You never hear about a tiger laughing

Wednesday, May 16th, 2018

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned from personality psychology?” Tyler Cowen asks Bryan Caplan:

At least one thing that might be a good answer is that cheerfulness loads on extroversion.

There’s something actually very social about happiness. When you read this, it makes so much sense — how little of happiness seems to be about material possessions and how much of it is about having good relationships with other people.

You can think about animals. When I read you something about animals, the animals that laugh, they’re all social animals. Dogs laugh, chimpanzees laugh, humans laugh. You never hear about a tiger laughing, these very asocial animals. At least that’s one that I often do think about, is this connection between social interaction and being happy.

No single paper is that good

Monday, May 14th, 2018

Tyler Cowen kicked off his talk with Bryan Caplan by citing Caplan’s own statement that “no single paper is that good”:

What I meant by that is that if you look at any individual piece, in social science specifically, it’s very hard to see that a reasonable person would fundamentally change their mind based upon any one of them.

People often have an idea of, there’s the really good papers where you should have a mind quake, and you never see the world again in the same way after that. For me, all of them fail to measure up to that standard. I think the way that you really learn something is by reading a vast empirical literature.

The direct cause of this was… I think Noah Smith had a challenge: “Name the two or three papers on each topic that are really convincing.” I was thinking about that and said, “Honestly, I can’t think of any papers like that unless you’re going to cheat and count a literature view as being that kind of a paper.” Just realizing that the way that you actually achieve social science knowledge isn’t by finding the one crucial — might be a natural experiment that shows exactly how the world works — but by assembling a wide variety of evidence and then muddling through.

Don’t go for kills

Sunday, April 29th, 2018

I don’t know why the makers of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal went with Moneybattle:

SMBC Moneybattle

They could have drawn curved swords, used “slashes” instead of “stabs,” and called the whole thing — wait for it! — Sabermetrics:

Children in the snow

Wednesday, April 25th, 2018

Military sci-fi writer John Ringo grew up in 23 foreign countries, where his father worked as a civil engineer, including Iran before the fall of the Shah. He shared this story with an audience at LibertyCon in Chattanooga. It’s about Children in the Snow:

January of the first year I was there. I was ten years old. My father is working in Abadan, we were living in Teheran. He would work down there for three weeks, then come back to Teheran for a week, back and forth.

My mother decided that we were going to go down and visit my dad in Abadan. And we were going to take the train. It was winter, and Iran has more snow than you would expect. It’s a lot like Utah, actually. The weather was very, very cold. As a matter of fact, that year, right around Christmas, it had snowed so heavily that the roof of the airport collapsed from the snow. And I had to go upstairs and shovel the flat top of the building. Until I couldn’t move any more and we got an Ash Kali. And I’m not even going to explain what an Ash Kali is… just “day laborer.”

The train went down overnight. And, at one point, we were stopped on a siding and I woke up in the middle of the night, because the movement had stopped. And I kind of got out to look around, and we were in this upland valley in the Zagros Mountains. It was one of those nights that was so cold that you could see the trees cracking. There were these leafless poplar trees, and snow, and you kind of see a village off in the distance. The cold poured off the window.

While I was out there, I noticed some movement. And my mom had told me, and it was true, that they still had train robberies. So I was like “Cool! It’s bandits! What am I going to do?” I was an adventurous ten-year-old kid, right? Ooh, maybe bandits are going to be boarding.

But it wasn’t bandits. It was women and children in rags… who were going along the train track, picking up coal and rice and wheat that had fallen off the train… so they would have a little bit of heat, and a little bit of food, to make it through another day.

That image was, you can call it childhood trauma, if you like. And every time that I see certain directions, I realize that we’re heading in the direction… we are either headed towards children in the snow, or we are headed away from children in the snow. So at a certain level, everything that I do… is to try to make a world where the only reason that children go out into the snow is to play.

Leftists should appreciate The Case Against Education

Tuesday, April 24th, 2018

Bryan Caplan argues that there are many results in The Case Against Education that leftists should appreciate:

1. Lots of workers — especially less-educated workers — are paid less than they’re worth.  If signaling is important, there are bound to be numerous “diamonds in the rough” — good workers who are underpaid because they lack the right credentials to convince employers of their quality.

2. Lots of workers — especially more-educated workers — are paid more than they’re worth.  Again, if signaling is important, there are bound to be lots of bad workers who are overpaid because they obtained misleadingly strong credentials.

3. A lot of education is meaningless hoop-jumping.  Campus radicals have long accused the education system of imposing an irrelevant, backward-looking, elitist curriculum on hapless kids.  I say they’re right.

4. The education market is inefficient.  In signaling models, education has negative externalities.  My story therefore implies a serious market failure, where self-interest leads students to pursue more education than socially optimal.

5. Locked-in Syndrome.  Due to conformity signaling, the market for education isn’t just inefficient; it’s durably inefficient.  The education market doesn’t just fail; it durably fails.

6. The government’s “ban” on IQ testing is grossly exaggerated, and does next to nothing to explain employers’ reliance on credentials.  While the Griggs case nominally imposes near-insurmountable hurdles on IQ employment testing (as well as virtually every hiring method), it is cursorily enforced.  Lots of U.S. employers admit they use IQ testing, and the expected legal costs of doing so are tiny.

7. Credential inflation is rampant.  Technological change explains only a small fraction of the evolution of the modern labor market.  The popular perception that workers need far more education to get the same jobs their parents and grandparents had is deeply true.

8. Working your way up takes ages.  While there’s good evidence that worker ability raises pay, the process takes many years.  If you’re smart but uncredentialed, even a decade of work experience isn’t enough to fully catch up.

9. In many ways, the labor market used to be better for people from poor and working-class families.  Sure, average living standards are much higher today than in 1950.  But in 1950, there was far less stigma against high school dropouts, and very little stigma against workers who didn’t go to college.  Moderns who look at college graduates from poor families and see “social justice” are neglecting the troubles of the massively larger number of kids from poor families who never get college degrees.

10. Forcing middle-class aspirations on everyone causes misery and failure for poor and working-class kids.  Lots of kids loathe school.  They’re bored out of their minds, and humiliated by teachers’ endless negative feedback.  Such kids disproportionately come from poor and working-class families.  But since the middle- and upper-classes control the curriculum, they’ve stubbornly moved to a “college-for-all” approach to school — and turned vocational education into an afterthought.  The result: Most poor and working-class kids endure thousands of sad hours, then leave school unprepared for either jobs or college.

What caused the 1968 riots?

Sunday, April 8th, 2018

MLK’s assassination kicked up a wave of riots, but why exactly?

Modern thought has a tendency toward economic reductionism, viewing every historic problem as a mechanical working-out of underlying economic processes, and every solution in those terms.

After the 1960s riots, governments leaped in with public housing and economic redevelopment programs that did little to stem the decline of riot-haunted cities. After 9/11, we heard anguished discussions about poverty and economic stagnation in the Middle East. And when the United States elected Donald Trump president, reporters circled old factory towns like vultures, feasting on images of rusted-out manufacturing plants that could be fed to readers as the “reason” behind the political upheaval.

These things do matter. But in the words of sociologist Seymour Spilerman, who did some of the seminal research on the 1960s riots, they’re “background conditions.” The economic deprivation inflicted by America’s racial caste system was real and abominable — and yet, says Spilerman, “in general, it’s not economic conditions which are the immediate precipitants of riots.”

While a general level of deprivation may make riots more likely (if for no other reason than because the poor have so little to lose), variations in economic deprivation don’t. In the 1960s, blacks were economically oppressed everywhere, but there were still places where things were better or worse. So if economic conditions lead to riots, we’d have expected to see the most civil disorder in the places with the worst hardship. But that’s not what the data show.

Nor did economic factors predict when riots broke out. After all, the 1960s were a period of unusually rapid economic progress for black Americans, thanks to anti-discrimination campaigns and the Civil Rights Act. If poverty and unemployment were driving rioters, the 1960s should have been one of the most racially peaceful decades in American history.

What did cause the riots, then? Well, rage and despair and a lot of hard-to-quantify socio-political factors. But taking them all in total, I’d sum them all up with one word: respect. Whatever our economic conditions, we also want — we need — to command a certain minimal amount of admiration from our fellow citizens.


In the late 1960s, as the legal barriers fell, the gulf between legal status and social reality may have chafed more than usual.

Many firms don’t know their numbers

Saturday, April 7th, 2018

Alex Tabarrok has learned a lot about industrial organization by watching The Profit, a reality-TV show on CNBC featuring businessman Marcus Lemonis:

In each episode Lemonis buys into a failing small-to-medium-sized business and works to turn it around. Lemonis doesn’t invest in a random sample of businesses nor even in a random sample of failing businesses. Nevertheless, the lessons that The Profit teaches are consistent with the new literature on management which has increased my confidence both in the show and the literature.

In the perfectly competitive model, price is equal to average cost and firms operate efficiently at minimum cost. Yet, Syverson finds that in the typical US industry a firm at the 90th percentile of the productivity distribution makes almost twice as much output with the same inputs as a firm at the 10th percentile. It’s not easy to measure inputs or outputs, of course, but even firms producing very uniform products show big productivity differences.

How can firms that use inputs so inefficiently survive? In part, competition is imperfect which gives inefficient firms a cushion because they can charge a price higher than cost even as costs are higher than necessary. Another reason is that small firms eat their costs.

A typical firm on The Profit, for example, has decent revenues, sometimes millions of dollars of revenues, but it has costs that are as high or higher. What happened? Often the firm began with a competitive advantage — a product that took off unexpectedly and so for a time the firm was rolling in profits without having to pay much attention to costs. As competition slowly took hold, however, margins started to decline and the firm found itself bailing. But instead, of going out of business, the firm covers its losses with entrepreneurs and family members who work without pay, with loans which grow ever larger, and by an occasional demand shock which generates enough surplus revenue to just keep going.

The correct metaphor for competition isn’t a boxing match that knocks out the inefficient firm. The correct metaphor is a slow tide. Inefficient firms must scramble for a bit of high ground but as the tide ebbs and flows they can occasionally catch a breath when their head bobs above the profit line. An inefficient firm can survive for years before it inevitably sinks.

The second lesson from The Profit is that management matters and it matters in systematic and fairly easy to replicate ways. If mis-measurement explained productivity differences, Lemonis would not be able to successfully turn firms around. But he can and does. How?

One of the first things Lemonis does in almost every episode is get the numbers right so he can calculate which products are selling and which have the highest price-to-cost margin. Concentrate production on high-margin, big sellers. Drop the rest. Simple; but many firms don’t know their numbers.

Second, in episode after episode, Lemonis cleans up shop. Literally. He cleans the shop floor and gets rid of inventory that isn’t selling. He then arranges the floor to improve process flow (made easier by concentrating production on fewer products). He then creates an inventory system, tracks orders and the inputs needed to create those orders, and takes advantage of costs savings through economies of scale in input purchases.

Can it be so simple? To be sure, Lemonis is a smart guy but very little of what he does takes genius. We know this because we now have robust evidence from India and Mexico that better management increases profits and productivity and that such increases can be sustained over the long run. In the studies from India and Mexico, randomly selected firms were given access to a “management intervention” and their productivity and profits improved and stayed higher for years after the intervention ended.

Moreover, what were these management interventions? Did some bright Harvard grad recommend a complicated swap-options deal? A new chemical process? A new management form? No. By and large, the interventions were simple. Just like the Lemonis interventions.

We could never have imagined what happened in Venezuela

Monday, March 19th, 2018

We never could have imagined — or prepped for — what happened in Venezuela, a Venezuelan “prepper” explains:

An economic collapse this long seemed like something that was entirely out of the question. It was entirely unpredictable. I would have expected a pandemics or a coup d’etat long before this hungry zombie-like scenario.

We knew something disturbing was going to happen sooner or later. We could feel it in the atmosphere…but nothing like this. We never thought it would be impossible to find a battery, or engine oil, or gasoline (Jeez, this was an oil-producing country!!) or that kids were going to be endangered in the very door of their schools.

He lists a number of supplies he should have stockpiled and preparations he should have made. A few stand out:

A large, buried diesel custom-made aluminum tank with a proper sized generator (there is not too much space left in our place: we live in a subdivision, houses are wall to wall next to each other) with a homemade silencer, and adequately rigged to the wiring of the house for the largest systems, like freezers and air conditioning.

Enclosing our garage before the steel rebar disappeared from the white market and the production was destined to the black and grey market. (I hate fencing, it is like living in a birdcage, but this would helped a lot for peace of mind).

Perhaps a chicken coop with a couple of hens. The eggs price has been so inflated this days that a single egg costs more than the minimum wage. A hen produces more than a laborer. Do you remember that stories about the eggs, chocolate, and potatoes acting as currency in the WWII? It is becoming currency here too.

Another SUV, with a much taller ground clearance, larger tires, diesel-powered with no electronics and a huge front fender. Something heavy, strong, black or dark grey, windows covered by that plastic clear bullet proof sheeting, able to plow a pack of thugs in motorcycles out of the way without a blink.

Waking up to hidden motives

Tuesday, March 13th, 2018

I haven’t read The Elephant in the Brain (yet), but I enjoyed Robin Hanson’s talk with Sam Harris about hidden motives:

They discuss selfishness, hypocrisy, norms and meta-norms, cheating, deception, self-deception, education, the evolutionary logic of conversation, social status, signaling and counter-signaling, common knowledge, AI, and many other topics.

I especially enjoyed the misguided questions from the audience.

You get to show off, and hey, isn’t that great?

Monday, March 5th, 2018

Robin Hanson discusses signaling and self deception in the latest of Professor Cowen’s Conversations with Tyler:

TYLER COWEN: Welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today, we have my colleague Robin Hanson. With Robin, we go meta. Robin, if politics is not about policy, medicine is not about health, laughter is not about jokes, and food is not about nutrition, what are podcasts not about?

ROBIN HANSON: As you know, in my new book, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life, we have a whole chapter on conversation, which I expect you have perused.

The claim we make in there is that, although we like to talk about conversation as if it was about imparting information and finding out useful things, more plausibly it’s about showing off your backpack of tools and skills in context.

COWEN: So what am I trying to signal with the first question in the podcast?

HANSON: [laughs] You are showing your versatility here; you are showing lots of things. You’re showing how well you know me, and that this is the sort of question I like and can engage. You’re showing the audience that you have an unusual perspective on things.

As usual, apparently, people like your conversations because you have some magic sauce, some special way that you can show that you get to people in a way that other people can’t.

COWEN: In your wonderful new book, The Elephant in the Brain, you outline a theory of human behavior where signaling has a great deal of explanatory power. If you had to, in as crude or blunt terms as possible, how much of human behavior ultimately can be traced back to some kind of signaling? What’s your short, quick, and dirty answer?

HANSON: In a rich society like ours, well over 90 percent.


HANSON: I think our audience needs a better summary of this thesis that I’m going to defend here. The Elephant in the Brain‘s main thesis is that in many areas of life, perhaps even most, there’s a thing we say that we’re trying to do, like going to school to learn or going to the doctor to get well, and then what we’re really trying to do is often more typically something else that’s more selfish, and a lot of it is showing off.

If that’s true, then we are built to do that. That’s the thing we want to do, and in some sense it’s a great world when we get to do it.

My complaint isn’t really that most people don’t acknowledge this. I accept that people may be just fine leaving the elephant in their brain and not paying attention to it and continuing to pretend one thing while they’re doing another. That may be what makes them happy and that may be OK.

My stronger claim would be that policy analysts and social scientists who claim that they understand the social world well enough to make recommendations for changes — they should understand the elephant in the brain. They should have a better idea of hidden motives because they could think about which institutions that we might choose differently to have better outcomes.

In a world where, say, we’re all showing what strong, virile men we are by fighting battles every day, physical battles, we may each enjoy that until the day we die at 25. [laughs] But from a larger social point of view, there’s a huge loss.

The focus here is on the coordination failure, on the equilibrium being inefficient because we have these huge negative externalities. It’s the negative externalities that are the problem and the fault with the signaling, not so much the fact that you like to show off. You get to show off, and hey, isn’t that great?

I’ve got to go and incorporate this knowledge into my decisions

Sunday, February 25th, 2018

Arnold Kling found Russ Roberts’ recent interview with Bryan Caplan to be one of his favorite EconTalk episodes, “because Russ pushes back so hard and of course Bryan debates effectively.” I also enjoyed both the Caplan quotes he cited:

I would say if there is no designable test that can show that people learn something, then they haven’t learned it. You might say the test is bad, in which case I would say, ‘Fine. Design a better test, and then show it to me.’ But, if you want to say that people have been transformed but it’s a way that no one can actually show, no matter how hard they try, then I’m going to say, ‘No. That just sounds like wishful thinking.’


I’m weird in this way, in that when I read something that seems true to me, like I just feel this incredible, this weight on the world: ‘I must repent. I can’t keep living the way I used to live anymore. I’ve got to go and incorporate this knowledge into my decisions, day after day. And, I’m a sinner if I don’t.’ But even that is such a weird response to a book. Most people read Tetlock’s Superforecasting and say, ‘Oh, yeah. So interesting. Some people are really great at this stuff. Yeah. Right.’ And then they go back and live their normal lives.

Is the education system really a waste of time and money?

Thursday, February 22nd, 2018

Is the education system really a waste of time and money, Bryan Caplan asks, as his new book claims right on the cover? This is a strange topic to debate with Eric Hanushek, he explains:

Why? Because if Hanushek had absolute power to fix the education system, education might actually be worth every penny. Hanushek is famous for focusing on what schools teach rather than what they spend — and documenting the vast disconnect between the two. If you haven’t already read his dissection of “input-based education policies,” you really ought to. Hanushek, more than any other economist, has taught us that measured literacy and numeracy are socially valuable — but just making kids spend long years in well-funded schools is not.

Tragically, however, Hanushek is not our education czar. Instead, all levels of our education system are extremely wasteful and ineffective. After spending more than a decade in class and burning up over $100,000 in taxpayer money, most Americans know shockingly little. About a third of adults are barely literate or numerate. Average adult knowledge of the other standard academic requirements — history, social studies, science, foreign languages — is near-zero. The average adult with a B.A. has the knowledge base you’d intuitively expect of the average high school graduate. The average high school graduate has the knowledge base you’d intuitively expect of the average drop-out. This is the fruit of a trillion taxpayer dollars a year.

For economists, however, there’s a powerful objection to this condemnation. If students really learn so little, why on earth is education so lucrative in the labor market? Why do high school grads outearn dropouts by 30%? Why do college grads outearn high school grads by 73%? Explain that! Employers want profit and they aren’t dumb. They wouldn’t pay exorbitant premia unless education dramatically improved worker productivity, right?

Wrong. There are TWO solid business reasons to pay extra for educated workers. One is that education teaches useful skills, transforming unskilled students into skilled workers. This is the standard “human capital” story. The other reason, though, is that education certifies useful skills, helping employers distinguish skilled workers from imposters. This is the “signaling” story. In the real world, naturally, it’s a continuum. But since Hanushek is not the education czar, signaling explains most of education’s financial reward.

How can we know this? We should start with the massive gap between learning and earning, combined with the fact that even the most irrelevant subjects and majors yield decent financial rewards. If human capital were the whole story, why on earth would employers care if about whether you’ve studied Shakespeare, Latin, or trigonometry? Think about all the classroom materials you haven’t used since the final exam.

If that doesn’t fully convince you, many other facts that every student knows cut in the same direction. Such as:

1. It’s easy to unofficially attend college classes without enrolling or paying tuition, but almost no one bothers. Why not? Because after four years of guerilla education, there’s one thing you won’t have: a diploma. The central signal of our society.

2. Students’ focus on grades over learning, best seen in their tireless search for “easy A’s.” Signaling has a simple explanation: If a professor gives you a high grade for minimal work, you get a nice seal of approval without suffering for it.

3. Students routinely cram for final exams, then calmly forget everything they learn. Signaling provides a clean explanation: Learning, then forgetting, sends a much better signal than failing.

In The Case Against Education, I also review multiple major bodies of academic research to help pin down the true human capital/signaling breakdown. In the end, my best estimate is that signaling explains 80% of the payoff. Key pieces of evidence:

1. Most of the payoff for school comes from graduation, not mere years of study. This is a doozy for human capital theory to explain; do schools withhold useful skills until senior year? But it makes perfect sense if graduation is a focal signal of conformity to social norms.

2. There has been massive credential inflation since 1940. The education you need to do a job hasn’t changed much, but the education you need to get any given job has risen about three years. Hence, the fact that waiter, bartender, security guard, and cashier are all now common jobs for college grads.

3. Though every data set yields different estimates, the effect of national education on national income is much smaller than the effect of personal education on personal income. How is this possible? Signaling! Give everyone more useful skills, and you enrich the whole nation. Give everyone more stickers on their foreheads, and you fritter away valuable time and tax money.

If you’ve been wondering, “What does signaling have to do with wasteful education?,” I hope you’re starting to see the link. Sure, it’s useful to rank workers. But once they’re ranked, prolonging the ranking game is a socially destructive rat race. When education levels skyrocket, the main result isn’t good jobs for every graduate, but credential inflation: The more education the average worker has, the more education the average worker needs to be employable. And while sending fancy signals is a great way for an individual to enrich himself, it’s a terrible way to enrich society.

Given Hanushek’s work, I’m optimistic that he’ll agree with much of what I’ve said. It’s our remedies that starkly diverge. My primary solution for these ills is cutting education spending. In a word, austerity. Austerity: It’s word I love. It’s a word I believe in. If Hanushek’s bleak assessment of input-based education policies is right, austerity will save tons of time and money with little effect on worker skill.

Cutting waste is easy and transparent

Wednesday, February 21st, 2018

Bryan Caplan has some fun explaining why public education is a waste by analogy:

You think we have too much education, and I think we’re doing education wrong. In other words, you want less education, and I want better education.

My response is that doing less education is easy, and improving the education system is hard. Here’s an analogy I use in the book: Imagine that your friend comes to you and says, “You know that toenail fungus cream that you’re spending a hundred bucks a month on?” “Yeah.” “Here’s clear proof it doesn’t work, so stop using it,” and you say, “Well, I’m not going to stop using it until you give me a toenail fungus cream that does work.”

Your friend says, “Well, I don’t really know one that works, and there’s a lot of debate about it, and it’s really hard to find one. What I do know is that you should stop wasting a hundred bucks a month.”

To me, that’s a lot of what’s going on with education. We’ve got very clear evidence that we’re wasting a lot, but we don’t have a clear idea as to what would be better. All we know is that the system we have now is grossly dysfunctional, so I don’t think we should keep pouring money into it.


Cutting waste is easy and transparent. But making things better is really hard and, in order to do it, you’ve got to trust a bunch of people who have already really screwed up, and that sounds imprudent to me.

Taleb’s style can be imitated but never fully mastered

Friday, February 16th, 2018

Branko Milanovic thinks that Nassim Nicholas Taleb is one of the most important thinkers today:

Taleb went from (a) technical observations about non-Gaussian distributions of some phenomena to (b) generalization of what this means for our perception of reality and the way we comprehend things (epistemology) to (c) methodology of knowledge and the role of inductive thinking to finally (d) a statement on ethics. To convey this he created a new type of writing. I will leave this last part undiscussed, but whoever has read Taleb knows that his writing style is absolutely original and like Borges’ can be imitated but never fully mastered.


This has also led him to conservative political philosophy, similar to Edmund Burke’s (whom he does not mention): institutions should not be changed based on deductive reasoning; they should be left as they are not because they are rational and efficient in an ideal sense but because the very fact that they have survived a long time shows that they are resilient. Taleb’s approach there has a lot in common not only with Burke but also with Tocqueville, Chateaubriand and Popper (whom he quotes quite a lot). One may notice how a technical/statistical point made by Taleb such as “my field is error avoidance” leads to agreeing with Hayek’s critique of the “conceit of reason”.

This is the logic of lex talionis

Tuesday, February 13th, 2018

William Ian Miller’s Eye for an Eye did not make it onto T. Greer’s top 10 reads list for 2017, but he did find it quite thought-provoking:

Miller is an unusual creature: part law professor, part medievalist, Miller is equally comfortable discussing ancient Hittite legal decrees, the etymology of old Norse runes, the tropes of Elizabethan Drama, and modern tort law. I suppose if you were to take J.R.R. Tolkien, Thomas Schelling, a good dose of dead-pan humor, and a pinch of the morbid, and then shook them up together in a bottle, Mr. Miller is the man who would emerge.

Miller’s book looks at the politics of social life (in places like medieval Iceland):

When one man (or one women) meets another calculations begin: how should I treat this person? Are we equals, or is he my social inferior? Or perhaps he is my social superior? How do I let him know what my social status is, and how should I respond if he does not take the hint? Is this person worth an insult? A fight? What are the consequences of letting things slide? What are the consequences of refusing to do so?

Eye for an Eye looks at lex talionis — “the law of the talion, the principle of an eye for an eye, of justice through vengeance, retaliation sanctioned by culture and law”:

This understanding of justice is what propels the Icelandic sagas. But it wasn’t just a Viking tick. “Eye for an eye” was standard practice just about everywhere a few thousand years ago, from the shores of Germainia and the fields of the Greek polis to the warring tribes of Canaan and the even more distant lands of the Kurus and the Zhou. We view this understanding of justice as backward and crude. We say things like “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Miller aims to convince us otherwise.

In Bloodtaking and Peacemaking, Miller tells the story of some Norwegian merchants who had chopped off Skæring’s hand and thought the judgment too steep:

“Then I shall make you another proposal,” said Gudmund. “I will pay Skæring the thirty hundreds that you were judged to pay, but I shall choose one man from amongst you who seems to me of equivalent standing with Skæring and chop off his hand. You may then compensate that man’s hand as cheaply as you wish.”

This did not appeal to the Norwegians and they decided to pay the original award immediately. Gudmund took Skæring with him when they left the ship.


To the Norwegians the award should reflect the price of a middling Icelandic hand. Gudmund forces them to conceive of the award in a different way: it is not the price of buying Skæring’s hand, but the price of preserving a Norwegian hand.

This is the logic of lex talionis, T. Greer explains:

This is why “an eye for an eye” did not in fact make the whole world go blind. The principle of an eye for an eye, as Miller sees it, is “the more ancient and deeper notion that justice is a matter of restoring balance, achieving equity, determining equivalence, making reparations… getting back to zero, to even.” Trading eyes for eyes is not so much about indiscriminate, unthinking violence as it is carefully calculated attempts to match punishment to crime. Talionic justice is a system built on deterrence — not only deterring criminals from committing crimes, but deterring vengeance seekers from exacting too heavy a price in retaliation for crimes committed against them. This is empathy enforced by blood. You think carefully about the pain you inflict on others knowing, that measure for measure, the pain you give others will be given back to you.

We have a sorry habit thinking about revenge as “as going postal and blasting away,” but as Miller notes, “revenge cultures did not think of it that way.” This is obvious if you read the stories revenge cultures created. Characters in the Icelandic sagas approach murder with the meticulousness of a father inspecting his daughter’s suitor. They conducted their feuds not in the heat of rage, but through cold, calculations. Heroes from revenge plays like The Oresteia cycle or The Orphan of Zhao plan their vengeance months or even years in advance, and when the moment comes often have to be goaded into taking revenge. One gets the sense that these people believed that feuding was utterly necessary but not entirely natural.