Economics, Law, Philosophy, Politics

The Intellectual Foundations of a New Progressive Era?

Free Photo: US 54

This post is the fourth in a series of five considering what the shape of progressive political-economic thought might look like following the neoliberalism of the Reagan Era.

In earlier posts, I introduced the progressive view of markets as government creations, and sketched some of the intellectual history of the idea.

In this post, I would like to note a few distinctive features of this view of markets and how it relates to other economic and political positions.

First, the idea is counterintuitive. The opposition between government and markets is so deeply rooted in our public economic discourse today that it may take some explanation and illustrations to show what is meant by the claim that our markets are government creations. But the idea is no more counterintuitive than Reagan-era claims were at the time of their introduction, such as the slogan that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” In addition, the idea has the virtue of being in some sense obviously true. No one can deny — and sophisticated neoliberal theorists like Hayek do not deny — that the functioning of modern economic markets depends on and is shaped by state enforcement of property, contract, corporate, criminal, and many other laws.

Second, the view of markets as government creations, and the legal rules of markets as political choices, frames economic debates in a way that favors progressives but leaves room for conservatives to participate — just as the neoliberal framing of economic debates in terms of a choice between government and the market favored conservatives but left room for progressives to participate. Conservatives in a new progressive era would be free to argue (unappealingly) that we should choose rules for our markets that favor billionaires over working families, because of the merits of wealth accumulation, for example; just as progressives in the neoliberal era have always been free to argue (unappealingly) that high taxes and big government are actually a good thing, because certain parts of the economy are better left to government management.

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Literature, Philosophy, Science

Structuralism, Poststructuralism, and the Decline of the Literary Humanities

Free Photo: Man With an Artificial Arm, Welding in 1919

It seems hard to believe, from our current vantage point in which the academic study of literature appears to be in a state of perpetual crisis, that there was a time, not so long ago, when the literary humanities reigned over an expanding scholarly empire — one that was not unlike the empire of the quantitative social sciences, and especially economics, today. Instead of literary academics feeling tempted or obligated to apply quantitative methods to the study of literature — as, for example, Franco Moretti has done, with results of (predictably, it seems to me) real but limited value — non-literary scholars felt tempted or obligated to become conversant in literary theory.

I was reminded of this while reading some essays by Jerome Bruner, an academic psychologist who died in 2016. In works like “Life as Narrative” (1987), Bruner found it useful to draw on literary theory about the structure of narratives as a source of ideas for understanding his own field, and even for designing empirical experiments. He cites Vladimir Propp, Frank Kermode, and Paul de Man, among many others.

Who outside of literary academia reads the works of literary academics today? What happened?

I would like to propose, a little controversially, that the literary humanities finds itself in its current state of isolation in part because of its rejection of structuralism. By “structuralism,” I do not mean only what Lévi-Strauss meant when he introduced the term. I mean something more broad: arguments that attempt to reduce complex, unwieldy human phenomena into relatively simple structures that can then be used to make predictions. The kind of models that the structuralist anthropologist Mary Douglas developed, for example. In its turn to poststructuralism, American literary academia developed a profound antipathy toward this kind of thought — an antipathy, I would argue, that has discouraged literary scholars from developing insights and models that might be of use outside of academic literary studies.

When literary scholarship turned against structuralism, it also implicitly turned against modeling. But models are a large part of what we use to make sense of our worlds, and they are one of the primary ways that ideas move between academic disciplines. To reject the search for predictively useful models is to invite the kind of intellectual isolation in which literary academia currently finds itself.

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Economics, Law, Philosophy, Politics

A Critique of “Critique”: What Is Still Wrong with the Academic Left

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There is a recurring form of argument on the academic Left that I believe deserves more critical scrutiny. I will call the form of argument “critique,” although I obviously mean something more specific than the ordinary meaning of the term. The peculiar structure of this “critique” is arguably a defining feature of the contemporary academic Left, yet it is rarely acknowledged as a specific gesture — as something that the academic Left characteristically does, and is virtually alone in doing.

When I say “critique,” what I have in mind is the following simple structure of argument, which can be, and has been, executed with countless variations:

  • Step One: Begin by identifying something — especially a powerful institution or idea — that the mainstream liberal political culture assumes to be largely a good thing, such as human rights, the language of rights in general, the rule of law, foreign aid, peacekeeping, or free speech.
  • Step Two: Identify something — especially some pathology involving inequalities of power — that the mainstream liberal political culture views as a bad thing, such as global poverty, war, sex trafficking, or gender discrimination. Often, from the perspective of the mainstream liberal political culture, the problem here will be endemic, and susceptible to no easy solution, although the mainstream liberal political culture views itself as committed to finding better solutions.
  • Step Three — and here is the conjuring trick, where the leftist scholar really has a chance to display intellectual virtuosity: Reveal that the institution or idea from Step One is in fact responsible for the perpetuation of the evil in Step Two. What the liberal thinker assumed to be a good thing — is in fact complicit in what he agrees is a bad thing! For example, it is revealed that the liberal “rule of law” is only a smokescreen for the imposition of exploitative neoliberal economic policies on less powerful countries and communities. Or one discovers that liberal “human rights law,” far from opposing cruelty and promoting the equality of all people, perpetuates racist, colonial-imperialist, extractive-capitalist, patriarchal, and ableist assumptions and power-structures — and moreover, through its emphasis on rational autonomy, attempts to deprive the cognitively impaired of human dignity!

There is no Step Four. The academic Left is defiantly unconcerned with proposing less-worse alternatives to the status quo. Rather, the aim is critique, and critique alone.

This is, in other words, a profoundly unpragmatic mode of argument — as the pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty recognized already in his late-1990s criticisms of the spectatorial academic Left. It does not live in a world of better and worse practical alternatives. It is not interested in what reforms might be possible, or how to get from where we are to some better state of affairs. It denounces the status quo in the righteously indignant tone of someone who knows of a better alternative and is outraged that this alternative continues not to be realized — but without specifying what that alternative might be, or indeed showing any interest in the question of alternatives.

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Economics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science

Max Weber and Political Ethics

Free Photo: Constructing the Manhattan Bridge

I hadn’t read anything by Max Weber until very recently, but finally made my way through “Politics as a Vocation,” his late lecture delivered shortly after the end of the First World War and the start of the German Revolution.

Weber seems to be primarily known today for several largely logically independent ideas scattered across the social sciences and humanities — especially: the idea that a Protestant work ethic played a role in the rise of capitalism, the importance of charisma to politics, the centrality of bureaucracy in the modern state, and the definition of the state as “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” (where “legitimate” only means “accepted as legitimate,” to the apparent consternation of many normative political theorists).

I had heard that “Politics as a Vocation,” where this definition of the state appears, was one of the places where Weber approached political theorizing, and I was predisposed to sympathize with the lecture by some positive remarks that the legal scholar Duncan Kennedy had made about Weber and the “ethic of responsibility.” I’ve also always believed that political theorists tend to pay too little attention to empirical knowledge from history and political science, so I was hopeful that a broadly historically and empirically informed social scientist like Weber might offer a valuable perspective.

To my surprise, however, the lecture as a whole turns out to be remarkably parochial, and in parts, dangerously misguided.

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Law, Philosophy, Politics

When to support a war: consequentialist + deontological justification

Free Photo: Lusitania at Pier

I’ve been meaning to write a quick post about the question of when a nation should go to war, and when it should not — and in particular, under what conditions the United States should use large-scale military force against another country. I don’t mean the question of whether a war is legal under the international humanitarian law governing jus ad bellum. I mean the question of when large-scale military engagement is a good idea, something that the public should support. It’s not inconceivable that there are situations when military force is a good idea even though the legal basis is unclear or lacking — such as Kosovo in 1999, or maybe Libya in 2011 — and there are also, certainly, situations when the legal grounds for a war exist, but going to war would be unwise — such as attacking Russia in response to its annexation of Crimea last year.

Based on the armed conflicts involving the United States during my lifetime, it sometimes seems as though the wisdom of entering or not entering an armed conflict gets determined in retrospect, based on how the war turned out — which doesn’t seem like a useful or fair standard for judging wisdom. No one seems particularly bothered about Desert Storm, looking back, although many progressives at the time (including, for example, Joe Biden) opposed military intervention. On the other hand, many people seem to feel that the United States should have intervened in Rwanda to stop the genocide, although there was no great progressive push to do so at the time. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion, looking at attitudes toward U.S. uses of force over the last few decades, that we tend to treat decisions about wars as good decisions when they turn out well, and treat them as bad decisions when they don’t. But we often can’t know in advance how a war, or the choice not to go to war, will turn out — wars are notoriously unpredictable, and often develop their own momentum, and motivations and expectations frequently change — so how are we supposed to decide what to support beforehand?

The idea I’ve been meaning to post is an answer to this question. It’s a fairly simple one, and it may already appear somewhere in the literature on just war. But I’ve never come across it before.

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Philosophy, Politics

Recognition in the Hierarchy of Political Needs

Free Photo: School Students in Bleachers, Forming the American Flag in 1910

This is another post in the series exploring the idea of a hierarchy of political needs. Can we better understand political change — and, in a democracy, voting behavior — by thinking of voters as a kind of “body politic” motivated by a relatively stable hierarchy of concerns, with national security above the economy, and the economy above largely altruistic concerns such as responding to the risks of climate change?

After writing the first post, it occurred to me that there might a political concern that trumps even national security: roughly speaking, what Thucydides called “honor,” what Hegel called “recognition,” and what is sometimes discussed today using terms like “cultural identity” and “dignity.”

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Economics, Philosophy, Politics, Science

The media at the hinge of political history

Free Photo: Home of a FSA Borrower

I’m beginning to wonder whether the media is in some sense the most crucial actor in understanding political change in a democracy.

The more you read in political science, the more you find grounds for skepticism that various ostensibly powerful actors can bring about change through their own actions. The presidency, for example, doesn’t appear to be all that it’s cracked up to be. Despite our desire for a President who will use the “bully pulpit” to sway the public, the evidence suggests that Presidents rarely succeed in changing public opinion. At most, their public statements can help shape the agenda, forcing the public to have an opinion on an issue — by influencing what the media talks about.

The courts rarely depart significantly from public opinion, despite the myth of the Supreme Court as the last refuge of liberty and equality in times of crisis and stress. In theory, the Supreme Court might be able to bring about political change by decree, ordering the government to do this or that radically unpopular thing. But that almost never happens in practice.

I suppose someone could argue that Congress is a driving force for political change. Maybe they’d point to the Senate’s ostensible deliberative golden age in the antebellum era. But I don’t imagine many people would seriously suggest that Congress today is leading much of anything, or more influencing than influenced.

The public itself is remarkably uninformed, and seems likely to remain uninformed despite the dreams of theorists of deliberative democracy for “deliberation days” and so on. To the extent that some portions of the public are informed, they’re largely informed by the mass media — and, perhaps, social media, to the extent that the two are different.

How about grassroots activists? There’s no doubt that activists can be a real force for political change — on those rare occasions when their decades of Sisyphean efforts bear fruit. But, when this happens, it is usually in part because they have succeeded in getting favorable coverage by the media. Or because they have made their own favorable media, for example by creating a popular, muckraking documentary film.

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