Policy Is the Best Policy
August 13, 2012

The concept of policy is the American political imagination’s self-circumscribed border. You can do what you like with policies–build, mold, destroy, rearrange–but the context in which policies appear is static, unchanging. Policies can reflect different governing philosophies, but only those philosophies which endorse governing through policy. Policy can shape philosophy as much as philosophy shapes policy.

Policies deal with the tactile and the quantifiable. If it’s not measurable, it’s not truly thinkable. Policy is hostile to virtue ethics or theology, but it loves utilitarianism. To the extent that policy addresses psychology, it turns us all into behaviorists. Behavioral economics has made policy more sophisticated, but it has also made its outer limits more sharply visible.

The ultimate end of modern politics is to exert as much influence as possible over policy making. You can do that either by electing your own policy makers or by influencing the ones already in office. Elected officials, public institutions and interest groups form alliances and compete among one another to most effectively dominate the policy-making process. Within those categories, political actors are distinguishable only by their stated policy preferences, the amount of power they wield, and how they use that power. So, for example, all interest groups are identical insofar as they all do more or less the same thing in the same way. A labor union is indistinguishable from a pro-life activist group is indistinguishable from the Chamber of Commerce until you examine their stated policy preferences and the strategies they use to achieve them.

This is essentially why Occupy Wall Street was so baffling: it refused to behave like an interest group. When members of the press urged Occupy to release its demands, they were really asking for a menu of policy preferences. Occupy Wall Street’s idea of a politics beyond policy seemed as intelligible as a language spoken without words. But that idea’s moment has passed, at least for now, along with its frightening ambiguities. Policy has resumed its central, uncontested place in political discourse. Occupy–cloudy, confusing and inchoate–has ceded to the simple, comforting, and diamond-hard.

Even more comforting: Paul Ryan’s appearance on the Republican presidential ticket this election cycle. Conventional wisdom has it that his presence will make the election especially policy-heavy. Here’s hoping!

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Vaclav Havel and the Religious Attitude
April 23, 2012


(Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)

Replying to my first post on the subject, friend of the blog Dara Lind suggested to me that Vaclav Havel’s political ideas were a good match for what I argued the modern left lacks. His essay “Politics and Conscience” certainly includes some concepts that are very close to what I called worship and the religious attitude. It’s hard to talk about things like “worship” divorced from a specific theological or metaphysical context, but Havel does a good job of grounding them in personal experience. To whit:

As a boy, I lived for some time in the country and I clearly remember an experience from those days: I used to walk to school in a nearby village along a cart track through the fields and, on the way, see on the horizon a huge smokestack of some hurriedly built factory, in all likelihood in the service of war. It spewed dense brown smoke and scattered it across the sky. Each time I saw it, I had an intense sense of something profoundly wrong, of humans soiling the heavens. I have no idea whether there was something like a science of ecology in those days; if there was, I certainly knew nothing of it. Still that “soiling of the heavens” offended me spontaneously. It seemed to me that, in it, humans are guilty of something, that they destroy something important, arbitrarily disrupting the natural order of things, and that such things cannot go unpunished. To be sure, my revulsion was largely aesthetic; I knew nothing then of the noxious emissions which would one day devastate our forests, exterminate game, and endanger the health of people.


To me, personally, the smokestack soiling the heavens is not just a regrettable lapse of a technology that failed to include “the ecological factor” in its calculation, one which can be easily corrected with the appropriate filter. To me it is more, the symbol of an age which seeks to transcend the boundaries of the natural world and its norms and to make it into a merely private concern, a matter of subjective preference and private feeling, of the illusions, prejudices, and whims of a “mere” individual. It is a symbol of an epoch which denies the binding importance of personal experienceincluding the experience of mystery and of the absoluteand displaces the personally experienced absolute as the measure of the world with a new, man-made absolute, devoid of mystery, free of the “whims” of subjectivity and, as such, impersonal and inhuman. It is the absolute of so-called objectivity: the objective, rational cognition of the scientific model of the world.

What he’s arguing here has a certain family resemblance to the concept of worship, but his argument is also very much rooted in its time, the last days of the Soviet Empire. For our purposes, what’s even more interesting is how this translates into a political theory:

I favor “antipolitical politics,” that is, politics not as the technology of power and manipulation, of cybernetic rule over humans or as the art of the utilitarian, but politics as one of the ways of seeking and achieving meaningful lives, of protecting them and setving them. I favor politics as practical morality, as service to the truth, as essentially human and humanly measured care for our fellow humans. It is, I presume, an approach which, in this world, is extremely impractical and difficult to apply in dailv life. Still, I know no better alternative.

I’m not a huge fan of the “anti-political” construction, which seems a little misleading. But this is surely on the right track, grounded as it is in a moral sense that we have allowed, sadly, to atrophy.

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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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Nope, No Alliance Here
March 8, 2012

In a post titled The Left-Right Anti-Yglesias Alliance, Matthew Schmitz suggests that Ross Douthat’s recent quarrel with Matthew Yglesias echoes lefty critiques of so-called pity-charity liberalism.* Both Douthat and the non-neoliberal left, Schmitz writes, argue “that a certain brand of economic thinking is blinkered to the types of things that allow humans to flourish and realize goods that won’t always be easily captured on surveys, things like dignified work and, yes, a stable family.”

That’s a fair gloss of Douthat’s critique — as well as the critique made on folks on the left, such as Freddie DeBoer, Mike Konczal and myself — but it’s hardly grounds for an alliance. And in this particular instance, I don’t think any of the lefties Schmitz cites would accuse of Yglesias of being blind to the unquantifiables that contributes to human flourishing. To understand why not, let’s take a look at the offending Ygz passage that kicked this whole thing off:

The obvious place to look for an explanation of the declining marriage rate is the vast increase in the economic opportunities available to women. Newly empowered and less dependent on male economic support, women have become somewhat choosier and are now less likely to be married than in the past. You can perhaps make the case that this is bad for kids, and that as a society we should return to total economic disempowerment of women in order to force people into two-parent households. But why not just look at progress and call it “progress”? There is evidence that family instability is hard on children, but as seen above, there’s no reason to think we’re witnessing systematic generational decline.

“Economic empowerment” as a concept is not so far removed from agency, autonomy, and the other virtues you’ll see extolled in my writing on labor. And when Konczal writes about “human dignity” in the workplace, he seems to be getting at much the same thing. Our criticisms of neoliberal economic policy tend to be grounded in a conviction that it is, at worst, overly coercive, and, at best, insufficiently emancipatory. Here, Yglesias is whole-heartedly endorsing gender parity in economic autonomy, which seems like sort of a no-brainer from my corner of the ideological spectrum.

Douthat’s critique, it’s true, accuses Yglesias of being concerned only with “some form of continued growth and a relative social stability.” But once you recognize the centrality of empowerment to Yglesias’ argument, that accusation looks pretty plainly false. Douthat seems to have misconstrued the nature of the argument by equating empowerment with an increased ability to pursue one’s “short-term rational interests” (presumably in the economic sense). That ability may be a consequence of empowerment, but they’re not identical notions — and by trying to make them appear identical, Douthat makes the classic neoliberal mistake of reducing complicated philosophical/psychological categories to their measurable economic effects.

Presumably this is so he can sap gender equality in the workplace of its moral appeal so that any state of affairs that encourages heterosexual marriage — even at the expense of gender equality — looks preferable. But for our purposes, it doesn’t really matter why Douthat makes the negative argument he does; the main takeaway is that the argument only works if you take “empowerment” to be some sort of code for “a more efficient specimen of homo economicus.” To be sure, if you’re willing to take that leap, then Douthat’s argument starts looking structurally similar to the left critique of neoliberalism in a very shallow sort of way. But once you decontextualize an argument so much that it really only amounts to, “X framework fails to account for Y,” then a lot of critiques look very similar. It doesn’t mean that the similarities are particularly meaningful.

*For a recent example of the latter type of critique, see my piece in The New Inquiry.

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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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The Joys of Nudging
November 10, 2010

Cover of "Nudge: Improving Decisions Abou...
Cover via Amazon

Recently I had the opportunity to read about half of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s famous book Nudge. It was more or less what I expected: a broad overview of different observations about human behavior from the young field of behavior economics, followed by a series of arguments for various policies that utilize those behaviors in a constructive way. The biggest surprise of the book — given Cass Sunstein’s reputation as a “non-ideological pragmatist” and his current employer’s reputation as same — was how willing Thaler and Sunstein were to engage with the philosophical arguments for and against their doctrine of libertarian paternalism. Burke was cited, as was Rawls.

As for libertarian paternalism, and nudging itself, I’m basically onboard. I’ve argued before that public policy can’t help but influence social norms, and so policy makers need to think about how to influence them in a productive manner; this book provides a handy conceptual framework in which to do that. It goes without saying that the concept has limited utility (Sunstein’s proposals for how we can nudge conspiracy theorists are kind of disturbing), but it also adds some much-needed texture to notions about what constitutes good policy.

The Orchestra of State
October 13, 2010

Marcus Tullius Cicero, by Bertel Thorvaldsen a...
Image via Wikipedia

I’m reading Anthony Everitt’s stellar biography of Cicero right now, and rediscovering why I used to be a little obsessed with Roman history. The Late Roman Republic, in particular, is interesting from a modern perspective for reasons that have nothing to do with the usual cable news-ready historical analogies for people who don’t know history.* There aren’t many parallels here, but variations on a theme: economic turbulence and class warfare exacerbated both by the shockingly petty behavior of the political elite and a badly malfunctioning engine of state. On the latter point, it’s interesting just to see how many hasty political reforms were instituted and hastily repealed between the murder of Tiberius Gracchus and the rise of Emperor Augustus, the first emperor.

Cicero’s lifelong project seems to have been trying to achieve some stability in the Republic’s political system, and prevent its collapse. While he was ultimately unsuccessful, his efforts, and thoughts on the matter, made him an inspiration for millennia of other thinkers and small-r republicans. (The back of this edition has a quote from John Adams: “All ages of the world have not produced a better statesman and philosopher combined.”) Here’s Cicero on his vision of the Republic:

Just as in the music of harps and flutes or in the voices of singers a certain harmony of the different tones must be maintained … so also a state is made harmonious by agreement among dissimilar elements. This is brought about by a fair and reasonable blending of the upper, middle and lower classes, just as if they were musical tones. What musicians call harmony in a song is concord in a state.

You can see echoes of this idea in our own Constitution. It’s worth holding in mind as we discuss reforms to the current political system.

Of course, political architecture on its own has limits. The Republic lasted as long as it did partly because of a strong network of allegiances, communities, and familial units to which individuals were honor-bound. We need not just institutional reforms but political figures who adhere to certain norms of behavior—who have some measure of dignity and respect for democratic debate. The Roman code of conduct was maintained through centuries of tradition and a state religion; since we don’t have the state religion, I’ll just say that any institutional reforms will only achieve their full potential if they’re accompanied by sweeping reforms in Washington’s secular religion.

*Don’t you get it?? This is just like the Banana Weimar Republic!

New Salon Column
October 2, 2010

This went up yesterday. It’s basically an attack on arguments for public policy—but specifically taxation—that put a high premium on notions of what people earn and deserve as central to justice. I do this adapting certain arguments from John Rawls and Peter Unger, the latter of whom originally presented what I turned into the kayak thought experiment in his book Living High, and Letting Die. You should read that book! And also my column!

Just for kicks, you could also check out this weird and confusing rebuttal from Roberty Stacy McCain’s sidekick, Smitty. In it, Smitty:

  • Makes several claims about my beliefs that are either irrelevant (I’m pro-choice), flatly untrue (I don’t believe that it’s immoral for rich people to be rich, nor do I think that “equality of opportunity is meaningless”), or both.
  • Condemns abortion (a legal procedure) and then turns around and adopts a baffling sort of legal-realism-on-crack, in which someone deserves something as long as they didn’t violate the law to acquire it.
  • Implies that my entire argument was dictated to me by my parents and, weirdly enough, Rousseau. (Evidently, Smitty believes that people in Rousseau’s state of nature are subject to a progressive income tax.)
  • And, lastly, gives this as the moral case against progressive taxation: “The moral case for tax cuts is that honest people don’t spend money they lack.” Which I’ll admit I found more than a little mystifying.

Smitty’s post was actually kind of a bummer, because I’m interested in hearing some more sober, coherent rebuttals. I know I’m taking a minority view here, and that a lot of really smart people disagree. But to the extent that Smitty provided anything useful or instructive, I think it was a lesson in the perils of adopting an attitude in which anyone who presents a competing conception of justice is evil or stupid, and just wants to confuse you with his lies. It blinds you to the actual arguments they’re making, and your withering contempt for them obstructs your own ability to persuade. So in the end, nobody really learns anything.

In conclusion: “Smitty” is a fun name to say out loud. Smitty.

September 26, 2010

Washington dc
Image via Wikipedia

Made it in late last night, and now I’m dividing my time between unpacking, exploring my new neighborhood, and ducking into various cafes to check my email (our Wi Fi isn’t set up yet). Tomorrow I start work—and, by extension I suppose, adult life in the bizarre simulacrum of the real world that is our nation’s capital.

I’m not entirely sure what’s going to happen to this blog when that starts. I’d like to continue writing it, but how much time I’ll be able to allocate towards future blogging remains to be seen. One thing’s for sure: it’s likely to get even less overtly political than in recent weeks. I’m going to be thinking about, discussing, researching, and writing about politics for a large enough chunk of my waking life without giving this space over to it. Me being me, I’ll still visit the topic occasionally, but I’ve been liking the mix of cultural criticism and straight philosophy so far, and hopefully you have too.

I’m also finding the Nietzsche Blogging to be an enormous pleasure, and I’d like to do the same with other works of philosophy and political theory in the future (taking a break in between tomes to do some more recreational reading). I’d still like to visit Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, but before we get there, Peter and I have been talking about jointly tackling Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

Let me know what you’d like to see in this space in the future. And if you’re at all familiar with DC, what I should be doing here as a local.


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