The Appeal of Fascism

Or: It’s Going To Be All Right

When we call Trump a fascist, we mean something bad, but we don’t mean fascism. If you look at it the right way, the numbers are kind of comforting: About 30% of Republican primary voters, in some states, are all in on Trumpscism, or whatever you want to call the Trump brand of fascism. Populascism? I don’t know. It’s such a fun thing to watch, regardless.

The numbers, not too long ago, were much more disturbing, back when everyone went in for fascism, properly speaking; the entire Western world went all-in for fascism, right before all the homosexuals, blacks, Jews, and other undesirables were cleared off the streets and disappeared. The difficult truth about disappearing the undesirables made fascism itself undesirable, so it fell out of favor as a term with the university class. Now fascism is a moniker for something else, a name for the perversion of conservative political doctrine.

We ought to be careful about calling Trump a fascist and a racist, despite the elements of fascism and racism attached to his message and persona, and despite the fact that he’s running in the GOP, which is also the home of conservatives, mainly because that’s an awfully broad brush which covers people who aren’t fascists, while it leaves unpainted actual fascists, who probably don’t have any party affiliation.

When you offer a general population the following planks in a campaign platform: strong national identity, strong central government, (un)willing participation of corporate entities, high taxes paying for universal services, while also demonizing opposition (and even sabotaging the opposition’s efforts), well, you’re going to get some votes. Wiser politicians than Trump have long known how to offer fascism without the nasty side-effect of attracting an openly racist voter bloc, that which is the final plank in the platform known as fascism. Without racism, it’s an appealing political doctrine today, and it held the world in sway, once upon a time, when history was still in black and white.

The conservative argument against the appeal of fascism, whatever its actual name today, is that it can’t really be done without a great deal of disruption. The characteristics necessary to create a leader who will implement that platform is unlikely to produce a leader who will observe the pleasanter traditions of constitutional democracy. Liberal and Leftist pundits will be wise to note that the conservative movement in the United States has vociferously rejected Trump (see National Review), especially where his doctrine (such as it is) overlaps with a properly defined fascism. Those conservative voices in popular media who actually have endorsed Trump are hardly making a conservative case for him–because it’s impossible.

Now, as for the name fascism, and its application to perversions of conservative doctrines: well, it’s a tough cruel world, and conservatives are going to just have to get over it, continuing to argue for free markets, smaller federal governments, the Western canon, inter alia, acknowledging weakness and pointing out strength.

No worries.

Warning: For Some Values of X, Y = Genocide

Featured image is by Willem van de Velde the Younger.

Let’s say that human beings could only perceive the world, and decide how to act, based on mathematical equations. Further, there are many such equations we could choose from.

Each equation has a history; originally formulated by specific people, with variations devised by other people. Often, attempts at creating wholly original new equations end up having clear predecessors.

Let’s say that there’s one particular equation that outputs flourishing, happiness, and a meaningful life for the widest range of values for the variable X.

Only for a specific set of corner cases of X, its output is that nationwide ethnic cleansing is permissible.

Question: should we throw that equation out entirely?

Well, that depends on what the other equations get you, right? What if all the viable alternatives get you genocide for a wider range of X values? Or what if they give you some horrible outcome other than genocide, how would you even being to weigh different possible horrors?

I don’t have the equation for you to answer those questions.

But even if it ended up being the best of all possible equations, wouldn’t you still want to know that some X values lead to a horrible outcome? Even if you couldn’t determine precisely what those X values were?

And wouldn’t you want to look into the history of the thing, to see if you could find any information on what sorts of horrors it’s capable of producing, and what exactly have caused it to produce it in the past?

I’d hope you would.

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The capacities approach of Will Wilkinson

In a 2007 blog post (Web Archived here), Will Wilkinson explored the limits of the crisp, clean, Boolean distinction between negative and positive liberty, using as his foil the Objectivist philosopher David Kelley’s treatment of the subject. The post itself forcefully argues that there is no reliable and useful way to separate positive (freedom to x) from negative liberty (freedom from interference). Many of the things we value in life depend critically on the beliefs and actions of other individuals, but have nothing to do with interference as commonly understood. That’s well and good – read the whole thing – but here I’d like to recast Wilkinson’s analysis of liberty as the liberty of the capabilities approach.

Continue reading “The capacities approach of Will Wilkinson”

Why philosophy?

Written without any prior knowledge of Adam’s post, I swear.

“Is all philosophy bullshit?”

The question wasn’t glib, and it was coming from a fellow student in a European graduate philosophy program. My answer, mirroring the question, had the same false appearance of being glib:

99% of philosophy is wrong. But a significant minority of that is productively wrong. Why still read Plato? Not for his answers, for his questions.

Continue reading “Why philosophy?”

The Gordian Knot

Featured image is Alexander Cutting the Gordian Knot, by Antonio Tempesta

One of the key disputes in the continental vs analytic divide in modern philosophy is one of style. German and French philosophers largely follow Hegel’s impenetrable style—or worse, Heidegger’s—while English-speaking philosophers largely follow Bertrand Russell’s approachable prose.

A problem arises immediately because the substance of philosophy is relevant to the question of its style. Consider that the conclusions of economic theory, which concern human beings, are thus relevant to the practice of economics itself.

Philosophy falls into a similar recursion, even when we are just talking about the style in which philosophy is done. Plato’s decision to write only in the form of dialogues was a conscious choice made on a philosophical basis; his master Socrates believed that written philosophy was a contradiction in terms.

What, then, are the philosophical presuppositions behind the stylistic divide in modern philosophy?

There’s a lot that can just be chalked up to bad or sloppy writing. I’m told that Kant wrote The Critique of Pure Reason in a hurry and did not get it properly edited. Analytic philosophy itself is no stranger to putrid prose. One need not be a good writer to become a professional philosopher, even in the English-speaking world.

But Hegel’s writing style was, I believe, a choice. And Heidegger’s certainly was. Heidegger believed that common language came with philosophical assumptions baked in. That point is at least defensible. His solution, however, seems worse than the problem. The relentless neologisms and wordplay are all but impenetrable. George Steiner claimed that in German, the style has literary merit. Perhaps so, but I am in no position to judge that. All I know is that Gadamer, no great stylist, nevertheless was able to wrestle with the same perceived problem in a perfectly straightforward manner.

If we are going to write, we should strive to be good writers. In this way, I stand much closer to Russell than to Heidegger. However, being a good writer does not always mean making the simplest possible point in the simplest possible way.

I fear that for all the faults of the continental tradition (the USSR used Marx to justify mass murder, while Heidegger was a registered Nazi and delivered a speech touting their virtues mere months after Hitler was made chancellor), the analytic tradition too often thinks that the world’s problems are merely a set of Gordian Knots begging for Alexander’s solution.

I often think, these days, in terms of “low context” or “direct” speech as opposed to “high context” or “indirect” speech, distinctions I learned of in Arthur Melzer’s book Philosophy Between the Lines.

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall, for example, probably the most famous and influential writer in the field, distinguishes between what he calls “low context” societies like the United States and Europe and the “high context” societies found throughout most of the developing world. In the former, when one communicates with others— whether orally or in writing— one is expected to be direct, clear, explicit, concrete, linear, and to the point. But in most of the rest of the world, such behavior is considered a bit rude and shallow: one should approach one’s subject in a thoughtfully indirect, suggestive, and circumlocutious manner.

To forestall an objection from Ryan, Melzer does not rely on evidence from theorists alone. He also draws on practical guides created for people who have to work in other cultures which emphasize the pervasiveness of indirect speech outside of the west. The book assembles a formidable corpus of such practical and theoretical discussions, all pointing in the same direction—towards the existence of cultures favoring “low context” and “direct” styles on the one hand, and “high context” and “indirect” styles on the other.

The chief distinction is not between obscurantism and clarity, but how much of an onus is put on the audience. From one paper Melzer cites:

The burden for understanding falls not on the speaker speaking clearly, but on the listener deciphering the hidden clues. In fact, the better the speaker, the more skillful he may be in manipulating the subtlety of the clues.

To a western and especially an English speaking audience, this seems the very definition of obscurantism. But Melzer emphasizes the pedagogical value of making students pay close attention to a text in order to be able to understand it. What seems superficially easy to understand too often yields only a superficial understanding.

It is an uncomfortable fact for philosophers that stories are the chief means through which societies convey wisdom, not philosophy. Philosophy and art have struggled over which was the appropriate source of wisdom since antiquity. Philosophy succeeded in achieving a certain status among intellectuals. But most people, especially children, find more wisdom from cartoons, movies, or comics than from philosophy–continental or analytic, ancient or medieval. Eastern or western.

In my view, there must be great value in conveying ideas indirectly. Of the writers here at Sweet Talk, no one has demonstrated this more thoroughly than David.

The exact opposite is not true, however. Indirect and direct, high and low context communication, both have their place.

What should not have a place are bad writing, badly organized presentation, and intentionally opaque language.

Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger were not seeking to provide well written parables or even dialogues, for all of their love of dialectic. For all the talk about “dialectical” styles, they ultimately gave lectures and wrote essays and books. And the stylistic choices they made provided cover for later, more mediocre thinkers to shroud their mediocrity in impenetrable writing.

What can be considered good writing depends on the goal as well as the audience of the piece. Good writing for a technical audience will be different than good introductory writing. Conveying wisdom through poetry, parable, or essay will also be judged differently in each case. But having different standards isn’t the same as having no standards, and philosophical writing is too often synonymous with bad writing.

The Sting of Science

Some interesting things going on in the world of guilty, not guilty, and innocent, what with its consequences: the accused goes free, or the accused is imprisoned. As far as I understand it, prison, between Johnny Cash concerts, is a rather unpleasant existence, a place which not only punishes evildoers for the purposes of hindering evil being done in the midst of well-doers, but it also dehumanizes.

Convictions based on DNA evidence are being overturned. Another one bites the dust. Throw DNA evidence onto the pile of other courtroom incontrovertibles, along with fingerprints and lie detector tests. Perhaps the ancients were on to something when they said, “Do not establish a charge except by two or three witnesses.” Besides which, all the truly great courtroom dramas are based on the accounts of the witnesses and whose testimony might be trustworthy or how one might piece together the circumstances surrounding the crime: in other words, narrative. These forensic science TV shows, as cool as they might be in their first run, are intolerable in repeats. Columbo endures.

Ah, but science has determined that the science was insecure, susceptible to abuse! We are hereby one step closer to establishing the scientifically failsafe forensic method in criminal justice! A house divided, yada yada yada…

Jurisprudence took a turn, from this layman’s perspective, in those heady days when we were convinced that we could serve justice coldly, removing the fallible human element from murder trials. As public morality splintered (and now that it has disintegrated), triangulating became truly difficult for juries. How can a jury of peers even be established when we are all islands unto ourselves? Thus the task of weighing testimony was sublimated to the task of weighing the evidence.

Evidence is not unimportant, of course, but artifacts have been elevated in the public mind above hot-blooded accounting of hot blood. It’s all so icky, the tears, the blood-curdling descriptions, the hatred, rage, all there on display in a nice, sterile society. For a jury to pass moral judgment in the case of law is asking an awful lot. Juries, then, are witnesses themselves, offering testimony to the jury of editorials and the twitterverse concerning the wherewithal of a society to commit moral judgment. Who is the presiding judge?

More than that, perspective has been polarized, meaning, a witness is either telling the truth or is telling a lie, and only a chasm exists around those two pillars. The TV tells me that good lawyers know how to destroy witness accounts on this basis: if a reliable witness flutters in one detail, then the whole account is invalidated. Alas for measuring and sifting, for dividing and discerning, a lost art in the age of certainty!

Now that science has once again been disbarred from the courtroom, apprehended murderers might get away with murder! Indeed, they probably will for a short time, but we will establish a new evidentiary process to which to sublimate testimony. In the meantime, it will remain true that our prisoners, nearly all of whom are surely guilty, are stacked in cells reaching from beneath the earth up to the sky, and stretching in lines which converge around the compass on every horizon. Look, we say, our prisons are full, and crime is consequently minimized. See how we have hindered evildoing! We are approaching that day when we shall become a completely just society.



Keynesianism in Democracy

Two years ago, semiconservative pundit Josh Barro declared that “Conservatives Have No Idea What to Do About Recessions.” The eminent progressive economist Paul Krugman agreed, then tweaked crotchety Josh by saying this idea-less condition afflicts not only “anti-intellectual and doctrinaire” Republican policymakers but also “prestigious conservative economists” such as, um, Barro’s father Robert.

Conservative intellectuals like Robert Barro, Krugman suggested, have rejected the economists’ notion of aggregate demand, and in so doing they have rejected not only Keynesian economics but also the wrong-yet-acceptable monetarist alternative and its very great avatar Milton Friedman. Why? Because politics: Krugman sees Barro père as having “the sense that acknowledging that markets fail, ever, would be the thin edge of the wedge for liberal policies.”

With apologies to Alex Pareene’s version of Malcolm Gladwell: Say that Krugman is right about Robert Barro’s motivations. Could Barro still be right in rejecting Keynesian economics? What if Keynesian economics contains a lot of truth, though? Surely then Barro would be wrong in refusing to advance those true Keynesian ideas.

Or would he?

In 1977, the classical liberal economists James Buchanan and Richard E. Wagner argued that the advancement of Keynesian economic ideas is counterproductive in a mass democracy. Buchanan and Wagner allowed that there could be some ‘truth’ in Keynesianism but said that intellectual economists—few in number and limited in influence—can no longer assert the consistent level of control over economic policy that would be necessary to deliver results. Why not?

John Maynard Keynes, as evidenced in material cited by Buchanan and Wagner, tended to think of policy in his Britain as being handed down by an intellectual aristocracy that would not soon be displaced. Keynes believed that sway over the economic levers could and would be maintained by smart folks, whatever else may transpire. But in America now, as Paul Krugman and Josh Barro both know, that ain’t so. The columns and tweets of today’s smarties, whoever they are, are just an input into the roiling democratic processes that determine policy.

So what should that input be? Krugman’s answer is twofold: Keynesian economics and Democratic Party politics. We are fortunately blessed to have with us a party of politicians who take their cues from sensible people. The Democrats are smartly Keynesian, and so if they remain in power then countercyclical policy is guaranteed. Stimulate the economy when it busts, then use boom times to control inflation and reduce debts.

But Buchanan and Wagner pointed out that since the boom-time Keynesian policies of tighter money, lower spending, and higher taxes are never popular with voters, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to bet on continuous Democratic victories. An opportunistic opposition party could put forward pseudo-Keynesian ideas designed to win elections: Say, if tax cuts are stimulating during recessions, then shouldn’t they be stimulating all the time? A voter who really understands Keynesianism, who learned what she was taught in intermediate macro, wouldn’t be suckered by such an opposition. But in a mass polity dominated by noneconomists, vague notions about the benefits of ever-lower taxes can sink in. Sometimes the Republicans win, and who knows what they end up doing.

So Buchanan and Wagner’s answer was this: Mass democracy requires a wiser brand of economist, one who understands Keynesian economics but refrains from offering the Keynesian policy prescription. Economics professors shouldn’t, in their classrooms, push their smart kids to advocate for strongly countercyclical budgeting. Teach them about the idea, yes, but teach them too about the politics that are likely to frustrate its successful implementation, and remind Timmy in the front row that he’ll never chair Ways and Means.

Buchanan and Wagner thought a better result would obtain if the economists and their sharp students hold that politicians should consider the government to be broadly constrained by its budget. Then less nuttiness gets around. The idea of ever-lower taxes, dumb on its face, is affirmed as dumb. And some of the less defensible Gladwellism in politics is stymied. A crotchety man or two might be happy about that much.

They would be, right?

Disequilibrium ethics

As part of a self-led course on liberal feminist philosophy, I accidentally started reading Situating the Self: Gender, Community, and Postmodernism in Contemporary Ethics, by Seyla Benhabib. I say accidentally because feminism isn’t really the focus of the book. I have found myself instead knee-deep in “discourse ethics” – the book’s main subject.

It’s easiest to describe discourse ethics in contrast to social contract ethics, where we envision some ideal scenario in which ideal individuals come to some kind of ideal agreement about what constitutes justice. (Social contract ethics typically focuses on justice rather than the broader topic of what constitutes the good life). To the social contract theorist, justice is whatever we could agree to if we were perfectly rational and perfectly objective. In a passage that would have been incredibly helpful had it appeared on page 2 instead of page 169, Benhabib trots out the differences between this approach and discourse ethics.

Both the Rawlsian “original position” and the Habermasian model of “discourse ethics” are idealizations intended to make vivid to us the ideal of impartiality or of what it means to assume the moral standpoint. Their differences center around the following points. According to discourse ethics, the moral standpoint is not to be construed primarily as a hypothetical thought process, carried out singly by the moral agent or by the moral philosopher, but rather as an actual dialogue situation in which moral agents communicate with one another. Second, in the discourse model no epistemic restrictions are placed upon moral reasoning and moral disputation, for the more knowledge is available to moral agents about each other, their history, the particulars of their society, its structure and future, the more rational will be the outcome of their deliberations. Practical rationality involves epistemic rationality as well, and more knowledge rather than less contributes to a more informed and rational judgment. To judge rationally is not to judge as if one did not know what one could know (the effect of hanging the “veil of ignorance”), but to judge in light of all available and relevant information. Third, if there are no knowledge restrictions to be placed upon such an argumentative situation, then it also follows that there is no privileged subject matter of moral disputation. In the discourse model, moral agents are not only limited to reasoning about primary goods which they are assumed to want whatever else they want. Instead, both the goods they desire and their desires themselves can become subjects of moral disputation. Finally, in such moral discourses agents can also change levels of reflexivity, that is they can introduce metaconsiderations about the very conditions and constraints under which such dialogue takes place and they can evaluate their fairness. There is no closure of reflexivity in this model as there is in the Rawlsian one. (pp 169)

Emphases in original. There are three ideas here that I’d like to discuss in turn: (1) actual versus hypothetical dialogue; (2) universal particularity versus blind universalism; and (3) the vague rather than strict boundary between the right and the good.

Actual versus Hypothetical Dialogue

The whole point of thinking about justice hypothetically in terms of idealized agents coming together to hammer out the principles of justice once and for all is that this way you can actually reach an agreement and come to some conclusions. Of course, in real life we can never get any group of appreciable size and diversity to agree on anything at all. The consensus achieved by idealized agents is illusory because (1) we ultimately have to return to the world of flesh and blood to test out the ideas arrived at behind the veil; and (2) meaningful differences between the contractors have been idealized away to such an extent that the contractors are identical, so it’s no consensus at all, except that of the philosopher with themself. I’ll save (2) for the next section.

As to (1), the veil of ignorance – whereby we ponder what folks might agree to about how society is organized if they didn’t know what their own place in that society would be – is a useful thought experiment. It challenges us to think objectively, and it can yield valuable insights. But upon lifting the veil, the conclusions must still be justified to real people who can argue back. This becomes evident when you see the real world criticism by other philosophers when a theory of justice derived from ideal theory is published. This might seem like a trivial point, but I think it matters that at the end of the day, there’s no escaping engaging with real folks who keep raising good objections regardless how objective we think we’re being.

Benhabib’s alternative approach of discourse ethics moves the emphasis from the agreement to the process of getting to that agreement and explicitly eschews the requirement to actually reach universal agreement.

We must interpret consent not as an end-goal but as a process for the cooperative generation of truth or validity. The core intuition behind modern universalizability procedures is not that everybody could or would agree to the same set of principles, but that these principles have been adopted as a result of a procedure, whether of moral reasoning or of public debate, which we are ready to deem “reasonable and fair.” (pp 37)

Disagreement and therefore politics are brute facts of our social nature. The unhappy fact is that sometimes we will of necessity – when the stakes are high enough to warrant it – have to coerce cooperation in order to reap the rewards of social coordination. We can’t avoid this, but we can try to make the social and political decision procedures as just and as robust as possible.

Universal particularity versus blind universalism

As I said above, consensus behind the veil is really the consensus of the contract theorist with themself. This criticism has been lobbed at Rawls from multiple angles, including from feminists and non-contractarian liberals. If we abstract away all our socially defining features and our substantive commitments, we erase the particular, vivid experience of, for example, what it’s like to be a member of a marginalized ethnicity or religion, or a woman in a society where men have been calling the shots for centuries. Individual experience, in all its granular particulars, is a requisite epistemic resource for any meaningful discourse on justice.

The conditions for a just and robust discourse are these:

(1) that we recognize the right of all beings capable of speech and action to be participants in the moral conversation – I will call this the principle of universal moral respect; (2) these conditions further stipulate that within such conversations each has the same symmetrical rights to various speech acts, to initiate new topics, to ask for reflection about the presuppositions of the conversation, etc. Let me call this the principle of egalitarian reciprocity. (pp 29)

Emphases in original. Everyone can speak, raise issues, and contest common assumptions and narratives. And each person owes it to others to listen with charity.

Some white men conferring behind a veil

The right and the good are distinct, but not cleanly separable

Liberal neutrality is a critical feature of a peaceful civilization, as it prohibits those in power from enforcing their visions of the good life onto their dissenting fellows, thus eliminating a source of irreconcilable conflict. But liberal neutrality shouldn’t be construed to shield conceptions of the good from critical inquiry. We derive the same epistemic advantages from opening our conceptions of the good to outside critique as we do from opening our theories of justice to critique.

If in discourses the agenda of the conversation is radically open, if participants can bring any and all matters under critical scrutiny and questioning, then there is no way to predefine the nature of the issues discussed as being public ones of justice versus private ones of the good life. Distinctions such as between justice and the good life, norms and values, interests and needs are “subsequent” and not prior to the process of discursive will formation. As long as these distinctions are renegotiated, reinterpreted and rearticulated as a result of a radically open and procedurally fair discourse, they can be drawn in any of a number of ways. (pp 110)

Justice and theories of the good shouldn’t be strictly separated because this is likely to implicitly privilege status quo power relations to the detriment of the marginalized. Without critical challenge from diverse perspectives, these relations can easily be understood as natural or inevitable, rather than socially constructed and changeable. An example of this is the common understanding throughout pre-feminist history that domestic family matters are private and not open to public scrutiny, and further that a woman’s natural role is within the domestic sphere while the man’s natural role to engage in civic life.

As an aside, I suspect one can fruitfully compare this ethical approach to Hayek’s defense of freedom as a discovery process: the trusting of “the independent and competitive efforts of many to induce the emergence of what we shall want when we see it.” (Constitution of Liberty, pp 29) For both Hayek and Benhabib, the core problems of living together are the epistemic ones of effectively harnessing dispersed knowledge.

Reflective equilibrium and discursive disequilibrium

Reflective equilibrium is the process by which we achieve harmony between our moral intuitions and our rational theories of ethics. We reason about ethics in order to construct some kind of machinery we can trust to guide us through novel moral terrain. We calibrate our theories against our intuitions in well-understood cases, and we go back to the drawing board if our theories throw up catastrophic moral horrors for these intuitive cases. And we go back and forth, sometimes becoming so confident with our theoretical machinery that we accept its verdict in central cases over our intuitions.

Ethical discourse extends this procedure beyond the individual to the moral community (construed as the whole of humanity in some cases). We must strive not only reach agreement within ourselves, but with our fellows. But moral pluralism is a brute political fact, and the socio-moral landscape is continually evolving as cultural, political and market arrangements, technology, and scientific understanding all change with the times. New critiques and new ways of relating to one another are always emerging. We’re thus always in a state of disequilibrium, seeking consensus where none is actually possible. On this view, moral understanding is a continual process and not something that can ever be figured out once and for all.

“Me” and “We,” Where “We” Is “Thee”

CHRIS: I think we ought to do more to help the poor.

PAT: So do I!

CHRIS: How can that be? Just yesterday we were talking about a proposal to tax the 1% more heavily in order to fund poverty relief programs, and you said you opposed that plan.

PAT: I do oppose that plan. What does that have to do with anything?

CHRIS: Well, evidently you oppose at least one thing we can do to help the poor.

PAT: Well, hang on. You just said you thought we ought to do more to help the poor. Now you’re saying that you think someone else ought to do more to help the poor…

CHRIS: What I meant was that I think we as a society ought to do more to help the poor.

PAT: I see. I agree with that, too. Only, now I have question: Don’t you consider yourself a part of society?

CHRIS: I most certainly do.

PAT: I thought so, but then why, when talking about what we as a society ought to do for the poor, did you choose to single out a group to which you do not belong? Don’t you think you, personally ought to do more to help the poor?

CHRIS: I give what I can, but the wealthy could afford to give much more than I can give.

PAT: Yes, that is probably true. However, you said before that you thought we as a society ought to do more for the poor. Upon clarification, I now see that what you really meant was that you personally cannot afford to do more for the poor, but someone else can, and so you feel that they ought to. You began by talking about “us,” but what you really meant was “them.” Why did you say “we” when what you really meant was “they?”

CHRIS: We are all part of society, all of us. If we want to enjoy a society in which all of us has the opportunity to flourish, then we must all meet our ethical responsibilities. Because the wealthy are part of our society, I include them whenever I say “we.”

PAT: Chris, are you okay? I thought you were doing pretty well for yourself. You have a nice job and seem to be making a comfortable living. You even have some money left over to donate to charity. Are you not flourishing?

CHRIS: Wait, what? Of course I’m flourishing; I have a great life.

PAT: Well, doggone it. Now I’m really confused.

CHRIS: I didn’t think it was a very complicated concept. What seems to be perplexing you?

PAT: Well, before, you were saying that “we” ought to do more, but what you really meant was a group of “us” to which you don’t belong. But just now, you said you thought we all had to meet our ethical responsibilities in order for all the rest of us to enjoy the opportunity to flourish…

CHRIS: You don’t seem to be confused to me, Pat.

PAT: Well, hang on. When you say that we need to meet our ethical responsibilities, you obviously mean that the wealthy ought to do more to help the poor, right?

CHRIS: Right.

PAT: But “the wealthy” doesn’t mean you.

CHRIS: Right.

PAT: And since you say you have a great life, then that means “the poor” doesn’t mean you, either.

CHRIS: Well… right.

PAT: So then when you say that you want all of “us” to flourish, you mean that you want someone other than you to gain something contributed by someone else, other than you.

CHRIS: Yes, so?

PAT: So, you keep saying “us” and “we,” but in no case do you actually mean to refer to yourself. I know you and I have disagreed on politics in the past, but I never expected us to disagree so profoundly on the meaning of the words “we” and “us.”

CHRIS: Come, now, Pat. Don’t you think you’re being a little obtuse? I’m talking about making our society a better place. We all live here, rich, poor, and average. We should all accept some level of responsibility for the society in which we live, and we should all strive to provide the foundation of a better polity. That naturally means that some of us will be beneficiaries and some of us will be benefactors. Because I’m doing okay, I make a point of donating what I can, and I never make a point of accepting a donation I don’t need. But those who are doing much better than I am should give more, and those who are worse off than I should be given more. But we’re all part of the polity.

PAT: I agree with all of that. All I’m saying is that you’re not really talking about “society” or “the polity,” you’re talking about what should happen to people other than you. Even worse, you’re talking specifically about people who have different characteristics than you have. Some of them give more, some of them receive more, but none of them are you. Let me ask you another question: Would you say you belong to the same society as “the 1%?”

CHRIS: I see where you’re going with this. In one sense, I belong to the same society they do because we are all part of the same polity. But in another sense, we don’t exactly hang out in the same social circles, so I guess I don’t belong to their society per se.

PAT: Neither do you hang out with the poor, Chris.

CHRIS: That’s true, too. But we all belong to the same polity, meaning we are all subject to the same government and the same laws. So when I was talking about that progressive tax increase, I meant that this is a policy everyone within the same polity should support.

PAT: Well, I still disagree with you there, but I think you probably know now that my disagreement has nothing to do with “society.”

CHRIS: Of course it has nothing to do with society, Pat. It’s rational self-interest. You’re rich. You don’t want to pay more taxes.

PAT: Wait a minute. That means that when you first said “we,” what you really meant was… me?

CHRIS: So it would seem.

PAT: Why didn’t you just say so in the first place? You made it sound like you wanted to help. And remember, I initially agreed that you and I ought to do more. You never intended to do more for the poor.

CHRIS: I guess it doesn’t sound very nice when you put it that way. I only wanted to make an agreeable case for our helping the poor… er, I guess for your helping the poor. Look, I’m sorry for putting it to you in an offensive way. I really didn’t see it that way.

PAT: It was an honest mistake. We’re friends, apology accepted.

CHRIS: Well, now I feel a little awkward. Let’s talk about something else.

PAT: Okay, sure.

CHRIS: I think we ought to treat women more fairly…

On Bullshit in Economics Textbooks

“This is important to Wittgenstein because, whether justifiably or not, he takes what she says seriously, as a statement purporting to give an informative description of the way she feels. He construes her as engaged in an activity to which the distinction between what is true and what is false is crucial, and yet as taking no interest in whether what she says is true or false. …

“Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic.”

—Harry Frankfurt

Imagine an economist sitting down to write a textbook. The task requires the economist to write about many matters on which he is not expert. If the economist drafted the entire book in an initial sitting, we who have been edified by Harry Frankfurt would imagine that the chapters on matters outside the economist’s expertise will be relatively suffused with bullshit. With effort—research, correspondence with colleagues, and so forth—the author should in subsequent drafts be able to reduce the proportion of bullshit in those chapters. But it could hardly ever be possible to eliminate the bullshit. Often it may be the case that no one is sufficiently expert in the matters at hand to give an authoritative account. The author may be in the position of a politician who must address a difficult issue and has only the input of divided experts and a divided electorate to go on, and so bullshit ensues.

Presuming this model of authoring to be correct, what does it tell us when we come across big amounts of bullshit in a textbook chapter? It might be that economists at large have no experts on the matters discussed. It might be that the textbook author did not exert much effort in writing the chapter. It might be that the matters at hand are controversial.

Econ 101 has in some quarters a reputation for consisting of dry theoretical propositions. But the opening chapter of an introductory economics textbook is really a prime place to find bullshit. This could be the case because economic science itself does not tell us exactly how to begin speaking about economics. Adam Smith gave us an exemplar when he started The Wealth of Nations with a discussion “Of the Division of Labor,” but there is no definitive reason to follow Smith in this regard and in the succeeding centuries economists have gone about the task in various ways.

One principles text I had the chance to use in recent years doesn’t even contain the phrase “division of labor,” let alone near its outset. The first two words of its Chapter 1 are in fact “Barack Obama.” Its third sentence describes Obama as “the Economist in Chief.” In the sixth paragraph it emphasizes that “President Obama has to decide how best to use the nation’s limited resources.” The second paragraph reports that prior to his inauguration Obama “asked [his economic advisers] whether the economy would recover from recession without further government intervention.” Come on, man. That conversation did not happen.

That there’s this bullshit doesn’t make the textbook’s introduction to economics unworthy. Pointing up shared American identity to connect with students might be okay. The overall impressions students take from the chapter may be useful and correct in the main. But you’d be right to say the author doesn’t care a lot whether every sentence written is true or not. And you have to think bright students notice that. I suspect a number find it alienating.

If bullshit in textbooks is a problem, it’d be good to measure its volume. Possibly one could take the first 50 sentences from several textbooks, mix them up, then present them to economics graduate students as a 50-question test a la Politifact: “Rate each sentence True, Mostly True, Half True, Mostly False, False, or Pants on Fire.” And is our bullshit skewed? The subjects could also rate each sentence in terms of whether it conjures a centralized or decentralized view of economic affairs, a command or market economy, a national or world system. I doubt any will be surprised if economists’ prior commitments primarily manifest themselves amidst bullshit.