Friday, December 9, 2016

Book Review of Samuel Bowles' The Moral Economy

I recently published a review of Samuel Bowles' fine new book, The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives are No Substitute for Good Citizens. You can read the entire review at The New Rambler. Below is a slightly revised excerpt from the end of the piece:

Carrots and sticks must be part of a moralized judgment, not independent of competing conceptions of the good. In the words of the Victorian jurist, James Fitzjames Stephen, “the law is to the moral sentiments of the public … what a seal is to hot wax. It converts into a permanent judgment what might otherwise be a transient sentiment.” Incentives can’t be an alternative to social scripts for a life well lived; they must strengthen them.

Samuel Bowles formulates a critique of contemporary liberalism that is in many respects largely familiar. Richard Titmuss’ 1977 book, The Gift Relationship, sparked a fierce debate among economists and philosophers in arguing that altruism was far superior to markets in promoting blood donations. Kenneth Arrow replied with an influential critique, leveling two major objections: Titmuss failed to adequately theorize how market incentives crowd out moral motivations, and Titmuss failed to bring adequate evidence to bear in defense of the theoretical claim. Bowles’ contribution in this book is in many respects his response to both objections. The mechanisms of situation-dependent social cues and endogenous preference formation provide the theoretical account Titmuss lacked, and the major advances in experimental economics and game theory provide compelling evidence for the phenomenon’s empirical validity.

More importantly still, Bowles has demonstrated how Titmussian critiques of market economics apply just as powerfully to the philosophical doctrine of liberal neutrality. Perhaps not entirely comfortable with some of his conservative bedfellows on this latter point, Bowles is reluctant to appeal explicitly to the language of “soulcraft,” as George Will put it decades ago. He is happier lamenting the loss of altruism and other-oriented moral motivation. Yet his argument may prove more than he would like. For if it is true that political and economic institutions can’t help but shape our deepest assumptions about the world, Aristotelian Legislators can’t limit themselves merely to the cultivation of “social preferences.” They must recognize instead that sound policymaking requires a fairly thick underlying vision of the human good.

The Moral Economy
appeals to an ancient truth. Incentives and self-interest are no substitute for moral motivation and altruism. The state cannot rudely impose laws on society with the alchemical hope that the right institutions, the right prices, and the right political form can successfully shape any people, any preferences, and any political matter. As Aristotle understood well, and which political economy has only recently recognized, the coercive power of the state depends on and is inextricably bound up with the character and culture of the community.

The entire piece can be read here.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Martha Nussbaum on Anger and Retribution

It is never good news to find yourself disagreeing with Martha Nussbaum. And yet her newest book, Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice, while full of her characteristic philosophical breadth and eloquence, just screams out for refutation. I do not attempt to provide such a refutation here. Nussbaum’s is an impressive contribution to a longstanding debate, and a short blog post in no way affords her work the respect it is owed. But I will try to identify and briefly explicate my three principal objections

1. Nussbaum misreads the Oresteia

I have noted that it is always unnerving to find yourself disagreeing with Martha Nussbaum. This is especially the case in matters of classics exegesis. But no matter.

Nussbaum opens the book with an intriguing re-interpretation of the Oresteia. At the end of the cycle, the carnal, animalistic impulses of the Furies somehow morph into the gentle, judicious judgments of the Eumenides. The transition from Furies into “blessed ones” is representative of the evolution of justice from blood vengeance to the rule of law. Yet Nussbaum goes one step beyond this traditional reading, arguing that the Furies aren’t just forced to accept the constraints of law imposed by the civilized state around them. More than that, the Furies have fundamentally transformed their very nature. They no longer embody the primal impulse for retributive justice. They are now reason-giving and impartial, motivated not by anger, but by benevolence. As she puts it: “Aeschylus suggests that political justice does not just put a cage around anger, it fundamentally transforms it, from something hardly human, obsessive, bloodthirsty, to something human, accepting of reasons, calm, deliberate, and measured.”

This seems to me to go too far. It is true that Athena ends the cycle of blood-vengeance by institutionalizing a permanent body to dispense a new, procedural justice. Yet unlike Apollo, who scorns the ancient past, Athena seeks reconciliation with it. She knows that the Furies remain “the court of last appeal, the final blood avengers,” and she recognizes that their ancient passions cannot be excised; they must be built into the foundation of political justice. After initial resistance, the Furies agree to make their new home both within and beneath the city of Athens themselves. They become the Eumenides on Athena’s promise that they will continue to dispense their ancient justice, only now through the proper procedure.

It seems to me that the Furies, then, have not undergone a transformation in their fundamental essence. It remains their responsibility to oversee the people of Athens, and when man defies their justice, “their crushing hatred hits him, their implacable rage grinds him down to dust.” Vengeance and anger still constitute the most basic foundation of justice. While the new court of Athens is composed of wise and judicial citizens, Athena has literally built this system on top of the ancient structure of blood-vengeance. Athena’s new civic justice remains nourished and legitimized by the primal passions of an older age.

I think there is wisdom in Aeschylus’ teaching (as I have interpreted it). On my reading it is impossible to do away with the anger and retribution of ancient justice. Those impulses aren’t vices to be tamed, they remain the very foundation of our thinking about justice and desert.

2. Nussbaum’s emphasis on the “payback wish” misrepresents the strongest case for retributivism

Nussbaum’s critique of retributivism is grounded largely on her dismissal of the “payback wish.” By this, Nussbaum understands retributivism to be motivated primarily by an incoherent, futile belief that punishment will somehow restore cosmic balance to the universe. But of course, sophisticated retributivist theories never place too much value in a kind of schadenfreude—the sentiment conjured up by Nussbaum's “road of payback.”

Nor should retributivists be particularly troubled by Nussbaum’s insistence that such payback is “futile.” By this, Nussbaum means that the executors of retributive justice will never “get back” what they lost. The crime against them has been committed, and no punishment will restore what has been taken. That is all certainly the case. But it is also irrelevant. Sophisticated accounts don’t treat retribution as merely restorative. The original crime of course cannot be undone. But that’s not the point. Retributive anger is essentially other-regarding, not self-regarding. Retribution tracks deserved treatment; it has nothing to do with the fanciful wish to get something back. Retribution is not, as Nussbaum would have it, a futile exercise in self-satisfaction, it is a resonant principle of other-oriented justice.

This realization leads us to a much deeper problem with Nussbaum’s analysis. On her view, the central problem with anger and retribution is that they are “backward-looking.” True justice requires a transition from that backward-orientation toward the future. But what exactly is wrong with the kind of backward-lookingness she associates with retributivism? To see the limits of the view, let’s consider cases of deserved good-treatment. Acts of kindness or generosity trigger in the recipients certain reciprocal moral obligations. Those obligations aren’t grounded in a kind of abstract consideration of what will make the future go best. They are instead sensitive to real, morally significant acts taken in the past. The duties of gratitude, for example, are moral obligations that guide future conduct rooted in a consideration of what came before. This has nothing to do with producing cosmic harmony, as Nussbaum suggests. It is instead a simple recognition that moral desert can be rooted in the past and can nonetheless shape future-oriented obligations.

To take another example, consider the moral pull of the call for reparations for the descendants of American slaves. This particular issue is itself quite complex and deserving of a fuller treatment. But the case for such reparations is not most plausibly rooted in some general belief that greater redistribution will ex ante make things go best. Instead, the policy is attractive precisely because of the historic wrong it tracks, and because of the demands of deserved treatment those historic wrongs evoke.

Many more difficulties remain with Nussbaum’s critique of retributivism that can be adequately addressed here. I remain convinced that retribution is the basis of just punishment in large part because all the other alternatives seem to justify far more than is acceptable. For instance, if punishment is to be justified entirely on some account of what makes the future go best, it is difficult to understand the wrongness of punishing the innocent. Nussbaum does have some things to say on this point, but none that prove particularly compelling to me. But this broader point of dispute demands a more systematic treatment than I can provide here.

3. Nussbaum’s discussion of incarceration and the justice system is wholly inadequate

Perhaps the least satisfying section of Nussbaum’s book is her brief discussion of the American criminal justice system. America’s mass incarceration, on her view, stems directly from our incoherent retributivist impulses. She appends to this diagnosis an almost obligatory invocation of racism as a significant motivation in shaping America’s legal structure. I do not wish to argue that Nussbaum is wrong in this diagnosis of the American incarceral state. I wish merely to point out that her discussion is inadequate.

No serious, good-faith effort is made to engage with the suggestion that incarceration has substantially reduced crime and has produced significant improvements to social welfare. The tone of Nussbaum’s discussion here implies that such an empirical hypothesis is so absurd as to merit no serious consideration.

Nussbaum points us to the important work of James Heckman, and rightly insists that social science research has produced a broad range of encouraging interventions that might reduce crime without increasing incarceration. This is important research that I too hope to see more jurisdictions experiment with. But the extraordinary confidence Nussbaum exudes in these correctives seems misplaced. Her citation of Heckman’s work on the Perry Preschool program, for instance, simply fails to grapple with a wide range of scholarly criticisms of the efficacy preschool as a social investment. Preschool still of course has serious, scholarly champions. But the literature is mixed, and Nussbaum acts irresponsibly to suggest otherwise. She acts especially irresponsibly to suggest that opposition to universal preschool stems in large part from racism.

Philosophers like Nussbaum have much to contribute to ongoing debate over issues like incarceration and criminal justice. But just as social scientific positivists delegitimize themselves by refusing to engage seriously with normative questions, so too do moral philosophers delegitimize themselves by refusing to engage seriously with empirical research.


There is much to be admired about Martha Nussbaum’s important contribution to the debate over the moral basis of punishment. I have outlined a few objections which I take to be rather damaging of her overall argument. But any fair-minded reader should appreciate the book’s extraordinary philosophical depth and literary elegance. All things considered, however, Nussbaum’s critique of retributive justice and anger remains thoroughly unconvincing. Anger is not some unfortunate evolutionary relic to be done away with. While, as with all emotions, it must be balanced against other moral sentiments, anger remains an invaluable part of our moral vocabulary and thinking. As a professor of mine likes to remark, anger always entails an implicit claim about justice. The project of moral philosophy should be to excavate that claim, not to excise the emotion that produced it.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Richard Hofstadter on Immigrants and the Progressive Movement

I had always assumed that immigrants fit reasonably well into the progressive coalition of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Of course populist racism posed a major challenge to integrating newly-arrived immigrants into the working class. But I always imagined this challenge was rather easily overcome by the shared economic interests of immigrants and the native working class.

I recently came across a fascinating passage in Richard Hofstadter's 1955 The Age of Reform that made me realize this analysis was far too simplistic, and that there was much more antagonism between immigrant communities and the progressive movement than I previously thought.

I quote some of the most provocative passages at length, with the most striking bits in bold:

In politics, then, the immigrant was usually at odds with the reform aspirations of the American Progressive. Together with the native conservative and the politically indifferent, the immigrants formed a potent mass that limited the range and the achievements of Progressivism. The loyalty of immigrant voters to the bosses was one of the signal reasons why the local reform victories were so short-lived. It would be hard to imagine types of political culture more alien to each other than those of the Yankee reformer and the peasant immigrant. The Yankee’s idea of political action assumed a popular democracy with widespread participation and eager civic interest. To him politics was the business, the responsibility, the duty of all men. It was an arena for the realization of moral principles of broad application—and even, as the case of temperance and vice crusades—for the correction of private habits. The immigrant, by contrast, coming as a rule from a peasant environment and from aristocratic societies with strong feudal survivals, was totally unaccustomed to the active citizen’s role. He expected to be acted on by government, but not to be a political agent himself. To him government meant restrictions on personal movement, the arbitrary regulation of life, the inaccessibility of the law, and the conscription of the able-bodied. To him, government was the instrument of the ruling classes, characteristically acting in their interests, which were indifferent or opposed to his own. Nor was government in his eyes an affair of abstract principles and rules of law: it was the actions of particular men with particular powers. Political relations were not governed by abstract principles; they were profoundly personal.[3]
Not being reared on the idea of mass-participation, the immigrant was not especially eager to exercise his vote immediately upon naturalization. Nor was he interested in such reforms as the initiative, referendum, and recall, which were intelligible only from the standpoint of the Anglo-American ethos of popular political action. When he finally did assume his civic role, it was either in response to Old World loyalties (which became a problem only during and after the first World War) or to immediate needs arising out of his struggle for life in the American city—to his need for a job or charity or protection from the law or for a street vendor’s license. The necessities of American cities—their need for construction workers, street-cleaners, police and firemen, service workers of all kinds—often provided him with his livelihood, as it provided the boss with the necessary patronage. The immigrant, in short, looked to politics not for the realization of high principles but for concrete and personal gains, and he sought these gains through personal relationships. And here the boss, particularly the Irish boss, who could see things from the immigrant’s angle but could also manipulate the American environment, became a specialist in personal relations and personal loyalties. The boss himself encouraged the immigrant to think of politics as a field in which one could legitimately pursue one’s interests. … Where reformers identified patriotism with knowledgeable civic action and self-denial, the bosses were satisfied to confine it to party regularity, and they were not embarrassed by a body of literature purporting to show that to trade one’s vote for personal services was a form of civic iniquity.”

That passage includes the following fascinating footnote:

[3]“C.f. Henry Cabot Lodge’s complaint that the idea of patriotism—devotion to one’s country—was Roman, while the idea of devotion to the emperor as the head of state was Byzantine. It was the Byzantine inheritance, he said, that the Eastern immigrants were bringing in. Henry Cabot Lodge...  
The boss’s code of personal loyalty and the reformer’s code of loyalty to civic ideas could not easily be accommodated, with the consequence that when the two had dealings with each other there were irreparable misunderstandings.”

I don't know enough about the Progressive Era to assess Hofstadter's account. And I don't what (if any) lessons Hofstadter's analysis has for our political present. But as I see things, today's progressive coalition is split between identitarianism on one side and Scandinavian-style social democracy on the other. I go back and forth thinking whether these bedfellows are fundamentally compatible with one another. If Hofstadter's history is correct, and if the general principles apply in our own time, perhaps that gives us a reason to think the two aren't so compatible.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Two Concepts of Nationalism

A terrific conversation over lunch a couple weeks ago got me thinking about an important distinction between two concepts of nationalism. (To be clear, anything of intellectual merit in what follows is the fruit of my far superior interlocutor in that conversation).

The first concept is the nationalism of national greatness. It is a nationalism of building high and travelling far, of lasting glory and heroic accomplishment, of emancipating slaves or enslaving freemen. This is the sort of nationalism underlying that common lament: “We just don’t do big things anymore.”

The second concept is the nationalism of cultural particularism. It is a nationalism that builds out from tangible life and which identifies the nation as an embodiment of a distinctive culture and set of mores. This is the sort of nationalism that can be described as properly traditionalist, clinging to parochialism and prejudice (words I do not hurl as terms of abuse).

Both concepts of nationalism are united in their hostility to globalism, in their rejection of a cosmopolitan worldview that admits of no relevant distinctions or differences across peoples or cultures. Similarly, the two concepts are united against the derisive anti-nationalism of a certain strand of the radical left, which castigates the nation (and in particular our nation) as a continued source of grave mischief and injustice. But that thin unity produces frequent political commonality, making it harder to see just how radically opposed these two conceptions of nationalism are.

The nationalism of greatness is, of course, given its most powerful statement today by Donald Trump. But it would be a mistake to read that guiding vision of nationalism as merely an extreme, populist explosion. To the contrary, restoring national greatness has been a central conviction of most of our recent, significant political figures and thinkers. Bill Kristol and David Brooks for example, two staunch members of the #NeverTrump movement, vigorously lamented in 1997 the loss of a great American spirit. In their words, “What’s missing from today’s American conservatism is the appeal to American greatness.”

The nationalism of greatness finds expression too in our progressive politics. It is reflected in a collective yearning to fully draw out the dialectic of American liberty, in a conviction to fundamentally transform the nation in alignment with our guiding ideology. No clearer statement of that progressive vision of American greatness exists than President Obama’s 2012 inaugural address. There President Obama placed the state of our political present in the context of a great unfolding narrative, a constant struggle to make more real the founding ideological purpose of our nation:
We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone: to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on earth.
In this regard, both conservative and progressive nationalisms of greatness share common ground. The right of course cannot insist that American conservatism bears much in common with the blood and soil, throne and altar conservatism of the Old World. Instead, the great project our nation has undertaken is an essentially creedal one. Our nation’s greatness is a function of her loyalty to our ideological mission. As a result, the nationalism of greatness finds itself utterly incompatible with the nationalism of the particular. For if the nation’s greatness is to be assessed by its collective strivings, little time can be spent on the little platoons of social life, on the complexities of parochial communal life.

Likewise, the nationalism of the particular is skeptical of the grand abstraction of “national greatness.” Such a modern construction forces contrived unity where none exists and tramples genuine commonality when it organically springs forth. The worship of national greatness leads inexorably to the vulgarity and atomization of mass society the particularist detests. To the particularist, “America” as an idea is far too big a thing to love. She loves her family, her school, and her neighbors. She loves the small rituals that give meaning and dignity to the pedestrian. But it's more than just that litany of communitarian goods; she values the norms that structure her society, the shared cultural expectations of how things ought to run. Her patriotism, so far as it exists, is an abstraction of a sort, but an abstraction that coheres the concrete, tangible sources of value. She does not begin from America’s ideological purpose and work her way down, but rather begins from the communities of meaning that surround her and builds up. The American flag does not represent Liberty, it represents the way of life she has inherited.

The difference between these two concepts of nationalism is the difference between gigantism and localism. A partisan of national greatness would be quite comfortable equating patriotic citizenship with voting every few years and paying taxes. Indeed, as a friend notes, this is precisely the account David Brooks recently espoused. Citizenship to the localist, on the other hand, has virtually nothing to do with participation in a distant government—what Tocqueville denounced as the “administrative centralization” wholly divorced from true patriotism. It builds instead from the simple duties and reciprocities of ordinary life.

An example might help here to fix some intuitions. Consider loyalty to one’s alma mater. I root for Yale over Harvard every November not because Yale better expresses my ideological worldview, not because Yale is a greater institution or even a better one. Frankly, I have little interest at all in Yale as such. I root for Yale because of the friends and professors and clubs I found as an undergraduate. Those personal, intimate loyalties I built up at Yale are affecting for all sorts of different reasons. Some friendships were forged over academic argument, others through decidedly non-academic shared personal difficulties. When I root for Yale, I don’t intend to honor her administrators or her institutional worldview. I intend merely to honor a constellation of personal loyalties that mean a great deal to me. That’s the sort of thing I mean by a nationalism grounded in the particular.

I conclude with a passage from Alasdair Macintyre’s After Virtue:
Patriotism cannot be what it was because we lack in the fullest sense a patria. The point I am making might be confused with the commonplace liberal rejection of patriotism. Liberals have often—not always—taken a negative or even hostile attitude towards patriotism, partly because their allegiance is to values which they take to be universal and not local and particular, and partly because of a well-justified suspicion that in the modern world, patriotism is often a façade behind which chauvinism and imperialism are fostered. But my present point is not that patriotism is good or bad as a sentiment, but that the practice of patriotism as a virtue is in advanced societies no longer possible in the way it once was. In any society where government does not express or represent the moral community of the citizens, but is instead a set of institutional arrangements for imposing a bureaucratized unity on a society which lacks genuine moral consensus, the nature of political obligation becomes systematically unclear. Patriotism is or was a virtue founded on attachment primarily to a political and moral community and only secondarily to the government of that community. … When however the relationship of government to the moral community is put in question both by the changed nature of government and the lack of moral consensus in the society, it becomes difficult any longer to have any clear, simple and teachable conception of patriotism. Loyalty to my country, to my community—which remains unalterably a central virtue—becomes detached from obedience to the government which happens to rule me.
Though his point is somewhat orthogonal to mine, Macintyre's dichotomy between a patria that embodies the moral community and a state as brute, institutional bureaucracy is a close cousin to the dichotomy between the nationalism of greatness and the nationalism of the particular.

Monday, October 3, 2016

John Schaar on Equal Opportunity

John Schaar condemns equal opportunity as wickedly conservative in a classic 1967 paper. It's a shame this line of thinking hasn't gotten much attention.
No policy formula is better designed to fortify the dominant institutions, values, and ends of the American social order than the formula of equality of opportunity, for it offers *everyone* a fair and equal chance to find a place within that order...The facile formula of equal opportunity...opens more and more opportunities for more and more people to contribute more and more energies toward the realization of a mass, bureaucratic, technological, privatized, militaristic, bored, and thrill-seeking, consumption-oriented society--a society of well-fed, congenial, and sybaritic monkeys surrounded by gadgets and pleasure-toys.a

Sunday, September 25, 2016

G.K. Chesterton on the Wisdom of Fables and Fairy Tales

I recently stumbled across a very fine C.K. Chesterton introduction to a 1912 edition of Aesop’s Fables. With all his characteristic insight, Chesterton brings out the distinction between the wisdom of fables and the wisdom of fairy tales. Fables need animals to embody human types, strengths, and weaknesses. These animals and the roles they play are perfectly predictable. They cannot overcome their type, as it inheres in the very essence of what they are. Fairy tales, on the other hand, require not animals but humans. The characters there demonstrate not the littleness and predictability of a tragically limited human, but rather the heroic potential of human possibility.

Neither depiction of human nature is complete. Yet nor is some synthesis between the two necessarily desirable. Full of familiar contradiction, the two genres reflect the simultaneous complexity and simplicity of human character.
Aesop, or Babrius (or whatever his name was), understood that, for a fable, all the persons must be impersonal. They must be like abstractions in algebra, or like pieces in chess. The lion must always be stronger than the wolf, just as four is always double of two. The fox in a fable must move crooked, as the knight in chess must move crooked. The sheep in a fable must march on, as the pawn in chess must march on. The fable must not allow for the crooked captures of the pawn; it must not allow for what Balzac called "the revolt of a sheep" The fairy tale, on the other hand, absolutely revolves on the pivot of human personality. If no hero were there to fight the dragons, we should not even know that they were dragons. If no adventurer were cast on the undiscovered island—it would remain undiscovered. If the miller's third son does not find the enchanted garden where the seven princesses stand white and frozen—why, then, they will remain white and frozen and enchanted. If there is no personal prince to find the Sleeping Beauty she will simply sleep. Fables repose upon quite the opposite idea; that everything is itself, and will in any case speak for itself. The wolf will be always wolfish; the fox will be always foxy. Something of the same sort may have been meant by the animal worship, in which Egyptian and Indian and many other great peoples have combined. Men do not, I think, love beetles or cats or crocodiles with a wholly personal love; they salute them as expressions of that abstract and anonymous energy in nature which to any one is awful, and to an atheist must be frightful. So in all the fables that are or are not Aesop's all the animal forces drive like inanimate forces, like great rivers or growing trees. It is the limit and the loss of all such things that they cannot be anything but themselves: it is their tragedy that they could not lose their souls. 
This is the immortal justification of the Fable: that we could not teach the plainest truths so simply without turning men into chessmen. We cannot talk of such simple things without using animals that do not talk at all. Suppose, for a moment, that you turn the wolf into a wolfish baron, or the fox into a foxy diplomatist. You will at once remember that even barons are human, you will be unable to forget that even diplomatists are men. You will always be looking for that accidental good-humour that should go with the brutality of any brutal man; for that allowance for all delicate things, including virtue, that should exist in any good diplomatist. Once put a thing on two legs instead of four and pluck it of feathers and you cannot help asking for a human being, either heroic, as in the fairy tales, or un-heroic, as in the modern novels.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

"Fractured Republic" Reflections Part Three: The Benedict Option and the Melian Dialogue

This is part three of a three-part review of Yuval Levin's The Fractured Republic. See also the introduction, part one, and part two of this review.

Yuval Levin concludes his discussion of culture in The Fractured Republic by invoking the so-called “Benedict Option.” Building off foundational philosophical work laid by Alasdair MacIntyre and popularized among contemporary traditionalist conservatives by Rod Dreher, the Benedict Option calls on conservatives to step back from the national culture wars and to focus instead on tending to their own gardens. By building strong, vibrant alternatives to the progressive mass culture, conservatives can preserve the permanent things of traditional social life while inviting others to join their thriving and (ironically) counter-cultural way of life.

A vigorous defender of subsidiarity, Levin is a natural ally for partisans of the Benedict Option. In his eloquent disquisition:
Conservatives should think about the preconditions for moral living in terms of building cohesive, attractive, moral subcultures in those mediating layers of society, rather than just struggling for control of the old institutions of a once-consolidated “mainstream” culture. It means focusing inward and close to home.
As he goes on to explain, cultural communities no longer begin from shared moral assumptions in our bifurcated society. The “solipsism of our age of individualism” has brought with it emancipation from the enabling constraints of traditional life, undermining institutions and practices that once served as common touchstones and bearers of shared meaning within an always-diverse populace. Given the intractable division within contemporary American society, Levin recommends we give up on finding “wholesale solutions” to govern our nation's increasingly disparate subcultures.
All sides in our culture wars would be wise to focus less attention than they have on dominating our core cultural institutions, and more on building thriving subcultures. For social conservatives mourning the loss of their dominant position in some of those core institutions, it is particularly important (and particularly difficult) to keep this imperative in mind.
Levin may well be right that it would be wise for all parties to withdraw from contesting the national culture. Yet herein lies what has always been my great frustration with the Benedict Option. The progressive left simply isn’t going to step back from waging the national culture war. They are winning. The spectacular decline of conservative cultural priorities on virtually every issue of consequence over the last several decades is stunning. As a friend of mine puts it, the Overton Window’s leftward drift has accelerated so dramatically, you can now see it move with the naked eye.

And yet all the great progressive victories have come despite the aggressive presence of organized, well-funded conservative campaigns to resist the left's cultural conquest. Imagine just how much faster cultural conservatism will collapse in the absence of such an organized, national political focus.

Levin recognizes this reality to some degree, and he notes that religious freedom, for example, can only be protected through a vigorous, offensive campaign to “keep open the space in which cultural conservatives might appeal to the larger society.” Yet the repeated insistence that conservatives concede the national culture reflects a failure to appreciate the enduring wisdom of Thucydides’ Melian Dialogue: In war, the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.

In calling on conservatives to give up on the national culture while praying that the dominant cultural left will do the same, Levin asks conservatives to suffer far more than they must.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Against Usury

The following is adapted from a speech I gave at the Yale Political Union in the Spring of 2015 on the topic: Resolved, Nationalize Banks. Much of the speech was delivered in jest, though not all of it. 

Mr. Speaker, when oh when did the Chair of the Party of the Left become such a staunch apologist for the neo-liberal consensus?! If we are to believe the previous speaker, the choice before us is between a slightly more capitalistic, and slightly more socialistic economy. Our options on this telling are limited to blindly obeying the dictates of a morally insidious “invisible hand,” or sheepishly bowing to a cadre of Ivy-educated technocrats. Mr. Speaker, this is a false choice. Indeed, Mr. Speaker, both socialism and capitalism are so steeped in the filth of modern liberal ideology, that to defend either is to endorse a vision of human nature as perniciously absurd, as it is absurdly pernicious.

Mr. Speaker, impassioned debate over the proper division between commercial and investment banking and the optimal level of risk and leverage, is to ignore the central moral evil at the heart of our modern financial system. I speak of an evil so repugnant, that it has been roundly rejected by virtually every moral and religious tradition in the history of mankind. I speak of an evil condemned by the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, and Cato, and by the great traditions of Confucianism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism. I speak of course, of the moral outrage that is usury.

For millennia a dirty word, usury today has become an object of veneration. Economics courses across our morally and fiscally bankrupt nation preach the virtues of interest as the motivating force behind commercial and economic success. This has become a central plank in the unassailable dogma of the docile modern mind. Yet it remains manifestly obvious that an economic system built on usury—that is to say an economic system built on the wealthy taking advantage of the poor—is morally abhorrent.

“No!” some of our neo-liberal peers may reply. “Usury is not taking advantage of the poor; it is an economic institution that affects pareto optimal results!” So deep lies our indoctrination that we have grown blind even of self-evident moral facts. But to briefly state the argument, interest enables a wealthy lender in a position of utter domination to profit off of the labor and struggle of an impoverished man entirely at his disposal. It is to objectify labor and dehumanize the laborer. In its effort to transform private vice into public virtue, it eviscerates the moral bonds between neighbors any rightly constituted state exists to promote.

Mr. Speaker, the moral question at the heart of this resolution is does our banking system participate in evil. And Mr. Speaker, be it in the hands of a group of small, elite, wealthy oligarchs who work on Wall Street, or in the hands of a group of small, elite, wealthy oligarchs who work for the Federal Government, so long as our banking system participates in the usurious world of global finance, our shared wealth and prosperity will be a crime.

To be clear, I am arguing for nothing short of an utter rejection of the modern financial system. I am advocating for what might reasonably be described as a system of “neo-feudalism,” for a return to the pre-modern economy. To combat our fetishization of materiality, we must return to a more traditional and philosophically coherent understanding of “property” not simply as “private” or “public”, but as essentially corporate. We must undo the vicious divorce between persons and their proper social roles, and we must structure our economic system to strengthen, rather than undermine, communitarian wellbeing.

To overcome alienation, we must recognize that “private property” is a cancer in our culture. What wealth we have is necessarily held in common, not as measured by income redistribution or gini coefficients, but as measured by a proper understanding of the duties and trusts that hold our intertwined lives together.

Mr. Speaker, I do not have the time now to discourse at length on what a banking system in a properly constituted society would actually look like. But in brief, our best models lie not in the great socialist experiments of the 20th century, but in workers’ cooperatives and credit unions. We should look not to the failed acts of massive state empowerment, but to smaller yet far more impressive distributist successes, like that of the Mondragon cooperative in Spain. Simply shifting ownership of our irredeemable banking system from privately employed oligarchs to publicly employed oligarchs will do nothing to combat the true moral evil at the heart of our global economy.

Mr. Speaker, the state should not nationalize banking, the state should criminalize banking!

Friday, September 2, 2016

"Fractured Republic" Reflections Part Two: A Democratic Solution to a Democratic Problem

This is part two of a three-part review of Yuval Levin's The Fractured Republic. See also the introduction and parts one and three of this review.

Yuval Levin reminds readers that political nostalgia for an era of midcentury national harmony rests on an unproductive impulse to restore a romanticized, imagined past. The underlying forces of social diffusion that have brought about the peculiar historical developments of the past century cannot be undone. And so, in a formulation inspired by James Madison’s famous closing words in Federalist 10, Levin argues that “we must seek diffusing, individualist remedies for the diseases most incident to a diffuse, individualist society.”

This prescription of democratic solutions for democratic problems again reflects Levin’s intellectual debt to Tocqueville’s masterful study of American democracy. But as I suggested in my previous post, I am skeptical that bolstering individual choice can effectively temper the excesses of an atomized democratic culture. Tocqueville too, I suspect, was far more pessimistic about democracy's capacity to regulate democracy than Levin may wish to believe.

To Levin, the “defining feature of twenty-first century America” is our contemporary “bifurcated concentration.” The forces of individualism dissolve mediating bonds across society, while cementing ever-more ossified and separate subcultures. In Levin’s words:
Individualism involves a corrosion of people’s sense of themselves as defined by a variety of strong affiliations and unchosen bonds and its replacement by a sense that all connections are matters of individual choice and preference. It breaks up clusters of people into more isolated individuals held together by more casual affinities and more utilitarian relationships—each bets understood in relation to the needs and wants of the individual.
Like Tocqueville, Levin takes this to be an inescapable development in a democratic social state. Against a long tradition in Western political thought, the two doubt the possibility of a mixed regime that combines aspects of democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy to limit the political defects of each. In Tocqueville's words, "What is called mixed government has always seemed to me a chimera. ... in the end one discovers that in every society there is one principle of action that dominates the others." Instead, what is needed is the cultivation of essentially democratic institutions, which can nonetheless be used as if they were aristocratic in tempering the wilder temptations of the demos.

America's distinctive brand of Protestantism, for instance, plays a critical role in preserving freedom in American society. Tocqueville catalogs at length the harsh, invasive laws drawn from Leviticus which structure life in Puritan New England. Yet unlike in Europe (or anywhere else in the world, for that matter), religion in America does not derive its power from an external source of authority—an independent papacy, for example. Instead, laws enforcing stringent codes of religious morality are democratically voted on and ratified. Religion both limits and asserts democratic sovereignty.

Alongside religion, juries, voluntary associations, gender norms, and local townships all follow this basic pattern. Rather than checking democracy from outside, they build on democratic first principles to regulate American culture from within.

Such a culture of democratic self-regulation is Levin’s basic diagnosis for American society today. Gone are the days of a unified national culture. Rather than yearn for their return, we should invest in building an even more decentralized society. Individual choice is to be celebrated and expanded, rather than restrained in the interest of conformity and community. Our priority should be “to make the most of the narrowing circles of cohesion and reliance that we now tend to inhabit—not by constructing massive, centralized stores of authority, but by building smaller, decentralized networks of trust.”

But the self-segregation Levin extols is no substitute for community. Replacing unchosen bonds of obligation with custom-designed experiments in living may well deepen the ruthless atomization and the unrelenting worship of the gnostic self that plague contemporary life. A carefully chosen and curated set of Facebook group affiliations cannot compare with the rich, humane bonds of communal life. As Chesterton puts it in a masterful celebration of that which is given, not chosen:
The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique. The men of the clan live together because they all wear the same tartan or are all descended from the same sacred cow; but in their souls, by the divine luck of things, there will always be more colours than in any tartan. But the men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment, like that which exists in hell. A big society exists in order to form cliques. A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises.
Perhaps, then, what is needed is contradiction within our civic culture. Forthrightly aristocratic institutions—churches, universities, and the like—must regulate democracy not from within, but from without. To adequately check our worst impulses, they must derive their legitimacy precisely from their non-democratic roots. As the Tocqueville of Volume II of Democracy in America and later writings saw, we would do well to abandon our alchemical faith that democratic institutions alone can cure democratic ills.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

T.S. Eliot on "Social Justice"

T.S. Eliot in a footnote in "Notes Towards the Definition of Culture"
I must introduce a parenthetical protest against the abuse of the current term 'social justice.' From meaning 'justice in relations between groups or classes,' it may slip into meaning a particular assumption as to what these relations should be; and a course of action might be supported because it represented the aim of 'social justice,' which from the point of view of 'justice' was not just. The term 'social justice' is in danger of losing its rational content--which would be replaced by a powerful emotional charge. I believe that I have used the term myself: it should never be employed unless the user is prepared to define clearly what social justice means to him, and why he thinks it just.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Our Culture of Obsessive Nostalgia; a Guest Post by Rich Lizardo

Rich Lizardo is a Ph.D. student in history at the University of Pennsylvania, where he studies early-modern Spain. An article he wrote for National Review Online was cited in an earlier Omphaloskepsis blog post. Contact him at

With a Clinton running for president, Donald Trump aiming to “Make America Great Again,” and PC culture making a noxious comeback, countless commentators have appropriately noted the “politics of nostalgia.” Especially among whites, data of many sorts suggest a longing for the past—a past where “life for people like [them]” was better, where their family ties and civic commitments and religious communities were stronger, where their future economic prospects seemed brighter. My friend Dimitri Halikias is writing a series of reviews on a recent book by political scientist Yuval Levin discussing this very topic.

But despite a rise in the collective awareness of this “politics of nostalgia,” discussion of the much broader culture of nostalgia has been, with a few notable exceptions, quite absent. In at least the last five years, almost all media of artistic expression have seen an obsession with nostalgia driving much of our present cultural formation (well, re-formation) and engagement.

The most egregious culprit producing this hypernostalgia is our film industry. At my local movie theater, there are nine films currently on screen: among them, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip, the fourth film installment since 2007 about a group dating back to the ’50s; Ben-Hur, a remake of the classic film from 1959; Jason Bourne, the fifth film of the franchise based on the 1980 novel; Mechanic: Resurrection, a sequel to a film in 2011 that was itself a remake of a film from 1972; Pete’s Dragon, Disney’s remake of its own film of the same name in 1977; Suicide Squad, which features a host of DC Comics characters we’ve seen for over half a century; and Star Trek Beyond, which, well, you get the point. (If I went to my theater and wanted to watch a film with an original script, my sole options would be some horror flick and Sausage Party.) Also currently playing in other theaters: sequels of The Purge and Ice Age and remakes of The BFG, Ghostbusters, and Tarzan.

And that’s just what’s in theaters right now in August 2016. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat put it back in January, “The biggest blockbuster of 2015 was about . . . Darth Vader’s grandchildren. It is directed by a filmmaker who’s coming off rebooting . . . Star Trek. And the wider cinematic landscape is defined by . . . the recycling of comic-book properties developed between the 1940s and the 1970s.” Coming soon: more Jedis, more Avengers, and probably at least one more James Bond.

Even on TV—a medium that, to be fair, has continued to produce original, mass-market material in this “Golden Age”—there’s apparently a market for Fuller House, which earlier this spring was renewed for a second season. Jimmy Fallon hosted the Saved by the Bell cast to act in a skit on his show last year, using a recreated set of Bayside High; and the cast of Friends held a reunion at the start of the year.

To prove our hypernostalgia in television isn’t limited to just the ’90s, the show 24, after eight relatively successful (and solid) seasons from 2001 to 2010, rebooted and released a ninth season a full four years later in 2014; a spinoff, titled 24: Legacy, is scheduled to premiere in 2017. The producers of the best show in the last decade, Breaking Bad, just couldn’t help themselves when the show finished: Less than two years later, they put out the spinoff, Better Call Saul. And The Simpsons, while not a reboot, a remake, a spinoff, or a sequel, is still on air—beginning its 28th season(!) in a few short weeks.

This unfortunate phenomenon also affects the books we read, the musicals we watch, the games we play, and even the clothes we wear. According to Publishers Weekly, the number-one bestselling work of fiction in 2015 was Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s prequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, which itself made the list at number seven. Also in the top 20 bestsellers of 2015: The Great Gatsby, Fahrenheit 451, and The Alchemist. As of this moment, on Barnes & Noble’s list of the top 100 bestsellers of 2016, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child tops the list. Moreover, in the last year, the musical that has swept the nation—more so than any musical in my lifetime—features the story of a famous Founding Father we’ve presumably all learned about in grade school. Hamilton obviously takes a shot at building upon our history and delivers it with a wonderful twist, but it’s nevertheless an old story with an old character. And suddenly in 2016, it became okay for folks in their 20s, 30s, and 40s to walk around with their faces dug into their phones as they swiped up to catch Pokémon. Yes, Charizard has been the object of my fascination and affection—but that was when I was 10, playing the Red and Gold versions on my Game Boy Color and trading cards (against the school rules) with my friends—other 10-year-olds.

Facebook, Twitter, and the rest are no help. They do more than just promote all these media; they actively cultivate this disposition of hypernostalgia in each of us individually. They’ve developed hashtags—most notably, #tbt (short for throwback-Thursday) and #fbf (short for flashback-Friday), both of which are often not even used on their specified days—to encourage us to share something from our pasts with others and then feel rewarded through likes, retweets, and so forth. And in the last year or so, Facebook has taken upon itself to show you, the individual user, a “memory” from your own past that got lots of likes so that you can share it again and get even more likes.

Even in clothing, what’s vintage and what’s retro is often what’s in: dresses, suits, glasses, shoes, the works. Pick up the latest style magazine, and you’ll inevitably see something making a comeback. With no effort, I found a post titled “Trucker Hats Are Coming Back,” written just last week on GQ’s website; in it, one finds the following passage:
With looser-cut ’90s-throwback pants making a return, ’80s cars on the rise, and even square-toed shoes inching their way into the current zeitgeist, could it really be that long before the early aughts [2000s] are due for a re-up? Are Ed Hardy graphics and tracksuits next? Wait . . . it’s already happening.
Reboots, remakes, spinoffs, sequels, continuations, comebacks, flashbacks, throwbacks: None of this is new. To give just one example, Twelve Angry Men was originally written as a play in 1954, was made into a truly fantastic film a few years later, and was remade 40 years later in 1997 in (and with) color.* As one writer argues, our society tends to produce nostalgically in 20-year cycles: reliving the ’60s in the ’80s, the ’70s in the ’90s, the ’80s in the 2000s, and now the ’90s in the 2010s.

Nor is any of it necessarily bad. These things give us a connection to the past, a relationship that might be weaker without them. Certainly, adapting old stories to our modern tastes requires its own kind of creativity; indeed, Hamilton, in all its artistic brilliance, stands out. Certainly, even more-recent remakes can be valuable when the stories are introduced to different audiences; House of Cards and The Office, both American remakes of British originals, are perfect examples. Certainly, reading great works of literature is always a good thing. And certainly, on a more individual level, reliving happy moments from our own pasts can even keep us grounded at times, and sharing those moments with others can be a valuable (often necessary) way to reconnect.

But what is new in our cultural moment is the level of obsessive nostalgia we’ve reached, and what is bad are the costs of its extremity. In the article linked to above, Douthat quotes historian Jacques Barzun to argue that this phenomenon is best explained by a “decadence” defined as a “falling off” whereby the “forms of art as of life seem exhausted” and so “repetition and frustration are the intolerable result.”

That description seems quite apt. We’re not just reliving the ’90s; we’ve mostly exhausted all decades available to us: sporting styles from the ’30s (tab and club collars are in; haven’t you heard?), conjuring up characters from the entire century, posting photos from last month with “#fbf.” On a cultural scale, we’re losing the desire to create new stories, we’re losing the ability to let go of the characters within them when those stories reach natural endings, and we’re more than ever forcing these stories to live beyond their years. Hollywood doles out ever-more superhero flicks, J. K. Rowling expands her magical world further still, and the Pokémon franchise now promotes an old game through a new app—all for one reason: It all sells. What’s more, what these specific examples all have in common is the development of their specific “universes”: the Marvel Universe, the Wizarding World, the Pokémon Universe. Pixar and many others have given in to this impulse. Even when the stories or characters themselves are original, by placing them in a given “universe,” the creators give a nod to our hypernostalgia, thereby retaining us, their loyal consumers.

So long as our audiences keep demanding these recycled stories, characters, backdrops, and memories, the producers in Hollywood, Broadway, Silicon Valley, and elsewhere will keep spitting them out. There’s nothing wrong with looking fondly upon the past, but keeping our focus there crowds out our own originality, creativity, and ability to move on.

We’ve definitely overstayed our visas in our many trips down memory lane, and it’s time we bring ourselves back to the present state of reality.


*A cultural medium that serves as an exception to this new phenomenon of obsessive nostalgia is music, it seems. For many decades, we’ve had tribute bands, Elvis and MJ impersonators, best-hits albums, and covers upon covers upon covers. I admit that I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I strongly sense that despite these unoriginal elements of music that spread across decades, the lack of originality (for want of a better phrase) has much less to do with any sense of nostalgia compared to these other media I’ve discussed. But check out this book review in the Atlantic of Simon Reynolds’ Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, which is almost exclusively about music and which explains why I’m wrong.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

"Fractured Republic" Reflections Part One: Corporatization and the New Mass Economy

This is part one of a three-part review of Yuval Levin's The Fractured Republic. See also the introduction and parts two and three of this review.

The basic pattern of 20th century American society Yuval Levin describes throughout The Fractured Republic consists in the nation drawing together through the middle of the century, before pulling apart over the last few decades. Levin convincingly shows that this pattern makes sense of developments in virtually every institution of mass social power. See, for instance, the following triplet of graphs:

Yet surprisingly, a brief discussion of unionization notwithstanding, he spends little time considering this model alongside broader developments in the American economy. One gets the impression from Levin’s chapter on the economy that the age of the large, centralized firm is over, and that economic life today is centered around small, diffuse private companies.

Yet Gallup research shows that small business start-ups have been in steep decline over the past forty years, while the share of private sector workers employed in small businesses relative to large businesses continues to fall. And though I don’t have empirical evidence on hand that this is the case, I would conjecture that a great many mom-and-pop stores and restaurants continue to be replaced by ever-expanding industrial chains.

Consider also the rise of national social media networks and technological platforms, which Levin praises as building “inherently narrow and personalized networks” that “build up subcultures rather than a mass culture.” Is that true? Today, a few powerful institutions—Facebook, Google, Twitter, Amazon, etc.—command extraordinary centralizing power. These organizations, largely run by  recent post-pubescents, have control over more of our personal information than any totalitarian secret police ever had over their citizenry. That does not strike me as a platform for decentralization. Moreover, it seems wrong to think that these tech forums promote subcultural differentiation. To the contrary, in giving terrifying force to an amorphous “public opinion,” these institutions may well cement and strengthen the insidious, homogenizing tendencies of mass (progressive) culture.

But setting my tech-ludditry aside and returning to more traditional economic institutions, Tocqueville (following Adam Smith) saw in the modern capitalist division of labor the same dialectical pattern that drives democratic polities from individualistic premises to despotic conclusions. In particular, the logic of economic individualism destroys the rich mediating bonds and institutions that formerly humanized social relations. Industrialization further divides society into two distinct classes, united only through on an abstract collection of faceless, market forces.

Through the division of labor, Tocqueville explains, as the “workman is perfected” in productivity, so too is “the man degraded.” Economic specialization constructs a new class of industrial elites who, shorn of any aristocratic duty to their workers, grow far harsher than the most brutal of feudal masters. Just as with subjects under soft despotism, the workman grows “dependent on masters in general, but not on any master in particular.” Connected only through contractual agreement to exchange labor for wages, the master-worker dynamic is rendered entirely economic: “the former makes no promise to protect, the latter no promise to defend, and neither habit nor duty creates a permanent bond between them.”

Particularly damning, Tocqueville insists, is the farcical equality now said to define the master-servant relationship. In the marketplace, each party is bound only in virtue of its consent, and in the formal eyes of the law, the two are equals. Yet this “imaginary equality” hardens the hatred between master and servant. For in the “privacy of his soul, the master still deems himself superior,” but no longer an aristocratic guardian, he abandons those traditional “protective and benevolent sentiments that grow out of a long period of uncontested power.” The servant too, though as a matter of contract the equal of his master, recognizes himself as the social inferior, and comes to hate his obligations that stem from a “degrading utilitarian reality.”

Ever the hedgehog, Tocqueville provides a discussion of market dynamics tightly consistent with an animating pattern of thought that resonates throughout his work: hyper-individualism and democratic equality lead to the erection of new consolidated powers, embodied both in a distant bureaucratized state and a distant bureaucratized manufacturing aristocracy. Soft despotism and economic consolidation enervate the people, rendering them dependent on a cadre of amorphous, distant elites. As Tocqueville caustically concludes in a passage as prescient as any in the Norman’s oeuvre, “today’s manufacturing aristocracy, having impoverished and brutalized the men it uses, abandons them in times of crisis and turns them over to public assistance to be fed.”

Has Tocqueville’s prediction come to pass in contemporary American economic life? I’m not entirely sure. But I suspect these descriptions of farcical equality in the face of entrenched inequality and mass dependence on a class of removed corporate executives captures to a large extent the anxiety of Walmart employees and the like. Economic life remains a realm where the dissolution and fracture Levin describes are not clearly apparent. As the logic of corporatization infects an ever broader sphere of social life, economic consolidation, not fragmentation, may well remain the central challenge to be overcome.

Levin of course does not have nothing to say about the risks of economic corporatization. Indeed, his analysis of economic individualism begins from the same point as Tocqueville’s—it is the Smithian division of labor that both perfects the worker and (possibly) degrades the man. Yet here again Levin offers the same prescription that will be critiqued at greater length in my next post: “we must use specialization to fight the negative effects of specialization.”

Levin warns in principle of “gigantism in the economy” which can itself consolidate “power over workers and consumers” and eliminate society’s indispensable mediating institutions. Yet while acknowledging the possibility of the problem, Levin does not take seriously its applicability to American economic life today. I wonder why. Haven’t chain stores that regulate  employees’ lives with rigorously regimented scripts passed far into the realm of consolidated economic gigantism? Shouldn’t conservatives be open to policy prescriptions that substantially restrain the growth of these efficiency-maximizing corporations? What of employee ownership or stock options, reforms that could create an analogue to mediating institutions within the firm? These seem like the sorts of exciting possibilities conservatives should explore.

Levin’s diagnosis of corporate America’s transformation of workers into consumers is also deeply resonant with the Tocquevillian worries described above. He insists that conservatives need economic policies that will “address Americans as workers” once again, rejecting the enervating passivity of consumerism for the energetic activity of dignified work. The worry that Americans have lost their sense of themselves as workers speaks to a dizzying dislocation in economic life. Men who primarily see themselves as workers embody that traditional American ethic of free labor. Consumers, on the other hand, are passive billiard balls, rebounding about an economic system of prices and incentives.

Given that he grasps the Tocquevillian diagnosis, it is disappointing that Levin doesn’t explore new possibilities of what work could look like. Instead of considering the aforementioned potential of greater worker-participation and ownership as is traditionally demanded by a distributist vision of conservative economic reform, Levin returns to expanded choice as the solution.

He explains that the way to transform consumers back into workers is by developing “portable, individualized benefits and rights that are not attached to workplaces in ways that assume long-term employment relationships.” But this seems to me exactly backwards. The problem is not that workers are too bound to employers, it is that workplace relationships have grown into cold, staid bonds of mere legal contract, rather than warm, humane bonds of intimate authority. The prescription is not to further promote the individual’s atomization but to revitalize communal life within the workplace.

To conclude, this post has raised some objections to Levin’s discussion (or rather lack of discussion) about the consolidated nature of contemporary American economic life. I have argued that the chief economic obstacle is not an excess of diffusion but a glut of corporate centralization. And I have suggested that Levin’s philosophical solution does not adequately address the distinctive social difficulties posed by bureaucratized economic gigantism. Instead of emphasizing choice, Levin would do well to consider new imaginative possibilities to promote greater individual identification with and investment in the workplace.

I pick up this line of reasoning—my critique of Levin’s democratic solution to a democratic problem—in my next blog post.

Reviewing Yuval Levin's "The Fractured Republic," an Introduction

This is the introduction to a three-part review of Yuval Levin's The Fractured Republic. See also parts one, two, and three of that review.

I have finally gotten around to reading Yuval Levin’s much heralded study of our present political dislocation and philosophical exposition of a conservative political vision. The book is worth the hype. Combining philosophical insight, empirical breadth, and historical sobriety, Levin well-deserves his reputation as the leading intellectual light of the contemporary Right.

The work can fairly be described as an extended meditation on a basic Tocquevillian insight: individualistic atomism and collectivist consolidation are not antagonistic poles, but are rather twin forces marching always in tandem. As I’ve written about before, philosophical individualism leads to the leveling of intermediary authority and the elevation of a distant bureaucratized state as the sole legitimate epistemic and political authority. Levin’s great contribution is to demonstrate that this dialectical theory is no unfalsifiable pseudo-scientific theory of social change, but is instead the basic underlying logic with which we must understand the homogeneity of mid-20th century America and the cultural chaos of the last four decades:
The transient balance of midcentury was undone not by the nefarious workings of ill-intentioned partisans of one stripe or another, but by the progress of the very forces that—acting on a highly consolidated nation—had brought that balance about to begin with: the forces of individualism, decentralization, deconsolidation, fracture, and diffusion.
Again following Tocqueville, Levin suggests that America’s foundational cultural attachment to individualism cannot be abandoned. Nor can the providential fact of the democratic revolution be undone. Any attempt to restore the nation to a mythologized mid-century moment of unity and consensus as is demanded by our collective political nostalgia would be both politically infeasible and morally undesirable.

Instead, America’s political malignancy demands democratic solutions for characteristically democratic problems. Only by strengthening the salutary aspects of an individualistic culture can we temper the insidious effects of the same. To that end, Levin calls for a modernized ethic of subsidiarity to overcome the alienation of contemporary social life. By strengthening abandoned mediating institutions of civil society and by cultivating subcultures of shared meaning and value, the best of our democratic tradition can check the worst impulses of our democratic culture. Though the forces of individualistic deconsolidation have been “the chief sources of many of our deepest problems in modern America,” they must also be “the sources of solutions and reforms.”

In the following three blog posts I raise objections. Some of these objections reflect genuine disagreement, while others give voice to unresolved questions I have with Levin’s basic thesis. But though I take these objections to be significant, I want to be clear that this book is among the clearest, smartest, most eloquent works of contemporary conservative thinking I have ever read. Once again, the hype is well-deserved.

My first post considers whether Levin’s sociological narrative of American political fracture makes sense of the great economic consolidation we have seen in recent decades. I suggest that Levin is insufficiently bold in challenging the kind of corporatistic gigantism and mass culture that Tocqueville aptly diagnosed as the economic partner of political soft despotism. My second post will ask whether a democratic solution can really resolve our distinctively democratic problems, and whether choice can satisfactorily address our contemporary crises of social diffusion and bifurcation. And my third post will outline longstanding concerns I have with the Benedict Option, which, building off Rod Dreher’s work, serves as the philosophic center of much of Levin’s thought.

Friday, August 12, 2016

On the Uses and Abuses of Analogy

A bit of wandering and link-following the other day (originating from Bill Galston’s phenomenal Liberal Pluralism) led me to Richard Whately’s 1861 Elements of Rhetoric, a work full of insights largely lost on the modern mind. One particular example is a excerpt in the appendix on the uses and abuses of analogy from Edward Copleston’s 1821 An Enquiry into the Doctrines of Necessity and Predestination: in Four Discourses.

Analogy—the drawing out of some similar feature between otherwise different phenomena—is not just the central tool of academic philosophy, it's the way rational beings think about complex matters. It is for this reason that Funes the Memorious' inability to draw abstract connections between distinct memories renders the man incapable of rational thought.

That's why that commonplace response of moral outrage: “Did you really just compare X with Y” constitutes such a grave obstacle to clear thinking.
Analogy does not mean the similarity of two things, but the similarity or sameness of two relations. There must be more than two things to give rise to two relations: there must be at least three; and in most cases there are four. Thus A may be like B, but there is no analogy between A and B: it is an abuse of the word to speak so, and it leads to much confusion of thought. If A has the same relation to B which C has to D, then there is an analogy. If the first relation be well known, it may serve to explain the second, which is less known; and the transfer of name from one of the terms in the relation best known to its corresponding term in the other, causes no confusion, but, on the contrary, tends to remind us of the similarity that exists in these relations; and so assists the mind instead of misleading it.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

"Master" and the Corporatization of the University

I owe much of these thoughts to series of insightful conversations I had with an academic mentor of mine over the course of the spring of 2016.

Yale's decision last year to abolish the term “master” was denounced by campus conservatives as yet another dialectical development in our contemporary obsession with political correctness and racial sensitivity. The hubbub began when Master Davis of Yale’s Pierson College emailed his students that he would no longer use the title. He reasoned that “master” inevitably conjures up the brutal legacy of American slavery, explaining “there should be no context in our society or in our university in which an African-American student, professor, or staff member—or any person, for that matter—should be asked to call anyone 'master.'”

The conservative response emphasized the deeply ahistorical nature of Master Davis’ thinking and the stupendous silliness of suggesting there is anything racially intimidating about the title of an individual whose primary professional function is to maintain the students’ multi-million dollar playpen. Several searing critiques—two written by friends of mine—argued persuasively that the title “master” derives not from American plantations, but from the halls of Oxford and Cambridge, where the term connoted a healthy respect for authority and wisdom. Yet rather than reflect further upon the history and meaning of the title, campus discussion pivoted to the more politically sensationalist debate over trigger warnings and safe spaces.

The debate over “master” of course does have a great deal to do with debates over race and free speech. But in so emphasizing that aspect of the issue, another deep implication of the controversy was overlooked: the traditional vision of education embodied in the term “master” is under siege by the corporatization of the university.

The charge that Yale is becoming too corporate means all things to all people, as a friend of mine described in an excellent article on the topic. From the Left, “corporatization” refers to the university’s neoliberal, profit-maximizing impulse that comes at the expense of workers’ rights. From the Right, it describes the elevation of efficiency-minded technocratic bureaucrats over professors and scholars.

Importantly, both conceptions of corporatization have much to do with the debate over the title, “master.” Mastery in the collegiate context refers not to political mastery over men, but intellectual and academic mastery over a craft. As a professor of mine put it, the term should invoke the wisdom of a Jedi Master or the artistic genius of Rembrandt and Vermeer, not the brutality of ante-bellum plantation politics. As Adam Smith explains:
All such incorporations were antiently called universities … The university of smiths, the university of taylors, &c. are expressions which we commonly meet with in the old charters of ancient towns. When those particular incorporations which are now peculiarly called universities were first established, the term of years which it was necessary to study, in order to obtain the degree of master of arts, appears evidently to have been copied from the term of apprenticeship in common trades, of which the incorporations were much more ancient. As to have wrought seven years under a master properly qualified, was necessary, in order to intitle any person to become a master, and to have himself apprentices in a common trade; so to have studied seven years under a master properly qualified, was necessary to entitle him to become a master, teacher, or doctor (words anciently synonimous) in the liberal arts, and to have scholars or apprentices (words likewise originally synonimous) to study under him.
The real argument that needs to made is one that endorses the vision of education embodied in the language of mastery—the vision of an essentially apprentice-based model of liberal learning. The title should be maintained precisely because it does not connote raw power, but rather expresses the rightly directed reverence and respect students ought to have for their teachers. This sort of reasoning can also help illustrate the conservative objection to a corporate model of university governance. We wish to preserve traditional modes of learning because of the values and ideals they promote. What looks like an inefficiency to the technocratic administrator is in fact an institution purposefully designed to make a distinctive kind of education possible.

We should be wary of ever-greater university centralization precisely because it undermines the traditional purpose of the university's academic structure. To apply the standards of bureaucratic efficiency to an institution oriented toward a radically different set of goods is to make a very basic and very dangerous category mistake. Indeed, the awkwardness of the title "master" in contemporary discourse illustrates our collective forgetting of its traditional meaning. That amnesia accompanies a radical re-conceptualization of the university, leading undergraduates to view of themselves as consumers empowered to customize their education and graduate students to view themselves as laborers deserving union representation.

The point then is that the title “master” is itself a positive good. It should be defended not only because of the ineptitude of its critics, but because the title embodies a rapidly disappearing vision of what college education should be. Just as the consolidation of power in the hands of distant bureaucrats undermines the academic character of the university, so too does abandoning these traditional linguistic bearers of respect and authority lead us ever-further away from that most noble purpose of college education.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Two Institutional Concepts of Liberty

Isaiah Berlin famously distinguishes between two concepts of liberty—negative liberty as the liberty of non-interference, and positive liberty as the liberty of self-actualization. Though the dichotomy is certainly imperfect, it remains valuable as a stylized contrast between two distinct attitudes toward—if not thick theories of—liberty. Added to this well-known antimony are to other dichotomies: Benjamin Constant’s distinction between the liberty of the ancients—liberty through self-rule—and the liberty of the moderns—liberty through non-interference; and more recently the reformulation of a “neo-Roman” or “Republican” conception of liberty as non-domination, as opposed to the liberal conception of liberty as non-interference.

To these three dichotomies can be added a fourth—less remarked upon in contemporary discussions, but critical in structuring political and philosophical debate throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (including in an especially explicit debate during the French Revolution): the institutional debate over whether liberty arises from centralized, consolidated power, or from diffuse, corporate cracks between competing sources of authority. Put another way, this debate concerns whether liberty arises from an alliance between the one (king) and the many (people) against the few (aristocracy), or if liberty arises as a product of the antagonism between a powerful aristocracy and relatively weak central authority.

Theorists of Consolidated Liberty include Thomas Hobbes, Jean Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, Adam Smith, and Alexander Hamilton, while theorists of Corporate Liberty include Baron de Montesquieu, Edmund Burke, the Anti-Federalists, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Benjamin Constant.

To the them, liberty can only arise once the ravenous aristocracy is brought to heel by a centralized state. In Adam Smith’s words:
The power of the nobles has always been brought to ruin before a system of liberty has been established, and this indeed must always be the case. For the nobility are the greatest opposers and oppressors of liberty we can imagine.
The hostility toward the few does not only apply to landed aristocracies, however. Further developing this basic pattern of thought, thinkers like Hobbes and Rousseau transform this critique into a philosophical assault against any “partial associations” which threaten the unity and the coherence of the political whole. So, Rousseau explains,
when intrigues and partial associations come into being at the expense of the large association, the will of each of these associations becomes general in relation to its members and particular in relation to the state … there is no longer a general will, and the opinion that dominates is merely a private opinion.
Liberty requires the rule of the general will, and for the general will to succeed all private and partial wills must be suppressed. Liberty arises, in other words, when the state is the people. As Hobbes explains in his famous discussion “Of Persons, Authors, and Things Impersonated” in chapter XVI of Leviathan and illustrates vividly in that text’s frontispiece, political representation dissolves any distinction between the agency of the state and the agency of the individual. In developing this theory of representation, Hobbes and Rousseau apply the critique of aristocracy to all corporate bodies—be they nobles, independent townships, or the church.

Against this view, theorists of Corporate Liberty argue that freedom arises not from an empowered central government, but to the contrary from the cracks that form in a society rich with competing sources of authority. It is the conflict between the few and the one embodied in the mediating institutions of civil society that create liberty for the many. The rule of law arises not as a de jure act of political will from above, but through the de facto limits on centralized power established by overlapping spheres of authority. The Magna Carta, on this view, was a remarkable achievement in the history of liberty that was made possible only by the conflict between barons and a monarchy both jealous of each other’s power.

The first great champion of this view is Montesquieu, who takes such mediating institutions to be the essential distinguishing feature between despotism and civilized monarchy: “If you abolish the prerogatives of the lords, clergy, nobility, and towns in a monarchy, you will soon have a popular state or else a despotic state.”

The great fear of such theorists is that rather than establishing liberty, the alliance between the atomized many and the all-powerful state will create a new kind of despotism more dangerous than anything that has been known before. Rather than quote once more my favorite Tocqueville passages on the new “tutelary” character of democratic despotism, I’ll cite Constant:
How bizarre that those who called themselves ardent friends of freedom have worked relentlessly to destroy the natural basis of patriotism, to replace it with a false passion for an abstract being, for a general idea deprived of everything which strikes the imagination and speaks to memory! How bizarre that to build an edifice, they have begun by crushing and reducing to powder all the materials they needed to use... [Individuals] detached from their native soil, with no contact with the past, living only in a swift-moving present and thrown like atoms on a monotonous plan, take no interest in a fatherland they nowhere perceive and whose totality becomes indifferent to them, because their affection cannot rest on any of its parts.
Following Montesquieu, Tocqueville and Constant further elaborate the defense of corporate liberty by once again broadening the set of institutions that can productively serve to check the incessant centralization of political power. Feudal institutions like the aristocracy and municipal liberties are not the only check against despotism, and indeed in the new inescapable democratic age, radically new institutions must be found to serve this most basic function. It is in this context that we must understand Tocqueville’s careful study of local townships, the jury, voluntary associations, and so much more in Democracy in America. Just as a “new political science is needed for a world altogether new,” so too must new institutions be found in democratic societies to serve as substitutes for the swiftly disappearing sources of feudal, aristocratic power.

I myself lean more toward the side of the corporate theorists, in this debate. It seems to me that the unique character of European history arises precisely from the lack of any proper centralized state in the mold of the “oriental despotisms” that dominate the rest of world history. Liberty, property rights, and the rule of law all seem to have arisen through the cracks created by competition among antagonistic authorities, not by fiat from a singular, all-powerful political authority.

But the debate remains useful today in thinking through contemporary challenges of political development not only in the West, but throughout the world. The new Washington Consensus on the centrality of institutions for economic development demands an explanation of how those institutions emerge in the first place. Do underdeveloped states require a centralized government to smash entrenched interests and oligarchs in order to secure the conditions of economic growth and political emancipation? Or might such centralization breed ever-more corruption and undermine the rule of law, which may arise (surprisingly) only with the support of otherwise apparently extractive oligarchs. I see no clear answer to this dilemma, though it serves as a fine example of how economic history, political theory, and the history of political thought have much to teach one another.