From the category archives:

Political Theory/Political Philosophy

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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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.

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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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).

In Addition to Being Racist, Everyone is Pro-Infanticide

by Belle Waring on November 19, 2013

What I am curious about in the Singer/infanticide/ending the life of the disabled vein is, what do those who are totally opposed to every form of infanticide think about anencephalic babies (and babies who have similarly non-survivable, severe birth defects)? I don’t think that, as a formerly pregnant person who has given birth to healthy children, my opinions on these questions have any extra merit, but I do think others not so situated may share my opinions without feeling so strongly about them, or in the same way. Perhaps the situation calls for some epistemic humility? The terrifying prospect to me, and to many mothers, of “late-term” abortion bans, is that pregnancies which are terminated after 20 weeks are almost all wanted pregnancies in which something horrible has occurred or been discovered. (And, in those cases where the baby is unwanted, there are almost certainly serious problems in the woman’s life that have led to the delay in getting an abortion sooner.) So, in a situation of supreme horror, the fetus might die, but the mother might be forced to carry the dead fetus inside her and have labor induced, to struggle in pain and blood to bring her dead baby into the world. She would feel the liquid inside her, and the lax ligaments, and all the other things she felt in pregnancy, but she would know the baby was dead. I have heard of mothers knowing right away. So close to you then, infinitely close, but infinitely far, and a rotting thing now, a poison for the rest of your body. So awful.

My first pregnancy was easy and wonderful. I felt and looked glowing, and although I was in labor for more than 40 hours (remind me not to do that again) I gave birth vaginally to a healthy girl who latched onto the breast just a few minutes after she was born, and fed well and naturally. In my second pregnancy I had unexplained bleeding starting at 19 weeks. Bright pink fresh blood in the toilet bowl. I thought my heart would stop. I thought her heart had stopped. They couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I was in terrible pain (I often am; but it seemed like she was tap-dancing on the worst bit of me.) I kept bleeding on and off. I knew how many movements she was supposed to make in an hour and I counted, and counted, and counted, hour after hour, so scared, and then another hour. The doctors were determined to deliver her surgically as soon as they felt she was cooked up right, so, 37 weeks. It turned out to be nothing serious, placenta previa (the organ grew over the cervical os, the opening to the birth canal, blocking the baby’s egress.) She was fine.

But sometimes when the doctors check, they find that the fetus, which has appeared to be developing fine, has no brain at all, that the blackness inside her skull on the scans is only water. This is not even a fetus, really—certainly not a future infant. It will never feel pleasure at a mother’s touch, or pain from being pinched by a crib mattress, or see anything, or hear anything. It is empty. Laws that would force a woman to stay pregnant and nourish and grow that wrongly-made creature inside her, and to suffer the agonies of childbirth, and to bring forth this…not-baby—laws like that are torture. I would go mad. I would try to abort the fetus myself. I would try to kill myself. I would want to be put to sleep then, there, in the doctor’s office, and wake up, not pregnant, and with a little coffin to bury my hope and love inside. With ashes inside, only, because I would want not to look, but I would look, and I would always wish I had not.

But let us say an unjust, oppressive, Christian regime forces me to endure, and to deliver this severely deformed baby. Does anyone think we should use artificial life support to keep the baby alive? Almost all fetuses of this type are stillborn, and those that are not usually die on the first day of ‘life.’ Even the Catholic Church has some hand-waving about letting God’s will take its course. That is, they are not insistent on providing hydration and nutrition—no one even considers artificial respiration. Reading on it, three children have lived a year or so. There are pictures of course, and now I wish I hadn’t looked at them, and I am so sorry, the poor little things, and so sorry for the parents. For the mothers! When I think of those oscillations inside you, feeling movements you didn’t make, the mysterious gliding of blood-wet surfaces over each other in the absolute black, the not-you inside you…what if you knew in the end there was nothing? Some kind of seasickness of death? At the last you would be holding a newly hatched chick, naked and grey and dead, grey and jerking with dying? But back to the matter at hand, we all think a form of infanticide is appropriate here, right? No one’s on team ‘drastic measures for resuscitation?’ Artificial respiration for 80 years, for something that can never feel you hold his hand? A rough golem on whose forehead no glyph has been inscribed? So isn’t there a small number of real-world, continuously-occurring cases in which we are all pro-infanticide?

UPDATE: so misinterpreted! Obviously my fault also. I didn’t jump in to give Singer crucial moral support. I’m not totally sure how I did…I guess I’m implying all his critics are disingenuous and have parked themselves at the top of a slippery slope with some dubious wedge. I apologize to sincere Singer-critics for insulting their position in this way. That wasn’t actually what I was trying to do at all. I was genuinely curious. There was a case maybe eight years ago now, but I can no longer find it in the welter of anti-abortion and pro-abortion articles, in which a woman’s 24 or even 26-week-old fetus died, and the laws of her state required a waiting period before you could get a late term abortion (Texas IIRC?). The removal of a dead fetus is done via dilation and curettage, i.e., via abortion. So she had to go talk to some doctor, and then go stay by herself in a motel with her dead baby inside her for two days. She wrote about her experience and I remember thinking, I don’t know if I could live through two days of that. A responsible, thoughtful doctor would have deemed the dead fetus a threat to her health and her ability to have future children and had it removed on those grounds, but in this particular case, it was a Catholic hospital and none of these things happened. So I did mean to say, I think there are a number of infants born each year whose lives everyone agrees cannot go on in any way. That doesn’t mean that—HAHA! now everyone is obliged to accept all Singer’s positions; I was honestly curious, not mock-curious, and I honestly don’t know what all Singer’s positions are. But I also meant to describe to people who haven’t been pregnant the terror of something going wrong, and how you hope you would be a good enough person to accept your baby any way she came, but you fear you’re not brave enough, not really, not truly brave enough. And that as long as she was inside maybe you could pretend it would be alright somehow? But even then there is only one feeling that is ever like this, of having something inside you that is alive, that isn’t you, that you are waiting for, and how would it be if you were waiting for nothing? That’s all. I really don’t know enough about Singer’s positions to arbitrate on any of these questions; I was just thinking, we need to hear from severely handicapped people who were written off as a total loss before we know whether he can be right. We might also be interested to hear from mothers. And I’m only the mother of perfectly healthy babies! That’s it. I’m not laying down my life for in-group sacrifice.

Screw the taxpayer

by Chris Bertram on November 5, 2013

The term “the taxpayer” is playing an increasing role in British public debate, often introduced, seemingly, as an apparently neutral synonym for “the public” whilst really being no such thing. The term is endlessly repeated by BBC interviewers asking “tough questions” of politicians and civil servants and it seems as if none of them either notices or is willing to question the ideological assumptions and tacit theory of legitimacy that lie behind the term.

Point 1. In a state that at least markets itself as a democracy, the principle ought to be that the state is answerable to the electorate. Pretty much everyone in the electorate pays taxes (VAT at least) but the key idea is not that the state is answerable to them because they pay for it, but rather because it is a non-voluntary entity that claims authority over them and subjects them to its laws. Whether they are “net contributors” to the public purse is neither here nor there. People who pay in more than they receive – such as the mythical “taxpayer” – have no special claim to extra influence.

Point 2. The “taxpayer” idea is being used in very harmful ways to deprive many ordinary people of their basic human rights, including the right to marry and form a family with a partner of their choice. (In the UK, the government asked an advisory committee to calculate the income levels at which families of various sizes would not be net beneficiaries of the tax-and-transfer regime in order to rule that people who failed to meet that income threshold would not have the right to have their foreign spouse live with them in the country.)

Point 3. The “taxpayer” idea claims that only those who pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits make “a contribution”. But that’s nonsense. Many poorly paid people make a contribution through work that they ought to be paid more for. The fact that they are underpaid and exploited shouldn’t be held against the many many people who, for example, keep our public and health services running. Many people who are not “economically active” make a contribution to society as parents, carers or in many other ways. And those unable to make a contribution because of age or disability: they have the same right to a say as anybody else.

The “taxpayer” trope is a pernicious ideological assault on the very idea of equal citizenship. It is elitist and exclusionary and promulgates a false theory of the state according to which government belongs to the propertied. No it doesn’t: it belongs to its citizens, rich and poor, old and young.

Economics as a moral science

by Ingrid Robeyns on October 31, 2013

For a while I have been working on a paper on democracy, expert knowledge, and economics as a moral science. [The financial crisis plays a role in the motivation of the paper, but the arguments I’m advancing turn out to be only contingently related to the crisis]. One thing I argue is that, given its direct and indirect influence on policy making and for reasons of democratic accountability, economics should become much more aware of the values it (implicitly or explicitly) endorses. Those values are embedded in some of the basis concepts used but also in some of the assumptions in the theory-building.

The textbook example in the philosophy of economics literature to illustrate the insufficiently acknowledged value-ladenness of economics is the notion of Pareto efficiency, also known as ‘the Pareto criterion’. Yet time and time again (for me most recently two days ago at a seminar in Oxford) I encounter economists (scholars or students) who fail to see why endorsing Pareto efficiency is not value-neutral, or why there are good reasons why one would not endorse the Pareto-criterion. Here’s an example in print of a very influential economist: Gregory Mankiw.
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One woman, two votes

by Ingrid Robeyns on October 13, 2013

I became a Dutch citizen earlier this year. That is, I became a Dutch citizen given the definition of ‘citizen’ that most political scientists would use – someone with full political rights, including the right to vote and the right to stand for election. The process was partly Kafkaesque – perhaps I’ll tell you some more about that another time.

The reason I wanted Dutch citizenship is that I want to be able to vote in the country in which I live, in which I plan to stay, in which my children grow up, in which I work, in which I pay taxes, and – perhaps the most important – where I care a lot about how institutions are being redesigned and policies implemented. The reason I didn’t apply for Dutch citizenship earlier on, is that it has only recently become possible for me to acquire Dutch citizenship without losing my Belgian citizenship. And I didn’t want to give up Belgian citizenship, since at the ‘personal identity’ level it feels like a denial of part of oneself if one has to give up the nationality that has shaped the person one has become. I think people should be able to hold two passports since one’s nationality does not only reflect which political community one regards oneself most engaged with, but also one’s identity at a deeper level – whatever one prefers to call this – the psychological level or related to one’s personal self-narrative, or something similar.

But now I am in this remarkable position to be a person with two votes. I can vote for the national and regional elections in Belgium, and for local, national and European elections in the Netherlands. Isn’t this a violation of the deep democratic principle we all know by the slogan ‘one man, one vote’? Some friends have suggested that there is nothing wrong with having two votes, since after all one has ties with both countries. But that doesn’t seem quite right to me, since it would still mean that one person overall has greater political power than their co-citizens.

So I guess my position is this: Two passports: fine. Two votes: not OK. We should have a set of rules such that those of us who hold two passports should prioritise them: the first one gives one all the rights of all other citizens, and the second one gives one all the rights of the citizens except the right to vote.

Cosmopolitans and Zoopolitans

by John Holbo on September 2, 2013

Haven’t read Appiah on moral revolutions yet so I’ll just give you a bit from his Cosmopolitanism: Ethics In A World Of Strangers, which I am also reading.

Maybe, though, the term can be rescued [from the negative connotations]. It has certainly proved a survivor. Cosmopolitanism dates at least to the Cynics of the fourth century BC, who first coined the expression cosmopolitan, “citizen of the cosmos.” The formulation was meant to be paradoxical, and reflected the general Cynic skepticism toward custom and tradition. A citizen—a polite–s—belonged to a particular polis, a city to which he or she owed loyalty. The cosmos referred to the world, not in the sense of the earth, but in the sense of the universe. Talk of cosmopolitanism originally signaled, then, a rejection of the conventional view that every civilized person belonged to a community among communities.

I posted about this a couple years back. Short version: ‘kosmos’ is a matter of order – military order, cosmetics, ‘getting it together’ – more than vastness, sublimity (‘to boldly go!’) So maybe Diogenes was saying, in effect: I’m a citizen of wherever they’ve actually got good government. Or even: I’m a Utopian. Or: I’m a citizen of nature. Or: I’m a citizen of the natural order, the true order of things.

I got mild pushback in comments. (You don’t want to rehash old comments threads? Fine! Go read something else.) [click to continue…]

How Moral Revolutions Happen (They Had A Nightmare)

by John Holbo on August 29, 2013

In a recent post I remarked that MLK is a figure well worth stealing. And NR obliges me with the first sentence of their anniversary editorial. “The civil-rights revolution, like the American revolution, was in a crucial sense conservative.” They do admit a few paragraphs on that, “Too many conservatives and libertarians, including the editors of this magazine, missed all of this at the time.” And then manage to wreck it all again with the next sentence: “They worried about the effects of the civil-rights movement on federalism and limited government. Those principles weren’t wrong, exactly; they were tragically misapplied, given the moral and historical context.” No look into the question of how such a misapplication transpired, since that would not produce gratifying results. After all, if we are talking about what actually worried people, then plainly federalism and limited government were more pretext than motive. The tragedy is that so many people wanted to do the wrong thing, for bad reasons. But they couldn’t say ‘Boo justice!’ So they said stuff about … federalism. There is obviously no point to conservative’s revisiting how they got things wrong without bothering to consider how they got things wrong. But let’s be positive about it. “It is a mark of the success of King’s movement that almost all Americans can now see its necessity.” Yay justice!

I’m sitting down to read Kwame Anthony Appiah’s book, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen [amazon]. I’m planning to agree with it, but the framing is odd. [click to continue…]

Why Is Racism Unacceptable?

by John Holbo on August 7, 2013

Greetings from the road. I’ve been chivvying little girls around the globe for a few weeks, which interferes with keeping up one’s CT duties. So our text today is taken from one of the few literary works I’ve had a chance to read with real discernment, at leisure. The August issue of the Delta inflight magazine! 

The article in question is a celebration of the 50th anniversery of King’s “I Have A Dream Speech”. A number of prominent Atlantans reflect on its significance, generally and personally. (Hey, you can read it online. Who knew? Who ever links to articles in inflight magazines?)

It’s the sort of feel-good, unlikely-to-offend fare you expect from an inflight magazine. But the fact that MLK, his legacy and most famous speech, are fodder for such fare is noteworthy. In 1963, who would have expected that, a mere 50 years on, MLK would be not just a moral hero to many, but a non-polarizing, nominal hero to nearly all. Democrats love him, of course. And Republicans – although they may vote against MLK day and try to chip away at his pedestal every couple of years – are really more interested in making out, rhetorically, how they, not Democrats, are the true heirs to his legacy and philosophy (which has been so cruelly betrayed by the Democrats). As Orwell said about Dickens: MLK is a figure well worth stealing.  [click to continue…]

Shorter Kevin Vallier

by Henry on July 9, 2013

Is there anything more to this post of epic, indeed Den Bestian length than the claim that if you define the term ‘elite’ in an arbitrary and weirdly narrow way, then Hayek is not an elitist (and btw Corey Robin eats his own boogers!)? I’ve read the piece through a couple of times and not found it, if it’s there. I’ll say that this is all especially annoying coming from Kevin Vallier, who was lecturing me last year for failing to demonstrate sufficient intellectual charity to Hayek (when I took Hayek’s words to mean what they would appear, quite literally, to mean). This year, he’s telling us instead how Corey’s purported errors allow “people who aren’t already Robin fans how to distinguish him from a responsible intellectual historian.” I’m more in favor of vigorous argument than starting from charitable assumptions myself, but the inconsistency is rather startling …

Robin on Bloggingheads

by John Holbo on July 1, 2013

Just in case Corey is too modest to link to it himself. Because he’s still talking about all that Hayek stuff – now with Mike Konczal. (Maybe he thinks you – the CT reader – have had enough of that.)

I hadn’t had enough. I enjoyed it. As I’ve told Corey: I agree with what he’s getting at – all the Hayek stuff is very much of a piece with his other stuff, and I endorse that big picture. But I felt the “Nation” article, in particular, didn’t give him enough room. The big picture ended up weirdly cropped. The argument can look unsound, even though it’s basically sound. The follow-ups have improved things considerably, but maybe some of you feel you have lost the plot in all the multi-post critical back-and-forth? A 53 minute bloggingheads might seem like it just adds to the pile. But I think Corey does a good job of just taking it from the top and making his points pretty clearly.

Annals of anti-egalitarian hyperbole

by Chris Bertram on June 16, 2013

Remember when Robert Nozick wrote in Anarchy State and Utopia that income taxation is akin to forced labour? Well it turns out that that is far far worse than that. Taxing the 1 per cent would be like the state forcibly ripping out their spare internal organs! At least that’s what Gregory Mankiw thinks. His paper, forthcoming in the Journal of Economic Perspectives also includes a thinly-disguised rehash of the Wilt Chamberlain parable, but no proper acknowledgement to Nozick (suprising that the referees or editors at JEP didn’t make this point).