Teasing Karl Smith: The Futility Of Teaching Pigs To Sing

Just because Karl Smith is the best progressive economics blogger, and a decent and honest man, doesn’t mean he isn’t a poster child for the errors in progressive thought. It’s precisely WHY hes the best poster child for progressive thought: because he’s a decent and honest and intelligent man, yet he STILL simply bathes himself in the error of progressive sentiments, as if its a serotonin soaking-tub for his neurons.

In response to yet another of the Krugman/Smith/Thoma/DeLong fits of exasperation over the systemic failure of federalism, I try to encourage Karl to become enlightened — which I realize is as futile as his fantasy that people will become out-group egalitarians. But I still have hope. 🙂


1) Conservatives have a more accurate view of human nature. They have a more complex view of human nature. That view results in a more skeptical view of human nature.

All ‘liberal’ progress has been the result of adding women to the voting pool, the decline in male participation in all facets of society due to legislation, immigration, and migration, and the south’s re-embracing of the republican party causing two-party polarity. It has not been due to a change in preference. And the behavior of new generations is cyclical, not directional.  No one is every convinced of anything.  We fuss and fume to maintain our constituencies and the undecided moderates determine all the outcomes.

We must govern with the humans that we have, not the humans we wish we had.I know you find it antithetical, but the conservative case is playing out.

This is why conservatism is anti-ideological: all ideologies are progressive.

2) Conservative forecasts are playing out, not because they win arguments but because their understanding of human nature is true:

  • a) Differences in preferences are genetically determined. Differences in strategy have costs to individuals. Individuals resent those that do not pay such costs. Evolution has guaranteed this resentment is necessary and unavoidable. Without it cooperation is not possible, because cheating is more advantageous in the short run.
  • b) Group differences in signaling are biological and inescapable. Differences in signal costs mean groups biologically aggregate, and vote in support of aggregate signals. The signaling economy is of higher value to individuals in groups than is the monetary economy. (This is one reason why Islam is poor and Christendom is wealthy, and why christianity is an outlier: the church — the federal government — managed to break familial and tribal bonds. islam could not create a high trust society, and without it, an adaptable bureaucracy, or modern commercial capitalism.)
  • c) There is a point of minimum homogeneity, beyond which people will cease pursuing redistributive ends. The only countries that can avoid those issues are ‘privileged’ countries like canada and the north of europe, which are small, homogenous, and surrounded by a lack of competitive pressures. The states can never get there.

3) You can have the world you want in a homogenous nation state. But you cannot have it outside of “Denmark”. Participatory government is for small states. In those states the size also limites the distortive ability of the state, so that civilization-ending, or revolution inducing bubbles are more quickly visible.

Your counter argument, which you’ve stated here many times, is that authoritarian governments can achieve these ends. And that is true. And I know that’s what you prefer. But they can also achieve many other ends. And the people in them drop adherence to the high trust society as a way of creating a black market, and a means of rebellion against their ability to enact those ends.

You will either have an unequal society because of market meritocracy, or an unequal society because of rebellion against state manipulation of societies’ tendency toward meritocracy. That is, unless you produce societies of people who are homogenous equals in practice. Whether by Harrison-Bergeron dysgenics, or natural and or technical eugenics.

Now that’s a comforting thought. :/

You are a wonderful human being. But trying to teach a pig to sing wastes your time and annoys the pig. (I know, I know, it doesn’t stop me either.)

Perhaps you were too selective in your reading of Smith, without spending equal time on his Moral Sentiments? 🙂 Or its modern equivalent by Jonathan Haidt? Or its earlier equivalents in Weber, Pareto and Machiavelli? Or Michel’s iron law of oligarchy? I know. I know. I know… The austrians have been silly in their belief in the rational individual. But they’re no sillier than the Keynesian belief in the egalitarian individual. We are attracted to the methods that support our cognitive biases.


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