From the category archives:

Political Theory/Political Philosophy

The political is personal

by John Quiggin on May 18, 2015

Working on my Economics in Two Lessons book, I’ve had to address the concept of Pareto optimality, which naturally raises the question of how it fits into Pareto’s larger body of anti-democratic and anti-egalitarian thought, which culminated, at the end of his life, in his embrace of Mussolini’s fascism. This led me to an article (paywalled, sorry) published by Renato Cirillo, in 1983, defending Pareto against the charge of being a precursor of fascism. Cirillo asserts that, far from being a fascist, Pareto

“manifested consistently a strong attachment to a type of liberalism not dissimilar to the one later attributed to Mises and Hayek”

These are rather unfortunate examples, in view Mises writings in praise of fascism and work for the Dollfuss regime, and (even more), Hayek’s embrace of Pinochet, at the very time Cirillo was writing 1.

This, along with my discovery that Locke was actively involved in the expropriation of the native American population, justified by his theory of property, led me (back) to the question of the relationship between the writings of political theorists (broadly defined to include economists, sociologists and philosophers engaged with these issues) and their personal political activity and commitments. I’ve come to two conclusions about this.

First, for serious writers on political theory, political engagement is and ought to be the rule rather than the exception. I don’t mean that philosophers should (necessarily) run for office. Rather someone whose political theory doesn’t lead them to have and express views on the great political issues of their day probably doesn’t much of interest to say about theory either (unless of course, their theory leads them to some form of quietism). That’s true of the writers whose commitments were creditable (for example, John Stuart Mill and Bertrand Russell) as well as the discreditable cases I’ve mentioned.

Second, it makes no sense to look at the theoretical writings and ignore the political commitments with which they are associated. For example, it is easy to construct readings of Pareto, Mises and Hayek in ways that make them appear either as friends or as enemies of political liberalism. Their (remarkably similar) actions make it clear which reading is correct. Eventually, of course, ideas outgrow their creators to the point where original intentions, and the texts in which they were expressed, cease to be relevant. But, as the Locke example shows, that’s a very slow process. As long as a writer is regarded as having any personal authority, the weight of that auhtority must be assessed in the light of their actions as well as their words.


  1. To be sure, none of these writers can properly be described as fascists – they aren’t interested in nationalism or in the display of power for its own sake. Rather, their brand of liberalism is hostile to democracy and indifferent to political liberty, making them natural allies of any fascist regime which adheres to free market orthodoxy in economics. 

Peter Gay Has Died

by John Holbo on May 13, 2015

New York Times obituary.

I guess I’m the one who should make this little post, since for the last couple weeks I’ve been talking, a bit, about his classic book, Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider. I didn’t know very much about the man, myself, before reading his obit this morning. I haven’t really thought much about his legacy – how much of what he wrote was valid, or is still valid in light of subsequent historiography. But he has had an influence on me. In sophomore (?) year of college I heard about him from a Freudian psychology prof. I struggled through The Enlightenment: An Interpretation. It was maybe the first ‘proper’ intellectual history I read. I found it fascinating. But I had such screwy ideas at the time that the details didn’t really stick. Maybe I should go back and give it a reread in honor of the man. Well, maybe not the whole thing …

Any thoughts about Peter Gay?

This will be the final installment in my ‘were the Nazis right-wing and, if so, why were they socialists?’ series (part 1, part 2).

This final post will consist mostly of a long passage from a chapter titled, ‘The Conservative Dilemma’, from Conservative Revolution In The Wiemar Republic, by Roger Woods. But I’ll frame it with a few general thoughts.

Before we get to the passage, the thing you should know is that ‘Conservative Revolution’ is not a tendentious title – some sinister liberal attempt to slap ‘conservative’ onto a bunch of Nazis (who were radicals, not conservatives!) Or if it is semantically tendentious, it isn’t the author’s fault, just because it seems like an flagrant oxymoron. German nationalists, from 1918 on, used the phrase ‘die Konservative Revolution‘. It was the proper, often self-applied name of a literary/intellectual movement.

In 1937 Thomas Mann wrote: [click to continue…]

Swift on Family Values

by Harry on May 4, 2015

My friend and co-author Adam Swift was on the Australian Broadcasting Company’s show The Philosopher’s Zone yesterday (I think it was yesterday) talking about our book Family Values: The Ethics of Parent-Child Relationships. The podcast is here, and the website for that particular show is here. You can also here him on Philosophy Bites here. There’s much more to the book than the consideration of parental partiality on which these two interviews focus, but I can see why they are excited about that part of it. Listening to both broadcasts I was struck by two things—one, which I did already know, is how good Adam is at explaining a fairly complex set of ideas simply but without oversimplifying. The other, though, was how good (in both cases) the interviewers are. Good interviewers really know their stuff, and use it to prompt the interviewee, never showing off what they, themselves, know. This is a rare case where I know exactly how much the interviewer had to know in order to the interview well, and it is a lot! Anyway, enjoy it.

In What Sense Were The Nazis Socialists?

by John Holbo on May 4, 2015

Socialism! That is really an unfortunate word.

– Adolf Hitler (quoted in Dietrich Orlow, The Nazi Party 1919-1945: A Complete History, p. 88

When one thinks of all the people who support or have supported Fascism, one stands amazed at their diversity. What a crew! Think of a programme which at any rate for a while could bring Hitler, Petain, Montagu Norman, Pavelitch, William Randolph Hearst, Streicher, Buchman, Ezra Pound, Juan March, Cocteau, Thyssen, Father Coughlin, the Mufti of Jerusalem, Arnold Lunn, Antonescu, Spengler, Beverley Nichols, Lady Houston, and Marinetti all into the same boat! But the clue is really very simple. They are all people with something to lose, or people who long for a hierarchical society and dread the prospect of a world of free and equal human beings.

George Orwell

I was going to try to get good old Montagu to contribute a personal note about his own fascist flirtations, after his long and unaccountable absence from the blog. No dice.

So I’ve solicited some commentary from Oswald Spengler, at least. [click to continue…]

Entitlements and expropriation

by John Quiggin on April 22, 2015

An interesting feature of politics in the US, Australia and probably elsewhere is the attack on “entitlements”, coming almost entirely from people who regard themselves as committed to defending property rights. The term refers to rights to receive payments such as Social Security that are entrenched in legislation and cannot be changed, at least without great difficulty.

As the term “entitlements” suggests, this legal security is precisely what distinguishes property rights from other kinds of claims on resources, such as those associated with the receipt of public or private charity, which may be granted or withheld at will.1 So, the objection to entitlements is that discretionary payments are being replaced by property rights.

What is going on here? Part of the story is that (as with Bismarck’s remark on sausages) those who approve of property rights mostly prefer to avert their eyes from the process by which they are created. Except when pressed, the operating assumption is that property rights arose from some sort of immaculate conception, as in the mythical story told by Locke.

But the real reason, today as with Locke, is that the attack on entitlements is precisely about expropriating some holders of rights (for example, beneficiaries of Social Security) for the benefit of others (for example, the corporate executives who fund organizations like Fix The Debt). The more property-like are the rights you want to expropriate, the harder the job becomes.


  1. Similarly the income derived from holding a job, which at least in the US, can be ended at the will of the employer. 

For quite a few years now, I’ve been working on a response to Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson, a defence of free-market economics first published in 1946, but still in print and popular among libertarians. Hazlitt, as he says, is essentially just reworking Bastiat’s analysis of opportunity cost, represented by the broken window parable. What I’m trying to do is take the idea of opportunity cost seriously, and apply it across the board, including to issues of income distribution and property rights. It’s obvious (to me, at any rate) that any allocation of property rights to one or more people has an opportunity cost, namely the benefits that could be realised if the property rights were allocated to someone else. This is a live issue when property rights are being created explicitly right now, as they are with various kinds of intellectual property. But it is just as relevant when we come to consider the historical origins of property. I’ve spent a fair bit of time debating the question of whether property rights have a basis (say, in natural law) for existence independent of the states or governments that typically define and enforce them. I don’t want to talk about that issue right now, but it explains why I’m taking an interest in (I think) the most prominent proponent of natural law in relation to property, John Locke.

It’s a long time since I read Locke and, at the time, I was mostly concerned with Hume’s objection that

there is no property in durable objects, such as lands or houses, when carefully examined in passing from hand to hand, but must, in some period, have been founded on fraud and injustice.

That’s true of course. But rereading Locke[^1] I now conclude that he is not offering a theory of original acquisition, but rather one of expropriation, designed specifically to justify the “fraud and injustice” to which Hume refers.

(Update: Read to the end of comments, around 90, for references to the current literature, showing that the link between Locke and the need to justify expropriation in the context of American colonisation was even more direct than suggested in this post) [click to continue…]

National-weighted consequentialism?

by Chris Bertram on April 10, 2015

I’ve been looking again at a two-year-old discussion on immigration policy between Jonathan Portes and Martin Wolf, and particularly on Wolf’s take on the reasons that ought to inform policy. As far as I can tell, Wolf’s position is a kind of national-weighted consequentialism. Immigration policy is to be viewed as an aspect of economic policy, and the relevant considerations are simply whether a policy is beneficial to existing members of society, with no weight to be given to the interests of immigrants. Portes raises the interesting objection that, once we factor time into our national felicific calculus, then the well-being of future members who have yet to be naturalized ought to count, but this is a mere wrinkle in the argument. Wolf’s view is that

countries are like clubs. They can decide who members are. Once you are a member, you matter to the club. If you are not a member, you don’t.

I hope that Wolf doesn’t mean what he says. The disanology between clubs and countries is pretty stark, since countries are compulsory associations which most people don’t have a choice about, whereas clubs are not. Moreover, most people think that countries do not have an unlimited discretion to decide on who their members are, that Nazi laws to remove citizenship from Jews were unjust, that policies that are blatantly discriminatory on racial or gender lines have no moral standing, whatever the insider electors think. We also, I hope, think that laws that condemn generations of minority permanent residents to non-membership — until recently a feature of German citizenship law — are unjust. So at best Wolf must mean that countries have a discretion to admit as members outsiders with no other moral claim to admission or membership.

The interesting question, then, when we have got the discretionary membership issue out of the way is what could justify national-weighted consequentialism? Whilst there might be all kinds of deontological reasons for states to favour insiders over outsiders (the global justice literature is about little else), in my experience, economists don’t think in those terms. Rather, they think of themselves as being consequentialists all the way down, and of rights, powers, permissions etc as being ultimately justified by outcomes. If I’m right that this is the picture, then the claim would have to be that a global system of nationally-weighted consequentialisms, perhaps by assigning the promotion of individual interests to particular states, gives rise to the best consequences overall. That’s an empirical claim, but one that is very very unlikely to be true since it locks so many people away from opportunities they would otherwise have to be productive and makes the world a poorer place as a result. So I’m still puzzled. What do economists think justifies national-weighted consequentialism?

Non-gory cases (in philosophy of education)

by Harry on March 23, 2015

Whenever we discuss thought experiments in moral philosophy here, Daniel and JQ give me a hard time about various things, including the goriness of the thought experiments that moral philosophers frequently use (viz, trolleys killing workers, fat men, babies drowning… you name it). During the last round one or both of them challenged us to come up with some non-gory thought experiments. I haven’t. But I do have an article in yesterday’s local paper concerning a real case which serves as a sort of thought experiment—the case of Boston Public Schools’ deliberate and explicit pandering to middle class parents in the design of its choice system. The article is part of an insert that the College of Letter and Science at UW-Madison placed in the Wisconsin State Journal which, I think, is a model for communicating the value of our research (and, to a lesser extent, teaching) to the people in the state. PDF of the insert is here.

I took the case directly from Meira Levinson’s excellent Justice in Schools site: her team, which I think shares, to some extent, JQ and Daniel’s unease about the science-fictiony and gory cases we often use in moral philosophy, has been developing a series of carefully constructed cases (all based on real decision problems), with the aim of helping academics (including philosophers) teachers, policymakers and the public to train their ability to discern what values are at stake in particular situations and better make judgments about trading them off against each other. I’m designing a course around the cases for this coming fall. My favourite reaction to the site (which I used in the description when I was seeking approval for the course) comes from a (now former) elementary ed student I know quite well, who just graduated (and was snapped up by a school district in a different state that has gotten its act together). I sent her some of the cases, which she discussed extensively with her cohort. Along with her, typically well-considered, responses, she emailed:

“I wish they would give us more readings like those in my school of education, they are much more realistic than most of the readings we do, which are more idealistic… Actually I think that tension is something I struggled with a lot throughout the program-but didn’t fully understand why it was so frustrating to me. In my practicum I would see my teachers facing problems like this one-and the other behavior case every day-multiple times a day. Then in our content classes these very real problems were almost watered down, and approached in terms of ideal theory. We talked about the benefits of all-inclusive classes, being preventative, and reflecting in action. But we never really had conversations about how this looks in imperfect practice”

Which is both right (about the justice in schools project) and…depressing.

Political philosophy now illegal in the UK

by Chris Bertram on March 13, 2015

Well, almost. The British government has just produced the guidance for its “Prevent” scheme for education, which aims to stop young people from being drawn into “extremism”. The elite at Oxford and Cambridge have been granted a specific exemption, allowing them to hear dangerous ideas that might corrupt the ordinary youth, and universities haven’t been given specific guidance on what they may teach. Colleges of further education, on the other hand, have been told that “All relevant curriculum areas will need to be engaged, with a single contact point for delivery of Prevent-related activity.” This so that students are not exposed to arguments that involve

“active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”

I suppose it will be news to some that these are “British” values, particularly if they are Irish or live in the former colonies. But leaving that aside, it looks like Plato is off the menu and to make sure:

“Compliance with the duty will be monitored centrally via the Home Office and through appropriate inspection regimes in each sector.”

Well, that’s freedom for you.

A hypothesis about “ideal theory” and justice

by Chris Bertram on March 12, 2015

One of the most familiar and irritating moves in political philosophy is when a person says “oh, but my point was in ideal theory” as a response to some objection that references the grim and complicated real world. Not that I object in principle to ideal theory. But I do want to write this blog post to share a hypothesis about the ideal/non-ideal distinction and about why it has become more of a problem over time. The hypothesis is this: that in 1971 the gap between the ideal and the actual was a lot smaller than it is now. The world resembled Rawls’s ideal of the well-ordered society a lot more than it does now. Or at least, the North American bit of the world did.

Given that closer resemblance, people could do ideal theory without it looking like they were engaging in arcane hypotheses about a distant possible world. Political philosophy of the ideal variety looked a lot more relevant to what ought to happen.
[click to continue…]

Reciprocity vs. Baseline Communism

by John Holbo on February 19, 2015

I was rereading David Graeber’s Debt over the weekend. The intervening two years, since our book event, have not caused it to be the case that Graeber doesn’t owe Henry an apology, after all. But the life of the mind goes on. We do not freeze intellectual accounts due to outstanding personal debts. That is to say, the free market of ideas is baseline communist, in Graeber’s sense. If I have a bright idea, I do not expect to be paid back, by those who receive it, in the form of two half-insights – or 100 comments, each containing but a grote’s worth of thought; none of that. (I expect intellectual credit, of course.)

My bright idea for the day is that I have no idea what the difference is between reciprocity and baseline communism. [click to continue…]

A while back, in a context I can’t exactly remember, I made the point, which seemed to me to be obvious, that all property rights are derived from states governments, and so it’s impossible to sustain a claim that state government interference with property rights is inherently wrong. It rapidly became apparent that this point is controversial in all sorts of ways, so I thought it might be worthwhile to work out where the main lines of disagreement run.

The great thing about a blog like CT is that, on (almost) any topic, lots of my co-bloggers and readers know more than I do, and most aren’t shy about saying so. So, please point me to the relevant literature (about my only reference point here is James C Scott).

[click to continue…]

Best political philosophy/theory papers, a decade later

by Chris Bertram on January 3, 2015

Back in 2004 I wrote a piece here asking for people to nominate the most significant political philosophy/theory papers of the previous ten years. On twitter, @sreddi_515 asks me whether there was ever a second round. Well no, but why not?

Last time I nominated five suggestions to kick us off, so why not again? Some of these papers I profoundly disagree with, but I think they are all worth the effort.

  • Charles Mills (2005). “‘Ideal Theory’ as Ideology”. Hypatia, 20(3).
  • Andrea Sangiovanni (2007). “Global Justice, Reciprocity, and the State. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 35(1).
  • Arash Abizadeh (2008). “Democratic Theory and Border Coercion”. Political Theory, 36(1),
  • Zofia Stemplowska, (2008). “What’s ideal about ideal theory?” Social Theory and Practice, 34(3).
  • David Estlund, (2011). “Human nature and the limits (If any) of political philosophy”. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 39(3).

Over to you….

Consequentialist arguments for deontological claims

by John Quiggin on December 30, 2014

Thinking about various interchanges on the Internetz, a great many have the frustrating property that, while they appear to be couched in consequentialist terms, some or all of the participants are defending claims that they actually hold for deontological reasons[^1]. For example, a follower of Pythagoras (who, apocryphally, forbade the eating of beans) might appear in a discussion about beans and claim that we shouldn’t eat beans because

  • they cause flatulence
  • bean production is environmentally destructive
  • the bean industry is dominated by exploitative multinationals
    The problem for someone seeking to counter these arguments is that, even if they are all refuted, the Pythagorean will not agree that it is OK to eat beans.
    [click to continue…]