Wednesday, February 14, 2018

No, Nancy MacLean, Autistic People Do Not Become Libertarians Because They Lack Empathy

I must confess that since reading Nancy MacLean's Democracy in Chains, my opinion of her has only lessened. To move away from her incompetence as a historian or an economist, I would like to discuss her views on autism. As always, whenever suggesting that MacLean might not be completely correct, it is important to confess, right from the start: I am a Koch minion so you should ignore everything that I say. All arguments against her simply prove how deep and nefarious the "not exactly a conspiracy" against her is and how desperate her enemies have become now that she has revealed the truth about them. (Also, as an Asperger, I have no sense of humor and am incapable of sarcasm.)

This is a video of a speech given several days ago by historian MacLean about her book. At about the hour mark, she speculates that James Buchanan and other people who share his libertarian politics (or his desire to take over the world) are autistic as they do not "feel solidarity or empathy with other people." This is a further jump from her attempt, in her book, to make something out of the fact that Tyler Cowen, a libertarian economist, is involved with the autistic advocacy. Now she is going so far as to diagnose Buchanan, a man who never identified himself with the neurodiverse community.

Whether Buchanan really was on the spectrum or not, this is dangerous slander, particularly for the casual way in which she frames it, as if it was a truth that everyone knew that people on the autism spectrum lacked empathy. Such "casual truths," by their nature cannot easily be refuted by simply pointing out the facts because people are not going to think that it is even a matter for debate. You can actually see this in action a few minutes later in the video. A person in the audience runs with MacLean's statement and jokingly starts talking about autistic libertarians trying to take over law schools.   

The principle of rational ignorance teaches us that there is no reason to expect MacLean to educate herself about autistic people or care about what we might find offensive. It is generally not productive to get worked up about someone (even a university professor) being wrong on the internet. My justification for this is twofold. First, her account of Buchanan's life is an exercise in trying to tar someone as a racist on the vaguest kinds of guilt by association. (Contrast her case against Buchanan with the kind of evidence that Prof. Deborah Lipstadt and her team had to produce when sued by David Irving.) It is a losing proposition to simply attempt to defend Buchanan. It is inevitable that at some time, over his career, that he walked within a mile of a Nathan Bedford Forrest statue. It is necessary, therefore, to hold MacLean to her own standards. The fact that she fails, robs her of the authority to prosecute her case and demonstrates that she does not care about tolerance, but merely uses it as moral cover for her progressive agenda. (If Buchanan was guilty of all of MacLean's charges, but was a progressive in his politics and economics, would this book have ever been written?)

Second, there is a wider case to be made against modern liberalism, which gains much of its moral authority from its claim to universal tolerance. This is connected to modern liberalism's claim to knowledge of some objective "public welfare." It is impossible for anyone to be universally tolerant or to grasp the public welfare. Inevitably, much like G. K. Chesterton's insane rationalist, reality is chopped up to fit the limitations of the human mind. Tolerance for certain people must take precedence. In practice, this means that liberals are terrible at considering problems of justice the moment they have to step outside of their narrow index card of privilege scoring. (What do you do when the villains are not white Christian heterosexual men?)

There is an even larger problem in that the liberal's belief in the ultimate value of tolerance makes it difficult for them to ever question their own prejudices. This is similar to how formal religion has a tendency to work against actual spirituality. How can a person whose very notion of self is equated with their relationship with God ever question the genuineness of that relationship? (The dark night of the soul, by its very nature, is something that only God, not the human seeker, can initiate.) Likewise, since the liberal defines himself as tolerant and it is this tolerance that gives him moral authority over all the "less enlightened," any attempt to question that tolerance challenges the liberal's very being. By contrast, both religious people and liberals might agree that it is a virtue to be slow to anger. That being said, acknowledging that one is quick to anger (something I am quite guilty of) is not that serious a problem as it does not challenge anyone's central narrative of themselves nor undermine anyone's moral authority.  

Are libertarians likely to be on the autism spectrum? In my experience, there seems to be some truth to this. If I were in charge of a libertarian organization, I would make a special point in reaching out to autism organizations on the assumption that they contained likely converts and vice versa. (Admittedly, as a libertarian on the autism spectrum I am biased to notice people like me.) This is not because we lack empathy; whatever the very real challenges of being on the autism spectrum, lacking empathy is not one of them. I suspect that autistics come preconditioned to make the kind of Faustian bargain necessary for ideological libertarianism (as opposed to simply being socially liberal and fiscally conservative). Libertarianism offers the prospect of being right and logically consistent, but the price you pay is irrelevancy. Note that I am not claiming that libertarians are right or consistent; on the contrary, to even seriously consider libertarianism you have to be willing to surrender relevancy and you may never turn out to be right or consistent.

I confess that this is a limitation of my own thinking. A politically conservative relative recently compared reading this blog to a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon. You can count on Calvin being logical, but nothing he says has anything to do with planet Earth. I write in order to have my own little universe that is rational and where the things I care about matter. There would be no point in writing if I lived in a world that actually reflected my mode of being. 

In politics, this leads to voting for Gov. Gary Johnson in the last election even though he only got three percent of the vote. (Not that Johnson was some kind of perfect libertarian. Furthermore, voting for him did not make you one and vice versa.) I voted for Johnson precisely because I refused to make the practical consideration of whether Trump or Clinton was worse than the other. I simply voted for him out of a desire to stick to my principles, to live according to a set of values that exist only in my head. I readily grant that, by doing so, I chose to make myself irrelevant. Not that I have any regrets, but I threw my vote away and neither of the two parties has any reason to take me into consideration.

Consider libertarian principles like "taxation is theft" and "the state has no special moral authority." These are great for those on the spectrum as it offers the chance to turn political science into geometry with beliefs that logically follow clear axioms and theorems. Trying to beat neurotypicals' heads with these ideas is unproductive as they do not relate to their lived experiences. We live in a world of states that claim the moral authority to tax and do anything else for the "public welfare." The state is so ubiquitous that it is meaningless to seriously analyze it as an instrument of power. Unless you can produce something tangible with it, neurotypicals are not likely to make the moral jump and reject the state. To mentally live in a world where you have rejected the government from your own head has no meaning for them.

This leads us to a certain irony in MacLean's accusations of a Koch backed libertarian conspiracy. Much as anti-Semites would have never dreamed up the Protocols of the Elders of Zion if they only had spent time with Jews and saw that Jews could not plot through a kiddush, if MacLean understood either libertarians or autistics, she would have realized that we have no master plan and, if we had to come up with one, it would be much better than the one she invented for us. Buchanan, whether or not he was on the spectrum, wrote as an academic for people living a century in the future, not guidebooks on overthrowing the state.

Autistics are often accused of lacking a theory of mind. In essence, this is a more sophisticated version of the lacking empathy libel. It has the advantage of sounding more clinical and offers the fig-leaf of pretending not to be prejudiced. What is funny about MacLean is the extent that she seems to lack any theory of mind regarding her opponents. Conspiracy thinking is fundamentally about lacking theory of mind in the sense that you assume that your opponents claim what they claim, knowing that it is false, for some sinister purpose as opposed to accepting that, whether they are right or wrong, they honestly believe what they say.

History is about getting into the mind of your subject. If MacLean honestly wanted to write a biography about Buchanan, she should have, for the purposes of the book, started with the assumption that public choice economics is correct. Furthermore, that progressivism, the New Deal, and the 1960s marked wrong turns for this country. If you were an academic who believed this, how would you have responded? Now you have a story worth telling regardless of your political affiliation. The fact that MacLean failed to do this does not mean that she is autistic; she simply lacks the moral imagination to be a good historian.

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