Topic: Political Philosophy

Seventh (Grade) Sense

My young colleague Jessie Creel has an even younger sister, Mary, who sounds like a future libertarian debater. Jessie tells me that a speaker from Fannie Mae recently visited Mary’s 7th-grade class at a Maryland Catholic school to discuss poverty. The speaker said, “I love my job because I make money helping people.” And Mary raised her hand and said, “What job doesn’t help people?”

Sounds like a natural economist.

That Other Lesson We’re Not Learning from Iraq

In the wake of last November’s election, there has been talk of a paradigm shift in American politics and a new public interest in “progressive ideas.” I’m not sure that a one-Senate-seat legislative advantage marks a “shift,” but there certainly is much chest-thumping on the left, and intense rallying on the right.

Both edges of the political spectrum are promising their adherents that they will redouble their efforts to molding the nation according to their “ideals.” Imagine: our decisions about our persons, our relationships, our children and their education, our health, our property, our political activity, our activities in the marketplace, etc., will be pushed toward even greater conformity with the preferences of Washington politicians. Meanwhile, those individuals with different preferences will suffer the eternal hostility of a Nancy Pelosi or a Trent Lott or a John McCain.

Doesn’t this sound just a bit (a nonviolent bit, yes, but still a bit) like the Sunni, Shia, and Kurds in Iraq? Why would we want to follow that model, and further erode the individual liberty model that once served us so well?

If you haven’t already done so, be sure to read the Cato’s Letter abridged version of George Will’s remarks from last summer’s Friedman Prize dinner. One section is especially on point:

You go to spring training, and a baseball manager will tell you that his team is just two players away from the World Series. Unfortunately, they are Ruth and Gehrig.

Iraq is just four people away from paradise. They need a George Washington, a charismatic, iconic, talismanic figure, a symbol of national unity, above politics. They need an Alexander Hamilton, who could create a modern economy out of human dust. They need a James Madison, a genius of constitutional architecture, for getting factions to live together. And they need a John Marshall, a great jurist, to breathe life into a parchment. They need that and they need the astonishing social soil of the second half of the 18th century, from which such people sprank with profusion.

Which is to say that they’re not close.

And, it seems, we’re drifting further and further away, ourselves.

Gerson’s “Vision Thing”

How can the G.O.P. get its groove back?  Michael Gerson, former speechwriter and top policy advisor to President Bush, has an idea: purge the small-government conservatives.  As he puts it in the current issue of Newsweek, “any political movement that elevates abstract antigovernment ideology above human needs is hardly conservative, and unlikely to win.” 

As Justin Logan has pointed out in this space before, Gerson finds the “small government” aspect of conservatism “morally empty.”  Gerson expands on that theme here:

As antigovernment conservatives seek to purify the Republican Party, it is reasonable to ask if the purest among them are conservatives at all. The combination of disdain for government, a reflexive preference for markets and an unbalanced emphasis on individual choice is usually called libertarianism. The old conservatives had some concerns about that creed, which Russell Kirk called “an ideology of universal selfishness.” Conservatives have generally taught that the health of society is determined by the health of institutions: families, neighborhoods, schools, congregations. Unfettered individualism can loosen those bonds, while government can act to strengthen them. By this standard, good public policies—from incentives to charitable giving, to imposing minimal standards on inner-city schools—are not apostasy; they are a thoroughly orthodox, conservative commitment to the common good.

Campaigning on the size of government in 2008, while opponents talk about health care, education and poverty, will seem, and be, procedural, small-minded, cold and uninspired. The moral stakes are even higher. What does antigovernment conservatism offer to inner-city neighborhoods where violence is common and families are rare? Nothing. What achievement would it contribute to racial healing and the unity of our country? No achievement at all. Anti-government conservatism turns out to be a strange kind of idealism—an idealism that strangles mercy.

A speechwriter’s job is to make the president talk pretty; it’s generally a bad idea to give him a policymaking role.  Yet Gerson had one in the Bush White House.  “He might have had more influence than any White House staffer who wasn’t chief of staff or national security adviser,” according to Bill Kristol.  As the Washington Post reported upon Gerson’s departure last summer: 

He was a formulator of the Bush doctrine making the spread of democracy the fundamental goal of U.S. foreign policy, a policy hailed as revolutionary by some and criticized as unrealistic by others. He led a personal crusade to make unprecedented multibillion-dollar investments in fighting AIDS, malaria and poverty around the globe. He became one of the few voices pressing for a more aggressive policy to stop genocide in Darfur, even as critics complained of U.S. inaction.

This is the Gerson vision: armed uplift abroad, compassionate statism at home, and boundless generosity with other people’s blood and treasure.  If you think the problem with American foreign policy is that it hasn’t been ambitious enough in the last five years, if you think the problem with the Great Society was that there wasn’t enough hymn-singing, then it may be for you.  But for those of us who favor limited, constitutional government, Gerson’s views are instructive.  That a man with such contempt for small-government conservatives had the ear of the president explains a lot about the wreckage that surrounds us.

The Utilitarian Calculus and Rawls

I appreciate Will’s taking the time to explain his position in even more detail, and he clearly has an exceptional grasp of Rawls’ position and its implications.  I may not be as eloquent at explaining Rawls’ position, but I’m pretty sure I do in fact understand it, and I reject his premises, his arguments, and his conclusions. Also, I’m afraid, in so far as Will’s views reflect Rawls’, I reject his as well. 

Phrases like “equal freedom,” “concern for persons,” and “optimally well-ordered society” have an enticing ring to them, but what do they really mean?   “Will writes:  His [Rawls’] libertarian First Principle of justice–basically Spencer’s principle of equal freedom–embodies this concern for persons.”  He goes on, “An optimally well-ordered society is one whose members positively affirm and are motivated to comply voluntarily with its principles of association. A society that fails to do as well as possible for the least well-off is unlikely to gain the endorsement of the least well-off, who will then have little reason to voluntarily comply with its fundamental rules, and this can have a devastating destabilizing effect on the social order. An unstable society–one out of dynamic equilibrium–is not well-ordered, and therefore cannot be just.”  What a beautiful image –A society of equal freedom where everyone voluntarily agreeing to care for others and work together to optimize a well-ordered society.  Beautiful yes, but totally unrealistic.

I apologize for my crassness, but such utopian images make my skin crawl. If a group of people who shared Rawls’ or Will’s vision went off and started their own community on their own island, that would be fine with me, but that isn’t what Rawls’ has in mind, and I don’t think that is what Will is saying either.   Rawls’ believes he is elucidating the rational underpinnings of our existing social order.  Will agrees with Rawls but believes Rawl’s theory logically leads to a more “libertarian” vision than Rawls himself envisioned.  I respectfully disagree on all counts.

First, dreaming up utopias is fine, but trying to implement them is not.  Can you think of any utopian dreams which when implemented didn’t involve coercing those who didn’t quite get the idea?  I gave up on the notion of utopia building when I realized my personal utopia would have a population of one. 

Second, all appeals to utilitarian principles are essentially flawed because of our inability to agree on, rank, or calculate the goods in question.  What do the worst off need – equal freedom, food, money, shelter, respect?  Who decides?  My feeling is that people can really only decide those things for themselves, not for others.

Third, the goal should not be to create a society that provides for the worst off – it should be to create a society where everyone, the worst off, as well as all others, have the most say possible in determining their own fate in accordance with their own image of the good, not anyone else’s.

Fourth, we don’t want total chaos, but I don’t see “an optimally well-ordered society” as a worthy goal if it means restricting individuals in their various pursuits of happiness.  It is historically evident that homogeneous societies are more stable, more peaceful, function more smoothly, and have lower crime rates than heterogeneous societies, so the choices are 1) create homogeneous societies, or 2) accept and deal as best we can with the strife inherent in allowing diversity in a pluralistic society.  Government attempts to create homogeneous societies have generally been disastrous, but individuals associating with others like them voluntarily seems a viable solution, at least on the small scale.

Finally, I will tip my hand on what I see as a just society, not my ideal society, but one that I believe is realistically possible, and not too bad given the alternatives.  Of the choices listed in the above paragraph, I choose the second.  It would be boring to live in a homogeneous society.  I like the idea of a pluralistic society where people pursue many different visions of happiness, and I am more than willing to deal with the political and social strife inherent in such a system. Actually, I can’t image trading it for any single vision of the good – that is unless I can convince at least a handful of people to invest in my own personal utopia, but so far no luck on that front.

Rawls and the ‘Greatest Philosopher of the Past Few Centuries’

I’ve been reading the discussion of John Rawls by Will (here and here) and Sigrid (here and here), as well as the Richard Epstein tribute to Rawls that Will quotes in his first post.

Rawls’ theory, I think, suffers from the fatal flaw that his “justice as fairness” ideal, and the “veil of ignorance” experiment that embodies it, could support a very broad range of moral/political systems. The imperatives Rawls derives from his machinery are just one of many sets that it could produce. A Theory of Justice seems a sort of moral Rorschach test; in its pages, almost any reader can see whatever political system he or she prefers. Consider what Epstein writes in his NRO tribute: “Rawls’s framework could easily and sensibly be pressed into service by those who had more utilitarian objectives.”

In Beyond Good and EvilFriedrich Nietzsche (who gets my vote as the greatest philosopher of the last 200 years) offers this critique of philosophers’ use of elaborate theoretical machinery to support their moral theories:

They all pose as if they had discovered and reached their real opinions through the self-development of a cold, pure, divinely unconcerned dialectic (as opposed to the mystics of every rank, who are more honest and doltish—and talk of “inspiration”); while at bottom it is an assumption, a hunch, indeed a kind of “inspiration”—most often a desire of the heart that has been filtered and made abstract—that they defend with reasons they have sought after the fact. (BG&E, Aph. 5; Kaufmann’s translation)

Few people today read Nietzsche, and even fewer read him well. If you’re a libertarian who’s into Ayn Rand, treat yourself to a copy of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals.

And to answer Will’s other survey question: The Beatles. Not even close.

Rawls and Classical Liberalism as a Public Philosophy

I appreciate Sigrid’s posts about my discussion of Rawls. I would like to emphasize that one of the animating principles in Rawls’ philosophy is in fact respect for persons. His main foil in A Theory of Justice is a utilitarian theory that fails to recognize or respect persons as such, but only as expendable containers of pleasure and pain. His libertarian First Principle of justice–basically Spencer’s principle of equal freedom–embodies this concern for persons. Nozick’s critique of Rawls can be read as a work that explores what it would mean if Rawls took his First Principle fully seriously. (That is, Nozick is not just stipulating rights, but is simply accepting Rawls’ most important intermediate conclusion, and then seeing where that truly leads.) The distributive concern in the Second Principle–that the worst off class should be as well off as possible–is, literally, secondary.

I agree with Rawls (and Hayek, and many others) that a just society is a species of a well-ordered society. An optimally well-ordered society is one whose members positively affirm and are motivated to comply voluntarily with its principles of association. A society that fails to do as well as possible for the least well-off is unlikely to gain the endorsement of the least well-off, who will then have little reason to voluntarily comply with its fundamental rules, and this can have a devastating destabilizing effect on the social order. An unstable society–one out of dynamic equilibrium–is not well-ordered, and therefore cannot be just. (That’s one reason I think the fiscal imbalances of Social Security and Medicare are more than a mere practical problem that needs to be fixed, but a serious matter for our viability as a just society.) Additionally, it strikes many reasonable people, including me, that a society that fails to do as well as possible for the least well-off manifests a lack of respect for those people. If there was an irreconcilable conflict between liberty and a well-ordered society, one that that is truly, as Rawls put it, “a cooperative venture for mutual advantage”–if liberty truly was not to the advantage of some people–then it seems to me that people who do not find advantage in such a system of liberty would not be unreasonable to reject it. And in that case, I am afraid that liberty would be incompatible with a well-ordered society and therefore justice.

However, I am firmly convinced that there is a deep congruence between liberty, mutual advantage, stability, and justice. In very much the same way the great classical liberal Herbert Spencer valued total utility, but held that only a system of imprescriptible negative rights would reliably maximize it, I value positive liberty–the actual capacity or power of persons to achieve their ends–but hold that only a system of imprescriptible negative rights can be expected to reliably support the complex forms of social cooperation most likely to ensure that people’s liberties are actually valuable for the achievement of their ends. I do not think the nation-state, a system of taxation, or redistribution is illegitimate, unjust, or in any way expresses disrespect for persons as long as those instruments are in fact the best means to the end of ensuring people the worth of their liberties, and the ability to successfully pursue their well-being as they conceive it.

Last, it’s evident that even libertarian Cato Institute policy analysts do not share a common fundamental comprehensive moral theory or political philosophy. There is a great deal of pluralism within our ideological unity. As Rawls notes in his second great work, Political Liberalism, disagreement over fundamental moral conceptions strikes with a vengeance in American society at large, and accommodation of such broad, intractable pluralism is at the core of the liberal project. Only small enclaves or deeply illiberal police states can sustain social order on the basis of a single dominant conception of the moral good. Workable liberal societies do, however, require a broadly shared public philosophy based in what Rawls called an “overlapping consensus” of diverse comprehensive moral views that is compatible with most of them, but leans too heavily on none. One of my own major aims is to promote the viability of classical liberalism as just such a public philosophy–one that does not require utopian near-unanimous social agreement on controversial moral claims like “all coercion is immoral,” “taxation is theft,” or “God created us with natural rights to property,” for example, but which is fairly with consistent such views, as well as many others based in very different moral assumptions. I’m convinced that this is the best way forward if classical liberalism is to have a shot at becoming a viable public philosophy in a cosmopolitan, pluralistic societies like ours. But I wouldn’t believe this if it wasn’t for Rawls, which is one reason I hold him in such high esteem, despite my strong disagreement with many of his ultimate conclusions.