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.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The New York Times' Fascinating Definition of "Open-Mindedness"

From a piece in the NYT today on Peter Thiel, Trump, and Silicon Valley (emphasis mine):
A bigger problem than Mr. Trump’s policy ideas was his tone. Though Silicon Valley has well-known problems with diversity in its work force, people here pride themselves on a kind of militant open-mindedness. It is the kind of place that will severely punish any deviations from accepted schools of thought — see how Brendan Eich, the former chief executive of Mozilla, was run out of his job after it became public that he had donated to a campaign opposed to gay marriage. Mr. Trump’s comments about immigrants, women and so many other groups have made him a kind of kryptonite in Silicon Valley.
As a friend observes, nothing says "open-mindedness" like "severely punish[ing] any deviations from accepted schools of thought." We're moving quite fast from in loco parentis to, well, something else.

Another Unsurprisingly Dismal CBO Budget Projection

Last week the CBO issued its annual Long-Term Budget Outlook. The unsurprising verdict:
If current laws governing taxes and spending did not change, the United States would face steadily increasing federal budget deficits and debt over the next 30 years, according to projections by the Congressional Budget Office. Federal debt held by the public, which was equal to 39 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) at the end of fiscal year 2008, has already risen to 75 percent of GDP in the wake of a financial crisis and a recession. In CBO’s projections, that debt rises to 86 percent of GDP in 2026 and to 141 percent in 2046—exceeding the historical peak of 106 percent that occurred just after World War II. The prospect of such large debt poses substantial risks for the nation and presents policymakers with significant challenges.

Especially striking is the fact that in 20 years, the primary sources of mandatory spendingSocial Security, healthcare entitlements (including Obamacare, Medicare, and Medicaid), and debt interestwill consume virtually all of federal revenue. That means that after those three expenditures, every penny spent on defense, education, criminal justice, etc. will contribute to the deficit.

Also of note is that the spending projectionsdismal as they aredon't project any federal bailouts of the states. That may well be apt, as Washington may choose to force the bankrupt states to respond to their rapidly approaching fiscal day of reckoning with ferocious austerity. But with state unfunded pension liabilities somewhere between 1 and 3 trillion dollars, on top of nearly a trillion dollar of currently held public state debt, the bailout money may well soon be flowing.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Churchill or Coolidge?

My purpose in this post is to ask what kind of statesmanship is needed to rescue the American Right from itself. Does the GOP need Calvin Coolidge, or does it need Winston Churchill?

Coolidge is at first the obvious choice. The only president to fully confront the Leviathan of government, Coolidge and his seriousness, humility, and constitutionalist conviction are indispensable antidotes for the vacuity, celebrity, and grotesque caesarism of our political present. As Amity Shlaes, Coolidge’s most eloquent contemporary champion, reminds us, Silent Cal not only governed with a fiscal discipline and dedication to the rule of law that is sorely missed today; his modesty and Cincinnatian refusal to pursue personal power and fame embody the very principles of limited government and constitutionalism.

In words that could not be imagined in our strongman problem-solver fetishizing present, Coolidge explained that our system of government rests not on the charisma or brilliance of the president, but on the strength and wisdom of its institutions:

It is a great advantage to a President, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man. When a man begins to feel that he is the only one who can lead in this republic, he is guilty of treason to the spirit of our institutions.
It is easy to see why conservatives might pine for a Coolidge, a student and servant of the constitution, to take the reins in a time of such fiscal profligacy and social instability. But whom would Coolidge inspire?

On one reading, the sordid state of the American Right is the product primarily of poor policy choices and political betrayal by a cartel of corporatist elites. The problem is that Republican after Republican has paid lip-service to Coolidgeian principles, while governing as Wilsonian progressives—invading the world, inviting the world, and relentlessly expanding the size of the state. What’s needed is a true man of conservative principle, a man who is capable of resisting the siren call of statist public choice incentives.

On another view however, the plight of the American Right draws from a far deeper cultural crisis. A profound change in America's reigning orthodoxy and cultural dogma plagues American society and has brought about the rightwing populism of the day. Now is not the time for a withdrawn, committed constitutionalist. As Tocqueville famously exclaimed, a new political science is needed for a world altogether new. What is needed in our broken world today is an active, energetic leader who can simultaneously harness and tame these most vitriolic of populist impulses.

In a 1941 lecture, the great German émigré political theorist, Leo Strauss, sought to diagnose the conditions which gave rise to the “German Nihilism” of the 1930s and 40s. He sought to examine the spirit of reactionary anger which festered throughout the Weimar Republic and exploded in the form of Nazism and Hitler. Surprisingly perhaps, Strauss argued that this nihilism did not ultimately arise from nationalism or a militarist love of war. Those were merely symptoms of a profound act of moral protest against the new de-moralized world of “cultural bolshevism” and liberalism.

The new populism of the right stemmed not from a rejection of the ethical life, but from a “love of morality” and a sense “of responsibility for [an] endangered morality.” The new orthodoxy of a “pacified planet, without rulers or ruled, of a planetary society devoted to production and consumption only”—in other words, the empty orthodoxy of contemporary cosmopolitanism—was “positively horrifying” to a generation of young Germans. Arising from the moral debasement of the Enlightenment and French Revolution, the new nihilists rebelled against their elites' deflated conflation of the moral life with merely “an attitude of claiming one’s rights, or with enlightened self-interest, or the reduction of honesty to the best policy.” This modern “mercenary morality” and its hackneyed teachers had nothing to offer. As such, the young nihilists became the dedicated enemies of modern civilization, turning instead to a new coterie of post-Nietzschean philosophers who sought to purify the land of its putrid, liberal pieties.

What then could have saved these young nihilists from Nazism? To Strauss, the answer is Winston Churchill. Only a Churchill could have quenched their thirst for vigorous, virile leadership. A Coolidgeian dedication to quaint 19th century ideas could not have tamed their Nietzschean angst. But by embracing aristocratic means in service of a threatened constitutional order, Churchill succeeded in humanizing rule in a liberal democracy. Paradoxically perhaps, the man who saved a Whiggish political order did so not through a reinforcement of enduring constitutional institutions, but through an act of spectacular, political will.

Only an aristocrat, Strauss suggests, can save democracy from itself. Only Churchill, a man steeped in the heroic, militaristic ethos of an earlier age, could productively channel the irascibly nihilistic impulses brought on by the new democratic orthodoxy.

This leaves us with a puzzle for contemporary politics. Who best can preserve the principles of our liberal order? Do we need a Coolidge, a man who in every respect embodies political restraint and a quiet respect for the law? Or do we need a Churchill, a man who vigorously preserved English liberty through the flamboyant pursuit of his own heroic kleos?

I’m not quite sure what the answer is, but one thing is certain: the GOP won't be nominating a Coolidge or a Churchill any time soon (though Mr. Trump is likely closer to one than to the other).

(NB, the above of course is not sustained, rigorous argument of any sort. It is instead a brief, fanciful reflection concerning a *highly* stylized contrast).

Update: It has come to my attention courtesy of Professor Shlaes' twitter feed that this sort of dichotomy was not lost on Coolidge's opponents in the Democratic Party, who in 1924 called for a "Paul Revere" instead of a "Sphinx" to be the next American president.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Trump, Tocqueville, and the Leveling of America's Mediating Institutions

In the current cover story for The Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch—consistently one of the commentariat’s most original voices— diagnoses the causes of America’s “insane” political present. On Rauch’s basic story, contemporary political dysfunction follows from well-intentioned, democratic reforms meant to eliminate corruption, weaken the power of parties, and make the political process more transparent. By undermining the elitist influence formerly wielded by shadowy elites, it was precisely these reforms that have devastated the only institutions capable of rendering coherent the chaos of mass politics:
It begins with the weakening of the institutions and brokers—political parties, career politicians, and congressional leaders and committees—that have historically held politicians accountable to one another and prevented everyone in the system from pursuing naked self-interest all the time. As these intermediaries’ influence fades, politicians, activists, and voters all become more individualistic and unaccountable. The system atomizes. Chaos becomes the new normal—both in campaigns and in the government itself.
There is a great deal of truth in Rauch’s account. So much truth, in fact, that the article can fairly be described as a variation on a Tocquevilliean theme. For just as Tocqueville saw 150 years ago (and Montesquieu 150 years before that), the destruction of intermediary institutions is a sure path to political turmoil. But in a sense, Rauch does not go far enough in examining the nature and effects of the decline of American institutional life. His piece emphasizes how electoral and institutional reforms have undermined Congress’s sausage-making ability to reach needed legislative compromises. To that end, he carefully and compellingly describes how weakened national political institutions like parties lost their once sacrosanct power to mediate and moderate the wishes of the many. What Rauch neglects, however, is the hollowing out of American institutions not merely horizontally at the highest levels of national government, but at all levels of contemporary social and political life. It is this hollowing out which has made possible the collapse of once impregnable American institutions, and which must be explained in order to understand the perversity of our political moment. 

Our constitution, both in its parchment barriers and in its unwritten localist premises, has traditionally served to check the more pernicious tendencies of mass politics. In serving as trusted authorities, habituating men in the norms of political self-rule, and limiting the sweeping conflation of the people with the state, institutional life has historically safeguarded the sanity of American politics. As these institutional barriers are swept aside, we not only undermine sorely needed mechanisms of aristocratic lawmaking—the phenomenon Rauch describes—we lay the groundwork for an ever-more empowered, bureaucratized, administrative state. 

But what is it about contemporary American politics that is so inimical to intermediary institutions? To Tocqueville, the explanation lies in the great paradox of democracy, which sees everywhere the twin forces of egalitarian individualism and despotic consolidation march hand in hand. Democratic men are taught from a young age to “despise all outward forms,” and to trust only their own judgment in all things. Thinking themselves inferior to no man, such democrats refuse to accept any external men or institutions as epistemic authorities. As Tocqueville explains, however, the philosophical skepticism in the judgment or authority of any particular man leads Americans irresistibly to place absolute trust in the judgment and authority of all men. From the basic premise that all men are equal in their access to the truth springs a deep faith in the collected judgments of the great mass of mankind:
As citizens become more equal and alike, each individual’s penchant to believe blindly in a certain man or certain class diminishes. The disposition to believe in the mass increases, and the world comes increasingly under the sway of public opinion. … In times of equality, men have no faith in one another because of their similarity, but that same similarity gives them almost unlimited confidence in the judgment of the public, because it seems unlikely to them that, everyone being equally enlightened, truth should not lie with the greater number.
In this respect, the unquestioned authority of majoritarian judgment derives straightforwardly from individualistic and egalitarian moral convictions. The unrelenting logic of such convictions leads not to the sacred defense of each individual’s judgment, but to the ascent of the people—with the definite article­­—as the ultimate source of all power and authority. And where there is a singular people, there is a singular embodiment of popular sovereignty. "L'état c'est moi" becomes the faceless, bureaucratic administrative state, and ultimately, perhaps, "L'état c'est Trump."

Intermediate institutions—or “partial associations” as Rousseau dismisses them—are anywhere and everywhere the enemy of the people. Such institutions introduce hierarchy and order in political life, but are incompatible with the irresistible effort to establish a singular embodiment of popular sovereignty. 

Local political practices, for example, are described by Tocqueville as the indispensable “primary schools” of freedom. Through local political participation the citizen “habituates himself to the forms without which freedom proceeds only through revolutions … gets a taste for order … and finally assembles clear and practical ideas on the nature of his duties as well as the extent of his rights.” This habituation thus tempers the citizens’ otherwise crude, populist impulses, just as our system of political representation was designed to “refine and enlarge the public views.”

Organized religion, too, once played a central role in guiding citizens’ political judgments. In establishing legitimate authorities independent of majoritarian opinion, such religious leaders and institutions were capable of constructively curtailing the celebrity of the vulgar and base. A symptom of the phenomenon termed “Bad Religion” by Ross Douthat, the decline of organized despite persistently high levels of personal theistic belief has led to a whole host of adverse social outcomes. One of those outcomes, as JD Vance points out, is the extraordinary political divergence between observant and non-observant self-described evangelicals. Evangelical populations that regularly attend church were far more likely to support Cruz, while evangelicals who rarely attend church were far more likely to support Trump. If that isn't evidence of the civilizing force of organized religion, I don't know what is.

Robust local government and organized religion are but two of the many intermediary institutions relentlessly swept aside by the democratic and egalitarian leveling of anything that stands between the citizen and the state. This leveling not only lays fertile soil for celebrities-cum demagogues to flourish amidst unchecked national populism, it also aggregates more and more power to an administrative state that speaks merely in the name of the people. The people, no longer to be represented through a diffuse, patchwork set of political and cultural associations, must now be represented intact through the bureaucratized state. In Barney Frank’s immortal words, “Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.” In the new political landscape, there are no mediating institutions of civil society, there is only the individual and the state.

While he recognized the threat of a conventional demagogic tyrant (seen especially in the form of Andrew Jackson), Tocqueville was primarily concerned with a new form of essentially democratic despotism. True self-government requires the active, difficult work of participation channeled by political institutions and civic associational life. Once those mediating institutions are dismantled, however, political rule falls exclusively to a removed, distant, depersonalized state, which purports to rule in the name of the people while stripping them of all real agency:
The sovereign, after taking individuals one by one in his powerful hands and kneading them to his liking, reaches out to embrace society as a whole. Over it he spreads a fine mesh of uniform, minute, and complex rules, through which not even the most original minds and most vigorous souls can poke their heads above the crowd. He does not break men’s wills but softens, bends, and guides them. He seldom forces anyone to act but consistently opposes action. He does not destroy things but prevents them from coming into being. Rather than tyrannize, he inhibits, represses, saps, stifles, and stultifies, and in the end he reduces each nation to nothing but a flock of timid and industrious animals, with the government as its shepherd.
The state becomes "de jure a subordinate agent but de facto a master."

Rauch’s incisive lament of the loss of power-brokers, political parties, and aristocratic secrecy helpfully points us to the central role mediating institutions play in a free society. But the leveling of such institutions in the name of democratic equality has done far more than render national politics more polarized and dysfunctional. It has inaugurated a new era of democratic despotism perhaps even more insidious than the most dangerous of demagogic tyrannies.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Happy Bastille Day!

Deprived of the old government, deprived in a manner of all government, France, fallen as a monarchy, to common speculators might have appeared more likely to be object of pity or insult, according to the disposition of the circumjacent powers, than to be the scourge and terror of them all: but out of the tomb of the murdered Monarchy in France has arisen a vast, tremendous, unformed spectre, in a far more terrific guise than any which ever yet have overpowered the imagination and subdued the fortitude of man. Going straight forward to its end, unappalled by peril, unchecked by remorse, despising all common maxims and all common means, that hideous phantom overpowered those who could not believe it was possible she could at all exist. 
-- Edmund Burke as quoted in the opening pages of Alexis de Tocqueville's Ancien Regime

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Marxism and America’s Contemporary Public Philosophy

What follows is an edited version of an email I sent to a discussion/reading group on The German Ideology some friends of mine are running.
The division of labour offers us the first example of how … man’s own deed becomes an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him. For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a shepherd, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic … out of this very contradiction between the interest of the individual and that of the community the latter takes an independent form as the State, divorced from the real interests of individual and community. (The German Ideology, 160)
My Argument in Brief

I make three central claims in light of this justly celebrated passage. The exegetical claim argues that the German Ideology is a work essentially concerned with a theory of human emancipation and freedom. The sociological claim argues that despite explicit protestations to the contrary, this Marxian vision of freedom is the central normative aspiration of America’s public philosophy today. And the normative claim argues that this underlying vision of freedom constitutes a deeply insidious dogma and sociological menace in contemporary society.  

My argument, in summary: (1) The German Ideology is about freedom; (2) Most liberal Westerners have come to endorse something very close to the Marxist vision of freedom; and (3) This vision of freedom must be rejected.

My hope is that these three crude, overly-simplistic propositions is to challenge some of the standard-fare conservative instinctive critiques of Marxism. Indeed, an implication of my argument is that many American conservatives unknowingly share this basic Marxist normative vision.