The Correct Way to Argue with Richard Hanania
Race-IQ Science is lurking in the "Let's Suppose"
I’ve often had occasion to turn to Daniel Davies’ classic advice on “the correct way to argue with Milton Friedman” over the two decades since I’ve read it. The best white hat hacker is a reformed black hat hacker, and Dan (dsquared) knows both the offense and defense sides of trolling.
Dan (back in 2004!):
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I’m pretty sure that it was JK Galbraith (with an outside chance that it was Bhagwati) who noted that there is one and only one successful tactic to use, should you happen to get into an argument with Milton Friedman about economics. That is, you listen out for the words “Let us assume” or “Let’s suppose” and immediately jump in and say “No, let’s not assume that”. The point being that if you give away the starting assumptions, Friedman’s reasoning will almost always carry you away to the conclusion he wants to reach with no further opportunities to object, but that if you examine the assumptions carefully, there’s usually one of them which provides the function of a great big rug under which all the points you might want to make have been pre-swept. A few CT mates appear to be floundering badly over this Law & Economics post at Marginal Revolution on the subject of why it’s a bad idea to have minimum standards for rented accommodation. (Atrios is doing a bit better). So I thought I’d use it as an object lesson in applying the Milton Friedman technique.
In the same friendly spirit, I’ll note that Jonathan Katz flounders a bit in his rebuttal of Richard Hanania. None of this is to blame Katz - Hanania is not only building on his knowledge of social science (he has a Ph.D.), but some truly formidable trolling techniques. Years ago, I upset Jonathan Chait by suggesting he was a highly talented troll of the second magnitude, if a bit crude in technique. Hanania is at an altogether different level. He’s not blessed with Friedman’s benign avuncularity, but he is as close to masterclass level as we are likely to get in this fallen world.
Hanania wants people to buy into a notion of “enlightened centrism,” where the space of reasoned debate would stretch from the left (Matthew Yglesias, Ezra Klein, Noah Smith, Jonathan Chait) through Andrew Sullivan and company to people on the right like Steven Sailer. Now, you might ask what an outright racist like Steve Sailer is doing on this list. You might even suspect that one of the rationales for constructing the list in the first place was to somehow shoehorn him into the space of legitimate debate. But to figure out how Hanania is trying to do this, you need to poke hard at the anodyne seeming assumptions, rather than be distracted by the explicitly galling conclusions.
That is where Katz stumbles. He gets upset at what Hanania says about the Civil Rights Act and affirmative action as the origin of wokeness, saying that Hanania “seems to think that the Civil Rights Act caused the civil rights movement, as opposed to the other way around,” tracing it all back to Barry Goldwater. Katz then remarks on Hanania’s claim in a podcast that “Government literally created race in America. Like not blacks and whites, but like basically everyone else — and Native Americans — basically everyone else was basically grouped according to the ways, you know, the federal bureaucracy was doing things.” Katz has some ripe prognostications about what Hanania hopes will happen if government got out of the way.
But Hanania isn’t relying on the authority of Barry Goldwater. He’s standing on the shoulders of academic research. In some cases – including much of the stuff that Katz focuses his fire on - left-leaning academic research. Even before I did a Google search, I surmised that Hanania’s civil rights arguments riffed on Frank Dobbins’ eminently respectable work of social science, Inventing Equal Opportunity. I don’t know which academics he’s invoking on the U.S. Census and the construction of categories such as Hispanic: there are just so many to choose from, ranging from moderates through liberals to fervently lefty.
You could go after the details of Hanania’s social science claims if you really wanted – I would be startled if there weren’t selective misreadings. It is hard to claim on the one hand that the state creates the structures of race, and on the other that structural racism is a gussied up conspiracy theory, without some fancy rhetorical footwork to work around the gaping logical crevasses. Getting involved in that kind of debate seems to me to be a waste of time. But disputing the broadest version of the case – that key aspects of equal opportunity, civil rights and ethnic categories emerged from modern politics and battles in the administrative state – seems even worse. The bull of Left Critique thunders towards the matador, who twitches his cape to one side, so that the poor beast careens into the side of the ring, and then staggers back with crossed eyes and mild concussion, raring for another go that will have the same unfortunate result, or worse.
More succinctly, you don’t want to be the bull in a fight that is rigged in favor of the bullfighter. Instead, as per dsquared, you want to figure out what is wrong with the terms of the fight and press back hard against them.
As best as I can make it out, Hanania’s “let us assume” moment comes in the middle of a series of apparently non-controversial claims about what “Enlightened Centrists” believe. In context, they initially appear to be things that any reasonable person would agree to, or not think unreasonable. I think most readers won’t even notice them, let alone the nasty stuff that is hiding beneath. Here’s what Hanania says:
Enlightened Centrists take what Bryan Caplan calls “Big Facts” seriously. They are kept in mind as new information about the world is brought to light. Some examples of Big Facts that ECs rely on are: the heritability of traits; the paradox of voting; the information problem inherent in central planning; the broken windows fallacy; Trivers’ theory of self-deception; the existence of cognitive biases; comparative advantage; the explanatory power of IQ; the efficient market hypothesis; and the elephant in the brain. New theories or ideas should be met with more skepticism if they contradict or are in tension with Big Facts that have been well established. ECs of different Level 3 ideologies will place more emphasis on certain Big Facts over others, though some, like the idea of historical progress, they all share.
Now, any sentence that non-ironically connects “Bryan Caplan” to “Big Facts” is a big fat warning sign. Hanania links to a Caplan essay that starts explaining what “Big Facts” are by citing Caplan’s own book attacking democracy. Many key claims in this book are less facts than factitious (my co-authors and I have written about this at some length). They suggest pervasive cognitive bias (in particular, bias against free market economists) undermines the case for regular democracy, so that we should go for markets instead, or perhaps give more votes to well educated people (who are, after all more likely to recognize that economists are right).
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. How exactly is Hanania using Big Factiness and for what purpose? He wants to define Enlightened Centrism so that it favors anti-democratic libertarianism, and brings “racial realists” like Steve Sailer into the conversation.
The apparently anodyne factual claims listed by Hanania systematically shift the terms of debate to undermine democracy and an economic role for the state, and instead promote markets and the belief that persistent inequalities result from some racial groups being systematically more stupid than others. To see this, it’s likely helpful to return to the passage in question, this time with the ideological translation function turned on. These translations are ideologically blunt, and perhaps tendentious, but I think they are pretty well on the mark.
Facts that ECs rely on are:
the heritability of traitsintelligence is racially inherited; the paradox of votingdemocracy doesn’t work; the information problem inherent in central planningsocialism doesn’t work either; the broken windows fallacyKeynesianism - guess what?– it just doesn’t work; Trivers’ theory of self-deceptioncitizens fool themselves with flattering just-so stories; the existence of cognitive biaseslet me tell you how citizens are biased; comparative advantagemarkets are teh awesome; the explanatory power of IQhave I mentioned race and intelligence already? Let me mention it again; the efficient market hypothesismarkets are even awesomer than I just said a moment ago; and the elephant in the braincan I haz even more citizen cognitive bias?
As per the dsquared rule, if you stipulate to these beliefs, you’ve given the game away before it’s even begun. You have accepted that it is reasonable to believe that most people are biased fools, that democracy is inherently inferior to markets, and that differences in life outcomes for black people can largely be attributed to distribution of the genes for intelligence. Charge at the matador, if you want, but good luck to you! You’ll need it.
Or instead, as per dsquared’s advice, when you are dealing with a genuinely exceptional troll like Hanania, do not give away the underlying assumptions. Don’t be distracted by the red cape. Wedge your horns beneath the seemingly reasonable claims that are intended to tilt debate, lift those claims up, toss ‘em in the air and then gore.
This is getting too long already, and I have a life, so I am not going to do the full bullfighter-toss. Instead, at the bottom of this post, I re-order Hanania’s claims so that the underlying assumptions come out more clearly, linking to resources that provide counter-evidence at length. Read if you want, but I’m providing this mostly as a source I can come back to later, or cite as needs be in desultory spats on social media. Notably, the various prebuttals come from co-authors, co-authors plus me, or, in one case, someone who I was interviewing. You can take this commonality (very plausibly) as evidence of my own biases, and enthusiasm to work with people who share them. But even if you think this, they still provide evidence that Hanania’s purported Big Facts are drenched with their own ideology, and in many cases have been bitterly debated for decades. Which is another way of saying that they aren’t established facts at all.
And some of the facts are really not like the others. It might seem weird – if you aren’t read into debates among particular kinds of libertarians – to see that stuff about IQ and heritability in there. What work exactly is this rather jarring set of claims doing for the concept of Enlightened Centrism,? Do identified left-leaning Enlightened Centrists like Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias “rely on” these facts, as Hanania seems to suggest they do?
Readers – they do not. Hanania seemingly wants to reconstruct policy and intellectual debate around a center in which questions of race and IQ are once more legitimate topics of inquiry and discussion. Back in the 1990s (a time that Hanania is nostalgic for), soi-disant centrists such as Andrew Sullivan could devote entire special issues of the New Republic to the urgent debate over whether black people were, in fact, stupider than white people. Big Scientific Facts Said That It Was So! Now, that brand of intellectual inquiry has fallen into disrepute. Hanania, apparently yearns for it to come back. That, presumably, is why those claims about heritability and IQ are in there, and why Steve Sailer makes the cut.
As it happens, Matt was one of the “CT mates” cited in the 2004 dsquared post that was excerpted right at the beginning of this post. I’ve had disagreements with Matt since, on other stuff, but I am quite sure that both he and Ezra are bitterly opposed to the whole race and IQ project that Hanania wants to relegitimize. I can’t imagine that they welcome being placed on a spectrum of reasonable thought that lumps them together with racist creeps like Steven Sailer. But I can imagine why Hanania wants so to lump them – it provides a patina of legitimacy for opinions that have rightly been delegitimated, but that Hanania wants to bring back into debate.
So to see what Hanania is up to, it’s more useful not to be distracted by the provocative and outrageous. Instead, you want to look very closely at what seems superficially reasonable, seems to be the starting point for debate and ask: is there something wrong with these premises? In this case, the answer, quite emphatically, is yes.
Still, you (for values of ‘you’ that really mean ‘I’) don’t want to get dragged in further unless you absolutely have to. As Noah Smith, another of Hanania’s involuntary inductees into the Enlightened Centrist Hall of Fame said, “"Race and IQ" racism is a DDOS attack” on the time and attention of anti-racists. This naturally provoked Hanania to pop up in replies with a sarcastic rejoinder. When I wrote that Vox article I had to spend weeks dealing with Jordan Peterson acolytes popping up to inform me of the Established Scientific Facts about race and IQ. I really don’t want to be back there again. So take this post as an attack on premises, and a statement of principles, rather than the slightest hint at a desire to get stuck back into discussion on race-IQ and similar. Very possibly (he says after 3,000+ words) the best way of arguing with Richard Hanania is simply not to argue at all.
MORE DETAILED DISCUSSION OF PURPORTED “BIG FACTS” BELOW
Markets are Awesome I: the information problem inherent in central planning (socialism doesn’t work). Indeed, central planning doesn’t work. This does not provide, however, a warrant for unleashing free market wildness. Instead, it suggests that we need social democracy, with all its messiness. Why so? Read on.
Markets are Awesome II: the efficient market hypothesis Well, up to a point Lord Copper. The unfortunate fact is that the computational critique of state planners’ information problems also bollocks up the standard efficient market claims. At greater length: “allowing non-convexity messes up the markets-are-always-optimal theorems of neo-classical/bourgeois economics, too. (This illustrates Stiglitz's contention that if the neo-classicals were right about how capitalism works, Kantorovich-style socialism would have been perfectly viable.)” At greater length again: “Bowles and Gintis: "The basic problem with the Walrasian model in this respect is that it is essentially about allocations and only tangentially about markets — as one of us (Bowles) learned when he noticed that the graduate microeconomics course that he taught at Harvard was easily repackaged as 'The Theory of Economic Planning' at the University of Havana in 1969." And if markets are imperfect, and so too the state and democracy, then we sometimes need to set them against each other, as recommended by social democracy. For elaboration of how this applies to machine learning too, see this week’s Economist.
Markets are Awesome III: The “broken windows” fallacy (Keynesianism doesn’t work). Under other reasonable assumptions, the “broken windows fallacy” is itself fallacious and misleading.
Markets are Awesome IV: Comparative Advantage. This is indeed a very important idea, but as per Dani Rodrik, “Our theories — such as the theory of value or the theory of comparative advantage — are just scaffoldings, which need a lot of context-specific detail to become usable. Too often economists debate a policy question as if one or the other theory has to be universally correct. Is the Keynesian or the Classical model right? In fact, which model works better depends on setting and context. Only empirical diagnostics can help us know which works better at any given time — and that is more of a craft than a science, certainly when it is done in real time. If we economists understood this, it would make us more humble, less dogmatic, and more syncretic.” I don’t imagine that this flavor of humility is what is being called for in Hanania’s piece
Democracy is Unworkable I: Trivers’ theory of self-deception (citizens tell themselves flattering just-so-stories). This is only half of the cognitive psychology story. People bullshit themselves all the time, but they also have an evolved capacity to detect bullshit in others. The implication is that group reasoning (under the right circumstances) can consistently produce better results than individual ratiocination, with results for democracy described below.
Democracy is Unworkable II and III: The existence of cognitive biases/the elephant in the brain (have I mentioned cognitive bias yet). Really, these are both slight restatements of Democracy is Unworkable I (the “elephant in the brain” refers to Simler and Hanson’s book of the same name). Both Caplan and Jason Brennan have written books claiming that the pervasiveness of cognitive bias undermines the case for democracy. I’ve already mentioned the pop version of the counterargument. Here’s the academic statement of what this plausibly means for democratic theory. The Simler and Hanson book is clearly aware of the key sources for these counterarguments (one of them is mentioned in a footnote) but doesn’t deign to engage with them.
Democracy is Unworkable IV: The Paradox of Voting (democracy doesn’t work). The problem with this paradox is that it relies on the assumption that voters are rational agents. This entire genre of argument is based in rational choice, which means that it does not sit well with Democracy Is Unworkable claims I, II and III. This incompatibility of ideologically attractive critiques leads a variety of anti-democrats to hop furiously from one foot to another, all the while making special claims to stave off any mean-spirited suggestion that there is lots of irrational behavior in markets too. The resulting intellectual acrobatics are quite impressive in one sense; not at all in another.
Race and IQ I: The heritability of traits (intelligence is racially inherited). Actually, heritability does not mean what most people thinks it means. Moreover, technical meaning blows up many of the standard ‘science proves my racism’ arguments that are unfortunately so common on the Internets.
Race and IQ II: the explanatory power of IQ (IQ differences across race are real). There is excellent reason to believe that IQ has little explanatory power – it is a statistical cluster rather than a single and causally consequential underlying trait. Put more succinctly, the notion that we are able to measure general intelligence is based on a “statistical myth.” Again, this has painful implications for the Internet Libertarian Race-IQ Science Complex.
There’s lots more that could be said, but I think that’s enough to drive the point home, and it’s anyway as much as I’m willing to write on this topic. Finis.
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