Recent additions to the bookshelf

New additions to the bookshelf you might like. The piles of unread books are growing faster than I can finish them, but I feel as if I’m surrounded by new and interesting friends.

I recommend On Writing Well for anyone interested in non-fiction writing; I laugh out loud even as I’m taking notes. For a book where laughter is the main aim, I like David Sedaris. Three editions of the London Review of Books have also arrived since I last posted about new books. If you don’t subscribe, you should.

On the Genealogy of Morality

I just finished Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality. While I digest the book for a longer write-up, here are some passages I found thought provoking:

We modern men are heirs to the ancient practice of vivisecting our consciences, and inflicting curelty upon our animal selves. This we have practices for the longest time, and it has perhaps become our characteristic art; at any rate it represents our refinement, the indulgence of our taste. Man has for too long regarded his natural inclinations maliciously, and thus eventually, they have become in his mind associated with ‘bad conscience.’

And

Except for the ascetic ideal, Man, the animal man, has had no meaning. His existence on earth had no purpose; ‘what is the purpose of Man at all?’ was a question without an answer; the will for man and the world was lacking; behind every great human destiny rang, like a refrain, a still greater ‘in vain!’ The ascetic ideal simply means that something was lacking, that man was surrounded by a tremendous void – he did not know how to justify himself, to explain himself, to affirm himself; he suffered from the problem of his own meaning. He suffered also in other ways; he was in the main a diseased animal; his problem was not suffering itself, though, but the lack of an answer to that crying question, ‘Why do we suffer?’…. The senselessness of suffering, not suffering itself, was the curse which lay upon humanity… any meaning is better than no meaning… man will desire oblivion rather than not desire at all.

If that piqued your interest, but you don’t feel up to the whole book, I highly recommend the Talking Politics: The History of Ideas episode on the book. If Stoicism is the most overrated philosophy in the self-help section, Nietzsche is the most underrated.

One step closer to green monetary policy

In a world first, the Bank of England’s (BoE) mandate has been updated to include action on climate change. The Chancellor of the Exchequer made the announcement during yesterday’s budget speech (35.24):

An updated monetary policy remit for the Bank of England. It reaffirms their 2% target but now it will also reflect the importance of environmental sustainability and the transition to net zero.

The BoE’s primary mandate has been to keep inflation steady, and subject to that, help the government increase growth and employment.

Now there’s more.

From the Chancellor’s letter to the Governor of the Bank of England

I am today updating the MPC’s remit to reflect the government’s economic strategy for achieving strong, sustainable and balanced growth that is also environmentally sustainable and consistent with the transition to a net zero economy.

The Bank of England has responded:

In the coming months, we will provide more information about our proposed approach to adjusting the Corporate Bond Purchase Scheme (CBPS) to account for the climate impact of the issuers of the bonds we hold, with a view to adapting our approach by the time of our next scheduled round of reinvestment operations in 2021 Q4.

I’ve discussed green quantitative easing several times before (here, here, and here for a recap). Today’s announcement will make it a reality in the UK. “our proposed approach to adjusting the CBPS to account for the climate impact of the issuers of the bonds we hold,” is more momentous than it sounds. The BoE will now take climate impact into account when it buys corporate bonds. This could mean applying a penalty to the bonds of big polluters, or even avoiding them entirely. Central banks already discriminate between bonds today, requiring greater collateral or higher interest rates for bonds with more financial risk. Climate risk will now be included. The consequence could be higher borrowing costs for polluters, as the bond market follows the BoE in labeling polluters as higher risk.

It will take several months before we see this new remit translated into practice. Still, today’s a day to celebrate.

Bond market vigilantes

Government bond holders were the playground bullies of the 80s and 90s. They would threaten governments and central banks with bond sales to get what they wanted – usually fiscal discipline and lower inflation. Bond vigilantes – a self-appointed nickname – was presumably a way to sound more like Batman and less like thugs. Like everyone who picks their own nickname, they had high opinions of themselves:

“Bond Investors Are The Economy’s Bond Vigilantes.” I concluded: “So if the fiscal and monetary authorities won’t regulate the economy, the bond investors will. The economy will be run by vigilantes in the credit markets.”

The guy who coined the name in 1983

These threats worked because selling government bonds causes their price to fall, and the yield – the interest rate – to rise. A government bond is just an IOU from the state, so higher interest rates make it more expensive for governments to borrow. Higher interest rates in government bond markets also usually increase interest rates elsewhere in the economy, slowing down growth. Governments, especially smaller, fiscally precarious ones, had reason to be afraid.

Their reputation was cemented when Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist James Carville said: “I used to think if there was reincarnation, I wanted to come back as the President or the Pope or a .400 baseball hitter. But now I want to come back as the bond market. You can intimidate everyone.”

Quantitative easing mostly killed off the bond vigilantes. Central banks have bought trillions in government bonds since the GFC, making the threat of a bond vigilante sell-off mute. Sell all you want, the central bank will hoover it up.

Or did it? The deluge of fiscal and monetary stimulus, vaccines, and the beginnings of a recovery have some worried about inflation – a concern I’ve discussed previously. Bond holders hate inflation because it erodes the value of their (usually) fixed coupon payment. Because they hate inflation, bond holders tend to be wary of government spending. A world where governments are planning trillions of new spending has the vigilantes reaching their capes and masks. The FT reports:

It’s probably premature. Bond yields have slumped again after reaching record highs last week. The Reserve Bank of Australia brought forward bond purchases in response to yields rising. It’s hard to fight a central bank.

Bond vigilantes bring together history, macroeconomics, markets, and superheroes in a neat bundle. I recommend further reading:


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Structural violence is a bad reason to limit speech

It is fashionable to be “nuanced” when talking about freedom of speech. I often read that speech should be restricted when it is harmful, hateful, and violent. The claim looks innocuous, it even bears passing resemblance to that old liberal formula “do and say what you want as long as you don’t hurt others;” a commitment to the idea that freedom of expression is not permission to jeopardize other freedoms. The resemblance is misleading. If the claim were taken seriously, it would impede, not promote, the cause of justice. There are only a handful of legitimate reasons for shutting people up, and this is not one of them.

Free Speech and Violence

Violence has long been a reason to limit speech. Put simply, where speech incites violence, it is not protected. Here is liberal godfather John Stuart Mill in ‘On Liberty‘:

No one pretends that actions should be as free as opinions. On the contrary, even opinions lose their immunity when the circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute their expression a positive instigation to some mischievous act. An opinion that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard.

But the link between speech and violence is difficult to prove, as even this canonical example shows. How explicit must the speech outside the corn dealer’s house be? If incite means “to move to action; to stir up; to spur on; to urge one,” how to tell when someone has been moved, stirred, spurred, or urged? Reason dictates that a vague threat be treated differently to an explicit command to violence. If I call for a violent protest three years from now, it is unlikely to have much impact – no one will remember what I said. Demonstrating a link between speech and violence is a difficult problem of interpretation.

When these questions end up in the courts in the US, they apply the Brandenburg test:

  • The speech must be directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action AND
  • The speech must be likely to incite or produce such action.

The Brandenburg test highlights the important questions, but it doesn’t eliminate the need for interpretation. Donald Trump’s rally prior to the Capitol Hill invasion is a contemporary parallel to Mill’s mob outside the corn dealers home.* Some see it as a clear example of incitement to violence, others not at all. A lawyer consulted asked the BBC said: “It’s quite rare that somebody can be convicted of incitement. In applying that to the president’s speech at the rally, it’s an agonisingly close case.” The President told his supporters they needed to “fight like hell,” and that they were “going to the Capitol.” But, he also told them to “peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard.” It is fiendishly difficult to link speech to violence, and where political speech is concerned, the burden of evidence is even higher.

Free speech and structural violence

The problem of interpretation deepens when the definition of violence is broadened. Violence is normally understood as a physical act, with a clear perpetrator and victim. In a famous 1969 paper, Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung broadened the definition of violence to include avoidable differences between ‘potential’ and ‘actual‘:

Violence is here defined as the cause of the difference between the potential and the actual, between what could have been and what is. Violence is that which increases the distance between the potential and the actual, and that which impedes the decrease of this distance. Thus, if a person died from tuberculosis in the eighteenth century it would be hard to conceive of this as violence since it might have been quite unavoidable, but if he dies from it today, despite all the medical resources in the world, then violence is present according to our definition.

Correspondingly, in a society where life expectancy is twice as high in the upper as in the lower classes, violence is exercised even if there are no concrete actors one can point to directly attacking others, as when one person kills another

This violence became ‘structural’ when social institutions are behind people’s inability to meet their basic needs. Racism, when formalised into rules or institutions that restricts access to quality healthcare for marginalised groups, lowers life expectancy. Poor neighborhoods, where high pollution, perhaps from nearby chemical factories, or a lack of healthy food options, worsen the health of those who live there.

The definition includes both physical and psychological violence, and because of the omnipresence of social institutions, is at work even where there is no obvious agent.

In debates over free speech, this definition of violence is often subtly substituted for the more commonly understood version.

This makes it possible to say that speech contributes to structural violence by perpetuating unjust social institutions; speech can encourage marginalisation, and “protect the status quo, silencing marginalized voices in the name of giving more airtime to those who already have multiple podiums;” speech can deny the rights of others, creating a hierarchy of human worth and causes serious harm to its targets.”

It can also be used to collapse any distinction between speech and violence. For Nyadol Nyuon, hate speech “negatively impacts the health of its victims, and at its worst it inspires hate crimes.” Toni Morrison agrees: oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence.” Focusing on the internet, Andrew Marantz argued that “the brutality that germinates on the internet can leap into the world of flesh and blood.” Violence becomes a vague gesture to anything bad.

A wider definition of violence necessarily leads to policing more types of speech. As this opinion piece published following the Capitol Hill invasion argues, harmful speech goes beyond incitement to violence. The soapbox outside the corn dealer’s house is now joined by my family friend’s anti-vax posts.

Source

I am not denying that speech can harm. Words can break a person’s spirit clean in two. They can be malicious and malevolent, vicious and venomous, even evil. Language works through speeches, conversations, posters, overheard gossip, text messages, television programs, books, even TikTok. I have difficulty imagining a reaction language cannot elicit or a medium it does not work through.

I am saying that applying this to freedom of speech makes the problem of interpretation harder. Violence which is everywhere, is nowhere in particular. Structural violence rests on a series of value judgements – which categories make up potential and actual, how to measure the difference between them, the causal link, the signs by which we know violence has occurred – that make it precarious and contestable.

Even Johan Galtung agreed:

The meaning of ‘potential realizations’ is highly problematic, especially when we move from somatic aspects of human life, where consensus is more readily obtained, to mental aspects. Our guide here would probably often have to be whether the value to be realized is fairly consensual or not, although this is by no means satisfactory.

“Fairly consensual” is a bad standard for policing freedom of speech.

Why more interpretation is a problem

The right to free speech is not absolute. It is always in tension with other rights. My right to free expression does not give me permission to go into someone’s home and read aloud from my favorite book. It violates their right to privacy – their right to life if I choose Being and Time.

The uncomfortable overlaps between our rights and our values requires constant negotiation, interpretation, and compromise – what Isaiah Berlin in Two Concepts of Liberty calls “haggling.”

Haggling, as anyone who has done it knows, requires speaking, usually in a raised voice. Free speech is protected because we will not agree. To make it contingent on anything except a minimum of principles is absurd and dangerous.

If this principle is insufficient, remember that more interpretation means more interpreters. Do we want organizations who sell soap or sugar water making value judgements about violence, harm, and speech. Where interpretations replace principals, the views of the most powerful dominate. Organisation’s like Facebook and Twitter already possess enormous power without granting them even wider remits for interpretation. Where these organisation are ambivalent, the dynamics of controversy mean the loudest and most invested voices will dominate – precisely the people least likely to be impartial. Passionate voices are vital for healthy politics, but they should not determine who gets to speak.

Demanding greater interpretation is a tactical blunder for progressives. The forces of history tend not to look kindly on left-wing causes. It was not so long ago that socialist ideas were banned, blocked, and frozen out because they were “violent” or “dangerous.”

Those who defend free speech are sometimes called absolutists – presumably blind to the irony – as if we defend it from a lack of imagination or intelligence. The charge insinuates a fear of ambiguity. Quite the opposite. A black and white stance on freedom of speech begins with ambiguity, and sets out to protect the conditions for it to continue.

There is an incredible amount of suffering in the world, and our social institutions are often to blame. But, free speech laws are not the place to solve it.


*A reference to England’s corn laws, which gave birth to The Economist as well as free speech thought experiments


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