Saturday, June 16, 2018

One Bad Argument in Favor of Free Speech

I generally have an ambiguous attitude toward free speech. In some spheres we profit from a healthy, free exchange of ideas. In other spheres, guidance and regulation of discourse are required for intellectual and social advancement. So I am skeptical of any simple account of free speech as a universal principle. I favor a more piece-meal approach.

But there is one argument in favor of free speech—an argument especially popular in contemporary defenses of campus free speech—that strikes me as especially weak. This is a version of the argument that sometimes goes: The best way to combat bad speech is with better speech. The specific species of this argument I object to is one that insists that we shouldn’t censor bad, dangerous, ideas; we should combat them with better arguments. The best way to defeat bad ideas is through intellectual refutation.

There is an empirical premise here I find highly dubious. Namely, the premise that ideas operate as some kind of marketplace tending toward better quality over time. I don’t think that’s true of the economy, let alone ideas. (Something like the opposite is often true in both realms)

But that’s not my major objection. It seems to me that this is the wrong way to think about the value of hearing opposing viewpoints. The only good reason for an undergraduate to go to any lecture, seminar, or debate is if the undergraduate thinks he or she will learn something from the event.

That kind of learning can fall into a couple categories. (1) We might attend a lecture on a topic we know nothing about to replace ignorance with knowledge. This is why we might go to a lecture on  late developments in the field of Egyptology, for example. (2) We might attend a lecture given by someone with whom we disagree so that we can take seriously their arguments in order to evaluate our own. This is the classic JS Mill case. A liberal should listen to thoughtful conservative arguments in order to critically assess his or her own views. (3) We might attend a lecture given by someone with whom we disagree so that we can sociologically understand why it is that so many people hold what we take to be bad ideas. This is why we might (might!) be interested in hearing someone from the KKK, for example. Not because we want to critically assess our own opposition to white supremacy, but because it can be sociologically illuminating to understand why some people hold views we take to be so repellent. In some cases (though not in the KKK case), this kind of sociological knowledge might be helpful in indirectly shaping our own views. Trying to understand why people voted for a candidate we abhor might help us think through how "our side" can better respond to these people's genuine grievances, for example.

But it’s silly to attend a lecture just so we can ask aggressive questions or attempt to refute the speaker. If a student thinks from the outset that he has nothing to learn from a given talk, then he shouldn’t go! If he does go, he should be open to learning something new. And if we are convinced that a particular speaker won't help us learn anything new, then it is difficult to see why that speaker should be invited at all.

(I've written about campus speech issues here and here).

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Where Radical Democrats Meet Traditionalist Conservatives

I've written a blog post at Law and Liberty comparing Patrick Deneen's new book to the radical democratic political philosopher, Sheldon Wolin. There are more patterns in thinking here worth pursuing. (As a biographical aside, Deneen was a student of Wilson Carey McWilliams, who was himself a student of Sheldon Wolin). McWilliams' thought as well appears to be suffused with the democratic spirit that animates Deneen and Wolin. The same can be said of John Schaar, whose marvelous critique of equal opportunity is worth reading alongside Deneen's recent piece on our modern meritocratic elites.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

True Liberalism Will Not Save Us

It is useful to periodically give succinct statement to some of the conceptual paradigms we rely on. Here's one that often structures my thinking about contemporary politics. It is an illiberal, pessimistic reaction against the impulse to blame our political present on some departure from "true liberalism." I often take a more aggressive diagnosis: Liberalism is to blame and liberalism is in no way part of the solution. The kind of cultural progressivism that produces a Caesarist like Trump is not a departure from America's original creed. It is the natural result of the American commitment to individual liberty and the equality of conditions. One need not be a strict historical determinist to believe that the Geist of a given people at any time is significantly more receptive to ideas that validate its shared values than to those that challenge them. This was Tocqueville's great insight: the nature of the democratic regime inclines any people that adopts it toward certain ideas, sentiments, prejudices, and mores. And the incline is steep, so steep that an attempt to climb back up by the way one came is simply not possible. 

This is not to say that it is in principle impossible to stave off the destructive dialectic of liberalism. But it remains the case that whole peoples do not really think in terms of arguments or conceptual possibilities. They migrate from sentiment to sentiment, which process, because mostly unconscious, is almost wholly governed by the regime's semi-sacred values (in our case liberty, equality, and autonomy). So while it remains theoretically possible for a democratic/liberal people to resist centralization, social atomism, and the provident state, the practical likelihood that it will happen is not high. The deck is stacked. Fisher Ames was not wholly right, but he was more right than wrong when he predicted that it was "ordained" for the American democracy that "its vice will govern it, by playing upon its folly." While I do not expect progressivism to remain in the driver's seat of history forever, I don't think the way out is the way from which we came. 

Like I said, this is a simplistic way to approach the complexities of actual political life. If relied on in excess, any paradigm obscures more than it reveals. Mono-causality in history is, in general, to be avoided. After all, a country is not a dialectic. It is not a set of ideas unfolding in history. A country is...a country. It is a great bundle of contradictions, constituted by peoples and cultures, not premises and conclusions. The role of the critic is to bring out the best of that contradictory heritage while resisting the worst of it. Still, we would all stand to benefit from a healthy dose of kulturpessimisus from time to time, and conservatives in particular would do well to abandon their insistence that progressivism is some kind of alien pathogen attacking our otherwise pure, liberal republic.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Populism, Technocracy, and the Liberal Critique of Democracy

Democracy is not much in fashion among liberals today. Reeling from the perceived disasters of Trump and Brexit—and the near misses of Le Pen and Corbyn—many of today’s most perceptive liberal commentators have rediscovered every traditional elites distaste for demotic populism. Even as they excoriate red states for curtailing voting rights, a growing body of intellectuals vigorously campaigns to devalue the vote as much as possible. The hope is that further empowering a class of sober experts and technocrats can counteract the hysterical extremes of mass democracy. There are good reasons to embrace such a thesis. After all, American school children are still rightly taught that ours is a republican form of government, not a direct democracy. Long after the death of Socrates, we know better than to place untrammeled faith in The People.

But today’s defenses of elite rule leave much to be desired. It is easy enough to lament the decisions of the demos. It is easier still to succumb to the technocratic temptation: If democracy is the problem, less democracy is the solution. But as the most assiduous students of American politics have always understood, democracy in this country is a providential fact. The impulse to push it aside and to ignore popular sentiment will inevitably result in evermore explosive reaction. Even with the most sophisticated of institutional implements, populism cannot be excised like a tumor from the body politic. It must be tamed through the hard work of deliberation and persuasion. Neither simplistic plebiscitary elections nor simplistic technocratic autonomy will adequately balance the legitimate demands of deliberative independence within our government with a respect for popular opinion within our society. For the diseases most incident to democratic government, only democratic remedies will do. The problem is too little politics, not too much. 

The liberal critique of democracy

Examples of liberalism’s rediscovery of the elite critique of democracy are not hard to find. Indeed, vulgar versions of Plato’s critique of the demos spring aggressively from the nation’s storied liberal institutions. In a recent issue of the New Yorker Adam Gopnik takes aim at one of the few intact elements of America’s national mythology: the moral triumphalism of the American Revolution. Revisiting the legacy of America’s founding is, of course, nothing new. Intellectual conservatives from Fisher Ames to Russell Kirk have always agonized over the Enlightenment faith of our novus ordo seclorum. Progressives since Charles Beard (or rather William Lloyd Garrison) have celebrated the Revolution’s emancipatory promise while lamenting its suffocation by a conservative constitutional settlement. But a left-liberal critique of the American Revolution itself—specifically of the radical democratic principles underlying it—is relatively rare in our history.

Yet this is precisely the line Gopnik takes. He suggests that we might all be better off had our colonial rebellion been snuffed out from the start. Using categories from recent works of history by Justin Du Rivage, Alan Taylor, and Holger Hoock, Gopnik laments the triumph of Radical Whiggism over Authoritarian Reformism in resolving the American Question. The former camp—which counted as members the entire founding generation—championed Enlightenment ideals and an abiding democratic faith. The Authoritarian Reformers, on the other hand, were the managers and technocrats of the day. Their members included such forgotten figures as William Murray and Matthew Decker. Though guided by relatively humane, liberal moral sentiments, Gopnik’s reformers were far from enthusiastic partisans for utopian transformation. They were experts and bureaucrats, immune from great swings of popular fervor and uniquely capable of driving the nation toward her true interests.

Gopnik suggests that the path of Authoritarian Reform might have been wiser than the bold experiment in republicanism we began. Under their sober rule, America might even have ended slavery without a civil war. As the piece’s title insists, “We Could Have Been Canada.” Orson Welles’ Switzerland too may serve as a counterfactual ideal: instead of warfare and genius, centuries of peace and cuckoo clocks.

It may help to understand Gopnik’s preferred regime of technocratic governance by imagining the state as a massive corporation, managed not by voters and their elected representatives, but by a board of shareholders. The shareholders are each invested in the long-term wellbeing of the polity. That interest allows them to see beyond the hysteria of today’s demotic demands. They are uninspiring men, of course. Bureaucrats always are. But that too is a feature, not a bug, of the system. Inspiration breeds utopian enthusiasm and the cult of charisma. These, Gopnik warns, lead on to “theatrical violence” and Trump.

(As an aside, if that analogy is just, Gopnik finds himself with some surprising ideological bedfellows. The reconceptualization of the state as a firm and its rulers as shareholders is prominently laid out by Mencius Moldbug, a leading alt-right figure of online “neoreaction.” Of course, sharing a particular ideal of political governance with such a thinker need not imply anything about Gopnik or the view—or about Moldbug, for that matter. But pointing out such intellectual concatenations is one of the more amusing pastimes available to us amidst the crisis of today’s political institutions.)

Gopnik’s historical counterfactual of America as Canada is best read as playful and provocative, not as historically rigorous conjecture. It is silly, after all, to believe that America’s brutal racial history would have been painlessly erased if only bureaucrats had more power. With a fifth of the nation enslaved at the founding and with slavery economically flourishing throughout the early nineteenth century, our country seems to have been destined for a bloody end to that chapter of our history, regardless.   

Still, Gopnik’s ruminations can helpfully broaden our imaginings of what an America without (or with less) democracy might look like. That theme is picked up in a more scholarly tone in a recent paper by Jonathan Rauch and Ben Wittes. Both senior fellows at Brookings, another of our nation’s august liberal institutions (and my current employer), Rauch and Wittes make explicit the core assumption implicit in Gopnik’s essay: The American electorate is too ignorant to be trusted with the serious business of governing.

Working readers through a body of empirical research that is by now old hat to political scientists, the paper catalogs the myriad respects in which voters are incapable of making complex policy judgments. It’s not that voters are stupid. They are just rationally ignorant—too busy with life to develop the expertise needed for judicious policymaking. Of course, Rauch and Wittes chafe at the suggestion that they are somehow anti-democratic. They run through a cursory discussion of democracy’s various moral advantages and of the political legitimacy conferred by episodic elections. One need not be a dedicated Straussian, however, to read that portion of the argument as a bit of esoteric misdirection.

Nevertheless, Rauch and Wittes rightly point out how progressive efforts to democratize the political process have produced much of the political sclerosis that now afflicts us. Building off Rauch’s fine essay in the Atlantic last year (about which I blogged at the time), they argue that transparency comes at the expense of compromise. Political reforms that weaken party bosses and equalize campaign financing unintentionally favor charismatic demagogues who can bypass the enabling constraints of back-room deals and the quid pro quo.

There is a great deal of truth in all this. Effective political deliberation requires space between voters and legislators. A golden mean must be struck between outright political corruption and unrelenting popular pressure. If an earlier moment of American politics was too extreme with respect to the former, today’s political culture suffers from the opposite plight. Who, after all, can recognize Publius’ sagacious upper house in the actual workings of the American Senate?

Unfortunately, Rauch and Wittes’ prescription is ill suited to the disease they diagnose. They call for an invigoration of America’s “intermediary institutions,” a category under which they unhelpfully lump everything from the Democratic National Committee to the National Security Agency to the Federal Reserve Board. The only discernible thread unifying these various institutions is their common anti-populist character. But intermediary institutions in the spirit of Tocqueville and Madison aren’t just mechanistic barriers that obstruct popular opinion. They certainly serve to temper populist impulses, but they do so by channeling prejudice, not by blocking it. Their essential purpose, in Madison’s memorable telling, is to “refine and enlarge” the public views. With this ultimate telos in mind, only some of Rauch and Wittes’ preferred institutional reforms will do. Greater privacy in legislative deliberations will help; empowering unaccountable bureaucrats won’t.

Rauch and Wittes focus overwhelmingly on the checks-and-balances within the national government. But that’s only part of the story. Many of our most important mediating institutions aren’t constitutional veto-points; they are the spaces between voters and the national government. Everything from local government and political parties to organized religion and the media must be considered. Schools and workplaces are especially indispensable loci of citizen formation and education. Focusing excessively on parchment barriers, Rauch and Wittes exhibit a classic liberal conceit. They aim to construct the state as a kind of perpetual motion machine, capable of churning out progress regardless of what inputs are thrown in. Precisely because most citizens spend so little time thinking about national politics—the cause of the ignorance Rauch and Wittes diagnose—politics needs to begin from the worlds most people do inhabit. Both institutionally and culturally, a democratic politics must meet voters where they are.

The wisdom in prejudice

The anti-democratic turn in liberalism has no shortage of scholarly antecedents to draw upon. Recent work in political philosophy and political science—Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels’ Democracy for Realists, Jason Brennan’s Against Democracy, and Ilya Somin’s Democracy and Political Ignorance—forms the regular basis of highbrow critiques of populism. But better guide to the complexities of democratic life is Bryan Garsten’s 2006 defense of rhetoric and politics, Saving Persuasion. Garsten brings out the roots of today’s liberal ambivalence toward democratic politics. His chapters on Hobbes, Rousseau, and Kant make painfully clear the typically unspoken premises that guide Gopnik, Rauch, and Wittes. The canonical figures of early modernity cut to the core of our contemporary discontent with democracy. Democratic politics relies on the judgment of the people, but that judgment is so often commandeered by the demagogic forces of zealotry and factionalism. Few observers emerging from the horrors of Europe’s sectarian history could place much confidence in popular wisdom. The only solution, Hobbes and his intellectual successors declare, is to alienate private judgment, to chain oneself to the public reason of the sovereign. Individual citizens are too unreliable a ground to build a stable politics. Their private judgments must be restricted to the ever-shrinking confines of a private sphere.

Garsten’s readers cannot help but sympathize with the retreat from a politics of rhetoric. A Kantian sovereignty of scholars easily seems preferable to the whims of public opinion. But the attendant technocratic temptation to sever private judgment from the work of government simply will not do in a society like our own. Perhaps a purer aristocracy could flourish in a different place or a different time—on this front, western political thinkers may be guilty of an excessive ideological imperialism. But for all our constitution’s institutional complexity, Tocqueville reminds us, there is no such thing as a “mixed regime.” A deep democratic spirit is our national patrimony. That is no counsel of fatalistic despair, it is a call for us to preserve and to elevate the best in our democratic tradition.

Rauch and Wittes rightly point to intermediary institutions as needed remedies, but they give no way to identify what those institutions are beyond not being democratic. Garsten provides a sounder point of departure: a commitment to deliberation and rhetoric. An obsession with voters’ ignorance leads many to minimize the role of these foundational democratic practices. But as Garsten reminds us, that impulse invariably proves counterproductive:
Liberal strategies of political and moral disengagement, strategies that ask in one way or another for citizens to allow their private judgments to be replaced by judgments made from a separate public perspective, tend to produce forms of opinion more dogmatic and less prone to deliberative engagement than those they initially sought to displace. (Garsten, 185).
Today’s liberal critics of democracy join the early moderns in warning us that public debate and deliberation reward zealotry and demagoguery. That fear of sectarianism leads liberalism to elevate sovereign “public reason” over factious “private reason.” The aim is to demoralize politics, to take ideology out of public debate. Government must be built around agreement over mutually beneficial political procedures, not a thick conception of the good. The goal is a politics of dispassionate reason, often best administered by an insulated, independent political class.

But as Leo Strauss pointed out in a 1941 lecture on the rise of rightwing “German Nihilism,” the attempt to remove life’s most consequential moral debates from politics is itself the cause of the most dangerous forms of populist reaction. Instead of bypassing the dangers of passion, the liberal regime breeds deep discontent. Few will long be satisfied by “the prospect of a pacified planet, without rulers and ruled, of a planetary society devoted to production and consumption only.” Moral passions are inescapable features of human psychology. If repeatedly frustrated and ignored, they produce revolution, not pacification. The democrat’s task is to take seriously these deep-seated convictions, not to relegate them to an increasingly narrow private sphere.

The past two years have witnessed populist backlash throughout the West against an unaccountable “political class.” It almost beggars belief that so many commentators respond by calling for less accountability and more technocratic governance. In America, the Supreme Court’s usurpation of so many issues from the public domain has hardened popular discontent, eliminating the cathartic possibilities of politics. Likewise, the accretion of power in our administrative state has radically empowered the presidency at the expense of the Congress, destroying the possibility of legislative deliberation and transforming presidential elections into precisely the plebiscitary referenda liberals fear. How can it be responsible to react to such phenomena with a call for more technocracy?

Institutional reforms are needed to confront the dangers of a populist politics. But those reforms must entail a commitment to tutoring and refining the wisdom embodied in popular opinion. At its best, democracy begins from a basic respect for the beliefs and emotions of ordinary people. Yet that is the opposite of what is accomplished by the moralizing lectures that dominate contemporary politics. Cultural elites no longer see themselves as embedded within a common culture. As the Onion captured with characteristic clarity, they too often see themselves as the possessors of a special wisdom. “If only the people weren’t so ignorant...” the lamentation runs. “If only they could consume the emancipatory tonic of reason.”

Rhetoric, Garsten reminds us, is the forgotten link between popular and elite opinion. It is the means by which political elites respect ordinary people’s convictions, while aiming to persuade them of something new. Through this back and forth, we rule and are ruled in turn. Rhetoric, therefore, is in large part the art of trust-production. But today, much of the American elite has abandoned that art. Millions of America have lost all trust in established organs of elite opinion. In moderation, that skepticism is a healthy feature of our democratic culture. But it is taken to unbearable extremes when fueled by transparent disdain from the nation's progressive elite. Trump’s call to “Build the Wall” was widely understood by supporters not as a serious campaign promise, but as evidence that this candidate actually respected people's deep-seated concerns surrounding immigration and identity. Likewise, the visceral condemnation of “political correctness” popular today on the political right reflects the deep disrespect many Americans experience from their social betters.

Importantly, respect for popular prejudice isn’t just a demand of prudence. It reflects a genuine appreciation of the wisdom latent within popular opinion. Bill Buckley’s famous quip that he would rather submit our government to the first 100 names in the Boston phone book than to the Harvard faculty was not simply a denunciation of our elite. It was a reflection of the close connection between popular prejudice and the truth. In the case of immigration, for example, the bipartisan refusal to engage with popular discontent wasn’t just politically unwise. It was a major mistake as a matter of public policy.

With an academic and professional class increasingly detached from these founts of popular wisdom and common sense, we risk falling victim to the ideology of a self-contained clique. If a class of people or a set of views is systematically ignored, the merits of their beliefs are easily overlooked. Their genuine grievances go unanswered, challenging popular trust in government and undermining the public weal. 

As the anti-federalists were quick to point out during the ratification debates, a ruling class that fails to resemble the country loses its legitimacy and is more inclined to govern in the interest of the narrow, ruling class it does represent. More recently, Jane Mansbridge has revived the case for descriptive representation. As she argues, being represented by people like you is a valuable means of keeping the government responsive to the opinions and interests of a wider share of the country.

Of course, popular prejudice can harbor insidious strands of bigotry and self-interest. If left in its crudest forms, it can be dangerous and myopic. All the more necessary then that we preserve the means of its refinement. Corrupt views cannot be bludgeoned out of the popular consciousness. They must be respected and engaged through the dedicated appeal to shared values and collective identity. A commitment to a politics of deliberation takes seriously the liberal critique of populist democracy, while proposing a more workable and desirable political alternative.

What then is to be done? An indispensable first step is a renaissance of legislative authority. As Richard Reinsch argues, a Congress willing to reassert its constitutional powers will go a long way in restoring a more deliberative tenor to our politics. Reforms within the Congress will help as well. Rauch and Wittes’ call for greater secrecy in legislative deliberations reflects a genuine need for more independence from constant public oversight. At the same time, devolving political decision-making to more local levels of government is needed to restore mediating institutions between the citizens and Washington. Most overlooked, however, is the need to re-train a people that is losing its taste and its capacity for judgment. As all aspects of our society grow increasingly rigid and routinized, our social institutions no longer provide a sorely needed education in practical wisdom. There is no quick fix to that problem. It demands a broader cultural shift in favor of more humane workplaces and deliberative social institutions.

Addressing our society’s deep cultural pathologies will be enormously difficult. Technocracy offers what appears to be a convenient shortcut. But if history is any guide, aristocratic prescriptions are no cure for democratic ills. Arbitrarily restricting public debate by empowering unelected judges and experts will only inflame populist hostility and social dysfunction.


Institutional and cultural reform is needed to protect a fragile politics of deliberation. Today, that politics finds itself under siege from both mass democracy and elite pretensions of enlightenment. Through deliberative politics, we do not disregard and denounce unconsidered prejudice. Instead, we respect the wisdom embodied in popular opinion, as well as the wisdom needed to refine and enlarge the public views. 

In a free society, sovereignty cannot be singularly located in any individual or institution. Layers of overlapping authorities provide the institutional infrastructure of any humane political community. It is just as dangerous to glorify national referenda as it is to place excessive faith in the wisdom of experts. There is no authoritative voice of The People. There is nothing magic about the opinion of a naked majority. Brexit and Trump command no profound legitimacy as the expression of popular sovereignty. Still, such results can be valuable rebukes of a political class thoroughly out of touch with significant segments of the country. The revolt against the Establishment throughout the West is a crude corrective from an enraged Tribunate. We ignore the Tribune’s warnings at our peril.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Nationalize Facebook, Twitter, and Google

Ross Douthat has admirably announced that he will be outlining a set of ambitious policy proposals. As I remarked (in full seriousness) on Twitter, I hope Douthat's forthcoming series will include discussions of worker cooperatives (or at least profit sharing) and a full-throated defense of ludditry (burn the machine!)

Inspired by Douthat's example, I would like to outline a radical idea of my own: The federal government should take control of Facebook, Twitter, and (especially) Google. I of course do not fully agree with that proposition. But it is worth serious consideration.

Social media companies have come to constitute the American public sphere. All political, moral, economic, and social debate in this country is now mediated through a handful of privately-run online platforms. It isn't just that these corporations contribute to public discourse, they define it. Given that reality of contemporary mass society, it has become painfully clear that social media exerts disproportionate control over our politics. The power of Facebook et al. to ban certain voices and ideas and to promote others is tantamount to the power of adjudicating what views are and are not acceptable in American social life. Likewise, Google has amassed more information on the American citizenry than any secret police in history could ever dream of collecting. As its extraordinary economic, cultural, and political power continue to expand, Google has plainly emerged as the quasi-sovereign East India Company of our day.

The more power these companies come to command, the more our political rights of speech and participation will be reduced to nothing more than mere parchment guarantees. As social media platforms become not merely participants in social discourse, but the foundation of civil society itself, they will need to be made accountable to political oversight and control. Of course mass exit could undermine that monopolistic power. But the degree to which Facebook et al. have ingrained themselves in social life makes that possibility rather remote.

Following the Citizens United decision, much of the political Left in this country insisted that democracy as we knew it was dead. That reaction was, it seems to me, entirely overblown. But you need not believe that a corporation's ability to purchase a 30 second political commercial on TV constitutes an illicit form of corporate corruption to agree with me that the ability to control who may or may not speak in the nation's de facto public sphere is nothing short of totalitarian plutocracy.

As I said at the top, I am of course not entirely serious about this proposal. I'm not sure if it would be legally possible, and I worry it would be altogether unwise. I certainly do not put much faith in the federal government as a guarantor of free speech. But I put substantially less faith in the judgment of a cadre of barely post-pubescent, trans-humanist, "militantly open-minded," rootless, innovation-worshiping, technocratic tech junkies in Silicon Valley. (Some, I assume, are good people). Put another way, the federal government seems far less likely than Mark Zuckerberg to take teacher-of-princes Mark Tushnet's advice to heart.

Some degree of federal involvement and accountability, then, may be necessary. But I am open to other proposals. A former professor of mine, for example, has suggested that Facebook be democratized from within. Another possibility would be to regulate social media platforms as public utilities with respect to speech issues. There are difficulties with these views as well, but that the prescription may be imperfect does not mean that the malignancy isn't there.

So that's the second radical idea I have proposed on this blog. The first, I suppose, was banning usury. I take this one somewhat more seriously. A related soon-to-be mainstream view of mine is that aspiring tyrant Mark Zuckerberg should be immediately ostracized. But that's a topic for a later post.

Patriotism, Nationalism, and Loyalty

Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru's recent defense of nationalism in the cover story for National Review launched a bit of a debate among conservative commentators. Lowry and Ponnuru's qualified defense of nationalism was critiqued by Jonah Goldberg, who drew a line between nationalism--a cultural loyalty to one's tribe--and patriotism--a commitment to the political ideals of one's country.

It's not at all clear to me if Goldberg's conceptual distinctions here can apply outside of America. As Goldberg observes:

Our shrines are to patriots who upheld very specific American ideals. Our statues of soldiers commemorate heroes who died for something very different from what other warriors have fought and died for for millennia. Every one of them — immigrants included — took an oath to defend not just some soil but our Constitution and by extension the ideals of the Founding. Walk around any European hamlet or capital and you will find statues of men who fell in battle to protect their tribe from another tribe.
But does this distinction mean, therefore, that Europeans are incapable of exercising patriotism? Or does it mean that the only true European patriots are those who honor the new European constitution? Perhaps that's what Goldberg means. But patriotism is not a new word or a new concept. And the fine distinctions Goldberg tries to draw here don't strike me as all that impressive. Of course the American project is distinguished by its creedal character. Only a fool could deny that. But faith in the Declaration of Independence or an appreciation of James Madison's genius clearly does not a patriot make. Our founding documents are admired by Belgians and Bengalis. And quite a few American patriots (including me every once in a while) have little patience for the extravagant liberalism of "America the Idea."

Yuval Levin's contribution to the debate (which generously referenced my own musings on this topic) is far more balanced:

The ideas aren’t what matters most. The people are. And forgetting that, as we on the Right sometimes do, is a very great failing. An overly abstract idealistic Americanism has contributed a lot to the failure of our politics in recent years. You can see it in particular in the immigration debates, and more generally in the unrequited desire for solidarity that drives a lot of the populism we now see. I’ve taken up that point around here before in recent years, most recently after the Brexit vote.   
But the ideas and ideals are nonetheless also crucial to what makes American nationalism a force for good. And they are also what unites American nationalism with American exceptionalism. We cannot truly respect ourselves as a people without a story rooted in what has made us distinct. Ross Douthat wrote insightfully about this challenge this past weekend.
Reading through these exchanges, I was reminded of a challenging lecture Alasdair MacIntyre delivered on the topic of patriotism some years ago. MacIntyre is never easy to interpret, but he in part seems to agree with Goldberg's conceptual account of nationalism, while rejecting Goldberg's normative conclusion. Patriotism for MacIntyre is either a pre-liberal loyalty to one's fellows or it is nothing at all. Corrupting that loyalty with Levin's "ideals" only serves to corrupt the virtue.

MacIntyre's challenge is an important one. But it must be observed that there is something radically modern about his stringent dichotomy. Pericles Funeral Oration is one of our tradition's quintessential statements of love of patria. But it is of course a celebration of an Athens dedicated to a set of propositions. Are we to insist that Pericles is guilty of a creeping proto-liberalism? Perhaps we could, but that does not strike me as all too productive a use of our time.

There are important tensions that the American conservative must grapple with in understanding his patriotism. After all, this creedal country's practice has often been at odds with (and at times far better than) her ideals. For the conservative, then, nationalism and patriotism (for I draw no distinction between the two) are born from a loyalty to and gratitude for our political inheritance, but are perfected when we build on and celebrate the best of our tradition. Loyalty commits us not only to love that which is our own, but to treasure the good we find in it.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Civic Nationalism and President Trump's Inaugural Address

There wasn’t much to be excited about in President Trump’s inaugural address last week. The speech’s language itself was, of course, more demotic and crude than that of any inaugural in American history. And there is no doubt Trump neglected to provide the invocations of our national civic religion one expects at such occasions. These developments aren’t necessarily all bad. While the decline of oratory is lamentable, Trump’s plain-spokenness really just makes stark the rhetorical emptiness that has characterized American political speeches for decades. And while our civic religion does periodically need reinvigoration, perhaps it is appropriate to take a break from tired (and increasingly implausible) paeans to this great land of opportunity.

Yet while certainly a disappointment, many of the conservative critiques of the speech (exemplified by this Bill Kristol tweet) proved rather helpful in making me see the bright side of Trump’s rhetorical pivot. After all, it is a very good thing indeed that our President has retired the utopian clichés of late-stage neoconservatism. President Bush’s Second Inaugural gave us enough of those shibboleths to last several lifetimes

In fact, I am thrilled to see a rhetorical and philosophical transition toward a civic nationalist conservatism. But I remain worried that Trump’s nationalism won’t really move beyond the dogmas of the recent past. As someone pointed out to me over lunch a couple days ago, in many ways Trump is simply assembling all the nation’s worst clichés, left and right, since World War II. The GOP’s new civic nationalism accordingly threatens to combine the very worst of social democratic statism with the very worst of Reaganite supply-side economics, adding a new contribution of caesarist, rule-by-command.

Trump’s rhetoric of national greatness in many respects recalls the progressive “New Nationalism” of Teddy Roosevelt. Fixated with an illusory “national community,” such nationalism demands war against corrupt elites (the swamp Trump so desperately wishes to drain) to advance the public good. In Roosevelt’s words:
The American people are right in demanding that New Nationalism, without which we cannot hope to deal with new problems. The New Nationalism puts the national need before sectional or personal advantage. It is impatient of the utter confusion that results from local legislatures attempting to treat national issues as local issues. It is still more impatient of the impotence which springs from overdivision of governmental powers, the impotence which makes it possible for local selfishness or for legal cunning, hired by wealthy special interests, to bring national activities to a deadlock. This New Nationalism regards the executive power as the steward of the public welfare.
I certainly agree that many of our elites represent a grave threat to the health of our national culture and civic institutions. But I fear that Trump’s authoritarian pragmatic impulse may well be a cure as deadly as our disease. Calvin Coolidge wisely observed that when any 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.” And if there is anything at all we can be sure Trump actually believes, it is that he is the indispensable man.

I had hoped then for an inaugural less charged with the impulse to remake America anew, and more dedicated to providing a philosophical statement of the meaning of citizenship. In this regard, Teddy Roosevelt is not a bad act to follow. Our politics today is threatened by seemingly intractable cultural divisions, fueled unrelentingly by the academy’s fixation with identity politics. What is needed in response is a restatement of American citizenship without hyphens:
There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. When I refer to hyphenated Americans, I do not refer to naturalized Americans. Some of the very best Americans I have ever known were naturalized Americans, Americans born abroad. But a hyphenated American is not an American at all. This is just as true of the man who puts “native” before the hyphen as of the man who puts German or Irish or English or French before the hyphen. Americanism is a matter of the spirit and of the soul…. 
The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities, an intricate knot of German-Americans, Irish-Americans, English-Americans, French-Americans, Scandinavian-Americans or Italian-Americans, each preserving its separate nationality, each at heart feeling more sympathy with Europeans of that nationality, than with the other citizens of the American Republic.
I was glad to hear in Trump’s inaugural one or two references to a pan-ethnic American solidarity. But the speech did little to provide a clear statement of the meaning of American citizenship. To be a citizen is to be given the real opportunity to lead a decent, flourishing, American life. It entails a thick commitment not only to our people’s material prosperity, but to their ability to assimilate into the cultural mainstream. 

This is the argument from solidarity civic nationalists should advance in favor of immigration restrictionism, for example. Solidarity cannot be sustained in a nation that lacks the ability to integrate immigrants and their children. Our primary priority today should be extending opportunity and social dignity to the millions of Americans who have been forgotten, including, of course, our black racial underclass. But with a foreign-born share of the population at historic highs, and with assimilation rates slowing to a crawl, continued mass migration threatens to further ossify an existing racial caste system.

The nationalist, "America First" philosophy of immigration demands taking in relatively few immigrants, but affording those we do take in a real chance at cultural and economic integration. At the same time, it calls us to prioritize expanding opportunities to the most disadvantaged of our fellow citizens before maximizing global utility and welfare.

Such a renewed ethos of solidarity should be the core of a civic nationalist conservatism. I can't say I am optimistic that this is what President Trump’s promise of “America First” will deliver, but I can say I remain hopeful.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Stanley Hauerwas on the Dangers of Community

I recently came across this excellent interview with Stanley Hauerwas on the limits of the idea of community. The distinction he draws here between two types of community has some useful parallels with an early blog post I wrote on "two concepts of nationalism."
First, community for community’s sake is not a good idea. Sartre is right: hell is other people! Community by itself cannot overwhelm the loneliness of our lives. I think we are a culture that produces extreme loneliness. Loneliness creates a hunger – and hunger is the right word, indicating as it does the physical character of the desire and need to touch another human being.

But such desperate loneliness is very dangerous. Look at NFL football. Suddenly you’re in a stadium with a hundred thousand people and they are jumping up and down. Their bodies are painted red, like the bodies that surround them. They now think their loneliness has been overcome. I used to give a lecture in my basic Christian Ethics class that I called “The Fascism of College Basketball.” You take alienated upper-middle-class kids who are extremely unsure of who they are – and suddenly they are Duke Basketball. I call it Duke Basketball Fascism because fascism has a deep commitment to turning the modern nation-state into a community. But to make the modern state into a kind of community – for the state to become the primary source of identity through loose talk about community – is very dangerous. It is not community for its own sake that we seek. Rather, we should try to be a definite kind of community.

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.