Reflections on 2022
Becoming a geopolitical normie, increasing social liberalism, and focusing less on politics. Also, books.
Note: This is the 2022 edition of the yearly article in which I reflect on personal and professional growth, how my views have developed, and books I’ve read. For previous versions, see books of 2018, books of 2019, reflections on 2020, books of 2020, and reflections on 2021.
A good portion of this year was spent working on a book on the relationship between wokeness and civil rights law that will come out in the summer. The period of most writing was during the middle of the year, which is why the Substack slowed down for several months. Despite this, in 2022 I doubled my number of subscribers. This reflects a slower rate of growth than 2021, when the number increased by almost 20 times, since I started with nearly nothing. If you look at the increase in total subscribers, however, 2021 and 2022 added almost the exact same number, which is a positive sign.
In March, I joined the Salem Center at the University of Texas. Over the summer, they partnered with CSPI to launch a betting market that I think is going to produce some impressive data and contribute to the science of forecasting. So that’s one major project to look forward to, and others are on their way.
As for what to expect in 2023, I’m going to try to write less about politics, though I may not be able to help myself when primary season starts, as I really love the spectacle. There are several reasons for making this change. The first is just opportunity cost. ChatGPT, as I’ve said before, brings home the possibility that artificial intelligence might be the end of humanity. I’m in the process of doing some reading and developing my thoughts on the topic, so I don’t have much to say now, but soon will. Moreover, even outside of AI, a lot of exciting things are happening in tech, and it’s becoming more likely that the future of the world will be shaped more by scientific innovation than it will be by our politics, except for the part of our politics that touches on tech. Writing about politics takes me away from areas that are potentially more important.
The second reason I don’t want to talk as much about politics anymore is there are likely to be diminishing returns to my insights. I’ve had several seminal pieces on the topic, and now is a good time to read any of them you’ve missed: Liberals Read, Conservatives Watch TV; Conservatism as an Oppositional Culture; A Psychological Theory of the Culture War; Women’s Tears Win in the Marketplace of Ideas; Republicans as the Lesser of Two Evils; Why is Everything Liberal?; and Woke Institutions is Just Civil Rights Law. Put all those articles together, and you pretty much have a book. And, as mentioned, I have a book on civil rights law coming out next year, which is a related topic and will go much deeper into questions of legal mechanisms and historical causation than any of the pieces listed above.
That’s a lot of material. When I started writing for a public consumption, I was 35. That means I’d spent two decades thinking about American culture and politics, so I was brimming with insights. Inevitably, I’ve said many of the things I wanted to say, and continuing to write on the topic will be unlikely to produce material anywhere as good. Now is a good time to branch out a bit.
Finally, for reasons I’ll expand on below, I’m becoming more alienated from conservatives, and therefore less interested in trying to promote total victory for one side in the culture war. The continuing and growing power of the anti-vaxx movement is perhaps the clearest demonstration that something has gone horrifyingly wrong on the Right. And yes, I know the smarter among them say they’re just “anti-mandate,” but the culture is clearly anti-vaxx, with Trump getting booed at rallies for telling his old and overweight fans to do the responsible thing and conservative influencers proudly talking about how they avoided the jab and making fun of those that didn’t.
Republicans may be generally preferable, but when the next great technological breakthrough comes, I’m confident that if it turns into a salient political issue it’ll be the Right that wants to ban it. On the vaccine issue specifically, the odds of us having another Operation Warp Speed if a Republican is in office when the next pandemic hits are low. There’s no way to justify this – every other right-wing scam, up to and including even (maybe) election denial, could at least theoretically be defended as serving some greater good. But this one is simply a tragedy, and reveals that when you build a movement that caters to low IQ and paranoid people you can’t hope to control the results. If the next pandemic is even worse than covid, those who’ve promoted anti-vaxx could be responsible for millions of lives lost. And of course public health is evil and deserves all the hate it gets and much more, but the issue of pandemics is too serious to answer their failures with mindless demagoguery.
Onto the lessons of 2022.
Becoming a Geopolitical Normie
In February, I argued that Russia’s imminent successful invasion of Ukraine was a sign heralding in a new era of multipolarity. By October, I declared every challenge to liberal democracy dead and Fukuyama the prophet of our time. It’s embarrassing to have two contradictory pieces written seven months apart. But it would’ve been more embarrassing to persist in believing false things. If there’s any time to change one’s mind, it’s in the aftermath of large, historical events that went in ways you didn’t expect. Russia’s failure in Ukraine and China’s Zero Covid insanity provided extremely clear and vivid demonstrations of what democratic triumphalists have been saying about the flaws of autocracy. Nothing that the US or Europe have done – from the Iraq War to our own overly hysterical response to the coronavirus – have been in the same ballpark as these Chinese and Russian mistakes. Perhaps the war on terror comes close in terms of total destruction and lives lost, but we could afford to be stupid and it didn’t end up hurting Americans all that much.
I haven’t changed all of my views on foreign policy. As indicated above, the US over the last two decades has unleashed death and destruction across the Middle East, and to the extent American leaders in the future are tempted to undertake more regime change and nation building projects, they should stop. The war on drugs remains a moral and humanitarian disaster, one that seems to be increasingly ignored as we’ve just come to accept as normal the US plunging countries into civil strife and arresting foreign leaders as part of a project to stop its own citizens from being able to decide what to put into their own bodies.
Perhaps the lesson here is that US foreign policy is good and beneficial for the world when it comes to traditional geopolitical goals like helping states resist international aggression, as it has done in Ukraine, but menaces the planet when it attempts social engineering, whether that means building democracy or eradicating drugs.
Increasing Social Liberalism
Another essay that I’ve moved away from in my thinking, to a lesser extent, is “Why Do I Hate Pronouns More than Genocide?” I still have contempt for the pronoun people, but genocide is gaining on them. Moreover, I’ve found that there are a lot of people, like actual adults, who call things “Satanist” or “demonic” unironically and my instinctual reaction to them is similar. Aside from annoyances on Twitter, two big events from 2022 pushed me in a more liberal direction on social issues. First, there was the Dobbs decision. I always knew that conservatives wanted to overturn Roe and many of them hoped to ban abortion, and that this would be horrible, but it didn’t hit home until it happened. All the things that feminists have been saying about men wanting to take away women’s freedoms and controlling them are starting to sound more reasonable, and I’m glad there’s been a lot of electoral pushback against the anti-choice position. I now stand with women (Oh, and I also had a daughter this year, BTW, and apparently science says this is what it does to your brain).
Then came the debate over Canadian euthanasia, where what seems to me to be a sensible and enlightened policy has made conservatives lose their minds.
I often tend to think of political issues in bundles. But I’ve been thinking at more of a meta level about how to think about bundling itself. In my 2021 reflections, I talked about realizing that anti-vaxxers were part of the tribe that was the lesser of two evils because they’ve been more opposed to lockdowns and mask mandates throughout covid. Considering social issues from this perspective, you have support for abortion rights, euthanasia, and changing genders on the left, and opposition to all those things on the right. Despite my contempt for gender theory, I’ll take the left-wing bundle as less harmful to humanity.
Perhaps the point is that one needs to bundle issues at the right level. At the start of the year, I would’ve considered myself clearly on the Right, but lately I see conservatives getting worse and liberals arguably getting better, closing the gap between the two sides. In liberal publications, writers like Derek Thompson are starting to aggressively promote unleashing the power of market forces and using government to facilitate scientific development. Conservatives, meanwhile, are getting more anti-woke, which is good, but demonstrating too much hostility to progress, whether technological (mRNA vaccines) or moral (legal euthanasia), and even in some cases supporting labor unions.
On Twitter, I’ve learned that everyone, or at least everyone who cares enough to comment, really hates my position on euthanasia. That’s fine, as I’m more confident on this issue than I am on almost anything else. Seeing how it’s been treated by right-wing media has alienated me from every form of “social conservatism” there is, and makes me consider LGBT a minor issue in the grand scheme of things. In the future, we might see increasing political controversy over new reproductive technologies, and I’ll always be on the side of those that want to preserve individual liberty, reduce suffering, and allow humanity to move forward, and against those who have their views shaped by religious fanaticism and conspiracy theories.
In sum, it’s becoming clearer that neither of our major coalitions comes close to representing what I believe. Identifying with the “Right” or “Left” at this point would force me to accept a lot that is indefensible, but at the very least categories like “social liberal”, “anti-woke”, and “economic conservative” seem useful to talk clearly about political and social topics given the extent to which positions on various issues under each of those umbrellas tend to be correlated with one another.
Another thing that pushed me to the left on social issues this year, and maybe this is simply an instinctual reaction, is watching how far Russia is going in promoting traditional morality as a cope for undertaking a failed war and seeing its living standards collapse. This serves as a reminder of how social conservatism is often a sort of opiate for losers that can be manipulated by politicians for malicious ends. Moreover, although I’m not one of those people that based their predictions of what would happen in Ukraine on which side was more accepting of LGBT, it’s at least worth noting that aggressively believing in only 2 genders instead of 72 doesn’t seem to have helped Russia all that much even in war, the one area where you’d think maintaining standards of masculinity would be most useful. Of course, I still see trans as a delusion, and think society would be healthier and life would be more beautiful if people were encouraged to act in ways consistent with traditional understandings of what is appropriate for members of their biological sex. But there’s at most an indirect relationship between policy and my concerns like more women cutting their hair short and men being willing to go to therapy, while social conservatives are directly seeking to take away people’s rights, torture the elderly for decades, and make the world a worse place.
Part of the problem with supporting a broad coalition instead of focusing on issues is that often coalitions will react in unpredictable ways to major events. Somebody might’ve voted for Bush in 2000 because they liked the idea of a more humble foreign policy, and we saw how that worked out. Nobody knew there would be a global pandemic in 2020, but we were lucky when it hit that we happened to have a president who had the right idea and encouraged the government to cut red tape so that we could create new vaccines faster than anyone expected. Bizarrely, however, instead of conservatives celebrating this as confirming everything they believed about the power of markets, problems with the federal bureaucracy, and even Trump’s instincts, they decided to embrace anti-vaxxers, people who our elites, whatever their faults, have at least been wise enough to exclude from positions of power and influence. It’s therefore probably better for me to just argue for what I think is right rather than identify with the side that happens to be on balance correct about more things at any particular moment.
The Meaning of the Ukrainian Resistance
Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I didn’t think that modern people had it in them to take large numbers of casualties. In recent decades, we’ve seen nearly all the wars with major death tolls take place in the Middle East or Africa, in countries that are poor, Muslim, or both. Ukraine of course is itself an extremely poor country, but by other indicators like urbanization rate, fertility, and having attractive girls and effeminate looking men as pop stars, it appeared in February 2022 to be culturally modern. I was heavily influenced in my thinking here by John Mueller’s research on the Balkan wars of the 1990s, where he argued that no one who wasn’t a total loser actually wanted to fight over ethnic differences and the Serbian leadership had to recruit soccer hooligans and other thugs in order to commit atrocities.
The idea that humans would no longer fight was both optimistic and pessimistic at the same time. If people simply won’t die for a cause once they’ve reached some threshold of modernity, major wars between advanced states are highly unlikely. I remember Sailer once commenting on the Afghan War and joking that nobody wants to fight these days, so the US needs to go all the way to the mountains of the Pashtun heartland to find anyone backwards enough to want to take shots at US soldiers and justify our global empire. At the same time, the theory that humans don’t want to fight indicates we’re living in the era of the Last Man, with everything that entails.
Looks like that hypothesis is wrong, or that it needs to be modified to somehow not consider Ukraine (or Russia for that matter) a modern country despite so much evidence to the contrary. To me, having children seems more meaningful and less of a sacrifice than dying for a nation, so if people can’t do the relatively easy thing with great personal rewards, why do the hard thing that will mostly benefit strangers?
Just using my head, and ignoring the heart, I think that the strength of the Ukrainian resistance should fill us all with dread. Even if in this case the cause they’re fighting for is justified, it means that people might also die in large numbers for evil purposes. After all, Russians have also been willing to take major casualties in a war in which the entire rest of the world considers them the aggressors. So, no matter what you think about the conflict in Ukraine, its intensity provides reasons to be concerned about its implications for the potential for future wars. That’s the logical conclusion. In my heart, however, there’s unquestionably something romantic about realizing that human nature hasn’t changed all that much, and if you scratch the surface a little bit, underneath all the LGBT, Prozac, and obesity, normal people are still capable of heroism. Well, maybe not the obesity, as I don’t see many fat insurgents in Ukraine, but you get my point.
The Year in Books
Here’s my review of Joseph Henrich’s The WEIRDest People in the World, and make sure to check out the critical articles linked to here. See also my discussion of Max Weber’s The Protestant Work Ethic in the Henrich review. The Secret of Our Success is also worth reading, though it covers much of the same ground.
I read Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution. It strikes me as overrated. Funny that he argued that the Soviet and Nazi systems were both superior to the West and predicted some kind of fascism or central planning would win the future. It’s hard to think of how someone could’ve been more wrong. Like nearly all intellectuals, he didn’t have enough faith in markets. I think people love this book because the phrase “managerial elites” reminds them of our unaccountable bureaucracy, so it seems prescient, but if you actually read Burnham, I don’t think he predicted anything about modern society.
Paul Fussell’s Class was enjoyable, and still holds up. It featured a bit in my psychological theory of the culture war.
Currently reading Fire & Blood: A History of Mexico, by T.R. Fehrenbach. The encounter between Cortes and the Aztecs is easily one of the most interesting events in history. Sometimes in sci-fi books or movies you see first contact between advanced species from different planets, and the conquest of Mexico was maybe the closest thing we’ve ever had to that in recorded history. The end of Chapter 8 is worth quoting at length.
Dating from the vital discovery of agriculture, Mexic civilization was not a contemporary of Catholic Spain, or even of medieval Europe. It was a contemporary of ancient Sumer, one of the oldest known civilizations.
This historic, energetic, and brilliantly inventive culture, which arose in the Middle East about 3500 b.c., eventually failed politically, within and without, as a result of internecine war and fell about 2300 b.c.
Culturally, psychically, and politically, the Mexic world was closer to Sumer than it was to its sixteenth-century ecumene. Strikingly similar development can be traced between Sumerians and civilized Amerinds. Meso-American religions, ideals, fears, and social structures were on the level of Sumer; Cortés invaded a people living on an experience plane equivalent to the Old World in the third millennium b.c.
The Tarasca, more barbarous than the Mexica, had just started to experiment with copper weapons. The following centuries might have seen the rise of a greater empire centered on Tzintzuntzan, which again might have failed, as Sumer's empire failed. The Amerindians were a long way yet from creating Babylon. They were living out their version of the story of mankind, nothing more, nothing less. But in world terms, because they invented agriculture very late, they lagged millennia behind.
Thus the world of Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin was a recognizable Oriental society, linked psychically if not physically with its remote Asian past. It was ceremonial, deferential, given to extravagant symbolism in thought and deed; it was a world of wonderful monuments and striking loveliness, instilled with grace and charm. It was also a bloody and brutal ant hill where all men were subordinated to the whole, and the individual personality was considered worthless. The small, dark, tireless, essentially cheerful peoples of the innumerable valleys had become subjugated not only by ruling castes and dynasties, but by chains of custom and circumstance. They bore life patiently, often callously; like all men they possessed a great spirit and they were capable of collective greatness or collective horror. For the moment they were trapped in an endless cycle, in a self-contained universe that smelled both of flowers and hot blood.
The Mexica really cannot be measured or judged by modern men. They can only be observed as people of their world and times. They struggled upward out of the abyss of history, now hopefully, now valiantly, now fearfully and irrationally, against all the troubles inherent in man and civilization. Even to their direct descendants in the Republic of Mexico, they seem hopelessly remote.
Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power, which covers the life of Lyndon Johnson from 1958 to 1964, mostly lives up to the hype, although it is often very repetitive. Some books remind you that one way to write a really long volume is to keep repeating the same things in different words. Nonetheless, this was a compelling portrait of the man who probably did more damage to the United States than anyone else in the twentieth century. The preceding book, Master of the Senate, which covers 1949 to 1960, paints a vivid picture of what he was up against in changing the country. Caro likes Johnson’s politics and sees him as a genuine reformer and champion of the powerless despite his corruption, but I look at the exact same facts and see a cruel and vindictive, and mostly power-hungry, politician who found an opportunity after the Kennedy assassination to go down as a historically important figure and used his considerable talents to take advantage of it. Maybe he believed that civil rights and expanding the welfare state were the right things to do, but my impression is that mattered much less to him than his own power and ego. This is probably true for all politicians, but Johnson strikes me as more on the cynic end of the spectrum.
The fact that he had convinced the rest of the Southern caucus in the Senate that he was “one of them,” before becoming a liberal once in office, indicates psychopathy, not him being someone who actually wanted to change the world. Caro makes clear how radical Johnson’s economic and civil rights policies were for the time, and this supports a great man interpretation of history in which one remarkable individual can change a nation.
If you’re interested in the topic of wokeness as civil rights law with a focus on race, two books on the topic stand out: The Civil Rights Era by Hugh Davis Graham, and Equality Transformed by Herman Belz. If you can read only one, make it Graham’s book. If you’re interested in sex issues more than race, check out R. Shep Melnick’s The Transformation of Title IX (see thread). All of these could be considered somewhat challenging reads, especially for non-lawyers, but if you want to gain a deep understanding of where wokeness came from, these are easily the best books that I’ve found. Sean Farhang’s The Litigation State: Public Regulation and Private Lawsuits in the US is another book that maybe only lawyers can enjoy, but provides insights on the general trend of Congress outsourcing the enforcement of its laws to private attorneys and the courts, with a particular focus on civil rights. You can skip Chapter 3 and the statistical analysis, which are mostly academic gobbledygook, and read the chapters that actually explain what has happened to the law.
The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement by Steve Teles tells the story of how the Federalist Society and other institutions remade legal academia, and eventually the country. I did what I called a “book review thread” on it.
Finally, here are some other books I’ve read this year, on which I did a CSPI podcast with the author. Click on the link in order to listen or watch the video for each one.
David Bernstein, Classified: The Untold Story of Racial Classification in America
Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross, Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World (interview with Tyler, see here for transcript)
Bryan Caplan, Don’t Be a Feminist: Essays on Genuine Justice
Jonathan Anomaly, Creating Future People: The Ethics of Genetic Enhancement
Garett Jones, The Culture Transplant (interview to be released in the coming weeks)
A Note to Readers
Thanks to everyone who reads and appreciates my work. Many people say their job involves doing what they love, but for most of them that’s probably a cope, since what are the odds that the thing you happen to like doing has any market value? Even academics who get to pursue their intellectual passions spend a lot of time having to teach classes, go to meetings, attend sexual harassment trainings, etc. But in my case, the cliché is actually true, and I have my readers to thank.
I’ll probably keep telling the truth as I see it and allow most of the content to remain available for free no matter what, so, aside from the link posts and AMAs, I don’t have much of a pitch as to why you should become a paid subscriber. But if you’re so inclined, I would genuinely appreciate it.
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