Monday, August 27, 2018

On the History of Economic Thought

Should economists study the history of economic thought? They certainly used to! But today, the history of economic ideas has become something of mere antiquarian interest (if that) to most economists. In political theory and philosophy, intellectual history remains an invaluable store of conceptual insights, ready to assist our thinking about contemporary problems. Social scientists once approached the history of their fields in much the same way. But as economists have come to understand their discipline as more of a hard science, their attitude toward the history of economic thought has come to approximate the physicist’s attitude toward the history of physics. Intellectual history might be fun. But few natural scientists believe that reading Galileo or Newton (let alone Aristotle or Galen) will advance their understanding of physics or biology.

The natural scientist is probably generally correct in this belief. (Though there remain good reasons why the history of science is worth studying). So the question is to what degree the social scientist should think of him or herself as a natural scientist.

Of course, the history of ideas might be valuable and worth studying in its own right. It does not need to be justified in terms of its usefulness for social science research. But it’s still worth thinking about why social scientists have come to abandon this part of their field. Does reading Smith, Ricardo, Marx, Sombart, Keynes, and Robinson actually help us to better understand how the economy works?

The Influence of Ideas on History

One reason social scientists might be interested in the history of political and economic thought is that ideas could have consequences for history. If it’s true that ideas shape social change, then social scientists who want to understand how a variety of social phenomena arise will need to understand ideas and their afterlives. This is Keynes’ point in the famous concluding section of the General Theory:
The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. … I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.
On this point, Keynes and Hayek were in complete agreement. Hayek too was convinced that the history of ideas was the key to understanding contemporary political and economic developments. The Road to Serfdom is in large part a sustained argument about the role of a particular set of ideas in bringing about both communism and fascism.

Other Reasons to Study the History of Economic Thought

Even if we disagree with Keynes and Hayek and conclude that ideas themselves have little influence on history, social scientists may still have good reason to study the history of their disciplines. Studying the history of economic and political thought is fertile ground for studying economic and political theory.

I appeal to authorities.

Istvan Hont in Jealousy of Trade:
The eighteenth century produced a vision of the future as a global market of competing commercial states. Its analytical depth still ought to command our attention … political insights in eighteenth century theories of international market rivalry … continue to be relevant for the twenty-first century. [This was] the period in which the interdependence of politics and the economy first emerged as the central topic of political theory. … The history of political thought is at its most helpful when it unmasks impasses and eliminates repetitive patterns of controversy. 
Later Hont adds:
by taking the history of political and economic thought seriously we can see that the globalization debate of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries lacks conceptual novelty. … History cannot be expected to solve the core analytical puzzles of political or economic theory. But it has its hour when the long-expected solutions of social and political science fail to materialize.

Albert Hirschman, who managed to be both a premier economist and a premier historian of economic thought, broadly agreed. He wrote that he was drawn to study the history of ideas as a response to
the incapacity of contemporary social science to shed light on the political consequences of economic growth and, perhaps even more, in the so frequently calamitous political correlates of economic growth no matter whether such growth takes place under capitalist, socialist, or mixed auspices.
Later he adds: “vaguely similar circumstances at two different and perhaps distant points of time may very well give rise to identical and identically flawed thought-responses if the earlier intellectual episode has been forgotten”

Whiggism and Economics

In his 1962 Presidential Address to the American Economics Association, Paul Samuelson gave a different account of why the history of ideas might be interesting to economists. Samuelson runs through several canonical figures in modern economics (beginning with Adam Smith), and gives his assessment of their major contributions. Samuelson isn’t at all interested in understanding these thinkers in their own terms. He’s just interested in figuring out what trends in contemporary economics they anticipated. What role they played in the progressive accumulation of knowledge that characterizes the past two centuries of economic thought. This is the economic equivalent of what Herbert Butterfield famously termed the "Whig Interpretation of History."

But this approach renders the history of ideas practically useless. As Donald Gordon put it (in the American Economic Review!! ... in 1965):
It is certainly desirable that we have as accurate a record as possible of the sources of modern theory, but exclusive concentration upon this has some serious drawbacks. … it also neglects some fascinating intellectual puzzles. … If economists are to talk glibly about government policy—and there is no doubt that they will—it would be some comfort to know they had been at least exposed to the wide variety of what we might call basic paradigms concerning the nature, role, and possibilities of the state.
In other words, a Whiggish approach to the history of economic thought stunts our creativity. It does the opposite of what proper intellectual history aims at.

Kenneth Boulding, "After Samuelson, Who Needs Adam Smith?" 

Kenneth Boulding gives one of my favorite accounts of why we should study the history of economic thought.

He begins by critiquing the whiggish, progressive view of social science:
There is an implicit assumption in this [whig interpretation], however, which is rather startling. It is that there is no need to study the failures of the past, simply because all that we have to learn is embodied in the present scriptures
Boulding then distinguishes between two approaches to the history of economic thought: the scriptural approach (at the extreme, an “ultrahistorical” approach); and the “antihistorical school” approach.

According to the scriptural approach:
the truths of economics were revealed through Adam Smith and Ricardo, or perhaps through Karl Marx, and all that we have to do now is to find out what these authors really meant. There is a touch of this in nineteenth-century attitudes towards Adam Smith and more than a touch of it in even some quite contemporary attitudes in various parts of the world towards Karl Marx.
Boulding is somewhat partial to the scriptural approach, emphasizing the extraordinary insights of Adam Smith in particular:
a book like The Wealth of Nations is ‘seminal’ in almost the literal sense of the word, in that it can easily play the same role in the development of the phylum of economics in the minds of economists, as, shall we say, frozen semen from some distant ancestor which might be used to fertilize an egg and so produce direct intervention from its original source into the course of the biological phylum.
To stick with the (weird) metaphor, Boulding’s point is that there is an opportunity for cross-fertilization between contemporary theory and the history of economic thought.

But there is a danger in too historical an approach to economics. Taken to an extreme, history leads to “mystified and defeated students who simply abandon economics.” Economics might not be linearly progressive, but progress can be made nonetheless.

The “antihistorical” approach, on the other hand, thinks of economics like math. Economics is taken to be a discipline in which knowledge “grows continuously and without loss.”

The antihistorical approach to economics (the dominant paradigm today) has its own problems:
[It] leads to the development of slick technicians who know how to use computers, run massive correlations and regressions, but who do not really know which side of anybody’s bread is buttered, who are incredibly ignorant of the details of economic institutions, who have no sense at all of the blood,s weat, and tears that have gone into the making of economics, and very little sense of any reality which lies beyond their data.

Ultimately, Boulding concludes, the chief reason to study the history of economic thought is that it can help us to escape our own parochialism. It provides the economist: “a sense of an extended present and indeed an extended place beyond his own backyard and his own immediate needs, emotions, and experiences … It is a mark of intellectual poverty to know only one’s own time and place.”

Classic works in the history of economics introduce us “to whole areas of thought which have become unfashionable" and thus help us "to transcend limitations which are imposed ... by the fashions of [our] own time.”

(I've written elsewhere about how intellectual history can be used as an antidote to Whiggish, progressive approaches to history) 

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Protagoras and the Marketplace of Ideas

John Stuart Mill’s famous celebration free speech is often pithily summarized as a defense of the “market place of ideas.” That characterization is not perfectly appropriate for the free-speech arguments set out in On Liberty, but it’s good enough. Mill isn’t quite as naïve about free speech as the metaphor might imply, but he’s still pretty naïve: 
Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
It's not unreasonable to associate that argument with a crude account of market dynamics in which competition promotes the good (the true) and drives out the bad (the false). For what it’s worth, a much younger John Stuart Mill had far more sensible things to say about free speech:
I have not any great notion of the advantage of what the ‘free discussion’ men call the ‘collision of opinions,’ it being my creed that Truth is sown and germinates in the mind itself, and is not to be struck out suddenly like fire from a flint by knocking another hard body against it. (emphasis original)
While Mill himself never directly uses the metaphor, the "market place of ideas" is explicitly invoked by Plato in his Protagoras. (I like the Protagoras, I’ve blogged about it before).

Protagoras, the most famous of the sophists, has come to Athens to share his teachings. Hippocrates, a young Athenian, wants to learn from the famous master, and so he runs to Socrates so that they might go together. Hippocrates is keen on seeing these two wise men duke it out. (He gets his money's worth, so to speak). 

Socrates is taken aback by Hippocrates’ enthusiasm, and he warns the young gentleman against the dangerous effects that can come from exposure to sophistry. Sophists, according to Socrates, are “a kind of wholesaler or retailer of the wares by which a soul is reared.” In other words, they are salesmen of ideas. And because the ideas they sell relate to the state of one’s soul, they are salesmen of the most dangerous sort.

Socrates explores the market-for-ideas analogy:

And see to it, comrade, that the sophist, in praising what he has for sale, doesn’t deceive us as do those who sell the nourishment of the body, the wholesaler and the retailer. For they themselves too, I suppose, don’t know what among the wares they peddle is useful or worthless to the body—they praise everything they have for sale—and neither do those who buy from them, unless one happens to be an expert physical trainer or a physician. So too those who hawk learning from city to city, selling and retailing it to anyone who desires it any given moment: they praise all the things they sell. But perhaps some of these as well, the best one, are ignorant of what among the things they sell is useful or worthless to the soul. And so too are those who buy from them, unless one happens to be a physician expert in what pertains to the soul. (emphasis mine)
Socrates has pointed out something important. If the peddlers of ideas are like salesmen, then of course we should not trust them! Salesmen aim to sell. And so they will lie and deceive in order to make the sale. Worse than that, often the salesmen don’t even know the value of what’s on offer! They don’t care. Again, the goal is just to make the sale. There are potentially devastating information asymmetries in this market! A market of ideas is a failed market if ever there was one.

Only an expert can properly judge the quality of the products for sale. But this raises a problem. If the expert can already discern the good ideas from the bad, why would he need to buy the ideas in the first place? And if the buyers in the market lack the capacity to judge what it is they are buying, why should we expect the “good” ideas to out-compete the bad ones?

Socrates continues:

If, then, you happen to be a knower of what among these things is useful and worthless, it’s safe for you to buy learning from Protagoras and from anyone else whatever. But if not, blessed one, see that you do not roll the dice and run risks with the dearest things. For there is indeed much greater risk in the purchase of learning than there is in that of foods: it’s possible to buy food and drink from the retailer and wholesaler and to take them off in other containers; and it’s possible, before taking them into the body by drinking or eating them, to set them down at home and take counsel by calling upon someone knowledgeable as to what one should eat or drink and what one shouldn’t and how much and when. As a result, the risk involved in the purchase isn’t great. But it isn’t possible to carry off learning in another container. Instead, for one who has paid the tuition and taken the instruction into the soul itself through having learned it, he necessarily goes off having already been harmed or benefited thereby. (emphasis mine)
The marketplace metaphor trivializes ideas in a terribly misleading way. Ideas aren’t commodities. They are not the sorts of things we can try out and toss out when we tire of them. Once we are educated in a particular way, our soul has been shaped. There is no more competition, no more market pressure. We are done for, and so we better hope that the education we’ve received was a good one! That’s why exposing people (especially young people) to noxious ideas isn’t a harmless exercise of pedagogy, it is a dangerous act that can produce irreparable harm.

Quotations are from Stephanus pages 313-314 using the Robert Bartlett translation.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Federalist 50 and Judicial Review

In Federalist 49, James Madison famously rejects Thomas Jefferson’s proposal of relying on frequent appeals to the people for the purpose of “altering the constitution or correcting breaches of it.” In practice, Jefferson thinks this maxim would require regular constitutional conventions. Madison raises a series of “insuperable objections” to Jefferson’s proposal. He notes how frequent appeals to the people would produce frequent changes to the constitution (often for the worse) that will undermine the necessary “reverence for the laws." Even worse, Madison predicts that regular conventions would strengthen the legislature at the expense of the judiciary and the executive. That violation of the separation of powers would constitute, as Madison puts it in Federalist 47, “the very definition of tyranny.”

In Federalist 50, Madison turns to an alternative proposal. Rather than frequent appeals to the people, Madison considers the possibility of “periodical appeals” as the means “of preventing and correcting infractions of the constitution.” Importantly, the topic has moved from popular appeals to alter the constitution (Jefferson’s democratic proposal discussed in Federalist 49), to popular appeals merely to enforce the constitution (Madison’s topic in Federalist 50).

This more limited focus bears on the topic of judicial review. Madison is no longer thinking about how the people may exercise their sovereign right to amend the constitution. He is thinking more narrowly about institutional mechanisms to guarantee the constitution's separation of powers. To this end, Madison considers a scheme tried out in Pennsylvania between 1783 and 1784. The state experimented with a “council of censors,” the purpose of which was to inquire “whether the constitution had been violated; and whether the legislative and executive departments had encroached on each other.”

Unfortunately, Madison concludes, “this censorial body, therefore, proves at the same time, by its researches, the existence of the disease; and by its example, the inefficacy of the remedy.” The most important reason for its failure was its persistent partisanship. And against those who hope that we will one day be free of partisanship, Madison wisely observes that "such an event ought to be neither presumed nor desired."

Specifically, Madison lists five reasons why the council failed. (1) The council was composed of political partisans. (2) The leading members of the council had themselves been members of the executive and legislative branches, and so they were tasked, in effect, with assessing the constitutionality of their own conduct. (3) Because of the above, the council immediately “was split into two fixed and violent parties.” As a result, the councilors were moved by tribal passion rather than cool reason. (4) The council did not necessarily do a good job interpreting the constitution. And (5), there is no reason to believe that the other branches of government would obey rulings of the council.

My question here is how might these objections apply to our contemporary system of judicial review. There are of course a number of significant differences. Regarding objections (1) and (2), our current judiciary is composed of career judges and lawyers who usually have not themselves served in significant positions within the executive or legislative branches. This alleviates the potential difficulty of judges passing judgment on the constitutionality of their own actions. Objection (5) also no longer applies, as our current system grants the courts the final, authoritative say on matters of constitutional interpretation.

But objections (3) and (4)—not to mention the general principle underlying objections (1) and (2)—may well apply to judicial review as it is practiced by the Supreme Court today. It is impossible to de-politicize significant questions of constitutional adjudication. Our judges are political figures who can be generally relied on to rule in a manner that is consistent with the political aims of the party that appointed them. They are partisans. Or they otherwise have miraculous come to hold judicial philosophies which just so happen to align with their political party's priorities. Madison's reasons to be wary of partisans on the Pennsylvania council of censors can accordingly be applied to partisans on the federal Supreme Court.

Madison's preferred mechanism to guarantee the separation of powers is laid out in the next paper. Federalist 51 famously argues that the only way to maintain an equilibrium of powers is to pit the ambition of the legislature against the ambition of the executive. In my view, the prediction that the legislature will be inclined to jealously guard its prerogatives is the single most consequential error in Publius’ scheme. That said, our contemporary system of adjudicating constitutional disputes—granting the Supreme Court absolute power—has also failed. It is notable that Madison never seems to consider the possibility of the judiciary playing the role it currently does. I suspect if he did, the objections he lays out in Federalist 50 might apply to a proposed system judicial supremacy.

Perhaps Jefferson was right. Occasional appeals to the people in some form may be the best means of preserving the constitution and may be the most legitimate means of altering it. Jefferson was probably overzealous in calling for such frequent constitutional conventions. But his basic analysis has proved fairly prescient. Madison’s greatest fear was that the legislature might absorb too much power. But some branch of government will always step in to interpret (and effectively alter) the constitution. Our three options are: (1) A ceasarist Presidency; (2) A Supreme Court that laughably pretends to be apolitical; or (3) A Congress that takes the lead in interpreting (and effectively amending) the constitution. 

My sympathies lie with (3). A Westminster model of parliamentary supremacy strikes me as the most legitimate and effective means of dealing with questions of pure politics. But a substantial difficulty persists. Somehow the Congress must rediscover the ambition and the responsibility assumed by Publius, but entirely absent in contemporary political life. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Free Speech and Abortion

The Supreme Court ruled today in NIFLA v. Becerra that a California law requiring pro-life crisis pregnancy centers to provide information about abortion access likely violates the first amendment of the constitution. I’m inclined to think that the Court ruled correctly. If free speech means anything, it protects individuals from being compelled to speak in a way that violates their fundamental moral convictions.

In a brief concurrence, Justice Kennedy gave an impassioned defense of free speech. He claimed that through this law, California sought “to impose its own message in the place of individual speech, thought, and expression.” Such an imposition, he continued, approached the most despotic of tendencies: “history since [the founding] shows how relentless authoritarian regimes are in their attempts to stifle free speech.” We must “preserve and teach the necessity of freedom of speech” as embodied in the first amendment, and we must never allow the state “to force persons to express a message contrary to their deepest convictions.” Strong stuff, indeed. Justice Kennedy here articulates the standard liberal thesis that free speech stands at the center of a free society.

But, let’s not forget, Justice Kennedy is the swing vote on today’s Court finding a constitutional right to abortion! In other words, Justice Kennedy argues ferociously for the free speech rights of pro-life activists, AND he argues ferociously that those pro-life activists’ arguments should never be able to democratically succeed. Sure, pro-life activists should be legally permitted to argue their case in the public square. But even if those activists persuade a majority (or a supermajority) of their fellows to oppose abortion, Justice Kennedy replies: “Too bad. Abortion is here to stay no matter what a majority of the people or their representatives might want.”

I complained in my previous post about campus free speech arguments that suffer from a similar fault. On a college campus, the best argument for free speech is “I might learn something new.” In a democratic society, the best argument for free speech is “we might learn something new.”

To be clear, I’m not especially bullish on free speech. I find Millian “marketplace-of-ideas” arguments highly suspect, and I think there are plenty of good reasons to question a regime of largely untrammeled free expression. But IF there are decisive arguments in favor of free speech, “this is a useful way for free societies to arrive at democratic decisions” must be pre-eminent among them.

Of course, other arguments are often given. We might defend the sacred right of the white supremacist to defend slavery, even as our constitution prohibits a majority of voters from every re-instituting the practice. (Personally, I find such arguments thoroughly uninteresting). So there is no necessary contradiction in Justice Kennedy’s position. But it points us, frankly, to a silliness endemic in contemporary liberal discourse. It is difficult to take seriously a romantic defense of free and open expression that reduces to: “Believe what you want, argue your convictions, debate and persuade others of your view! But remember, no matter how many people you convince in the marketplace of ideas, there’s nothing you can ever do to change the law.”

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.