Rawls, Economic Liberty, and Lack Thereof
April 13, 2012

John Rawls

Gary Oldman as George Smiley -- I mean, John Rawls (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A recent-ish post at Understanding Society leads back to this old Will Wilkinson post suggesting that the great philosopher of liberalism John Rawls was more radical than anyone gives him credit for. That’s because everyone treats Rawls’ difference principle — that a just society is only unequal when those inequalities benefit the worst off — as his most radical claim when, according to Wilkinson, what precedes it is actually far more radical. Here’s Wilkinson:

Rawls theory of justice has two principles. According to Rawls, the requirements of the first principle absolutely must be satisfied before moving on to the second principle. The difference principle is the last half of the second principle. By the time Rawls gets to the difference principle, most of the important work has already been done.

Rawls’ first principle of justice is a principle of maximum equal liberty that doesn’t sound that much different from Herbert Spencer’s. According to Rawls “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.” The principle of equal liberty, and its absolute priority over matters of distribution, is what makes Rawls theory of justice liberal.

One might sensibly imagine that if all liberties matter, and that if citizens are to enjoy the most extensive liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others, then economic liberty must matter, and citizens ought to have as much of it as possible. However, Rawls specifically denies that robust economic rights and liberties are in any way implied by his first principle of justice. Economic liberties are not among our basic liberties. This is Rawls’ boldest claim.

So far so good. But when Wilkinson says that Rawls must have excluded economic liberties from his first principle because “if he didn’t, he wouldn’t get the answer he was looking for,” I can’t help but wonder if that’s being a bit overly glib. To be sure, Wilkinson is more well-versed in Rawls than I am, but I can still think up one or two plausible justifications for keeping economic liberties off the list of foundational political freedoms in Rawls’ system.

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Free Market Fairness
April 2, 2012

Yesterday, Big Think‘s Peter Lawler extolled the virtues of political theorist John Tomasi’s new book, Free Market Fairness. Tomasi’s project is to massage away any underlying tension he sees between the twin virtues of social justice and individual (specifically economic) liberty. Regular readers of the blog know that I have a particular interest in theories that can accommodate both notions of fairness and notions of individual liberty — it’s one of the primary reasons I’m such a big proponent of republicanism. A satisfying libertarian-leaning treatment of some of the same issues would be a great boon to the, uh, marketplace of ideas.

After Googling around a bit, I found a more comprehensive summary of Tomasi’s argument, from the man himself, over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians. In the post, he sketches out a blue print of his project that involves grounding a libertarian conception of economic freedom in Rawlsian liberalism’s “moral ideas of personhood and society.” All well and good, if those two ideas are reconcilable. And if the political implications hang together at all coherently.

So what are the political implications? Maybe Tomasi held all of that material for the book, because his answer on BHL is deeply underwhelming:

A game of Monopoly in which players start with substantially unequal amounts of money would be unfair. The stain of that unfairness would not be lifted merely by the requirement that, once that game had begun, those differently endowed players must all abide by the same set of formal rules. High liberals have long claimed that inequalities in people’s talent endowments and family situations raise issues of public morality. Free Market Fairness agrees: undeserved inequalities can generate moral claims within politics. This does not require that society seek somehow to prevent those inequalities from arising or being expressed in the first place (as in the Kurt Vonnegut story “Harrison Bergeron”). Nor, I hasten to add, need this require that society somehow attempt to equalize the material holdings of all citizens. But this recognition does require a specific institutional response. In a just society, institutions and rules should be crafted so that whatever broad patterns of inequality emerge reflect our commitment to respecting all citizens as valued members of a cooperative whole.

[...]

If we are concerned about fairness, what kind of framework best honors that (now common) concern? For example, is the best way to improve “the position of the least well-off class” to enact government programs designed to transfer wealth (whether within generations or between them)? Might we better express a concern for the least advantaged by creating a society focused not so much on issues concerning the transfer of wealth but on its creation?

There are two questions that are absolutely key to understanding what this would look like in practice, and Tomasi leaves them both unanswered. They are: What patterns of inequality would “reflect our commitment to respecting citizens as valued members of a cooperative whole?” And: Does wealth creation alone satisfy our moral responsibilities in this framework, or do we still need to talk about who captures the newly created wealth? Sidebar: How do we talk about that? A couple of concrete examples probably could have clarified the issue.

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Hierarchy and Domination, Cont.
April 1, 2012

Replying to my last post on liberalism and republicanism, Corey Robin writes:

Nice job, though you should point out that my main concerns are: 1) freedom as non-interference fits a commonsensical understanding in US, which the workplace compromises all the time, and thus provides us with a good standard to mobilize political argument; and 2) I’m not against notions of freedom as non-domination, I just don’t want to throw out freedom as non-interference as well. Also I’m not sure I’d include Milton in that camp; he seems okay with some hierarchies and other parts of republican tradition are very okay with social hierarchy, including slavery.

The final point about Milton and pre-modern republicanism is well taken. Early republicans desired non-domination, but only for a select class of people: usually land-owning white men. One of the crucial differences between modern and pre-modern republicanism is the modern republican’s conviction that non-domination is a global imperative.

But the principle of non-domination requires to distinguish between dominating and non-dominating hierarchies. Republicanism is not pure horizontalism. Instead, republicanism condemns certain existing hierarchies — in modern times, hierarchies predicated on gender, race or sexual orientation — on the basis that they are de facto dominating. We can imagine other hierarchies that are not inherently dominating, such as the social hierarchies that often exist between a student and a teacher, a governor and constituents, or a jury and a defendant. But note that these hierarchies have very clearly defined formal legal boundaries, and that they are not static; a constituent can run for office, a student can become a teacher, and a member of the jury may one day be put on trial. Republicanism is not inherently anti-hierarchy, but seeks to make necessary hierarchies transparent and dynamic.

This, I would argue, is a preferable alternative to abolishing hierarchy altogether. Informal hierarchies will always be with us in one way or another, but carefully constructed formal hierarchies can serve as a check on them. Without that formal element, informal hierarchies become opaque and impossible to contest through anything but brute force.

But to return to the conflict between non-interference and non-domination: I should have been clearer about the fact that Corey is not opposed to using the concept of non-domination in our understanding of liberty. Our disagreement is entirely over whether non-interference as liberty is also a necessary concept. I would argue that it is not, for two reasons: the first, which I presented in my last post, is that non-domination theory already adequately accounts for any conceivable instance of unjust interference.

The second objection is implied by the first: freedom as non-interference can’t adequately account for cases where interference is warranted or even desirable. As a result, contemporary liberal theorists have had to propose various side constraints on freedom from interference, and various other criteria for what constitutes justice. Those additional criteria — fairness and equality, for example — may plug the gaps created by freedom as non-interference, but the result is far from elegant. (And, as I have noted before, these additional criteria can still leave critical weaknesses exposed.)

In Justice For Hedgehogs — which I’ll be blogging more about in the near future — Ronald Dworkin repeatedly references the old aphorism about the fox who knows many little things and the hedgehog who knows one big thing. He diagnoses most modern analytic moral theory as being rather foxy: a cumbersome patchwork of narrowly targeted principles that often conflict with one another. In place of the fox’s approach to ethics, he argues for hedgehog morality: one big mutually-reinforcing system of value. Freedom as non-domination is that system, and freedom from non-interference seems increasingly to be a millstone around the neck of the progressively-minded fox.

As to Corey’s first point, about non-interference’s usefulness as a rhetorical appeal to common sense: that may be so, in some cases. The art of political messaging is very different from the art of moral philosophy, thank christ. But I stand by non-domination as the appropriate test of what our political goals should be. When you take that case to the voters, you can call it whatever the hell you like.

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Hierarchy and Domination
March 31, 2012

Hierarchy, order, control, domination.

Hierarchy, order, control, domination. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shawn Gude and I had an interesting Twitter debate the other day with Corey Robin, regarding the relative merits of classical liberalism and small-r republicanism’s differing conceptions of liberty. Before I get to my disagreement with Corey, here, by way of background, is my most recent gloss of the liberal/republican disagreement, using Philip Pettit’s framework for republicanism. In Pettit’s account, republicans want to maximize freedom from domination (carefully defined), whereas liberals want to maximize freedom from interference.

Corey’s understanding of the republican tradition differs from Pettit’s. Over Twitter, he criticized republicanism for abandoning liberalism’s conception of liberty without offering a sufficiently comprehensive alternative. Classic republicanism, he argued, is mainly concerned with the eradication of social hierarchy; as a result, it is defenseless against attacks on freedom that don’t exploit those hierarchies.

Here, with the breaks between tweets eliminated, is the thought experiment he used to demonstrate his point:

Imagine one co-worker, equally situated, pestering another co-worker. Just bothering them, preventing them from getting their work done, preventing from doing what they want to do. Not to dominate or create a hierarchical relationship, but to interfere and get in their way. Seems important to hold onto that as an abridgment of freedom.

It’s entirely possible that the republican tradition as embodied by Milton, Machiavelli, Skinner, etc., (but excluding Pettit) has no satisfactory response to Corey’s challenge. He’s the one with a Ph.D. in political theory, and my own dealings with those theorists is both scant and second-hand. But I will note that, under Pettit’s definition, the pestering employee is definitively dominating his co-worker, and therefore restricting his liberty. That is to say, the pestering employee is interfering in his co-workers affairs 1.) on an arbitrary basis (he’s just bugging this one guy, and seemingly without provocation), 2.) without reference to the interests of the co-worker (who would clearly be better off if he wasn’t being pestered), and 3.) without allowing the co-worker recourse to any means of contesting the pestering (we’re assuming that the co-worker already asked him to stop, and was ignored). Dominating interference is any form of interference that satisfies at least one of those conditions — the pest’s interference satisfies all three.

So at the very least, Pettit’s gloss of republicanism includes an adequate response to Corey’s challenge. It could be that Pettit is the only republican with an adequate response, but I can’t rule one way or another on that without learning more about how both Corey and non-Pettit republicans use the term “social hierarchy.” Corey would likely concede that some forms of workplace pestering and bullying (such as racist remarks and sexual harassment) are contingent on the presence of social hierarchy, but he also maintains that bullying can exist in the complete absence of hierarchy. I’m not so sure — I think we could construct an account of hierarchy that maps roughly onto Pettit’s “domination” framework, and also allows that any instance of bullying is an a priori example of a small-scale, informal hierarchy.

In the meantime, as it stands, I have yet to hear an adequate liberal response to the republican master-slave thought experiment.

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America’s Got Issues
January 3, 2012

With respect to Elias, these are the sort of pronouncements you get from a political coalition that has no meaningful analysis of power:

I say this with a nagging sensation in the back of my mind that by co-signing this I am in some way revealing myself to be intellectually or morally lacking; but I feel deeply ambivalent about devoting my political energies to battling-back American empire. And it’s for entirely fatalist reasons. It seems sadly inevitable to me, at least for the foreseeable future and until the United Nations or some other form of global governance becomes supreme, that the world will be run by at least one Great Power.

That’s not to say I’d not rather it was otherwise; but rather it is to say that I feel my passion, time, and capacity is finite. I wouldn’t for anything wish that those who have devoted themselves to challenging, exposing, and attacking the American imperium stop. I just can’t honestly say that this goal moves me as much as does the cause of economic and social justice. Just as I often find the ideologies of leftist anarcho-syndicalism deeply appealing — but determine that, pipe dreams being what they are, I’d rather work for a more accountable Big Government — I hope for a more transparent and accountable neo-empire.

I’m not discounting the idea that an accountable empire is no less a fantasy than rolling back empire entirely. I’m merely sharing my gut feelings, and an explanation as to why I find Ron Paul’s appeal utterly minuscule when compared to his defects.

As colossal and entrenched as American empire may be, making it “accountable” is far more of a pipe dream than rolling it back. There is simply no way to address the root issues Elias wants ameliorated without eventually confronting the militarized structures that perpetuate existing conditions.

If you believe otherwise, ask yourself who profits from America’s wars, and who is asked to fight them. Ask yourself what impact the justifications for military expansion have on domestic law enforcement, and who suffers the most from the results. Ask yourself why laws ostensibly designed to aid in the war on terror are being used to fight the war on drugs. Ask yourself again who pays the price.

As long as the progresssive movement continues its myopic obsession with dividing its concerns into hermetically sealed categories like “civil liberties issues” and “economic issues,” it won’t have the conceptual equipment to deal with structural ills. A political coalition needs an analysis; what progressives have now is a policy wishlist that adds up to exactly the sum of its parts. Maybe figuring out how those desired policies interrelate should be a bigger priority than bickering over the rankings.

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In Which Markos Moulitsas Becomes Bad For the Left
September 1, 2010

Markos Moulitsas
Image by Steve Rhodes via Flickr

I have a paleoconservative friend who, when I’m berating the modern right, will often respond with something like: “Well, don’t get too comfortable. Give your leftist friends a couple more years in power, and they’ll turn into rabid animals too.”

I begged to differ, instead reiterating some version of Jon Chait’s thoughts on the topic:

The contrast between economic liberalism and economic conservatism, then, ultimately lies not only in different values or preferences but in different epistemologies. Liberalism is a more deeply pragmatic governing philosophy—more open to change, more receptive to empiricism, and ultimately better at producing policies that improve the human condition—than conservatism.

I still believe this to be true, in some sense, for the moment—though I would again caution that a governing philosophy can’t be pragmatic on the level of first principles because first principles can’t be pragmatic. But to pretend that it’s not possible for any ideological movement to slide into epistemic closure is to practice exactly the sort of self-deception that makes one so vulnerable to that very phenomenon.

My friend considers that process inevitable, and I would like to disagree—sadly, one of the giants of left-wing activism seems firmly committed to proving my friend’s point.

In Jamelle’s excellent review, he points out that Moulitsas is primarily an activist, not a journalist, and that this book is likely more about rallying the troops than painting an accurate portrait of the modern right. Fair enough. But Jamelle’s review also does a pretty thorough job of demonstrating why that’s no excuse. Once the loudest voices among the liberal base start showing a Jonah Goldberg-style willingness to sacrifice honesty for pom-pom shaking, Chait’s defense no longer works at all. I hate to go all “a pox on both your houses,” since Kos is still correct on a number of policy issues—but if the process by which he reaches those conclusions is this thoroughly corrupted, then the conclusions themselves are largely a happy coincidence.

In my book, that doesn’t count for a great deal. Not considering how bad this style of argumentation is in the long run, both for the left and the country as a whole. If liberals embrace American Taliban-style thinking, then we’re bound for a conservative resurgence and a liberal meltdown that will leave us much in the same position as the modern right: intellectually bankrupt, blindly emotive, and capable only of making noise and obstructing policy. In the shorter term, the left will have completely alienated those conservatives who we could actually make common cause with.

I can understand the impulse for this kind of rhetoric. My theory is that Kos is trying to gin up enough enthusiasm in the netroots to blunt conservative enthusiasm going into 2010. It’s a wise short-term play if you consider the goal to be simply subverting conservatism whenever you can—and, if at all possible, crushing it for good. But we’re not going to get rid of conservatives, nor should we want to. Instead, the goal should be a two-party system in which both sides show at least some appreciation for what David Foster Wallace called the Democratic Spirit. If Kos and his right-wing counterparts have their way, then the American D.S. will be dead in a generation.

Lucky for us, there’s hope. The proof: a prominent left-wing publication (the Prospect) publishing a review (Jamelle’s, see above) that rips American Taliban to shreds. As long we still have room for that sort of intra-movement dissent, we’re doing significantly better than the right.

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Recommended Reading for the American Left
August 14, 2010

Via Crooked Timber, here are parts one and two of an excellent interview on the philosophy and theory undergirding leftist thought. I haven’t read the full thing yet, but the early portions are an excellent overview of some of the concepts and ideas that are all too frequently absent from the American liberal lexicon. Unsurprisingly, this interview comes by way of the UK-based New Left Project; the British left and right both have firmer intellectual and theoretical foundations than American liberalism or conservatism, the latter of which has a stalwartly anti-intellectual foundation. But even American liberalism, as I’ve written before, suffers for appearing more like a list of disconnected policy preferences and priorities than a cohesive political vision.

It’s important to understand the philosophy that unites these policy preferences, and it’s very important to understand that there is, in fact, philosophy involved. Mainstream liberal arguments often take root in this notion of American liberalism as a technocratic, empirically-based approach to governance. Conservatives are the ideologues, goes the subtext; we’re the logical pragmatists.

That’s a deeply unsatisfying, even anemic, understanding of liberalism. There is an ideology, and a set of moral principles underlying the liberal worldview which anyone interested in left-wing American politics would do well to engage with. This interview is a great place to start.

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The Left’s Poverty of Good Cultural Criticism
August 8, 2010

Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm in Mad Men) of ...
Image via Wikipedia

There’s a reason why I’ve been dedicating so much Internet to push back on bad, or just plain lazy, commentary on this season of Mad Men; and it’s not because I’m a slobbering fanboy (well, not solely because I’m a slobbering fanboy). Because the show is such a locus for cultural criticism right now, it’s a good jumping off point for discussing the condition of pop culture crit at large, especially left-oriented pop culture crit. And as you might be able to guess from my previous posts on the subject, I would evaluate that condition as, “pretty poor.”

Of course, not all the criticism I’ve been hitting comes from the left. Katie Roiphe is, well, Katie Roiphe; her whole shtick revolves around being “counterintuitive” enough to hook in her New York Times-reading audience, but still bland enough that her writing won’t actually challenge them on any level. As for the National Review piece, conservative criticism is just too easy a target (Big Hollywood, anyone?).

(Aside: I am being slightly unfair here. As with conservatism at large, there is some smart and interesting stuff going on around the margins, albeit from people who have been explicitly exiled from the tent. For example, I do enjoy right-leaning libertarian Peter Suderman’s movie reviews.)

But the left could stand to learn some cautionary lessons from the right’s excesses. For example: their complete subjugation of art to ideology, so that every work of film and literature is evaluated on the basis of how conservative it is. This is little more than aesthetic Stalinism, and it’s why evidently sentient, self-aware human beings will sometimes end up championing Red Dawn as a cinematic masterpiece.

On the left, we have not done much better, and Mad Men is a perfect example of what went wrong; rather than being dug into as the rich subject for literary criticism it is, it’s been batted around like an ideological tetherball. Are the female characters sufficiently feminist? Does this show glorify drinking and adultery? Is Christina Hendricks too sexy or not sexy enough? And so on. It’s criticism by checklist.

There is obvious merit to evaluating the gender politics of a work of art, but only if we acknowledge some shades in tone a little more subtle than sexist/anti-sexist. And besides, treating any work of art as if how it approaches these questions is the whole conversation is ludicrous. The anti-Semitism on display in The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, and The Merchant of Venice is, in all three cases, contemptible; but no one who claims to respect and appreciate literature should ever deign to classify The Merchant of Venice as “an anti-Semitic play,” as if every single line of dialogue was just another morsel of crude, anti-Jewish invective. Doing so would constrict our understanding of the play’s considerable merits; and, indeed, our understanding of ourselves, and art itself.

The same goes for popular culture. It’s not enough to say, “This movie is good because it features strong female characters.” That may be a part of what makes it good, yes—but as I wrote in my previous post, real art is less about answers that it is about impossible questions. Good criticism grapples with those questions, and, in doing so, challenges the critic’s most deeply held principles. Maybe one day, we’ll see more of that on the left and fewer of these dull-as-rocks reaffirmations of our policy positions.

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In Which I Reveal a Hidden Conservative Streak
July 16, 2010

In order to understand what I mean when I say “ethically dubious” in my previous post, I think you’ve got to understand a bit about where I come from when it comes to political philosophy. One small way in which I could be said to have an old-fashioned conservative’s disposition is that I place a great deal of emphasis on stuff like personal responsibility and communitarian obligation. I don’t see this as being at all in contradiction to my fairly orthodox liberal progressive politics; instead, I think it complements it. Liberal democracy, I would argue, should do everything it can to account for and counter human selfishness and venality, but it fundamentally doesn’t work properly unless we expect the average citizen to feel a certain amount of obligation towards his fellow man.

Just as I’ve argued before that our rights expand with the government’s ability to defend and nurture them, I also think individual responsibility grows with the individual’s ability to discharge it. So to connect that back to blogging, the larger an audience you command, the greater your responsibility to produce something good—not just aesthetically, but ethically.

That may sound sort of limiting, but I don’t think it is. Goodness, after all, can be found in a lot of things—I’m inclined to side with John Gardner’s belief, for example, that all good literature is more or less an ethically good proposition.

But the real point is that if we have a responsibility to do right by others, then first we need to figure out what “right,” given one’s present circumstance, even is. That’s not easy; in fact, it’s mind-bogglingly difficult. And the reason why I make such a big deal out of interrogating the ethical dimension of something as seemingly innocuous as, say, writing an autobiographical blog post is because that’s something new and complicated that I believe deserves a lot of thought and open debate.

(If this all, by the way, seems like a way of setting up unreasonably high moral standards that no human being could possibly fulfill satisfactorily, I’d happily concede that. But it seems to me that law is the place for reasonable standards, and philosophy is the place for ideal standards. I haven’t yet to hear of the ethical system that is somehow convenient without being deeply anemic.)

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