Category Archive 'Political Theory'
21 Feb 2013

The Next Big Leftist Book

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Sarah O. Conly kayaks when she isn’t busy planning to run your life.

Sarah Conly recently had a full-year sabbatical, which she spent vacationing at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and in Oaxaca, Mexico. When not engaged in tourism or dining out, Ms. Conly busied herself with writing the next big leftist book.

Her opus, titled Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism is intended to reject explicitly the famous thesis of John Stewart Mills’ On Liberty:

That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant . . . Over himself, over his body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

Sarah Conly went to Princeton, did her graduate work at Cornell, and teaches Philosophy at Bowdoin. Professor Conly consequently believes that she knows better than you do. She believes that your personal freedom, your right to make your own decisions in areas affecting only yourself is “overrated.” The notion that you are entitled to liberty and autonomy, you see, is based, according to Ms. Conly on grossly exaggerated estimates of your personal competence and rationality.

Ms. Conly can prove that you are an idiot using evidence from psychology and behavioral economics which she concludes demonstrates that most of you out there –the people who don’t get fellowships to St. Andrews or write books while vacationing in Oaxaca– are clueless dolts afflicted with “present bias” and unrealistic optimism. There you have it. Social science proves that you are unworthy and unfit, and that you need the guidance of superior and more enlightened beings, like Sarah O. Conly, to keep you from playing with matches or cutting yourself with sharp objects.

In the Conlyian state, application of coercive force by government is not only desirable, but obligatory, anytime it can be established by the sophistry, calculations, or economic analysis of people like herself that the benefits justify the costs.

How is coercive paternalistic intervention justified? Conly offers four supposed tests: (1) the personal liberty being banned must be genuinely destructive of people’s self-defined long-term ends. (2) The coercive measures must be successful. (3) Their benefits must exceed their costs. (4) The coercive measures under contemplation must be more effective than non-coercive alternatives.

I’m working from Cass Sunstein’s New York Review of Books review, and I do not have Professor Conly’s actual text on-hand. (I’m certainly not going to pay $95 for it either.) But, even without her complete argument in view, it seems obvious to me that her criteria are intrinsically open-ended.

In the case of Number 1, the proposed coercer will always have to usurp the privilege of reading the coercees’ minds and defining those long-term ends. In reality, long-term ends vary, some people would perversely reject long-term ends in favor of short-term ends, and long-term ends may, sometimes, conflict. I think I know that Professor Conly would be disposed, for example, to ban private gun ownership… for all our own good. But owning lots of guns is, in my view, very decidedly part of my long-term ends, and I would reject Professor Conly’s perspective that private ownership of guns is so dangerous that it must inevitably be inimical to my long-term goals of personal survival and public safety. She and I are bound to disagree on item one.

In the case of 2, libertarians like myself would argue that most forms of paternalistic coercion will inevitably prove unsuccessful. Look at Alcohol Prohibition. Look at Drug Prohibition. Look at Immigration Prohibition.

With regard to Number 3, we are bound again to disagree on costs, because it is perfectly obvious that some of us consider the violation of personal autonomy, the elimination of liberties, and coercion generally to represent prohibitive costs per se.

In the case of Number 4, coercion is inevitably always going to be more effective than persuasion. If the Gestapo practices a firm policy of taking anyone caught smoking out, standing him up against a wall, and shooting him, it will definitely do a more effective job of discouraging smoking than any number of public service advertisements about health hazards.

Frankly, philosophically speaking, I think Profesor Conly’s four criteria deserve to fall directly into the departmental waste container labeled: “meaningless, trivial, or simply false.”

I have an equally negative view of her use of “social science” studies, aka bullsh*t, to refute John Stuart Mill. Anybody can prove anything with social science studies.

Professor Conly’s philosophy features also the notable defect that behavioral economics and psychology apply to you and me, the intended victims of her paternalist regime, but not to her and the other Platonic Guardians drafting the regulations.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? If man in general is too incompetent and irrational to manage his own life, he is certainly also too incompentent and irrational, too biased and selfish in perspective, too vainglorious and self-important to dictate to others how to live.

29 Mar 2012

The Contradictions of Democracy


Vladislav Inozemtsev, in the American Interest, argues that democracy has gotten far too democratic, and that over-extended democracy is inevitably going to prove to be democracy’s own worst enemy. He’s perfectly right.

It was therefore no coincidence that democracy developed in national contexts defined by, as noted already, a demos comfortable in its social skin. It is even the case, to take an obviously unsettling example, that American democracy might not have developed as it did had it not been for slavery and acute racial prejudice. Only by separating out of the democratic process those considered at the time not to be a part of the demos could American democracy unfold. That is the other side, so to speak, of the Jacksonian-era expansion of the franchise. …

[E]ven universal secondary education can no longer reliably produce a responsible citizen. Liberal democracy born in the Republic of Letters has to survive in the Empire of Television, where information flows in one direction and need not involve direct response. The civic dialogue that was once the very foundation of democratic decision-making has become a one-way process of convincing voters. The political dialogue of liberal democracies is not just degraded, as is widely acknowledged; it is qualitatively different.

Moreover, as the capacity of citizens to grasp policy issues has eroded from one side, the percentage of citizens expected to grasp them has risen from the other. In Western countries today there is far more inequality within electorates than ever, simply because, as was not the case during the 19th century, everyone above age 18 can vote. …

Democracy was the optimal form of government when voters were capable of making rational choices through an understanding of what was at stake, when they were ready to bear the responsibility for the consequences of their choices, and when the right to vote was understood to be a privilege, or the result of a struggle still remembered. Nowadays it is difficult to shake the impression that democratic societies are rapidly turning into ochlocracies, where the vast majority of citizens, seeing their rights as given and their responsibilities not at all, are easily addled by propaganda, distracted by spectacle and either unable or unwilling to invest the time and energy required to be a responsible democratic actor.

Read the whole thing.

Hat tip to Claire Berlinski.

29 Nov 2011

Constitutional Conservatism Versus Utopian Liberalism

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Yuval Levin, in National Review, explains why the American left seems to be contradicting itself so frequently these days, as it rhetorically swings back and forth between appeals to Populism and demands for conceding ever more power to unelected elite experts.

The difference[s] between.. two kinds of liberalism — constitutionalism grounded in humility about human nature and progressivism grounded in utopian expectations — is a crucial fault line of our politics, and has divided the friends of liberty since at least the French Revolution. It speaks to two kinds of views about just what liberal politics is.

One view, which has always been the less common one, holds that liberal institutions were the product of countless generations of political and cultural evolution in the West, which by the time of the Enlightenment, and especially in Britain, had begun to arrive at political forms that pointed toward some timeless principles in which our common life must be grounded, that accounted for the complexities of society, and that allowed for a workable balance between freedom and effective government given the constraints of human nature. Liberalism, in this view, involves the preservation and gradual improvement of those forms because they allow us both to grasp the proper principles of politics and to govern ourselves well.

The other, and more common, view argues that liberal institutions were the result of a discovery of new political principles in the Enlightenment — principles that pointed toward new ideals and institutions, and toward an ideal society. Liberalism, in this view, is the pursuit of that ideal society. Thus one view understands liberalism as an accomplishment to be preserved and enhanced, while another sees it as a discovery that points beyond the existing arrangements of society. One holds that the prudent forms of liberal institutions are what matter most, while the other holds that the utopian goals of liberal politics are paramount. One is conservative while the other is progressive.

The principles that the progressive form of liberalism thought it had discovered were much like those that more conservative liberals believed society had arrived at through long experience: principles of natural rights that define the proper ends and bounds of government. Thus for a time, progressive and conservative liberals in America — such as Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine on one hand and James Madison and Alexander Hamilton on the other — seemed to be advancing roughly the same general vision of government. But when those principles failed to yield the ideal society (and when industrialism seemed to put that ideal farther off than ever), the more progressive or radical liberals abandoned these principles in favor of their utopian ambitions. At that point, progressive and conservative American liberals parted ways — the former drawn to post-liberal philosophies of utopian ends (often translated from German) while the latter continued to defend the restraining mechanisms of classical-liberal institutions and the skeptical worldview that underlies them.

That division is evident in many of our most profound debates today, and especially in the debate between the Left and the Right about the Constitution. This debate, and not a choice between technocracy and populism, defines the present moment in our politics. Thus the Left’s simultaneous support for government by expert panel and for the unkempt carpers occupying Wall Street is not a contradiction — it is a coherent error. And the Right’s response should be coherent too. It should be, as for the most part it has been, an unabashed defense of our constitutional system, gridlock and all.

Read the whole thing.

24 Oct 2011

The Social Contract


Tumak and Loana (Raquel Welch) in “One Million Years B.C.” (1966)

Dagny, said last week:

“The social contract exists so that everyone doesn’t have to squat in the dust holding a spear to protect his woman and his meat all day every day. It does not exist so that the government can take your spear, your meat, and your woman because it knows better what to do with them.”

Hat tip to Glenn Reynolds.

22 Jul 2011

The Federal Deficit and the Purposes of Government

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Daniel Greenfield has an excellent, must-read editorial on the real meaning of the raising-the-debt-ceiling debate and “social justice” as a form of addiction.

The debt ceiling debate is less about spending than it is about the purpose of government. Under the impact of an economic recession, the train of the Great Society is approaching the edge of the New Frontier. Both sides are still trying to work out a New Deal, but another cuts and spending formula is not the solution. What we need is a serious and earnest discussion about why we are compulsively spending money.

A cocaine addict who runs out of money doesn’t have a spending problem, he has a drug problem. Telling him to cut back on how much money he spends on cocaine, or to shop around for cheaper cocaine isn’t the solution. It’s not about how much he’s spending, but about why. The problem isn’t in the math, it’s in the mindset.

Our cocaine is social justice. Like most junkies who are willing to sell anything and everything to keep the supply coming, Obama’s position in the budget debate is take everything– especially the military, but leave the social justice and the big government that administers it on the table. And also like most junkies, he has an endless supply of self-righteous speeches denouncing the people who just want him to stop.

In the rush of words, he postures, conflates compromise with confrontation, threatens and urges everyone to work together. There is no consistent message, only egotistical aggression and defensive need. Strip away the verbiage and you come away with a chorus of, “Mine, My Way, Mine”.

With all addictions, it is important to look for the root cause. The psychological weakness that allows the chemical rush to take over and become the defining principle of life. In this case it is a basic split over the purpose of government.

Be sure to read the whole thing.

Hat tip to the Barrister.

09 Jun 2011

Mindbombs from the Moldbug

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Charles Francis Adams, Jr. (center) with other officers of the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry, 1864

The loquacious yet always gnomic Mencius Moldbug today served up a series of summer reading recommendations apparently intended to put the reader in a Mid-19th Century frame of mind.

Moldbug’s enticing reading list features political thought, travel accounts of Antebellum America, and some selections sympathetic to the perspective of the Confederacy.

I immediately perused (former Union officer) Charles Francis Adams Jr.’s 1902 defense of Robert E. Lee, Shall Cromwell Have a Statue? with much enjoyment.

Readers would be well-advised to try reading some (or all) of Moldbug’s selections.

Hat tip to Tim of Angle.

30 Nov 2010

Tolkienian Monarchism

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J.R.R. Tolkien

Over time, David B. Hart finds his personal political philosophy converging with the Anarcho-Monarchism of J.R.R. Tolkien.

If one were to devise a political system from scratch, knowing something of history and a great deal about human nature, the sort of person that one would chiefly want, if possible, to exclude from power would be the sort of person who most desires it, and who is most willing to make a great effort to acquire it. By all means, drag a reluctant Cincinnatus from his fields when the Volscians are at the gates, but then permit him to retreat again to his arable exile when the crisis has passed; for God’s sake, though, never surrender the fasces to anyone who eagerly reaches out his hand to take them.

Yet our system obliges us to elevate to office precisely those persons who have the ego-besotted effrontery to ask us to do so; it is rather like being compelled to cede the steering wheel to the drunkard in the back seat loudly proclaiming that he knows how to get us there in half the time. More to the point, since our perpetual electoral cycle is now largely a matter of product recognition, advertising, and marketing strategies, we must be content often to vote for persons willing to lie to us with some regularity or, if not that, at least to speak to us evasively and insincerely. In a better, purer world—the world that cannot be—ambition would be an absolute disqualification for political authority.

One can at least sympathize, then, with Tolkien’s view of monarchy. There is, after all, something degrading about deferring to a politician, or going through the silly charade of pretending that “public service” is a particularly honorable occupation, or being forced to choose which band of brigands, mediocrities, wealthy lawyers, and (God spare us) idealists will control our destinies for the next few years.

But a king—a king without any real power, that is—is such an ennoblingly arbitrary, such a tender and organically human institution. It is easy to give our loyalty to someone whose only claim on it is an accident of heredity, because then it is a free gesture of spontaneous affection that requires no element of self-deception, and that does not involve the humiliation of having to ask to be ruled.

The ideal king would be rather like the king in chess: the most useless piece on the board, which occupies its square simply to prevent any other piece from doing so, but which is somehow still the whole game. There is something positively sacramental about its strategic impotence. And there is something blessedly gallant about giving one’s wholehearted allegiance to some poor inbred ditherer whose chief passions are Dresden china and the history of fly-fishing, but who nonetheless, quite ex opere operato, is also the bearer of the dignity of the nation, the anointed embodiment of the genius gentis—a kind of totem or, better, mascot.

Hat tip to Bird Dog.

21 Mar 2010

Alcee Hastings on the Rule of Law

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Alcee Hastings

0:08 video

In 1989, the future Rep. Alcee Hastings (D – 23FL) became the sixth federal judge in American history to be impeached and removed from office. He was found guilty of bribery and corruption, having accepted $150,000 to arrange a favorable sentence.

Hastings was subsequently nonetheless elected to the House of Representatives from a safe seat representing a “minority-majority” racially-gerrymandered district in 1992. Hastings was in line to succeed to the Chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee when democrats regained the majority in 2006 and Nancy Pelosi expressed the intention of passing over Jane Harman (D – 36CA), but Hastings’ dishonorable past was just little too much. Hastings is now chairman of the Legislative/Budget Process sub-committee of the House Rules Committee, where he gets to “just make stuff up.”

04 Jan 2010

Montesquieu on Modernity

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Clodion, Montesquieu, Musée du Louvre, Paris

Paul Rahe, who has written a book on Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, posts on Montesquieu’s valuable observations on the changes marking the transition into Modernity in politics, religion, and war.

Montesquieu was the first to recognize that, at the end of the seventeenth century, a profound and arguably permanent transformation had taken place in European politics. He saw that commerce had replaced war as the force dominant in international relations; that a well-ordered Carthage could now defeat Rome on the field of the sword; and that, in the wake of the Glorious Revolution, Great Britain – with its separation of powers, its policy of religious toleration, its devotion to industry and trade, and its empire over the sea – had come to occupy a pre-eminence that no existing continental power could hope to challenge. That European monarchy – with its hereditary aristocracy, its ethos of honor, its suspicion of trade, and its appetite for conquest, empire, and glory – could not be sustained in an age in which money had become the sinews of war: this he also knew.

In Montesquieu’s opinion, two successive revolutions, neither likely to be reversed, provided this transformation in politics with its underpinning. The first of these took place in the sphere of religion. Montesquieu was persuaded that Machiavelli was correct in supposing that, when Christianity supplanted paganism, it made classical republicanism obsolete.

When the virtue of the ancients was “in full force,” Montesquieu writes in The Spirit of Laws, “they did things that we no longer see & which astonish our little souls.” If his contemporaries are unable to rise to the same level, it is, he suggests, because the “education” given the ancients “never suffered contradiction” while “we receive three educations different” from and even “contrary” to one another: “that of our fathers, that of our schoolmasters, that of the world. What we are told in the last overthrows the ideas imparted by the first two.” In short, there is now “a contrast between the engagements” which arise “from religion” and “those” which arise “from the world” that “the ancients knew nothing of.” This is why the moderns possess such “little souls.”

Read the whole thing.

14 Dec 2009

The Tale of the Slave

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A question in the form of a parable by the late Robert Nozick.

Consider the following sequence of cases, which we shall call the Tale of the Slave, and imagine it is about you.

Hat tip to William Laffer.

01 May 2009

A Different God, A Different Mountaintop

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Jonathan Haidt (Y ’85) is a Social Psychologist at UVA who focusses on the moral foundations of politics. He has made, what the left perceives as a breakthrough discovery: liberals and conservatives place emphasis on different moral values.

More interestingly, Haidt’s research finds that conservatives understand liberals much better than vice versa.

Jonathan Haidt is hardly a road-rage kind of guy, but he does get irritated by self-righteous bumper stickers. The soft-spoken psychologist is acutely annoyed by certain smug slogans that adorn the cars of fellow liberals: “Support our troops: Bring them home” and “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”

“No conservative reads those bumper stickers and thinks, ‘Hmm—so liberals are patriotic!'” he says, in a sarcastic tone of voice that jarringly contrasts with his usual subdued sincerity. “We liberals are universalists and humanists; it’s not part of our morality to highly value nations. So to claim dissent is patriotic—or that we’re supporting the troops, when in fact we’re opposing the war—is disingenuous. …

The University of Virginia scholar views such slogans as clumsy attempts to insist we all share the same values. In his view, these catch phrases are not only insincere—they’re also fundamentally wrong. Liberals and conservatives, he insists, inhabit different moral universes. There is some overlap in belief systems, but huge differences in emphasis.

In a creative attempt to move beyond red-state/blue-state clichés, Haidt has created a framework that codifies mankind’s multiplicity of moralities. His outline is simultaneously startling and reassuring—startling in its stark depiction of our differences, and reassuring in that it brings welcome clarity to an arena where murkiness of motivation often breeds contention.

He views the demonization that has marred American political debate in recent decades as a massive failure in moral imagination. We assume everyone’s ethical compass points in the same direction and label those whose views don’t align with our sense of right and wrong as either misguided or evil. In fact, he argues, there are multiple due norths.

“I think of liberals as colorblind,” he says in a hushed tone that conveys the quiet intensity of a low-key crusader. “We have finely tuned sensors for harm and injustice but are blind to other moral dimensions. …

Haidt is best known as the author of The Happiness Hypothesis, a lively look at recent research into the sources of lasting contentment. But his central focus—and the subject of his next book, scheduled to be published in fall 2010—is the intersection of psychology and morality. His research examines the wellsprings of ethical beliefs and why they differ across classes and cultures.

Last September, in a widely circulated Internet essay titled Why People Vote Republican, Haidt chastised Democrats who believe blue-collar workers have been duped into voting against their economic interests. In fact, he asserted forcefully, traditionalists are driven to the GOP by moral impulses liberals don’t share (which is fine) or understand (which is not).

To some, this dynamic is deeply depressing. “The educated moral relativism worldview is fundamentally incompatible with the way 50 percent of America thinks, and stereotypes about out-of-touch elitist coastal Democrats are basically correct,” sighed the snarky Web site as it summarized his studies.

Hat tip to the News Junkie.

I think Haidt’s five foundational moral impulses are far from accurate.

Speaking as a conservative, I think liberal’s notions of fairness/reciprocity are both different from ours and are fundamentally inaccurate, constantly asserting exaggerated and unreciprocated claims to supposititious rights.

Example: liberals believe the US is obliged to award humane treatment in accordance with Geneva Convention standards to unlawful combatants who do not abide by that Convention.

Haidt overlooks the conservative “foundational moral impulses” pertaining to individual liberty, the right of the individual human being to think and act freely within his own private sphere, as well as those pertaining to the rights of society, the right of the people to preserve their own institutions and identity. Conservatives believe that change should be organic and voluntary. Liberals believe in the forcible imposition of their own superior moral insights.

30 Oct 2008

The Tyranny of Liberalism

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An excerpt from James Kalb’s The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command:

The incremental style of liberalism obscures the radicalism of what it eventually demands and enables it always to present itself as moderate. What is called progress—in effect, movement to the left—is thought normal in present-day society, so to stand in its way, let alone to try to reverse accepted changes, is thought radical and divisive. We have come to accept that what was inconceivable last week is mainstream today and altogether basic tomorrow. The result is that the past is increasingly discredited, deviancy is defined up or down, and it becomes incredible that, for instance, until 1969 high school gun-club members took their guns to school on New York City subways, and that in 1944 there were only forty-four homicides by gunshot in the entire city. …

In spite of serious chronic problems that no one knows how to attack—extraordinarily low natality, rising costs of social-welfare programs, growing immigrant populations that do not assimilate—basic change seems unthinkable. No matter how pressing the problem, only analyses and solutions compatible with liberal positions are allowed in the public square. Almost all serious discussion is carried on through academic and other institutions that are fully integrated with the ruling order, and in any case antidiscrimination rules make wholehearted subscription to principles such as inclusiveness the only way to avoid legal and public relations problems that would make institutional life impossible. Genuine political discussion disappears. What pass as battles between liberals and conservatives are almost always disputes between different stages or tendencies within liberalism itself.

So dominant is liberalism that it becomes invisible. Judges feel free to read it into the law without historical or textual warrant because it seems so obviously right. To oppose it in any basic way is to act incomprehensibly, in a way explicable, it is thought, only by reference to irrationality, ignorance, or evil. The whole of the nonliberal past is comprehensively blackened. Traditional ways are presented as the simple negation of unquestionable goods liberalism favors. Obvious declines in civility, morality, and cultural achievement are ignored, denied, or redefined as advances. Violence is said to be the fault of the persistence of sex roles, war of religion, theft of social inequality, suicide of stereotyping. Destruction of sex and historical community as ordering principles—and thus of settled family arrangements and cultural forms—is presented as a supremely desirable goal. The clear connection among the decline of traditional habits, standards, and social ties; the disintegration of institutions like the family; and other forms of personal and social disorder is ignored or treated as beside the point.

Many people find something deeply oppressive about the resulting situation, but no one really knows what to say about it. Some complain about those general restrictions, like political correctness, which make honest and productive discussion of public affairs impossible. Others have more concrete and personal objections. Parents are alarmed by the indoctrination of their children. Many people complain about affirmative action, massive and uncontrolled immigration, and the abolition of the family as a distinct social institution publicly recognized as fundamental and prior to the state. Still others have the uneasy sense that the world to which they are attached and which defines who they are is being taken from them.

Nonetheless, these victims and their complaints get no respect and little media coverage. Their discontent remains inarticulate and obscure. People feel stifled, but cannot say just how. They make jokes or sarcastic comments, but when challenged have trouble explaining and defending themselves. The disappearance of common understandings that enable serious thought and action to be carried on by nonexperts and outside formal bureaucratic structures has made it hard even to think about the issues coherently. The result is a system of puzzled compliance. …

Attempts to challenge the liberal hegemony occasionally emerge but always fail. No challenge seems possible when all social authorities that might compete with bureaucracy, money, and expertise have been discredited, co-opted, or radically weakened. When populist complaints make their half-articulate way into public life they are recognized as dangerous to the established order, debunked as ignorant and hateful, and quickly diverted or suppressed. Proponents of the standards now current always have the last word. Freedom, equality, and neutral expertise are the basis of those standards, and when discussion is put on that ground it is difficult to argue for anything contrary. Rejection of equal freedom and of expertise is oppressive and ignorant by definition, so how could it possibly be justified?

At bottom, the problem with the standards that now govern public life is that they deny natural human tendencies and so require constant nagging interference in all aspects of life. They lead to a denatured society that does not work and does not feel like home. A standard liberal response to such objections is that our reactions are wrong: we should accept what we are told by those who know better. Expertise must rule. Social attitudes, habits, and connections, it is said, are not natural but constructed. They are continually revised and reenacted, their function and significance change with circumstances, and their meaning is a matter of interpretation and choice. It follows that habits and attitudes that seem solidly established and even natural cannot claim respect apart from their conformity with justice—which, if prejudice and question-begging are to be avoided, can only be defined as equality. All habits and attitudes must be conformed to egalitarianism and expertise. To object would be bigoted or ignorant.

But why should we trust those said to know better in such matters? Visions of an emancipated future are not necessarily wiser than nostalgia for a virtuous past. If all past societies have been sinks of oppression, as we are now told, it is not clear why our rulers are likely to change the situation. They understand the basic problems of life no better than the Sumerians did. They are technically more advanced, but technology is simply the application of means to ends. Tyrants, who know exactly what they want, can make good use of technique, and if clever they will pass their actions off as liberation.

Advanced liberalism fosters an inert and incompetent populace, a pervasive state, and commercial institutions responsible mainly to themselves. Alas, the state generally botches large-scale undertakings, commerce is proverbially self-interested, and formal expertise is more successful with small issues that can be studied in detail than with the big issues that make life what it is. Experts can treat appendicitis, but they cannot give us a reason to live. They can provide the factual content of instruction, but they cannot tell us what things are worth knowing. Why, then, treat their authority as absolute?

We should not accept the official, and “expert,” debunking of ordinary ways of thought. While popular habits and attitudes can be presented as a compound of prejudice and self-interest, so can official and expert views. Both expertise and the state are immensely powerful social institutions. They have their own interests, and there is no reason to trust them any more than drug companies or defense contractors in matters that affect their own status and position. Expertise is only a refinement of common sense, upon which it continues to depend for its sanity and usefulness. Thought depends on habits, attitudes, and understandings that we mostly pick up from other people and that cannot be verified except in parts. It cannot be purified of habit and preconception and still touch our world. Ordinary good sense must remain the final standard of judgment. Good sense, however, is the business not of experts and officials but of the public at large.

In fact, advanced liberal society is reproducing the error of socialism—the attempt to administer and radically alter things that are too complex to be known, grasped, and controlled—but on a far grander scale. The socialists tried to simplify and rationalize economics, while today’s liberals are trying to do the same with human relations generally. The latter involve much more subtle, complicated, and fundamental aspects of human life. Why expect the results to be better?

Read the whole thing.


Hat tip to the Barrister.

08 Aug 2008

Email Humor of the Day

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Sharing: A lesson on human nature

I was talking to a friend of mine’s little girl the other day. I asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up and she replied, “I want to be President!” Both of her parents are liberal democrats and were standing there. So then I asked her, “If you were President what would be the first thing you would do?”

She replied, “I’d give houses to all the homeless people.”

“Wow – what a worthy goal.” I told her, “You don’t have to wait until you’re President to do that. You can come over to my house and mow, pull weeds, and sweep my porch, and I’ll pay you $50. Then I’ll take you over to the grocery store where this homeless guy hangs out, and you can give him the $50 to use toward a new house.”

Since she is only 6, she thought that over for a few seconds. While her Mom glared at me, she looked me straight in the eye and asked, “Why doesn’t the homeless guy come over and do the work, and you can just pay him the $50?”

And I said, “Welcome to the Republican Party.”

Her folks still aren’t talking to me.

27 Jul 2008

Tilting at Hayek From the Left

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Friederich August Hayek

Jesse Larner, writing in Dissent, makes a valiant attempt to dismiss Hayek from a post-Soviet-collapse, “we’re only advocating voluntary collectivism,” progressive perspective. Hayek overlooked “spontaneous collectivism” you see.

Ilya Somin, at Volokh Conspiracy, offers an intelligent critique of Larner.

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