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Chris Bertram

Sunday photoblogging #2: stripes

by Chris Bertram on April 20, 2014

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Sunday photoblogging: Staircase

by Chris Bertram on April 13, 2014

I met up with Ingrid recently and she reminded me that we had plans to run a regular photoblogging series at Crooked Timber, indeed, we actually started one. So here’s a re-start. This is the staircase at the Musée des Beaux Arts at Nancy, France, taken last summer. Here’s hoping that other CTers will join in.

Teaching Rawls after Piketty

by Chris Bertram on April 10, 2014

We’re hoping to have a proper book event on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century in due course. That’s hard for those of us who have read it, because the book is so stimulating, so bursting with surprising facts and ideas, that there’s a lot to talk about. Still, I think I’ll permit myself to share a few thoughts that I had about the way in which reading Piketty might impact on teaching political philosophy, and, specifically, teaching Rawls and the difference principle.

A Theory of Justice came out in 1971 and was composed during the period the French call the trente glorieuses . During that period it was easy to believe that the power of inherited wealth had melted away and that we were living in a new era of more equal opportunity, with careers open to talents and income inequalities largely explained by the differences in talent and ability that the parties in the original position were denied knowledge of. To be sure, 1960s America (like 1960s Europe) hadn’t accomplished that social-democratic meritocratic ideal, but it was kind of visible in embryo, waiting to be born. Rawls’s book took us way beyond that, challenging the glib assumptions about desert that the winners flattered themselves with, but in its toleration of some inequality for the greater good (and particularly for the benefit of the least advantaged), Rawls’s view was recognizably connected to a then-emerging social reality.
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IPPR on immigration: cup half full or half empty ?

by Chris Bertram on March 6, 2014

The UK’s Institute for Public Policy Research has just published a new report on immigration, “A fair deal on migration for the UK”. Given the recent toxicity of the British debate on migration, with politicians competing to pander to the xenophobic UKIP vote, it is in some ways refreshing to read a set of policy proposals that would be an improvement on the status quo. Having said that, the status quo is in big trouble, with the Coalition government having failed to reach its net migration target (the numbers are actually going the wrong way) and with open warfare breaking out between ministers. Given the current climate, however, this probably marks the limit of what is acceptable to the Labour Party front bench (who have notably failed to oppose the current Immigration Bill), so it represents a marker of sorts, albeit that it is a strange kind of thing to be masquerading as a progressive approach.

The report is structured around the need to respond to the current “crude restrictionist” approach to immigration and positions itself by rejecting other views which it characterizes as “failed responses” (pp. 9-10). Leaving aside the “super pragmatist” approach which is actually remarkably close to their own, these are the “super-rationalist” and the “migrants rights activist” approaches, the first of which consists of telling the public clearly what the current social scientific research says and the second sticking up for a vulnerable group on grounds of justice. Since both of these groups have strong grounds for doing what they are doing—telling the truth and fighting injustice, respectively—it seems rather tendentious and self-serving to represent them as being simply failed attempts to do what the IPPR is trying to do, namely, influence senior politicians.
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Ukraine: who to read, what to believe?

by Chris Bertram on March 3, 2014

As a non-expert, I find myself scouring the various news columns and op-eds trying to work out what’s true and false about the situation in the Ukraine, who to believe, what to trust. It isn’t easy, given that the two “sides” (or is that three or four) fail to sort themselves neatly into the mental maps we all have to organize this kind of thing. One such map, beloved of the “decent left” tries to fit everything into a 1938. That’s tempting, but then who is Hitler, who are the Nazis, who are the Sudeten Germans? Things don’t quite line up. And then there’s the narrative of the plucky little insurrectionists against their post-Soviet overlords: Hungary 56, Prague 68? But once again, people aren’t fitting neatly into the little boxes. Then think of those crises, Hungary in particular, or the East German revolt. How many Western leftists tried to read them (and misread them) through the glass of Soviet opposition to Nazism? During the Balkan wars of the 90s my own imaginary had plucky multi-ethnic Bosnia as the incarnation of liberal republicanism, resisting the ethnic tyranny of the Serbs. But there were plenty of of leftists who saw things in terms of the dastardly German-collaborating (and backed) Croats with their Ustaše past, versus the Serbian partisans. One friend from Northern Ireland said on Facebook that a relative had told him that the key to understanding any conflict was to work out who are the “Protestants” and who are the “Catholics”. I can’t think that’s going to help here (or in Syria for that matter): we all get trapped by these heuristics.

Reading Christopher Clarke’s The Sleepwalkers last night, I came across a discussion (I’ve only just started the book) of Serbia’s Foreign Minister Milovanovic and his predicament in the crisis of 1908: a moderate and pragmatist trapped by the rhetoric of the more extreme nationalists, who could and would denounce any compromise with the enemies of the people. Hard not to think or parallels with Vitali Klitschko and the other opposition leaders who cut a deal with Yanukovych but couldn’t make it stick with the Euromaidan for fear of being howled down as traitors themselves. Presumably they saw that running Yanukovych out of town on the day after the deal would be certain to get a nasty reaction from Putin, but what else could they do? And now here we are, with the Russians in the Crimea, the rouble plummeting and the prospect of a new cold war, with everyone apparently fated to play their allotted roles. Meanwhile, the hapless John Kerry tells us – with no self-awareness whatsoever – that, in the 21st century, you can’t invade foreign countries on trumped-up charges.

For what it’s worth I found Mark Ames useful, Paul Mason insightful and Timothy Snyder propagandistic. And here’s Ben Judah on why Russia no longer fears the West. With my political philosopher hat on, I can say that just states find ways to integrate their citizens across ethnic and linguistic divides, that the boundaries set by history should not be sacrosanct, but that people shouldn’t try to change them by force of arms. Political philosophy will not have much impact on how this all turns out.

A note on an argument about open borders

by Chris Bertram on February 28, 2014

Open borders advocates often advance an argument in terms of a duty to help the global poor. Poor people who succeed in making the journey to more advanced economies are usually more productive; those who are locked out of such economies by hard border controls are kept in dire poverty, often within sight of great riches. And those who are admitted are often an important source of income to family left behind. Those who defend border controls and the right of states to exclude often make the following move: they concede a duty to help the poor, but say that such a duty can be discharged in ways other than admitting poor would-be migrants to wealthy countries. In particular, they argue that such a duty could be discharged by supporting the economic development of poor countries via development aid (Christopher Heath Wellman is an example).

But the problem with such an argument is that it has two parts. The first (conditional) part, says that it is false that we must open our borders to discharge our duty of assistance IF we can discharge that duty some other way. The second empirical part is the claim there is another way, because development aid is an effective way of helping the global poor that is comparable in its beneficial effects to (much more) open borders. In other words, the claim by philosophers and political theorists that the duty could be discharged by development aid needs to be backed up by sound economic evidence that development aid really is an effective means of helping the global poor. Economists such as William Easterly are skeptical that we know enough about economic development to make effective use of development aid. They may be wrong, but philosophers and political theorists shouldn’t make the easy argumentative move to development aid as an alternative to (more) open borders without being sure that the economics supports them.

Notes on “academic blogging”

by Chris Bertram on February 27, 2014

I had a fun day on Tuesday, as my friend Stuart White had invited me to speak at a conference on “academic blogging”, to be precise “Academic Blogging: Political Analysis in the Digital Age” at Oxford. There were some great talks and conversations, but, to me, something was quite weird about it. When we started Crooked Timber back in 2003, universities didn’t really want to know about blogging, it was a fundamentally unserious activity and a distraction from the central tasks of teaching and scholarship. There was also, recognizably, a “blogosphere” composed of sundry citizen-journalists, cranks and enthusiasts (and a few academics) whose members linked and interacted with one another (often in quite civil terms, despite deep differences). Now universities, at least British universities, want to get in on the act, as “impact” and “outreach” are suddenly important. Hence, the sudden impulse to fund blogs backed by universities, or university department or consortiums of universities.
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Hard not to take pleasure when a corrupt and autocratic leader is forced from power by popular pressure. Nevertheless, I can’t be the only person whose frisson of excitement at the revolutionary form of the overthrow is accompanied by a shudder at some of the content. As with Egypt, we have the unfortunate precedent of someone who was in power through elections being forced out by non-electoral means, albeit that, like Morsi he abused democratic norms in power. (Erdogan in Turkey also springs to mind as an abuser of democratic norms; I hope the Turkish people vote him out.) Then there are the frankly fascist affiliations of some of the opposition leaders, like Oleh Tyahnybok whose Svoboda party has “observer status” in an “Alliance of European National Movements” that includes the Hungarian Jobbik and the British National Party.

However, one can perhaps overlook some of that as an exigency of circumstance and hope that most of the insurgents are cut from more liberal cloth. However, we now have the fact that the Parliament just annulled a bill permitting Russian to be an official language in regions with largely Russian-speaking populations. That’s a clear sign that the new Ukraine does not regard all its citizens are equals and as genuine members of the state, that the winners conceive the “people” as an ethnos rather than a demos. Personally, I hope the EU make any financial support – which Ukraine will need to pay its Russian gas bills – conditional on the full integration of all Ukrainians as equals without regard to ethnic or linguistic background.

Two cheers for Scottish independence

by Chris Bertram on February 13, 2014

Britain’s Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, is today threatening pro-independence Scots that if they secede then they can’t have the pound sterling as their currency any more. This is a problem for SNP leader Alec Salmond because he’s been peddling the idea that an independent Scotland will continue to enjoy a common currency, a notion that appeals to risk-averse Scots. A few years ago, the euro might have looked an appealing alternative to sterling, but now it looks much less so. But though Salmond has rather painted himself into a corner on this one, I’m struggling to see why an independent Scotland having its own money would be such a bad idea. After all, the various Scandinavian countries seem to get by perfectly well with their different kroner, so why not Scotland? Scotland’s economy is significantly different from England’s anyway, with natural resources playing a bigger part in one, and financial services in other. Better for everyone to have separate currencies, with different interest rates and floating exchange rates so as to adjust to circumstances. (Having a different currency for the north of England and Wales might be nice too … or alternatively grant independence to London as a new Singapore.)

The other major worry about independence from the official Great British point of view is that “we” would have far less weight and influence in the world. The UK already has less influence that its political elites delude themselves that it has, but at least an independent Scotland would end that delusion. Facing up to reality probably means that the UK would be less tempted to waste billions on the post-imperial accoutrements of military power (new fighters, nuclear weapons and the like). And then not having that stuff would make the UK less able, and therefore less willing, to join in with rash invasions and interventions, and to to send task forces to recapture distant outposts. Further, without the delusion that the UK is a great power, its politicians would be forced to adopt a more co-operative relationship with neighbouring countries, both in the EU and the various states that would compose our Atlantic archipelago. No longer able to go it alone: the UK would have to work with others.

So Scottish independence, what’s is there not to like about it? Well, nationalism, I suppose. But having more and smaller democratic nations, forced to rub along with their neighbours for pragmatic reasons of mutual-self interest. Sounds good to me. Of course the English left worry about the prospect of permanent Tory government if Scotland secedes. This concern is probably exaggerated. The political dynamics of a weakened Anglo-Welsh rump would be different over time and the demographics probably favour the left, as younger voter are considerably more liberal and cosmopolitan in their attitudes than the over 55s. So here’s hoping for the end of the UK and its replacement by a post-imperial patchwork of smaller countries.

Squeezing the rich is good: even when it raises no money

by Chris Bertram on February 2, 2014

In the UK the press and commentariat have been in a huff about Labour’s proposal to levy income tax at 50% on incomes above £150,000. This is supposedly “anti-business” and “sends the wrong signal”, despite the fact that the top rate was higher under Thatcher. Much noise also about the danger that “wealth creators” (whoever they are) may leave and go off to other jurisdictions, concern unaffected by the fact that lots of other countries tax those on high incomes at a steeper rate. All of this is to be expected of course, as is the fact that journalists, who, when spouting right-wing guff, claim to be “reflecting” the views of their readers, continue to spout it when those readers disagree, as in this case.
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Pete Seeger, RIP

by Chris Bertram on January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger, dead at 94.

Mandela sanitized

by Chris Bertram on December 6, 2013

The great Mandela is dead. A political prisoner for 27 years, a courageous fighter against racism and injustice, and finally a great statesman. There is much to remember there and much to mourn. Those who suffered under apartheid, the exiles, those who were active in solidarity overseas: all will have their memories of the struggle. Some of their voices will be heard. But sadly, they have to share a stage with the official voices of commemoration: politicians and others who cared little for the ANC or who actively opposed it. In the UK it is sickening to hear eulogies from the braying Tories, the Bullingdon-club types and ex-members of the Federation of Conservative Students who sang “hang Nelson Mandela” in the 1980s. No doubt, in the US, there will be some prominent Reaganites who utter similar word of appreciation. There’s an implicit narrative emerging that everyone recognized his greatness after 1990. But this isn’t so. The warbloggers and Tea Partiers (and their followers in the UK) were vilifying him when he criticized US policy under George W. Bush or said something on Palestine that deviated from the standard US-media line. Just as with Martin Luther King, we are witnessing the invention of a sanitized version of the man, focused on reconciliation with those who hated him – and who still hate those like him – and suppressing his wider commitment to the fight against social and global injustice.

Against (most) aggression in philosophy

by Chris Bertram on November 28, 2013

Yesterday, Jo Wolff tackled the question of women in philosophy in his column at the Guardian, writing:

At its worst, philosophy is something you do against an opponent. Your job is to take the most mean-minded interpretation you can of the other person’s view and show its absurdity. And repeat until submission. Certainly the method has the merits of encouraging precision, but at the same time it is highly off-putting for those who do not overflow with self-confidence.

Brian Leiter thinks Jo Wolff is making a mistake:

At the end of the column, he runs together two issues that should be kept separate: the combative nature of philosophy and how one should treat students. Professor Ishiguro’s approach [see the Wolff column] on the latter seems the right one, but that is independent of whether philosophy as practiced among peers should, or should not be, combative. Insofar as truth is at stake, combat seems the right posture!

I disagree, unless there’s some good reason to believe that combat leads to truth more reliably than some alternative, more co-operative approach. (Does the adversarial system of the US and English courts lead to the truth more reliably than the inquisitorial system?) Sometimes combat might be the right stance, but seeing that as the default mode for philosophical discussion leads far too often to destructive Q&A sessions that aim at destroying the opponent and bolstering the amour propre of the aggressor. Where the aim is victory, then all kinds of rhetorical moves can prove effective: there’s no reason to think that truth will emerge as a by-product. I think a relatively common occurrence is that people on the receiving end of an aggressive battering lose confidence (in themselves, or in a good idea). Sometimes people should defer to criticism, of course, and sometimes people should make criticism in forthright terms and Brian is right to value that. But frankly, a lot of the stuff that goes on in philosophy seminars is just damaging.

What I’ve said so far is independent of the gender issue. I realize that some women in philosophy are uncomfortable with the link between gender and philosophical style and there’s certainly no reason to think that merely being robust and forthright in argument is specially male. But a lot of conduct in philosophy goes well beyond the robust and forthright and tips into the straightforwardly arseholish, and there may be a selection effect in favour of women in the profession who are able (though not willing) to endure that. A lot of people in the academy – both men and women – suffer from “imposter syndrome”. But it turns out that women are more likely than men to suffer from this and there is no correlation with actual ability. An atmosphere where there is systematic reinforcement of such a widespread anxiety is not a good one, and it might be, because of its uneven distribution by gender, just one of the several mechanisms that exclude women.

Walzer anticipates Cameron (and Miliband)

by Chris Bertram on November 21, 2013

I was re-reading Michael Walzer’s famous (or infamous) chapter on “membership” from Spheres of Justice (1983) when I came across the following striking passage in the section on “guest workers”:

Consider, then, a country like Switzerland or Sweden or West Germany, a capitalist democracy and welfare state, with strong trade unions and a fairly affluent population. The managers of the economy find it increasingly difficult to attract workers to a set of jobs that have come to be regarded as exhausting, dangerous, and degrading. But these jobs are also socially necessary; someone must be found to do them. Domestically, there are only two alternatives, neither of them palatable. The constraints imposed on the labor market by the unions and the welfare state might be broken, and then the most vulnerable segment of the local working class driven to accept jobs hitherto thought undesirable. But this would require a difficult and dangerous political campaign. Or, the wages and working conditions of the undesirable jobs might be dramatically improved so as to attract workers even within the constraints of the local market. But this would raise costs throughout the economy and, what is probably more important, challenge the existing social hierarchy. (56)

With Cameron (and Miliband) having vowed to restrict immigration to the UK, one person’s modus ponens becomes another person’s modus tollens, and so we have the alternatives of immiseration driving the poor to work or the “living wage” laid before us (not that anyone believes that Labour would make good on the latter).

On the migrant trail to Australia

by Chris Bertram on November 16, 2013

I blogged a few days ago about Oscar Martinez’s brilliant account of the dangers migrants from Central America face as the travel through Mexico, so this is a follow-up to that. In the latest New York Times Magazine, journalist Luke Mogelson and photographer Joel van Houdt recount the experience of disguising themselves as migrants and taking the trail from Kabul to Australia. Harrowing and depressing stuff. There are fewer predators on the road, but the mostly Iranian travelers have to face the endless sea and the burning sun, and, at the end there is no hope. All detained and sent to Nauru or Papua New Guinea and their dreams of new lives in Australia turn to dust. In the piece we learn that Australia has absorbed a tiny number of asylum seekers compared to many European states, but the votes are in pandering to the racists, so that’s what Australian politicians do. (h/t to the brilliant BritCits )