Justice as outcomes

For the good society to be realized, we need to forget about justice as an institutional design

 

The rise of right-wing authoritarian populism has triggered an intellectual tsunami of works attempting to understand why liberal democracy is failing in the 21st century. All of these accounts, however, rest on the premise that liberal democracy itself must be preserved. Yet liberal theorists have never reached anything resembling a consensus on one of the fundamental reasons behind the appeal of liberal democracy: justice. Most of us have an idea of what we mean by “justice”, usually one that is grounded in the idea of fairness or the rule of law. But as I will argue below, using justice as a synonym for other distinct ideals, or mechanisms to achieve those ideals, leaves us intellectually shorthanded.

To understand why we need to separate the ideas of fairness, rule of law, and justice let’s describe four related societies:

Society 1: Imagine a modern, constitutional state where slavery is legally permitted, such as the US before 1863. Although slaves do not count as people but as property, and lack the basic political rights that are afforded to free men, they are subject to the law rather than the whims of their masters. There are laws, for example, that prohibit a master from killing his slave, or from subjecting them to particularly cruel punishment. These laws are known to both slaves and masters and they are compelled to abide by them. The laws are enforced by the courts without discretion: a master who kills a slave finds it impossible to bribe a court to let him go unpunished. Clearly this state is not fair since a segment of the population lives under different rules than the other. It is also not just, given that slaves will not have the same outcomes in life than free men. But it is clear that there is, at least, the rule of law and that both slaves and masters are subject to it. Continue reading

An open letter to Maduro-supporting leftists

Support the Venezuelan people, not our ideology

Dear fellow leftists: Maduro needs to go. Now.

The excuses have been all but spent by now. Since 2014, Venezuela has suffered one of the most brutal economic crises that any modern country has ever endured in peacetime. Living standards in what was once one of Latin America’s most prosperous nations have plummeted to the point that people are now suffering undernourishment and hunger. The fortunate ones have left the country, triggering the largest refugee crisis ever seen in the Western Hemisphere, with 3 million people estimated to have fled in the last few years according to the UNHCR.

Amid this chaos, the Maduro regime remains obsessed with remaining in power at all costs. In 2016, following the election of a majority-dominated National Assembly, Maduro effectively sidelined the legislature and has ruled by decree since. That same year government-controlled electoral authorities cancelled a recall referendum under bogus pretenses. This effectively denied the opposition and the people the legal means to remove him even though it was the very constitution passed by Chavez in 1999 that allowed a recall vote. By then the Maduro regime was all but eager to incarcerate its opponents, and suppress dissent by force. This slide into authoritarianism was complete by the time of the sham May 2018 elections, which were neither free nor fair. This is the failed state that some of you insist on defending, while at the same time complaining whenever the right uses Venezuela as the scapegoat for their distorted definition of socialism.

The excuses have run out

Let’s go one by one with the three main excuses that hard leftists give in supporting the Maduro regime.

1) The economic war: The first, and by all accounts the most idiotic, is the claim that the US has been waging an “economic war” against Venezuela and that this has been the main reason why its economy has collapsed. Nothing could be further from the truth. The US remains, as it has been for decades, the main buyer of Venezuela’s oil, and its banks hold most of Venezuela’s debt. The US is also the source of a third of all Venezuelan imports. All of this would seem puzzling if this were a country committed to breaking Venezuela’s economy as many hard leftists seem to think is the case. Yes, it is true that the US has waged economic war against its socialist opponents: the (illegal) embargo against Cuba is a prime example. But just because the US has done that to one socialist country does not mean it has done it to all.

Hard leftists often bring up the supposed sanctions that the US has imposed on Venezuela. In fact, the US has not imposed a single economic sanction against the country until 2019, against the Venezuelan state-owned oil firm PDVSA. All previous sanctions were targeted against individuals in the Chavez and Maduro administrations, not against Venezuelan companies or the country as a whole. As a Congressional Research Service report updated in February clearly states (emphasis mine):

“For more than a decade, the United States has employed sanctions as a policy tool in response to activities of the Venezuelan government or Venezuelan individuals. These have included sanctions, including targeted sanctions against almost 100 individuals, related to terrorism, drug trafficking, trafficking in persons, antidemocratic actions, human rights violations, and corruption. Most recently, on January 28, 2019, the Trump Administration announced sanctions on Venezuela’s state-oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A., or PdVSA.”

If you want to continue promoting the economic war argument without evidence, at least don’t do it on national television where you end up looking like a foolish, ignorant ideologue as former London mayor Ken Livingstone recently did in a car crash BBC interview.

2) The 2002 “US-led” coup d’etat: Hard leftists continue to bring up the participation of the US in the failed 2002 coup d’etat against Chavez as evidence of the US’s continued attempts at destabilizing the country (which in turn has led to the economic crisis). Let’s start by recognizing an obvious fact: the US has always seen the Chavez/Maduro regime – and every other populist leftist regime in Latin America – as being counter to its political interests. But it does not logically follow that there has been a campaign of destabilization for the past two decades because of this.

For starters, it is necessary to clarify exactly what the US’s role in the 2002 coup was. There is considerable evidence to suggest that US intelligence services were very well aware that a coup was being plotted, and that the Bush administration was prepared to support the coup plotters had it succeeded (which it nearly did). However, there is simply no evidence that the US had an active or leading role in it, or that it provided material assistance. So it is false to equate the US’s “support” of this coup with its support of other coups such as the one in Chile in 1973 against its socialist president, Salvador Allende, which leftists frequently quote as evidence that the US will do anything in its power to stop the spread of socialism in its backyard. In that case, the CIA had actively waged a campaign of political destabilization for years and also provided material support to Agustín Pinochet and his generals both before and after the coup. The failure to accept that a) not all coups are the same and b) not all foreign involvement in coups is the same demonstrates the same lack of historical contextualization that the left usually accuses the right of.

Even an article that exposes the extent of the US involvement makes it clear that the US merely had a passive role in the coup (emphasis is mine):

“Furthermore, the CIA documents make no mention of any attempts to have Chávez forcibly resign from office. The CIA warnings indicated as early as March 5, 2002 (which is the date of the earliest document provided) that a coup was on the rise and even hinted that prospects for a successful coup were limited. The CIA rightfully felt the opposition was too disperse and divided to successfully overthrow Chávez. But the concept that Chávez had “resigned” as the White House and State Department “confirmed” on April 12, 2002 was merely a set-up, a false claim made with the intention of deceiving the U.S. public and the international community.”

Furthermore, it has been 17 years since the 2002 coup. Claiming that the 2002 coup somehow caused nearly two decades of political destabilization and led to the country’s current economic predicament is scraping the argumentative barrel. It ascribes no agency whatsoever to the Maduro in committing his crimes. Sadly, that has not stopped supporters of the Maduro regime continue to describe the current efforts to remove him as another coup d’etat. Which is rather strange terminology to use given that his last election was a sham and he is therefore an illegal president. One whose toppling by say, a renegade faction of the Venezuelan military, could hardly be morally or legally questionable.

3) Maduro or a US invasion: Hard leftists are right to worry about the consequences of a US-led military intervention, especially an outright invention. Only the most radical among those who oppose the Maduro regime would welcome a US invasion given the risk of even more civilian deaths and further destruction of the country’s economy. But just because the US has rattled its sabre about the possibility of military action does not mean all actions taken against the Maduro regime equate to support of a military option. This is a false dichotomy which hard leftists have conveniently used to justify no action at all against Maduro.

The fact of the matter is that a US invasion of Venezuela is such a last resort that the odds of it happening are minuscule. This despite the involvement of notorious US foreign policy hawks like John Bolton, or the recent appointment of special representative Elliott Abrams; a man who has a deplorable record of complicity in Central American human rights abuses and genocide during the Reagan administration, and who should be barred from ever holding an public post. It certainly hasn’t helped that US-friendly far right regimes like that of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil have even contemplated the setting up of US military bases along the Venezuelan border, an idea that is unlikely to happen in practice. No more proof is needed that much of this is diplomatic bluff than Bolton’s infamous yellow notebook that had “5,000 troops to Colombia” scribbled on it. In plain sight for the media to see. Surely you realized that this was deliberate, right?

But even if you believe that the possibility of an invasion is not minuscule, the fact is that one should not support the Maduro regime merely because the possibility of an invasion exists. This knee-jerk opposition against US imperialism at all costs is the fundamental argumentative fallacy of the hard left’s simplistic worldview. One that sees the US/West/Israel as being the root of all evil in global politics. This “enemy of my enemy is my friend” mentality is one that results all too frequently in hard leftists supporting despicable authoritarian regimes like that of Maduro and his allies, Russia and China, countries that stand pretty much against every value that leftists hold dear. And if you think that Venezuela is merely a pawn in a global geopolitical struggle, why would you want Putin’s Russia or Xi’s China to emerge victorious? How will the world be better? This does not help the leftist cause in the least, particularly when the right accuses our side of not being committed to democracy and consequently, that socialism is a slippery slope to authoritarianism.

There are also those who insist that this is not the time to call out the failure of the Chavez/Maduro regime because the threat of US invasion is so real. Actually, this is precisely the time to do so, because once the window of opportunity for removing Maduro closes, it may be years before the opposition has another chance; years in which this criminal regime will continue to profit out of the Venezuelan people’s misery and continue running the economy to the ground. This argument sounds disturbingly like the right not wanting to discuss gun control after a mass murder. I’m surprised the hard left doesn’t note the similarity.

Final thoughts

Fact: Maduro leads an illegal, criminal, authoritarian regime that has brought ruin to Venezuela. He is not a democratically elected leader and he has no intention of bequeathing power peacefully. Calls for a “negotiated solution” are merely excuses for Maduro to remain in power at a time when the international community needs to do everything possible short of a military invasion to remove him. If it makes you, dear leftist, uncomfortable to side with the US – and particularly to side with the Trump administration – then I’m afraid you will have to bear with that discomfort. Is your ideological posturing more important than alleviating the Venezuelan people’s suffering? If it is, you do not deserve to inhabit the same moral universe as the leftists with common sense; leftists who understand what is so problematic about your support of Maduro, whether it is stated openly or implicitly under the guise that you are merely opposing a US invasion or that you want a diplomatic solution. Indeed, you are no better than right-wingers who have eschewed all their moral (especially religious) values in support for Trump and use all mental gymnastics available to avoid appearing as the hypocrites that they are.

Being against Maduro also does not imply ideological support of the (right-wing) opposition. Venezuelan conservatives have a terrible history of economic policymaking and a record of doing little to resolve the social inequalities between the country’s mostly white elite and its mestizo/mulatto majority (let alone the indigenous and black minorities who are at the bottom rung of the socio-economic pyramid). Indeed, the reason why Chavismo was so successful is because it prioritized the latter in the allocation of economic resources, although in no small part due to its own interest in setting up a clientelistic relationship with the poor and working classes that would help him continue winning elections (which until 2014 worked). Unfortunately, leftists must accept that after the disaster that has been Chavismo, the left in Venezuela is likely to be wiped out as a political force for decades. This is the price one pays for bad government. Hopefully whatever right-wing government succeeds Maduro is also conscious of their side’s failings in the past and helps rebuild the country for the benefit of all, not just the elites.

In the meantime, Venezuelans deserves better than their despotic government receiving the tacit support of supposedly well-meaning leftists, particularly leftists writing from the comfort of their iMacs in Washington or London or Mexico City and who pay no price for their support of Maduro. It is telling that all my former Chavista Venezuelan friends have no longer supported the regime for years; only the foreigners remain adamant that this bastion of Latin American leftism be defended at all costs against US imperialism and golpistas (“coup plotters”) from the right. Don’t make Maduro’s Venezuela the hill you choose to die on.

#VenezuelaLibre

(The author was the lead analyst for Venezuela for the Economist Intelligence Unit in 2016-17)

On inequality and consumption

A vibrant market economy benefits from more egalitarian income distribution

Inequality matters. Not just as an issue of fairness but also because a vibrant, market economy is much better off when wealth and income are spread around more evenly among the population. There are two reasons for this. First, consumption of certain goods and services “takes off” after a population reaches a certain level of income. Secondly, because the more people consume these goods and services, the more competition there is and the cheaper they become. In other words, the same amount of GDP among two populations but with vastly different distribution of income will result in vastly different consumption patterns; and consequently, production patterns as well. Let’s see how this manifests in real life.

A tale of two countries

When it comes to inequality, it’s hard to think of two regions in the world more disparate than Latin America and Scandinavia. Latin America has long held the title of most unequal region of the world, and even though most countries in the region are now considered “middle income”, a significant share of their population are still poor. Furthermore, those in the so-called middle class still have considerably lower purchasing power than a middle-class Westerner. In contrast, Scandinavia is one of the most egalitarian regions in the world thanks to a generous cradle-to-grave welfare state. When using Gini coefficients, a measure used by economists to measure inequality (with 0 being perfectly equal and 1 being perfectly unequal), Latin America tends to fall in the .45-.55 range. In contrast, Scandinavia usually ranks at .25-35. Continue reading

Embracing democratic socialism

Be on the right side of history and start wishing capitalism goodbye

Democratic socialism

There is just one New Year’s Resolution worth having in 2019: become a democratic socialist.

If you already are one, congratulations! This post may be preaching to the choir but I’m sure you’ll enjoy it anyway and will at least give you some good arguments against those who are still in denial (which sadly includes many on the left). If you’re not, keep reading and if these arguments don’t convince you, then perhaps nothing ever will.

What is democratic socialism?

The best way to describe democratic socialism is to start by what it’s not: communism. If you’re the kind that instantly has a mini heart attack by even a fleeting mention of the word “socialism”, relax, we’re not nostalgic for a return of the Soviet Union nor are we here to provide lame apologies for the disaster that is Venezuela (more on this later). With that out of the way, let’s explain in detail. Democratic socialism is the economic system whereby the means of production are owned and directly controlled by the people who work it. The key word here is directly. Whereas communism attempted to do this by having the state take control of these means (which proved disastrous), social democracy seeks no intermediary. Imagine an economy where every business was a worker-owned cooperative and workplaces guaranteed similar democratic rights to their workers as citizens are guaranteed in the public sphere. That’s basically it.

Democratic socialism might sound similar to social democracy but in practice, social democracy remains capitalist: there is no fundamental difference in the corporate ownership structure in social democratic countries to liberal capitalist ones. The main difference is that social democratic societies tend to provide a wider array of public services (a welfare state and state-owned firms) as well as take a more active role in preventing market excesses (regulation). They also encourage strong trade unions to give voice to workers in the workplace; in fact, many social democratic parties were born from the late 19th century and 20th century labor movements. Social democratic systems like the Nordic Model therefore sit in a muddled middle ground between socialism and capitalism, incorporating the capitalist ownership structure but with strong and active states that help ensure a socially just society. Continue reading

The New Right ecosystem

The communities and personalities behind conservatism’s lastest bid for your hearts and minds
The New Right Ecosystem

The New Right Ecosystem (click to enlarge)

The emergence of a new conservative movement in the Western world in the 21st century has been one of the most important political developments of our time. But despite the way that this movement has influenced recent elections and produced shocking results like Trump and Brexit, the grand majority of people still fail to understand how and where it emerged. Ever since Hillary Clinton first spelled out the “alt-right” in a campaign speech in 2016, this term has been used as a catch-all for all right-wing politicians and pundits that have pursued a populist, anti-establishment rhetoric but this too proven to be far too limiting in scope for understanding the breadth of the movement. It also ignores that many of the people pushing the movement’s ideas don’t identify with the alt-right, aren’t anti-establishment, and may even be coming from the left itself.

I have therefore created a convenient infographic on what I call the New Right Ecosystem: the assortment of communities that are supporting the New Right movement. Some are obvious, like the original alt-right, the men’s rights activists, or the troll and meme armies that proliferate on forums such as 4chan. Many of these were mentioned in a seminal 2016 Breitbart piece co-authored by who was then the rising superstar of the alt-right, Milo Yiannopolous. But over the past decade even other communities that once appeared to embrace left-wing values have shifted squarely into the Trump camp, as is the case with the New Atheist and skeptic communities that initially arose to combat religious fundamentalism of all kinds in the post-9/11 Bush years. Finally, others like the libertarians are using the New Right as a platform to pursue their free market agendas. The fact that nearly all alt-right and anti-establishment pundits refer to themselves as libertarians or “classic liberals” (an increasingly used euphemism for libertarian sympathies) is telling of how nationalism and market fundamentalism have formed a strange and toxic marriage.

I am confident that the infographic is mostly self-explanatory after reading the legends.  However, this post will serve as a basic F.A.Q., with more analysis coming in future posts. Continue reading

Plucked Chicken Award 2018: Mohammed bin Salman

What happens when you grow up without ever knowing the limits of power

When Plato described man as a featherless biped, Diogenes the Cynic came to his Academy with a plucked chicken proclaiming “this is Plato’s man!”. The Plucked Chicken Award will be awarded every year to the human being that best represents the folly of our idealization of our species.

Plucked Chicken Award 2018: Mohammed bin Salman

Last year’s Plucha (every award needs its shorthand) was awarded to
Aung San Suu Kyi, not because she was the most horrible human being the world, but being the one that fell most from grace in the shortest of times. In fact, it’s hard to think of someone who went from a Nobel Peace Prize winner to a sponsor of genocide (Kissinger, you came close). This year, however, it does go to one of the most horrible human beings living on planet Earth, and worse still, running a country. And that is the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman al Saud. At the tender age of 33 he has demonstrated nearly every psychopathic quality that emerges in a human being who has been raised to know nothing other than absolute power, for tyrants begotten from other tyrants are invariably magnitudes worse than their predecessors. Were he the ruling monarch of some hermit kingdom or dysfunctional third-world kleptocracy, the problem would mostly be contained. Unfortunately, he presides over one of the most geopolitically important countries in the world, a Middle East powerhouse which is a protagonist of nearly every conflict in the region, mainly the ongoing Syrian and Yemen civil wars. His actions matter. Continue reading

Your third-world reptilian brain

When your attitudes don’t develop in line with your incomes

Between today and Sunday, Mexicans will be able to vote in a public referendum on whether to cancel the construction of a new airport for Mexico City or allow it to proceed. The (admittedly shambolic) referendum is organized by the incoming government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador who promised to cancel the airport during his campaign but has since acceded to allow the public to settle the matter instead. But why cancel the largest infrastructure project in modern Mexican history? Well, it just so happens that the airport is being built on what’s left of Lake Texcoco, the only surviving wetland in the Mexico City metro area. It is an area prone to flooding, earthquakes, and sinking. But beyond that, it also sits on top of one of the largest aquifers in the region, one that supplies millions of people in the surrounding suburbs with fresh water.

Of course, being that most of those millions of people happen to be from poor and working class households means that their opinion on the matter had little influence on the current government when it drew up its plans. And well, the wetlands themselves have been largely abandoned, a giant greenfield site just waiting for it to be filled up with concrete and steel. Plans to restore some semblance of the old lake have not fared well in the last few decades despite its historical significance. Mexico City – or as it was called in Aztec times, Tenochtitlan – was once the Venice of America: a city built on the lake, crisscrossed by canals and floating croplands. It must have been an impressive sight to the Spaniards when they first marched across the city’s causeways. But after the conquest, the Spaniards began to dry out the lake in order to expand the city, in the process destroying the fragile anti-flooding mechanisms that the Aztecs had built. The response to constant flooding of the city was to dry out the lake further. After independence, the process of “modernizing” the capital continued, with the last canals being turned into freeways during the 1950s and 60s, and the lake itself practically disappearing by the 1990s save for a few remaining reservoirs which face an uncertain future once the airport is up and running, whenever that may be: it already faces a 2-year delay at least, a $2.5 billion cost overrun, and no shortage of corruption allegations over the opacity in the awarding of contracts. Continue reading

Trump and the mind of the abuser

Is he an idiot or a genius? He is neither, simply a psychological predator

One of the most common dilemmas that Trump watchers must suffer is to ask themselves whether Trump is an idiot or a genius. Arguments for both abound. On one hand, nearly nothing that Trump has done as President (or any other of his business endeavors) suggests anything other than unadulterated, blithering stupidity. According to most inside accounts of his behavior, be it from Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, or Bob Woodward’s more recent Fear: Trump in the White House, Trump is a man of frighteningly low intelligence who has trouble grasping basic concepts, much less expressing them in coherent form. His unhinged, incoherent rambles that pass as public speeches seem to be testament of this: it would actually take a supreme effort from someone of moderate or above-average intelligence to consistently speak so badly on so many topics.

On the other hand, the way in which he has whipped up such a large support base appears unparalleled in modern US political history. The comparisons with Hitler and Mussolini abound, and it is obvious that despite the hideousness of their policies they were quite intelligent men and crafty statesmen. Is it also common for those of us living in Britain to compare Trump with his British Tory opposite, the buffoonish Boris Johnson, an Eton- and Oxford-educated man born in privilege and who is just as likely to recite the classics as he is to fly on a zip line waving Union Jacks like a clown at a children’s party. Johnson is no fool, he just plays one. Is Trump a master thespian? A genius wearing a cloak of idiocy?

In my view, no, Trump is no genius. He’s merely an abuser. Continue reading

The tale of the immoral cyclist (and CEO, and Republican)

Why pretending to be moral will actually make you a worse human being

Use the Greenwich Foot Tunnel during rush hour at your peril. Every weekday from around 5pm onward (I have not crossed it in mornings), the Victorian-era tunnel that conveniently connects both sides of the Thames between Greenwich and the Isle of Dogs becomes a shortcut for cyclists who speed through it at full speed from their finance jobs in Canary Wharf to their southeast London homes. The cylindrical foot tunnel, which as its name describes is for pedestrians, is not much more than 2 meters across at ground level. Most annoyingly, it has very large and very clear “NO CYCLING” signs at both entrances and also painted on the ground every couple of meters along the way. Despite this, only a fraction of cyclists who cross the tunnel during rush hour ever bother to dismount from their bikes and cross it by foot. Which by law, they should.

One typically expects reckless, obnoxious behavior in London to be committed by the usual suspects: chavvy youths or wolf-packs of loutish drunk working-class men. Not well-off bankers, most of which are white, middle-aged men. Furthermore, one expects blatantly illegal behavior like riding at full speed in a pedestrian tunnel, where a slight mishap might have them seriously injuring (possibly even killing) someone, to be the domain of cyclists. Cyclists, after all, are the good guys in the story. They don’t burn off CO2 from their cars or from using transportation. Many Western cities now openly encourage people to take up cycling to work.

Why are the most morally-minded, ethical people doing something so wrong? Continue reading

The Spectrum Fallacy

Why all of something good isn’t better than just some of it

The economic rise of China since the 1980s has been one of the most, if not the most, impressive feats of economic progress ever. It has eradicated poverty by the hundreds of millions, created an industrial sector that has dwarfed anything ever seen in human history, and despite the country’s size and maturity, continues to grow at a pace that any Western democracy and even most developing economies can only dream of. This has been largely been achieved by the Chinese government’s adoption of market policies. China is now the world’s greatest trading nation and also a massive receptor and supplier of foreign investment. Capitalism works, and it follows that China is the perfect example of why countries should liberalize their economies and embrace free markets unconditionally.

Except it doesn’t follow.

If you were tempted to draw this apparently obvious conclusion, congratulations, you are a victim of what I like to call the Spectrum Fallacy, possibly the most pernicious flaw of logical argumentation in policy circles. What is the Spectrum Fallacy? It is the flawed premise that just because something is demonstrably better than something else, more of that something is necessarily better than only some of it. It is very similar to a well known logical fallacy, the false dilemma. Like the false dilemma, the spectrum fallacy assumes that there is a false choice, that one must necessarily choose between two mutually exclusive options (statist communism or laissez-faire capitalism). However, here we are assuming not that there are more choices but that either of these two choices can be better when they are applied less extremely across the spectrum of possibilities. Continue reading