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Self in Society Roundup 22

Rufo, equality, systemic racism, Trump, overhead, pessimism, standardized tests, and more.

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
July 19, 2023; ported here on February 9, 2024

Rufo: On one hand, generally I share Christopher Rufo's concerns about the left's post-Marxist ideology. On the other hand, Rufo seems to want to defeat the left with big-government religious traditionalism. He is the enemy of my enemy but not my friend. The title of his new book, America's Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything, is doubly ludicrous, first by comparing the American left to Mao's program of mass terror and mass murder, second by exaggerating the influence of the hard left, as his own success illustrates. Bryan Caplan is quite taken with Rufo because of his promotion of ideological diversity on college campuses, but I think Caplan is not looking at the big picture. Michael Shermer lobs softballs at Rufo; still, it's an illuminating interview. Rufo begins an excerpt of his book by quoting Stalin—but please let us remember that Stalin murdered millions of people. Even as Rufo blasts the left for attempting to engineer the human soul, he invites conservatives to do the same, just using different blueprints. In obsessing about the excesses of the left, Rufo misses the elements of truth about the lasting effects of racism in America and about the importance of liberty for LGBTQ people. Unfortunately, the left often does a poor job critiquing Rufo.

Equality: Aaron Ross Powell has out an interview with Matthew McManus, author of the new book, The Political Right and Equality. I very much look forward to reading this book. At the same time, I worry that McManus does not adequately distinguish moral equality or equality before the law from economic equality. I'm definitely on Team McManus when it comes to opposing enforced social hierarchies. He defines liberalism as the view that people are born in natural equality in some important sense (not the same in every respect), as opposed to born as part of a caste or social class. McManus says he's working on a review of Rufo's book.

Systemic Racism in Housing: An article from Skeptic sets out to explain systemic racism (Shermer mentioned this during his interview with Rufo). The article begins with slavery and Jim Crow, which no sensible person denies were extreme horrors. Most Black Americans lived in rural segregated communities until around 1900, the article relates. Then, as Black people moved into cities, many white people responded by furthering segregation, as through "racial covenants." The federally created Home Owners Loan Corporation and Federal Housing Authority used overtly racist "red lining." "In the postwar period . . . FHA and VA lending drove forward a massive wave of suburban home construction that made new homes widely accessible to White but not Black households," the authors note. These policies also drove the "American urban configuration of Black cities surrounded by White suburbs." Then the National Housing Act funded racist "urban renewal" projects. Culturally, many "Whites . . . continue to harbor negative racial stereotypes about Black people." This article focuses on housing; I'd add that the education system (itself tied to housing) and aspects of the criminal justice system also exhibit systemic racism. All that said, I think there's some truth to Rufo's critique that culture also matters and that many Black subcommunities are locked in damaging cultural practices associated with such things as single-parent households, gangs, and lack of emphasis on education. Yet those pathologies arise in the economic context.

Trump II: Damon Linker: "[W]e face the prospect of a lawless and unpredictable Republican nominee who aims to enhance greatly the powers of the presidency facing off against a broadly unpopular incumbent who could easily lose." If this possibility doesn't terrify you you're not paying attention.

Overhead: Arnold Kling declares "the marginal revolution is dead" because businesses must and do account for overhead costs, not just marginal costs. But the marginal revolution, properly understood, never implied otherwise. George Reisman, intellectual heir to the great marginalist Carl Menger, founder of the Austrian school, was talking about the importance of overhead costs decades ago.

Pessimism: Alison Gopnik: "In research published . . . in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, Gregory Mitchell at the University of Virginia and Philip Tetlock at the University of Pennsylvania looked at these questions [about optimism versus pessimism] empirically. Everybody they tested—young and old, conservative and liberal, news-addicted or not—showed the same pattern. Everybody thought that most things had gotten worse, even if they had actually gotten better. Pessimism reigned." But the study was conducted during the pandemic. The study asks (from the abstract) whether "positive illusions about societal change sustain inequalities by inducing apathy and opposition to reform." On the contrary: "Most laypeople do not organize information in ways that provide reliable monitoring of social change over time, which makes their views on progress susceptible to memory distortions and high-profile current events and political rhetoric." Elsewhere Cowen imagines a world in which people are less neurotic and more positive.

Less Incarceration: Here's a bit of progress (via Cowen): "For Black men, the lifetime risk of incarceration declined by nearly half from 1999 to 2019. We estimate that less than 1 in 5 Black men born in 2001 will be imprisoned, compared with 1 in 3 for the 1981 birth cohort. . . . In 2009, young Black men were much more likely to experience imprisonment than college graduation. Ten years later, this trend had reversed, with Black men more likely to graduate college than go to prison."

Yeonmi Park: The woman who fled North Korea (and who has appeared at both major Objectivist conferences) seems not to have related an entirely consistent account of her background. The horrors of North Korea hardly need embellishment. Park also has drawn parallels between North Korea and the United States that are probably a stretch—but the position plays well for a certain American audience.

Federal Housing: Sam Deutsch suggests building housing on federal lands, which are unaffected by local zoning restrictions. But that's of questionable Constitutional legitimacy. And I don't think the federal government should be in the home-building business generally. Instead, states and localities need to get their acts together and fully legalize the building of housing. If the feds want to sell some of its lands to states or to private entities for that purpose, fine.

Standardized Tests: Another article in Skeptic argues that standardized tests for college admissions are pretty good. Sure, rich kids usually get better preparation for the tests, but people in college admissions can take that into account. What really matters is that a poor kid who does well on a standardized test can thereby find opportunities that would not otherwise be available to her.

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