Tending the Liberal Garden

Featured image is The Courtyard of the Hospital in Arles, by Vincent van Gogh – repr from artbook, Public Domain 


Adam rightfully calls our attention to the “tragic liberalism” of Jacob Levy. This style of liberalism is tragic because the legitimate values of the polity are incommensurable, plural, and inconsistently applied due to the inevitable diversity of the political body. These features lead to “irresolvable tensions.” These tensions are tragic not only because they are a constant, Sisyphean feature of the human experience, but because all attempts to navigate the tensions invariably hurt the legitimate interests of real human beings. We live in a world of trade-offs.

To take a frequent example Adam and I have used, the individualist concerned with liberation will desire to impose a certain level of uniformity on the populace for the sake of the disadvantaged members of society. A closed society like that of the Amish will face interference from without aimed at liberating those individuals perceived either as oppressed or at least as insufficiently capable of making and acting on informed decisions about their membership in the community. But this imperils the very existence of those sorts of communities, which individuals have genuine reasons to value that have nothing to do with the desire to dominate others. And a universalist imposition will hamper the discovery potential of a more federalist approach that affords such communities wider latitude. Both partisans in a political dialogue about how much to interfere in such communities are reasonable.

Continue reading “Tending the Liberal Garden”

If by Identity Politics

My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about identity politics. All right, here is how I feel about identity politics:

If when you say identity politics you mean the cultural relativism, polylogism, the automatic and unappealable guilt of the white man by the Original Sin of his oppressive tyranny, that engenders antagonism, essentializes individuals by race or gender, destroys discourse with accusations of tone-policing and mansplaining and foists upon us unwanted self-understandings, calls forth a new age of identity-based segregation, yea, literally constructs a new hierarchy of privilege-checked domination to put in chains the pale old masters; if you mean the evil spell that topples the freedoms of speech—yea and to offend—and of association into the bottomless pit of safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggressions and mattress marches, white fragility and the male gaze, problematizing and Twitter shaming, then certainly I am against it.

But, if when you say identity politics you mean solidarity, diversity, the realities of present bigotry and discrimination and the legacy effects of ancient oppressions, the idea that our experiences diverge according to the identity groups to which we belong—chosen and unchosen, plural and overlapping—and that to ignore these differences is to paper over injustices—designed or emergent—in rote thrall to a bland ideal of equality that can perpetuate injustice; if you mean activism led by those who know where the shoe chafes; if you mean more deeply plumbing our social well of knowledge by really listening to the testimonies of groups historically ignored; if you mean a rejuvenated liberalism which magnifies our differences not to erect walls between us, but to illuminate the path to a more genuine equality of dignity achieved in our contextual lives and not just in abstract blueprints; if you mean realizing the benefits of diversity, which are the necessary conditions for that Open Society welcoming to individuals of all sexes and genders, races, religions, nationalities, peaceful political ideologies, and body types; if by identity politics you mean loosening up the grand narrative of history’s victors to include alternative and conflicting interpretations, then certainly I am for it.

This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.


Sun Tzu and the Art of Narrative

Featured image is a statue of Sun Tzu. By 663highland – 663highland, CC BY 2.5.

One of the few nuggets I can recall from my high school reading of Sun Tzu’s Art of War is this: leave your enemy an escape route. If you surround your foe so thoroughly that they have no option but to fight (suppose surrender is not an option), then they will fight like hell. They will fight as nasty as they can, because there is nothing else left. But if they have a way out, then you can best them in the field with less bloodshed on both sides.

Virginia Postrel in her characteristic wisdom points out that Trump voters had many reasons to vote the way they did. Some of these were racist reasons, to be sure. At the very least, Trump voters displayed a stunning lack of giving a shit for the plight of women and minorities, who bore the brunt of both Trump’s narrative assault and his actual prescribed policies (e.g., building a wall and banning Muslim immigration).

Liberals want to turn Trump’s victory into an endorsement of racism and misogyny. That’s a dumb strategy if you’re against those things. The liberal belief that half the country is made up of horrible people is a big reason Trump got elected, and the more Democrats keep repeating it, the more likely their worst fears are to come true.

And so one popular narrative on the left is to portray all Trump voters as reaching deep inside themselves to find their true hearts of racist darkness. But even if this were true, this is a dangerous narrative for liberals and progressives to advance. Think of this as narrative combat. In the flesh and blood political field, of course, liberals and progressives are routed. But there is a narrative struggle as well. And in this narrative struggle, it’s still possible for liberals and progressives to “win”—that is, to weave history such that in electing Trump, Americans are understood to have succumbed fully to racism. Conservatives and other Trump voters are backed into a narrative corner. If no matter what they do, they will be seen as the worst kinds of racists, then they lose all incentive to believe otherwise of themselves. Worse, they will lose any incentive to rein in the genuine racists in their midst.

Not a broad endorsement of any vision. Link.

And there are truly nasty elements among the Trump electorate. Nothing I have said above should be interpreted as denying that. The KKK and other white nationalists are jubilant at Trump’s victory. Trump’s campaign brought the Alt-Right out of the shadows, and they will be with us for a long, long time. To be clear, the Alt-Right is explicitly against Enlightenment values and liberalism broadly construed. And these elements will likely be emboldened with the apotheosis of their latest mascot.

But we must be careful to allow Trump voters with non-malicious reasons to keep those reasons, woefully misguided though they may be. Those reasons, those self-conceptions, may yet be compatible with the open society. At least, these self-conceptions may be clay that can be worked with toward liberal ends in a way that white nationalist and Alt-Right identities cannot be. Remember that this is the same citizenry that elected Barack Obama. Twice. And some Obama voters also voted for Trump.

Here is another narrative avoid, one of opposite valence. All over my social media feeds I see recriminations of liberals and progressives and “elitists” for doing nothing but calling Trump supporters racists, sexists, and bigots, and generally employing shame tactics against rural America. Now, just as there really do exist actual racists who loudly and proudly supported Trump for frankly racist reasons, there is a kernel of truth to this narrative as well. But it’s not the whole story. Perhaps because of the careful curation of my social media, here’s what I observed far more often than overzealous accusations of racism and angry demands for white men to “check their privilege”: discussion of institutional and other forms of unconscious effective racism that were met by white men who immediately interpreted these discussions as assaults on their character. Openings of discussions of the reality of social privilege were construed as denunciations of whiteness or masculinity as such.

Social justice rhetoric can be and sometimes is weaponized, but white male fragility is also a very real phenomenon. I was discouraged to hear John McWhorter—one of the “black guys of Bloggingheads”—express disapproval of the term “structural racism” as too incendiary. But the idea is all about how unintentional and unconscious actions can lead to racially disparate consequences. Implicit bias is real. Legacy effects of now-dismantled but historically bigoted policies are real. Spontaneous orders resulting from the unplanned actions and beliefs of diverse individuals can and do lead to perverse outcomes for people belonging to certain communities. While care must always be taken in crafting rhetoric, we must not give up on educating everyone about these realities for fear of offending those who most need to learn that these aren’t just silly ideas cooked up by ivory tower professors. As ever, the burden for this communication rests heavier on white folks like me.

The lesson from all this is that there is no singular true narrative for any electoral outcome, especially from an election as unique as this one with two historically unpopular candidates. We can’t make up our facts (leave that to Trump and the postmodern Alt-Right), but we can be strategic about our narratives and the possibilities they contain.



Free Market Capabilities: a Restatement

Featured image is SHield World Construction, by artist Adam Burn.

This claim about the moral importance of personal economic autonomy likely would ring true for many of the women in developing countries to whom leading capabilities theorists such as Martha Nussbaum devote much attention. Could such an interest be built up in such a way that gained it a central place on the list of the basic human capabilities? How might the inclusion of such a capabilities interest affect the wider distributive aspects of the capabilities approach? [Tomasi 44%]

In Free Market Fairness, John Tomasi introduces a hybrid political theory he calls “market democracy.” He specifically defends a Rawlsian regime, “free market fairness” (FMF), but he presents market democracy itself as a broad research program that can be explored and hopefully colonized by liberals of all kinds, from luck egalitarians to classical liberals and perhaps even libertarians. It is open to all “high liberals” who are willing to commit to “thick” economic liberty and to all classical liberals interested in transplanting their economics into a high liberal framework. Tomasi lays out market democracy as a broad approach to meeting the requirements of liberalism:

Market democracy sees society as a public thing, the basic institutions of which must be justifiable to the people living under them. Persons are conceived not as disconnected happiness seekers but as democratic citizens. They are moral beings with lives of their own to lead who are simultaneously committed to living with others on terms that even the weakest among them can accept. At base, society is a fair system of cooperation among citizens committed to respecting one another as responsible self-authors. [Tomasi 25%]

I have previously advocated greater dialogue between libertarians and followers of the capabilities approach (CA). Here I adapt this idea in the spirit of Tomasi’s market democracy research program.

Continue reading “Free Market Capabilities: a Restatement”

Voting at the Edge of the Abyss

UPDATE — I changed the title of this piece, but left the content unaltered.

Anyone who has engaged with even a handful of libertarians in their time is familiar with their disapproval of voting. There are three kinds of reasons for this disapproval: rationalistic, moral, and the hybrid of democratic pollution. I want to admit at the outset that once upon a time I subscribed to each of these arguments. I now believe I was wrong on all counts.

Voting reductionism

The likelihood that your vote will sway any given election of more than several dozen people is vanishing. Unless the decision hinged on a single vote, then no single individual’s vote made a difference. You could have stayed home and the outcome would have been the same. So far so good. But it does not follow that you shouldn’t vote.

Libertarians make a lot of noise about how, given these quantitative probabilistic aspects of voting, your time would be spent far better doing literally anything (praying for rain, injecting heroin into your eyeball, whatever) than painstakingly adjusting your schedule to fit in the time to laboriously trudge uphill in the snow both ways to the polling station. Voting in a modern democracy isn’t some Herculean task, and voting by mail makes it quite easy for the kinds of people who read these arguments. Further, the libertarians who make this argument rarely apply the same exacting standards of efficiency for other aspects of life. Arguing with people on the Internet about how inefficient voting is on rationalistic utilitarian grounds isn’t a promising way to rack up your own utils.

This argument also implicitly assumes that the only value of voting lies in its impact on the probability of swaying the election. But this misses the point. When we talk about how we plan to vote, we are engaging in political dialogue with one another. When we explain our reasons for how we plan to vote, we’re educating ourselves about the salient arguments. Admittedly this can be done well or poorly, and our tribal instincts make it all too easy to seek out confirmation of our biases. In any case we’re potentially influencing outcomes with our reasons, not just our votes. And of course voting is a symbolic act as well. It signals to others your commitment to the civic order.

Neither ballots nor bullets

Some libertarians view voting as an act of aggression. On this view, by casting your vote for some candidate, you shoulder at least some portion of moral responsibility for that candidate’s actions in office. You consent to that candidate’s political power, and to that extent lend them legitimacy. Without such consent, whatever evils the candidate visits upon the people would be those of a common brigand or non-democratic tyrant. With your consent, you too are culpable.

This argument has some force. Voters must indeed pay attention to the consequences of their voting. If you participate in the election of a monster, and there was ample evidence for a reasonable person to predict the consequent harms, then, all else equal, you are at least partially culpable for the carnage.

But of course, how often is all else really equal? Voters are never given angels among their options, but two or more flawed candidates, one of whom will surely prevail. Moreover, candidates are not measured along a single dimension, but along numerous dimensions including character traits in addition to policy proposals. Voters must gauge those traits and policies not just on their own merits in a vacuum, but how they will likely play out in their social and political context (Will their plans be stymied by other political actors? Does the candidate’s party affiliation and the structure of the electoral system preclude the candidate’s chance at success?). And especially for high offices, a candidate should be assessed by their rhetoric and soft power. What passions might they evoke in their supporters? Will lynchings be given tacit approval, even if there isn’t an official lynching policy?

Fiat justitia ruat caelum?

This complexity doesn’t remove moral accountability from voting, but it does mean that assessing the morality of a vote is not at all straightforward. It requires assessing the reasons why you vote the way you do. The same vote may be praiseworthy or blameworthy depending on the supporting justifications. I’ll use the current pressing example. Libertarians are rightly critical of Clinton for a number of reasons, most notably her history of military hawkishness and its deadly consequences for innocent people abroad. Libertarians generally also find Trump loathsome for his clear strongman style authoritarianism and narcissism, in addition to his blatant sexism and his evocation and legitimization of rank bigotry.

Some neoconservatives will vote for Clinton at least in part because they wish to preserve American military hegemony in the world. To the extent this is their justification, I think they’re culpably wrong. So, does voting for Clinton necessarily imply bestowing your stamp of approval on ongoing campaigns of aerial drone terror? Clearly not. One might reasonably believe that, while Clinton has her problems, they’re the status quo problems we’re used to. Whereas Trump represents a “high variance” threat to our very institutions, the kind of threat that could lead to chaos and devastation impacting far more people than our current flawed system, while simultaneously crippling our best tools for improving the system.

Consider a more concrete example: a Muslim American chooses to vote for Clinton, not because she is unaware of Clinton’s hawkishness, but because she is terrified that a Trump presidency will result in pogroms and prison camps for her friends and loved ones, all while in all likelihood doing nothing to abate the bloodshed abroad. Condemning this person’s vote because “voting is an act of aggression” or because Clinton will predictably authorize actions that hurt and kill other people is implausible. Our voter has done her due diligence, and after carefully weighing the alternatives, she has reasonably concluded voting for Clinton is her best moral option.

Importantly, our voter acknowledges that her vote is not without a “moral remainder,” a degree of inevitable moral tragedy. Voting as she does is the best option available among a set of imperfect options, but that doesn’t mean she won’t feel bad for the specific Clintonian damage that proceeds. Our responsible voter is obligated to criticize the Clinton administration’s failures.

But the moral remainder is not unique to voting. The electorally abstinent anarchist suffers his own moral remainders. If Trump wins and all the predictable race- and religion-based violence, institutional corrosion, and setbacks to US-world relations ensue, then our anarchist nonvoter bears some of blame. This doesn’t change if Trump loses; in this case the anarchist will merely have enjoyed the good fortune that their abstinence (and their political dialogue running up to the election) failed to contribute to a much worse outcome. Abstaining from voting isn’t like accepting Christ’s blood. It does nothing to wash away the moral consequences of our political actions, which include acts of commission and omission.

On Gary Johnson

What I’ve said above applies to voting libertarians as well as nonvoting anarchists. There are really good reasons to vote for Gary Johnson, especially in a vacuum. On foreign policy and immigration especially, I think a Johnson administration would be far and away superior (especially if minimizing dead bodies is your thing). But we’re not in a vacuum. We’re in a two-party system where the chance of Johnson winning is infinitesimal and depends on fanciful scenarios like winning a single state (already improbable) that prevents either Trump or Clinton from getting to 270 electoral college votes (still more improbable) and then further depends on the House of Representatives (where there are no libertarians I can think of) to conclude Johnson is the best option.

Even in this case, voting for Johnson could be laudable as a protest vote—thus signaling both your dissatisfaction with the two parties and your desire to see more libertarian political options—but only if you genuinely see no substantive differences between the two major party candidates. But at the risk of imputing bad motives, if you see no substantive differences between Clinton and Trump, then you might have fallen victim to the reflexive, feel-good rational irrationality you so often decry in Republicans and Democrats.

It didn’t have to be this way. There was a window of time where it was conceivable that the anti-Trump voices within the Republican party might have loudly coalesced around Johnson/Weld as the best option for Republicans, and it might have been a very interesting three-way race where Republicans could have lost to Clinton while maintaining their dignity and libertarians could have set the stage for future campaigns as a serious political party. But this window has closed, and it’s pure fantasy to pretend otherwise. Johnson voters too will bear the moral remainder of protest-voting on the edge of the abyss.

Polluting the polls

Some libertarians aren’t hostile to democracy outright, but caution against demanding that people vote, or making voting morally mandatory. Voting is beset by problems of rational ignorance and rational irrationality. Why encourage voting when we can expect most voters to bring nothing but their biases into the booth with them? I accept this argument, and in general I don’t encourage people who aren’t otherwise inclined to go out of their way to vote. It’s far better to encourage other kinds of civic behavior. If you aren’t going to vote well, don’t vote.

That said, the libertarians I have in mind throughout this piece are politically inclined, and they are politically informed, and they’re already engaged in political dialogue. These are people who could vote well, but they choose not to. By conscientiously (sanctimoniously?) not voting, or voting for a third party candidate who can realistically only nudge the electoral outcome to one major party candidate or the other, these libertarians are themselves at risk of polluting the political process.


A modest moral objectivism

Featured image is an iconic photo of the Nazi parade through Brandenburg Gate.

Usually the passion with which I hold a position is directly proportional to how concrete the stakes are. Defending moral realism/objectivism is an exception to this. It’s incredibly abstract, but nothing spurs me to the barricades like someone saying morality is subjective. To further incriminate myself, I’ll admit at the outset that I’m not terribly well versed in the topic. So with this post I want to lay out some ideas about moral objectivism because I keep thinking about them. In part this will be a reference for myself to come back to as I learn more, but I also want to submit these ideas to criticism. I’ll start with a naïve kernel morality that takes objective moral truth for granted based on intuition. I’ll then tack on various serious qualifications to the naïve kernel that, I believe, preserve objectivism. I use the term objectivism instead of realism because I think some people understand realism to imply some kind of spooky objects in some Platonic realm that I’ll have no part of.

Skepticism and the burden of proof

I don’t think there’s a formal burden of proof in this debate. That is, there’s no strictly logical reason to start as a(n) (non)-objectivist and then resist persuasion by the other camp until your defenses are overrun. But in my case, I  begin as an objectivist based on some powerful intuitions. Intuition demands we be able to condemn certain beliefs and actions as evil. To name a few obvious ones: slavery, genocide, torture, and oppression as exemplified by the American Confederacy, Hitler’s Nazis, and various 20th century communist regimes. On a smaller scale, murder, rape, theft, and abuse without overriding justification are widely condemned as immoral actions. These provisional commitments are nearly universal across human societies, and I take this as a good reason to begin with the belief that these evaluations are true with a confidence similar to my confidence in the truth of complex scientific theories like quantum mechanics or biological evolution. Continue reading “A modest moral objectivism”