Archive | Political Theory

Why do people write news stories against their own interests?

Matt Stephenson points me to this BBC article, “Why do people vote against their own interests?”, that was full of the usual errors. This would seem to fall into the dog-bites-man category of “This is important. Someone is wrong on the internet”—but it is the fabled BBC, and it is written by a political scientist at fabled Cambridge University—so maybe it’s going through some problems.

It is striking [says David Runciman, speaking on the BBC] that the people who most dislike the whole idea of healthcare reform – the ones who think it is socialist, godless, a step on the road to a police state – are often the ones it seems designed to help.

B-b-b-but . . . what about this?


The people who dislike healthcare are primarily those over 65 (who already have free medical care in America) and people with above-average income. No, these are not really the ones the new bill is most designed to help.

To be fair, though, my maps are based on survey data from 2004. I haven’t been able to grab more recent individual-level data to replicate our analysis with current public opinion. Still, my guess is that it is the older and richer who most strongly oppose changing the health-care system.


If people vote against their own interests, it is not because they do not understand what is in their interest or have not yet had it properly explained to them. They do it because they resent having their interests decided for them by politicians who think they know best. There is nothing voters hate more than having things explained to them as though they were idiots.

Hey, I didn’t know that! Maybe it’s true. I thought that in a relatively peaceful and prosperous country such as the United States, there’s nothing voters hate more than an economic downturn.

Beyond this, there’s little evidence that people vote based on their individual interest or even that they should vote based on their interest; rather, survey data and theory both suggest that people vote based on what they think is best for the country. (See here and here.) This is not to say that the psychological models of Drew Westen, which are touched upon in this article, are wrong or irrelevant, but merely to point out that “people voting against their interests” is not such a surprise or paradox.

And then there’s this:

Right-wing politics has become a vehicle for channelling this popular anger against intellectual snobs. The result is that many of America’s poorest citizens have a deep emotional attachment to a party that serves the interests of its richest.

Huh? From the 2008 election:


Republicans did better among upper-income voters—except possibly for the over-200,000’s. (The highest income category from the Pew surveys is “$150,000+”, so we can’t do a direct comparison at the top.)

Damn! Another beautiful theory crushed by the facts.

The counterargument, I suppose, is that the curve should be steeper—that the lowest-income voters should be voting even more for the Democrats, but, y’know, some low-income voters have conservative views on economic issues. More to the point, perhaps, upper-income Americans vote 10-20% more Republican than lower-income Americans, and this difference has been pretty stable since 1940 (with a brief interlude during the moderate presidencies of Eisenhower and Kennedy):


Also, as John Huber and Piero Stanig have discussed, rich and poor vote more differently in the United States than in most European countries. So, either on an absolute or a relative level, I don’t see how the argument in this BBC article stands up.

How did this happen?

As an American, I have what is I’m sure a naive view of the BBC as the ultimate in quality broadcasting, so I’m more disturbed by the above-linked article than I would be by a comparable think-piece on a U.S. media outlet.

There’s still something that’s buggin me here, though, beyond the whole BBC thing.

I can see how a reporter could get confused about this whole rich-voter, poor voter thing—in fact, we devoted chapter 3 of Red State, Blue State to an exploration of how this could happen. And I could see how the author of this article, David Runciman, could have a view of U.S. politics that differs from mine. After all, What’s the Matter with Kansas (which in its British edition was called What’s the Matter with America, to really drive the point home) has probably outsold Red State, Blue State by a factor of 200 or so.

B-b-b-but . . . David Runciman is not just some TV talking head. He teaches political science at Cambridge University! I’m sure he’s too busy to read up on the American Politics literature, but doesn’t he have some colleagues down the hall whom he could talk with about this stuff?

P.S. We last encountered Runciman when he described a primary election campaign with the unforgettable phrase, “But viewed in retrospect, it is clear that it has been quite predictable.” He also described a survey of 283 people as “throwing darts at a board.” Which of course made me wonder (along the lines of “Why don’t the just sell hotcakes?”) why they don’t just throw darts at a board, then? This would save them lots of money!

P.P.S. Just to be clear, I’m not saying that Runciman is a bad guy. My guess is that he just didn’t know any better. He read Thomas Frank’s book and it seemed convincing, he doesn’t keep up with scholarly debates on U.S. political science, so he didn’t know where to look. As Mark Twain said, it ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

P.P.P.S. No, I don’t think that Thomas Franks’ work is empty of content. Yes, I do think that the differences between right-wing and left-wing populism are worthy of study. Yes, I do think it’s a good idea to try to understand what happened so that health care reform, which was formerly supported by a solid majority of Americans, is no longer so popular. But I don’t think this discussion is well served by sloppy statements that are contradicted by the data. As I wrote immediately above, I’m sure Runciman and the BBC would be more accurate, if only they knew that more accurate knowledge was out there. That’s one reason we wrote Red State, Blue State: in addition to presenting new research and (our idea of) a synthesis, we wanted to communicate to journalists and even English political theorists that U.S. politics isn’t quite as they might suppose.

P.P.P.P.S. I apologize for using the expression “B-b-b-but” twice in one blog entry. Usually I try to space out my sputterings a bit more, but it just seemed appropriate here. When ya gotta sputter, ya gotta sputter.

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Ideologies and perspectives

Julian Sanchez has an interesting discussion of the benefits of intellectual exchange between people of different ideologies.

The goal would be to formulate a thumbnail sketch of an alien ideology that would be recognized and accepted by someone who holds that ideology—if not as an exact description of their beliefs, then at least as a summary of a view that counts as broadly libertarian/progressive/conservative/whatever view. At the same time, you’d try to present such a view in what you regard as its most compelling form—the version of the doctrine that you could most easily imagine yourself embracing. …So why would someone bother to do all this? Consider the way our views normally evolve. We sort of hunker down in our ideological bunkers trying to fend off various attacks and challenges. Sometimes an especially forceful argument will require a modification in the fortifications—and on rare occasions, we’ll even be forced to abandon a position. Which is to say, we learn from other perspectives largely in a defensive mode, through a kind of Darwinian selection of arguments. But what if instead we tried to use the insights available from our own perspectives, not to defeat or convert the other guy, but to give his argument its best form? … the more intriguing possibility is that a smart progressive’s good-faith reformulation of libertarianism might be something that the libertarian, too, could recognize as an improvement—and vice versa. We shouldn’t expect this to happen if our basic values or pictures of how the world works are as radically at odds as our rhetoric sometimes suggests—but I rather doubt this is the case. Typically, when we’re not at battle stations, we recognize that the other guy’s values are genuine values; we just give priority to different ones. There’s probably more disconnect in people’s beliefs about how the world works, but in at least some cases there, it’s not that we think the other side’s causal story is just totally nuts, but that we think it’s swamped by trends or effects pushing in the other direction. Insofar as ideological modeling trends toward treating the most significant values and causal mechanisms as the only ones worth bothering about, a second pass from an outsider perspective may help find the spots where the framework can be enhanced by adding what was omitted back in.

This reads to me as having something in common with Scott Page’s discussion of the benefits of heuristic diversity in The Difference and his more academic papers. Julian’s take is notably less mathematical and rigorous than Scott’s. But it does begin to at least sketch out some of the stuff that is left implicit or unexplored in Scott’s models. While Scott comes up with some interesting and (to me) persuasive arguments about the benefits of exchange between people from different cognitive perspectives, he says very little about precisely how this exchange might take place, assuming that people can easily combine perspectives to identify new solutions etc without talking about the processes through which they might do so, the problems that they might encounter etc. All of this makes the modeling more tractable, obviously, but it would be nice to have more direct consideration of the processes through which people (whether individually or collectively) actually combine heuristic perspectives, learn from each other how to modify their own perspectives etc etc. Perhaps there’s a thriving literature on this in cognitive psychology or elsewhere (if so, would love to be pointed toward it).

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Kolakowski on Not-Gardening

Leszek Kolakowski died several days ago. I would wager that few regular readers of “The Monkey Cage” will even recognize Kolakowski’s name, let alone know anything about him, unless they happened upon one of the many respectful obituaries that have since appeared in the world press. Kolakowski, for those who don’t know, was a renowned philosoopher and intellectual historian, perhaps best known for Main Currents of Marxism.

It is a sober comment on the parochialism of academic disciplines in general and American political science in particular that so many of us know so little about what’s going on in neighboring disciplines, or for that matter even in neighboring subfields of our own discipline. But that’s a rant for a different day—and before I get too preachy, let me confess that I myself would be unfamiliar with Kolakowski were it not for a delightful essay of his that Ken Newton pointed out to me when we were gathering papers for the volume on The Wit and Humor of Political Science that Ken, Bernie Grofman, Ken Meier, and I have put together. The Kolakowski essay is very funny, and it makes a telling point about the blinders that we put on when we approach our subject matter from a strongly held theoretical or ideological perspective. (For a sampling of Kolakowski’s essays, see his IModernity on Endless Trial , published by the University of Chicago Press in1990).

Anyway, here—as a small tribute to Kolakowski and for your enjoyment—is his “General Theory of Not-Gardening.”

The General Theory of Not-Gardening: A Major Contribution to Social Anthropology, Ontology, Moral Philosophy, Psychology, Sociology, Political Theory, and Many Other Fields of Scientific Investigation

Leszek Kolakowski

Those who hate gardening need a theory. Not to garden without a theory is a shallow, unworthy way of life.

A theory must be convincing and scientific. Yet to various people, various theories are convincing and scientific. Therefore we need a number of theories.

The alternative to not-gardening without a theory is to garden. However, it is much easier to have a theory than actually to garden.

Marxist Theory

Capitalists try to corrupt the minds of the toiling masses and to poison them with their reactionary “values.” They want to “convince” workers that gardening is a great “pleasure” and thereby to keep them busy in their leisure time and to prevent them from making the proletarian revolution. Besides, they want to make them believe that with their miserable plot of land they are really “owners” and not wage-earners, and so to win them over to the side of the owners in the class struggle. To garden is therefore to participate in the great plot aiming at the ideological deception of the masses. Do not garden! Q.E.D.

Psychoanalytical Theory

Fondness for gardening is a typically English quality. It is easy to see why this is so. England was the first country of the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution killed the natural environment. Nature is the symbol of Mother. By killing Nature, the English people committed matricide. They are subconsciously haunted by the feeling of guilt and they try to expatiate their crime by cultivating and worshipping their small, pseudo¬natural gardens. To garden is to take part in this gigantic self-deception which perpetuates the childish myth. You must not garden. Q.E.D.

Existentialist Theory

People garden in order to make nature human, to “civilize” it. This, however, is a desperate and futile attempt to transform being-in-itself into being-for-itself. This is not only ontologically impossible; it is a deceptive, morally inadmissible escape from reality, as the distinction between being-in-itself and being-for-itself cannot be abolished. To garden, or to imagine that one can “humanize” Nature, is to try to efface this distinction and hopelessly to deny one’s own irreducibly human ontological status. To garden is to live in bad faith. Gardening is wrong. Q.E.D.

Structuralist Theory

In primitive societies life was divided into the pair of opposites work/leisure, which corresponded to the distinction field/house. People worked in the field and rested at home. In modern societies the axis of opposition has been reversed: people work in houses (factories, offices) and rest in the open (gardens, parks, forests, rivers, etc.). This distinction is crucial in maintaining the conceptual framework whereby people structure their lives. To garden is to confuse the distinction between house and field, between leisure and work; it is to blur, indeed to destroy, the oppositional structure which is the condition of thinking. Gardening is a blunder. Q.E.D.

Analytical Philosophy

In spite of many attempts, no satisfactory definition of garden and of gardening has been found; all existing definitions leave a large area of uncertainty about what belongs where. We simply do not know what exactly a garden and gardening are. To use these concepts is therefore intellectually irresponsible, and actually to garden would be even more so. Thou shalt not garden. Q.E.D.

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Athenian Democracy

Paul Glastris’ editorial for the Washington Monthly this month is about Josh Ober’s recent book (which I’m reading at the moment) on the cognitive benefits of Athenian democracy.

In his new book, Democracy and Knowledge, Stanford classicist Josiah Ober draws on a plethora of recent scholarship to show that ancient Athens was not the chaotic and fragile polity the Founders envisioned. Rather, for 200 years, it outperformed all other Greek city-states, including authoritarian archrival Sparta, by almost every measure archeologists have devised—estimates of household wealth, number of public buildings, mentions of the city in extant Greek literature, distribution of coinage. …

It’s well known that laws in ancient Athens were passed by votes in the public assembly at which any citizen (males only) could participate. But the group that set the agenda for the assembly, called the Council of 500, was itself radically democratic. It consisted of representatives of neighborhoods and villages throughout Attica, chosen for one-year terms not through elections but by lot. Hence its members tended not to be elites or charismatic individuals but normal, random Athenians. It was as if Nancy Pelosi’s job were done by a large focus group.

Ober argues that the democratic nature of the council served not just to transmit the broader public’s preferences, but to aggregate its on-the-ground knowledge.

Paul goes on to make an argument about how new technologies can replicate some of these benefits (which I’m a little skeptical about). But Ober’s account does make for an interesting thought experiment, given current policy debates. What if the US Senate was suddenly replaced by 100 randomly chosen American citizens on the Athenian model? Would this increase diversity in experience, and hence improve the ability to make good decisions ? It might well – while one could argue that Senators are more likely to be intelligent than the average American (your call as to whether this argument is actually true), Scott Page’s theoretical results suggest that diversity will typically trump smarts in improving decision making. One plausible outcome would be that the Senators would be considerably more sensitive than they are at the moment to the interests of poor people. I don’t have figures for the number of millionaires in the current Senate, but it used to be around 40% – this may help explain, for example, Bartel’s findings that senators are unresponsive to the interests of the lower third of the income distribution. But that’s not all. How would the cognitive aspects of lawmaking differ if a majority of senators weren’t trained lawyers? Or men? Or if the racial make-up of the Senate were roughly proportional to the US as a whole? NB that Ober and Page’s approach implies that we can’t answer these questions with standard survey data (their argument is that the benefits of intellectual exchange between people with different perspectives are heuristic and cumulative).

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The Death of Libertarianism? Part 4

We hear a lot about the free market approach to policy problems, much of it couched in terms that imply that free markets are in some sense “natural,” or that free markets are the grand tradition of our country which nefarious politicians are attempting to undermine. The question whether free markets might be “natural” to humans is a complicated one, relying on a picture of individual human nature which I’ve already criticized. The same acquisitive nature that makes man a competitive market being can also hamper markets when it becomes anti-competitive, and thus libertarians admit that government is necessary at least to restrain monopolies and trusts. In a sense, libertarians (and all other rights-based thinkers) support competition, but not scorched-earth victory.

But my topic today is instead the role of the free market in our nation’s history. As I said, free market policy proposals are often put forward with the implication that markets are the default setting in American life. Obama is charged with wanting to “supplant” free market capitalism with socialism. Regulation is an “interference” with the operation of free markets. Surely, socialism is alien to American traditions (and alien to the Obama administration as well, but that’s the subject of a different post); and a norm against the over-regulation of commerce is one of the hard-won insights of American history. But this doesn’t mean that free-marketism has been the norm in the past; or that the absence of regulation has ever been the status quo.

In fact, the American economy from our founding onwards grew in a symbiotic relationship with government action. And we forget that history at our own peril. As important as the American self-image of entrepreneurship is, our government has (which is to say, we collectively have) always been active in creating the playing field on which commercial competition occurs. We build the field, and we shape its rules – and when we re-shape its rules we are not interfering with time-honored and sacred rights, but merely making the sort of collective decisions aimed at our shared progress which we have always made.

In the early 19th Century, state governments chartered the first corporations as a method of encouraging public improvements (say, building a bridge across the Charles River in Massachusetts, or laying and maintaining usable roads in Pennsylvania). The “corporation” in its inception was a private or semi-private entity aimed at encouraging individuals to team together for public purposes by granting them public lands (and sometimes private lands taken by eminent domain) as well as a right to the profits made by their improvements.

In the late-19th Cenury, government owned most of the land in America, and enacted policies meant to encourage the peopling of the West and the improvement of those lands. It sometimes granted rights to water or land to railroad companies, who would have an interest in creating and fostering towns in the Midwest and West so they could transport the goods produced to the East. And it also granted certain bundles of property rights to individuals to encourage them to go west. Our government fostered what we might think of as one of the largest public-private-popular cooperative schemes in the history of man. (This story is necessarily truncated here, but for an excellent retelling of the role of the government in distributing property rights in the American West, see this book by Donald J. Pisani.)

Indeed, the notion that government and “private” corporations ought to work cooperatively to foster economic improvement was inherent in the Whig tradition (which became our American rights-based tradition) from the start. It’s ironic that libertarians have come to see it any other way, distorting the views of Whig thinkers like John Locke and pretending that they believed in absolute private property rights, separate and protected from the government. For example, libertarians have attempted to marshal Locke in opposition to eminent domain takings. This ignores the fact that Locke is seen by legal history scholars as something like the grandfather of eminent domain law in the United States.

In his 1669 draft of the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, Locke included this provision giving the government an expansive power of eminent domain:

“The court shall have power, also, to make any public building or any new highway, or enlarge any old highway, upon any man’s land whatsoever; as also, to make cuts, channels, banks, locks, and bridges, for making rivers navigable, for draining of fens, or any other public uses; the damage the owner of such land, on or through which any such public thing shall be made, shall receive thereby shall be valued, and satisfaction made, by such ways as the grand council shall appoint.”

Locke was thinking here of the Crown’s taking of fens and forests in 17th Century England, for the purposes of economic improvement (turning waste lands into arable farm lands by draining and/or clearing them). And while he clearly specifies in The Second Treatise that government ought never to take all or any part of such lands for itself (§139) as was the Crown’s common practice, he just as clearly approves of government’s cooperation with private individuals in improving the values of land (even land that is already privately owned by another).

The Whig tradition in fact carried through into American history at least into the Progressive Era. Think, for instance, of the numerous bills for the building of canals and other public improvements that Abraham Lincoln supported as a Whig congressman.

There isn’t enough space here to write an entire history of American Economic Development through the lens of the public-private-popular triumvirate which I’ve suggested here. But I do want to finish with a couple of the lesson to be gleaned from this history.

The first is that government and corporations cannot be disentangled. Libertarians will surely admit that government must exist to charter corporations and to enforce corporate contracts. Without this chartering role, there would be no way to guarantee the immense spur that “limited liability” gives to enterprise. And without the enforcement role, no way to lock in sure gains-from-trade. But even to engage in these functions means to make decisions about public values – when we establish just the basic shell of rules for corporations (governance structures, for instance) we decide what values the corporation serves in our society. To take one relevant example, making executive compensation an issue for a board of directors to decide is to tilt that decision in one direction; giving shareholders an effective vote on the question is to tilt it in another. Yet there is no way for a government that charters corporations to avoid this decision: it must decide how that decision will be tilted. This is not to mention the myriad other value decisions we also must make (no one would expect the government to extend limited liability to a mafia protectionist racket – our rules must determine what is a legitimate “business”). Just as in the first days of our republic, when we charter corporations and enforce their contracts we are pursuing the public good; and it is disingenuous for libertarians to argue otherwise, pretending that their rules for corporate governance are the “natural” ones whereas any changes are interferences.

But this is not to say that all government attempts to regulate companies for the public good are ipso facto praiseworthy. This is the second lesson of our history. The American public-private-popular partnership is riddled with missteps, half measures, false starts, and plans gone awry. In fact, government’s role has sometimes been most successful when it has allowed the other two players to move first, and only then followed on to formalize the rules that have already been developed (for an excellent argument along these lines, see Chapter 5 of de Soto’s _The Mystery of Capital_). It is true, that government is best which governs least – but this does not mean that a government can govern not at all. Through experimentation our government has learned (and is learning) to regulate in ways that achieve good public ends through the means most likely to achieve those ends and least likely to hamper corporations. This is the best expression of our tradition of three-pronged partnership – an activist government protective of the public good, but respectful of private enterprise.

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The Death of Libertarianism? Part 3

In considering the (possible) death of American libertarianism, it’s important to think about both the political/social events that might lead to its demise, and the philosophical reasons that Americans might come to reject it as a guiding philosophy. Yesterday, I shared my vision of at least one of the social trends that might lead to the end of American libertarianism – the changing self-perception of American business, and its move away from ideologies that are libertarian-inspired. I think that change is just one of many similar changes occurring in our political culture (though a crucial one, since it bears on regulatory questions that will be fought out in Washington over the next few weeks, even days), all of which will culminate in a new, distinctly non-libertarian, public philosophy.

But I also suggested in my first post that these changes would force Americans to see the hollowness of libertarian individualism. There are many ways one could support this point about hollowness. One could cite empirical evidence that suggests the model of the individual choice-maker at the basis of libertarianism is not as closely tied to human happiness as libertarians sometimes suggest. Or one could make a purely philosophical argument that suggests the implausibility of some particular libertarian thinker’s take on individual human identity.

But what I’d like to do here today is begin to approach the problem historically, asking what freedom meant to at least one Founding Father, and whether many Americans are mistaken in their belief that our country was founded on libertarian principles. James Madison was not the small-government, absolute-property-rights, pro-capitalist thinker that our Founders are sometimes made out to be. And considering his own words on the subject might allow us to consider some of the ways in which his ideal of freedom if preferable to the wholly-new, 20th Century ideology of libertarianism.

A number of historical works have suggested that the American Revolutionaries were the heirs of a tradition of thinking that emphasized civic virtue as a necessary precondition for a society’s enjoyment of liberty. In some sense they were reactionaries, writing much like the radical Whigs who had opposed Robert Walpole’s corrupt management of Parliament from about 1720 to the 1730’s. But perhaps more importantly, they inherited the radical Whigs’ suspicion of free trade, scarred as they were by the memories the South Sea Bubble of 1720, an economic crash brought on by what we might call crony-capitalist speculation in the stock of the British South Sea Company.

As the Revolution gave way to the Framing of the Constitution, it’s fair to say that the coalition of American politicians that rose to the fore were of a less radical bent. But Madison was still quite suspicious of the commercial and trading interests in American society. And to the extent that he was concerned about government interference in trade, it was the government’s corrupt attempts to foster trade (the sort of cronyism that had led to the South Sea Bubble) that Madison worried about, as much as government interferences that might put a damper on trade. As he argued in Federalist 42, commercial states must be stopped from laying indirect revenue taxes on their non-commercial neighbors, for this forces non-commercial states to turn to foreign trade as a substitute. All states, and the future of American commerce itself, would be hurt if “the clamors of an impatient avidity for immediate and immoderate gain” caused the commercial element in society to use politics to its advantage, ignoring the “enlarged and permanent interest” of all the people. Trade and commerce were, no doubt, important goods – but traders and commercial men were objects of suspicion.

So far, so good – nothing in this seems anti-libertarian, if we realize that free-traders today are as opposed to protectionism as they are to over-regulation. But, as skeptical as Madison could be about government, he often turned to government as a mechanism for meliorating the ill effects of the trading and commercial elements of society on the poorer elements (whether with or without property). For Madison was not just concerned, as in Federalist 10, with the faction of the propertyless riding roughshod over property owners – he was just as often concerned about the reverse. On August 7th of 1787, in the Constitutional Convention, Madison spoke in qualified support of suffrage restrictions, worrying that in the future America would be populated largely by the propertyless, who would either combine in a faction or align behind demagogues to take from the propertied. But later on that same day he wrote an addendum to his own speech, unhappy with the emphasis he had given to the rights of the propertied. “Persons and property being both essential objects of Government,” he wrote, the people who have persons but no property deserve security for their liberty as well. When he expanded on this addendum in the 1820’s for the publication of his notes from the Convention, he stressed that the propertyless have much to fear from the propertied. Speaking of the “dependence of an increasing number on the wealth of a few,” he blames this dependence (the opposite of liberty) on “the great Capitalists in Manufactures & Commerce.” He considers a series of institutional suggestions for balancing out the rights of both groups (rights of person for the many, rights of both person and property for the few), but clearly says that if forced to choose between them he would opt for the rights of the people:

“…it is better that those having the greater interest at stake namely that of property and persons both, should be deprived of half their share in the Government; than, that those having the lesser interest, that of personal rights only, should be deprived of the whole.”

Indeed, in the 1792 essay “Parties,” Madison wrote that while parties of the propertied are perhaps unavoidable, they can be destructive for any republic, and must be controlled:

“The great object should be to combat the evil: 1. By establishing a political equality among all. 2. By withholding unnecessary opportunities from a few, to increase the inequality of property, by an immoderate, and especially an unmerited, accumulation of riches. 3. By the silent operation of laws, which, without violating the rights of property, reduce extreme wealth towards a state of mediocrity, and raise extreme indigence towards a state of comfort.”

Madison, like Jefferson, suggested that inheritance laws breaking down large estates could perform this property-smoothing function over the generations – but they were not likely to be enough, and only the widespread availability of land separated America from the sort of zero-sum fights over property that happened in the French Revolution. He feared that once all of the land in America had been claimed, there would be no way to honor the claims of the propertyless without redistribution in the here and now.

Madison supported inter-generational redistribution, and preferred it. But it is nevertheless clear that he was not an absolutist when it came to property rights: he did not imbue possession with some mystical quality that made it inviolable (neither did Locke or any other Whig writer, but that is a story for another day). In an essay in the same series in which he defines property itself, he moved beyond a definition of property that would give an individual sole and absolute control of his property: he says that property

“…in its particular application means ‘that dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in exclusion of every other individual.’ In its larger and juster meaning, it embraces every thing to which a man may attach a value and have a right; and which leaves to every one else the like advantage.”

Madison was not anti-capitalist, anti-property, or anything of the sort. But he heavily qualified his support of these institutions, conditioning his acceptance upon the good that any plan of commerce did for the “enlarged and permanent interests” of the people. Although in his notes preparing for the Convention (a.k.a. the Vices) Madison frets that the propertyless seldom heed “…a prudent regard to their own good as involved in the general and permanent good of the Community,” after his early-1800’s fight against Hamilton’s Federalist Party he was just as likely to fear the same disregard coming from the propertied classes.

But again, Madison was opposed to neither class. Instead, he thought of property rights as requiring a balance of interests: the interests of the propertied in securing what they possess; the interests of the propertyless in being free from dependence so that they can go about making some property of their own; and the interests of all in having a system that would encourage the growth of trade and make each American better off in the future. A system of property does not serve the interests of owners alone, but seeks to serve the interests of all in a way that secures to everyone a “like advantage.” And if trade-offs must be made which some might think violate the sacrosanct right of property, these could be justified in the name of the right itself.

Madison’s ideas are a part of our heritage—at least as much as the more recent libertarian variant on freedom—and as such they might help us to define alternative visions of what it means to be an American.

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The Death of Libertarianism? Part 2

In yesterday’s post, I suggested that American libertarianism both is and ought to be dying. Is and ought are of course two different things. But if there’s one lesson from the history of political thought (my field), it’s that the two are closer together than many realize.

In times of political crisis, people overhaul their institutions, fixing the problems that have most recently arisen. But in turn they must change their understandings of themselves. Institutions are the structures we create to serve our most significant shared ends (and which, in a sort of recursive loop, also create the ends themselves). Our institutions undoubtedly have their origins in myriad political bargains and social innovations too difficult to comprehend all at once – so we justify them by telling ideological stories. In particular, the interested groups which support our institutions become their champions, telling stories which knit their group together and provide some passable justification to the groups outside their coalition. With change in the institutions, the stories must change, and the task of storytelling falls to the coalition that effected that change (doubtless through many bargains and innovations of their own).

I would contend that this is the moment we are in. Taken one by one, the institutional changes we are contemplating are not revolutionary. But taken together they amount to a rejection of American libertarianism, both in the institutional forms it has taken and in the stories its champions have told about the American ideal of liberty.

Take just a few of the questions we are asking about the institutions of American business: How should CEO’s be paid to ensure that they are “incentivized” to direct their companies responsibly? Should securities traders be paid huge bonuses even in those instances when their activities don’t create value for the rest of the economy? More broadly, what is the value created by a corporation, and what are its responsibilities? These are questions of human identity (our motivations, interests, relationship to others), and human purposes (our goals and ends). And ultimately the crisis we are in is forcing us to reassess how the system of capitalism harnesses human identity in the service of human ends.

Here’s just one example of that reassessment: The ideology of “shareholder value” had been a prominent part of the story (of very recent vintage) told in American business schools to justify the role of management in the modern, publicly-owned corporation. The idea is that a corporation is owned by individuals with a desire to maximize self-interest, in this case dividends. The story made decent sense of twentieth-century institutional changes that had arisen to give shareholders more power over corporations, and to bring about more transparency in management. And the story grew out of deep roots in American libertarianism, in particular in the conception of economic activity as a series of contracts between free, self-interested individuals (see for instance, Chapters 1 and 10 of Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom). Institutional changes occurred, which spawned an ideological story with roots in a peculiar variant of American ideals of freedom – and in turn, the more mainstream that variant became, the more its proponents successfully pushed for further institutional changes, deregulating business to fit the theory’s core assumptions.

But the events of the past few years have called into question precisely this ideological story. Corporate structures designed to maximize current share price (a short-term measure of shareholder value) may indeed have blinded American business to the Potemkin-quality of its own balance sheets. And so the ideology is being rapidly supplanted, not by outside radicals but by business school faculty themselves. Responding to innovations in corporate form and especially in opportunities for business in the developing world, business schools now teach a stakeholder theory alongside the shareholder theory. Numerous popular books offer alternative corporate theories, such as the concepts of sustainable business, bottom-of-the-pyramid” management and social business.

The process of institutional change and ideological rethinking is already underway. Will libertarians be able to control this process, convincing Americans (opinionmakers, policymakers, and ultimately citizens themselves) that their particular variant on the philosophy of freedom is the best way to make sense of the changes that we see, and the best plan of action for future changes? Probably not. Though the American commitment to capitalism will remain unshaken, it doesn’t take too much effort to see that the libertarian ideal itself is what is under assault. It’s assumptions about human motivations are too shallow, and thus the institutional forms they took too narrowly-focused. And it’s obsession with freedom as non-interference too obtuse to notice the other ways in which American-style capitalism was not enhancing the substantive freedoms of people world-wide. Events may have outstripped the ideology—its own presumptive champions in the world of business are developing new interests, creating new institutional forms, and innovating beyond the ability of the ideology to explain.

There’s no doubt that the libertarian version of the American ideal of freedom has become somewhat firmly planted in the American psyche. It still has appeal for many voters. But with the institutional changes being contemplated, we have begun the process of ending its rein in public policy. It is breathing its last gasps, in part because policymakers who speak the language of libertarianism to members of their coalition just won’t find as receptive an audience in the newer, high-tech, sustainable business world that is emerging and altering the political landscape. And luckily there has been a far-flung, 25-year academic movement (a movement often portrayed as conservative, not liberal – for many liberals have their own civil-libertarian ideology, the twin of conservative economic libertarianism) to question libertarianism. This movement has taken various forms: communitarianism, culturalism, pragmatism or behavioralist economics. But what knits all of these disparate academic trends together is the desire to question the rather stark (simplistic) individualism at the core of American libertarianism and libertarian economics. Any of these forms would provide more fertile ground than libertarianism for incubating an ideological “story” through which we can explain to ourselves the institutional changes we are experiencing.

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The Death of Libertarianism?

An economic crash spurred on by a weakness for profit and a blindness to risk; but efforts at reform are resisted in the name of the “free market.” A healthcare system that is more costly and less effective than many others in the developed world; but efforts to change it run aground on the reluctance of some to pay for the benefits of others. Federal coffers drained by unaffordable handouts to the largest corporations, highest income-earners, and wealthiest estate-holders; but efforts to roll back these mistakes are met by an astro-turf tax revolt that smacks more of class warfare than the progressive tax system itself.

We could see these as the same old battles between left and right, the same tired pantomime that ends in stalemate. But it seems to many that something is different this time around, that change in our political system is inevitable. New regulations will be issued for Wall Street and corporations. A new national plan for healthcare will emerge. And changes in our tax laws will have to occur to reverse the deficit and arrest the debt. No doubt each of these will be resisted by those who still cling to a retrograde American “libertarianism.” But it may finally be the case that their outsized and undeserved influence on the politics of the past 30 years is ending. It is time for us to reflect on this free market ideology, and ask whether American libertarianism is (or ought to be) dead.

The distinctive American version of libertarianism focuses almost solely on the value of freedom, and makes freedom synonymous with non-interference at the hands of government. In more sophisticated variants, libertarianism focuses on the dignified human, makes freedom the most important (but not the only) political precondition for the achievement of dignity, and seeks to ensure that dignity is achievable by all. But the American version dispenses with any complicated talk of the many-sided human personality, or the connections that might tie us together (what we owe to each other), and pursues with single-minded zeal the idol freedom.

In its rough-and-ready, campaign-tested variant, this ideology appeals to Americans’ philosophical commitment to self-reliance, historical commitment to ideals of liberty, and practical commitment to the system of capitalism. All of these things are supremely praiseworthy; they make us what and who we are. But Americans have been led astray by the free market, libertarian ideology into misinterpreting their own philosophy, history and practice.

Philosophically, the libertarian focus on the freestanding individual leads us into a sort of solipsism, breaking down the human ties that give us our real identities and make life worth living. Historically, we’ve been led to misunderstand our own Founders’ ideals, and to read into their words a form of liberty they explicitly rejected. And practically, we’ve been asked to ignore the beneficial relationship that existed between government and enterprise as our country became economically strong, and to try a radical new experiment with an untested theory of unfettered markets.

In my next few days as a guest blogger on the Monkey Cage, I want to reflect on these questions. Although I am a political theorist, I’ll do so in a ways that is freed from the academic apparatus that sometimes makes theory inaccessible. Tomorrow I’ll talk about some of the reasons that times of change call us to rethink our ideals, and how the specific changes we’re facing now should cause us to see the philosophical hollowness of American libertarianism. On Wednesday I’ll suggest that the American Founders’ ideals were in many ways the opposite of what free market ideologists would have us believe. And on Thursday I’ll discuss a bit about the American vision of capitalist economic development moving forward from the Founders, in order to show the ways in which that vision is not as starkly anti-government as free-marketers would have us believe.

A few blog entries certainly won’t drive the nails in the coffin of American libertarianism. But I suspect that events have already begun that process, and it is worthwhile engaging in a dialogue about what those events mean and how we should understand our American ideology in a deeply changed world.

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Political Science’s Neglect of Conservative Thought

Peter Berkowitz:

…political science departments … offer undergraduates a variety of courses on a range of topics. But one topic the undergraduates … are unlikely to find covered is conservatism.
There is no legitimate intellectual justification for this omission. The exclusion of conservative ideas from the curriculum contravenes the requirements of a liberal education and an objective study of political science.
…While ignoring conservatism, the political theory subfield regularly offers specialized courses in liberal theory and democratic theory; African-American political thought and feminist political theory; the social theory of Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber and the neo-Marxist Frankfurt school; and numerous versions of postmodern political theory.
…Without an introduction to the conservative tradition in America and the conservative dimensions of modern political philosophy, political science students are condemned to a substantially incomplete and seriously unbalanced knowledge of their subject. Courses on this tradition should be mandatory for students of politics; today they are not even an option at most American universities.
…It would also be good if every political science department offered a complementary course on the history of progressivism in America. This would discourage professors from conflating American political thought as a whole with progressivism, which they do in a variety of ways, starting with the questions they tend to ask and those they refuse to entertain.


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