Archive | Political Theory

John Locke vs. Respondent #33256048 on John Locke

I am coding an open-ended survey question asking people why they support or oppose the estate tax.

Respondent #33256048:

that money has already been taxed when earned and when it is invested and a return on that investment is earned…. it is being double and triple taxed. John Locke, in his Two Treatises of Government, states that income tax is immoral…

John Locke:

It is true governments cannot be supported without great charge, and it is fit every one who enjoys his share of the protection should pay out of his estate his proportion for the maintenance of it. But still it must be with his own consent- i.e., the consent of the majority, giving it either by themselves or their representatives chosen by them; for if any one shall claim a power to lay and levy taxes on the people by his own authority, and without such consent of the people, he thereby invades the fundamental law of property, and subverts the end of government. For what property have I in that which another may by right take when he pleases to himself?

[Hat tip to Steven Kelts for the Locke passage.]

Continue Reading

Welcome to Melissa Schwartzberg

Over the next couple of weeks, we will have our firstsecond (I forgot Jennifer Hochschild’s guest-stint to my shame) political theorist guest blogging with us: Melissa Schwartzberg. Melissa is an associate professor in the department of political science at Columbia University. She is also a former colleague of John, Lee, David and myself at GWU, and a co-author of both Lee and myself (her paper with Lee is a lot more entertaining than her paper with me). She’s writing a new book on majority and unanimity rule. Welcome Melissa!

Continue Reading

On the Side of the Angels symposium

Jacob Levy has organized a symposium on Nancy Rosenblum’s new apologia for parties and partisanship, On the Side of the Angels at his blog. Participants include Jacob, Nancy Rosenblum herself, Melissa Schwartzberg, Patrick Deneen, Nadia Urbinati, Mara Marin, and, well, me. This is a book which is of interest not only to political theorists, but political scientists too (Rosenblum engages with the political science literature far more extensively than the average theorist does).

Continue Reading

How possible is it to escape your own ideology?

In the course of an otherwise interesting discussion of policies for climate change, noted physicist Freeman Dyson writes:

As a scientist I know that all opinions, including my own, may be wrong. I state my opinions firmly because I believe they are right, but I make no claim of infallibility. I beseech you, in the words of Oliver Cromwell, to think it possible you may be mistaken. . . .

The difference between Lord Stern’s view of the future and mine is the difference between passion and interest, between ideologically imposed stagnation and free growth. Lord Stern would have us obedient to his passion. I would have us following our interest.

I don’t know anything about Lord Stern (although as an American I’m always amused by people being called “Lord” or “Sir,” perhaps in a similar way as English people might be amused by us calling people “dude” or “y’all”), but . . . does Dyson really believe that these other people are on the side of “ideologically imposed stagnation”? I mean, c’mon. I’m sure Dyson could reasonably argue that the policies with which he disagrees could lead to stagnation, and, sure, you can always argue that somebody else’s policies are “ideologically imposed,” but this sort of thing reallly seems to me to be an argumentative dead end. Especially given the first paragraph quoted above.

I’m not commenting here in any way on the substance of the debate, only on the belief that one’s opponents in an argument are for “ideologically imposed stagnation.” I mean, where do you go from there?

Continue Reading

Why Should There Be a Tax Deduction for Charitable Giving?

The first justification is that the deduction is necessary in order to account for the proper base of taxable income; the deduction, in other words, is no subsidy at all. The second justification is that the deduction efficiently stimulates the production of public goods and services that would otherwise be undersupplied by the state. The third justification links the incentive to the desirable effort to support a pluralistic civil society in a flourishing democracy. I believe that only a version of this third argument stands up to scrutiny.

That is from this paper by Rob Reich, a political theorist at Stanford. The puzzle arises in part because the deduction costs the U.S. government a substantial amount of tax revenue:

Because the tax deduction constitutes a subsidy – the loss of federal tax revenue – it is no exaggeration to say that the United States currently subsidizes the liberty of people to give money away, foregoing tax revenue for an activity that for millennia has gone unsubsidized by the state. Charitable giving in 2006 was just shy of $300 billion, costing the U.S. Treasury roughly $50 billion in lost tax revenue.

In a recent talk at GW, Reich also discussed notable flaws in the current implementation of this deduction. For example, it can be claimed only by those who itemize deductions (a minority of taxpayers). So if Reich and I each give $100 to Oxfam, but only he itemizes, only he gets a deduction. Reich says:

Thus the subsidy is capricious, for its availability depends on a characteristic, one’s status as an itemizer, that has nothing whatsoever to do with the value of giving.

Reich also raises questions about the ways in which this deduction can encourage inequality. See his discussion of charitable foundations for public schools in this New York Times article. In essence, parents can set up these foundations and claim their donations as tax deductions. The state subsidizes a means by which schools whose students come from wealthier families can improve even more.

This is not a thorough summary of Reich’s argument, of course. See the paper for more.

Continue Reading

Deliberation vs. participation in blogs

Bloggingheads have posted a dialogue I did some days ago with Cass Sunstein (I’ve embedded it below; if it doesn’t work for you, go here instead). As John Quiggin noted a few weeks ago, Cass is pretty skeptical about the virtues of Internet communication; he believes that it is quite likely to lead to political polarization and perhaps extremism, and not to the kinds of thoughtful, deliberative exchanges between left and right that he’d like to see. I suspect that he’s largely right on the empirics – but as I argue in the bloggingheads, there’s a strong case to be made that deliberation isn’t the only aspect of politics we should treasure. We should also be interested in increasing political participation. Unfortunately, there’s evidence that the two may be partly antithetical to each other – exactly the kinds of cross cutting exchanges between people of different political viewpoints that Cass wants to promote may decrease people’s willingness to participate in politics.

Here, I’m riffing off the work of Diana Mutz (her most relevant article is available as a PDF here ; a somewhat more user-friendly version of her claims can be found in her book, Hearing the Other Side, available from Powells, or Amazon). Mutz looks at individuals’ personal networks, and the extent to which they have political discussions who share their political perspective, and people who have different ones. Much of her evidence supports Sunstein’s claims – that is, she finds that there is a strong relationship between people’s direct exposure to other viewpoints, and their willingness to acknowledge that other ways of looking at things may have a genuine rationale. She also finds (as Sunstein claims) that one of the most important way in which people get exposed to differing points of view is via mass media – people’s intimate personal networks involve far less exposure to alternative points of view than you might expect.

Where she differs from Sunstein is that she points out that this cross-exposure may make people less likely to participate in politics. Her evidence suggests a quite substantial negative correlation between exposure to cross-cutting views and willingness to participate – furthermore, there’s some reason to believe that the arrow of causation points from the networks to participation rather than vice versa. This suggests, as she argues, a real trade-off – more participation is likely to go together with less deliberation among people of different points of view, and vice versa.

It’s still an open question as to whether these effects apply to online networks as well as offline ones (my initial strong suspicion is that they do; I hope, together with John and our GWU colleague Eric Lawrence, to have some empirical work to present on this Real Soon). If so, this would offer a different argument against Sunstein’s claims – which is that a more deliberative blogosphere is likely to have less impact on political participation than a less deliberative one.

You could take this, if you want, as a “best lack all conviction while the worst, Are full of passionate intensity” kind of result, but I think from a pragmatic point of view, that’s precisely the wrong way to go about it. You take the citizens that you’re given, not the ideal citizens that exist in some idealized democratic heaven. There are going to be circumstances under which you might want to encourage more deliberation, and circumstances under which you might prefer a greater degree of political participation. My purely personal take on it is that given the political circumstances of the last several years, it’s no harm at all that the left blogosphere has had significant consequences for the forging of a more self-consciously left-of center political movement. Even if this has clearly had some costs for deliberation, I think that it’s been worth it. I’ve linked before to this piece from dKospedia which suggests that some netroots types at least are aware of the trade-offs.

the line between disagreement and trolling often isn’t an easy one to define. … This site is primarily a Democratic site, with a heavy emphasis on progressive politics. It is not intended for Republicans, or conservatives. … This is not a site to debate conservative talking points. There are other sites for that. This is not a site for conservatives and progressives to meet and discuss their differences. There are other sites for that, too. … Conservative debaters are not welcome simply because the efforts here are to define and build a progressive infrastructure, and conservatives can’t help with that. There is, yes, the danger of the echo chamber, but a bigger danger is becoming simply a corner bar where everything is debated, nothing is decided, and the argument is considered the goal. The argument, however, is not the goal, here. This is an explicitly partisan site: the goal is an actual infrastructure, and actual results.

If Mutz’s findings extend to the Internet too, then this is a quite plausible account of the trade-offs that movement builders face. NB that this doesn’t at all undermine the findings of pro-deliberation people like Sunstein – but it does suggest that people who value other goals, such as increased participation, may reasonably choose structures of debate that don’t maximize deliberative opportunities with the other side, but instead place a premium on movement building activities.

Continue Reading