Cato Unbound

by Henry Farrell on February 9, 2009

My response to Nancy Rosenblum is “up at Cato Unbound“: as is that of “James Fishkin”: It would be fair to say that we have significant political disagreements …


[Rosenblum] argues that these implicit biases also afflict the arguments of contemporary political theorists such as James Fishkin (also participating in this seminar), who prize political deliberation.

Again, blogs provide an interesting test case. Fishkin harks back to a Madisonian vision of politics that he suggests has been corroded by political parties more interested in winning elections than in thoughtful deliberation. He seeks to structure deliberation so as to minimize what he sees as disruptive partisan extremism and maximize the potential for disinterested discussion. Blogs are anathematic to this vision of politics. Bloggers are typically at least as interested in winning the argument as in discerning the truth. The empirical evidence that political bloggers and blog readers are sharply divided along partisan lines is emphatic. However, as Rosenblum suggests, partisan argument of the kind that blogs engage in can play a valuable democratic role. They help structure a “system of conflict” in which “discordant values, opinions, issues, and policies” are “identified, selected, and refined.


if one is concerned about some minimally rational process of collective will formation, the impact of party ID is to make voting and policy choice predictable, not to make them thoughtful. A thoughtful process of collective will formation, whether by elites (representatives) or the mass public themselves, requires a disposition not to make a partisan judgment, but an independent judgment about the public interest. Of course, real world judgments reflect some mix of partisan interests and independent judgment. But to the extent one is just focusing on what will serve one’s party, what will contribute to electoral competitiveness and effective mobilization, one is not acting on the disposition that will assist deliberation in the public interest. Competitive elections can be won by misleading the public, by demobilizing it with negative ads (as my colleague Shanto Iyengar has demonstrated) by the MAD politics of the trivial but sensational sound bite — a politics of Mutually Assured Distraction. These techniques win elections and mobilize participation, but they do not add up to any collective weighing of substantive arguments about what should be done. Rather they add up to pseudo-mandates and a very thin form of democracy.

I’m pretty skeptical about many claims for the empirical benefits of deliberation, for a variety of reasons that perhaps I’ll cover in a future post. But it seems to me that much of this disagreement turns on a fundamental divergence as to what politics is about. I see it as involving stark divergences between people with very different interests and ideals, where the room for common agreement on the public interest is limited. Fishkin sees it as a realm where the potential for rational identification of extensive shared values and the public interest is obscured by television advertising and the other paraphernalia of competitive electoral politics. Different understandings of politics give rise, unsurprisingly, to different normative prescriptions.

Shooting yourself in the mouth

by Chris Bertram on February 9, 2009

From “an article on growing protectionism”: in the Wall Street Journal:

bq. The U.S. is planning retaliatory tariffs on Italian water and French cheese to punish the EU for restricting imports of U.S. chicken and beef.

Well I guess Americans can just drink different water, and Europeans can eat their own beef and chicken. But the cheese thing, that’s just masochism.

Lewd and Prude

by John Holbo on February 9, 2009

We aren’t up to Part II of Cohen’s Rescuing Justice and Equality, but I’m going to jump the gun. There’s this bit about something from Amartya Sen – ‘his celebrated Prude/Lewd example’ – which I had never heard tell of. I’ll quote Cohen’s narration of the case:

There exists a pornographic book that might be read by one or other, or neither (but not both), of Prude and Lewd.

Let’s pause to admire that sentence. I think that is a great first sentence for a novel, or at least a Donald Barthelme story. (But I’m getting ahead of the story.) [click to continue…]