Sunday, November 19, 2017

On the thorniness of historical counterfactuals

Both the economist and the historian are students of human organisations and behaviour.

The economist (at least in his empiricist manifestation) is usually interested in understanding causation - what causes drive what outcomes. This is at least one way of testing our models. The aim is to understand the structure of the world we live in, with the ultimate aims being prediction and policy improvements.

The historian has a choice to be either an economist or a journalist. The economist version wants to understand why things happened the way they did, and what can be learned about the world as a result. The journalist version scorns the grandiose conceit of trying to pin down causality, and instead sticks to the smaller question of "what happened", telling the stories of the past.

Of course, economists are also historians - they take a series of events that have happened, and assert that they're comparable along the dimensions that matter and thus worthy of being used to understand general principles.

For a genuine historian, especially of world events, the tools needed are different. One must treat historical events as case studies, to be explored in detail, rather than line items in a spreadsheet. If you're understanding World War 2, for instance, for many questions there's pretty much only one line in the spreadsheet. So running a regression isn't exactly on offer, and you probably would do better to crack open a book instead.

Even though it's generally out of fashion among historians, understanding causality and counterfactuals is very important if you want to draw actual lessons from history. The counterfactual says what could have been, if some other choice had been made. It aims to make, in a literary sense, the claim to causally identifying the effect of a single decision.

It goes without saying that this is incredibly hard to do. But for those of us not bound by the standards of academic publishing, it's among the more interesting ways of thinking about history.

Getting the counterfactual right, of course, is largely a matter of judgment and opinion, since we can't actually re-run the past and find out.

But there is one aspect of thinking about counterfactuals that is beyond dispute. If you don't have a clear sense of what the counterfactual is, then you don't have any idea what the actual impact of the decision was.

You might think that nobody could possibly be this stupid, but you'd be wrong. The surest sign is when people complain about some decision that was followed by bad consequences, but never explain exactly what the alternative was and how it was meant to work.

One case where I've come across this is in the role of the British in partitioning India in 1947 into two countries (India and Pakistan) when they left. This is part of the long list of standard recitations given as to how beastly the British were in all matters of administering the British Empire.

As everybody knows, what happened after partition was a total disaster, with widespread violence and population transfers under extreme duress. Estimates of the deaths involved range from several hundred thousand to two million, according to La Wik. The problem is the classic one in the colonial critic's playbook - that the lines drawn on the map didn't correspond to messy demographic reality. When the two came into conflict, the result was maybe a million deaths.

Which sounds pretty bad, no?

But again, bad compared to what? What other choices did they have, and what would the consequences have been?

Here, the dilemma is not so much the "what" as the "consequences". The main alternative was leaving the two places as a single country. The issue, of course, is how that would have actually played out. But for some reason, the people who denounce Britain never seem to spend much time discussing this aspect.

There are, to be fair, arguments that partition was a mistake, because a single country would have done a better job of calming ethnic tensions. To my mind, the strongest of these is the relative levels of antagonism between Indian Hindus and Pakistani Muslims, versus the antagonism between Indian Hindus and Indian Muslims. 

People have a tendency to forget that the last-mentioned category of Indian Muslims not only exists, but is enormous, around 172 million (almost as many, in fact, as the 193 million in Pakistan). And while there is violence and conflict between Hindus and Muslims in India, it's not on anything like the scale or seriousness as the tension between India and Pakistan. The latter could actually devolve into a nuclear missile exchange. 

By contrast, I don't even hear about serious pushes for Muslim separatism in India. I'm sure it exists in some form. But it's less prominent than, say Quebec or Belgium. Indeed, India is perhaps the only other exception (along with Switzerland) to the Holmes rule that there are no stable multilingual countries. Somehow, they mostly manage to rub along. The surest sign that the conflict with India's Muslims is probably not an existential threat to the country is that it's possible to go months without reading any newspaper stories on "Indian Muslims". Certainly, you go a lot longer than you do without reading something about the India/Pakistan tensions.

So this reads like a pretty bad indictment of the British, at least ex post. 

But there's another counterfactual which gets discussed even less.

What if Britain left them as a single country, but they had a bloody separatist war afterwards anyway?

The amazing thing about this example is that it's not even a hypothetical. It literally happened.


Bangladesh. It used to be called East Pakistan, and was part of the same country. They were divided by geography, but shared a common religion. Surely, we would reason, they should work well in a single polity!

Except they didn't. Bangladesh fought a bloody war of independence against what was (and I quote La Wik):
An academic consensus prevails that the atrocities committed by the Pakistani military were a genocide.
As coincidence would turn out (it seems in poor taste to call it "luck" in this context), the estimated number of civilian deaths ranges from 300,000 to 3 million, rather close to the deaths during partition. 

Huh! Doesn't seem quite so cut and dried now, does it?

It leaves me actually quite agnostic on the whole question, to be honest. It seems very unclear whether things would have actually turned out better or worse if the British hadn't partitioned India when they left. It may just be that when they left the place, there was a high chance there was going to be widespread ethnic conflict no matter what they did.

And yet, to slightly paraphrase the great Mr Bastiat, people have a tendency to judge actions primarily by what is seen, not what is unseen.

The people that might have died under an alternative political arrangement are not salient at all. The deaths during partition are highly salient. 

Sometimes there are just no good options, at least based on what you can reasonably know at the time. Sometimes, you have to call things as you see them, suspecting that a lot of people might die either way.

It seems depressing, but likely, that the only actual lesson of partition is the one that the Bard wrote centuries ago - uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Imperfect Vision of the Past

As Mencius Moldbug noted, if the past is a foreign country, then a reactionary is a patriot of that country.

But the past being past, the reactionary is necessarily a patriot from afar. No man can live in any time other than his own. He cannot actually love the country of the past because he has never been there, unless his patriotism extends only as far as his own childhood. He must necessarily love an image of it, the brochure formed from (depending on how distant it is ) photos, paintings, texts, or just translations of texts.

There's nothing wrong with this, per se. We have almost unlimited information about our own age, and how many of us can claim to really understand it? But there is always the risk that unless careful attention is paid, one will still end up filling in gaps with assumptions from modernity. The problem, even for an honest and attentive broker, is twofold.

Firstly, old sources mostly wrote about what they considered important in their own society. Some of the weirdest parts to us may be things they would have mostly taken for granted, and hence didn't discuss much.

Secondly, we interpret these sources in the light of the controversies of our own age. These tend to become the focal points on which other societies are analysed. But the areas where our society is mostly in agreement are less likely to be studied, even if our agreement is completely different from their agreement.

For instance, I am a reactionary of death. It is not for nothing that this blog has an entire subject label devoted to 'mortality'.

And yet, despite being a fully grown man, I have seen a corpse only once in my life, in circumstances where it was not made plain that the person was actually dead. This is not an accident. This is how our society operates.

Just ponder that. Death has not gotten any less common, but extraordinary lengths are taken to ensure that when death visits, it is out of the way, hidden from sight. The main times you will witness an actual corpse is if you happen upon the scene of an accident. Otherwise, it takes place in a hospital, leading to the implication that it is simply the result of failed or insufficient medical intervention, which technology will eventually overcome.

This is of course absurd. You can realise this by studying life expectancy tables, or just by contemplating the human condition.

But most people today don't even realise that they hold thoroughly modern views on the subject of death. It's because it's largely just taken for granted. There are only a few controversies that touch on it generally, like euthanasia, but that in practical terms is actually a step even further in the same direction - now we can shuffle off this mortal coil with the best of drugs, in a comfortable setting, in a time and manner that doesn't have to alarm those around us. In this way, the already thoroughly medicalised process can also become artificially predictable.

Once upon a time, mortality was considered an important thing for men to wisely ponder, and consider how they wanted to live their life. Medieval Christianity used to emphasize this through a Memento Mori. That is, they took extra steps to remind themselves of mortality, so as to not miss the importance. And even without that, death was all around them. People died in their homes, and died much sooner. Avoiding it was just not an option.

The main reason my my own thinking diverges from the mainstream on this point, and I ended up a reactionary of mortality, is from the influence of Buddhism. In Buddhism death is viewed as terrible, one of the great destroyers of the world that inevitably leads to suffering. Unlike in Christianity, it offers no chance of the ascent to a permanent heaven, though there are temporary heavens. Death is often paired with old age, among forms of suffering, to emphasise that the impermanence aspect, and that it is the inevitable outcome of the process of decay. And in Buddhism (which, when I use the term, I mean Theravada, which is my background), even rebirth is not a cause of celebration, but another form of the problem of the endless cycle of suffering and unsatisfactoriness. As a result of all this, wisely contemplating impermanence is a central concern:
“What do you think, great king? Suppose a man would come to you from the east, one who is trustworthy and reliable, and would tell you: ‘For sure, great king, you should know this: I am coming from the east, and there I saw a great mountain high as the clouds coming this way, crushing all living beings. Do whatever you think should be done, great king.’ ...
“If, venerable sir, such a great peril should arise, such a terrible destruction of human life, the human state being so difficult to obtain, what else should be done but to live by the truth (Dhamma), to live righteously, and to do wholesome and meritorious deeds?”
“I inform you, great king, I announce to you, great king: aging and death are rolling in on you. When aging and death are rolling in on you, great king, what should be done?”
“As aging and death are rolling in on me, venerable sir, what else should be done but to live by the truth (Dhamma), to live righteously, and to do wholesome and meritorious deeds?”
“Venerable sire, kings intoxicated with the intoxication of sovereignty, obsessed by greed for sensual pleasures, who have attained stable control in their country and rule over a great sphere of territory, conquer by means of elephant battles, cavalry battles, chariot battles, and infantry battles; but there is no hope of victory when aging and death are rolling in. In this royal court, venerable sir, there are counselors who, when the enemies arrive, are capable of dividing them by subterfuge; but there is no hope of victory by subterfuge, no chance of success, when aging and death are rolling in. In this royal court, there exists abundant bullion and gold stored in vaults, and with such wealth we are capable of mollifying the enemies when they come; but there is no hope of victory by wealth, no chance of success, when aging and death are rolling in. As aging and death are rolling in on me, venerable sir, what else should I do but live by the truth (Dhamma), live righteously, and do wholesome and meritorious deeds?”
“So it is, great king! So it is, great king! As aging and death are rolling in on you, what else should you do but live by the truth (Dhamma), live righteously, and do wholesome and meritorious deeds?”
Of course, nobody thinks like that anymore, if for no other reason than that people do their absolute utmost to avoid even noticing death. If mortality is contemplated at all, it's mostly to advocate for mindless hedonism. Or it's contemplated for a day or two when a relative dies, before being shuffled off into the background and beaten down with awkward insistence that the subject is "morbid" whenever the topic of death even comes up.

If I am out of step with modernity, I am quite sure that it is modernity, not I, who is strange. But I would say that, wouldn't I?

Still, there are plenty of other aspects where older societies are different that aren't so flattering to my conceit.

For instance, I've been reading John Dolan's wonderful prose translation of the Iliad. In many ways, Dolan has undertaken the task of re-telling the Iliad to preserve a set of features almost entirely orthogonal to the standard ones. Which is to say, most translations try to preserve the poetic aspect and the literal word choice, at least as much as both parts can be rendered into modern English (which, for the poetic metre, is not very well). But Dolan ditches this to instead preserve aspects which, he argues quite persuasively, would have been far more salient to listeners at the time (and they were listeners originally, not readers). Which is to say, he preserves the gore, the slapstick comedy, the cruelty, and the enjoyment of military violence.

In this respect, the Greek narrative is actually more understandable than many of us would be comfortable admitting.

But as Dolan notes explicitly, apparently echoing Nietzsche, it is a mistake to view the Greeks as being like us. For instance, take Dolan's observations on how lust was viewed:
Now Zeus has to kill even more of the Greeks. His first thought, a painful wincing one: “Hera’s not going to like this”. His wife and sister, Hera, always knows what he’s up to, and she’s soft on the Greeks. She’s permanently mad at him anyway, because he’s just an old horndog pretending to be in command when he can’t even command his own penis.
These people were very down on lust. That’s one of the ways they weren’t like us. We love lust. They didn’t. It was too dangerous, and it gave women too much power, so lust is a bad thing in this story. To these people, a real man doesn’t get led around by his dick, and if he does, he’s not a man at all. A stud, to their way of thinking, is a sissy, and above all, a sissy stud is dangerous, capable of wiping out an entire city. 
The man who started this whole war was a stud, a Trojan prince named Paris, fitting for a man with the sexual ego of Pepe Le Pew. The only reason he didn’t drive a Porsche or wear Ray Bans is because the infrastructure wasn’t there yet. He’d have defected to Malibu in a second if the airport had been ready. This princeling Paris had the chance to judge a beauty contest of three female gods, and that’s what got Troy besieged.
You've gotta say, the Greeks have a point.

And the modern tendency is also to play up another very un-Greek idea - the importance of romantic love. Amazing as it seems to me, there is a tendency of some to view the Paris and Helen story as some kind of tragically doomed but still beautiful romance, rather than the height of folly, stupidity, selfishness, and effeminate behavior which is how it would have been seen at the time.

But not all of the alienness seems flattering of the Greek world view either. In his discussion of the book in the latest Radio War Nerd, Dolan mentions another aspect that is hard to believe at first:
Above all, they were other, they enjoyed cruelty, they found cruelty hilarious, and if you don't understand that about them, you'll never get them...
The Iliad begins with this captive girl watching as her old father limps down the beach to beg Agamemnon, the vile Greek leader, to release her. And Agamemnon purposely shames him in a really over-the-top way. And that's a bad idea, not because you should be nice to people - there's no such idea in the Iliad - but because he's a priest of Apollo.
The idea that cruelty is generally entertaining, and being nice to people is not an important trait, is something so utterly alien that it's hard to even conceive of it.

Remember this next time you're exalting the glory of the ancient Greeks.

But the weirdest of all to me is something taken even more for granted - the importance of a sense of humor. Robin Hanson had a great post on this. He cites Rod Martin:
Prior to the eighteenth century, laughter was viewed by most authors almost entirely in negative terms. … All laughter was thought to arise from making fun of someone. Most references to laughter in the Bible, for example, are linked with scorn, derision, mockery, or contempt. … Aristotle … believed that [laughter] was always a response to ugliness or deformity in another person. … Thomas Hobbes saw laughter as being based on a feeling of superiority, or “sudden glory”, resulting from some perception of inferiority in another person.
 From the seventeenth to the twentieth century, popular conceptions of laughter underwent a remarkable transformation, shifting from the aggressive antipathy of superiority theory, to the neutrality of incongruity theory, to the view that laughter could sometimes by sympathetic , to the notion that sympathy was a necessary condition for laughter. 
 As recently as the 1860s, it was considered impolite to laugh in public in the United States.
 In the United States, [a sense of humor] came to be seen as a distinctly American virtue, having to do with tolerance and democracy, in contrast to those living in dictatorships, such as the Germans under Nazism, or the Russians during the Communist era, who were thought to be devoid of humor. … By the end of the twentieth century, humor and laughter were … seen as … important factors in mental and physical health  
Which actually casts the earlier Dolan quote in a different light, which I'm not sure that Dolan fully appreciated. If the Greeks found cruelty hilarious, it wasn't just because they had a different attitude to cruelty. They also had a different attitude to hilarity, and what it was meant to represent.

If you want to see what noble character without a sense of humour looks like, read Marcus Aurelius. The seriousness of purpose shines through vividly, but he is not there to entertain you. There are more important traits than a sense of humour.

The sheer range of strange alternative values and thoughts shows, if nothing else, that if there indeed is a psychic unity of mankind, it comprises a far smaller set of traits than you might believe possible.

In the end though, there is no particular virtue in trying to exactly resurrect the past wholesale, even if it were possible. We can only grapple with the world we actually live in, and importing some contemporary assumptions is almost inevitable.

The value in studying how past societies operated, rather, is to illuminate the assumptions that we take for granted, and to inspire a greater imagination as to how things might actually work.

In The Current Year, even getting people to acknowledge that much is a non-trivial victory.