From the category archives:

Political Theory/Political Philosophy

Ferguson, disorder, and change

by Chris Bertram on August 20, 2014

Watching the nightly demonstrations and confrontations from Ferguson, I was reminded of James C. Scott’s discussion in chapter 1 of his Two Cheers for Anarchism of the role of riots, confrontations, violence and disorder in effecting social change. They don’t always, or even usually, make things better. They sometimes makes things worse. But police violence, racism and radical social inequality are not going to be ended just by voting for the US Democratic Party, or even by a black President.

Scott:

It is a cruel irony that this great promise of democracy is rarely realized in practice. Most of the great political reforms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been accompa­nied by massive episodes of civil disobedience, riot, lawbreak­ing, the disruption of public order, and, at the limit, civil war. Such tumult not only accompanied dramatic political changes but was often absolutely instrumental in bringing them about. Representative institutions and elections by themselves, sadly, seem rarely to bring about major changes in the absence of the force majeure afforded by, say, an economic depression or international war. Owing to the concentration of prop­erty and wealth in liberal democracies and the privileged ac­cess to media, culture, and political influence these positional advantages afford the richest stratum, it is little wonder that, as Gramsci noted, giving the working class the vote did not translate into radical political change. Ordinary parliamen­tary politics is noted more for its immobility than for facilitat­ing major reforms. (pp. 16–17)

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What’s left of libertarianism? (slightly updated)

by John Quiggin on August 9, 2014

The NY Times has a lengthy thumbsucker from Robert Draper, repackaging claims by Nick Gillespie of Reason that the “libertarian moment” has finally arrived. Jonathan Chait takes out the garbage on the dodgy opinion poll that is the primary factual basis for the story. Taking the implicit definition of libertarians as voters who take a hard-right line on economic issues (and are therefore Republicans or Republican-voting independents), but are liberal on drugs and sexual freedom issues, it seems to me that if anything, the chance of a libertarian moment is over. That’s because:

(i) the equal marriage fight has pretty much been won by Democrats, with libertarians mostly on the sidelines or, to the extent that they have been part of the Republican coalition, on the wrong side 1

(ii) the same will probably be true for marijuana legalisation, and broader drug law reform before long. The recent legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington follows a steady expansion of legal access under “medical marijuana” laws. Again, this has been done almost entirely by Democrats. Libertarians were more vocal on this issue than on equal marriage, but they stayed within the Republican coalition, and did nothing much to shift the position of that coalition.

Once the issues of drug law reform and equal marriage are off the table, there’s no obvious distinction between “libertarians” like Nick Gillespie and Republicans in general2. The possibility of a libertarian moment, if it ever existed, has passed.

Update Some libertarian commenters are upset that I didn’t give their side enough credit on drug law reform (no, AFAICT, has made such claims on equal marriage). But bragging rights aren’t really relevant. When equal marriage and legalisation are faits accomplis the fact that some Republicans supported them all along won’t be an important point of difference with those who are still unhappy about it.

Further update A reader on my Facebook post points to this technolibertarian event, in which Nick Gillespie, billed as a “conservatarian”, features, along with Rand Paul and racist homophobe Cathy McMorris Rodgers. Relevantly for this post, the article mentions the tactic of emphasising libertarian support for drug law reform and hiding links to the Republicans. As I’ve argued, this is a tactic which will become obsolete once drug law reform becomes a reality .


  1. There’s still a chance of a loss at the Supreme Court, in which case the issue will come down, for the medium term, to whether the Democrats win the 2016 Presidential election and the Senate, thereby getting to replace the inevitable retirements. In this context, anyone who votes Republican, whatever their views on social issues, is effectively opposing equal marriage. 

  2. On immigration, the libertarian line is much the same as that of big business. As regards scepticism about war, the same is true of the realist school associated with The National Interest (they publish me, and some libertarians as well as old-school realists). Moreover, as Iraq showed, the bulk of self-described libertarians turned out to be shmibertarians when the war drums started beating (see Glenn Reynolds). On gender issues, the libertarians are at best ambivalent (on abortion for example) but more often than not, on the wrong side. Notably, on issues like Hobby Lobby, property rights trump the personal freedom of employees

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

by John Quiggin on July 28, 2014

The concept of self-ownership came up in discussion as a result of my passing slap at Nozick in the post on Austrian economics and Flat Earth geography. I’ve been planning posting on some related issues, but I realise there are some critical points I need to clarify first, most notably on the relationship, if any, between self-ownership and property rights.

I’m inclined to the view that there is no such relationship, or more precisely that our inalienable rights over our own bodies represent a constraint on the legitimate scope of property rights, rather than forming a basis for such rights. But, there’s lots that I know I don’t know about this, and, presumably, more that I don’t know I don’t know.

The problems for me start with language. As far as I know, no one has ever remarked on the title of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Yet the core of the book is that Tom owns neither the cabin nor himself: both are the property of his owner. And that brings up another striking feature of language (at least English). We use the possessive case to refer to Tom’s owner, but, obviously the owner was not Tom’s possession whereas, legally, the reverse was true.

The abolition of slavery hasn’t resolved the contradictions here: for wage workers, it’s natural to divide the hours of the day into “company time” and “my time”, while for house workers the common complaint is the absence of any “time of my own”.

So, some questions to start off with

First, how universal is the linguistic conflation of the possessive case with possession in the sense of ownership (Wikipedia suggests that there may be some exceptions, but the distinctions described are not precisely the ones I mean). And, if there is such a linguistic universal, what conclusions should we draw from it?

Second, have political philosophers looked at the question in this light: that is, on the relationship between the broad use of the possessive to denote relationships of all kinds and the particular use to denote property ownership. If so, what is the relationship between self-possession and self-ownership?

So What Gives? (About Tolerance)

by John Holbo on July 27, 2014

Philosophically, recent protestations by conservatives that ‘liberals are the intolerant ones now!’ are flim-flam. I say so. Brendan Eich. Hobby Lobby. Same-sex marriage. I get why they have to play it that way, trying to turn the tables. It’s such an obligatory rhetorical gambit it almost doesn’t bother me – well, most days. In each such case the most generous possible response is: no, you are obviously confused about what liberal tolerance is, or religious freedom, or you are confused about the facts of the case, or all three.

So I’m sincerely baffled that Damon Linker – smart guy! – is apparently taken in by this poor stuff. Indeed, he’s been banging on like this for a while now, at The Week [just follow the links in the one I linked]. He dissented from our Henry’s sensible line on bigotry some months ago, in a manner that made absolutely no sense to me.

That post got almost 10,000 comments. (Wow!) So it doesn’t seem likely that Damon (I met him once, so I’m going to call him that) suffers from a lack of people telling him that what he says makes no damn sense.

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Ben Smith has a good suggestion, but I think I can improve it. The conservatives he wants to call ‘liberty conservatives’ should be called ‘anti-freedom conservatives’ (to signal that they are opposed to the people Smith calls ‘freedom conservatives’.) The conservatives he wants to call ‘freedom conservatives’ should be called ‘anti-liberty conservatives’ (to signal that they are opposed to the people Smith calls ‘liberty conservatives’). [click to continue…]

My apologies for the delay in posting the second half of my reply to the symposium. I was traveling. Let me repeat at the outset my deep appreciation for the insightful comments provided by the contributors to this symposium. This is the sort of exchange that makes intellectual life rewarding. Given the delay since the original postings, I did not want to assume that readers of this post would remember what was said in the earlier ones, and I’ve tried to write this in a way that will be intelligible on its own. I take up here the six contributions that I did not discuss in the previous post. I’ll begin with David Owen, Michael Blake, Kieran Oberman and Ryan Pevnick, all of whom have related concerns. At the end, I’ll discuss the posts by Brian Weatherson and Patti Lenard.

In various, sometimes overlapping ways, David, Michael, Kieran and Ryan have raised questions about my theory of social membership. To recall (or, for those who have not read the book, to summarize), the central claim of that theory is that immigrants become members of society over time and their social membership gives them a moral claim to most of the legal rights that citizens enjoy and eventually to citizenship itself. It is important to note, however, that I do not start with a general theory of social membership that I try to justify on the basis of abstract principles and then apply to particular issues. Rather I start with the actual practices of democratic states and ask whether these practices seem to make moral sense. It is only after I have explored arguments about particular practices that I try to show that the idea of social membership is a common thread in many of these arguments. Moreover, my theory of social membership is not presented as a full account of why immigrants are morally entitled to legal rights. I contend that immigrants also have claims to legal rights based on the duty of every state to protect the human rights of anyone within the state’s jurisdiction and based on other considerations like reciprocity and proportionality as well. I think that this way of doing political theory “from the ground up” differs from the approach of some of my interlocutors, especially Kieran and Ryan. My approach is likely to be less systematic and involve more balancing of competing considerations, but I think that it is more closely connected to ordinary moral views, even when, as in the open borders chapters, it leads to radical conclusions.
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It is an author’s dream for his or her work to receive the sort of wide-ranging, substantive, thoughtful and generous reactions that this symposium on my book has elicited. So, I want to begin by expressing my deep appreciation to Chris Bertram for organizing the symposium and to all of the contributors, including Chris, for their comments. Among other things, I felt that all of the contributors understood my project and discussed it in a fairminded way, whether they agreed with me or not. That is not always the case in these sorts of exchanges, and I feel fortunate to have had this set of interlocutors.

I am dividing my response into two posts. In this first post I will respond to Chris Bertram, Jo Shaw, Kenan Malik, Sarah Fine, Phil Cole and Speranta Dumitru. I choose these six because all of them are concerned in one way or another with the approach that I use in my book and several of them are concerned with the open borders issue. The next post will be concerned with the moral significance of social membership (David Owen, Michael Blake, Ryan Pevnick and Kieran Oberman) and with the reasons why free movement within a state should be seen as a human right (Patti Lenard and Brian Weatherson). Although I agreed with much of what the different contributors said (especially the nice things they said about my book, of course), I’ll devote most of my time to their challenges and disagreements.
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The Ethics of Immigration symposium: index

by Chris Bertram on June 4, 2014

The first part of our symposium on Joseph Carens’s The Ethics of Immigration is now concluded. While we wait for Joe to compose his reply, here’s an index of the contributions:

So why did the organisers of this symposium also offer the opportunity to a European Union lawyer – not a theorist mind, but a vanilla lawyer – to make a comment on Joseph Carens’ magisterial book on The Ethics of Immigration? It should have been obvious that I could add nothing to the excellent contributions by other normative theorists who are commenting directly on these aspects of Carens’ work. So it must have been for some other reason.

It was presumably in order to provoke a reflection upon the peculiarities of the EU’s own combined system of internal soft borders (‘free movement’) and external hard borders (‘Fortress Europe’, some might say) in the light of Carens’ arguments about the ethical demands of states in relation to borders and migrants. To that extent, my reflections are less about the book than about the issues which the book is helping me to think through – and for that I am very grateful to Joseph Carens for his wonderful text and also to the organisers for indulging my preferences.
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The Ethics of Immigration symposium: On Method

by Phillip Cole on June 2, 2014

The appearance of Joseph Caren’s book, The Ethics of Immigration, has been a long-awaited event and it does not disappoint. The breadth and depth of its vision is extraordinary and it will shape the debate for many years to come as an indispensable text. It also gives those of us who teach the ethics of migration on our courses the chance to introduce our students to that vision in its entirety, instead of guiding them to glimpses of it in journal articles and book chapters.

However, my task here is not to praise Joseph and his book, but to raise challenges to which he can respond so that we can continue the dialogue he began in the 1980s. Therefore I have to do something that is very difficult and strange to me, and to write contra JosephCarens.
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This is a fantastic symposium inspired by a fantastic book, and it is clear that all the contributors agree on at least one key point: Joseph Carens’s majestic The Ethics of Immigration is an intensely important text and all of us are deeply in debt to Carens’s work on this crucial subject. There is no doubt that over the years Carens has done more than anyone else to bring the ethics of immigration to the attention of mainstream Anglo-American political philosophy, and he has set the agenda for the discussion for many years to come.

From that shared starting point, the commentators then fall into two groups. There are those who are in broad agreement with most of Carens’s conclusions and are generally sympathetic to his overall agenda (but may disagree with parts of his approach, and even may wish to push his open borders arguments further). And there are those who disagree with a number of Carens’s conclusions and are less sympathetic to his overall agenda. I fall in with the first group; my comment is intended as a friendly intervention, which also takes seriously some of the concerns of the second group (concerns not necessarily expressed directly in the symposium pieces, but which appear in writings elsewhere). And rather than go over terrain that has already been covered in the symposium, I want to concentrate on one particular point regarding Carens’s argument from democratic principles.
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Political theorists are much indebted to Joseph Carens for his 1987 article “Aliens and Citizens: the Case for Open Borders”. Written in a period of increased restrictions on migration, Carens’s article was pioneering in two ways: it introduced the migration question to political theory’s agenda and set the terms of the debate from the free movement side. Carens’s recent book, The Ethics of Immigration, is less pioneering. It explicitly aims to engage with the “conventional view of immigration” and to show that it can accommodate some measures which improve citizenship and admission policies. The open borders argument is not abandoned but is left to only one of the twelve chapters. Carens’s main concern, however, is to show that the open borders argument does not conflict with the measures he proposes.

It is possible to have the opposite concern: are the proposed measures a way to advance towards a  world of open borders? In other words, is Carens still advocating open borders? My analysis here will be limited to the first measure he proposes in the book, this is that “justice requires that democratic states grant citizenship at birth to the descendants of settled immigrants” (p. 20). Whether justice requires this or not, many “democratic states” already conform to this principle and my argument is not that they should stop. Rather, my worry is that such an argument is not a way to advance towards an open borders world.
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Joe Carens’s The Ethics of Immigration is just the book that the growing field of the political theory of migration needed. Rich in argumentation, wide in its coverage, fluently and reflectively written, it will act as a locus of, and focus for, discussion and debate.

It is also a book with a distinctive methodological structure. In the first part, Carens presupposes ‘(1) the contemporary international order which divides the world into independent states with vast differences of freedom, security, and economic opportunity among them and (2) the conventional moral view on immigration, i.e., that despite these vast differences between states, each state is morally entitled to exercise considerable discretionary control over the admission of immigrants’ (p.10) and seeks to reconstruct how liberal democratic states should, in acting on their own deepest commitments, treat immigrants. In the second part, Carens focuses on admission and in the final two chapters drops this presumption of state control and re-articulates his well-known argument for open borders. In this commentary, I will focus on the first part of the book.

The arguments of the first part build to Carens’s theory of social membership (chapter 8) on which I’ll focus but we should preface this discussion by noting how they build to this theory. Carens is committed to a contextualist form of political theory that works from the ground up. The discussions of birthright citizenship, permanent residents, temporary worker, irregular migrants can be seen as the cases from which Carens is attempting to reconstruct a norm of social membership that will make coherent sense of our democratic practices of social and political membership. The norm that Carens reconstructs is ‘that living within the territorial boundaries of a state makes one a member of society, that this social membership gives rise to moral claims in relation to political community, and that these claims deepen over time.’ (p.158)
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Apologies for vanishing and temporarily interrupting the capability project! I’m resuming my series of posts on the capability approach, which I expect to continue till mid-July (and afterwards we’ll see where we are). I am now turning to the capability approach as a theory of justice (social or distributive justice). This may require more than one post, and in this first one I want to discuss two meta-theoretical problems with the capability approach to justice. [click to continue…]

I

There is a wonderful passage in Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, in which Barnes expresses his anger at a dismissive critic of Flaubert:

All in all, it seems a magisterial negligence towards a writer who must, one way and another, have paid a lot of her gas bills. Quite simply, it makes me furious. Now do you understand why I hate critics?

I have had this passage in mind while I have been reading Joseph Carens’s book. I have written several articles about Carens’s view of immigration, and much of it has been critical. I take it that Barnes’s point is that we must express a certain sort of respect towards those we make the subject of our critical attentions, given how much we would be at sea without them. This seems exactly right, given how much I owe Carens; I would never have started thinking seriously about immigration had he not thought so seriously, and so well, about it first. One way or another, Carens has paid a lot of my gas bills, and done a lot more besides; he has been more gracious, both in print and in person, than he has ever needed to be. His book summarizes and extends his thinking about immigration, and I have come to respect that view and its creator enormously. It is not my view, but it is the very best the field has produced, and I hope I have not treated it with negligence.

In what follows, I am going to ignore much of the dispute I have had with Carens over the moral permissibility of exclusion, and focus on a topic found primarily within the first half of the book: the idea of social membership, and what rights can be adequately grounded in that idea. My arguments here are going to be similar to those made by Ryan Pevnick in his own post, although I hope I will make them in a slightly different way.
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