isn’t just about future death and disability, though it does certainly have a bearing on that.

Being unhealthy affects your mood, your ability to think, your energy, your relationships, your strength, your resilience, your schedule.

Focus on that. There are immediate, urgent consequences hanging on decisions relating to health. To me that’s the best motivation there is.

I heard once that the most impactful health decisions we can make are to stop smoking, eat a healthy diet, exercise, and maintain a healthy BMI. Every one of those things can be a huge challenge for a person. But I think they are so worth it.

Marriage and happiness

Today I’ve been married for five years. I highly recommend it.

I’m not an expert on the subject, but I’ve heard there are statistics talking about how marriage increases happiness. I can well believe it.

It’s hard to come up with the list of reasons why married life is so preferable. It’s surely worth pausing to remember what the proverb maker said about how desirable a good spouse is and how miserable a bad spouse can make you. We have too much evidence ever to doubt the truth of that.

I should also clarify that in saying marriage increases happiness, I don’t mean to say that’s all it does. There are hard times too, of course. I always think of something a good friend told me many years ago, that marriage means higher highs and lower lows.

Still, the average, for me at least and doubtless for many others as well, ends up being considerably happier than the alternative, when I pause and take stock..

There’s something paradoxical about marriage. Your life becomes simultaneously freer and more limited. I think this is true of parenthood as well. It’s limited on the small scale and the large scale because suddenly it becomes necessary always to take the plans and the needs and the sensibilities of another person into account for all sorts of decisions that would once have been more straightforward.

But marriage is profoundly freeing as well. It settles a part of a person’s identity that was previously a question mark. It grounds a person, making it possible to focus on new goals that could previously never really be the focus.

I’m sure I still haven’t gotten to the heart of what it is about marriage that makes me so grateful for it. But there’s a start, at least.

An Inegalitarian Case for Equality

I’m not an absolutist about equality. I do believe that in a variety of ways it is possible for one person to be unequal to, or we might even say superior to, another.

However, with that said, I am supportive of some of the kinds of progressive efforts toward greater equality.

The reason is, I believe inequalities should be meaningful and justifiable, rather than arbitrary and senseless. If a person of great virtue has more of wealth or honour than a less virtuous neighbour, on account of that virtue and in proportion to it, then I’m not so bothered. But if one person has more because of and in proportion to the wealth of parents or colour of skin, then we should be working to change that.

That’s not to say the change should be sudden or clumsy. It seems most likely to succeed if it is both surgical and patient, but tenacious.

And the more we can succeed in it, the more we will open the way for the best sorts of inequalities to appear, for the great to rise and for the vicious to face the true cost of their vices.

Often, people who believe in greatness and virtue and honour and power will protest against projects to flatten out society. Their error is that they fail to recognize the different sorts of inequality, and to recognize that bad inequalities are a barrier to the best inequalities.

If they could recognize that error, then we might find common cause across the ideological aisle a little more often.