From the category archives:

Political Theory/Political Philosophy

Locke + Nozick = Locke

by John Quiggin on October 16, 2016

In the discussion of my threepart critique of Locke, I mentioned my view that Rothbard and Nozick added nothing of value, and promised to expand on this when I got some time. I discussed Rothbard here, and have finally got around to Nozick.

Someone (I think Jerry Cohen) remarked that Nozick was be taken very seriously by Marxists and not nearly as much by social democrats and (US) liberals. Obviously, my reaction (that of a social democrat) illustrates this. The reason for this divergence is obvious enough. If you would like to derive property rights from a notion of self-ownership (and the Marxist concept of exploitation is close to this), Nozick provides a reductio ad absurdam. So, a critique like Cohen’s is essential.

OTOH, if you start from the ground that property rights are social structures, and that their justice or otherwise is inseparable from that of the society in which they operate, Nozick is of no real interest. All the important errors in his work were already made by Locke. However, I’ll point out some new ones.

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Shock and Aw, we knew it already

by John Holbo on October 8, 2016

So Trump said something truly horrible in 2005. And, it would seem, Hillary’s Wall Street speeches have leaked. Or bits. And internal emails concerning them. (I guess it could turn out that these have been doctored by the Russians, in collaboration with Wikileaks. But it looks like the real deal.) This is going to make that Town Hall debate hot. But, as bombshells go, it’s hard for me to imagine anything less surprising. Everyone already knew – how could it not be? – that Clinton said cosy-cosy stuff to Wall Street folks. And Trump? Is there a single person on the planet surprised that he talks this way? (And surely it isn’t just talk.) Dog bites man. Donald gropes woman. His defenders aren’t even feigning surprise. [click to continue…]


by John Quiggin on September 29, 2016

In my final post on Locke’s theory of appropriation/expropriation, a while back, I mentioned that his latter-day successors, Nozick and Rothbard didn’t offer any improvement. I said at the time I would spell this out a bit more. I’ll start with Rothbard who is more politically relevant, and also, in my opinion, more interesting. As an example, at least during his 1960s flirtation with the radical left, and at the time he developed the theory of ‘homesteading’, he favored reparations for slavery.

The core of Rothbard’s position is that appropriation of property justifies ownership even without the Lockean proviso that ‘enough and as good’ is left over for others. Rothbard doesn’t, as far as I can see, go far beyond presenting this as a self-evident truth, and in any case, I don’t propose to argue about in detail. Rather, I want to look at Rothbard’s choice of the term ‘homesteading’ to describe this process. This choice of term is self-refuting in two ways, one that applies to any historical process of appropriation/expropriation and the other specific to the US.

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Against Locke: Part 3

by John Quiggin on August 15, 2016

The third and final instalment of my critique of Locke’s theory of appropriation/expropriation is up at Jacobin. I turn my attention from Locke to Jefferson, Locke’s most important follower, in practice as well as theory. By opening the Louisiana purchase for agricultural settlement, Jefferson put to the test Locke’s theory of appropriation to a practical test. In particular, the vastness of the land, compared with the modest requirements of the ideal Jeffersonian farm family seemed to support Jefferson’s prediction that the new land would be enough to last a thousand generations. But of course the opposite was true: in less than one generation, the United States had overspilled the boundaries of Jefferson’s purchase and was embroiled in a civil war that started with battles over the newly opened land. To restate the conclusion of the previous instalments, Locke’s theory was designed to justify expropriation and enslavement. Neither Locke nor epigones such as Nozick and Rothbard can provide a coherent theory of just appropriation of property.

Swords Against Punditry!

by John Holbo on August 14, 2016

In the hopes that everyone will stop commenting on Corey’s post, hence at considerable risk to myself: a fresh Trump post.

Since becoming aware of this thing called ‘US politics’, some decades ago, I have been addicted to the consumption of punditry. I don’t say it with pride, or because I suppose it makes me special. I just thought I’d mention that one thing that makes Trump’s candidacy weird – in a phenomenological sense, I guess – is that there is no pro-Trump pundit class. This makes his candidacy inaudible along one of the frequencies I habitually tune in. By and large, I can’t go to NR or The Weekly Standard or Red State, much less Ross Douthat or National Affairs, to get pretzel logic confabulations on Trump’s behalf, because they actually haven’t gotten on board. To their credit. Twitter is a snarknado of negative partisanship. Breitbart and Drudge are entropically dire, in a Shannon-informational sense. Hugh Hewitt? Nixonian party loyalist. He’s defending Trump the way he defended Harriet Miers, i.e. it really has nothing to do with the quality of the candidate. The only Trumpkins comfortable in their skins are the alt-right folks, reveling in rather than regretting the fact that Trump is constantly escaping from the Overton Straitjacket; and pick-up artists who regard Trump’s alpha male posturing as a feature, not a diagnosis. Oh, and there’s Scott Adams. “The fun part is that we can see cognitive dissonance when it happens to others – such as with my friend, and CNN – but we can’t see it when it happens to us. So don’t get too smug about this. You’re probably next.” Duly noted. [click to continue…]

More On Gaus’ The Tyranny of the Ideal

by John Holbo on August 4, 2016

Having posted about Gaus’ new book, let me link to Will Wilkinson’s review essay at Vox. Will is more enthused about the conclusions than I am, although I agree it’s a great read. I’ve been trying to work out my own thoughts in the same vicinity and, for post purposes, I’ll just sketch a thumbnail argument that seems to me the right Gaus-style indictment of Rawls, using a modified version of his mountain metaphor. [click to continue…]

It seems Gary Johnson/Bill Weld have been disappointing to conservatives and right-leaning libertarians (fusionists), looking for an alternative to Trump. For example, Ilya Shapiro, in “Is Johnson-Weld a Libertarian Ticket?”
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Home again, home again, jiggety-jig. Although jetlag is is the the more pressing concern.

Now I can get back to drawing Zarathustra! Which reminds me: a few pages went up a few days ago, yet I didn’t flog them here at CT. So: here!

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Peter Singer demonizes refugees as “queue jumpers”

by Chris Bertram on June 13, 2016

Peter Singer, consequentialist philosopher and patron saint of “effective altruism” has expressed himself on the question of rights to asylum and refugee status:

Singer has urged a rethink of global asylum policy. He wants to stop refugees able to travel to the country of their choice from being able to claim asylum at the expense of those unable to make the journey. He worries that the current system enables people to “somehow jump the queue” – adding that although Britain has a “moral obligation” to accept refugees, this does not include everyone who makes it to the UK.

“I don’t think Britain has a particular obligation to accept those who manage to set foot on British shores,” he tells i. “I think something needs to be rethought about this idea of the right of asylum as it’s now being applied.”

The same goes for his homeland, Australia, he adds, where the government is often criticised for not taking in more Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in Burma. “Taking those who manage to get on boats to Australia provides an incentive to make these dangerous journeys during which some get drowned. [The refugees] in the UNHCR camps in Lebanon or wherever are in just as much need of a place to go as the people who are landing in Australia or Greece.”

Here, the perfectly valid point that the those in refugee camps in poor countries are just was worthy of help as those who arrive in rich ones is placed in service of the demonization of those who arrive in boats as “queue jumpers” and the endorsement of the ridiculous argument of right-wing politicians about “incentives” to make dangerous journeys. The reason people make those dangerous journeys is because the governments of wealthy countries, using mechanisms such as carrier sanctions and visa restrictions, have blocked safe and inexpensive routes of escape from dangerous places. They do this not in the service of a fair conception of the distribution of humanitarian burdens but because they don’t want to deal with the numbers and would prefer to maintain the existing unfair distribution where most refugees are in poor countries. Singer is correct that we can distinguish between the right to asylum and the right to settle in a particular place. Perhaps when the governments of wealthy states are willing to have a proper discussion about what a fair pattern of settlement would look like, we can also reassess other elements of the system. Pending that commitment to justice on the part of the wealthy, stigmatizing those who make it across from Libya, Turkey or Haiti as “queue jumpers” is the mark of someone who has lost his moral compass.

At the moment, I’m reading my way through David Miller’s new Strangers in our Midst and also getting very exercised about the UK’s Brexit referendum (to the point where I’m waking at night and worrying about it). My siblings and I have all benefited from the EU’s free movement rights, my children both have non-British EU partners, we think of ourselves as Europeans. So for me, the threat of Brexit is a threat of lost identity, of something that has been there all my adult life just disappearing overnight. And so I’m feeling pretty resentful towards my fellow citizens who might vote to cut that tie and thereby endanger the security and family life of millions of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens elsewhere in the EU.

One of Miller’s arguments is a familiar one about social trust, about how welfare states depend for their stability on such trust and that the increasing diversity that immigration brings tends to undermine support for redistributive programmes. This lack of trust gets expressed in anger about stories that immigrants are ahead in the queue for social housing, that they are a drain on health and education services, that they are getting “something for nothing”, and so forth. Needless to say, most of such stories are false. Nevertheless, there may be elements in the design of the UK’s welfare state and its relatively non-contributory character that fuel such anxieties.

Here’s the thing. Those voting for Brexit out of resentment against immigration are disproportionately the elderly poor whites who don’t pay much in but who benefit from those public services. A predictable consequence of them getting what they want is that the fiscal base for those services will be eroded and that either they will have to be cut or taxes will have to be increased. This is because those EU immigrants are, in fact, paying more in taxes than they are taking in services. (Actually, the UK is free-riding in a big way, as it never paid for the cost of educating and training those workers.)

When I take those political affiliation surveys, I always say I’m willing to pay higher taxes. But now the devil on my shoulder is saying “why should you pay higher taxes to replace the taxes that were paid by EU migrants? Those idiots have brought it on themselves, let them now suffer the consequences”. An ugly thought, but I’m guessing that if I’m having it then I’m not alone. The UK’s EU referendum has eroded social trust more than immigration per se ever did. It poses the question of what citizens owe to one another in pretty stark terms. If people could mitigate the need for higher taxes by accepting immigrants and they choose not to do so, why should their wealthier fellow citizens bear the cost of their choices?

Consistency is the most common currency of political debate. But what is it worth, would you say? And why? Apart from obvious monomaniacs, few people are highly philosophically consistent in their thinking about politics on all levels – from high principle down to partisan practice and all points in between and/or to one side or the other, as politics slops into other areas of thought and life. I don’t just mean: everyone slips. I mean: every attractive view has major tensions. (That’s what we call them when they’re ours. When other people have them: utter contradictions! Repulsive stuff!)

So what is the value of consistency arguments in politics – bold exposures of the other side’s contradictions, bouts of tidying up of one’s own? Would you say?

It’s tempting to say that consistency is an asymptotic or regulative ideal: we approach but know we aren’t really going to get there. But that doesn’t really seem right. It doesn’t seem right that we really value consistency very highly. (See above: most consistent people seem like fanatics.) No one switches partisan sides because the other side seems to have assembled a more internally coherent match of policies and principles. It doesn’t seem as though, as people become more sophisticated, politically, they become more consistent, philosophically. Possibly this has something to do with pluralism about value. (Feel free to make reference to pluralism – or hobgoblins – in your answer.) But if pluralism means it’s ok to be inconsistent, what is the value of consistency?

I also don’t mean to imply that even the most philosophically sophisticated students of politics are as utterly, intellectually self-betraying as your average partisan idiot. Getting shot with 500 bullets is way more bullets than getting shot with 5 bullets. Still, dead is dead. I think John Rawls, for example, is a more consistent political thinker than Donald Trump. But I also think that Rawls’ political philosophy suffers from at least five fatal defects: unresolvable, fairly central contradictions (inconsistencies, tensions, call them what you will.) Does it make sense to favor a view that suffers from five fatal contradictions over a view that suffers from 500 on grounds of consistency, per se?

All the same, I really can’t feature not valuing consistency quite highly. What do you think?

The Communist Manifesto In Pictures

by John Holbo on May 13, 2016

I just added an item to my collection of graphical curiosities: a 1948 pamphlet, published by The International Book Store in San Francisco, “The Communist Manifesto In Pictures”.

You can get the PDF version for free. I’m interested in it mostly as a data point in the history of American graphic design. The International Book Store seems to have had some graphical flair:


I don’t own that one. I don’t imagine the contents – apparently republished from Soviet Russia Today – are as fun as the cover.

I’m reading Russell Muirhead, The Promise of Party In A Polarized Age: [click to continue…]

Branko Milanovic advocates reinventing apartheid

by Chris Bertram on April 21, 2016

In an op-ed in the Financial Times, the economist Branko Milanovic advocates that in order to fight global poverty, we should introduce explicit systems of differentiated citizenship in wealthy countries under which immigrants (and their children? and their children’s children?) would be entitled only to a reduced package of rights. He argues that we should

redefine citizenship in such a way that migrants are not allowed to lay claim to the entire premium falling to citizens straight away, if at all. Restricting the citizenship rights of migrants in this way would assuage the concerns of the native population, while still ensuring the migrants are better off than they would be had they stayed in their own countries. As happens currently in the Gulf states, migrants could be allowed to work for a limited number of years, or to work only for a given employer, or else be obliged to return to their country of origin every four or five years. They could also be made to pay higher taxes since they are the largest net beneficiaries of migration. Despite such discriminatory treatment, the welfare of migrants and their families would increase, while native populations would not be made to share their entire premium with incomers.

Gastarbeiter with second- or third-class status, perhaps forever. Now, I’ll say one thing for this proposal, which is that it would formalize something that currently exists, since in all wealthy countries there exists a layer of poor people (including many migrants) who enjoy only semi-citizen status (as Elizabeth Cohen has documented ). And this layer, though many individuals pass through it and come out the other side, looks like a permanent feature of our societies. Up to now, however, few people have thought of this, and the consequent denial of rights to individuals and their vulnerability to domination and exploitation, as a good thing. Milanovic wants us explicitly to abandon the liberal and democratic principles of legitimacy that those who are subject to the laws of a society should (in time in the case of migrants) get to have the right to make those laws. In doing so, he goes far beyond similar proposals (for example from Martin Ruhs that have been explicitly temporary in nature and have largely focused on labour-market rights. Milanovic’s lack of commitment to the norms of liberal democracy also comes across in the fact that he holds up illegitimate and tyrannical states, such as the Gulf kleptocracies, as models for his proposed policy. Part of what’s going on here is the economist’s perspective on policy, which just focuses on net improvements in well-being or utility, with income serving as a proxy, and which doesn’t, therefore, see human beings as possessed of basic rights which it is impermissible to violate. Rather, all and any rights can be sacrificed on the altar of income improvement, just in case someone is poor and desperate enough to make a deal (who are we, paternalistically, to stop them?). The road to hell is paved with Pareto improvements.

Dilemmas of Educational Ethics

by Harry on April 21, 2016

I wrote last year about the Justice in Education project at Harvard, which has developed a series of case studies posing difficult moral questions concerning educational decision-making. Meira Levinson and Jacob Fay have just published a brilliant volume, Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, containing 6 cases, with 6 responses to each case by a variety of authors – most of them academics (from a variety of disciplines, and including Howard Gardner, Mary Patillo, Diana Hess, Tommie Shelby, Christopher Winship, and Elizabeth Anderson) but also by teachers, administrators, and one legislator.

Last fall I based a course on the manuscript of the book. Its always hard to tell why a class works brilliantly well – this one was small (25), and had a great mix of students, who were as ideologically diverse as it gets at Madison (I loved the fact that two girls, one a very conservative Republican, the other a very liberal Democrat, became inseparable friends during the course), but also a perfect mix of science, social science, and humanities majors, and of freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors. And all of them seemed willing to work hard, and seriously. But the conception of the course was pretty good too. When I first thought about it I planned to spend the first half of the semester reading theoretical and empirical literature about education, and then spend the second half on the cases. But I quickly realized that would establish a bad dynamic (me talking too much) and would load a lot of reading upfront. So I scattered the cases throughout the course (and added a couple more).

The first case in the book concerns social promotion. It takes the form of a debate among a group of teachers, some giving reasons why a particular girl should graduate from middle school (appealing to evidence that children who are held back drop out at high rates; that her academic failure is not really her fault because i) her science class, which she failed, was taught by a sub who was, by his own admission, incompetent, for most of the year and ii) her family circumstances essentially made learning impossible); others giving reasons for holding her back (she’s not ready for the academic demands of high school; it sends a bad message to both her and other students if the school graduates students who are known not to have reached the minimum academic threshold needed to pass their classes). It doesn’t require a huge amount of background knowledge in order to generate intelligent discussion. So that was a good starting point, and, in fact, my students came up with good points on both sides that I had never thought about, despite having read the commentaries and discussed the case several times.

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