Legal rock star hits a sour note

Leonid Sirota has painted himself into a corner.

This happened to Sirota when he broke the rule that experts should not stray outside their area of expertise without realizing that they have crossed a boundary, outside of which they need to ramp down their belief in their own superiority.

I refer to his second blog post about the evils of "right wing collectivism."

While there is a smooth and easy continuum moving from law to philosophy to politics, an expert in law is not an expert in politics. Hell, even a lot of political scientists are not experts in politics. Politics is by definition unknowable; even retrospective study of the topic being confounded by what actually happened, vs. what could have happened instead. It's the nuanced and ever-changing interrelationship between a society, throughout its life cycle, and the forces that act on it - and how it chooses to respond. 

So, Sirota defeats himself first and foremost by underestimating his topic, and overestimating his own ability to evaluate it. As the conversation progresses, he misunderstands and misstates the positions of his adversaries, but even where he might have a good counterpoint, it fizzles because he aims at the wrong objective. He views the objective as the living of a good life, and it is the fact that he grounds his argument in this utopian outlook that is his second greatest weakness.

His greatest weakness is, ironically, that he now symbolizes precisely the point that he is trying to make: that power corrupts. Of course it does. And it corrupts most often through the exercise of hubris, to which Sirota's writing on this topic makes it apparent that he has fallen victim.

There are always red flags when boundaries are crossed. And the biggest red flag in this series of exchanges, which comprises tweets and essays in various places, is the need that Sirota apparently had to cut one of his critics down to size.

I write this blog post for the delectation of those who have followed this saga so far, so am not going to take responsibility for retracing all the breadcrumbs to its wellspring. But briefly, this grew out of conversations at the Runnymede Society conference, which was happily able to take place just before traffic started to falter due to the pandemic, and a blog post that Sirota wrote in opposition to what he calls right wing collectivists, or conservatives (though his actual target is a bit more amorphous).

After that post, which I thought was weak, but not worth responding to since it was outside his wheelhouse and really just comprised opinion anyway, a response was written by Thomas Falcone, a UBC-based Runnymede member, and posted to Sirota's blog by his co-blogger, Mark Mancini.

In response to which Sirota tweeted: "...@thomas_falcone counting me among those who "repress any intellectual heterodoxy" speaks better of his nerve than his understanding."

I actually gasped when I read this cutting remark. Partly, I did so because the personal rudeness seemed so uncalled for, especially between allies in the Runnymede movement. But I also gasped because I saw the hubris, and was grieved to see Sirota so easily fall victim to it. As Falcone wrote in his essay, Sirota is something of a rock star in Runnymede circles, and while I don't move in Runnymede circles, I share (not shared; still do) the admiration of Sirota that prevails there. I read Sirota's Double Aspect blog pretty religiously (little joke there) and went to see him speak the one time I had an opportunity to do so locally, at UBC. I'm not a lawyer, but through involvement in public law have dragged myself up a steep learning curve on the topic of law and government, and owe a great deal to Sirota for what I have learned.

I also gasped at the lack of self-awareness, because Sirota is not immune from the observation that he represses intellectual heterodoxy. Everyone who participates in elite group insider culture does, and in this case, Sirota is doing it as he speaks.

It may not be an accident that all this is unfolding as we face moves by various governments to consolidate power during a pandemic. But everyone in this little drama is missing the obvious here: discussions of power and politics are not about what constitutes "the good life," or moral values or freedom. The central task of a human society is to ward off predators (in fact, of animal societies too - where for some reason we are more able to see this reality). And there are times, in response to certain kinds of predators, that the consolidation of power is the best defence. John Kenneth Galbraith made the excellent observation in his book, The Anatomy of Power, that there is symmetry between internal and external power: the most effective organization is one that has power over its subjects. (This is why labour unions are so powerful, FWIW).

Of course, the corollary question is whether the power can be redistributed when necessary to defend against other forms of predation that are better opposed by individuals acting freely - or occasionally, to enable a society to become predatory. The issue is, when is which tactic necessary?

That is the process that our politics exists to decide, and that, I would argue, is a discussion that experts should stay out of. Technocracy is not preferable when it argues against what the people perceive that they need.

Political behaviour occurs on a very visceral level, and one problem with experts engaging on it is that they try to tell people what they need & thus stop people from acting on their guts. But the reason people should be able to act politically without expert brokering is that what people perceive that they need is usually grounded in their own reality, something that the experts cannot grasp, because they are elites.

Visceral reaction also has an immediacy that expert-brokered actions lack.

Elites do not know what is happening on the ground until they send out their research arms to measure it. We see this with the emphasis on Coronavirus testing: no call to wear masks until the experts have input that tells them where the virus is and how much of it is circulating. But people started wearing masks long before being told they should do so, and the experts now are following the people, not the other way around.

But taken to an extreme, unbrokered public response is mob rule, which has an unpalatable history & reality. That does have to be mitigated with a consolidation of power, power that can distribute both enough incentives and disincentives to congregate and wreak havoc.

What, in my opinion, all the combatants in this essay contest have missed is something that is intuitively understood by ordinary people: the need for an ebb and flow, with no single answer being the right answer all the time. Let's again look at the example of pandemics for illustration: smallpox was being introduced to the Americas over the same period that Europe was fighting plague. Where was the threat more effectively responded to? And why?

What we come to is Jordan Peterson's simple and elegant description of what precipitates changes from left wing to right, and back again. He labels the dichotomy as being one of "more open" and "more closed." This helps us overcome the partisan labels and ideologies that clothe themselves from time to time in party paraphernalia, to really appreciate the core sense of what is offered. He says that when things get a little too closed, and entrenched, people have a sense of constraint and vote for what appears to be more open. And vice versa, when things get a little too open, and chaotic, people vote for more structure and order.

Intellectuals love to hate Jordan Peterson, to the extent that few are able to read him and appreciate why he is so widely appreciated (yes, I said that on purpose). What he does better than most elites do is to listen, and respect the capacity of ordinary people to sense trends and needs, and to make sense of their lives within the context of the big politics about which experts like to pontificate. He also appreciates their capacity to alter what they think and do, and - and this is pivotal - the power they have when they do that.

It is good to have principles, and it is good that people have different principles, and talk about the way they are acted on by people with power. In a sense, when there is this variety, politics is people shopping for what they need at any given moment, bringing to bear all of the intuitive analysis they bring to deciding which car to buy. For all that this intuition is derided as being mere emotion, or is the target of devious subliminal marketing campaigns, there is something about it that is a real and immediate response to real current conditions - often before experts realize what is happening.

But as Stephen Lukes wrote in Power: a Radical View, power is not always what happens, but also what does not happen. The reality is that there is always someone pursuing more power than they are willingly granted. When we see a consolidation of power, it often means not that the person seeking power is worse than usual, but that opposition to the consolidation of power has subsided. And that happens, in a democratic system, because other people deem it to be in their interests to let that happen.

What is probably needed from the intelligentsia is intelligent discussion of how societies can walk back from consolidations of power, or limit the harm that can be done. My own thought would be to put a limiting factor into the original formula, such as that power consolidation reverts when target X (eg, coronavirus death rate) is achieved.*

Meanwhile, Sirota's analysis does not move beyond the level of "more power bad."

In short, if Sirota wants to write about power, then he should do so as befits his status as a legal rock star: to a much higher standard. And if he can't do so to start with, then he should be far more open to critical feedback. Humility, not hubris, leads to the best performance by experts.

Every rock star puts out a bad album, and this is Sirota's.

*Edited since originally posted