Notes From Babel

Archive for the ‘Political Theory’ Category

Socialism: Right Idea, Wrong Species

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Jason Brennan, discussing G.A. Cohen’s Why Not Socialism? shares an interesting thought experiment:

Cohen’s book proceeds as follows.  First, he has us imagine a camping trip among friends.  Food and goods are shared freely.  Everyone abides by  (purportedly) socialist principles of community and equality. Everyone does his part. No one takes advantage of anyone else. No one free rides. Everyone contributes. Everyone shares.

After a while, people begin to act like capitalists (as Cohen understands realistic capitalistic behavior). Harry demands extra food because he is especially good at fishing. Sylvia demands payment when she finds a good fishing spot. Leslie demands payment for her special knowledge of how to crack nuts. Harry, Sylvia, and Leslie refuse to share without extra payment. Morgan, whose father left him a well-stocked pond 30 years ago, gloats over having better food than the others.

Cohen concludes that the camping trip was better when the campers acted like socialists.  When the campers act like capitalists, the trip becomes stifling and repulsive.

. . . .

We tolerate capitalism only because we think we must.  Perhaps, given our moral and cognitive failings, capitalism delivers the goods.  But socialism would be the preferred system if only human beings were better.  On Cohen’s view, capitalism promotes the common good by relying upon greed, fear, and people’s limited knowledge. 

As I posted in the comments to that post, the problem with socialism, and specifically with Cohen’s camping trip, is that equality is a lie.  Even by the terms of Cohen’s thought experiment, each camper has unequal abilities.  Worse, they know they have unequal abilities.  Because of this, they naturally chafe against a system that provides no recourse for realizing the advantage of their unique skills and efforts, and instead forces the identical outcomes on non-identical individuals.

Again, the difference comes down to one between procedural and substantive justice: the ideal of substantive justice (i.e., equality) cannot withstand the natural human urge to see procedural justice done (i.e., a proper respect to each’s special, individualized talents and efforts). The idea that "socialism would be the preferred system if only human beings were better" might be more accurately stated: "socialism would be the preferred system if only human beings didn’t care about procedural justice." But they do. So socialism has a rough time mustering any intellectual force as a workable political theory.

Alternatively, it might be said that "socialism would be the preferred system if only human beings were truly equal." Again, they’re not, and basing a theory on a fundamental untruth results in a fundamentally untrue theory.  True reality is socialism’s worst enemy.  


Written by Tim Kowal

March 29, 2011 at 8:14 pm

Daniel Shapiro on “The Nirvana Fallacy”

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Daniel Shapiro writes:

Consider the following only slightly exaggerated version of an argument that occurs in a lot of political philosophy

1. Institution X is unjust or bad.
2. Therefore, X should be abolished or reformed.

What’s wrong with this? Well, two things, actually, which I describe below.

First, identifying some feature(s) of X as bad or unjust doesn’t give any reason, or at least no particularly strong reason, to believe that an alternative institution will be better or less unjust. A joke illustrates the problem. A Roman Emperor asked to hear the best singers in his kingdom. The finalists were narrowed down to two. The emperor heard the first one, was unimpressed, and promptly announced that the award goes to the other finalist, because the next singer must be better than the first one. Of course, that’s wrong: the second one could be no better or worse. The emperor needs to hear both singers to make a proper judgment.

There’s something about this argument that doesn’t sit well, and I think it’s the implied assumption that we need Institution X.  If there’s no real need for X, then if it’s unjust or bad, this ends the inquiry:  Get rid of X.  We ought never take for granted that we need more government machinery.

Written by Tim Kowal

March 27, 2011 at 1:41 pm

Posted in Political Theory

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Democracy, Meta-Choices, and Taking the Long View

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Julian Sanchez makes an interesting point about “meta-choices,” how we force ourselves to eschew snap decisions and to take the long view, and how this relates to democracy:

A polity can establish broad and general principles specifying the conditions under which government may or should act, or it can vote on individual policies and programs on a case-by-case basis (with many gradations in between, of course). Both are clearly in some sense “democratic”; the proper balance between them will depend in part on one’s theory about how democratic deliberation confers legitimacy, just as the weight an individual gives to different types of “choices” will turn on a view about the nature of rational autonomy. Limited government is sometimes painted as constraint on democracy—an obstacle to what a majority might favor at a particular time. But political elites, like marketers, understand how the frame and scope of a choice may radically affect what the very same person or polity would choose—and claims by either that only one counts as true “choice” or “democracy” ought to be viewed with due skepticism.

This prompted me to amend my list of political paradoxes, as follows:

Liberals tend to favor restrictions on supposed lesser, short-term liberties if they perceive the restrictions will promote greater, long-term liberties; at the same time, however, liberals tend to eschew rigid adherence to the Constitution’s restrictions on government power designed for the very purpose of securing greater, long-term liberties.

Written by Tim Kowal

March 24, 2011 at 10:42 pm

Same-Sex Marriage and Political Symbolism

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A whole bunch of blogs have been touting this Washington Post/ABC News poll—claiming that “support for gay marriage has grown to 53 percent today”—as a sign that Americans have now embraced “marriage equality.”  Putting aside for purposes of this post the question of same-sex marriage itself, that commentators are claiming a victory for “marriage equality” generally should give pause.  Indeed, this has become the accepted term for rhetorical engagement on the issue, simply for the reason that “equality” has such great purchase on the American political soul.  Most Americans are reflexively in favor of the concept of equality because the word is so commonly coupled in political and historical discourse with “racial,” or “religious,” or “political.”  Those campaigns for equality concern egregious historical abuses concerning the most fundamental of rights, which abuses were extinguished only at great cost.  It is good and right that we exalt concept, such as equality, as overarching symbols of the American political order; such symbols serve as a means of expressing our hard-fought fundamental values as a people, and of forefending threats that might still be lodged against them.

Beyond a few relatively narrow areas, however, “equality” as a political symbol bears little application to “equality” as a legal standard.  No one seriously believes, for example, that doctors and janitors are entitled to equal pay, that Best Buy and Circuit City are entitled to equal market share, or that the Yankees and the Red Sox are entitled to an equal number of World Series championships.  On these questions, we expect and demand protection of unequal results corresponding to the input of unequal talents and efforts.

We also demand inequality on other types of questions—e.g., who is qualified for employment as a police officer or a fire fighter; who is allowed to drink alcohol; whether gardeners and nuclear power plant operators should be equally regulated.  When it comes to such questions concerning the public health and welfare, the equality principle is significantly circumscribed.

Equality, then, is a strange concept, as it at once guarantees and threatens liberty depending on the subject matter.  There is no doubt that liberty cannot endure when, for example, racial minorities are arbitrarily deprived of protection of fundamental rights.  But neither can there be any serious doubt that liberty cannot endure when everyone is deprived of protection of fundamental rights so that an equal menu of positive rights can be offered up in exchange.  Thus, the way in which some individuals are deprived of personal, political, economic, and property rights in order to promote social and economic equality poses a substantial threat to classical liberty generally.  Similarly, it cannot be seriously doubted that the state cannot serve its necessary function to protect the public health and safety if it must yield in all cases to a mandate of absolute equality.  Equality, then, is a lancet, not a sledgehammer.

Advocacy of a general notion of “marriage equality” poses its own kind of threat:  It incites us to demand urgent remediation of a perceived injustice, yet provides no guidance for evaluating the nature of the purported injustice, or why similar instances of social inequality should not also be subsumed in the demand.  The Religion News Blog, for instance, recently reported that a Canadian civil rights group “has filed a final argument in B.C. Supreme Court against [Canada’s] polygamy law, saying it is a Victorian-era statute that should be ‘relegated to the scrap heap of history.’”  Similarly, Andrew Sullivan recently passed along this story reporting that Switzerland is considering abolishing its “obsolete” laws criminalizing incest.  Matthew Franck likewise has argued that the U.S. is already surprisingly close to announcing “a constitutional right to incest.”  Most advocates of “marriage equality,” of course, have no intention of supporting these reforms.  But why shouldn’t the same symbol of equality, conscripted into advocacy of same-sex marriage, also compel equality for these other types of social arrangements?  Is there not something irresponsible and perhaps deceptive about demanding “marriage equality for all” if what is really meant is something other than “equality” and something less than “all”?

I’ve argued previously that were same-sex marriage judicially imposed, there would be no logical stopping point before judicially obliterating all morals legislation, such as suicide, euthanasia, animal cruelty, bestiality, prostitution, polygamy, adult incest, public nudity, profanity, stem cell research, human cloning, and so on.  On that basis, I’ve concluded that this question must be decided by the normal democratic process, who are not limited by strict logical application of legal principle.  The “marriage equality” rhetoric, however, compromises that process by putting voters to a false choice by insisting on strict adherence to the equality principle.  In other words, it is a distinct possibility that many Americans have changed their attitude about same-sex marriage based on an implicit threat that, if they don’t, they will be branded as enemies of equality and share space in the pages of history with racial bigots and merciless dictators.  Same-sex marriage advocates’ ubiquitous citation to the inapposite racial discrimination case of Loving v. Virginia, for example, makes this threat unmistakable.

Members of a democratic society must live with the duly expressed choice of the majority on social questions like those concerning the social institution of marriage.  It is disconcerting that consensus is quite conceivably being achieved by confusion, misconstruction, or misrepresentation concerning the fundamental symbol of equality and thus putting voters to a false choice between their political and social values.  Same-sex marriage advocates neglect to correct this misunderstanding since it works in their favor.  The resulting false pretense in the political discourse concerning same-sex marriage is quite possibly responsible, in some measure, for the increased likelihood that Americans will tell pollsters same-sex marriage should be legal.

What Really Bothers Us: Poverty or Inequality?

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I like this hypothetical by Jason Brennan over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, positing two competing societies, one which equalizes wealth, and the other which does not but expands economically at a much faster rate such that, within a number of years, it yields to its poor a greater absolute measure of wealth than the poor enjoy in the more equalized society.

This sets up many interesting questions.  Is a society better that views wealth inequality as intrinsically evil?  Is there any intrinsic value in property rights and owning one’s own labor?  Does it matter whether wealth inequality actually leads to greater absolute wealth, even for its poor, than if wealth were equalized?  If so, does it matter how long we’d have to wait for that greater absolute wealth to materialize?  Must it occur within a single generation?  Are there intergenerational equity arguments at stake, such that the poor are morally obligated to choose to endure wealth inequality if it meant their children would enjoy greater absolute wealth?

Not surprisingly, many of the comments on the post fight vigorously against the hypothetical, insisting it attempts to make empirical claims about the real world when it explicitly doesn’t.  But I found this comment by Andrew Levine particularly troubling:

The starting baseline still matters a lot to the answer. Developing countries rely on growth more than developed countries do. Once it’s feasible for every (or nearly every) citizen to get food, clean water, education, travel, and some other things that are taken for granted in developed countries, and which are essential to being free to pursue one’s destiny from youth to death, relative wealth becomes more important than further growth if that growth contributes to widening inequalities.

I drew precisely the opposite conclusion as Mr. Levine:  Once everyone has access to food, clean water, education, travel (!), etc., how can it be said that “relative wealth becomes more important”?  Certainly, it becomes less important, no?  Once the poor are doing ok, can’t we then, finally, start letting people keep what they earn?  If even at this point we can’t honor basic notions of procedural justice, we must be living in a society that either values substantive property rights at effectively zero, or is so incredibly petty that even though its members enjoy all the basic goods and amenities “that are taken for granted in developed countries,” they still refuse to tolerate even the existence of accumulations of earned wealth.

I do not maintain that grim a view of my fellow man, and I believe most Americans are not so petulant or discontented as to buy into such an extreme version of redistributionist justice.

The Place of Values in Politics

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FLG shared this interesting piece today by Stanley Fish at the NY Times, lamenting the widespread practice of parrying political criticism with tu quoque defenses:

I want to say that this is a bad move (and a cheap trick) because it deflects attention from the substantive claims being made and puts the spotlight instead on propositional consistency. The better move (by either party) would have been to insist that Obama or Bush was in fact those things and to back up the assertion with the marshaling of evidence. The better move, in short, would have been to take a stand on truth rather than shifting the focus to a calculation of reciprocal fairness. What gives someone the high moral ground is that he or she is right, not that he or she is fair.

I think I agree, though I hesitate to downplay the value of consistency.  That’s a noble moral quality, too, is it not?  But Fish is right that we oughtn’t engage in “cheap tricks” and technicalities to skirt real, substantive objections against our guy, even if they did it when we lodged real, substantive objections against their guy.

Fish goes on with some deeper insights about the modern political soul:

The solution? Remove beliefs from the political agenda — we’re not going to vote on them or distribute goods on their basis — and come up with a formula for keeping them at bay while respecting the rights of citizens to have them. . . . And how do you do that? By making it a requirement that laws neither reflect the ideological view point of one party nor marginalize and/or stigmatize the ideological viewpoint of some other party. Only pass laws to which persons of any viewpoint could assent: “No one can put anyone else under a legal obligation without submitting simultaneously to a law which requires that he can himself be put under the same kind of obligation by the other person.” This seems admirable, but what it means is that moral judgment is forever deferred and made subordinate to the supposedly greater good of allowing all viewpoints to flourish. (Why that is the greater good I have never been able to understand.)

What was perhaps merely a political expedient—i.e., emptying the moral content of certain topics to make them less politically unwieldy—has disrupted the integrity of our underlying political makeup.  We are, first and foremost, a virtuous people that recognizes certain universal moral precepts; that recognizes this is a world of values, and that laws are designed to assist that people navigate that world of values as that people embarks on its political enterprise together.  At one point in American political history, we led bifurcated lives in which, concerning matters of law, we were obligated to pretend at moral agnosticism; in other matters, conversely, we were obligated to ascertain good and evil, and to praise the former and denounce the latter.  But the triumph of secularism has been to take that narrow realm of legalistic agnosticism and turn it into the rule that governs all aspects of modern life.  The expression of moral values is resigned solely to the narrow domain of home life—and even there it’s not safe.

Written by Tim Kowal

March 15, 2011 at 10:57 pm

Health Care, Markets, and Guaranteeing Outcomes

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Here’s John Goodman on the complaint that we can’t leave health care to the market (h/t Avik Roy):

Nothing follows from the fact that there is “market failure.” To make the case for transferring decision making power to government one would have to show that the likely “government failure” would be less harmful.  In health care, that’s hard to do — particularly given the track record of government in health in the twentieth century.

Overall, the market and the government have comparative advantages in certain areas and the sphere where government has a comparative advantage would appear to be very small.

We could extend the analysis of process vs. outcomes that I discussed recently to health care.  It’s too late at night to attempt a serious treatment, but recall that the premise generally is that process-oriented fairness looks to ensure merely that we have a sufficiently fair process in place to engage in certain activities and, once we have that, outcomes are basically irrelevant.  Outcome- or substance-oriented fairness works in reverse, imposing a firm notion of what sorts of minimum outcomes are necessary in a just world, and working backwards to guarantee they are achieved.

Markets are the extreme example of a just system as determined by process:  no single person defines values or outcomes, and instead, everything is automatically determined by the imperceptible force of countless discrete choices.  I’ve also posited that mainstream Americans generally perceive justice in terms of process, noting that except in unusual circumstances, Americans are not overly bothered by the idea that someone, somewhere, might be very rich, so long as they are convinced they did not accede to those riches by unfair procedures (e.g., fraud, kickbacks, illegality, etc.).  Because mainstream Americans generally have at least a slight bias in favor of process-oriented justice, they are generally willing to tolerate a certain amount of “market failure.”

Even if I am right that mainstream Americans tend toward process-oriented fairness, however, I suspect they tend less in favor of process when it comes to health care.  They might perhaps be split, in fact, or even tend more in favor of outcome-oriented fairness.  I will mention, purely anecdotally, that several people I know who are generally conservative/libertarian have significantly more sympathy for Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare than their underlying pro-market ideologies might suggest.  Too many people are just not content to let the chips fall where they may when it comes to health care as they are with, say, wealth distribution.  (I think this is deeply problematic, because once we are willing to let ourselves be carried away from our fealty to process-oriented fairness with respect to one industry, there’s little to stop us from letting that thinking overcome our approach to another industry, and then another, and so on until there is no meaningful emphasis on process at all.)

I’ll take one more liberty with the process/outcome distinction and note that our nation’s biggest expenditures—health care insurance and retirement insurance—all trend more toward achieving some notion of acceptable outcomes rather than fixed processes. Military, too, is an area in which conservatives tend to break from their aversion to government and entrust the executive with lots of power.