From the category archives:

Political Theory/Political Philosophy

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”.
manifestoinpictures

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:

fullfaceherberthoover

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.

[click to continue…]

Expatriation and duties to compatriots

by Chris Bertram on April 19, 2016

I’ve been teaching brain-drain related issues this week. Some of the big questions there are empirical ones, and the facts are contested. But some of the normative issues are interesting, and some of them don’t just apply to poor countries. One of these issues is the apparent clash between our duties to compatriots (if we have any) and our rights of exit and expatriation. If I have a duty as a member of an institutional scheme to contribute to the well-being of the least advantaged members of my society, can I just divest myself of that duty (in one bound, as it were) by leaving the country, or, to go one step further, by renouncing my nationality? It was a puzzle that Henry Sigdwick was defeated by back in 1907 [or somewhat earlier in fact, as he died in 1900!]:

`In 1868 it was affirmed, in an Act passed by the Congress of the United States, that ‘the right of expatriation is a natural and inherent right of all people.’ I do not know how far this would be taken to imply that a man has a moral right to leave his country whenever he finds it convenient—provided no claims except those of Patriotism retain him there. But if it was intended to imply this, I think the statement would not be accepted in Europe without important limitations: though I cannot state any generally accepted principle from which such limitations could be clearly deduced.” Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, 7th ed (1907) [click to continue…]

Envelope please! And the winner isTroilus and Cressida, by William Shakespeare (probably written in 1603 or 1609 or maybe as early as 1599). Let’s review the victory conditions. [click to continue…]

For where desire, celestial, pure desire,
Hath taken root, and grows, and doth not tire,
There God a commerce states, and sheds
His secret on their heads.

Henry Vaughan, “The Star”

“And how does your commerce go, you strange guardian of the past?”

G.K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill

My partisanship post has blossomed into an extensive discussion of original intent, interpretation and the commerce clause. Maybe we could use a little more scholarship to go with that. (Who knows?)

Randy Barnett and Jack Balkin are big in this area, and their major papers are freely available on the web. (Here’s Balkin’s major statement, outside of his book. Here’s an old one by Barnett that makes his general framework clear. And here’s a recent response by him to Balkin on commerce.) But let me start with “Rethinking the Commerce Clause”, by Nelson and Pushaw. It’s not free online, but I want just to quote the opening: [click to continue…]

Pure Partisanship, The New Nonpartisanship

by John Holbo on April 8, 2016

Process hypocrisy isn’t exactly newsworthy, I know, but a few notes. [click to continue…]

The ethics of strategic voting.

by Harry on April 5, 2016

Mary and Ann agree on the following five judgments
1. Bernie would be a better president than HRC
2. HRC is more likely to beat any Republican candidate than Bernie
3. Trump would be a less awful president than Cruz
4. Trump is more likely to lose, and more likely to lose big, against either Dem candidate than Cruz
5. Because of coat-tail effects, the most important thing is the biggest possible Dem win in November.

They vote in an open primary State. The polls are all over the place, so there is no reliable information, and both think it is best to vote on the assumption that both races will be close.

Mary will vote for Bernie, because she believes in voting for what you actually prefer and believe in.
Ann plans to vote for HRC, because she is a strategic voter and believes you should vote so as to have the best chance of producing the best outcome. Mary claims that the logic of Ann’s position is that she should not vote for HRC, but for Trump.

I’m not interested in debating any of those assumptions, some of which seem plausible, others very dubious, to me. Please accept them for the sake of argument. I want to know whether Mary is right about what Ann should do (given Ann’s view about the ethics of strategic voting) and why, if she is right, so few people I know who hold Ann’s view, and accept the above assumptions, will vote for Trump in Wisconsin today.

A Disquieting Suggestion

by John Holbo on February 22, 2016

As CT-regulars know, I am a compulsive reader of Rod Dreher’s blog. The occasion for today’s post is this Dreher post. He quotes a reader:

Obergefell was clearly a crisis point for social conservatives. We lost the public debate on gay marriage; but more important was how we lost. Gay marriage showed that there was a great gap between what social conservatives want to say, and what the rest of the public is willing or able to hear. In short, what the process revealed was the inability of social conservatives to articulate, in a publicly convincing way, the basis of their own beliefs. The most striking fact about the whole process was this inarticulacy. When the crucial time came, SCs could not find the words to explain what they believed. For me, that was the crucial “revelation.”

I think you’ve decided that the problem is a retreat from Christian foundations of moral understanding. But whatever the cause is, we have a continuing responsibility to try to articulate these values in a way that is comprehensible in a secular debate — to correct our own inarticulacy. We have a responsibility to articulate our values, whatever their religious grounding may be, in a way that makes sense to people who do not necessarily share that grounding.

Dreher sort of agrees and then goes on for a while. And, I have to say: I still honestly don’t know what Dreher’s argument is. I’m not even totally sure he thinks Obergefell was wrongly decided. (I know he thinks it will lead to excesses but that’s a separate question. You could be opposed to affirmative action, and think Brown v. Board of Education led to affirmative action, without thinking Brown was wrongly decided. You could also think Brown was wrongly decided, in a technical sense, yet admirable in its effects.) I was going to write a long post dismantling all the problems I think I see in this post. But, you know what? – been there, done that.

Let me try a fresh approach. [click to continue…]

Liberal, Conservative, Pangloss, Plotinus, Galton

by John Holbo on February 1, 2016

(This isn’t part of our Walton seminar, though it’s got Plotinus in it.)

What is liberalism? What is conservatism? If you are interested in getting answers to these questions, you (probably) want the answers to do two things for you: [click to continue…]

You Keep Using That Word

by John Holbo on January 21, 2016

Eric tells us one thing we’re sure of. Which is interesting. And relates to something I’ve long thought would be an interesting scholarly exercise. A survey of the history of Presidential impossibilities-turned-realities. In this season of Trump, we shall see what we shall see. In the meantime, go back and collect all the ‘Dewey Defeats Truman’ events, from every Presidential season. Who is certain to be a contender, then immediately eliminated? (Looking at you, Scott Walker.) How many candidates who cannot possibly win have won?

Now, there is an ambiguity in the question, insofar as the other side always has a vested interest in kicking up dust. Every possible candidate is ‘impossible’ to someone. So let’s focus on the consensus cases. Like Trump. No one – I mean: no one – thought he would make it this far. Impossible. Now things get tricky, count-wise, because, from an impossibility, an infinite number of impossible consequences flow. (Looking at you, Ted Cruz, last, best hope of the Establishment.)

But seriously. Barack Obama was impossible. Clinton was impossible. Reagan was impossible. Carter? A long-shot, for sure. Watergate was impossible, ergo Ford. Nixon was impossible, insofar as he was a has-been.

Back of the envelope, I think more than 50% of the most important things that happen in Presidential elections are strictly impossible, at least according to conventional wisdom, six months earlier. What do you think is a good number?

UPDATE: The impossibility unit, per season, could be the Trump. Every election can have a T-rating, for the number of impossible things that actually happen.

Piketty, Rousseau and the desire for inequality

by Chris Bertram on December 9, 2015

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century tells us a great deal about the evolution of inequality in wealth and income over a long period and how that distribution is likely to evolve unless we intervene. What Piketty does not do is to tell us why inequality is bad or why people care about inequality, although we can glean some knowledge of his personal beliefs here and there. In what follows I draw on some aspects of Rousseauvian moral psychology to suggest that the reasons people care about inequality matter enormously and that because some people value inequality for its own sake, it will be harder (even harder than Piketty thinks) to steer our societies away from the whirlpool of inequality. [click to continue…]

The Stuff Nietzsche Said

by John Holbo on November 18, 2015

My last Nietzsche post got some folks hot and bothered. [click to continue…]