Peter Thiel Believes Justice Is Unrelenting

Everything about Peter Thiel seems larger than life. Marty Neumeier once said that you can hear the caffeine coursing through your veins as you read Peter Thiel. In the words of journalists, he is a “gifted rhetorician and a provocateur with a bottomless pocketbook” who is also America’s greatest living public intellectual. Peter Thiel is against death. He is more “athletic than his onscreen impersonators”. Peter Thiel pays brilliant students to drop out of college. Peter Thiel wants to prevent aging, produce meat and leather without killing animals, and build computers with greater brainpower than human beings. Peter Thiel also wants to build artificial libertarian cities in the ocean. Ayn Rand would have been delighted to see a libertarian businessman who is also one of the greatest intellectuals of all times.

It is not just journalists who find Peter Thiel impressive. Some of the greatest intellectuals on earth are admirers of Peter. Economist Bryan Caplan called him the world’s most creative philanthropist. This is how economist Tyler Cowen introduced Peter Thiel before interviewing him.

“It’s been my view for years now that Peter Thiel is one of the greatest and most important public intellectuals of our entire time. Throughout the course of history, he will be recognized as such. Peter himself doesn’t need an introduction; he has a best-selling book. His role in PayPal, Facebook, Palantir, many other companies, is well known. Peter is a dynamo. There is no one like Peter.”

But it was Peter Thiel who funded Hulk Hogan’s legal battle against for violating privacy. In 2004, Peter Thiel was outed by Gawker. “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people”, a Gawker article said. Peter feared this may deter some of his more traditional investors in Arab countries. When Gawker’s dig at Peter Thiel and some of his friends got too much, he decided to get even. Peter Thiel hired a team of lawyers to research how to bring Gawker down to its knees. Peter Thiel became a vengeance donor. This is one of the many cases in which Peter Thiel funded people who sued Gawker.

Do I blame Peter Thiel? No. Why?

Peter Thiel once told New Yorker’s George Packer that he had not made up his mind about the seat belt question. People drive carelessly when they fasten their seat belts. Then he made a volte-face, fastened the seat-belt and said it is much better to drive carefully while wearing the seat belt. Think about this. Seat belts make driving safer. But if your mind tells you that you’re safe, you’d probably drive recklessly. It’s all in your mind. You can selectively erase the information inside your mind. You can twist such information to your advantage. You can forget facts when it is inconvenient, and remember them again when it suits you. You can transmit untrue facts from one mind to another. All these have consequences. This is why delusion trumps the seat belt. Your safety has more to do with your beliefs than seat belts do. Your safety, and that of others. Our beliefs matter more than where regulators stand.

Let us suppose you live in a traditional society where the punishment for homosexuality is ostracism. If news gets around, your family will disown you. Your friends will leave you. Your will be out of your job. No one will rent out an apartment to you. You will have no place to go. Remember: These are not violations of your rights. People are within their right to do all this. These are not hypothetical scenarios. In some parts of the world, till recently, gays were treated not too unlike this. Even in the US, gays were persecuted under the sodomy laws, and often faced private ostracism and violence. Peter Thiel’s sexual preferences were not known to many except his family, closest friends and colleagues. Why? He feared things wouldn’t be pretty if everyone gets to know this. Your friend Jim knows you are gay. He outs you. Is this fair?

This much is obvious to me. You will suffer through no fault of your own. Jim and your other associates have the satisfaction of not having violated your rights. By tinkering with the information inside the heads of people, Jim harmed you. Here, Jim was not lying. But, what if he were lying? What if he were publicizing information he had not right to publicize, as in Hulk Hogan’s case? Gawker often targets powerless and vulnerable people who can’t fight back. Whatever you think about it, this fits Peter Thiel’s fundamental tenets of philanthropy:

“You want to pick an issue where it both does some good on its own, and at the same time helps draw awareness to a broader set of issues.”

Order By Accident

It is interesting that the Satoshi Kanazawa’s book on conformism in Japan is titled “Order by Accident”. Of course, the social order in Japan emerges from coalition politics. Firms are coalitions that employees serve. Now, observe. As Kanazawa points out, firms are deviant subcultures. Order won’t emerge within firms through sheer co-operation. Much of co-ordination emerges from coalition politics on a much smaller scale. There might be self-interested behavior inside firms, among coalitions, but if people joined more powerful coalitions and if the management encourages this, this wouldn’t be so disastrous as it seems. This isn’t analyzed as much as democratic politics, though even the white collar crimes done to serve the firm are seen as crimes. How often have we seen intellectuals wondering how order emerges within coalition-ridden firms, and how this makes firms less efficient? If intellectuals really do see office politics as nasty, they wouldn’t hesitate to expatiate on it.

Again, democratic politics is a form of coalition politics on a much larger scale. But, unlike in a firm, there won’t be a top-down attempt to channel coalition politics in more productive directions. More importantly, it is improbable that the most powerful coalitions in democracy are the most informed and competent, in formulating policies. If anything resembling order emerges from this, shouldn’t this be far more surprising? But, almost everyone agrees that democratic politics is necessary for order. Democratic politics doesn’t have such a bad press as office politics. But surprisingly, this is scrutinized in detail, and there is a large body of literature that analyzes how this makes the world less efficient. What possibly explains this?

Why Do Intellectuals Hate Hindu Fundamentalists?

Against fundamentalism.
Against fundamentalism.

Everyone seems to hate the Hindu fundamentalists. I do not know why. The Hindu fundamentalists are the friendliest people I have come across, over the internet. This is true even in the real world. Whenever I write a blog post or column that they even remotely agree with, they treat me like an ally. If these rascals knew to hide envy—-their honest vulgarianism—some of them would have been tolerable, I believe.

But, I am not the only person to make this observation. Vinod Mehta observes:

“Actually, I have more friends in the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) than in the Congress. The Congress people are very arrogant and if you say anything against them, they hold it against you in perpetuity. Take someone in the BJP, like L.K. Advani or Arun Jaitley. You can write against them. They are grateful for being written about, they understand that you’re just doing your job. But in the Congress, there is this belief that “You will need me sometime or the other.” Therefore, after I had written about some Congress politicians in the negative, I have found that I had finished my relationship with them.”

I don’t think he is making this up. This is cross cultural. 

But, the median economist is a democrat. So, why are some conservatives and Hindu nationalists friendly toward libertarians? Why do many conservatives identify themselves as libertarians? There aren’t many intellectuals that are openly nationalist. They need allies. The liberals have nothing to gain by building an alliance with libertarians because they are way too many liberals. Liberals and libertarians are culturally liberal, but cultural conservatism doesn’t have many takers among intellectuals, activists and journalists. Religiousness and cultural conservatism do not fit in too well with elite culture. If almost everyone agrees on the merits of cultural liberalism, this cannot be a good foundation for an alliance.

The economically literate nationalists see a clustering of socially acceptable justifications and socially unacceptable positions in Hindu Nationalism—-as a package deal. The socially acceptable justifications are, of course, more of a matter of appearance than of substance. If someone asks why they like the mass murderer Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister, it ain’t hard to claim, “I believe in development”. Or that I am against dole schemes. Or that “He gets things done.” The usual fig-leaf excuses. Much of this is product differentiation. Of course, this plays into the hands of their opponents and the leftist intellectuals. They know that the masses love dole schemes, and think(!) that efficiency is a capitalistic concept. The man on the street feels there is something sinister about “development”.

But, in this battle, the Hindu nationalists have finally won. There are only two possibilities. 1) Hindu Nationalism matters more to them than their preference for dole schemes, and hatred toward capitalism and the rich. 2) The masses—dull as they are—are instinctively shrewd. They know that this is the same old wine in many different bottles. They know that Hindu fundamentalists are not anymore capitalistic and that their opponents aren’t any less religious or nationalistic. They vote for the more charismatic leader. This makes sense because if policy preferences aren’t too negotiable, political parties cannot differ too much.

Of course, almost everyone is a nationalist. Almost everyone is culturally conservative. Liberal intellectuals like Arundhati Roy and Pankaj Mishra oppose globalization. What does this mean?They are against ideas, goods, cultural entities and people crossing the borders. This is nationalism and cultural conservatism smuggled in through the backdoor, but people do not notice. Why should they, if they can roll in the mud without feeling bad about it? There is, of course, plausible deniability.

But, for much of India’s independent history, the Hindu nationalists did not have much of success. Why? This never made much sense to me because much of India’s population is Hindu, and I suspect they are fundamentalists, deep down. Why, oh, Why? Perry Anderson seems to be onto something here:

“By the mid-thirties, Congress as a party was close to monolithically Hindu just 3 per cent of its membership was Muslim.  Privately, its more clear-sighted leaders knew this.  Publicly, the party claimed to represent the entire nation, regardless of religious affiliation.  The reality was that by the end of the thirties, it commanded the loyalty of an overwhelming majority of the Hindu electorate, but had minimal Muslim support.  Since Hindus comprised two-thirds of the population, it was already clear that free elections on either an unaltered or universal franchise would deliver Congress absolute control of any future all India legislature.  Common sense indicated that from a position of such strength, it would be necessary to make every feasible concession to ensure that the quarter of the population that was Muslim would not feel itself a permanently impotent – and potentially vulnerable – minority.  Ignoring every dictate of prudence and realism, Congress did the opposite.  At each critical juncture, it refused any arrangement that might dilute the power to which it could look forward.”

Now, this is Hindu nationalism without guilt or shame. You can have your cake and eat it too. That’s a temptation most Indians couldn’t resist. Unlike the Hindu Nationalists, the politicians of the Indian National Congress did not have to verbalize their motives. They were even allowed to openly denounce the religious fundamentalists. This attracted more articulate, witty, charming, educated and affluent individuals, reinforcing this tendency even further.

Power begets power. It ain’t very surprising that most journalists and intellectuals—much as they claim that opposing Hindu fundamentalists does not mean that they support the Indian national Congress—are softer on the Congress. Many of these journalists even claim that Nehru’s mistakes sound foolish, but only in hindsight. (Oh, Like Karl Marx’s? Indian journalists know nothing about the history of ideas. Any good economist before Nehru would have seen this coming.) Is it a coincidence that this is a political party that wielded power for so long? If you notice the political positions of the journalists who lost their jobs in the past one year, when the proprietors anticipated that Modi might come to power, you’d see a clear pattern. But, the Indian National Congress has been in power for many decades, and they would have been setting the precedent for long. Add to this: School and college text-books. It ain’t easy to switch coalitions. Most journalists are liberal. So, this would have been easier for them than for Modi.

There are, of course, other reasons. As Satoshi Kanazawa observes in The Intelligence Paradox:

“The United States is one of the oldest and most well established representative democracies in the world. It is also probably the only major world power which has never had any history of hereditary monarchy. In fact, the nation was founded with the very goal of rejecting the rule of hereditary monarchy. Why then, now that we have firmly established a secure form of representative democracy in the last two centuries, do we act as if we want hereditary monarchy, by electing wives, sons, and other family members of politicians to succeed? Now, I’m sure that, just like any other profession or career, being a good politician requires certain skills and personality traits, and these skills and personality traits may very well be heritable.(Remember, Turkheimer’s first law of behavior genetics? All human traits are heritable. Many of these important traits may be 50% heritable.) So it makes sense that sons and other genetic relatives (but not wives) of former politicians want to pursue political careers and turn out to be good politicians themselves. Wives of politicians may also turn out to be good politicians themselves if there is assortative mating—where like marries like—on the important personality traits for politicians.

My question is, why do the people want the wives, sons, and other relatives of former politicians to succeed in office and vote for them, as if we have hereditary monarchy and politics ought to be family business? Family business is ubiquitous. Everywhere in the world, sons and daughters inherit and continue their parents’ occupations and professions. But politics in representative democracy is different because the continuation of family business requires popular support and consent. The son of the hardware store owner or the plastic surgeon does not require anyone’s consent and support to continue his family business. The son of the Congressman does. If it turns out that people everywhere tend to want family members to succeed in political office, then such desire may very well be part of universal human nature.

Does that mean that humans everywhere naturally want hereditary monarchy (but with popular support)? Is there something in our human nature that would want our political leaders to be succeeded by their wives, sons, and other family members? People sometimes complain that the wives and the sons who inherit their political offices from their family members are not qualified to be elected. Such complaints were particularly strong for George W. Bush and Mary Bono. But this is precisely the point. When a king dies, nobody asks the question “But is the crown prince ready and qualified to succeed to the throne?” Instead he automatically, unquestioningly, and immediately succeeds to his father’s throne and becomes the next king, regardless of whether he is qualified or ready. Nobody complains that the legitimate son of a king is not qualified to succeed to the throne, because his bloodline is his qualification. That’s how hereditary monarchy works.

My point is that we are acting like we are electing hereditary monarchs. Despite all the complaints about their utter lack of qualification, George W. Bush was reelected for the second term (a feat his father did not achieve), and Mary Bono continues to be reelected today. The fact that they and others may not be qualified for their office therefore supports my speculation. If the desire for hereditary monarchy—political succession within the family—is part of human nature and universal among all humans, then it means that such a desire is evolutionarily familiar, and the desire for representative democracy—or any other form of government—is evolutionarily novel.

Our ancestors during most of human evolutionary history were undoubtedly more egalitarian and democratic than we were in the recent historical past, during the late agrarian and early industrial periods.  However, all the accoutrements of modern representative democracy—such as the secret ballot, one person-one vote, universal suffrage, and proportional representation—are all evolutionarily novel. The Intelligence Paradox would therefore suggest that more intelligent individuals and populations have greater desire and capacity for representative democracy than less intelligent individuals and populations.

Indeed this appears to be the case. In his comprehensive study of 170 nations in the world, the Finnish political scientist Tatu Vanhanen showed that the average intelligence in society increases its degrees of democracy.  The more intelligent the population on average, the more democratic their government. Vanhanen’s finding suggests that representative democracy may indeed be evolutionarily novel and unnatural for humans. It does not necessarily mean that humans naturally prefer authoritarian government, the only major alternative form of government in the world today to representative democracy. After all, authoritarian government is also evolutionarily novel. My suggestion is merely that it may be natural for the human mind to expect their new political leader to be a blood relative of the old political leader, and that pure representative democracy, where political successors are not related to their predecessors, may therefore be unnatural. Natural does not mean good or desirable, and unnatural does not mean bad or undesirable. It simply means that humans did not evolve to practice representative democracy.”

Facebook, My News Editor

05paper3A decade ago, while debating capitalism and socialism in an Orkut forum, I shared a journal article of Murray Rothbard. This evoked response to this effect: “I don’t care about what some guy on the internet says about economic depressions.” It did not occur to them that Murray Rothbard was one of the greatest polymaths ever lived, and that they were adolescents who did not know what they were talking about. When journalists like Manu Joseph claim that the internet disseminates rubbish, I feel quite the same way. They do not know what they are talking about. When journalists see nostalgia as a business model, a bit of iconoclasm is in order. Let me evaluate those claims.

“Friends, as most of us know, are people on Facebook who usually share information. Among the things they post on their newsfeeds are, in fact, news. And columns, too, thankfully. An increasing number of people are now doing many things primarily on Facebook, including consuming journalism. And what they are most influenced by is what their friends have shared. As a result their hopes and convictions find easy confirmations, and are seldom challenged on their newsfeeds. The world might be fragmenting, but within the fragments there is an eerie, almost indestructible, uniformity of minds. Facebook did not create this, but it has facilitated, and will do so more effectively in the future.”

Are these arguments even new? Hundreds of years ago, when the print culture was taking off, the narrow minded Luddites without sufficient imagination raised the same arguments. They believed that The Bible and the works of Aristotle would be printed and read throughout the continent. When people read the same texts, there would be “an eerie uniformity of minds”, or so they believed. Of course, this was not what happened. The body of literary output, before and since then isn’t even comparable. It was not just that the people did not read the same texts over and over. Their belief in earlier texts was shaken when they compared the ancient texts with more credible, modern works of literature. This would not have happened without the printing press. Over five centuries later, the ancients sound stupid. Why didn’t they see the obvious? People aren’t good at comprehending or anticipating change, especially when they are dull and have a vested interest in preserving the “good old ways”.

When I was a child, the only English language publications my parents subscribed to were The Hindu and The Indian Express and The Reader’s Digest and India Today. The internet wasn’t around. These newspapers and magazines were the only source of news and analysis. There was a certain uniformity in consumption of news and analysis. Even now, the range of political and philosophical positions debated in the public sphere in India is quite narrow. It was much worse when I was a child, or even in my early teens. The contemporary events were analyzed by journalists, by mediocre minds. When they debased the ideas of their superiors, there was no one to call them on this. The journalists couldn’t interpret the world quite the same way the public intellectuals or the academic bloggers do. They were blinded by envy and ignorance. A lot of them did not even read books. Even today, I cannot think of a single Indian journalist who knows elementary economics—Or the fundamentals of any social science, for that matter.

There was not much access to the non-fiction classics of the west before early 2000s. Before the blogging revolution, the brightest academic minds couldn’t publicize their thoughts on contemporary events. The internet changed everything.  News, when seen through the prism of social sciences, did not make any sense to me. The journalists never made much sense to me, but the internet made them look naked.

An academic who has been thinking about the internet for the past quarter of a century would not have missed the parallels with the arguments of the Luddites at the outset of print culture. Fifteen years ago, I had to be content reading such third-world ignoramuses who wrote for the Indian newspapers and magazines against tight deadlines. Now, to understand the internet I read Tyler Cowen, Clay Shirky, Chris Anderson, Paul Graham, David Weinberger or Sherry Turkle. Why? They know what they are talking about. They aren’t writing to make a quick buck.

When the brightest intellectuals discuss contemporary events on their blogs, they see many aspects the journalists would have missed. They see many aspects other intellectuals had missed. They continually challenge each other. In the pursuit of the truth, they push themselves hard. Do you see uniformity of opinions here? I do not.  

“Facebook is now an ally of mainstream journalism as any good distributor of content would be, but it is also an efficient medium for disseminating rubbish.”

True enough. Way too many people write on the internet. The median blogger is, in all likelihood, a moron. This is inevitable. But, India has 99,660 publications according to a recent estimate. The media allows way too many people to write. The median journalist is also, in all likelihood, a moron. If you judge the media and the blogosphere according to the performance of the median journalist or the median blogger, there is no substantive difference. As a reader, I do not see much difference between writers that live with mild mental retardation and the writers that live with borderline intellectual functioning. So, why do I read blogs? The best bloggers are geniuses. Here, I am not using the term “genius” loosely. The best bloggers are more informed than any newspaper columnist. If the best bloggers are geniuses, why should I worry about the incompetence of the large majority of incompetent bloggers? 

True enough, rare as they are, the western capitalistic democracies have very good journalists and columnists. I sift through newspaper and magazine archives. I read them. Of course, bright academics and public intellectuals do write for the mainstream press, but they are not merely bright intellectuals, they are also politically correct, clever “politicians”. When compared to the best bloggers, they are not so good. The newspapers and magazines do not turn over their editorial page to truly iconoclastic thinkers. To speak for myself, I do not write carefully constructed prose for a middle-aged harlot to botch it up.

For instance, Manu Joseph writes for the New York Times, but not one of my favorite western bloggers have a regular column at the New York Times. The mainstream media does not cater to elite insiders. His views are well within the mainstream because he is not a particularly well-read writer, or an extraordinary thinker. But, every single blog post of the best academic bloggers reflect a lifetime of scholarship. It is not surprising that their views might offend the readers of the New York Times or The Wall Street Journal. I cannot recall a single blog post on Econlog, or Overcoming Bias that disappointed me. On the internet, anyone can contribute to world literature, but the internet also allows the geniuses to publish. It is the geniuses who push humanity forward. Time is very, very, valuable.

“Facebook is most dangerous when a major conflict divides society, as did Israel’s attack on Gaza. Facebook users, in the passions of their ideologies, found, in their newsfeed of course, news and visuals that endorsed their emotions. They attached credibility to these stories because they were posted by their friends, and propagated them without enduring the inconvenience of verifying them. For that they would have had to take the trouble to go to the website of a respectable news organisation.” 

The journalists are not more credible than the best bloggers. To begin with, the talented academic bloggers would find the cheap rhetorical tactics of third-world journalists beneath them. I was never disappointed reading a journal article or book the best bloggers recommended. I do not trust the Indian literary critics. No Indian journalist has sound judgment in such matters. No news organization is “respectable”, in any meaningful sense of that term. Verifying facts ain’t easy. No Indian journalist knows how to interpret studies because they do not know social statistics. News is worthless if you do not know how to interpret what you read. Most people who read the newspapers cannot interpret news. But, it is the processors that matter, not the hunters and the gatherers. The talented bloggers are better processors.

Could any journalist have written any of these blog posts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). I doubt. So, should a reader form his opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by reading the lesser “eminentoes” that write for The Times Of India or The Hindustan Times? Or, should he read what the brightest minds on earth have to say on this? For once, I leave the answer to you.

“Over the past few weeks, many were fooled by a story that was originally the work of a satirical website — that all of Earth would be enveloped in total darkness for six days in December because of a solar storm.”

But, the supposedly respectable newspapers and magazines have always fooled the readers. This is not necessarily because they were trying to purposefully fool the readers, but because they are duds. While working against tight deadlines, even a bright mind might just give up. Journalists do not see how they are distorting reality because they do not see how their cognitive biases deceive them. Even if you point this out, they wouldn’t recognize this, because they are not introspectivist enough. . They do not have ethical standards not because the advertisers corrupt them, but because they are barbarians, and do not have any values to begin with. They did not grow up reading books.  Morons cannot have moral values. Much as they rant about falling journalistic standards, the journalists haven’t even identified the problem. But, on the blogosphere, the brightest minds analyze contemporary issues. The brightest minds on earth are not journalists for the same reason the copy editors in news organizations are not the most grammatically skilled people around.

“Facebook, like most smart people and entities, has a mild disregard for what humans might achieve when left to their own devices. So it intervenes in the composition of newsfeeds to make them interesting. It does this through a secret, evolving algorithm that decides, on the basis of personal histories, what people might be interested in seeing when they are inside Facebook. Such a seductive newsfeed not only makes it easier for the users to shift to online journalism but also lures them to bypass the digital versions of conventional media. Already, for a vast section of the youth, the very idea of a newspaper’s homepage is nostalgic. They are not foraging for news, they are being fed, and fed what they like.”

This is the philosophy of a middle-aged Luddite in its full glory. There were not many talented fellows among the published writers before the internet. There aren’t many talented fellows among the writers who publish on the internet today. Talent is innate, and scarce. The internet has not changed this. So, what has changed? Unlike newspapers and magazines, the internet allows the obscure geniuses to publish. A typical blog post or essay does not fit the format of a newspaper or magazine piece. The traditional publishing outlets, especially in poor countries, were never good filters. 

Much of published literature was always mindless pap. The internet hasn’t changed it. But, this is irrelevant. The problem was never that there are way too many writers. But, it was always challenging to find the diamonds in the rough. But, too much “rubbish” being published on the internet does not make it harder to find those precious diamonds in the rough. Quite the contrary.

In the past, when there were tens of thousands of publications, perhaps filtering meant subscribing to, at most, a handful of them. In those times, perhaps filtering meant reading what the literary critics or friends consider to be good. These weren’t good filters. How do I filter? I read what the best academic bloggers and writers link to. I peruse the footnotes religiously. I subscribe to their blogs. I follow the most thoughtful thinkers on Twitter. I create lists on Twitter and Facebook. On Facebook, I add them to my “close friends” list. I receive instant updates when they share insightful essays. 

The social media is a great filter. But, human minds resent the algorithm-driven filters of the social media because human brain isn’t good at comprehending probabilistic statistics. But, in many contexts they act as if they do comprehend probabilistic statistics because they are instinctively shrewd. But, while reading newspapers they do not act quite the same way. They prefer a “wise editor” for the same reason they pray for a benevolent dictator. It is not Facebook or Twitter, but the supposedly “wise editor” who does not have much respect for what human beings would have chosen to read if they were left to themselves. It is the supposedly “wise editor” who lumps too many unrelated essays together, nudging the reader toward consuming them mindlessly .

Facebook, Google, Twitter, Gmail and YouTube impels us to compromise on the margins to optimize in more substantive ways. When I Google “Neurodiversity”, I might not see some of the best pages that Google does not display on the first few pages. But, this is a small price to pay for macro-scale optimization. It is better to use Google than to grope in the dark. I would rather not read some of the best content than avoid Google altogether. This is what Facebook and Twitter feeds do too. The social media saves time. It cuts “searching costs”. I can barely influence what the media publishes, but I actively influence what Google and my Twitter and Facebook newsfeeds shows me. If you are able to make fine distinctions, you cannot afford not to filter. This is what being a discerning reader is about.

For long, the journalists argued that a lot of nonsense is being published on the internet. The solution is of course, learning how to filter. The social media is one of the greatest filtering tools. Now they claim that filtering creates uniformity. These two claims cancel out each other. But, does this even occur to them? 

“Most of the stories that become popular on Facebook are, naturally, free. Newsfeed functions like a supernewspaper of free content from various parts of the world. There is a popular view that most of the world will not pay for online journalism as they have been habituated to paying nothing for journalism. But it is inevitable that in the future high-quality journalism will not remain free. Great journalism then will become niche and expensive, and very rarely found on Newsfeed.”

The journalists have been saying this for at least two decades. But, this has not materialized, and probably won’t. This is not true of other forms of literature, like academic non-fiction or literary fiction. They have long found a niche. So, why did the truthful journalists fail to find their sweet niche? As Clay Shirky put it, Nostalgia cannot be  a business model.

Why Are Hindu Fundamentalists So Ugly?

An exception that proves the rule
An exception that proves the rule

When I hinted that a girl was too pretty to be a BJP supporter, she lashed out at me, asking whether I expected her to say, “Why, oh, Thank You!”, batting her eyelashes. But, Hindu nationalists are ugly for the same reason porn stars are not the prettiest people in the world. Pornography is a fundamental need of human beings. But, when a girl takes off her clothes in a porn movie, people look down on her. Of course, in societies where the stigma isn’t much, porn stars are not so ugly. A guy I know changed his daughter’s name because her name was the same as that of a porn actress. But, when a pretty Bollywood actress takes her clothes off in a photo shoot, people do not care much. Perhaps the contempt toward porn stars is a matter more of appearance than of substance.

The contempt toward Hindu nationalists, again, is a matter more of appearance than of substance. Like the average Indian, most Indian intellectuals and politicians are a lot closer to Hindu nationalists than they think. But, they don’t have self-knowledge. Virtually everyone is a nationalist. Otherwise, globalization and open borders wouldn’t have been so unpopular, even among the most informed economists and social scientists. Despite everything they’ve read, if the best intellectuals cannot shake off their prejudices, it is obvious that such biases are deep-rooted.

But, when someone openly says that Muslims should be slaughtered, or something along those lines, people balk. That does not sound “nice”. But, what they really believe is not too unlike this. Right wing intellectuals and politicians make a career out of this. But, to make a career out of this, you have to be willing to say this out explicitly, loudly, for everyone to hear. If this is not acceptable, you should insinuate that this is what you believe. People with high IQs—especially when they have high verbal IQs—tend to have a highly nuanced and complex understanding of what is socially acceptable, and what is not. (People with Asperger Syndrome are a notable counterexample.) They keep this to themselves. They wouldn’t choose a career in which people draw attention to their pettiness.


Attractiveness and intelligence are the most reliable indicators of genetic quality. Looks and intelligence are highly correlated because high status men chase pretty girls. People with high verbal IQs, I suspect, will find more attractive partners than people with comparable general intelligence. Women with high verbal IQs are unusually attractive to men because they are more likeable. Men with high verbal IQs are unusually attractive to women for the same reason a successful author is more attractive to women than a wealthier real estate agent. If this is true, it is not surprising that the right wing intellectuals and politicians are ugly.

There are way too many leftists in intellectual professions. So, it is not surprising that they are far more competent than non-leftists. The best leftists are smarter than the best non-leftists because they are chosen from a larger pool. I haven’t read a competent Indian libertarian intellectual—other than me–because there are not many of them. They are chosen from a much smaller pool and are, not surprisingly, mainly, duds.

I’ve noticed that people think liberal intellectuals like Arundhati Roy, Pankaj Mishra, and Paul Krugman write fairly well, but are intellectually blank-cartridges. But, this is nonsense. Language is enormously complex. While it is hard to accept the truth, the truth is often obvious. The best liberal intellectuals cannot see the obvious despite being so intelligent because they are conformists. All the platitudes and pretensions to the contrary notwithstanding, they are wimps.

The prettiest girls are not willing to act in pornographic movies, because it is not hard for a pretty girl to make money without getting naked. Similarly, right wing smarties are not too willing to be intellectuals because they have to choose between living a lie and being marginalized. Most intellectuals are liberal. Intellectuals don’t condemn someone who believes that rich people should be taxed and regulated, or that multinational companies are evil because such prejudices are too deep-rooted. Leftists are cheap, little rascals, but they see themselves as nice people. Even their opponents believe that their “hearts are in the right place”. But, right wing intellectuals and politicians are seen as idiots and rascals. Is it surprising that smart right wing fellows don’t want to be intellectuals or politicians?

Biases of liberals have a good press. Biases of Hindu nationalists have a bad press. But, if bigotry bothers intellectuals so much, shouldn’t it bother them more when people are not honest about themselves?

Post Script: It is not surprising that it is Aakar Patel who made this observation. Aakar Patel is the most objective Indian columnist, though he isn’t very smart.

Why The West Won

Can-Asian-Think-Feature-Cover-v2A wide gulf separates the Indian and western thinkers. This is hard to miss. Indian thinkers are abysmally read, shallow and superficial. They do not understand the concept of abstract reasoning. When I read Indian and western nonfiction, I feel that these are entirely different kinds of literature. But, why? Of course, the average Indian IQ is 81. This means that the average Indian fellow is dumber than 89% of the people on earth. But, the differences in IQ do not fully explain this phenomenon. I have known too many people with high raw IQs—mostly in engineering college—and my experience is fairly typical.

Richard Nisbett and Takahiko Masuda have a good explanation:

“Easterners, the researchers find, appear to think more ”holistically,” paying greater attention to context and relationship, relying more on experience-based knowledge than abstract logic and showing more tolerance for contradiction. Westerners are more ”analytic” in their thinking, tending to detach objects from their context, to avoid contradictions and to rely more heavily on formal logic.”

If the concepts that people are taught to believe are true, I find this a very accurate description. Now, observe. What are the eastern thought habits?

1) Thinking more ”holistically.”

2) Paying greater attention to context and relationship.

3) Relying more on experience-based knowledge than abstract logic.

4) Showing more tolerance for contradiction.

These are precisely what intellectuals (whether eastern or western) see as virtues. The eastern values are not stated with much disapproval.

Now, what are the western values?

1)    More ”analytic” in their thinking process.

2)    Tends to detach objects from their context.

3)    Avoids contradictions

4)    Relies more heavily on formal logic Continue reading “Why The West Won”

I Am Free Of The Emancipatory Fire

Vladimir-NabokovIntellectuals and writers are, often, viciously uncreative. It is hard to write good books and make money in the market. What to do? They often find some cause or the other that stirs up the masses—and the other intellectuals. Now, what about the talented writers? I expect the extremely talented writers to send a counter-signal. 

As Tyler Cowen explains, “Consider that the most impressive Japanese business cards are those that list only the person’s name, and no title or affiliation. These are examples of counter-signaling. The Japanese business card doesn’t suggest the person does no business; on the contrary, he is so successful and important at his work that no introduction is needed. Counter-signaling is when the very rich dress like bums. A metrosexual is so sure of his sexual prowess that he can act, dress, and walk like a so-called girlie man. Does Bill Gates go home at night and tell his wife he earned a lot of money that day? I doubt it.” 

There is no reason to believe that intellectuals are an exception to this rule. Of course, they are sending out a signal that they are too good. Even without supporting fashionable causes, they will do just fine. Virtually all of my favorite intellectuals send such a counter-signal. I’ll quote some of these smarties:

“I believe in only one thing: liberty; but I do not believe in liberty enough to want to force it upon anyone. That is, I am nothing of the reformer, however much I may rant against this or that great curse or malaise. In that ranting there is usually far more delight than indignation. I never lecture, not because I am shy or a bad speaker, but simply because I detest the sort of people who go to lectures and don’t want to meet them. “- H. L. Mencken

“All right. You’re beginning to understand. So whatever we do, don’t let’s talk about the poor people in the slums. They have nothing to do with it, though I wouldn’t envy anyone the job of trying to explain that to fools. You see, I’m never concerned with my clients, only with their architectural requirements. I consider these as part of my building’s theme and problem, as my building’s material–just as I consider bricks and steel. Bricks and steel are not my motive. Neither are the clients. Both are only the means of my work. Peter, before you can do things for people, you must be the kind of man who can get things done. But to get things done, you must love the doing, not the secondary consequences. The work, not the people. Your own action, not any possible object of your charity. I’ll be glad if people who need it find a better manner of living in a house I designed. But that’s not the motive of my work. Nor my reason. Nor my reward. You said yesterday: What architect isn’t interested in housing projects? I hate the whole blasted idea of it. I don’t work with collectives. I don’t consult, I don’t cooperate, I don’t collaborate. “-Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead

“Why did I write any of my books, after all? For the sake of the pleasure, for the sake of the difficulty. I have no social purpose, no moral message; I’ve no general ideas to exploit, I just like composing riddles with elegant solutions. I loathe such things as jazz, the white-hosed moron  torturing  a black   bull,   rayed   with   red,   abstractist  bric-a-brac, primitivist  folk  masks,   progressive   schools,   music   in supermarkets,  swimming  pools,  brutes, bores, class-conscious philistines,  Freud,  Marx,  fake  thinkers,  puffed-up  poets, frauds and sharks. I don’t belong to any club or group. I don’t fish, cook, dance,  endorse  books,  sign  books, co-sign declarations, eat oysters, get drunk, go to church, go to analysts, or take  part in demonstrations.”-Vladimir Nabokov

“Don’t feel that I want to reform the human race. I am free of the emancipatory fire.”-V. S. Naipual 

“Winter is here, and for the last few years this seasonal event has meant the sudden discovery of a brand-new category of the pitiable: the “homeless.” A vast propaganda effort has discovered the homeless and adjured us to do something about it—inevitably to pour millions of tax-dollars into the problem. There is now even a union of homeless lobbying for federal aid. Not so long ago there was another, apparently entirely different category: the “hungry,” for whom rock stars were making records and we were all clasping hands across America. And what has now happened to the Hungry? Have they all become well fed, and so rest content, while the Homeless are held up for our titillation? Or have they too organized a union of the Hungry? And what of next year? Are we to be confronted with a new category, the “unclothed,” or perhaps the “ill-shod”? And how about the “thirsty”? Or the candy-deprived? How many more millions are standing in line, waiting to be trotted out for consideration?”-Murray Rothbard

“Unjust treatment of the able may not be the greatest moral issue of our time. But unjust treatment of the able is a serious moral issue.  And it’s a serious moral issue that mainstream moral and political philosophy utterly ignores.  My question for bleeding-heart libertarians everywhere: Why don’t your hearts bleed for the able slave?”-Bryan Caplan

Why Do Liberal Intellectuals Hate Narendra Modi?

CM_Narendra_Damodardas_ModiIf the admirers of democracy were honest, they would have rejoiced when a tea-seller becomes the Prime Minister. If they were consistent, they would have considered this the logical end result of democratic politics. But, they do not. The liberal intellectuals and journalists still treat Narendra Modi like a pariah. It is perhaps true, as they say, that Narendra Modi is a philistine whose understanding of the world is limited to his narrow experiences. But, they do not realise that the same tribute could be paid to almost any voter. Why is this considered a virtue in the voter- a sign of his incorruptibility – and a vice in Narendra Modi?

For liberal intellectuals, it is very tempting to blame Modi for the “politics of hatred”. But, is there any good reason to assume that the vast ethnic massacres, ethnic cleansing and forced sterilisations that underscored post-Independence India like a long trail of blood has nothing to do with the “politics of hatred”? 

But then, it is worse than a waste of time to blame politicians. Without pandering to popular prejudices, they would not have been elected to power. But, the common man could have easily taken reasonable steps to avoid political ignorance. After all, he has nothing to lose. The liberal intellectuals themselves could have read an elementary text on Economics. They too have nothing to lose, except their friends and those positions of power and influence.

Read my column in DNA.

The Sen-Bhagwati Debate: In Retrospect

It is strange that the Sen-Bhagwati debate received wide media coverage in a country where virtually no one reads academic literature. What could have happened? Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati were probably born as leftists. Sen was more dishonest, and did not want to change much even in the face of great evidence to the contrary. Sen had a strategy because being liked and accepted were probably more important to him. After an age, Bhagwati admitted error, changed his positions, and had to accept that this meant less respectability, power and positions. When I became a libertarian more than a decade ago, the lay public had not heard of Bhagwati. He was probably burning in humiliation, waiting to expose Sen. He assembled all evidence he could accumulate to humiliate Sen. Now, after Bhagwati and Panagariya have picked many holes in the arguments of Sen, and after the Indian intellectual establishment has become far more capitalistic, the media is actively debating this.   

Sen still attracts far more attention because everything he did was subconsciously motivated by the desire to be liked and respected.To be successful in the academia, you have to be not just intelligent and industrious, you also have to love the welfare state and such inanities. Whatever their flaws, this is true of Sen and most other high profile academics. But, curiosity is very rare because it is a rare gift, to be born with great respect for the truth and reality. Continue reading “The Sen-Bhagwati Debate: In Retrospect”

Economics And The Mundane

Source: Wikipedia

Years ago, when I first read that there is a strong relationship between welfare payments for single mothers, and the number of welfare mothers, I found it surprising. I have no doubt that this is true, and this fits in so well with my cynical view of the world. But, I still find it hard to believe that many teenagers are willing to bear illegitimate children for a measly welfare cheque. This is a common mistake. Intellectuals often grossly underestimate the lure of the welfare cheque. It is hard for them to imagine that there are people who find the life of a welfare bum tempting. The fact that there are teenagers who are willing to bear illegitimate children for a welfare cheque is just too unbelievable.

But, economists are quite vocal about their belief that monetary incentives can influence many decisions we take in our personal lives, including “baby making”. Free market economists are unusually likely to think so. But, I do not think this is because economists find this easier to imagine than other social scientists. If introspection can fail other intellectuals, it can fail economists too. I believe it is because economists are far less romantic. Economists are often more interested in the truth than politicians, policy analysts and journalists. They look into observable facts of reality.

Economists are also unusually likely to see the influence of monetary incentives in the everyday things we take for granted. In his The Freeman article The Mystery Of The Mundane, Peter Boettke argues that economics students should be more open to the mystery of the mundane: Continue reading “Economics And The Mundane”

How To Sell Libertarianism

Frederic Bastiat (Source:Wikipedia)

Like most libertarians, I did not discover economics in a college classroom. I studied engineering, but, in the college library, I read Samuelson’s “Economics”. I never took much to Samuelson, but it was in his work I read a passage from Bastiat’s “The Candle Makers’ Petition”. It was a passionate, unapologetic defense of free trade. It was beautifully written. When I finished reading this passage, the course of my life was set. Bastiat sold libertarian philosophy to me.

In his article “On Selling Classical Liberalism”, in the October issue of The Freeman Alberto Benegas-Lynch, Jr. says that classical liberal ideas are difficult to sell because people are not inclined to liberty. Lynch is right, but Bastiat sold libertarianism to  generations of young men and women. Bastiat’s works were translated into English before the works of his contemporaries were. Unlike other eminent French economists of his time, Bastiat is still popular, because he entertains his readers. He was a brilliant prose stylist.  This is an extraordinary achievement. In the whole of human history, very few economists can be considered good prose stylists. Unpopular ideas are almost impossible to sell, but libertarian ideas will appeal to a wider audience if there are more such stylists. Bastiat succeeded where his contemporaries did not because he gave his readers a memorable reading experience. Continue reading “How To Sell Libertarianism”