On the problem of normative sociology

Last week I did a post complaining about how journalists tend to use the undifferentiated term “political correctness” to describe a complex group of behaviours that one can find in contemporary academia. I was trying to make the case that “classic” political correctness – such as language policing – has been on the decline, but that there were other worrisome trends that continue. This week I would like to pursue the discussion, by talking about another slightly pernicious habit, which those of us who like to classify these things refer to as the problem of “normative sociology.”

The whole “normative sociology” concept has its origins in a joke that Robert Nozick made, in Anarchy, State and Utopia, where he claimed, in an offhand way, that “Normative sociology, the study of what the causes of problems ought to be, greatly fascinates us all”(247). Despite the casual manner in which he made the remark, the observation is an astute one.… Continue reading

Great sentences: Alec Nove

I was flipping through Alec Nove’s The Economics of a Feasible Socialism (revisted) today, looking over my old underlined quotes from 20 years ago. This book is probably one of the dozen or so I’ve read that fundamentally changed the way I think about things. Looking back, this line in particular stands out:

Externalities arise not because of separation of ownership, but because of separation of decision-making units (p. 74).

Tiny sentence with huge implications. This idea is one that, when I read it, I had never seen articulated so clearly or forcefully. The implication is that some of the pathologies of capitalism do not arise because of the ownership structure of firms, or the profit-orientation, but merely from the decentralization of decision-making. As far as I’m concerned, this is something that every environmentalist needs to understand and grapple with, especially those who think that moving away from capitalist firms towards cooperatives is going to do anything for the environment.… Continue reading

More on political correctness

So apparently I’m the go-to guy on political correctness now. I wrote an op-ed for the Ottawa Citizen that appeared today (“Why Canadian professors aren’t afraid of their students“). It all started because I get irritated by the number of occasions on which “universities” in general get bad press whenever something outrageous happens at an American college — particularly at a small liberal-arts college, which is a type of institution that barely exists in Canada (outside Nova Scotia). This is not to deny that there are problems at Canadian universities, it’s just that it would be nice to discuss these problems with reference to Canadian universities, rather than just imagining that everything happening in the United States must be happening here as well.

In any case, the narrative I’ve been trying to establish is that, here in Canada, all that “political correctness” craziness blew over a long time ago, leaving behind only serious people, focused on having serious conversations, trying to work out solutions to the pressing problems of the day.… Continue reading

Postscript to “me” studies

An old friend writes to me:

Your recent analysis of political correctness was particularly good in diagnosing the dynamics of how academic discourse in the “critical theory” vein so often ends up getting us for away from anything like the ideal of deliberation. But one line in that post really stuck in my craw:

“In mixed company, using a term like “ableist” provokes a lot of eyeball-rolling, and is generally recognized as a good way of ensuring that no one outside your own very small circle will take you seriously.”

Clearly, the objection made to your use of the word “crazy” on the jacket cover for Enlightenment 2.0 was idiotic. There is nothing ablest about using that term derisively. But what you actually say in the passage quoted put you dangerously close to the “jerk” category. As you know, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time following and even participating in disability studies.

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These houses are the source of a great many problems in the world

I was driving by a new housing development in Brampton the other day and I just had to pull over and take a picture. I’ve seen big houses before, but these ones just blew me away. I mean, just look at the size of this thing. It’s more like an institution than a house. (You can look at the double garage in order to get a sense of the scale.) Also, even though you can’t see it very well in the picture, these houses aren’t spread out on one or two acre parcels. It’s a dense development (as these things go), I would guesstimate that they’re building over a hundred of them.

big house

I haven’t written much about consumerism lately, mainly because I have it worked out to my own satisfaction, and there doesn’t seem to be very much new on this front. And yet seeing houses like this reminds me of how central the problem of competitive consumption is, how it lies at the root of so many other problems in the world that we live in.… Continue reading

The anxiety of influence

Several years ago, in Filthy Lucre (or Economics without Illusions) I provided the following assessment of the book Freakonomics:

Levitt and Dubner repeatedly draw an invidious contrast between “morality” – described as “the way we would like the world to be” – and “economics” – the study of how the world actually is. The message is pretty clear. Morality is for girls. Economics is for tough guys, who are able to stare the world in the eye and come to terms with the way things are. It’s for those who are able to look at a homeless man and notice only his expensive headphones. To imagine that morality counts for anything, in the real world, is to succumb to wishful thinking. The economist is wise to the game. He knows that people are all in it for themselves. Machiavelli put it best, when he observed that “in general,” people are “ungrateful and fickle, dissemblers, avoiders of danger, and greedy of gain.”

When push comes to shove, these unflattering assumptions about human motivation are about the only thing that make Levitt’s work count as “economics.” After all, most of it is plain-vanilla statistical analysis, of the sort done by social scientists in a variety of disciplines.

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The problem of “me” studies

One can still find journalists these days complaining about the problem of “political correctness” in universities, which always sounds old-fashioned and somewhat out-of-touch to me. I think of political correctness as something that reached its high-water mark sometime in the early 90’s and has been on the decline since then (at least among faculty – students are another issue). Part of the difference in perception may be due to a lack of precision in terminology. I find that people who are outside the academy tend to lump a lot of different stuff together under the heading of political correctness, whereas inside the universities we have different names for various different tendencies. So what I would like to discuss today is just one strand or tendency, that often gets described as political correctness, but that is more precisely known as the problem of “me” studies.

First though, just to explain what I mean by political correctness being on the decline: Often when journalists talk about this stuff, what they have in mind is old-fashioned language policing.… Continue reading

Loose ends

Apologies for neglect of the blog for the past month or so. I’ve been busy writing a pile of academic stuff. For those interested, I have a review in this month’s Literary Review of CanadaTrading Fair: The Slippery Slope of Industry Self-Regulation

I also wrote an academic piece on the 2008 financial crisis (yes, we are still picking over the bones), which is now on my academia site: Mistakes Were Made: The Role of Catallactic Bias in the Financial Crisis. This “catallactic bias” thing is a meme that I’m trying to make happen, so far without much success. The reference is to the term “catallaxy,” used by von Mises and Hayek to describe market orders. So if you take that stuff too seriously, you wind up suffering from catallactic bias… get it?

Finally, I gave a talk at Dartmouth last week, called “On the Scalability of Cooperative Structures,” that I’m really happy with, but it won’t be in the “working paper” stage for a while still.… Continue reading

One last thought on Jim Prentice

People who are dismayed by the current federal Conservative government, and the fact that they stand a good chance of being re-elected this fall, can at least take comfort from one thing. When Canadians finally get tired of Stephen Harper – which inevitably they will – the Conservative party faces the worst succession crisis of any party in recent memory. Indeed, lack of “depth in the bench” has been one of the defining features of this government, one that may help to explain some of its more puzzling features (such as its ineffectiveness on the legislative front).

The standard narrative on the Conservatives (to be found, for instance, in Michael Harris’s Party of One), seeks to explain the extraordinary concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s office as primarily a consequence of Stephen Harper being an unusually controlling person. This is of course set against a background of a more general trend toward concentration of power in the central agencies, in particular the Privy Council Office.… Continue reading