Not Worth Saving

Two Adams and two Twitter duck Sams walk into a blog.

“I think that theorizing about ideal governments can play an important role in politics if done right,” Adam G offers.

“I think such theoretical ideals are fun to think about but don’t think there’s much we can do to move us in that direction,” replies Sam W.

The ordoliberals have been doing this for a long time and they’re pretty good at it actually,” Sam H notes pensively.

“I love the ordoliberals,” Adam B says, “they’re sophisticated, hard-nosed pragmatists. No silly moral universals like “natural rights”; they correctly view things more contingently, and have an appreciation for the fragility of the human enterprise.”

I’m afraid this joke doesn’t have a punchline, which is how you know that neither Sam W or David D are writing this post. In the place of a punchline, I offer you a lengthy exposition on political ideals below the fold.

I know. I think that’s a poor substitute for a punchline, too.

Not to get self-congratulatory on you here, but I think if there’s a meaningful ideal of what constitutes a good blog, Sweet Talk must have crossed that threshold (however temporarily) in December. What a slew of posts we have had.

Adam B took Sam H’s well-received piece on ordoliberalism as the intellectual successor of the Scottish Enlightenment as a jumping point to talk about an ax he has no doubt had to grind for some time: natural rights libertarians. AB and I share a background commitment to a more communitarian outlook than most of the crowd we run with online, so I get where he is coming from. Still, while understanding his position, I couldn’t help but find the last couple of paragraphs a bit troubling:

What kind of societies do want? What kind of societies are possible given the limits of human nature? (This second question always trips up the Communists) These questions are difficult to answer even for individuals, and fiendishly difficult to find consensus on, but they do have one great advantage over discussions of natural rights – they are concrete. Anything at all could be a natural right, if we all agree it is, and if we all agree on natural rights being inviolable even in the face of harmful consequences to society, then we will never actually get to live in a society we want to live in. It is far easier for any individual to say “This is good”, or “This is bad”.

We must dispense with this fallacy of natural rights, not just to property and contract, but in all areas of our life – including areas of our personal life and non-contractual society that many people consider deeply personal. They are personal, it’s true, but to the extent these actions create measurable harm to the fabric of society, society has a right to modify them.

I am put in mind of a conversation our fellow Sweet Talker Drew had with some neoreactionaries on Twitter a few months back. It’s not uncommon among that group to have an excessive concern for matters of breeding—to put things politely. Drew took the high controversial position that forced sterilization of poor people is, in fact, abhorrent, and categorically impermissible from a moral standpoint. His interlocutors all presented a bunch of “what if” scenarios that boiled down to a simple question: what if the survival of a society depended entirely on our willingness to.

His answer has stuck with me:

Unlike Drew, I’m not Catholic (or Christian, or religious at all really) but I am a moral realist. I deeply admire his willingness to say “right is right and wrong is wrong, and damn the consequences!”

This is part of why I find AB’s post on natural rights interesting but troubling. His emphasis on the “consequences to society” make it hard to find what I would consider to be a morally correct answer to the neoreactionary’s “what if”.

It puts me in mind of two lost works of the founders of Stoicism—Xeno’s Republic and Chrysippus’ On the Republic, both of which were apparently a source of embarrassment to later Stoics. Contemporary critics of Stoicism would cite with relish how Chrysippus in particular had apparently defended both incest and cannibalism. We don’t know much about the content of these works and much of what we know comes to us through hostile witnesses. Julia Annas believes that the most likely argument was simply that there was no limit to how far we are willing to go in revising conventions, if reason dictates that it must be so. In other words, the embarrassing arguments of Xeno and Chrysippus were artifacts of an extreme dedication to rationalism, not to some ancient form of relativism.

I was as enthusiastic about Sam H’s post on ordoliberalism as nearly everyone who has read it has been, but I still have a nagging feeling when talking about this subject, in spite of what I said. There’s still a part of me that thinks it’s hubris to talk about an ideal government at all, or to contrive policies that will get us closer to that ideal. Our knowledge is too imperfect and too structured by clean narratives with clear implication. Our ignorance is too vast and immeasurable. I fear that any step away from this position of radical uncertainty is a step towards Xeno and Chrysippus.

I am somewhat comforted by the synthesis of MacIntyre and McCloskey that has become my de facto epistemology in such matters. To speak knowledgeably of good government, you should immerse yourself in the big traditions of thought on the matter. Be able to speak of each of them as if you were their most devoted and most learned advocate. Then, of course, familiarize yourself with the literatures out there—never find yourself in the position of receiving Garett Jones’ sarcastic derision “if only there were a vast literature on X” where X is the thing you’ve just been speculating about without evidence or learning.

I used to be skeptical of Alex Tabarrok’s rule of thumb to trust literatures, not studies, because I wondered whether the literatures in social science were really all that good even in aggregate. Tabarrok himself, as well as Deirdre McCloskey, convinced me to take literatures seriously in the end. Whatever problems you can think of that would limit the effectiveness of systematic study or measurement in a given area, odds are that the big community of specialists have argued about such limits to death and proposed and implemented endless approaches to get around or compensate for them. That does not mean that literatures are without problems or that outsider critiques aren’t valuable; to the contrary. But outsider critiques are usually only valuable if they’ve bothered to actually get familiar with what they’re criticizing, though the foundation of their criticism may come from a different community of rhetoric than the object of their criticism. Let’s call it the efficient literature theorem—most of the time, most literatures have captured most of the methodological problems any one individual could think of, and formulated and implemented more thoughtful and careful responses to those problems than any one individual would be capable of designing and making use of in isolation.

But I digress.

The point I am approaching at a rambling pace is that I basically agree with both Sam H and AB—we can talk meaningfully about good government, and a lot of what people take for granted—and hold as sacred, even—are much more contingent on history and circumstances than they would like to admit.

I think my problem with AB’s piece is more a matter of phrasing than of the substance of his beliefs. Because in my mind, one of the points of an ideal is to give us a sense of when something is no longer worth saving. There are many things that I would defend even if it risked harmful consequences for society. As Drew succinctly put it, nations come and go. I do not believe in the fires of Hell but I do believe in Heraclitus’ river;  no regime or institution or nation or set of political boundaries lasts forever.

At a certain point the only way to preserve the status quo in a given nation might be to take measures that are evil and unforgivable. At that point, I would rather see a nation washed into Heraclitus’ river, that some new thing or things may wash up in a different form, rather than justify wickedness. In a way, there’s too much uncertainty to defend such an idea: we have no idea what will wash up next, and whether it will be worse than what we already have or even what we would have to do in order to keep it. But uncertainty cuts both ways; the only certain thing when we engage in wickedness to protect what we have is that we will become wicked—there’s no guarantee that we’ll succeed in our goal. It’s quite possible to become devils on behalf of a good cause and end up only having become devils.

What I’m saying is that we must carefully consider not only good government and the contingencies of specific ideals like property rights or freedom of speech, but also what the lines we are willing to draw are. When is enough enough? When is it better to stand by our principles than to think of the consequences to society? When is an institution so far gone that it is not worth saving?

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