From the category archives:

Political Theory/Political Philosophy

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


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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.

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I’m packing for a short trip to Berlin, where I’ll be giving a public lecture on Monday on the question whether there should be an upper limit to how much wealth a person should morally be able to hold (it’s open to the public so you’re welcome!). The lecture will draw from a paper I wrote that was just published in the most recent volume of NOMOS, which was edited by Jack Knight and Melissa Schwartzberg, and which is entirely on Wealth (there is a link to the PDF of my chapter online too, though I’m not sure whether that will stay there for long). I haven’t been able to read the other papers in the Volume, but a quick skim suggests the other chapters should really be very interesting. I’ll write more about the volume after the Summer, when I will have embarked on a 5-year ERC-funded research project investigating the plausibility of upper limits on ecological and economic resources. [click to continue…]

The poverty of psychology

by Chris Bertram on April 9, 2017

Political philosophers have been arguing about equality for a very long time. We’ve argued about whether equality is a fundamental value or whether what matters is better captured by a focus on priority or sufficiency. We’ve argued about whether egalitarians should focus on securing equal amounts of something or on assuring people that they stand in relationships of equality of status toward one another. We’ve argued about the currency of egalitarian justice, and whether we should assess equality in terms of welfare, resources, opportunity for welfare or “advantage”. Luck egalitarians have argued that people should be rendered equal with respect to their unchosen circumstances but that inequalities that result from choices people freely are ok. All of these are arguments within the egalitarian camp.

So it is frustrating to read a paper in Nature, written by some psychologists from the Pinker/Haidt school of public pontificating that claims that people don’t care about equality but about “fairness”, where the inequalities that people tolerate turn out to be (a) inequalities in money and (b) inequalities that result from choices people make. Nobody working in poltical philosophy thinks that inequalities in money matter fundamentally, and lots of people think that the value of equality, properly understood, not only allows but requires differences in outcome that result from choice. There’s one reference to Rawls in the paper (simply to mention the veil of ignorance) and one of Frankfurt’s sufficiency view, but Dworkin, Cohen, Sen, Anderson, Arneson et al are entirely absent. Perhaps Nature needs to pick its peer reviewers from a wider pool.

Durkheimian Utilitarianism

by John Holbo on February 19, 2017

This post continues what has evolved into my critical series on Jonathan Haidt (see parts 1 and 2). The burden of the first two posts was: probably a good time to talk about justice, eh? So let’s. I’m going to split it into two, so I can kvetch about how Haidt is confused about Mill (this post), then try to do better myself (next post).

I got email about my last post (not just comments!) suggesting Haidt could do better than I give him credit for. I am 100% sure this is correct. I reconstructed Haidt’s argument with a conspicuously cloudy Premise 3: “something something plurality something pluralism something diversity?” I am sure Haidt could tighten that one up. Yet it does not seem to me he, in fact, has. In this post I am going to lay out textual evidence. Having done my best to expose the logical worst, I’m going to close this post by trying to say how he got into this hole. Honestly, I think I get it. He wants to have his Mill and eat his Durkheim, too. Best of both. I also get why he might feel his bridge from Durkheim to Mill might be load-bearing.

First, a basic point about the sense of ‘justice’ at issue in this post. (A sense we will have to broaden if and when I get around to the follow-up.)

Haidt is, we know, concerned about under-representation of conservatives in academe. There are two possible grounds for such concern.

1) It’s distributively unfair, hence unjust to conservatives, if there is viewpoint discrimination against them, as a result of which they fail to gain employment (or they lose employment).

2) It’s intellectually damaging to debate to have few conservatives present in conversations in which, predictably, liberals and conservatives will find themselves at odds.

I have no idea what Haidt thinks about 1. His arguments concern 2, so I’m going to focus on that. Justice as in: optimal intellectual balance. Epistemic justice. Justice as in justification. Not distributive justice.

On we go. [click to continue…]

Purity, Partisanship, Pluralism

by John Holbo on February 7, 2017

A lifetime ago – in subjective Trump-time! – I made a post about how pussyhats are potent symbols. Social justice! Purity politics. Sacred values. This seems obvious to me. Then again, as a young man they made me read Durkheim. (There’s a myth about the U of Chicago: they make you read all Plato-Thucydides-Tocqueville, all the time, your first year. In my experience they had so many darn anthropologists, many of us spent our first year reading Geertz, Boas, Benedict, Levy-Bruhl, others. Not anything Allan Bloom might have approved for our tender-minded consumption. Anthropologists are mad, you see, so keep them busy lest they make trouble. They were tasked with instilling ‘core values’ in the young: relativism! Yes, yes, Durkheim is a structural functionalist. Close enough for scandalizing rubes and maroons! Ah, mid-80’s memories.)

The point of my pussyhat example was to to illustrate my allegations about blindspots and contradictions in Jonathan Haidt’s popular writings on the subject of partisanship, PC and pluralism. Things got hot in comments. (Not everyone has read Durkheim, it must be.) Then Haidt showed up in comments (Crooked Timber gets results!) He linked to a post he made, rebutting mine. So now I’m going to rebut the rebuttal. [click to continue…]

Snitching on those in breach of immigration law

by Chris Bertram on January 31, 2017

Kwame Anthony Appiah, of whom I have only had positive feelings up to now, has produced an opinion for the Ethicist column for the New York Times that it is “a good thing” when citizens report violations of immigration law to the US authorities. He produces this opinion in the context of a question about “green-card marriage” entered into merely in order to gain an immigration advantage, so it is unclear how far he relies on the specific features of the case he describes to generate a more general moral conclusion, but I, for one, find his reasons highly problematic.

First, he operates on the assumption that US migration policy is reasonable and reasonably fair and that states have the right to set their immigration controls unilaterally. Whether or not legitimate states have the right to set their immigration controls unilaterally (I’m a sceptic), I think it hard to argue that US policies are currently fair given who they exclude (and a fortiori who they are now excluding). Appiah argues that people who enter by unlawful means are queue jumpers who thereby act unfairly towards others. But the very idea that there is an immigration queue that people can join and wait their turn is preposterous. There is no such queue and many many people will never be in a position where they can realistically have a chance of a visa. The claim of unfairness to other would-be migrants is therefore unfounded. [click to continue…]

Moral Polarization and Many Pussyhats

by John Holbo on January 22, 2017

I agree with a lot in this piece by Will Wilkinson. But I disagree with stuff he says after asking the question ‘why is our moral culture polarizing?’

One place to start is to ask why it is that people, as individuals, gravitate to certain moral and political viewpoints. Jonathan Haidt’s “moral foundations” theory—which shows that conservatives and liberals have different moral sensibilities, sensitive to different moral considerations—is perhaps the best-known account. But there are others.

In a 2012 piece for the Economist, I surveyed some of the research in personality psychology that indicates a correlation between political ideology and a couple of the “Big Five” dimensions of personality—conscientiousness and openness to experience, in particular—and then connected that to evidence that people have self-segregated geographically by personality and ideology. It’s an interesting post and you should read it.

The upshot is that liberals (low conscientiousness, high openness to experience) and conservatives (high conscientiousness, low openness) have distinctive personalities, and that there’s reason to believe we’ve been sorting ourselves into communities of psychologically/ideologically similar people.

Wilkinson goes on to talk about other, non-Haidt stuff that contributes to polarization. I like that better. (I think Wilkinson does, too.) But I want to grouse about Haidt, who I think has done interesting empirical work but who commits what I regard as terrible howlers when it comes to moral theory, and when it comes to reasoning about practical, normative implications of his work. [click to continue…]