Politics without Foundations
“Why,” Beverly Gage and Steven Hayward ask, “is there no liberal Ayn Rand?” Arguably, there are several: Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, John dos Passos, and John Steinbeck—though none inspires the devotion that Rand’s followers feel for her. But their real question isn’t about literature. It’s about philosophy. The conservative movement rests on a series of great thinkers: Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, Burke, Mill, Hayek, von Mises, etc. Where are the intellectual foundations of the Left?
Gage herself provides an answer:
Once upon a time, the Old Left had “movement culture” par excellence: to be considered a serious activist, you had to read Marx and Lenin until your eyes bled. For better or worse, that never resulted in much electoral power (nor was it intended to) and within a few decades became the hallmark of pedantry rater than intellectual vitality.There is an intellectual tradition behind the contemporary Left, stretching back to Plato’s Republic and including Hegel, Marx, Lenin, Gramsci, Marcuse, Alinsky, etc. But it’s a deeply totalitarian tradition. It’s the political philosophy that dares not speak its name in an election season, for it would garner few votes, and for good reason.
The New Left reinvented that heritage in the 1960s. Instead of (or in addition to) Marx and Lenin, activists began to read Herbert Marcuse, C. Wright Mills, and Saul Alinsky. As new, more particular movements developed, the reading list grew to include feminists, African-Americans, and other traditionally excluded groups. This vastly enhanced the range of voices in the public sphere—one of the truly great revolutions in American intellectual politics. But it did little to create a single coherent language through which to maintain common cause. Instead, the left ended up with multiple “movement cultures,” most of them more focused on issue-oriented activism than on a common set of ideas.
The real intellectual vacuum underlies not the Left as such but people who style themselves liberals, but not socialists—i.e., I’m guessing, most Democrats. Where are their intellectual roots?
Hayward points out that there are some:
Even leaving aside the popularity of fevered figures such as Noam Chomsky, one can point to a number of serious thinkers on the Left such as Michael Walzer, or John Rawls and his acolytes, or Rawls’ thoughtful critics on the Left such as Michael Sandel. However, the high degree of abstraction of these thinkers—their palpable distance from the real political and cultural debates of our time—is a reflection of the attenuation of contemporary liberalism.
He’s right about the attenuation, but wrong, I think, about the reason. It’s not just that these thinkers are highly abstract; so are Plato and Aristotle. It’s not that they don’t take part in contemporary debates; neither did Aquinas and Hegel. It’s that they don’t tap into anything deep or abiding about the human condition.
For about a decade I team-taught a course on Contemporary Moral Problems with a prominent philosopher of language. He argued the liberal side of each issue; I argued the conservative side. I had no shortage of philosophical material on which to rely. He and I both assumed, since liberalism is supposedly the position that informed, intelligent people occupy, that there were similar philosophical foundations for liberalism. We were both astounded that there were not. For someone who seeks to be a liberal, but not a totalitarian, there is Rousseau, on one interpretation of his thought. And that’s about it.
Of course, there are people trying to provide such intellectual foundations. But we were startled at how thin their theoretical constructs really are. Any competent philosopher can think of a dozen serious objections to Rawls before breakfast, even on hearing his views for the first time:
We base our conception of justice on what people would do if in some hypothetical situation satisfying certain constraints? Really? The actual circumstance, the actual history, what people actually want and need—these don’t matter at all? Why that hypothetical situation, anyway? Why those constraints? Would people really reach agreement? Would they even individually come to any “reflective equilibrium” at all? And why would people choose those principles of justice? Is there actually any research indicating that people would choose those principles? People would divide liberties into basic ones, which matter, and others, which don’t? Everything in the end rests on the welfare of the least advantaged in society? Who’s that? Mental patients and prisoners, probably. So, we’re to judge a society solely on how it treats its mental patients and prisoners? And the welfare of everyone else in society ought to be sacrificed to improve their lot even a tiny bit? Why think, moreover, that liberalism maximizes the welfare of the least advantaged?
Rawls speaks as if well-being is static, as if we can speak simply of what happens at some equilibrium state without worrying about dynamic aspects of the economy or of a person’s life trajectory. But that leads him to confuse well-being at a moment with well-being over a life. An extensive welfare state might maximize the well-being of the least advantaged at the lowest points of their life trajectories without thereby maximizing their long-term well-being. In fact, preventing people from experiencing real lows might undermine their well-being as measured over a life.
I don’t mean to pick on Rawls especially; the same is true of other liberal theorists. Their theoretical constructs don’t connect with deep-seated features of human nature or of human societies. Their theoretical assumptions seem arbitrary and open to overwhelming objections.
That’s why most liberals can’t conduct political discussions at a very high level. They have no one to read who can give them an intellectual foundation for their political views. They therefore have no way to justify their claims that taxes on the wealthy are too low, or that health care, or contraceptives, or anything else ought to be provided as a matter of right, or that our current welfare system is too stingy, etc. Still less do they have any theoretical basis on which rest foreign policy decisions.
Plenty of racism aimed at Tim Scott
As I figured, the appointment of Rep. Tim Scott to fill departing South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint's seat has caused some liberals to become a tad unhinged.
Enter Adolph L. Reed Jr., a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania. And the editors of the op-ed page at the New York Times, which ran a Reed piece about Scott that was about as close to an ad hominem attack as they come.
To Reed's credit, he didn't resort to the typical language liberals have come to love -- Uncle Tom, sellout, Sambo, handkerchief head -- when describing black conservatives and Republicans (Scott is both). But he did call Scott a "cynical token."
In Reedworld -- and the world of liberals, black and white -- all black Republicans these days are "tokens." And I'm not misquoting the man.
"... (M)odern black Republicans have been more tokens than signs of progress," Reed wrote.
I'm assuming Reed meant black Republicans that have been either elected or appointed to public office. That's where he made his first mistake.
Does Reed seriously believe that rank-and-file black Republicans, those that joined the party because they find it more to their liking than the Democratic Party, are tokens too? Did Reed even talk to any rank-and-file black Republicans before writing his piece?
I suspect not, because I have a hunch that Reed doesn't even know any black Republicans. He hasn't a clue about why some blacks would want to join a "racist" party.
Reed didn't come out and call the Republican Party racist, but he sure as heck strongly hinted at it, with this sentence:
"I suspect that appointments like Mr. Scott's are directed less at blacks -- whom they know they aren't going to win in any significant numbers -- than at whites who are inclined to vote Republican but don't want to have to think of themselves, or be thought of by others, as racist."
And I suspect that Reed is totally unaware that Republicans -- white, black, Asian, Latino -- don't think of themselves as any more racist than Democrats think of themselves as racist.
Here's Reed's real problem with Scott's appointment: It has nothing to do with "cynical tokenism." It has more to do with the fact that such appointments show Democrats to be the lying liars they are when they claim the Republican Party is racist.
"All four black Republicans who have served in the House since the Reagan era -- Gary A. Franks in Connecticut, J.C. Watts Jr. in Oklahoma, Allen B. West in Florida and Mr. Scott -- were elected from majority-white districts," Reed wrote, completely unaware of the foot he was about to shove in his mouth or that he was about to tear to shreds his own claim about Republican "racism."
Just who are the real racists here, Mr. Reed? White Republican voters who don't hesitate to vote for a black candidate? Those white Republicans Reed was so quick to dismiss as racist clearly looked at the qualifications of a Gary Franks, a J.C. Watts, an Allen West and a Tim Scott and voted accordingly.
Black Democrats, on the other hand, rarely elect nonblacks to the House of Representatives from predominantly black districts. And white Democratic voters, as National Journal's Josh Kraushaar observed after the 2010 election, had proven less likely than white Republican voters to nominate and elect blacks and Hispanics in majority-white districts and states.
Here's Reed's second problem with Scott: The new senator from South Carolina doesn't think like Reed does.
"(H)is politics," Reed wrote of Scott, "are utterly at odds with the preferences of most black Americans. Mr. Scott has been staunchly anti-tax, anti-union and anti-abortion."
Only in Reedworld is support for abortion a "black thang." Only in Reedworld are all blacks supposed to think alike.
A libertarian case for having more kids
My wife and I loved the two kids we had already, but they were a ton of work! Diapers, feedings, play dates, school, homework, Cub Scouts, soccer, ballet, etc., etc. Where would we find the time? Would we need a bigger house? Could we ever afford to go on vacation again?
A few weeks later, I spotted a book title that piqued my interest: "Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids," by George Mason University economic professor Bryan Caplan. Two-hundred and forty pages of shared reading later, and my wife was on the phone with her doctor to make No. 3 possible.
Caplan's case basically boils down to this: Too many Americans are reluctant to have more children because we overestimate the resources (time/money/effort) it takes to raise a happy, well-adjusted child.
Those vocabulary flashcards? Not worth it. Your son hates piano lessons? Don't put yourself through the pain of forcing him to go. You don't have time to cook dinner? Get takeout. And perhaps most subversively, if you need a few minutes to compose yourself, don't be afraid to let Cookie Monster babysit your kids for half an hour.
Its scary advice for many parents to hear, but Caplan has reams of scientific studies to back it up. "Adoption and twin research provides strong evidence that parents barely affect their children's prospects," Caplan writes.
For example, one paper he cites shows that while parents can have a large impact on a 2-year-old's vocabulary, by the age of 12, all that intensive training does not significantly separate them from their uncoached peers. "Nature, not nurture, explains most family resemblance, so parents can safely cut themselves a lot of additional slack."
Caplan's advice is not for everybody. If you love travel or live in an expensive city, a bigger family is probably not for you. Caplan's parenting advice probably won't work for parents with controlling personalities either. If you think you can mold your children in your own image, then fewer kids is probably best for you.
"Show more modesty and get more happiness," Caplan writes. "You can have a better life and a bigger family if you admit that your kids' future is not in your hands."
Not that Caplan advises parents to let their kids do whatever they want. Quite the opposite. Caplan stresses that clear and consistent discipline is not only necessary for your child's well-being, but for any parent's sanity, as well. An unruly household where a pack of kids ignores their parents would drive anyone crazy.
Most pro-natalist books make the case that having more children is good for all of humanity. And "Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids" does have one such chapter. But, as a libertarian, Caplan's book does not contain any laundry list of government programs designed to make bigger families more common.
Instead, Caplan's book is about how parents can learn to enjoy parenting more. "The main lesson," Caplan writes, "is that parenting is about the journey, not the destination."
Maybe you never met Bork, but he made your life better
One measure of a person's merit is how much he helps ordinary people whom he's never met, and people far junior. By that standard, and by many other standards, Judge Robert Bork, a former Marine who died on Dec. 19 at the age of 85, was a man of great merit.
Newspaper stories about Bork center on his contentious congressional hearing, where senators failed to confirm him as a Supreme Court justice.
But most fail to mention that antitrust, the law of competitive marketplaces, is the first area where Bork left his mark. In the 1950s, antitrust law was a sleepy domain filled with rigid rules and nonsensical results. Company A could not acquire Company B because of the blind application of a formula. Often, the companies being shut out would be small businesses run by ordinary people simply trying to survive.
Bork revolutionized antitrust law. He was one of the first to look at the benefits to consumers from changes in corporate structures. He used economic tools to evaluate costs and benefits. As a result, countless millions of Americans and American businesses benefited from a more enlightened approach to antitrust law.
Bork did not meet these ordinary American consumers or businesses. We did not appear in his classrooms or courtrooms. We never knew we owed him a debt of gratitude. And Bork would never have thought that anyone owed him a word of thanks.
He did all of this not through obscure legal writings, but through clear and elegant prose that even ordinary Americans could have read and understood if they had been so inclined.
It would have been understandable if Bork had little time for mere mortals. But, as his colleague for eight years at the American Enterprise Institute, and six years at the Hudson Institute, I can say definitively that this was not so.
At AEI in the 1990s, Bork regularly participated in the weekly Friday Forums, where staff would present their research to their colleagues for discussion and critique. Bork was an enthusiastic participant, sitting at a table with the late philosopher Irving Kristol, theologian Michael Novak, and economists Allan Meltzer and Irwin Stelzer, and also talking to more junior staff, such as myself.
One of Bork's interns at Hudson, Arthur Ewenczyk, said, "When the judge heard I never had a martini, he took it upon himself to introduce me to not one but three of D.C.'s best-mixed martinis."
Ewenczyk, now a senior at Yale Law School, continued, "He took my fellow intern and me out to lunch at some of D.C.'s finest dining establishments every week when we worked for him so that we would learn to enjoy the finer things in life."
Ewenczyk was not alone. Bork loved interacting with young people. He had trouble getting out in his last years, but one day the staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee came to visit, bringing copies of his books for autographs and innumerable questions. They had a spirited conversation and stayed for dinner.
Bork remained a lifelong supporter of the Marines. Every year he attended the annual dinner of the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, even when he was in a wheelchair. On Saturday, he was laid to rest by his fellow Marines.
Marines, consumers, people great and small -- we all have been helped by Judge Bork. Most of us never knew it, much less thanked him. He made life better for ordinary people perfect strangers, not through any moral calculus, but from a moral compass that needed no calculation. America is a better nation for having had Robert Bork, and our loss is great.
For more blog postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, GREENIE WATCH, POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, EYE ON BRITAIN and Paralipomena . GUN WATCH is now put together by Dean Weingarten.
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The Big Lie of the late 20th century was that Nazism was Rightist. It was in fact typical of the Leftism of its day. It was only to the Right of Stalin's Communism. The very word "Nazi" is a German abbreviation for "National Socialist" (Nationalsozialist) and the full name of Hitler's political party (translated) was "The National Socialist German Workers' Party" (In German: Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei)