From the category archives:

Political Theory/Political Philosophy

On Being Radical for Non-Ideal Reasons

by Miriam Ronzoni on February 9, 2018

Thank you to Ingrid for introducing me, and to all current members of the Crooked Timber for welcoming me on board. I am a long term fan of the Crooked Timber (since my days as a graduate student, in fact!) and therefore really excited to be joining the team.

I would like to kick off by elaborating on some thoughts that I have only briefly mentioned in a recent piece. The basic idea, in a nutshell, is the following: could it be that we sometimes have reason to be more radical under non-ideal circumstances than under ideal ones?

The reason why this might seem initially puzzling – it definitely is to me – lies in the fact that, by definition, non-ideal theory falls short of ideal theory in important ways. Sure, the suggestion is often made that our obligations of justice under non-ideal circumstances might become more demanding – simply because we might be required to compensate for the non-compliance of other duty bearers (although some people want to resist that thought ). This, however, is a point about the demandingness of our duties, not about how radically our aims should diverge from the status quo. When it comes to what we should be aiming at, rather than how much effort we should put into it, non-ideal theory is usually depicted at giving us targets that are closer to home. We should be more modest, we should not demand too much. We cannot have a truly egalitarian society, but we can maybe try and aim for a more humane one than the one we currently have. We cannot have gender equality, but we can maybe narrow the gap. We cannot put an end to capitalism, but maybe we can tame it just a little bit. The most obvious way in which this approach plays out is in the chase of the political centre by the mainstream left, which has been making social-democratic agendas ever more lukewarm over the last three decades.

However, the relationship between ideal and non-ideal theory does not always have to work that way. [click to continue…]

The Birth of Intermediacy?

by John Holbo on February 1, 2018

I’m taking a break from reading stuff about political theory and liberalism and reading, instead, Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness [amazon]. It turns out Peter Godfrey-Smith on the octopus brain is more like Jacob Levy on Montesquieu and intermediacy than I was expecting. (The cover of Levy’s book is a bit tentacular. Maybe they should have played that up?)

Godfrey-Smith:

The cephalopod body, and especially the octopus body, is a unique object with respect to these demands. When part of the molluscan “foot” differentiated into a mass of tentacles, with no joints or shell, the result was a very unwieldy organ to control. The result was also an enormously useful thing, if it could be controlled. The octopus’s loss of almost all hard parts compounded both the challenge and the opportunities. A vast range of movements became possible, but they had to be organized, had to be made coherent. Octopuses have not dealt with this challenge by imposing centralized governance on the body; rather, they have fashioned a mixture of local and central control. One might say the octopus has turned each arm into an intermediate-scale actor. But it also imposes order, top-down, on the huge and complex system that is the octopus body.

This is something a lot of people know about the politics of being an octopus: your various members enjoy semi-autonomy. Tentacles are federated, after a fashion. They continue to act in a purposive manner even if they are cut off from the center. Weird! (See also: Montesquieu on monarchy.) But what does he mean by ‘these demands’? [click to continue…]

On the marginal position of research on X in discipline A

by Ingrid Robeyns on December 20, 2017

In the tread following the announcement of my book, I had a brief discussion with our reader ccc about the fact that my book doesn’t engage with non-human animals. In their second comment, ccc wrote the following:

Political philosophy in general has a big problem though. It seems most authors can find some perfectly non-malicious, workload-related reason for giving non-human animals the excluded-via-footnote treatment. But the aggregate effect of all such cases is ongoing marginalization of the topic of non-humans from political philosophy. (The near complete absence of that topic on Crooked Timber over the years is a good illustration.)

Gladly there are some signs of (slow) change now, thanks in part to the “political turn” in animal ethics pioneered by among others Will Kymlicka and Sue Donaldson.

This type of critique is not specific to political philosophy, and should be taken seriously, so let’s discuss it outside the context of that particular book. [click to continue…]

The Capability Approach: an Open Access TextbookPlus

by Ingrid Robeyns on December 11, 2017

So, folks, here it is, my book on the capability approach that has been in the works for a very long time. I’m very happy that it is finally published, I am happy that you can download the PDF for free at the publisher’s website, and that the paperback version is also about half the price of what a book with a university press would cost (and a fraction of the price it would cost if published by one of the supercommercial academic presses whose names shall not be mentioned here).

I am not going to sell you my book – in a literal sense there is no need to sell you anything since you can download the book (as a PDF) for free from Open Books Publishers’ website (and I have no material interest in selling you hardcopies since I will not receive any royalties). And in a non-literal sense I should not sell this book either, since it is not up to me to judge the quality of the book. So I’ll only make three meta-comments. [click to continue…]

Against Max Sawicky!

by Henry on December 1, 2017

Max Sawicky has a piece in Jacobin, giving grief to Brink Lindsey and Steve Teles’ new book on rent seeking, The Captured Economy, and arguing that Dean Baker’s work presents a “left-facing” response to rent-seeking, while Lindsey and Teles’ book, instead, is “right facing.” It’s a little awkward to wade into this fight, since I’ve been around long enough that I’m friendly with Max, Brink and Steve (and, for that matter, Dean), but I think that Max is basically wrong. What Lindsey and Teles are doing, as Max says, is to set out their pitch for liberaltarianism, a fusion of liberalism and libertarianism that John Q. has written about here in the past. But even if liberaltarianism isn’t, and shouldn’t be mistaken for e.g. social democracy, it’s much more congenial to useful argument with the left than Max allows, or than old-style libertarianism ever was. [click to continue…]

The Reactionary Mind, 2nd edition – Meet The New Boss

by John Holbo on November 15, 2017

If you haven’t heard, there’s a new edition out [amazon] of our Corey’s The Reactionary Mind. I have duly purchased the updated version. He didn’t just drop Palin and add Trump. It’s better put together, as he says in the Preface. I bought the basic argument first time round. I found some things quite clear and compelling that I know others did not. Perhaps this time the more benighted shall see the light. Here’s hoping this new edition wins over skeptics.

It would have been funny if the new subtitle were: ‘I totally told you so and now LOOK!’ But I guess Oxford doesn’t play that way.

Let me try to be frank and blunt about the standard complaint against the book and why I think it misses the mark. Robin’s line seems too reductive, too quick to cast all philosophical conservatives as moustache-twirling villains. Conservatism is a bunch of reactionary bastards punching down. Always has been, always will be. But surely – especially in the realm of ideas! – better can be said on its behalf, hence should be said. Doesn’t he miss the interest and sophistication of the best conservative thinkers? Even the fact that, yeah, Trump fits the model may fail to seem so powerfully predictive. A stopped clock is right twice a day. Someone standing on the corner shouting ‘hey asshole’ at everyone isn’t necessarily a prophet or great student of the soul, even if he’s right a lot. (I’m looking you, Bob McManus!)

Passages like this set readers off: [click to continue…]

Utopian Commonplace Book

by John Holbo on October 18, 2017

Per my previous post, I’m thinking about utopia/dystopia. Do you have any fun quotes from philosophers or poets? Here are a few: [click to continue…]

Good Grief

by John Holbo on August 21, 2017

The Federalist has gotten weirder. If you feel this way about Charlie Brown, just think what you would think if you ever met that Ur-Lucy, Socrates. Perhaps Cornford said it best: [click to continue…]

Thinking About Groups

by John Holbo on August 20, 2017

In the hopes of writing something that isn’t rendered obsolete by Donald Trump in 48 hours, I’m going to say a few (thousand) words about how I got a lot out of Jacob Levy’s good new book, Rationalism, Pluralism, Freedom. At its core is a dilemma – an antinomy: two models of the optimal form and function of groups within a liberal order. Neither model can be quite it. It seems we need to split the difference or synthesize. But there is no coherent or necessarily stable way. (Well, that’s life.) There, I gave away the ending. [click to continue…]

What’s left of libertarianism?

by John Quiggin on August 13, 2017

Liberaltarianism

….. [click to continue…]

I read the same piece by Jacob Levy that Chris liked, but didn’t agree with the core argument. Below the fold, why: [click to continue…]

I got into a bit of a twitter fight with the always interesting Branko Milanovic yesterday. It was a second-hand fight, because he’d already been involved in one with Kate Raworth and had blogged about that. What was interesting to me was how Milanovic believed some things to be not only true, but obviously true, which I thought not just false but obviously false.

Milanovic’s claim is that limitless economic growth is both necessary and desirable in today’s societies. In fact, he puts the claim in the negative:

De-emphasizing growth is not desirable, and perhaps more importantly, is utterly unrealizable in societies like our modern societies.

He may be right or wrong about that. If such growth implies increased consumption of resources, then that’s a pretty bleak prospect for anyone who believes in ecological limits, worries about heat death from climate change and the like.

Still, more interesting to me was his reasoning:

the really important counter-argument to Kate is that her proposal fails to acknowledge the nature of today’s capitalist economies. They are built on two “fundaments”: (a) at the individual level, greed and the insatiable desire for more, and (b) on the collective level, competition as a means to achieve more. These are not necessarily most attractive ethical characteristics for either individuals or collectives but they are indispensable for capitalism to function—they provide the engine that pushes it ever further. … This extreme commodification is obviously linked with insatiability of our needs and by our desire to climb up in hierarchical rankings. Since today’s uber-capitalism accepts only one ranking criterion, money (and since all other possible ranking criteria can be, through commodification, converted into the money-metric), the desire for higher societal rank is almost entirely identified with the desire for higher income. And if everybody wants to have higher income, how can we then argue they our society should cease to place a premium on economic growth …. ? [click to continue…]

Heterodoxy Contra Holbo

by John Holbo on July 12, 2017

Some months back I wrote a series of three posts critiquing Jonathan Haidt and, by extension, some stuff at Heterodox Academy (part 1, part 2, part 3). After that I traded a few emails with one Preston Stovall, who has just posted a brief critical response to my stuff at Heterodox Academy. So I’m linking to it. [click to continue…]

Jacob Levy on “The Sovereign Myth”

by Chris Bertram on July 12, 2017

Jacob T. Levy has written a really interesting piece for the Niskanen Center, which has at its centre the myth that the postwar era was one of sovereign and national democratic control and the fantasy that’s what we need to restore, a fantasy that fuels both the current wave of right-wing populism but is also present in some of the thinking around Jeremy Corbyn.

The imagined Golden Age in these kinds of stories of the fall from democratic grace is the postwar era; it’s often referred to as les trente glorieuses, the thirty glorious years of high economic growth, broadly distributed, during which most Western market democracies built substantial welfare and regulative states after World War II. The chronology varies from one country to another, but roughly speaking the Golden Age is taken to have ended sometime around 1970-75, opening political space for a very different political-economic model to take hold — with the election of Thatcher and Reagan, and the reconciliation of Mitterrand’s Socialist government in France to the market. … The people [now] want to take back control of their economies and their societies. Thus, to critics of neoliberalism, the populist upsurge is a kind of dark morality play; we’re being punished for Margaret Thatcher’s sins.

In the lens of Levy’s piece, UKIP and Trump, Theresa May, David Goodhart and “Liberal” Brexiteers like Carswell and Hannan are on the same side of a key dividing line together with some left-Rawlsians in political philosophy, and other “relational egalitarians”, with people like David Miller, with Blue Labour, with the Furedites with their enthusiasm for national sovereignty, with Lexiters and national-sovereigntist socialism-in-one-country types like John McDonnell and Jean-Luc Mélenchon. On the other side of that line are cosmopolitans of various stripes and with seriously differing attitudes among themselves to “capitalism”, to property and markets. Sitting uncomfortably in the middle are some of the Labour “mainstream”, the US Democrats, and people like Macron, who want to hang onto the postwar international order but are nevertheless wedded to the nation state and the possibility of control in ways that foster the myth.

Whilst nation states may be unable to produce the level of control for democratic electorates that they falsely promise, they are rather good at classifying, organizing, excluding and generally bullying people, with miserable effects for the people and their families who don’t fit into the neat little containers of nationality and citizenship or who would challenge them. The people in the sovereigntist and middle groups have very different ideas about what they’d do with state power, of course, — some of them benign in aspiration — but they all want to bend state power to the production of their pet outcomes on behalf of democratic electorates within which the interests of the “national”, the ethnically dominant and the sedentary are over-represented compared to all the people who don’t fit. In my view, the renewed fostering of the “we” who want control and to take charge of “our” borders and “our” economy carries serious dangers for those others.

Against epistocracy

by John Quiggin on July 6, 2017

I’ve finally been got around writing something about US philosopher Jason Brennan’s arguments for “epistocracy”, that is, restricting voting to people who are well-informed about the issues. For a long time, I assumed that such an idea would be ignored, and fade into oblivion, as most academic ideas do. But it’s popped up here in Australia. Nathan Robinson in Current Affairs has a trenchant piece on a variety of anti-democratic commentators, including Brennan, to which I can’t really add much.

So, I’ll try to offer some more specific objections to Brennan’s case for epistocracy.

[click to continue…]