Archive | Political Theory

I don’t think we get much out of framing politics as the Tragic Vision vs. the Utopian Vision

Ole Rogeberg writes:

Recently read your blogpost on Pinker’s views regarding red and blue states. This might help you see where he’s coming from: The “conflict of visions” thing that Pinker repeats to likely refers to Thomas Sowell’s work in the books “Conflict of Visions” and “Visions of the anointed.” The “Conflict of visions” book is on his top-5 favorite book list and in a Q&A interview he explains it as follows:

Q: What is the Tragic Vision vs. the Utopian Vision?

A: They are the different visions of human nature that underlie left-wing and right-wing ideologies. The distinction comes from the economist Thomas Sowell in his wonderful book “A Conflict of Visions.” According to the Tragic Vision, humans are inherently limited in virtue, wisdom, and knowledge, and social arrangements must acknowledge those limits. According to the Utopian vision, these limits are “products†of our social arrangements, and we should strive to overcome them in a better society of the future. Out of this distinction come many right-left contrasts that would otherwise have no common denominator. Rightists tend to like tradition (because human nature does not change), small government (because no leader is wise enough to plan society), a strong police and military (because people will always be tempted by crime and conquest), and free markets (because they convert individual selfishness into collective wealth). Leftists believe that these positions are defeatist and cynical, because if we change parenting, education, the media, and social expectations, people could become wiser, nicer, and more peaceable and generous.

My reply:

As with Pinker’s writing on red and blue states, I think Pinker is lacking some historical perspective here. I do not think it’s all correct to say that “rightists like small government.” I think it’s more accurate to say that rightists like large government when it’s controlled by the right, and leftists like large government when it’s controlled by the left. And how do you classify, for example, right-wing clerical governments? Do they have the tragic vision (because they are conservative) or the utopian vision (because they want a single church to be in control)?

And then there is the conjunction between “small government” and “a strong police and military.” Guatemala for many years ago had small government (for one thing, the people who ran the country did not want to pay taxes) and a strong police and military. Put these together and you get a demonstration of “the tragic vision”: the strong police and military killed hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans. More generally, what does it mean to have a strong police and military with a small government? Who then is in charge of all these armed men?

Pinker’s characterization of leftism seems to miss something too. Try taking his statement, “if we change parenting, education, the media, and social expectations, people could become wiser, nicer, and more peaceable and generous” and flipping it around: “if we change parenting, education, the media, and social expectations, people could become more foolish, nasty, warlike, and selfish.” After all, if people can be changed in one direction, why not in the other direction?

Also, I agree with Pinker that lots of issues get grouped into left and right, but I don’t see tragic vs. utopian as so central. For example, lots of conservatives want to restrict birth control and abortion. I don’t see this fitting into a tragic vision of human nature. Perhaps it is a utopian vision (all potential babies deserve to be born) or a conservative vision (the roles of men and women should remain traditional).

As with many such binary divides, I think this classification tells us more about the person doing the classifying than about the reality that is being classified.

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Hugo Chávez and the Death of Populism

The following guest post is by Diego von Vacano, a political theorist at Texas A&M and a specialist in Latin American political thought.


One of the greatest failings of the Obama administration has been the absence of a concerted effort to better understand our neighbors to the South. Not only is US foreign policy towards Latin America now almost the same as that under President GW Bush, but there is no apparent interest in learning about the ideas and intellectual trends that lead to particular forms of governing in the rest of the Americas.

The death of Hugo Chávez should give us pause to think about this lacuna in American foreign policy and in mainstream culture in general. Why is there so much ignorance about the history of ideas in Latin America, at a time when the percentage of Hispanics in the overall US population has surpassed that of African Americans, and when globalization has made the Western Hemisphere more tight-kit? The answer is that ideas from the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking areas of the continent are simply not taught and disseminated in the US. The US does this at its own peril, for this creates a cultural gulf between the two Americas, and it generates misleading policy choices that are based on simplistic, caricaturist versions of reality.

The chief conceptual culprit here is the idea of “populism.” It is the term of choice for practically all academic and policy experts on Latin America. The problem is that it is an impoverished and fundamentally erroneous term. It is broadly used in scholarly, media, and public affairs circles despite the fact that it has no widely accepted theoretical meaning. In recent times, both academic and foreign policy elites have thrown the term about when discussing the governments of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Fidel and Raúl Castro in Cuba, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Lula da Silva in Brazil, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina, among others. But it has also been used for neo-liberal leaders and those with no discernible ideology, such as Carlos Menem, Abdalá Bucaram, Fernando Collor de Mello, and Carlos Andrés Pérez. Policy elites often conflate these leaders, despite deep historical differences between their countries and also varying degrees of democratic legitimacy. Moreover, the classical case of populism, that of Perón in Argentina, was a clientelist political movement with a congeries of ideas from the right and the left, whereas all of the so-called populist regimes of the present owe their existence to the legacies of various brands of Marxism, to which Peronismo was deeply opposed. To make matters worse, the term is generally used for right-wing ethno-racial and nationalist movements in Europe. In essence, while its intellectual heritage is bankrupt, it continues to be bandied about willy-nilly whenever the terms “Latin America” and “politics” are discussed.

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Storable votes: Can we solve gridlock and yet protect the minority?

This is a guest post from Alessandra Casella, an economics professor at Columbia University, and Sébastien Turban, an economics Ph.D. candidate there. Alessandra Casella’s book on Storable Votes is available here. Sébastien Turban joined the project when the manuscript was already written but contributed substantially to its final shape. 

The Senate has become less efficient in passing significant legislation. The public is upset at the gridlock in Congress and wants politicians to cooperate.  Political commentators believe that significant responsibility for such malfunctioning rests with the Senate filibuster.  Sarah Binder, Greg Koger, Greg Wawro and Eric Shickler on The Monkey Cage and in their respective books, Barbara Sinclair and Ezra Klein in The Washington Post, have all discussed the desirability of possible reforms in detail over the last years.

It seems to us that the debate on the filibuster points to a more general question on the appropriate protection of the minority.  The filibuster exists to protect the minority party, and indeed taming the tyranny of the majority is essential to the legitimacy of democracy.  But the filibuster does so very inefficiently: it amounts to a super-majority rule, with its built-in bias towards the status-quo.

The problem is that sanctioning simple majority rule, treating all votes and voters identically, and protecting the minority seem mutually incompatible goals.  Using storable votes, this need not be the case.  Suppose that a group of voters were asked to pass or fail a number of independent proposals. Each proposal is decided by majority vote, and each voter is granted the same number of votes.  However, subject to the overall budget of votes, each voter is allowed to decide how many votes to cast on any individual proposal.  With ten proposals and ten votes, an individual voter could cast one vote on each proposal, several votes on some of the proposal and none on the others, or all ten votes on one proposal.  The voter will cast more votes on the proposals he feels more strongly about, increasing his probability of winning when it matters.  Storable votes (1) equip every voter with the same number of votes; (2) allow voters to cast more votes on decisions that matter to them most, and (3) empower the minority to prevail occasionally.

The central idea is the possibility of shifting one’s own votes from one contest to another, of storing votes not spent on decisions that are low priorities for use on decisions that matter more.  Voters’ behavior thus reflects truthfully the relative intensities of their preferences over issues.  By cumulating votes on one or few of the proposals, a cohesive minority can win when its preferences are most intense.  And because the majority generally holds more votes, it is in a position to overrule the minority if it cares to do so: the minority can win only those issues over which its strength of preferences is high and the majority’s preference intensity is weak.  Note again that all voters are treated equally: all individuals are granted the same number of votes and all votes are equal.

The mechanism has been tested  by Alessandra Casella and her co-authors (Shuky Ehrenberg, Andrew Gelman, Thomas Palfrey, Raymond Riezman, Jie Shen) in laboratory experiments, and in one natural setting. The results confirmed the intuition: the minority wins occasionally, but only when the costs to the majority are small. The conclusion continues to hold when one party is granted some limited agenda power.

Storable votes resemble cumulative voting, a semi-proportional electoral system used in local jurisdictions and in corporations to facilitate the election of minority candidates.  Storable votes, however, are a voting system for decision-making, as opposed to an electoral system, and in this they differ not only from cumulative voting but also from most other well-known voting rules: for example, Borda rule, Approval Voting, Range Voting, or Single Transferable Vote.  In an electoral system, all candidates are compared, and a fixed number of winners is elected.  With storable votes, each proposal is compared only to its own rejection, and all could in theory pass, or all could fail.  Nor do storable votes resemble vote-trading: voters can shift their individual votes across different proposals but are not allowed to trade votes interpersonally.  In fact, the system discourages informal exchanges of favors: if not cast, a vote can be used over a different decision, and because it preserves its value, spending it to satisfy others’ requests is costly, even in exchange for promises of future favors.

In principle, storable votes could be implemented easily: they can have large effects, but are a reasonably minor deviation from simple majority voting.  In the case of the filibuster, it is tempting to think, for example, that storable votes could help to address the increasing delays in confirming nominations.  Consider the following procedure.  At fixed intervals of time, the Senate is presented with a list of nominees, each nominated for a specific position, and each senator is granted a number of votes equal to the number of names on the list.  A vote is then called on each nominee. A senator can cast as many of his total votes as he wishes in his preferred direction (for or against the nominee), distributing the number of votes at the senator’s disposal only over the specified set of nominees.  The nominee is confirmed if a simple majority of votes cast on his name are in favor. New votes are assigned whenever a new list is voted upon.

Much of the scheme’s possible success would depend on the details of its rules:  How frequently will the lists be presented?  Should all nominations be treated equally? We do not want to argue here that storable votes are ready for immediate implementation. Rather, we want to suggest a potential new direction for solving gridlock in polarized environments.

P.S. from Andrew Gelman: Many commenters below suggest potential problems with storable votes. These are all worth looking into, but let’s not forget that our current system is a storable votes system with 1 fixed vote on each issue and 0 storable votes. Casella would keep the fixed vote; the only change is to increase the number of storable votes.

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Cognitive Democracy

Over the last couple of years, Cosma Shalizi and I have been working together on various things, including, inter alia, the relationship between complex systems, democracy and the Internet. These are big unwieldy topics, and trying to think about them systematically is hard. Even so, we’ve gotten to the point where we at least feel ready to start throwing stuff at a wider audience, to get feedback on what works and what doesn’t. Here’s a paper we’re working on, which argues that we should (for some purposes at least), think of markets, hierarchy and democracy in terms of their capacity to solve complex collective problems, makes the case that democracy will on average do the job a lot better than the other two ways, and then looks at different forms of collective information processing on the Internet as experiments that democracies can learn from. A html version is under the fold; the PDF version is here. Your feedback would very much be appreciated – we would like to build other structures on top of this foundation, and hence, really, really want criticisms and argument from diverse points of view (especially because such argument is exactly what we see as the strength of democratic arrangements).

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Civic Engagement is a Cause of Special Interests, Not a Solution

The American public disdains interest groups. They complain that money corrupts Washington, with special interests securing policy at the expense of the public interest. As previously discussed here, Larry Lessig has a new book in a long line of popular complaints, arguing that campaign contributions buy policy influence. He ends with a familiar call for unengaged Americans to form a movement for political reform. Political science research also supports the finding that community-based engagement in civic organizations has been replaced by national self-interested organized mobilization. Even lobbyist and convicted conspirator Jack Abramoff has been reborn as a would-be reformer, arguing for more restrictive regulation and public pressure.

The idea that “the special interests” are the enemy and “the people” need to fight back is a common trope. Usually, this vague dichotomy includes two distinctions. First, the moneyed interests who can trade cash for votes face off against the citizens’ groups that take power back for the people. Second, public interest groups that mobilize on behalf of ideas compete against the array of groups motivated only by economic self-interest. During the 2008 campaign, Hillary Clinton was chastised for disputing this dichotomy: some lobbyists represent “real Americans,” she said.

In my new book, The Not-So-Special Interests: Interest Groups, Public Representation, and American Governance, I find that Washington now features more than 1,600 organizations that claim to speak on behalf of public interests and ideas. These groups do not gain prominence or policymaking access by making campaign contributions or by hiring lobbyists from firms. Instead, they succeed by building reputations for representing public constituencies and becoming informed participants in policy debates. These national advocacy groups also do not trade off with local organizing; the same types of public constituencies are involved in local civic groups and national advocacy organizations.

There is no clear distinction between public groups who mobilize around ideas and those motivated by interests. First, most groups are a product of both shared ideas and interests. Second, public interest groups are just viewed as representatives of the supporters of their issue positions. Environmentalists and African-Americans are both constituencies with organized leaders, and environmental groups do not get any extra advantage for claiming to speak on behalf of the public as a whole. Third, successful mobilization around ideas is subject to the same dynamics as social group mobilization. Like social groups, some political perspectives gain more organized representation because constituencies with more political capacity hold these views.

The difficulty for democracy is that increased civic engagement would not get us out of unequal influence. Calls for more popular participation and further group organizing will reinforce the inequalities in the advocacy system (unless the least involved groups disproportionately heed the message). The differential engagement of some groups over others is the reason why interest groups represent some constituencies much better than others.

What most people want (but usually do not say) is more mobilization by the groups they support and less by the groups they oppose. That is a strategy that can work, but is difficult to achieve. Commentators like Lessig see evidence that some groups spend a lot more money to influence politics than others and they reason that divorcing money from politics will alleviate the disadvantage. Even if such a divorce were practical, however, the money may be a signal that some groups are more motivated and equipped to participate. Take away the money and you often still have one side that cares more about an issue and organizes more to do something about it.


Note: Thanks to John for hosting me as a guest blogger this week. If any readers have further comments or ideas, feel free to contact me at matt at My current research broadly covers American policy history since 1945 and the determinants of policy change. If anyone wants to read more, I always have papers in need of feedback.

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Lamentably common misunderstanding of meritocracy

Tyler Cowen pointed to an article by business-school professor Luigi Zingales about meritocracy. I’d expect a b-school prof to support the idea of meritocracy, and Zingales does not disappoint.

But he says a bunch of other things that to me represent a confused conflation of ideas. Here’s Zingales:

America became known as a land of opportunity—a place whose capitalist system benefited the hardworking and the virtuous [emphasis added]. In a word, it was a meritocracy.

That’s interesting—-and revealing. Here’s what I get when I look up “meritocracy” in the dictionary:

1 : a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement
2 : leadership selected on the basis of intellectual criteria

Nothing here about “hardworking” or “virtuous.” In a meritocracy, you can be as hardworking as John Kruk or as virtuous as Kobe Bryant and you’ll still get ahead—-if you have the talent and achievement. Throwing in “hardworking” and “virtuous” seems to me to an attempt (unconscious, I expect) to retroactively assign moral standing to the winners in an economic race.

See here for the rest of the story (including why I thought it was worth blogging on this in the first place).

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Roundtable on Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democray Needs the Humanities

Find it here at the Association for Political Theory Virtual Reading Group.  The first post, from John Seery, is up.  Here is one quote:

…the book, too often, bores me.  I read certain passages, they sound like buzzwordy boilerplate, they sound like declaimed mini-lectures, they sound like cut-and-paste clip-jobs from longer Nussbaum tomes, they sound like academic blah blah blah (with citations), and my eyes gloss over. I want to be moved. I want to be inflamed. I want to be inspired. I want others to be inspired. I don’t think this book will do the trick. That saddens me.

[Hat tip to Melissa Schwartzberg]

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Poli sci plagiarism update

A recent story about academic plagiarism spurred me to some more general thoughts about the intellectual benefits of not giving a damn.

I’ll briefly summarize the plagiarism story and then get to my larger point.

Copying big blocks of text from others’ writings without attribution

Last month I linked to the story of Frank Fischer, an elderly professor of political science who was caught copying big blocks of text (with minor modifications) from others’ writings without attribution.

Apparently there’s some dispute about whether this constitutes plagiarism. On one hand, Harvard’s policy is that “in academic writing, it is considered plagiarism to draw any idea or any language from someone else without adequately crediting that source in your paper.” On the other hand, several of Fischer’s colleagues defend him by saying, “Mr. Fischer sometimes used the words of other authors. . . ” They also write:

The essence of plagiarism is passing off someone else’s work as your own, and Mr. Fischer did nothing of the sort: He clearly named the authors whose work he was drawing on.

But, as Sokal points out:

Professor Fischer has repeatedly made this claim, but it is simply not true. In the cases of Goulet (Section 4), Ferguson (Section 5), the first Fairclough passage (Section 8), Polkinghorne 1988 (Section 13), Polkinghorne 1983 (Section 16) and Majone (Section 17), the author in question is either not cited at all in the book, or else cited only very far from the passages in question.

So my guess is that Fischer’s colleagues did not look at the evidence carefully and were too quick to grab on to this defense.

In any case, I’ll avoid the whole “plagiarism” concept by saying “copying big blocks of text from others’ writings (with minor modifications) without attribution.” It’s a bit less convenient than the p-word but has the advantage of clarity. Copying big blocks of text (with minor modifications) from others’ writings without attribution. Copying big blocks of text (with minor modifications) from others’ writings (with minor modifications) without attribution. Copying big blocks of text from others’ writings (with minor modifications) without attribution. Copying big blocks of text (with minor modifications) from others’ writings without attribution.

I can see how, once this guy is caught, it’s natural for him to follow Chris Rock’s recommended strategy and deny everything. But it’s too bad he had to drag his friends into it.

The benefits of emotional distance

To me, the most interesting character in this story is not the luckless Frank Fischer and his “unintentional errors” but rather the reactions of others. I think that one reason Sokal is so clear in his arguments, and Fischer’s defenders so muddy, is that Sokal has nothing at stake. Sokal has no reason to care if Fischer gets fired, or reprimanded, or whatever. It just doesn’t matter to him and so he can feel free to be direct, without any need to overstate his case.

Compare this passage from Fischer’s colleagues:

So this is at most a misdemeanor of literary style, admitted and regretted, and finding 19 instances of it in five books does not appear particularly remarkable. This is a minor issue, and it is distracting us from the main game.

And now this from Sokal:

To put it bluntly, the issue is whether the passages from Fischer’s books quoted in pp. 2-51 of our report constitute plagiarism as defined by the codes of academic integrity at Rutgers University (Fischer’s employer) and virtually every other American university. . . . Let’s be clear: The 19 “instances” of copying-with-minor-modifications are not 19 sentences, but 19 passages that each range in length from a few sentences to a few paragraphs to several pages.

Sokal isn’t trying so hard to win the argument, so he can be direct (for example, discussing his own guesswork involved in selecting articles to compare), whereas Fischer’s defenders, who care so much, have to invent concepts such as “a misdemeanor of literary style.”

Keeping your eye on the ball

I want to point out one more bit from Sokal’s letter that I really like:

At the end of his letter, Professor Fischer raises one legitimate question: Why did Kresimir Petkovic and I [Sokal] reveal our evidence to The Chronicle of Higher Education rather than, say, to the president of Rutgers University? The answer is that plagiarism is not principally an offense against one’s employer—or even against the person whose words are plagiarized—but is rather an offense against the ethical norms of the scholarly community as a whole. [emphasis added] This is why there has been such intense public interest in this case, as exemplified by the 200-plus comments on The Chronicle’s Web site. And it is why Mr. Petkovic and I decided to make our information publicly available, so that each member of the scholarly community could evaluate it with his or her own brain.

Here’s the deal. To Fischer and his friends, this case is all about Fischer—what’s going to happen to him next, will his reputation fall, will he get fired, etc. So to them it would be natural for the case to be made at Rutgers University. But for Sokal, and for the rest of us who had never heard of Frank Fischer before this case arose, the concern is of academic standards. Academia, like other pursuits, will always have its share of time-servers and paper-pushers, but it is a bit disturbing to find a scholarly journal edited by somebody who violates scholarly practices. We’re talking about copying big blocks of text (with minor modifications) from others’ writings without attribution, which, at the very least, would seem to add noise rather than signal to the academic conversation.

Seeing Sokal’s cool reply to the controversy reminded me of a legal case I consulted on a few years ago in which I was subject to a deposition for a few hours. The lawyer from the other side kept asking me what seemed to be barbed or trick questions, and I kept simply answering directly. Eventually he got frustrated and gave up. What made it easy for me was that I didn’t really care if my side won the case. As I saw it, my job was to be the expert; it was the lawyers’ job to try to win. In contrast, had this been a case involving me personally, I’m sure it would’ve been much tougher and maybe the lawyer deposing me would’ve been able to get me tied up in contradictions. I would’ve felt too much pressure to be strategic, to overstate my case or to hold things back or to volunteer additional information, But since I was just doing my job, I could just do it.

I feel a similar way when blogging or writing books—I don’t have to out-think or anticipate the reactions of a referee, I can just be direct. It’s so refreshing to just be able to say what you know without having to claim a larger certainty. And I see this in Sokal’s letter as well. I think some people are good at being strategic, but that word doesn’t really describe Sokal or me, and I like to think that directness and openness is a virtue in scientific writing. For example, clearly citing the works we draw from, even when such citing of secondary sources might make us appear less erudite. But I can see how some scholars might feel a pressure to cover their traces.

And, on an unrelated matter

I still can’t get over that this guy’s upcoming book is called “Evilicious: Explaining Our Evolved Taste for Being Bad.” What’s the next step? Writing columns for the Wall Street Journal?

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Political Theory Everywhere: Now I Want to Open My Mind Edition

Via Arthur Goldhammer, this

[Iggy] Pop admits he’s tired of writing about his own personal experiences and, after basing his last solo album on Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Possibility of an Island, his plans are equally epic for the next record. “I’ve said everything about myself that I care to say in life,” Pop says. “Right now, I’m reading Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville. It’s pretty heavy what he says about America. It could be an album.”
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