From the category archives:

Political Theory/Political Philosophy

One of my favorite, and most intense, writing projects this year has been preparing a contribution to an in-progress volume celebrating the work and life of my late friend Erik Olin Wright. The essay, provisionally called “If you’re a socialist you need the Real Utopias Project whether you like it or not”, was prompted by reading and hearing numerous criticisms of either Erik’s book Envisioning Real Utopias, or the Real Utopias Project more generally. So what the essay does is argue for the importance of the RUP against those criticisms in a way that is much more defensive, combative, confident, and irritable than I would ever be discussing my own work. It’s been fun, though also quite strange to so inhabit the thought of someone to whom I was so close for so many years: I have had ‘new’ conversations with him in my head as the paper has unfolded.

I’ll share the final section below the fold, which will give you a sense of what I think. But, taking a leaf out of JQ’s book, I also thought some of you might like to read the whole draft and, even better, might be able to give me some feedback on it.

For those of you with more sense than to read an entire paper, here’s how the essay (currently) concludes:

[click to continue…]

Kukathas on Immigration and Freedom

by Chris Bertram on September 8, 2021

I just finished reading Chandran Kukathas’s book on immigration, Immigration and Freedom, (Princeton: 2021) and I recommend it strongly. In some respects it is a quirky book and Kukathas is coming from an intellectual home that most of the left-leaning readers of Crooked Timber are not friendly to. Hayek gets a lot of mentions, and I’m guessing that many with social democratic or Rawlsian sympathies won’t share Kukathas’s scepticism about the bounded state being a locus of political community and justice (though cf James C. Scott). Kukathas’s basic argument, though developed in detail over many pages, is that to control immigration, states need to monitor and control migrants. But in order to do this, states also need to monitor and control their own citizens. Because one thing human beings are prone to do is to associate with other human beings, independently of their immigration status. People love, befriend, work with, create with, employ others and some of those people are immigrants. So to stop immigrants from doing the things the state doesn’t want them to do, the state also has to monitor its citizens who want to do those things with them and if necessary to pass laws preventing them from doing those things.
[click to continue…]

Book Chat: Mariana Mazzucato – Mission Economy

by Ingrid Robeyns on July 24, 2021

As announced a few weeks ago, here is the first of a series of book chats – starting with Mariana Mazzucato’s Mission Economy. The idea is that this post opens up a space for anyone to talk about any aspect of the book they want to discuss (under the general rules that apply to discussion on this blog), as well as raise questions of clarification that we could put to eachother.

Mission Economy is about rethinking capitalism and rethinking government. Perhaps it is even more about rethinking government than about rethinking capitalism. Both need to be rethought in order to redirect the economy into what Mazzucato calls ‘a mission economy’, which will allow us to tackle problems facing humans and the planet that are currently not properly addressed: climate change, insufficient high-risk long-term investments in the real economy, real wage growth that is much lower than productivity growth, and so forth.

Mazzucato argues that right now we (that is, our governments) ask “how much money is there and what can we do with it?” but instead we should be asking “what needs doing and how can we restructure budgets and design innovation and collaborations between the government, industry, academia and other groups so as to meet those goals?” [click to continue…]

There is such a thing as being too rich

by Ingrid Robeyns on July 12, 2021

I spoke to some US-based scholars today about a study they are planning to do on the question whether American citizens think one can say that at some point, one is having too much money. Long-time readers of our blog might recall that in January 2018 I asked you for input on a study I was setting up in the Netherlands to find out whether the Dutch think there is the symmetrical thing of a poverty line – a riches line. And yes, they do. The study has in the meantime been conducted and published in the journal Social Indicators Reserach, and is open access – available to all. I am very grateful to my collaborators and (economic) sociologists Tanja van der Lippe, Vincent Buskens, Arnout van de Rijt and Nina Vergeldt, since I would never have been able to do this on my own: the last time I did empirical work was in 2002 (and in the good tradition of economics graduate training, I never collected my own data when I was trained as an economist, hence it was a great adventure to set up this survey).

Based on our data, we find that 96,5% of the respondents made a distinction between a family that is rich and one that is extremely rich, whereby the standard of living of the latter is described as: “This family has much more than they need to lead an affluent life. They never have to consider whether they can afford certain luxury spending, and even then, they still have plenty of money left to do extraordinary things that almost no one can afford. No one needs that much luxury.” [click to continue…]

I wrote something a while ago about why I think forgiving all student debt is neither a good idea nor progressive. One of the common responses to people who make the kinds of argument that I make is that, indeed, forgiving student debt is progressive, because, at least on the plan Sanders had, it would be paid for by a tax on speculative trades. So, it is progressive because it redistributes down.

After I saw that objection several times I realized that I didn’t have a well-formed concept of progressivity or regressivity, and didn’t really know what other people meant by it. So I’m asking you to do either or both: help me understand what progressive means, and/or understand why it matters that some policy is progressive.

To be clear. I agree that, if paid for the way Sanders planned to pay for it, loan forgiveness would have the net effect of redistributing down. Now, that doesn’t impress me a huge amount. Imagine a proposal that redistributed down from the top 1% just to the next 9%, and does nothing for the bottom 90%. Sure, that redistributes down, but the population within which it redistributes isn’t really of interest to me for now.

The definition of “progressive” on which the transfer from the top 1% to the next 9% is progressive is:

  • A policy is progressive as long as it has the net effect of redistributing resources downward at all.

That’s clearly not the definition underlying my objection to student debt forgiveness being progressive. (As I say, I just didn’t have a clear idea of what definition was in my head, but it wasn’t this one).

Here’s a second possible definition:

  • A policy is progressive as long as it has the net effect of reducing inequality of resources in the whole population

[click to continue…]

One of the lessons of Branko Milanovic’s work on global inequality has been the realization that location, and perhaps more pertinently, nationality, is a more important explanation of how well and badly off people are than class is. Citizens of wealthy countries enjoy a “citizenship premium” over the inhabitants of poor ones that exists because they have access to labour markets and welfare systems that their fellow humans largely do not. Of course, there’s a sense in which this global difference also represents a class difference, with many of the workers simply located elsewhere while the residual “proletarians” of the wealthy world enjoy a contradictory class location (to repurpose a term from Erik Olin Wright). While it might be that world GDP would increase dramatically if barriers to movement were removed, as some economists have claimed, the relative position of the rich world poor depends upon those barriers being in place. Or to put it another way, free movement could make many poor people much better off and might not make the rich world poor any worse off in absolute terms, but it would erode their relative advantage. And people, however misguidedly care about their relative advantage.

What kind of politics would we expect to have in rich countries in a world like ours, if people were fully cognizant of this citizenship premium? I suspect the answer is that we would expect to see stronger nationalist movements seeking to preserve the advantage of members of the national collective over outsiders and correspondingly weaker parties based on class disadvantage within those countries. Which is, in fact, the tendency we do see in many European countries where traditional social democracy is struggling badly at the moment. In those same countries we might also expect to see some voters who are unthreatened by freer movement, or by the rise of new powers in the world, being more open to a more cosmopolitan politics and more preoccupied by other issues such as climate change and the environment. And this is, in fact, what we do see.

[click to continue…]

The “simple logic” of immigration control

by Chris Bertram on May 19, 2021

In a recent column in the Times (paywall), James Kirkup, Director of the Social Market Foundation and writer for various right-wing outlets, argues that “liberals” should be more accommodating of the state’s desire to enforce exclusionary immigration policies and that, if only they were, a more open policy would be feasible. But, given, public anxieties about immigration and the stubborn refusal of the likes of us to co-operate, the public were going to put people like the UK’s authoritarian Home Secretary, Priti Patel, in charge. Our non-co-peration, or even resistance, is, supposedly self-defeating.

One thing he says is this:

There’s a simple logic about immigration: unless you believe your country should have no borders and be entirely open to anyone in the world, you must accept that the state needs to be able to remove uninvited people. I accept this as someone who has long argued for a liberal, open migration policy.

This rhetorical move gets made a lot by advocates and apologists for immigration control. I remember a similar point being made to a representative of the Stansted 15 on BBC Newsnight. Either the state gets what it wants, or … open borders.

But it is a rhetorical move that needs to be resisted, because you don’t have to be an advocate of open borders to believe that the actual policies being enforced by the state are cruel, unjust and unjustifiable to the point where reasonable people have the right, and possibly sometimes the duty, to disobey, even to resist and sabotage them.[^1] Moreover, when they are sufficiently unjust as a general rule, it is reasonable of people to believe that any particular act of enforcement will be unjustifiable and that the burden of proof is on the other side.

[click to continue…]

Globalism and the incoherence of Tory Brexit

by Chris Bertram on January 21, 2021

I recently finished reading Quinn Slobodian’s excellent Globalists, which, for those who don’t know, is an intellectual history of neoliberalism focused on the “Geneva school”. As with all good history, the book did not contain quite what I expected it to. I expected to read of the European Union as a kind of realization of Hayek’s ideas from the 1930s aimed at putting economics (and private property) beyond democratic control, a reading that gives some support to “Lexity” narratives about the EU. But the picture that emerges from Slobodian’s story is much more complex than that. In fact, the Common Market emerges as a messy compromise between German neoliberals who did want a rules-based order putting economics beyond politics and French agricultural protectionism and neocolonialism. This results in a split within the neoliberal camp between those who see EU’s regional governance as a partial step towards the legal insulation of economics from the folly of economic nationalism and those who see the EU as economic nationalism writ large, with the latter camp putting their faith in international protections for markets, competition and capital embedded in the WTO.
[click to continue…]

This is a guest post by Kenan Malik replying to two posts by Chris Bertram last week

Chris Bertram published two posts on Crooked Timber last week, the first1 challenging critiques of the concept of “white privilege”, the second2 arguing that certain claims about race and class are irrational. As one of the targets of these articles (Chris linked to one of my posts as exemplifying the problem, and we had previously debated the issue on Twitter), this is a response. Chris’ two posts are not directly linked, but they clearly deal with linked issues, and it is worth looking at them in tandem.

In the first post, Chris argues that “the ‘white privilege’ claim sits best with a certain sort of metaphysics of the person, such that individuals have a range of characteristics, some of which are more natural and others more social, that confer a competitive advantage or disadvantage in a given environment, where that environment is constituted by a range of elements, including demographics, institutions, cultural practices, individual attitudes, and so forth.”

But he also acknowledges that “I’m not establishing that, as a matter of fact, “white privilege” in the form I describe is a real thing, although I believe that it is”. It is difficult to see, though, how one can have a debate about whether “white privilege” is a meaningful category without have first established whether it is “a real thing”. It is possible to have an abstract debate about whether such a phenomenon could exist, but not to critique those who challenge the concept as inchoate in reality. Chris, in common with many proponents of the “white privilege” thesis, takes as given that which has to be demonstrated.

Underlying the “white privilege” thesis are two basic claims. First, that being “white” is a useful category in which to put everyone from the CEOs of multinational corporations to the cleaners in an Amazon warehouse. And, second, that being in such a category imbues people with privileges denied to those not in that category. Are either of these claims true?

The idea of whiteness as a “certain sort of metaphysics of the person” derives, of course, from racial thinking. In recent years it has found an important expression in the notion of “white identity” – the idea that all those deemed white have a common identity and set of interests which may conflict with those of non-whites. Most anti-racists (and, I assume, Chris, too) reject such a claim. We recognize that all whites do not have a common identity, that the interests of white factory workers or shelf-stackers are not the same as those of white bankers or business owners, but are far more similar to those of black factory workers or Asian shelf-stackers.

Why, then, do we ignore this when it comes to the question of “white privilege”? Because, proponents of the white privilege thesis argue, white people do not suffer the kinds of discrimination suffered by non-whites by virtue of their skin colour. At one level this is true. “Racism” refers to the practice of discrimination against, and bigotry towards, certain social groups; there may be many reasons for such discrimination and bigotry, but one is clearly that those who are non-white are often treated unequally. Viewing the issue in terms of “white privilege” is, however, deeply flawed for a number of reasons.

First, it is not a “privilege” not to have to face discrimination or bigotry; it should be the norm. I doubt if Chris, or, indeed, most proponents of the white privilege thesis, would disagree. Framing the absence of oppression or discrimination or bigotry as a “privilege” is to turn the struggle for justice on its head.

Second, the concept of white privilege fails to distinguish between “not being discriminated against or facing bigotry because of one’s skin colour” and “having immunity from discrimination or bigotry because one is white”. The distinction is important. Many whites, because of privileges afforded by wealth and class, do have immunity against discrimination. But many others, who are poor or working class, do not. Their experiences of state authority or of policing is often similar to that of non-whites.3

[click to continue…]

On an objection to the idea of “white privilege”

by Chris Bertram on August 27, 2020

The term “white privilege” has been getting a lot of play and a lot of pushback recently, for example, from Kenan Malik in this piece and there are some parallels in the writing of people like Adolph Reed who want to stress class-based solidarity over race. Often it isn’t clear what the basic objection from “class” leftists to the concept of “white privilege” is. Sometimes the objection seems to be a factual one: that no such thing exists or that insofar as there is something, then it is completely captured by claims about racism, so that the term “white privilege” is redundant. Alternatively, the objection is occasionally strategic or pragmatic: the fight for social justice requires an alliance that crosses racial and other identity boundaries and terms like “white privilege” sow division and make that struggle more difficult. These objections are, though, logically independent of one another: “white privilege” could be real, but invoking it could be damaging to the struggle; or it could be pragmatically useful for justice even if somewhat nebulous and explanatorily empty.

One particular type of argument is to deny that some white people enjoy privilege on the basis of noticing that some groups of white people suffer outcomes that are as bad or worse than non-white people on average or some non-white groups in particular. The claim is then that it is nonsensical to think of these white people as enjoying “white privilege”, or, indeed, any kind of privilege at all. But whatever the truth turns out to be about the explanatory usefulness of “white privilege”, I think these outcome-oriented assessments, sometimes based on slicing and dicing within racial or ethnic groups in ways that create artificial entities out of assemblages of demographic characteristics (white+rural+poor, for example), don’t ground a valid objection because they misconstrue what the privilege claim is about.
[click to continue…]

What’s wrong with “cancel culture”?

by Chris Bertram on July 30, 2020

“Cancel culture” has recently been in the news as a threat to free speech and open debate, most notably with the publication the other week of that open letter in Harpers. Cancelling is essentially a kind of crowdsourced attempt to boycott and ostracise individuals for their words or actions, sometimes including calls for them they be fired from their jobs or denied contracts and opportunities by media organisations. In the democratic space of social media this can sometimes tip over into unpleasant mobbing and sometimes bullying. But is “cancelling” people always wrong? Is the practice always an attack on the norms of free speech and open debate? Might cancelling some people be necessary to ensure others get the voice and platform to which they are entitled?

One objection to “cancellation” is that it chills open debate and makes people self-censor. But the problem with this critique is that some speech should be chilled and sometimes people ought to self-censor. A society that refuses to tolerate speech like David Starkey’s recent racist remarks about “damn blacks” and the slave trade is better for it, and it is a pity that Starkey didn’t think twice before uttering them. Now that he has come out with such language, he’s been cancelled, and rightly so.
[click to continue…]

New PPE book series

by Ingrid Robeyns on July 27, 2020

I received an email earlier today announcing a new book series, focussing on Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE). There has been a notable rise in the success of PPE – as can be seen from the multiplying numbers of PPE undergraduate and graduate programs and PPE scholarly activities in recent years. This series is a logical next step in the development of the multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary study of topics that are relevant to economics, politics and philosophy.

The new series, which will be published by Oxford University Press, has a website, five editors (Ryan Muldoon, Carmen Pavel, Geoff Sayre-McCord, Eric Schliesser and Itai Sher), and a long list of editorial advisors (and I’m honoured to be included there).

I’m not sure how long it will take them to publish the first book – given how slow academic publishing is, it might take a while – but in the meantime the editors welcome book proposals by scholars working in this area.

A guest post by Professor Sophie Grace Chappell (Philosophy, Open University)

As an open response to the following blog post by JK Rowling:

J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues

June 11 2020

Dear Ms Rowling,

I am as far as I know the only Professor of Philosophy in the UK who is also transgender. Because my own research is in ethics, because I have in the past been a Governor of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (though I’m not their spokeswoman here), and because obviously I am also personally involved, I have said a few things in public on transgender issues. So I hope I won’t offend you if I chip in with a few thoughts about the current furore over your recent remarks. [click to continue…]

Broken Hearts

by Henry on June 9, 2020

Bleeding Heart Libertarians is no longer publishing new material. The final post is here. It’s an end worth noting, because it seems to me (I have no very specific knowledge, and have deliberately not asked any of the principals involved) to say something bigger about what is happening to libertarianism. [click to continue…]

Self-respect, justice and black resistance

by Chris Bertram on June 3, 2020

One of the most important books I’ve read over the past couple of years is Tommie Shelby’s Dark Ghettos: Injustice, Dissent and Reform. One of the passages that struck me most forcefully at the time is where he discusses the value of self-respect in the face of oppression. “Those with self-respect,” he writes, “live their lives in a way that conveys their conviction that they are proper objects of respect. For example, they resist the efforts of others to mistreat them and openly resent unfair treatment.” (98)

He has a brief, but powerful discussion of this value in and the need to resist if it is to be affirmed:

Oppression can erode a person’s sense of self-respect, causing one to doubt one’s claim to equal moral status. We can understand an attack on one’s self-respect as an action, policy, or practice that threatens to make one feel that one is morally inferior, that one does not deserve the same treatment as others. To maintain a healthy sense of self-respect under conditions of injustice, the oppressed may therefore fight back against their oppressors, demanding the justice they know they deserve, even when the available evidence suggests that justice is not on the horizon. They thereby affirm their moral worth and equal status.

…. Persons with a strong sense of self-respect sometimes refuse to co-operate with the demands of an unjust society. They stand up for themselves, are defiant in the fact of illegitimate authority, refuse to comply with unjust social requirements, protest maltreatment and humiliation, and so on, even when they know that such actions will not bring about justice or reduce theor suffering. Self-respect, then, can be a matter of living with a sense of moral pride despite unjust conditions. (99-100)

This seems absolutely right to me. Resistance may turn out to be futile in the sense that it brings about no lasting change or improvement in conditions, though we hope that it will. Often, as Shelby says a few lines later on, discretion is the better part of valour, both morally and prudentially. But sometimes people just have to stand up to affirm their status as human beings. And when they do the rest of us have to stand with them, and we deny their value, and demean our own if we turn our backs. This is why the many acts of resistance and protest by black Americans and those standing with them are so deeply moving and significant, however this ends.