Tuesday, November 28, 2006

More Fukuyama and Neocon Theory

Back in June I posted on a Francis Fukuyama appearance at the Miller Center. Greg Djerejian has a post on a London Review of Books review by Stephen Holmes of Fukuyama's After the Neocons (and he includes a fairly lengthy excerpt of the review). As I noted in my previous post, I find Fukuyama's account of what he views to the be the real neocon thesis to be fairly compelling. Quoting from Holmes:
The thesis is that democracy is the most effective antidote to the kind of Islamic radicalism that hit the US on 9/11. Its exponents begin with the premise that tyranny cannot tolerate the public expression of social resentment that its abuses naturally produce. To preserve its grip, tyranny must therefore crush even modest stirrings of opposition, repressing dissidents and critics, with unstinting ferocity if need be. In the age of globalisation, however, repressed rebellions do not simply die out. They splash uncontrollably across international borders and have violent repercussions abroad. Middle Eastern rebellions have been so savagely and effectively repressed that rebels have been driven to experiment with an indirect strategy to overthrow local tyrannies and seize power. They have travelled abroad and targeted those they see as the global sponsors of their local autocrats.
Fukuyama goes on to describe how the Bush administration's policy in Iraq and the in the Middle East generally has strayed from the neocon theory in critical ways (for example that their actual approach to promoting democracy in the Middle East was foolish and ineffective).

There is some merit to the theory as Fukuyama presents it. I think it stops at least one step too soon, however. There are geopolitical (and probably socioeconomic) considerations driving anti-Americanism that pass beyond redirected frustration with local tyrants. Palestine is an obvious example, but there are others. These issues need to be dealt with as well, and part of the value of democratization is to bring those issues to the forefront and provide a venue for them to be addressed. The Fukuyama's theory is laudable in that it perceives that the focus of this conflict should be on people, rather than states, and that non-democratic states can serve as roadblocks to us reaching the people. But I think his analysis of what is driving those people falls short. Democracy is a step in the process, not the endgame.

The conflict this summer in Lebanon provides a good example of this. When Israel mounted its offensive on Lebanon, this was an issue the US needed to address if we were serious about dealing with terrorism's root causes. But because we were insulated from popular opinion by the tyrannical governments of our Middle Eastern "allies", and because the administration does not see addressing popular political concerns as part of the neocon mission statement, we completely failed to confront the issue.

It is not good enough to push for democracy, then simply abandon the governments that result from that democratic process as we've done in Palestine and Lebanon. Grievances that arise from a legitimate democratic process should be taken seriously. And to the extent that there is actual merit behind those grievances we need to take steps to address them in order to buy the political capital we need to credibly dismiss those grievances that don't have merit. I'm not sure Fukuyama's neocon theory is any better than the Bush administration's theory on that point.

Posner on Friedman, Libertarianism, Dogmatism

I've been meaning to blog this for the past week, but better late than never, I guess. Over on the Becker-Posner blog, Richard Posner has a nice comment on Milton Friedman's passing. In it he discusses Friedman's influence and liberal economics, and takes a position I find myself largely in agreement with. Frieman's greatest contribution, Posner says, was to hammer home the point that, in general, people are better at representing their own interests than third parties (i.e. the government) are. But, Posner argues, there are exceptions to this general rule (and Posner gives an example of one), and Friedman failed to recognize them. Friedman's market efficiency advocacy became a dogma in which he was too deeply personally invested.

Additionally, Posner takes issue with Friedman's theory (shared with Friedrich Hayek) about the correlation between economic and political freedom. He looks at China and India as counterexamples running in opposite directions (and also mentions European social democracies).

I tend to share Posner's caution with respect to market dogmatism. I feel the need every now and again to point out that this is not necessarily the same as being a market skeptic. Posner certainly is not a market skeptic; he's a legal pioneer precisely for his tendency to bring economic arguments into legal analysis. I'll take this opportunity to duck behind his cover to note that I am a great fan of distributed solutions to many problems, and markets are a wonderful form of distributive problem-solving. But I tend to doubt that there are any one-size-fits-all solutions to human social problems, and dogmatism for any particular solution will sometimes run amiss.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Public Service Announcement

I've mentioned this to a couple people, but here's your reminder: watch Battlestar Galactica. It's awesome. Download it, rent it, buy it, whatever (it starts with a miniseries, then seasons 1 & 2, season 3 is on the air now). It's a well-written drama with a strong political bent (but not in the obnoxious, preachy Star Trek style) and a surprisingly good cast. And it's dark. Really dark. I love it.

ps. After watching several other good TV serials and miniseries (Firefly, The Wire, Band of Brothers, and yes even Lost) I get the feeling that a creative shift is taking place with the good story-telling moving from cinema to TV. There's just so much more you can do with 20 hours a year for 5-6 years compared to 2 hours, and maybe another 2 hours a couple years later if you're lucky. HBO showed the audience was out there (Sopranos, The Wire, etc.) and download sales and soaring DVD revenues have provided the money for movie-like production quality (Firefly cost $1m per episode to make and I have to imagine Galactica costs more than that).

The Modern Communicational Environment

Hey just thought I'd link to this talk at MIT. It is a discussion with Yochai Benkler and Henry Jenkins about the networked society. I just wanted something to watch over dinner but I ended up watching the whole thing. I had heard of both of them before so I figure they must be pretty big. Whenever I watch this sort of thing I think I ought to be an expert on the future of communication. I don't know whether its my ideas regarding culture, or perhaps my generational perspective, but I never feel people fully grasp the potential of change in the informational structure of society. I always wish I was there to answer the questions. In any case these guys are interesting.

Oh yeah. Check this quote out. It rocks.

"He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density at any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation."

- Thomas Jefferson, from a Letter to Isaac McPherson, August 13, 1813

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Russ Bows Out

Following in Mark Warner's footsteps, Russ Feingold has decided not to run for president. I'm not shocked. I have the distinct feeling already that this is a two man(/woman) race between Clinton and Obama. And if Obama doesn't run, there is a strong possibility that Clinton won't face any significant challenge. Feingold was a huge favorite among the online progessive community (Kos et al), but didn't have the money, national profile, or inside connections to be a realistic rival to Clinton. In the event that Obama doesn't run, it's probably best that Feingold is out to help facilitate the creation of the "anyone but Hillary" bloc around a more realistic candidate. But he's still my hero.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Rawlsian Justice

I want to respond mostly on the topic of Rawls and his theory, but I'd like to briefly address the normative effect of civic institutions. I think institutions can create a much broader range of norms than simple expectation. The U.S. constitution provides a fine example of the sort of impact that civic institutions can have. You can look at the debate over the war on terror detainees and habeus corpus. Modern Americans have instincts about this that I don't think most people would have had in 1787. A lot of our popular conceptions about due process come from our institutions. Consider net neutrality. Right now both sides are advancing plausible moral values-based arguments for their positions. In the next year or two Congress is going to rule thumbs or thumbs down on net neutrality. My guess is that 10-15 years from now if someone raises the moral argument of the losing side of this debate (whichever way Congress goes) our instict will be to reject it (and similarly to accept the winning side's argument). We rely on our political and legal processes to help navigate through the innumerable moral and ethical dilemmas of modern society and to provide some sense of resolution to these sorts of questions. Consequently there are many more norm-setting opportunities for civic institutions than mere expectation.

Moving on to Rawls then. First, it's important to note that Rawls is not a utilitarian. In fact, in A Theory of Justice utilitarianism is the bogeyman against which Rawls argues his case. On the first page he writes:
Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. For this reason justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others. It does not allow that the sacrifices imposed on a few are outweighed by the larger sum of advantages enjoyed by the many.
There is, however, an element of utilitarianism in Rawls's Original Position. The objective of the Original Position contractors is supposedly to maximize their likely outcome in society. This is sort of utilitarian, with a curveball thrown in (the veil of ignorance blinds them to exactly what represents utility to them as individuals).

But Rawls's excursion into utilitarianism, in my humble view, is a mistake. I don't think he actually meant it. It really doesn't follow from his justifications of why we should have the Original Position that it should necessarily be a maximizing exercise, nor does his output from the Original Position (the two principles) reflect a maximizing approach. A maximizing approach would produce, as Henry noted, basically whatever principles would maximize the average amount of primary goods (Rawls's stand-in for utility) for everyone. Instead what Rawls claims the Original Position contractors will embrace is a maximin approach (maximizing the amount of primary goods provided to the least well off member of society). You can see this in the difference principle (part of Rawls's second principle of justice): social and economic inequalities are permissible only if they are to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society. This would make no sense as output from the Original Position as Rawls proposes it. So something doesn't fit here, and I think there has to be a better explanation linking Rawls's fundamental premises to his two principles of justice.

Rawls's entire argument is motivated by his conception of justice as fairness. At this point I think I need to try to flesh out the basic Rawlsian argument (I am, of course, skipping over many, many details). Rawls views the benefits of social cooperation as the product of everyone acquiescing to a social ordering that allows for and facilitates that social cooperation. Those benefits should therefore be allocated in such a manner as to ensure such cooperation, resulting in what Rawls calls a well-ordered society. This requires that "(1) everyone accepts and knows that the others accept the same principles of justice, and (2) the basic social institutions generally satisfy and are generally known to satisfy these principles." Lacking a well-ordered society various factions will vie for the power to reorder the state to fit their own needs, and the resulting instability will hinder social cooperation and deny everyone its benefits. Rawls conceives of the Original Position in order to satisfy condition (1) above; to create principles of justice that everyone can accept. In the Original Position our theoretical contractors will evaluate the question of social justice in a completely unbiased manner and generate broadly acceptable principles of social justice. He appears to assume (initially!) that what people will all accept will be principles designed to produce the greatest average outcome.

So far, so good. But there's a problem here, one that Rawls acknowledges (and that informs his choice of the maximin approach), but that he strangely does not allow to alter the conceptual setup of the Original Position. There are certain social outcomes that people will simply not accept, no matter how well conceived the principles of justice are. A utilitarian principle (which is what the Original Position as Rawls proposes it would produce) could, for example, result in some people being made slaves in order to improve the overall average utility of the society. No matter what their Original Position alter-ego might have thought, the actual slaves could never recognize this principle as just, and consequently you would not have a stable, well-ordered state.

So the instruction to the Original Position contractors really ought not to be to maximize the average amount of primary goods, but rather to devise principles of justice that everyone can agree to. Of course, that was what we created the bloody thing for anyways. How should that be approached? We can assume (without too much controversy, I think) that the people least likely to agree to any principle of justice will be those who gain the least benefit from it. Hence the maximin approach. These least well off people should certainly agree to a principle that would maximize their welfare.

A first blush approach to maximin would be to simply be divide the social benefit in equal shares. However, as Rawls recognizes, that only makes sense if the social benefit is fixed and unchangeable. But we know that the benefits of social cooperation are not fixed, that by providing people with incentives we can get them to produce greater social benefits. This requires allowances for some inequality so that we can provide those incentives for increased cooperation. Of course, if those greater benefits only go to the well off, we have gained nothing from a maximin approach. Increasing the size of the pie is only beneficial to the extent that some of the increase goes to the least well off. And so we arrive at the difference principle: inequalities that in some way benefit the least well off are acceptable, those that don't are not. And you hopefully by now can see why I say that I don't believe Rawls took the utilitarian aspect of the Original Position very seriously.

Now, with my Rawlsian primer complete let me address your comments more directly. I read your argument to be compatible, in principle, with Rawls's difference principle. It is a 'rising tide lifts all boats' argument. In essence any inequality produced by a free market will operate to the benefit of the least well off. The difference principle would only limit market inequalities or justify redistributive policies to the extent that this is not true. Of course, the other part of the second principle, fair equality of opportunity would also support redistributive policies (public education, for example) that would conflict with your position.

Rawls writes at length about economics in the latter part of A Theory of Justice (which I have not read). Scanning through it, Rawls does not engage in serious discussion regarding exact details of market structure and regulations (and in fact brushes this off to some extent as being dependent on "the traditions, institutions, and social forces of each country, and its particular historical circumstances" and some evaluation of the impact of various policies in practice). But it is clear that he believes that some baseline minimum standard needs to be maintained through redistributive policies to protect against the "contingencies of the market". Beyond that "it may be perfectly fair that the rest of total income be settled by the price system, assuming that it is moderately efficient and free from monopolistic restrictions, and unreasonable externalities have been eliminated."

Rawls also hints at another objection related to the quote at the top of my post regarding the inviolability of individual rights. While he does conceive of the maximin principle being based on long run expectations, he would not allow the justice of particular groups of people to be sacrificed to long term generalized gains. There would need to some line-drawing to determine what is an acceptable short term sacrifice in the long term interests of those least well off, and those sacrifices that treat those people as means to achieve some remote end. This also harkens back to the motivation for the maximin approach. Outcomes that are bad enough to cause social unrest (those that the victims cannot possibly regard as being the products of a just society) need to be avoided even if temporary and in the long run interest of everyone.

To a considerable degree the dispute here has to be an empirical one. Your claim about charitable giving could be interpreted as a counter to many of Rawls's arguments. Suffice it say I find the claim that charity could completely replace redistributive policy somewhat dubious. There would also be arguments about the existence and degree of market failures, of anticompetitive strategic behavior, externalization of costs, collective action problems, behavioral critiques, etc. I think there would also have to be discussion as to the general degree of churn in markets and the degree to which it is possible and probable that some proportion of people would fall through the cracks, including but not limited to those who are disabled or suffer serious health ailments and impairments or possess limited natural talents and abilities. I don't see us resolving such issues at this moment, but to the extent any such problems exist they would suggest a conflict between a minimal state and Rawls's difference principle.

Friday, November 10, 2006


Before I get started addressing your major points I would just like to note that I disagree with your view of Locke. Though Nozick may lean on Locke, this only indicates that Nozick is poised for a fall, as, I assure you, Locke is not leaning back (I must note that this statement is predicated upon my limited knowledge of Nozick's arguments). Also, the State of Nature does not characterize human behavior. It is a legal structure: the absence of any formal agreements. I would discuss this further but it probably isn't relevant enough here to justify the time.

I will not properly counter your suggestion that public institutions are good tools for cultural transformation. This is a very complicated issue and I don't think I have the time now to do it justice. I will make a few general statements that may give you some sense as to what points I think are important in this regard.

You point out that there is a relationship between culture and institutions. I can't argue. To do so would be absurd. In fact, there are things which we call institutions that are obviously nothing but culture (here of course I am using a much broader definition of institution than just public institutions). Hell, I could make a pretty decent argument that all institutions are primarily culture (I first began to grasp the potential complexity of this topic when I tried to carefully define culture and its aspects, institutions and their types, got two pages in, and still had not worked out a satisfactory framework). Once these particulars where hashed out I'm pretty sure I could make a good case for my point. But in doing so I would have to elaborate most of my theory of culture; and I know from experience that I can't do that in brief. So I'm not going to try here.

When I think about examples of public institutions that have a strong cultural complement it seems that these are primarily institutions that were created because the cultural 'institution' already existed (an example here would be marriage). So that’s one point. Public institutions often have cultural counterparts, but it is usually the culture that brings about the public institutions rather than vice versa.

Another point would be that public institutions are only good at creating an inferior sort of gross culture. I did indicate, unintentionally, that institutions can create norms. This is true. But a norm in this sense is a very feeble sort of culture. It is a simple expectation. I can modify a rat's behavior by establishing the norm that it will be fed every day at 9AM, but even for rats this is not a very impressive utilization of their brainpower. In the modern use of the word 'culture' such ideas are dominant. You could have a culture that hates blacks, or favors democracy, or values punctuality, etc. This is culture as merely a set of irrational preferences. It is definitely true that such things can be an important part of a culture, and that they can have major impacts on people's behavior. It is also true that there are many examples of public institutions having succeeded in changing these aspects of culture. This is not however a part of what gives a culture 'richness'. You cannot develop a meaningful appreciation for Shakespeare, Hume, or Darwin, with posters and PSAs. These things are deep and thought provoking. They utilize the human mind's capacity for nuance, intuition, and rationality. I think that they are infinitely more powerful as means for improving social outcomes than mere propaganda. I also think that to not use these sorts of culture is to squander the potential of the human mind. This potential is infinite. Propaganda is a cop out. It is what we resort to in order to control people when we can't figure out how to make proper use of them. Human intelligence is a hindrance when you want to manage society from the top down like a block of clay (as, in a non-rich culture, the idle brain power is bound to bring about all manner of wickedness), but it is a great asset when you approach society at the fine structure level and try to change it from the bottom up.

I do not think that I could be said to fetishize an ideal culture. I do talk about a rich culture, a healthy culture, a natural culture, etc. but there are infinitely many cultures which would be worthy of these appellations. These are cultures that are of sufficient complexity to utilize the potential of the human brain, that contain the notions necessary to maintain the well-being of their hosts, and that in other ways resemble the cultures that coevolved with the human body. The methods I suggest for improving culture have less to do with the contents of culture than with how it is transmitted. I certainly believe that the contents of a particular culture have a huge impact on its ability to improve human well-being, but any healthy culture is better than none. In any case, the problem is much less important in modern times. So long as the culture we create includes an understanding of the value of rationality, free information, and self-determination, it will naturally accumulate the best and most valuable ideas (since we have so many available ideas and such facility in the distribution of information).

Your argument against the idea that government is increasing is an empirical one. Facts require a lot more effort to generate than ideas. So I'm not going to argue this thoroughly. I don't have the time. Here's my gut reaction (and there are more nerve ending in my gut than in my brain you know). You address the issue from a legal perspective. You certainly are in a better position to make this judgment than I. And from what I do know about the actions of the courts your assessment seems justified. This is encouraging. I'm tempted to vote republican just to get more Chicago school libertarians onto the Supreme Court. But I think this is really an elite movement. It is an ideological battle being waged by a group of intellectuals (and hooray for them). But I think its pretty crazy to argue that the trend in government over the last century is not decidedly up. Government spending as a percentage of GDP has certainly increased dramatically. I don't have any hard figures, but I bet that the quantity of legislation has increased (both in aggregate and in pages issued annually). I'm pretty sure the size of the federal register has grown over the period. What is more difficult to measure, but perhaps more meaningful is the change in people's attitude toward government. Whenever there is a problem today it is automatically assumed that we should turn to government for the solution. When government regulates and prohibits, modern Americans see this as natural and unsurprising. I think we have a much more submissive attitude toward government than we did a century ago.

Your closing paragraph addresses what is probably the core of the difference between the understanding of the modern liberal and the classical liberal. I will use a few different approaches to describe how libertarianism is an appropriate model for guiding social policy working from your comments.

Rawls derives his principles of justice from what he calls the Original Position. Where we assume that we are choosing the structure of rules of the world into which we are going to be born prior to having any knowledge as to what our initial physical or social condition will be. In this way we will not be biased by any particular class assumptions. I think this is a fine way to assess social welfare. It appears to be roughly equivalent to a judgment based on utilitarianism, if by that term we mean the greatest satisfaction to the most people. Another way of stating this principle would then be to maximize the happiness of the average person. This seems to fit the Rawlsian problem. In the Original Position my expectation is that I will be the average person (in statistics that is the very definition of 'expectation') and so I seek, by arranging the rules of society, to maximize my expected happiness as such. That's all fine. Where I would disagree with Rawls is in the supposition that using the redistributive and regulatory powers of government will enhance the common welfare. From the Original Position I would choose a libertarian structure. Let me give a couple of examples.

Would I choose a rule structure that supports the existence of unions? Certainly not. I must consider what impact it would have on me as a random member of society. The only circumstance in which I would be benefited would be if I happened to be a member of a union during the first generation or so of that union's existence. If I am a member after the union has been long established, the economic inefficiencies of the union's existence will have already eroded my well being sufficiently to negate any benefits it might provide. If I am not a member of a particular union, it harms me in at least two ways and quite possibly more. The union harms me because I, as a consumer, must pay more for, and hence consume less of, the product that the unionized industry produces. In the long run the inefficiencies of the unionized labor market further harm everyone by reducing overall economic output. If I am an unemployed laborer in the unionized industry, I am harmed because the union impairs my opportunity to find employment by offering my services at a more competitive rate. If I have invested in an industry prior to its unionization, the value of my fixed capitol will be reduced by the appearance of the union. So, since a union only benefits a small group of people for a short period of time it would be irrational to create rules supporting unionization from the Original Position.

Would I support government-financed distributions of wealth to the poor? No. Admittedly, in the first generation or so this policy will enhance my well being if I happen to be poor, but if I should be born at some later date I would be better off without it. The policy will reduce capitol investment by removing wealth from the people who have a sufficient quantity to invest (and who largely have such sums because they are skilled at allocating capitol efficiently). It will imply annual structural costs involved in administering the taxation and distribution system. It will dramatically reduce the incentive of my parents and their parents to strive to improve their economic standing. As the allocation of a dollar is a production order, it will, in essence, transfer the direction of the economy from those who have established economic prowess to those who have demonstrated economic incompetence. These forces will both further degrade my relative economic standing and will put a drag on the development of the economy as a whole. A five percent increase in my share of the total wealth of the economy at the cost of a half percent reduction in economic growth is not a good long-term trade off. Rationally, I would prefer the situation where I have more real wealth, even if inequality is higher.

Those are the sorts of arguments I would make against Rawls's principles of justice. I don't think his principles follow from his idea of the Original Position. Superficially policies of economic equalization seem like a good idea, but in the long run they are detrimental even to those they are intended to benefit.

One might argue that there is a threshold of poverty below which one experiences such an acute level of suffering that its intensity would weigh down the average well being so much that we must do something to alleviate it. Sure; of course. But it seems ridiculous to me to suppose that we need government to provide this support. Honestly, people aren't monsters. Even in the presence of extensive government support systems Americans contribute hundreds of billions of dollars to charity every year. I have to imagine that if people kept a much larger portion of their income, and if they did not expect that the government would take care of every problem under the sun, they would probably be even more generous. Even if they weren't, I sincerely believe that, had our government not become so interventionist over the past century, our current output would be several times what it is today, so that even if people only contributed the same amount that they currently do, as a percent of GDP, it would at least equal, in real terms, what is currently provided to the poor through government programs and private charity (and the want this money would serve would be less intense).

I think the fear that, if the government did not provide all of its supports and regulations, we would experience a humanitarian disaster is just a scare tactic used by people with a relatively extreme class warfare agenda. Kids may have to work in sweatshops in the third world out of economic necessity, but this would never happen in modern America. Nobody, anywhere in the world, would accept such a situation if they had the economic wherewithal to avoid it. There is a stage in economic development when atrocious conditions are common. But it replaces a preexisting state in which atrocious conditions are universal. Dickens may have been miserable when he was a boy, but he grew up to be a famous author. That could never have happened before the industrial revolution. Had he been born two hundred years before, no one today would ever have heard of him. He would have been just another miserable boy, just like every other boy in the world. The point is that liberal policies had been so successful by his time that people finally realized that it was actually possible for many people to not be miserable. We like to think that we're very superior. We imagine that people in the past thought it was wonderful to work a hundred hours a week and to live in piss reeking hovels. But I think that in this we are mistaken. We think that we wised up, passed laws against living like that, and moved on. But perhaps the economic development that followed naturally from the adoption of liberalized policies had already largely done away with those things and all we did was ban the vestigial remains of ways of life that had once been universal. I believe that this is the case. I believe that the most rapid way to eliminate terrible living conditions is to allow the market to operate unhindered.

That is a very important point. Liberal institutions did not create child labor. They did not cause people to have long working hours or low wages. Liberal institutions were the very force that made these things so uncommon that what remained of such practices began to appear abominable. It is a wonderful thing that the wealth that liberalism had created made people's moral sentiments more gentle and sensitive. If this should cause them to aid and succor those who still must suffer this is a very good thing. But if this should cause them to destroy the very system which is creating the wealth necessary to lift others out of poverty, then it is a genuine tragedy.

It goes without saying today that people work fewer hours, for greater wages, and under better conditions than they did in the past because we have passed regulatory laws to make it so. This belief is nonsensical. These laws would have no effect if the physical wealth that make this standard of living possible had not already been brought into existence by liberal policy. We could go and pass such laws in Afghanistan or North Korea but that would not make people better off. Laws do not improve living standards, wealth does. It is an indisputable fact that prior to the time when we began passing laws to constrain working conditions, wages had been going up, hours worked had been going down, and working conditions had been getting better for centuries. There can be no reasonable doubt that this trend would have continued on its own throughout the twentieth century in the absence of any interference. From my perspective, it is obvious that, in each of these regards, the average worker today would be better off had no paternalist regulations been created.

I could go on in this vein indefinitely. I guess the point is that the argument between liberals and statists is not what ends we should aim towards but what means will best achieve our ends. Liberals do not believe that poverty is good. They do not loathe children. I might like to bring down the welfare state, but in doing so I would intend to promote social welfare. I have come to despise communism, but this does not mean that I do not value community. I once thought that Jesus was a communist. After all, he said that everyone should give their wealth to those less fortunate than themselves. But this is not equivalent to communism. There is a vast gulf between suggesting that charitable action is righteous and emptying people's wallets into the basket at gunpoint. I don't recall Jesus saying anything about 'overthrow thy neighbor'. I guess that's a diversion. What I'm trying to say is that I believe in libertarianism for entirely pragmatic reasons. It may happen to be true that freedom is a pleasure in itself. That liberty is an ennobling and dignifying status. But I did not come to embrace liberalism for such reasons. I honestly believe that it is the best system for enhancing the well being of every person in society.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

An Ideal Culture

With the respect to the Nozick thing, I have similar criticisms. It is, of course, a thought experiment, which gives Nozick some license to set the rules. And the rule he sets, near as I can tell, is that people will behave in exactly the manner Nozick needs them to in order for him to make his theory work. They are generally virtuous in a state of nature and generally respect everyone else's rights (borrowing heavily from Locke on this point). They misbehave just enough for Nozick to justify the evolution of a minimalist state (through an immaculately rights-preserving process), and not one ounce more. It's all very convenient, very shoddy. None of his assumptions or suppositions about the way people will behave in his model are discussed or defended, it's just delivered as "this is what will happen". Well, if we're all willing to buy these 1001 assumptions and conditions, then yes, this is a fine theory. I'm not a fan. Apparently it's a pretty well-known book in the field though...

Moving on to the meat of the discussion: democratic process. Your main thrust is that culture is the significant element, rather than institutional structure. I have a hard time disagreeing with that, and the archives of this blog will show that I've made the exact same argument with respect to democratization numerous times. However, as you note in your final paragraph, there is a symbiotic relationship between culture and social institutions. Institutions are products of culture, but also vessels and conveyors of culture. Properly understood an institution includes not just the bells and whistles, but social understanding the underlies it. Institutions, as you note, express and establish norms. And given the general chaos of cultural "progress", institutions may serve as one of the best means of trying to place a twig in the river to redirect the flow (to the degree that it can be consciously directed at all, which I assume to be a fairly small degree). I'm not sure that institutional objectives and cultural objectives can be cleanly divided.

I think it's also important not to fetishize an ideal culture, as that may prove as illusory as a true state of nature. One of the most powerful insights of our founding fathers was that people are flawed and will always be so, and that institutions of government must be built to withstand imperfection. I'm not suggesting that those institutions could survive total cultural collapse, but rather that they can be built with certain tolerances, and even built to provide some self-correcting mechanisms that will feed back into civic culture.

Also, I have to take issue with slippery slope argument against non-minimal states. Frankly, the regulatory tide has generally been receding in the US for the past 25 years or more. There has been a strong push towards deregulation in many areas, particularly the traditional regulated industries (power, gas, telecom), as well as in some populist areas (welfare reform). The judiciary has been overrun by Chicago school libertarians and antitrust regulation has been rendered virtually non-existent. I don't see a slippery slope at all. We careened towards libertarian excess in the first couple decades of the 20th Century (known in legal circles as the Lochner era), then over-corrected through the middle part of the century, and I think are now trying to establish some sort of balance.

Finally, I think you should be careful in assuming that if there were an ideal culture it would be a libertarian one. I think a strong argument can be advanced that the best approach to social justice and social institutions would be something along the lines of Rawls's two principles of justice (although I don't think Rawls has made that argument). I find it to be a far better fit for our intuitions about justice than a libertarian institutional structure. According to a theory like Nozick's, if A is born with every possible advantage and goes on to great success, fame, wealth, and power while B is born with every possible disadvantage and ekes out a miserable existence before succumbing to a preventable disease, then A deserved everything he received and B was entitled to nothing more. This Nozick would call this justice. Rawls would cry injustice, and frankly I think so would most people. And I think that even if people took Confucius's advice and acquired knowledge and insight, they would probably still agree with Rawls. It seems quite plausible to me that even if we had a state of remarkably educated, diligent, civic-minded, and rational people, you might find that it is still a non-minimal state.