This small book is written in 2011 and it seems to be a response to the famous statement by president Obama when answering to question about American exceptionalism. He pretty much stated that America is as exceptional to Americans as Belgium is exceptional to citizens of Belgium. I guess this piece of ignorance should be engraved somewhere next to Obama’s statement that he visited all 57 states of USA.
Actually American status as an exceptional country is pretty much generally accepted worldwide view whether it is accepted with positive connotation as country of freedom and prosperity, or with negative connotation as country of greedy capitalists and self-destructive, unreasonably hard working, money crazy, and madly religious primitives.
This nice book provides a response by presenting pretty clear picture of what American exceptionalism is, and how it come to be. First of all America is exceptional in its geographical settings – it represents a big chunk of the continent separated by oceans from big and powerful at the time countries of Europe which provided for America’s peaceful existence for significant part of its history, meaning no big military, no big war, no mass conscription, and no regular destruction. The size of country provided for abundant land open for settlement for the first century and a half, giving opportunity for any European with guts and drive to settle on his own farm without being robbed by lords, kings, and such.
These settlers created their own ideology, which while being articulated pretty well in founding documents, nevertheless was deeply engraved in minds and hearts of majority of Americans well before these documents were written. The key to this ideology is the simple notion that “all men are created equal” and while acting in their own self-interest through market and without violence, except for self-defense, they more often then not create the best outcome for everybody involved.
Charles Murray identifies 4 key American traits that make this country: Industriousness, Egalitarianism, Religiosity, and Community life based on Voluntarism and Philanthropy.
He provides a very nice picture representing how typical American behavior patterns grow out of these traits, for example Industriousness linked to self-reliance, hard work, and getting ahead. Religiosity linked to social activism, utopian aspirations, and inner self-government. Egalitarianism made aristocracy non-starter, supported mutual respects and equality of dignity, and produced special American phenomenon when the vast majority of individuals identify themselves as middle class even if some of them are rich and others are poor. The last trait is one of the main reasons why socialism and communism ideas did not created mass political movement in America as it happened in Europe.
Murray also analyses current state of American exceptionalism and finds significant deterioration of all these specific American traits. His diagnosis is this:” America still has exceptional aspects, but we are no longer the unique outlier that amused, amazed, and bemused the rest of the world from its founding through the first half of the twentieth century”.
I think that something is missing in this diagnosis. This something is the fact that the whole world moved quite dramatically in the direction of American ideology, even if in America itself this ideology is under attack. This movement removed formal aristocracy just about everywhere in the world. It created democracies elsewhere even if lots of them are far from perfect. It moved the vast majority of the world to market system living state planning in dust. In short as world moved close to America, it became less exceptional.
I also think that America is far from done. I believe that resurgence of American culture is coming and it is coming on the scale that nobody can even imagine right now so the current temporary degradation will be considered for what it is – the small bump on the way to world wide triumph of freedom, self-reliance, and egalitarianism.
This book is somewhat curious take on facts, journalism, and big data. Actually author talks about it as data journalism that is journalism based on databases, statistical information, and such. Simon Rogers, author of this book works for Guardian and is one of creators of Datablog – website for data journalism and this book based on his experience in this area. There are quite a few mainly statistical interesting facts about information from government databases, Wikiliks. It also contains some technical information on file formats and spreadsheets. There is also some information about sources in UK. Overall this book is mainly a collection of curious data and review of methods of their acquisition and analysis.
During the first half of my life I lived in environment where everything was science or at least scientific. I studied Scientific Communism, Scientific Atheism, and other Soviet Scientific BS. I also studied subjects which had nothing scientific in their titles, things like mathematical physics, electronics, Boolean algebra, design of computer processors, and quite a few others included in university studies for system engineers. Even at the time I noticed an interesting phenomenon that the more words “science” and “scientific” used in description, the less reliance on experiment this subject contained and more difficult it was to pinpoint reason why, despite lots of very logical and complex statements representing this subject, they clearly made no sense whatsoever if compared with realities of the world around me.
Obviously I never heard about Karl Popper and his epistemological work. Somehow it did not even get into books with names like “Critic of bourgeois philosophy of science” which I kind of liked to read to amuse myself by the strange inability of bourgeois philosophers to accept compelling logic of Soviet Official Scientific Whatever. Now I finally got to read “Logic of Scientific Discovery” and really enjoyed a clear thinking of Karl Popper even if I left Soviet notion of “Scientific” behind long, long time ago.
This book is somewhat complicated so I would not try to go into details and particularities of its logic. The most important in it is a notion of scientific logic, which includes two steps process – building of theory and its falsification or more precise attempts for its falsification.
This notion of falsification is, probably the most important contribution to understanding of science as method of knowledge acquisition. In short falsification of theory is the clearly defined conditions for experiment and its outcome, which, if proved to be true, falsifies the theory, or in other words proves that it is incorrect. The simplest example of this method is a theory that sun always rising every morning. The falsification of this theory would be fact that one morning sun did not raise. Even if sun will rise the morning after, the original theory still is falsified and we’ll need another theory to explain the phenomenon of raising sun.
By the same pattern an extension of this theory would be the theory that sunrise is directly connected to the chief priest’s making sacrifices to gods. The falsification of this theory would be the statement that if chief did not make sacrifices, sun still would rise. It is scary, but if proved to be true, it would make the theory about sacrifices and chief false and could even lead to chief’s unemployment since his work on making sunrise to occur is just not necessary.
One very interesting consequence of this logic is impossibility of any settled science whatsoever because as long as theory is scientific it has a statement of falsification. It doesn’t matter how many such statements where tested and confirmed because for theory to remain scientific it should still have a statement, which could be tested only sometime in the future. As soon as such statement could not be provided the theory cease to be scientific and become an article of faith. And that is exactly what happened with all this “scientific” theories that I studied in the late Soviet union – they where falsified and before disappearing turned into articles of faith, and pretty evil faith at that.
The main point of this book is that American Constitution should not and cannot be used and understood outside of unwritten rules and mores of culture at the any given moment, so with changes in this culture overtime the written text is read and perceived differently even if not a word had changed.
Akhil Amar starts with detailed legal review of constitutional issues of impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson. He makes pretty convincing case that the text of written constitution if taken literarily could conceivably lead to situation in which Andrew Johnson would preside as judge in his own case. This logical outcome of written text contradicts not only to all cultural traditions, but also to simple common sense. So the first lesson of this case is necessity of dialogue between written Constitution and unwritten Constitution, which includes various principles implicit in the text.
The second case used for analysis: McCulloch vs. Maryland related to state’s claim to tax Bank of United States – federal organization. Here chief judge Marshall established option of deriving rules not from the written text, but from “broad purpose of document”. Here is the logic: Step 1 – purpose of constitution security of the people; Step 2 – Creating central bank fit into this purpose; Step 3 – Therefore central bank is constitutional. I think it is one of the earliest examples of pulling constitutional rabbit out of the top hat. Needless to say that not everybody agreed with this logic and it took more then a hundred year before supporters of central bank achieved final victory in form of establishment of Federal Reserve System, and, after another 100 years, it is still not clear whether FED increased or decreased economic security of the country.
Other cases reviewed in this chapter involve freedom of speech and executive power. They all lead to one conclusion by author – the clause-bound literal interpretation of constitution fails.
The second chapter provides an interesting take on how the Constitution became the law. The one of the most important characteristic of this process was unabridged free speech of everybody involved and interested in process. This was a great break off from all known traditions including well-established British tradition of Parliament making laws and people just accepting it. The tradition of free speech with which American constitution started was not formed easily. Long after the Constitution become law the attempts by people in power to limit free speech continued, and so far all of them from Sedition Act of John Adam’s administration to “Fox News is not a news organization” of Obama’s administration failed and failed quite miserably. Another interesting things that was not well understood before, is that 9/13 rule of states ratifying constitution was not binding on states that voted NO. Actually 2 states Rhode Island and North Carolina declined to ratify the Constitution in 1787-88 and joined the Union later. In other words majority decision was binding only on states that vote for it. It would be great if such rule were expanded to individuals. In this case we would reed of the worst problem of democracy – people voting to give themselves money of other people.
The chapter three is about constitutional status of textually unnamed or underspecified rights. Such rights from property law to criminal law are based mainly on common law traditional for British culture. In this case it is not unusual for judges just attach part of constitution to whatever rules or rights they feel like creating. A good example of such situation reviewed here in details is the rule of exclusion of reliable physical evidence if it was obtained in violation of law. Neither Constitution nor common law provided for such option, but nevertheless this rule was successfully established and is maintained because it is what legal establishment wants.
The chapter four is all about the greatest discoverer of constitutional rights and privileges that nobody knew about before him – Earl Warren and his court. The legal revolution that occurred in 1950-60s was based on pretty much complete disregard of actual text of document and implementation of new rules that temporarily winning liberal establishment deemed proper. To say truth the previous conservative judges were not absolutely dedicated to the text either, but Warren’s court revolution was breathtaking. We can see it even now when the newest addition to the court Elena Kagan could not articulate anything hypothetical that government cannot do, logically stating that government has tyrannical power and constitution is just meaningless piece of paper which should be referred just for show.
The chapter 5 explores relationship between text and judicially crafted unwritten doctrine. More specifically – it looks at how precedent is treated in new decisions and when it is considered binding or not. There are lots of interesting intricacies in this discussion, but the bottom line is simple – whenever majority of court wants disregard previously established precedent and has support of other powers, it does it. The example used to demonstrate it is cases of segregation and Supreme Court’s change of position to completely opposite over period of a few dozen years.
The chapter 6 discusses a symbolic meaning of American Constitution as document, which helps to forge unity of nation that includes millions of people of completely different races, cultures, religions, and attitudes. This symbolic constitution includes not only Constitution per se, but also Declaration of Independence, Gettysburg address, and many other things that are America. The chapter provides detailed analysis of 6 such texts.
The chapter 7 dedicated to Ladies – the detailed review of process of expansion of individuals included into notion of American people which started with adult propertied white males and grew wider and wider to include the biggest part of population – ladies.
The chapter 8 reviews process of establishment of precedents of American republic starting with multiple precedents established by George Washington.
The chapter 9 is about American Institutional Constitution – the way of interpretation of government practices. This is pretty much about real distribution of power between individuals and groups who hold positions in institutions of power – Congress, Senate, Presidency, Supreme Court, and others.
The chapter 10 gives a very nice review of history and working of American two-party system. It was quite a process, but the one most important thing that could be inferred from this is that any political movement that want to become relevant has to take over one of two parties. We now at the very interesting point of American history when coalition of upper class socialist-democrats and underclass national-socialists took over Democratic party and are trying to implement their objectives – expansion of government with many positions of power to implement their utopias for upper class liberals and redistribution of wealth from middle class to them for national-socialist underclass. In its turn the Republican party is now in transition from party of conservative plutocrats who until recently happily enjoyed their wealth paying a little bit down to lower classes in form of compassionate conservatism, to the party of enraged middle class who are mad as hell and will not take any more of redistribution of wealth from them to upper class for their luxuries and utopias and to underclass for their non-working, even if miserable, living.
Chapter 11 – Conscientious Constitution is all about good feeling like rejection of death penalty in principle even in rejection of compliance with existing law as demonstrated by justices Brennan and Thurgood Marshall. It is also about juries and their power of law nullification demonstrated on many occasions over history of America. It is also about pro defendant asymmetry, which mainly exists in theory, while helping a lot in practice to well-connected and wealthy defendants and being practically nonexistent for vast majority of defendants. It also spends quite a bit of space on amendments process and on conscience of judges.
The final chapter 12 is about America’s Unfinished Constitution or, in other words about future changes that Akhil Amar envisions in American Constitution. He believes that it will be expanding into direction of more rights and inclusion. For example he believes into expansion of constitution to allow immigrant to become eligible for presidency, that we will soon rid of electoral college if not by changing constitution, then by going around it at the level of states when all state electors go to winner of popular vote. He also dedicates quit a bit of text to interaction between states and federal power and seems to believe that progress means decreasing role of states and increase of power of federal government as it did happen over last 100 years. I see it differently. I think that this century will be different and we’ll see decreasing power of federal government after huge government enterprises of XX century like big military, social security, and similar things will go down crashing. We’ll go away from the way of utopian thinking of upper classes isolated from real life by their wealth and/or academic environment into direction of thinking of middle class people who are not isolated from consequences of their mistakes and know very well that future is unknown and all experimentation should be not big and bold, but small and cautions, done at the level of state or even more local level. And when dust settle, we’ll see new refreshed constitutional order dictated by middle class for which good life now is much more important then future progress which will take care of itself, providing we took care about current situation now.
In volume three Hayek is going into discussion of Democracy as the lousy, but the best and the only effective method of peaceful change of society. At the time of writing in late 1970s he was concerned with growing disillusionment about democracy as a desirable method of government and anticipated movement to an impasse. Therefore 3d volume is basically a proposal of basic alteration of the structure of democratic government.
12 Majority Opinion and Contemporary Democracy
The biggest threat to contemporary democracy comes from government intervention into economy and wealth redistribution. When government starts to decide who gets what, when and how, it inevitably drives society apart. Hayek identifies unlimited power of democratic state as the fatal defect of democracy. He believes that the only remedy is limitation on government coercion. It should be limited to “purpose of ensuring obedience to rules of just conduct approved by most”. Involvement of democratic government into wealth redistribution and business regulation is inevitably leads to multiple special interests corrupting politicians by selling support and participation in coalition in exchange for share of loot either in form of subsidies, or tax relieve, or regulation of competition. The bottom line – only limited government can be a decent government.
13 The Division of Democratic Powers
Significant problem for democracy is created when over the time legislature losses its function as law giving body and becomes a dictatorial body which uses its power pretty much as kings used to do to direct use of resources and redistribution of wealth. The same relate to executive power, which over time tends to loose its limitations and become more of the legislature. I guess in USA this process moved quit a bit ahead with executive branch usurping more and more legislative power via regulation, which have power of laws. This intermixing of power leads to deterioration of democratic system creating lots of small tyrants at agency level of executive power and big party lines tyrant of legislative majority.
14 The Public Sector and Private Sector
This probably one of the biggest disagreement I have with Hayek. In his opinion government has legitimate functions in multiple areas not related to defense and security where it can provide services and collective goods using violence to collect taxes. I believe that role of government should be limited to the area of violence with all areas covered by private sector with government only providing decision supporting information which could not be obtained without violent power of government.
15 Government Policy and Market
Here Hayek contradicts doctrine of perfect market, which was so popular in the 1990s and I am completely agree with him. Markets are not perfect. Market consists of real human individuals and nobody is perfect. People, make mistakes, deceive, and are being deceived, fail to deliver on promise and do a zillion ineffective and inefficient things. Nevertheless market is the only mechanism discovered so far that creates opportunities and stimulus for innovation and constant improvement in quality of life. It is interesting that Hayek looks at competition as a procedure of discovery. Discovery of real human needs and prices that individuals are willing to pay to satisfy these needs. Hayek also discusses here a problem of monopolies in quite a details and seems comes to conclusion that anti-monopoly legislation is a bigger problem them monopolies.
16 The Miscarriage of the Democratic Ideal: A Recapitulation
Democracy as it developed now in western world denies ideal of equality before the law and rule in interests of majority. It developed into bargaining democracy were power of the state used to benefit special interests that bargain between themselves to achieve majority however fleeting coalition this majority represent. This necessary creates situation of lawlessness because law is stable rule, which does not change with every election, while rule by direction of current coalition in power needs flexibility to meet interest of its members and therefore had to override law. The only reprieve we have comes from separation of power and even this only when different branches of power are taken over by different coalitions of special interests which compete with each other and in process prevent complete lawlessness.
17 A Model Constitution
At this point Hayek presents some ideas to remedy the problem of democracy deterioration:
• Slightly different model of separation of power when upper house of representative body provides more law making activity, while lower house takes over some executive functions. The idea here is to reinforce rule of law by separating it more strictly from rule by directions.
• The basic clause of model constitution is that in normal times men could be restrained from doing what they wished, or coerced to do something they do not wish only in accordance with the recognized rule of just conduct. I think it is far from enough because whoever defines what are such rules has practically unlimited power. I think that the rule for coercion of not allowing doing something should be acceptable only for prevention of coercion or violence against other people. Coercion to make individual to do something he does not want should not be used at all except for removing individual off the way if he/she prevents other people of doing something.
• Hayek suggests two representative bodies with distinctive functions one more of law giving body and another more of executive day by day conduct of government business. He goes into somewhat interesting discussion how to use age of representatives, process of election, terms, and other details of how to get right people in right places of power. I, on other hand do not think that it is possible at all to have good and benevolent people elected into position of power. The power hungry crooks are just inevitable in these places. The only way to avoid it is just not have such high power positions in the first place.
18 The Containment of Power and the Dethronement of Politics
The final chapter is about limited and unlimited power and how to contain it. Hayek believes that the only way to prevent democratic representatives from serving special interests is to deprive them from giving discriminatory benefits to groups and individuals. He understands that it is not really possible, but still believes that it could be achieved by giving supreme authority to tradition or as he puts it to long-term running rules. I do not believe that it is possible because all rules and all traditions are subject to interpretation by current generation of people. It is also impossible because in last few centuries due to tremendous development of science, tradition lost its aura of the best known way because science proves every day that what thought to be correct yesterday turn out to be an error today. It constantly comes out with examples of logic and experiment beating up old notions and ideas. I think the only way to prevent democratic government from using power of coercion to serve special interests is to minimize power of coercion, period.
Actually at practical level Hayek comes to the same conclusion because after spending lots of time on designing democratic system, which would not serve special interests he talks at the end about Peace, Freedom, and Justice as “the three great negatives” meaning that they could be achieved only by negating ability of government to interfere.
EPILOGUE: The Three Sources of Human Values
It is extremely interesting discussion about evolution, sociobiology, formation and maintenance of tradition, and unstoppable march of progress. Hayek seems to believe that civilization and tradition are going against human primordial instincts. He talks about deterioration of Western world and its democracy as consequence of re-emergence of suppressed primordial instincts. He even states: “And since we owe the order of our society to a tradition of rules which we only imperfectly understand, all progress must be based on tradition. We must build on tradition and only tinker with its product. “. I actually believe quite opposite. As bad as democracy looks now, it is a lot better then it was at any point of time in the past. It is just question of what is it compared to. If it is compared to ideal, it is pretty bad. But if we compare it to the reality of the past, it is getting better every time we learn something new about the past.
I mainly agree with Hayek’s final conclusion: “Man is not and never will be the master of his fate: his very reason always progresses by leading him into unknown and unforeseen where he learns new things”. However I would add a significant adjustment to it: “The more man learns, the better he is capable to adjust environment to himself and himself to environment even if it is constantly changes, and, as result, he is able to make his fate a lot better then it would be otherwise.”
This is an old book from 1980s in which two views on history presented by two people who actually know what they are talking about. One – Robert Fogel presenting cliometric or scientific approach to history and another one G.R.Elton presenting traditional approach.
Here is the core of their ideas compared by Fogel, Cliometrics vs. Traditional:
• Subject Matter: focus on collectives of people vs. individuals and their stories
• Preferred types of evidence: statistical data and quantitative evidence vs. testimonials
• Standards of proof: documents designed to meet current needs: bill, bureaucratic paperwork, and such vs. legalistic prove by evidence and analogy
• Role of Controversy: cliometricians tend to accept controversy and access part of history based on estimating procedure, while traditional historians evaluate a large work as whole trying to resolve all controversies
• Attitudes toward collaboration: cliometricians work collaboratively and could not work otherwise due to amount of material they analyze, while traditionalists work more as writers creating narrative rather then scientific report.
• Communications with public: Cliometricians’ direct communications at other historians as it is usual for professions which require special knowledge, while traditionalists direct communication at wider public trying to have cultural impact rather then just stay within profession.
Elton response is very interesting. It comes down to the statement that Fogel’s description is somewhat oversimplified and it assigns to traditional historians attitudes and behavior that is just plainly caused by low level of professionalism of some individuals, rather then different attitude to the subject.
Overall I find a very little of substantial difference. Cliometrics is just an expansion of method of development of historical knowledge that allows including a significant number of material evidence which was not possible before advances in information technology allowed dramatically expand our ability to process it.
The 30 years that passed since this discussion took place seems to show, that eventually both method merged into one process of developing historical knowledge that materially improved quality of such knowledge.
That is one very unusual idea. So in the war which was conducted by all major powers in the word with hundreds of millions in population and multimillion armies it was a relatively small group of people with no nation of their own, speaking different languages, and, as diverse as 18 million people could be, with only one thing in common – religion and culture actually defeated Hitler.
This idea seems to be a preposterous until one think about perception of the war by Hitler and all other ideological Nazis. In their minds it was the war of races between superior and noble Arian race and filthy, disgusting, and evil race of Jews. It is weird, but it was not only in their speeches and writings where ideological Nazis expressed opinion about enemies they are fighting, but even more important this opinion directed their actions. Even during the most important moments of battle when everything was on the line, the Nazi leadership gave priority to trains carrying Jewish children to gas chambers over trains carrying ammunition for German troops on the front line. If this is truth, then in minds of Nazis these children were more dangerous enemy then Russian or American soldiers. And at the final count by this logic with Hitler and Nazis going down in April 1945 while 12 million of world Jews out of 18 million before WWII of world and 3.5m out of 9.5m European Jews still alive, Nazis were defeated in this race war.
In reality it was not really war of races. It was ideological war of the world including Western democracies of America and Great Britain, International socialism of Soviet Union, and everything in between against German National-Socialism. The inequality of resources was so significant, that Hitler could not possibly win even if ammunitions were put ahead of killing children.
Nevertheless this book provides a good overview of totality of efforts of individual Jews and their influence on outcome of this struggle:
1. Millions of American Jews used their abilities and position to overcome isolationist and pro-Nazi movements in USA such as German immigrant’s Bund. It was a high stakes ideological struggle outcome of which was not known at the time. If Jews lost this fight it is quite possible that Germany would achieve victory in Europe with USA standing by or even helping Nazis. This would inevitably lead to much more difficult for USA war against united national-socialist Europe that would have to be conducted for decades to come.
2. European immigrants many of them Jewish contributed technological knowledge that culminated in creation of nuclear weapons. It was used against Japan, but there is no doubt that if Nazi lasted a few more months it would be used against them.
3. Millions of Soviet Jews used their communication skills, technological and managerial abilities to contribute to Soviet victory. It was not a small deal because Jews while small minority provided non trivial numbers of top engineers, scientists, and managers way out of their proportion in population.
4. Being traditionally more or less community interconnected across border in Europe and well familiar with multiple cultures and languages Jews provided significant services in intelligence.
5. Finally at least hundreds of thousands Jews directly participated in fight as soldiers and officers in all armies of anti-Nazi coalition, partisans, and saboteurs of German war effort.
In short even without state or any other organization the sum total of individual efforts was qualitatively higher then just their numbers. This qualitative difference could be demonstrated by counterfactual thought that if Germany remained culturally and politically the same way it was during WWI and all these Jewish scientists who participated in creation of American nuclear bomb would remain Germans, Italians, and citizens of other European states, the outcome of war could be quite different then the one which actually occurred.