Wilkinson on Cato, Self-Serving Excuses, Second-Best Solutions (Ponies and Pandaemonia of Pis-Aller)

by John Holbo on March 9, 2012

Will Wilkinson makes what seem to me very astute comments about the Cato Institute’s partisan profile. The occasion is the ongoing Koch-Crane conflict. But these comments are important more for the way they point up typical deflections that occur when the light of ‘ideal’ theory is refracted through the lens of partisan desire, playing tricks on our view of the landscape of actual politics.

It’s tempting to think that Cato almost never does anything to help the Democrats largely because it’s just too far to the left of the Democratic Party on foreign policy and civil liberties. Yet Cato is equally far to the “right” of the Republican Party on economic policy, welfare policy, education policy, and lots more. Social Security privatization is a forced savings program. School vouchers and/or education tax credits are taxpayer-funded education. Lower income-tax rates concede the income tax. Again and again Cato finds a way to settle on non-ideal, “second-best” economic, welfare, and education policies, and argue for them in away that provides “ammo” to the right. But it very rarely develops compromising second-best policies on foreign policy or civil liberties that would be of any practical use to dovish or civil-libertarian Democrats. Why not? Why was coming out in favor of gay marriage more controversial at Cato (the state shouldn’t be involved in marriage at all!) than coming out in favor of school vouchers (the state shouldn’t be involved in education at all!)? Why not a bigger institutional push for medical marijuana as a second-best, nose-under-the-tent alternative to outright legalization? The fact is that Cato has so deeply internalized the ethos of the venerable right-fusionist alliance that there is almost no hope of it functioning on the whole in a truly non-partisan way. I think its status-quo reputation reflects that.

Politics is the art of the possible. Sometimes I’m tempted to say that political philosophy is the science of the impossible. That is, it consists of efforts to be maximally systematic and rational about what ain’t going to happen, politically, but should. Political philosophy orbits around first-best solutions. If it doesn’t, it’s confused. If a liberal/progressive says this, conservatives will of course take to their fainting couches, between gasps: ‘utopianism … procrustean bed … cruel lopping of limbs … shall there be no cakes and ale! … Jacobin Alinskyite!’ No doubt the performance is mandatory. Still, we shouldn’t let our sense that this is so detract from our awareness of its exquisite nonsensically. For, as G. K. Chesterton remarks:

No man demands what he desires; each man demands what he fancies he can get. Soon people forget what the man really wanted first; and after a successful and vigorous political life, he forgets it himself. The whole is an extravagant riot of second bests, a pandemonium of pis-aller. Now this sort of pliability does not merely prevent any heroic consistency, it also prevents any really practical compromise. One can only find the middle distance between two points if the two points will stand still. We may make an arrangement between two litigants who cannot both get what they want; but not if they will not even tell us what they want.

Awareness of what is first-best is a condition of being able to aim at second-best. Nevertheless, the thing about second-best solutions is that they may not resemble first-best options. Politicians are typically bad at dealing with the first consideration. Political philosophers are typically bad at dealing with the second. It would be nice if ideologically/philosophically-minded partisans could be those with one foot on the rough ground, the other in the cloud. But it is, per Wilkinson’s comment, typical for things not to work out in this happy way. In practice, being versed in political philosophy does not so much bind you as gift you with a plenitude of potential excuses, hence with a capacity for higher-order double-think.

Wilkinson really is saying that the thing about Cato is not that it’s in the tank, politically, but that it’s a double-think tank, philosophically.

What would be nice, then, would be a political philosophy that did a better job of taking this sort of typical deformation into intelligent account, which would discourage it – since it thrives on not being seen for what it is. (Also would be nice: a pony!) A theory of first-best that talks astutely about second-best. This is inherently hard to do, so I don’t say ‘theorizes well’. I guess I would propose a sort of line-of-sight rule. Optimally, you shouldn’t lose sight of your ideals or of reality. So much so obvious. But really the trick is keeping accurate score with regard to semi-idealistic philosophical and policy proposals. Philosophers like to talk about the difficulty deriving an ought from an is (or an is from an ought). But it’s equally important to think about the difficulty in analyzing an is-ought compound into component elements, the better to reduce and potentially reconstitute it.

The risk with this approach is that you end up with too many rungs on your Great Chain of Being. You might have to rewrite A Theory of Justice as Plotinus’ Enneads, which could get unwieldy. Just for my own amusement, I quickly sketched out a mere 15 gradations of politico-philosophical emanation you might need to keep line of sight contact with:

1) Ideal Philosophy (utopian)

2) Ideal Policy (utopian)

3) Ideal Philosophy (actually)

4) Ideal Policy (actually)

5) Ideal Philosophy (dystopian)

6) Ideal Policy (dystopian)

7) Actual Philosophy (utopian)

8) Actual Policy (utopian)

9) Actual Philosophy (actually)

10) Actual Policy (actually)

11) Actual Philosophy (dystopian)

12) Actual Policy (dystopian)

13) Rhetoric

14) Actual (present and past) stuff done.

15) Actual political psychology.

I’m not going to try to explain what I have in mind with regard to each of these levels. But let me give some indication of how and why it might be necessary to multiply idealities and actualities in such seemingly excessive – at best pleonastic – fashion.

Wilkinson, as a libertarian (this will do as an example), needs to have some idea of what the best sort of libertarianism would be. That’s level 1. He needs to think about how imperfectly that philosophy is realized (championed) at present. That’s level 2. He needs to think about how much worse it could get. At Cato, say. What if libertarianism turns into a mere shell, into which are poured all the sentiments of a Ron Paul newsletter from the 90’s? That’s level 3. He needs to filter these thoughts through parallel thoughts about policy: what it is, how good or bad it could get. He needs to think about competing philosophies. I am sure that Wilkinson thinks that the best possible liberalism is superior to actually existing libertarianism – which is far too close to level 3 – but that the best possible libertarianism is superior to the best possible liberalism. (But of course this thought is confused by the further thought that Wilkinson’s ideal liberalism becomes increasingly hard to distinguish from his ideal libertarianism, the better it gets.) Repeat for conservatism. What’s the best that conservatism could be? Not as good as libertarianism, but better than the worst that liberalism could be, probably.

As philosophers, we would like to address the strongest arguments our opponents have. But this etiquette of the seminar room is bad ethics, in that this just isn’t the right approach in political philosophy. Liberalism is as liberalism does (not just as it might do, ideally). And the same goes for conservatism and libertarianism and communism and the rest. If you only address good arguments you will miss out on a perilously large proportion of your actual subject matter.

This is the theory of the second best recursively applied to theories of the first best, as it were. (Think about it.)

It’s obviously very hard to juggle 15 balls at once and keep them in the air. But I think it’s probably right to say that political philosophy needs to see keeping constant line-of-sight contact with as many levels as possible as part of its core intellectual mission. (You don’t need to write about all the levels all the time. But it should be possible to see how what you are writing relates to all the levels. Your writings should strive for clear and transparent extension, in that regard.) Because it is not the case that you can make the following division of labor: philosophers see shapes in the clouds, i.e. do ideal theory. Politicians see what’s one inch in front of their noses, i.e. what can be done. Intellectual partisans and think-tankers bridge the gap by applying the theory to the reality. That too easily devolves into double-think tankery. Every philosophy should try to build into itself as much insulation against double-think tankery as possible. This ought to be regarded as a standard safety feature. The human mind being as fiendish as it is, this effort is bound to fail. Nevertheless, one ought to try.

{ 41 comments }

1

John Holbo 03.09.12 at 5:27 am

It’s probably worth pulling the Wilkinson points closer to the Chesterton quote: “No man demands what he desires; each man demands what he fancies he can get.” Conversely, rather than demanding that we not get something we don’t want, we ask for more of it that we could possibly get.

In short, good old ‘perfect is the enemy of the good’.

2

js. 03.09.12 at 6:12 am

I’m not sure I entirely understand this, so I’ll put the point as a question: is the 15-level scale supposed to be neutral with regard to one’s (okay, this is hard, let’s say:) political outlook? Because it strikes me that, e.g., neither a consensus view liberal nor a certain sort of Tory would want to have anything to do with the upper reaches of your scale. Or, for example, I can only imagine Isaiah Berlin scowling, scowling, at “Ideal philosophy (utopian)”. What am I missing?

3

John Quiggin 03.09.12 at 6:14 am

Social Security privatization presents a particularly stark example. The name became so toxic that the Repubs relabelled it “Choice”. Cato promptly followed suit.

http://johnquiggin.com/2002/07/28/tanstaafl/

4

shah8 03.09.12 at 7:18 am

I really kept thinking of Maynard Keynes, while reading this post.

It illustrated to me that this post is entirely a waste of time, because this is really about norms and transparency that are expected of people rather than about any particular philosophy. People who want to think the way *Holbo* suggests already do think this way, and they are routinely shouted down by people who have motive to use a mode of thought for entirely different purposes. Any philosophy will work, even onions and bathtubs, it’s that people are fucking nuts with whole jeremiads worth of drama going on in their heads. That’s why smaller organizations usually die out when the folks that knocks the knuckleheads together leaves or retires.

5

John Holbo 03.09.12 at 7:44 am

Rereading, I’m making a couple of separate points that need to be kept distinct. Next time I’ll try to do better.

What is really left out of the post is a sense of something that the Chesterton quote doesn’t bring out. Namely, unconfessed motives. Chesterton is talking about over-compromising one’s ideals. But the Cato case is really about having ideals other than those you are prepared to admit to having.

6

John Holbo 03.09.12 at 8:01 am

“Because it strikes me that, e.g., neither a consensus view liberal nor a certain sort of Tory would want to have anything to do with the upper reaches of your scale. Or, for example, I can only imagine Isaiah Berlin scowling, scowling, at “Ideal philosophy (utopian)”. What am I missing?”

I used to agree with that Isaiah Berlin scowl. But I’ve since decided it is a mistake. The 15 point scale is whimsical, to be sure, but everyone who wants to do political philosophy – tories and anti-utopians included – should be obliged to submit their blueprint for utopia, as a condition of joining the conversation. Just as an exercise in confessing that, obviously, they have ideals. Well, what are they? It’s perfectly fine to say that ideally we would like A even if, in point of fact, we can’t get there from here.

This is not a point I argued in the post, to be sure.

7

John Holbo 03.09.12 at 8:20 am

“It illustrated to me that this post is entirely a waste of time, because this is really about norms and transparency that are expected of people rather than about any particular philosophy.”

For the record, I don’t think this is correct. It’s true that one thing I’m trying to make more difficult is plain dishonesty. And it’s true that it shouldn’t be the job of philosophy t0 try to make it impossible for people to make dishonest use of philosophy. But I’m also objecting to a kind of confusion that is, if dishonest, a more subtle and pardonable and often unintentional sort of dishonesty. It’s the sort of error into which reasonable people – people worth talking to – may fall. So it’s reasonable to ask philosophy to try to guard against it.

8

Chris Bertram 03.09.12 at 9:35 am

Hmm. Was engaged in a similar exercise (re Rousseau’s writings on Geneva) recently, and then also read David Estlund’s recent PPA paper which is germane to the topic. I’d suggest a simplified 4-level model:

1. Utopian theory. Constrained by genuine physical impossibilities but not by failures of will. (G.A. Cohen)
2. Realistic utopian theory: constrained by likely flaws in ability to will (strains of commitment). (Rawls).
3. Non-ideal theory. (Contrained by widespread non-acceptance of principles mandated by 2). (Also Rawls)
4. Policy. 3 pursued in the light of the necessities of power, getting elected, political compromise etc.

9

John Holbo 03.09.12 at 10:00 am

I’ve read and been influenced by Estlund’s stuff, Chris. I’m not really serious about the 15 level ladder but I do think it’s important that people are often engaged in ideal theory, but really only semi-ideal theory. But without being clear about the ‘semi’ part, as a result of which it is genuinely difficult to ‘apply’. The theory becomes perilously ambiguous. I do also agree with Cohen’s critiques of Rawls somewhat along these lines.

10

Chris Bertram 03.09.12 at 10:07 am

(The names weren’t mean as anything more than an indicator of the kind of people who do each level. I’d have thought about that more, but had to run out the house quickly to catch a lift to the office.)

4-levels only really works for a world without think-tanks, because those operations exist partly to run interference higher up the chain in the name of the interests served lower down, so people can make out (also to themselves) that they’re guided by higher ideals.

11

Kieran 03.09.12 at 11:32 am

I’d have thought about that more, but had to run out the house quickly to catch a lift to the office

So even something as straightforward as a blog comment falls victim to the tyranny of non-ideal conditions!

12

Russell Arben Fox 03.09.12 at 12:34 pm

John,

Your central concern–“[P]olitical philosophy is the science of the impossible. That is, it consists of efforts to be maximally systematic and rational about what ain’t going to happen, politically, but should”–is an excellent, pithy restatement of the abiding importance of the ideal in our thinking. You mess it up, I think, with your not-really-serious 15 levels; Chris’s 4 levels work just fine. I also use 4 levels when I teach students in my basic Politics Ideologies class:

1) Philosophy (the utopian, the “is”, the ideal)
2) Theory (the non-ideal, the “ought from the is”)
3) Ideology (the messaging, the rhetoric of “ought”)
4) Policy (the achieved, the outcome of the rhetoric)

Numerous interplays between them all, of course, and the labels are admittedly vague. But sticking with fewer, vaguer labels might serve better to maintain the kind of “line-of-sight contact” amongst political thinkers and activists than your more delineated 15 labels do.

13

Phil 03.09.12 at 12:40 pm

My Marxism doesn’t have much effect on my everyday life (or my teaching, or most of my research – you’d wonder what I’m keeping it around for, really). But when I’m thinking philosophically I always begin from the utopian starting-point of communism and yes I do mean with a lower-case c; I believe in a world with no commodity production, no wage labour & no money, both in the sense of thinking it’d be nice & (more importantly) thinking it’s possible without any significant change to human nature, known resource constraints etc. Actually getting there is a bugger, clearly, but we’re not having that discussion at the moment.

So, from what little Rawls I’ve read (and a rather larger amount of commentary), I have trouble thinking of his thought as utopian at all. I certainly don’t think he started with a properly millennial, utopian utopia and then worked his way back to something more ‘realistic’, which the line about “constrained by likely flaws in ability to will” implies. Or maybe I’m thinking about the Rawls in line 3 rather than the one in line 2?

14

brantl 03.09.12 at 1:13 pm

Does anybody think that the Cato Institute can even pretend to ideals, when they did the whole anti-Anthropogenic Global Climate Change crap, in the face of overwhelming evidence and through the funding of the Kochs, the coal kings? Are you kidding me? They have an agenda that has nothing to do with ideals, it has to do with their payment. That they wanted latitude in other issues that they didn’t know that they were going to have to “dance with the devil what brung ’em” just goes to show they didn’t understand the shark they jumped.

15

Alex 03.09.12 at 1:41 pm

“No man demands what he desires; each man demands what he fancies he can get.”

Like shah8, this reminds me of the Keynesian beauty contest.

16

Nancy Lebovitz 03.09.12 at 1:45 pm

I just linked to your article at Less Wrong.

17

Henri Vieuxtemps 03.09.12 at 2:04 pm

Marxism is a bit different, I think, because it postulates that the philosophies/ideologies are just froth on top of the material conditions. But then, of course, they turn around and attempt to change the world, and they come up with their own utopia. It’s confusing. I certainly agree with the first part, but I don’t understand how they reconcile it with the second.

18

piglet 03.09.12 at 4:54 pm

CT needs a policy of limiting libertarianism-related posts. These musings are so irrelevant. Do librls really have to spend their waking hours debating why oh why do right-wingers always have to be so right-wing? Come on folks. Give yourselves a break.

(I’m referring to the Wilkinson quote. I didn’t read Holbo’s drawn-out post.)

19

chrismealy 03.09.12 at 5:19 pm

“CT needs a policy of limiting libertarianism-related posts”

Good idea. I majored in econ and picked up the terrible habit of assuming the market is always right by default and then trying to defend deviations from it. I didn’t even know I was doing it. It’s not good to let antisocial cranks take over that much of your brain.

20

Anderson 03.09.12 at 5:36 pm

You might have to rewrite A Theory of Justice as Plotinus’ Enneads, which could get unwieldy.

Understatement of the week.

21

MPAVictoria 03.09.12 at 6:38 pm

Shorter piglet: Your free service does not meet my expectations. Improve or I will start reading a competitor.

22

phosphorious 03.09.12 at 7:33 pm

In an ideal world, CT would blog less about libertarians. Unfortunately, blogging is the art of the possible. . .

23

Barry 03.09.12 at 7:52 pm

MPAVictoria 03.09.12 at 6:38 pm

” Shorter piglet: Your free service does not meet my expectations. Improve or I will start reading a competitor.”

No. A better paraphrasing would be ‘perhaps you’re wasting your time and distressing yourself talking about certain matters so much’.

24

MPAVictoria 03.09.12 at 7:58 pm

“No. A better paraphrasing would be ‘perhaps you’re wasting your time and distressing yourself talking about certain matters so much’.”

Ha. Maybe. Still isn’t John the best one to determine what he wants to write about?

25

LFC 03.09.12 at 8:51 pm

HV

Marxism is a bit different, I think, because it postulates that the philosophies/ideologies are just froth on top of the material conditions. But then, of course, they turn around and attempt to change the world, and they come up with their own utopia. It’s confusing. I certainly agree with the first part, but I don’t understand how they reconcile it with the second.

Assuming (for the sake of argument) that Marxism does in fact ‘postulate’ this (Marx’s own view might have been more complicated), there’s no real contradiction here. The revolutionary philosophy/ideology of the proletariat is a reflection of its class position, material conditions etc., but one can still attempt to further the accession to power of that philosophy and its (putative) transforming effect on the world. Which is presumably one major reason Marx himself engaged in political activity.

26

Henri Vieuxtemps 03.09.12 at 9:29 pm

LFC,
I dunno, of course it’s perfectly natural (and couldn’t be otherwise) that there are revolutionaries, people who want to change the world, and all that. It’s great, it’s admirable and all that. What seems odd to me is that a couple of guys who formulated the idea of historical materialism would be among them. It’ll happen when it happens; when the conditions are right revolutionaries will emerge and there will be no stopping them. What’s the rush?

27

David Moles 03.09.12 at 10:54 pm

CT commenters need a policy of limiting complaints about what CT bloggers choose to blog about. These TL;DRs are so irrelevant. Do readers really have to spend their waking hours debating why oh why do bloggers always have to be so bloggy? Come on folks. Give yourselves a break.

(I’m referring to piglet’s original comment. I read Barry’s exegesis, but I think piglet’s “I didn’t read Holbo’s drawn-out post” makes it clear that his exegesis is incorrect.)

28

J. Otto Pohl 03.10.12 at 12:19 pm

For an international blog CT does spend an unusually large amount of electronic ink on libertarianism, a small ideological movement found only in the US. There are no libertarians of the American stripe anywhere else in the world as far as I can tell. I am eagerly awaiting a day when CT has one tenth as many posts on Pan-Africanism as it does libertarianism.

29

Sebastian 03.10.12 at 4:38 pm

I find the over-focus on libertarianism odd, but the 15 point (and four point) analytic scales are interesting.

Psychologically I strongly suspect that lots of arguing past each other ends up happening because we hold out opponents to one scale and one level of analysis, and our partisans to another in the same conversation.

Take the recent discussions of gift economies and money/debt economies. In theory (utopian) truly deep gift economies can be great because they don’t require one to one mapping of value and they can foster a sense of community. In practice a rich person in a deep gift economy can put you in his debt against your will by giving you a gift you can’t hope to ‘repay’. (This explains all sorts of stories which ring hollow to us now where some rich neighbor gives an expensive wedding gift and the married couple or their family are horrified because it will put the receivors in their debt for their entire lives). In practice higher status people can choose what gifts they give and receive (because they control the status relevance of the gifts) such that they can pay less and get more.

Money economies help reduce those problems because it is harder to give debt involuntarily, and because it can be paid off with a specific amount. But in practice it is possible to design debt systems where the debtor can only realistically go deeper into debt.

If you talk about the practical problems of the monied debt economies and theoretical virtues of the gift economies you can draw sharp contrasts that aren’t ultimately that useful. If you restrict them to same cases (ideal vs. ideal or practical vs. practical) it isn’t so clear which looks better. Which is kind of a point that d-squared made in those discussions.

A similar thing happens when discussing libertarianism. Depending on which side of the debate one is on this type of thing might happen [discussion approximate]:

Libertarian: Theoretical statement about overall government power
Liberal: attack with concrete statement on some particular good the government does (say food safety)
Libertarian: Talk about hopeful [utopian] extra-legal safety mechanism (Underwriters Laboratory) applying everywhere while ignoring the fact that historically it didn’t [practical].
Libertarian: counter attack with clear government abuse [practical level] (say Obama’s targeted killing of citizens policy)
Liberal: Retreat to theoretical statement about the good of democracy [theoretical].

At no point does either side really engage the debate at the same level as the other person, and both sides freely shift the level of the debate to ensure that they are never talking on the same level.

I’m not saying that it is evil or anything. Very human. I suspect we all do it regularly. But now that I’m aware of it more explicitly I’ll look for it more and try to guard against it.

It would be an interesting philosophical study to determine when it is appropriate to change such levels in a discussion, and when it is really just dodging the argument.

30

mattski 03.10.12 at 10:08 pm

For an international blog CT does spend an unusually large amount of electronic ink on libertarianism

This could be because libertarianism is like a particularly uncomfortable label in what would otherwise be a favorite article of clothing.

31

Bloix 03.11.12 at 3:18 am

#15 brantl has it right. In any authoritarian organization, it is not enough to share the ideals and goals of the leadership. What is demanded is undivided loyalty. It goes without saying that questioning the leadership is not permitted. But much more is demanded. Any sort of independence on any issue is viewed as betrayal.

32

J. Otto Pohl 03.11.12 at 7:26 pm

Mattski at 31:

I do not understand your point.

33

Tim Wilkinson 03.11.12 at 8:22 pm

I don’t really understand the items in the list or how the double modalities work (I know you said you wouldn’t explain, but can you do that?). Items 1-4, 7-10 resemble a 2d possible-worlds semantics of the kind put forward by Stalnaker et al., but I can’t see exactly how this observation might be in any way useful.

—-

everyone who wants to do political philosophy – tories and anti-utopians included – should be obliged to submit their blueprint for utopia, as a condition of joining the conversation. Just as an exercise in confessing that, obviously, they have ideals. Well, what are they? It’s perfectly fine to say that ideally we would like A even if, in point of fact, we can’t get there from here.

Standardly I’d suppose the Berlin/tory approach to be an example of the dissimulation mentioned elsewhere – you’re happy with the status quo and those improvements you might consider certainly can’t be presented as utopian, so reject utopianism, get Bruce Gold to write ‘Nothing Succeeds as Planned’, etc. (Radical opposition to utopianism on grounds of unfeasibility might have to end up with a rejection of means-end reasoning except perhaps at the level of some ‘quantum’ plan; ends as Achilles, policy as the tortoise. Otherwise, if you can maybe get halfway(…) there, some kind of idea where you’re going would be quite useful.)

But one more respectable (not to say viable) version would, like some key features of neo-classical micro, be based on quasi-epistemic considerations: the nature of any future utopia can only be decided by those living in it since it’s entirely dependent on their preferences. Nozick (for it is he) presents his hyper-liberalism as a ‘framework’ for utopia rather than as itself utopian. Here we have a different way of ranking utopianism – specificity, determinacy. If there is some minimum level of determinacy that an aspiration must exhibit if it is to count as utopian, then such a view might pass an initial sanity check.

Also – the circumstances of justice. Not sure this could really be made to work, but I have a nebulous inkling that if we are talking of theories of justice, then one might be able to claim that none is truly utopian (sticking with the implied ‘eu-‘ back-formation rather than the original ‘ou-‘) since they would not apply – and might (if…?) actually have perverse implications and thus be inapplicable rather than just otiose – in the ideal world. But this is thin.

—-

this reminds me of the Keynesian beauty contest.

me too

—-

Sebastian: If you talk about the practical problems of the monied debt economies and theoretical virtues of the gift economies you can draw sharp contrasts that aren’t ultimately that useful. If you restrict them to same cases (ideal vs. ideal or practical vs. practical) it isn’t so clear which looks better. Which is kind of a point that d-squared made in those discussions.

I am not trying to be sardonic or anything here, but do you have any examples? I didn’t get a sense of what Graeber was up to with his ‘gift economies’ stuff from those threads at all, except a rejection of discrete bilateral exchange as a basis for distribution. I also didn’t see this point made by dsquared on his threads (maybe the window misted up; it’s cold out here). I did silently observe that he presented the dzamalag, not as an example of how bizarre real-world barter institutions are, but instead as though it were a policy recommendation or utopian aspiration (which loses Graeber the ‘war’). I don’t know if that was the bit you had in mind.

In fact I thought there was some mixing of levels, fetishism of means, what-have-you, in the debt relation has always been, correctly, the subject of revision and reappraisal, with the basic underlying question being that of economics rather than anthropology – “How do we best organise the decision making process with regard to production, consumption, and exchange?” (emph mine).

34

mattski 03.12.12 at 4:19 am

@33 The libertarian obsession with property, the inability to credit a trade-off between liberty and civilized society, and a tendency to seek the comfort of intellectual abstractions are some of the reasons many of us on the left find libertarian thought particularly irritating.

35

John Quiggin 03.12.12 at 6:33 am

@J Otto: I’d certainly be interested in reading about new political ideas in Africa, if you can point to some links (particularly sub-Saharan Africa, since Libya, Tunisia etc are getting plenty of coverage). Is Pan-Africanism still a significant political force or active intellectual movement? Google produces mostly past-tense references, but that doesn’t prove much.

36

Tim Wilkinson 03.12.12 at 8:57 am

re: salience of libertarianism as a topic – there is a current (ex-)discussion about it here: http://crookedtimber.org/2012/03/07/oh-noes-the-lefties-are-mocking-us/#comment-405959

37

J. Otto Pohl 03.12.12 at 4:41 pm

John Quiggin:

Pan-Africanism is not a still a significant force or active intellectual movement. Or at least not in Ghana. It seems to have pretty much died with the overthrow of Nkrumah in 1966. That being the point. Neither libertarianism or Pan-Africanism are really ideas that have much influence in most of the world today. Although to be fair Pan-Africanism had a lot of good points. It just does not have any serious political backers here now.

38

piglet 03.13.12 at 10:36 pm

Certainly MPAVictoria I can’t prescribe what John would be writing about but I can say what I think of it?

Maybe just to make this clear I should expand a little bit. The point isn’t whether right-wing libertarianism is, or is perceived to be, influential enough to merit our attention. I agree with Tim 37 and Chris Bertram that in fact it is influential enough to merit our attention. What I object to in the OP and in many other similar posts is the tendency of allowing right-wingers to frame the terms of debate. Cato calls itself libertarian and we habitually understand the term as having something to do with cherishing liberty. But Cato isn’t really about liberty and we all know it. A simple glance at Cato’s own fundraising text (http://crookedtimber.org/2012/03/07/oh-noes-the-lefties-are-mocking-us/#comment-405693) proves that concern about liberty isn’t even among the top issues that Cato describes itself as standing for. So why do liberals continue to allow right-wingers to frame the terms of debate as if it were about liberty? Why do CT posters continue to publish blog post after blog post debating faux libertarianism, rather than real right-wing ideology? In my view the tendency of allowing the right to frame the terms of debate is maybe THE biggest failure of left/liberal intellectuals in the US and that is what I am protesting against. CT posts like this are just echoing and keeping alive the soundtrack of the right.

39

John Holbo 03.14.12 at 1:28 am

piglet: “Why do CT posters continue to publish blog post after blog post debating faux libertarianism, rather than real right-wing ideology?”

I think what we are seeing here is the downside of your denounce first/read later (if at all) policy, per upthread, piglet. “I didn’t read Holbo’s drawn-out post.”

The post itself is about how faux libertarianism is a kind of mask for right-wing ideology. Not a new point, admittedly, but its posting was hardly a suitable occasion to complain about how we don’t make posts about what I had, in this case, posted about.

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piglet 03.14.12 at 4:00 pm

Well I did invite that retort. But I think I can effectively refute your whole post by just quoting the last few lines:

“Every philosophy should try to build into itself as much insulation against double-think tankery as possible. This ought to be regarded as a standard safety feature. The human mind being as fiendish as it is, this effort is bound to fail. Nevertheless, one ought to try.”

See?

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John Holbo 03.15.12 at 11:12 pm

“I think I can effectively refute your whole post by just quoting the last few lines.”

Nah. I think it’s still ok. I mean: it’s got problems. But at least I tried.

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