From the category archives:

Political Theory/Political Philosophy

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…]

Locke’s Road to Serfdom

by John Quiggin on October 18, 2015

The second instalment1 of my critique of Locke’s propertarian liberalism is up at Jacobin. I’m looking at an obvious (but, AFAICT, rarely asked) question about Locke’s theory: if land is acquired through agricultural labor, how is it that agricultural laborers have mostly been landless? The answer is simple: thanks to slavery and serfdom, it’s the owners of the laborers who acquire the property. To quote Locke

the grass my horse has bit; the turfs my servant has cut … become my property

Locke’s political practice in the Americas was consistent with his theory. In his Constitution of the Carolinas, he suggested the creation of “leetmen” — a hereditary class of landless laborers, tied to specific areas, and bound to work for aristocratic landowners. As I observe (the point isn’t original)

Locke didn’t really need a new word for this institution. The founding figure of classical liberalism was proposing, literally rather than metaphorically, a Road to Serfdom.

  1. I’ve done with Locke, but I’m planning a third instalment on Jefferson, his most important successor. 

A migration veil of ignorance

by Chris Bertram on September 24, 2015

I’ve been invited to give a TED-style talk tonight on whether there’s a right to free movement. Given the format, I don’t have a text and I’ll be speaking to a series of slides. But here are the basic points I’ll be making, for better or worse. (There’s no great claim to originality here, and my final slide will tell people to read Carens. Lots of undotted “i”s and uncrossed “t”s too.)

At the present time, they key norm governing the international migration regime is that states have a discretionary right to allow or not allow non-members onto their territory and to grant such members rights of residence, or not. The global refugee and asylum regime is a partial exception to this rule, but only a partial one because states have voluntarily agreed to be bound by the provisions of the Convention and could, if they chose, renounce it.

Clearly, most politicians and most voters, at least in rich countries, believe the norm is justified, with a lot of public debate focusing on whether the refugee regime is too permissive. Any party that tried to run on a policy favouring more open borders would get slaughtered at the polls, because more people think that democratic electorates have the right to exclude. But just because most people believe something, doesn’t make it true. And past consensuses on slavery, women’s suffrage and against gay marriage now look like the moral abominations they are.

But border and citizenship regimes have a prima facie case to answer because of the fatefulness of citizenship for life chances and the way in which they coerce people. Whilst some people are lucky enough to be born in, say, Belgium, others have the comparative misfortune to end us as citizens of Burundi or Bolivia. Some people get the valuable citizenships of states with wealth and which respect human rights; others end up with North Korea or Eritrea.

[click to continue…]

The Political Classroom

by Harry on August 11, 2015

Steve Drummond has a great interview with Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy about their brilliant book [1], The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education

The study explores the way high school social studies teach controversial issues in the classroom, and uses extensive survey and interview data both to examine the ethical issues that teachers feel that they face. They look at how teachers decide which topics count as controversial, how teachers think about dealing with topics that are sensitive within the classroom (eg, how do you discuss the morality of same-sex marriage in a way that does not shut down debate, when you know that some students are closeted homosexuals?); and how do teachers decide whether they disclose their own views—and what do students think about those decisions? The empirical findings are fascinating: for example, students believe that teacher disclosure has no effect on their own beliefs, but think it has effects on the beliefs of their peers; and students in the same classroom disagree about whether their teacher discloses, but tend to approve of what they believe their teacher does with respect to disclosure (I’ve heard the authors refer to this phenomenon as “I like what my like-able teacher does”). The most fascinating case study is of a (brilliant, it seems to me) (conservative) evangelical teacher who works in a (conservative) evangelical Christian school, and really, deeply, challenges his students in ways that, for example, I doubt that many of the secular liberal students are challenged at my own institutions. But it is not just an empirical study—they deal subtly with the difficult philosophical issues of what the aims should be of teaching controversial issues and the ethics of disclosure, without being unduly prescriptive or judgmental. Although the book is about high school teaching, I think it is an invaluable resource for everyone at the college level who teaches about controversial issues, and would recommend colleagues who, like me, teach ethics and applied ethics classes, developing reading groups using the book. Here is my discussion from last year of whether teachers of controversial issues should disclose their opinions to students. Anyway, this book is essential reading for anybody, at any level, who teachers controversial issues.

[1] Pretty full disclosure: As of a week ago Hess is Dean of the School of Education with which I am affiliated, and was previously Vice President of the Spencer Foundation, where I was, for most of that time, a Senior Program Advisor; McAvoy also worked at Spencer while I was an SPA there, and is now Program Director of the Center for Ethics and Education, of which I am Co-Director. I helped pull together deliberations about the content when the book was in progress, and read several draft. Also, I wrote the Afterword. Strangely, I recently attended the wedding of a recent UW graduate who was, when in high school, one of the 1001 students in the study (McAvoy presented about the study in one of my classes, and the said student, mentioned here, realised that she was a subject).

Locke and the Declaration

by John Quiggin on July 5, 2015

I didn’t take part in the book event on Danielle Allen Our Declaration, except as a commenter. But, as it happened, I converged on some of the central questions by a different route. For some time now, I’ve been writing critically about John Locke and his propertarian theory of liberalism. Increasingly, I’ve come to the view that Locke is best seen as an American rather than an English political theorist, even though he was an absentee owner rather than an American resident.

Further, while his writings appear liberal if interpreted in the English context, and if attention is focused on the passages where he is seeking to diminish the power of the English monarchy, his crucial contributions to the theory of propertarian liberalism are his justifications of expropriation and enslavement in the American context. The combination of the two made him the ideal theorist for those who wanted a Declaration of Independence that justified rebellion against the British monarchy, in combination with rule by a slave-owning aristocracy in the newly independent country.

James Wilson’s contribution to the Danielle Allen seminar, The Declaration of Independence isn’t egalitarian enough explores many of the issues, as does Gabriel Winant.

I’ve made a start to spelling out the arguments in a piece for Jacobin magazine, entitled John Locke Against Freedom, which has given rise to some interesting discussions on Facebook, Twitter etc. Chris Bertram has raised some effective criticisms, and hopefully will spell them out in more detail later on. A couple of notable points, with partial responses

  • I’ve overstated the extent to which Locke’s influence was confined to the American context, although it remains clear that his political theory mattered more in that context than in England

  • Even if Locke himself advocated and benefited from expropriation and slavery, it’s not obvious (as I assert) that his theory of classical liberalism necessarily entails these things. I plan to spell out the argument in more detail soon.

The Counter-Enlightenment as Gotcha!

by John Holbo on June 3, 2015

It’s hard to find time to blog when one of your hobbies is reading Rod Dreher. Dude doesn’t stop!

Where to start, where to start? Dreher, like a lot of conservatives, is aghast at the Kipnis case. [click to continue…]

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.