Adam Smith…was determined to overturn the conventional wisdom of his day. Above all,  he objected to the notion that money was a creation of government.  In this, Smith was the intellectual heir of the Liberal tradition of philosophers like John Locke, who had argued that government begins in the need to protect private property and operated best when it tried to limit itself to that function. Smith expanded on the argument, insisting that  property, money and markets not only existed before political institutions but [4*] were the very foundation of human society.  It followed that insofar as government should play any role in monetary affairs, it should limit itself to guaranteeing the soundness of the currency.  It was only by making such an argument that he could insist that economics is itself a field of human inquiry with its own principles and laws-that is, as distinct from, say ethics or politics. Smith's argument is worth laying out in detail because it is, as I say,  the great founding myth of the discipline of economics.—David Graeber Debt: The first 5000 Years, 24-25 [numbers added for ease of discussion--ES]
Regular readers know I am an admirer of Graeber's Debt (recall here, here, and here). The book offers a bold vision in which geographically and temporally distant evidence is brought to bear on central issues in political economy. In addition, it alerted me to the significance of the revival of interest among anthropologists in what we may call culturally embedded and shaped human universals, and a willingness to avoid the easy relativism characteristic of much ethnography (and history). Today's post is a bit more nit-picky than my previous ones on Graeber and focuses on a subsidiary issue in the work. It's not an irrelevant issue, however, because Graeber's criticism of Smith frame the work.+ Okay, with that out of the way, let me get started.
The core of Graeber’s argument turns on an extended fictional description, we may call it a thought experiment, of the origin of currency out of the inconveniences of barter. The description of a tribe of “hunters or shepherds” (WN 1.2.3) is introduced at the start of the Wealth of Nations, by Smith to explain the origin and benefits of the division of labor. Graeber has good fun showing that this “faraway fantasy” seems “to be an amalgam of North American Indians and Central Asian pastoral nomads;” (25) the example exhibits “a tendency to slip from imaginary savages to small-town shopkeepers.” (26) As Graeber correctly notes, according the thought experiment, “everyone will inevitably start stockpiling something they figure that everyone else is likely to want. This has a paradoxical effect, because at a certain point, rather than making that commodity less valuable (since everyone already has some) it becomes more valuable (because it becomes, effectively, currency).” (26) After quoting Smith extensively, Graeber helpfully summarizes the upshot of Smith’s narrative, “Using irregular metal ingots is easier than barter, but wouldn't standardizing the units-say, stamping pieces of metal with uniform designations guaranteeing weight and fineness, in different denominations-make things easier still? Clearly it would, and so was coinage born.” (27) Before we accuse Graeber of being unfair to Smith, he explicitly recognizes that Smith quickly turns to how standardized coinage into an instance of abuses of state power, which with its control over the mind can defraud other creditors easily. So, there is ample evidence for Graeber’s claims [1-7] in Smith’s text.*
Now, an alert reader may well be suspicious of the fact that I am calling Smith’s treatment of the origin of money a “thought experiment.” My point in doing so is, indeed, to discount Smith’s commitment to the “faraway fantasy” as articulating the (hypothetical) origin of money and property. There are three mutually supporting reasons for this that draw on significant commitments of Smith articulated later in Wealth of Nations.
First, the whole set up of the thought experiment contradicts Smith’s four-stage stadial theory of the development of civilizations. In it, there is a natural progression from (i) a savage stage of hunter-gathering-fishing; (ii) shepherding by nomadic tribes; (iii) sedentary agriculture; to (iv) commercial society characterized by trading. (WN 5.1.a.3–8) These stages are akin to Weberian ideal types in which the whole order and practices of a society are characterized by its predominant economic organization. To be sure, the four stages do not necessarily follow each other and they can succeed each other out of sequence. Smith also allows that in the territory of a large state the stages coincide. As Graeber notes, it is a very peculiar that Smith seems to mix many different kinds of societies in his example. And a critic of Smith may see in the contradiction outlined in this paragraph as a problem for Smith; my talk of 'a thought experiment' may seem overly charitable using later passages of Wealth of Nations to interpret earlier ones. But it is worth nothing that Smith had already called attention to his embrace of something like a stadial theory in the Introduction of his work (where he draws a prominent contrast between the misery of "savage nations" of fishers and hunters and the "abundance" of commercial society) and (less prominently) in chapter 1 ("progress of society.")
Now Smith does claim that some medium of exchange is adopted by "every prudent man in every period of society, after the first establishment of the division of labor." (WN. 1.4.2) Of course, not everybody is prudent, but even so Smith is here committed to the claim that some medium(s) of exchange is likely to exist in every society. This matters because Smith can be read as claiming that government originates in the (second) shepherding stage where the rich cattle/herd owners institute government in order to defend themselves against the poor as a kind of a protection racket. (WN 5.1.a.15) ISo, that Smith would agree with Locke that there is property and money prior to the formation of government. While Smith is not a contractarian, in this sense he is a Lockean (as I have also argued). And Graeber is surely right in thinking that for much of human history government is really an instrument of the rich and powerful to subjugate the poor and powerless.
Second, however, when Smith address the question of the origin of government and property, Smith does not claim that money and property must proceed government. Rather he claims that "Among nations of hunters," [the first stage], "as there is scarce any property, or at least none that exceeds the value of two or three days’ labour, so there is seldom any established magistrate or any regular administration of justice." (WN 5.1.b.2) So, while Smith thinks it is likely that property will precede the existence of government, he does not think property must precede government. Rather, he thinks that most of the time people in the hunting stage are so poor and relatively equal, there is little reason to expect the rise of a regular government in it. (That is, he allows the existence of some authority and hierarchy, but not full blooded government.) He makes the exact same point at the end of the very long paragraph (which articulates his narrative of the origins of government): "The acquisition of valuable and extensive property [in a shepherding stage], therefore, necessarily requires the establishment of civil government. Where there is no property, or at least none that exceeds the value of two or three days labour, civil government is not so necessary."
So, Smith's position is that in the conditions akin to the Lockean state of nature, government is possible. But this means that for Smith it is explicitly and entirely possible that government can precede the existence of property and the development of a medium of exchange. Rather than seeing a contradiction in two strands of Wealth of Nations, it makes a lot more sense to see that by Smith's lights, the thought experiment does not entail anything about the origin of the institution of adopting a medium of exchange and (later) an official government approved currency. Rather the thought experiment is meant to illustrate why such institutions (medium of exchange/currency, etc.) would be (to speak informally) more welfare enhancing (Graeber uses 'efficient' in his summary of Smith--that's fine, too, if one recognizes it is an informal notion). This is why it shows up in all societies. Of course, Graeber may legitimately claim that Smith's stadial theory is out of date. But that does not touch upon their present debate.
I promised three reasons. For the third, we need to move back to the very first chapter of Wealth of Nations, which precedes the thought example that Graeber criticizes and may, thus, be naively presupposed in its interpretation. I have in mind this famous passage:
Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. Nobody but a beggar chuses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow citizens. (WN 1.2.2)
Now, the main point here is that trade presupposes mutual interest. And nothing I'll say will undercut that. In addition, as Sam Fleischacker has emphasized, Smith is emphasizing here the significance of mutual persuasion in any trade. It is worth asking what happens to Smith's framework when markets become anonymous, but that's for another time.** However, for present purposes the key point is the final claim--that exchange and begging take place among citizens and so within a political framework. The significance of Smith's point may be missed if one forgets that in the eighteenth century there was an extremely limited (male) franchise based on wealth. So, while Smith does not reduce market and begging relations to their political context, he does not ignore these either.
Let me sum up because I have gone on long enough. Where does this leave Graeber's seven theses? Leaving aside , which is irrelevant for present purposes, we have undermined , and . I think Graeber is right about ; it's clear Smith thinks that money need not be the creation of government. But I don't think Graeber can show that Smith thinks money is never the creation of government.
With regard to , I have shown that Graeber is right that government generally (! begins in the need to protect private property (and in this sense is a Lockean). But it does not follow that Smith thinks government should limit itself to this task. As the one-time Chicago economists, Jacob Viner and George Stigler already showed, Smith's task for government are rather expansive, including (inter alia) the maintenance of a standing arm and the martial spirit of nation (WN 5.1.f.60) the seting up of roads, tolls, canals (WN 5.1.d.5) primarily to be paid for by progressive taxes on wealthy; the maintenance of public health (WN 5.1.f.60); provide for public education for the poor (WN 5.1.f.55); and even imposition of prudential building codes to prevent spread of fire (WN 2.2.94, while defending his financial regulation).
With regard to , it is possible that Graeber is right that for Smith "government should play any role in monetary affairs, it should limit itself to guaranteeing the soundness of the currency." I don't think this is right. If anything, much of Book 2 of Wealth of Nations is a critical treatment of the financial sector--Smith thought it should be regulated carefully including the details of money creation by banks (but about that see my book). It is also possible, of course, that Graeber is right about ; that regardless of Smith's own views, Smith is the source of a myth that became constitutive of the way economics ended up understanding itself and its object of study and the nature of its knowledge. I leave that question for another day.++
The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it.--Adam Smith (1790) The Theory of Moral Sentiments
The quoted passage from TMS is one of the epigraphs to Jacob T. Levy's (2015) Rationalism, Pluralism & Freedom (RPF). The other is to a passage from Mill's (1862) Centralization, in which Mill warns against local despotism. Levy's inspiring book, which is both a mitigated defense of the significance of intermediaries to a liberalism worth having as well as a fascinating re-visionary history of liberalism* in which the tradition of reflection on the so-called 'ancient constitution' is an independent stream, is framed by the often competing dangers and aspirations emanating from the so-called 'man of system' and the 'bussybodies.' The man of system represents the rationalistic impulse that in the name of justice and efficiency tends toward homogenization, (Weberian) rationalization, and a controlling, strong central government suspicious of local powers. Levy's discussion is useful to the scholar because he nicely brings out the ways in which Smith is clearly indebted to Montesquieu (and joins him in defending the significance of intermediaries) and especially astute about the ways Smith diagnoses the dangers of both central power(s) and local elites. Levy's book is so good that I regret not reading it before I completed my own, while recognizing that if I had down so (it appeared when mine was under review) it would have caused lengthy delay.+
Before I get to a critical digression, I want to make two preliminary comments. One personal pleasure in reading Levy's book is that it provides a nice background to Levy's more general views familiar to regular readers of his essays (which often inspire me to figure out what I think); Levy has that rare capacity to speak to the political moment in an intellectual fashion with a distinctive, moral compass without falling victim to partisanship. While reading the book I felt I was visiting a friend in his home environment showing me his study and, thereby, allowing me to connect some dots about him. Second, Levy's book is self-consciously a contribution to impure political philosophy (a term borrowed from Williams). It is, thus, worth reflecting on RPF as an exemplar in that genre (not unlike Sabl's Hume's Politics). Some other time, I'll say more about Levy's contribution to the nature of such impure theory. What follows is a kind of indirect comment on that topic, too.
As noted above, Levy draws generous inspiration from Smith's critique of systematicity. He returns (66) to the passage from TMS quoted at the top of this post, and quotes it (alongside Montesquieu) more fully:
The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it.
Levy rightly resists the hungry temptation (familiar from those inspired by Hayek) to turn Smith into a mere critic of social planning. Smith here is defending not just gradualism, but also the political dangers in trying to eliminate intermediaries, that is, "the great interests." In the paragraphs just before the one that Levy quotes, Smith discusses these in terms of "the great orders;" the core upshot of that discussion can be summarized as follows, "The man whose public spirit is prompted altogether by humanity and benevolence, will respect the established powers and privileges even of individuals, and still more those of the great orders and societies, into which the state is divided" (emphasis added). As Levy correctly notes Smith's political theory is both a great critique of the moral abuses of intermediaries (including guilds, imperialistic monopolies, state religions, etc.) and aims at defending the rights of these. Social intermediaries are worth preserving and are, in fact, not simply reducible to the the desires and interests of those that compose them (recall)--they have a principle of motion of their their own (that is also resistant to outside imposition).** While I would emphasize more (than Levy does) the significance of aesthetics (apparent "beauty") to the "madness" of fanaticism that is a danger in Smith's "man of system," so far so good.
But Levy's analysis of Smith and the nature of systems is also partial. I say this not to deny that for Smith "love of system" tends to generate not just fanaticism or expert-overconfidence. But that Levy omits something important starts to become clear if we also quote the closing sentence of the paragraph, which Levy fails omits:
If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.
Here we see that what Smith is after, and this is something that Levy explicitly recognizes (when discussing Montesquieu): that social reformers are more likely to succeed, and less likely to generate dangerous, political "disorder," if their reforms work with the "grain" of society, that is, the interests and commitments of intermediaries (and individuals). Social reform is not left to the market or only to bottom up processes; it can be influenced and guided by the center if it (the center) is capable of understanding its own limitations and taking into account the interests and aims of social actors.
In addition, the center must be guided by a system. For Smith claims, in the first sentence of the next paragraph, that “some general, and even systematical, idea of the perfection of policy and law, may no doubt be necessary for directing the views of the statesman.” Such a system allows it to avoid acting in ad hoc fashion and also be able to grasp which compromises are worth accepting and which undermine its moral and political aims. That is, a system is required to guide (not control) long-term planning and to allow trade-offs to be modeled and foreseen. For, while “the judgments of mankind [can be] perverted by wrong systems,” Smith actually explicitly defends systematicity--this should come as no surprise because throughout his life, Smith called attention to (a) the systematicity of his own works (say, here and here) and (b) he refers to his own project as a "system of natural liberty." More important, Smith thought that (c) a proper, (aestheticized) “love of system” can activate the most “noble and magnificent” political and philanthropic projects and the right sort of “public spirit.” In particular, a system-inspired public spirit can even compensate for an absence of the love of humanity or “pure sympathy” in a political agent.++ (Smith is often treated as a sentimentalist, but throughout his writings rules and the reflections of reason can compensate for lack of feeling.) For the a system that can or does generate such “public welfare” is a system worth having. (An important element in a right sort of system is Smith's concern to address inductive risk, but about that another time more.)
Let me wrap up. Levy's book attunes the reader to the the frequent dissonances between the "freedom to associate"" and the "freedom within (or from) group life." (I write "frequent" because Levy is is equally astute about the ways such freedoms can reinforce each other.) Levy is, however, a skeptic about the ability of a normative and impure system that can do full justice to such dissonances. I think this is due to the fact that the most influential systems we have either rationalize these away (toward one side, often favoring the state or justice at the expense of other important liberal commitments) or contain non-trivial (Rawlsian) "wobbles" from the point of view of coherence and reason. But what makes Smith especially notable today, or so I argue in my book, is that he is an exemplar in offering such a system without the (one-sided) rationalization or the wobble. That's not because Smith squares a theoretical circle (overlooked by Levy and the tradition), but because he embraces deviations from reason and coherence as an endemic feature of social life and internalizes it in his system (or so I argue). This generates its own tensions, of course, but about these another time.
Posted at 01:47 PM in Adam Smith, Aesthetics, art, Early Modern Philosophy, early modern science, economics, Foucault, Hayek, history of philosophy, history of science, Jacob T. Levy, Libertarianism, MA Khan, Meta-philosophy, Origin of Analytical Philosophy, Philosophical Traditions, philosophy of history, Philosophy of Science, Professional Philosophy, Rawls | Permalink | Comments (1)
It is the price of democracy that the possibilities of conscious control are restricted to the fields where true agreement exists and that in some fields things must be left to chance. But in a society which for its functioning depends on central planning this control cannot be made dependent on a majority’s being able to agree; it will often be necessary that the will of a small minority be imposed upon the people, because this minority will be the largest group able to agree among themselves on the question at issue. Democratic government has worked successfully where, and so long as, the functions of government were, by a widely accepted creed, restricted to fields where agreement among a majority could be achieved by free discussion; and it is the great merit of the liberal creed that it reduced the range of subjects on which agreement was necessary to one on which it was likely to exist in a society of fierce men.--Hayek The Road to Serfdom, p. 109.
Yesterday, in the context of discussing Jacob T. Levy's attempt at a rebirth of classical liberalism, I quoted a passage in which Hayek (1939) writes, "Government by agreement is only possible provided that we do not require the government to act in fields other than those in which we can obtain true agreement." (Emphasis added) A Facebook comment by the distinguished economist, Peter Boettke, reminded me that I had not paid attention to the significance of the claims in this sentence. Hayek here is offering a (proto-)argument for limited government in name of democracy (or, perhaps, non-violence [''agreement"]. That Hayek dislikes planning is familiar enough. That he understands himself as defending democracy less so (which is one reason why the essay by Levy' that I responded to is important).
Of course, much turns on the nature of true agreement. The argument returns and is clarified by some remarks in the Road to Serfdom (a re-reading of which frames Levy's essay): "The fact is that in these fields legislation does not go beyond general rules on which true majority agreement can be achieved, while in the direction of economic activity the interests to be reconciled arc so divergent that no true agreement is likely to be reached in a democratic assembly." I think Hayek's idea is that an agreement in which a population's interests are reconciled is a true agreement. He offers as an example, the general rules that inform the (to adopt Rawl's terminology) the basic structure of society. (Of course, Hayek and Rawls would disagree, perhaps, over the content of these rules and what is part of the basic structure.) Here, in principle, everybody's interests -- in civil peace, fair play, impartial rule of law, etc. -- are in agreement. (This is why Rawls can use a representative agent in the original position.)
Because in many affairs our interests diverge or are zero-sum, true agreement over these is not possible according to Hayek. In context it is clear that Hayek is concerned both with discretionary power and the delegation of power to experts. The connection between these two issues is not obvious. But from discussion later in The Road to Serfdom (see here), it's clear that Hayek thinks that in both cases a small group will impose its ends on society. And the policies that promote those ends will not merely impact the interests of those represented; many more (non-voters, non-citizens, foreigners, etc.) may well be affected by them. The bigger the federation of states, the more likely that people with divergent interests will be affected by its policies. For Hayek, this is a desirable outcome because it will limit harmful planning and, as I noted yesterday, reduce state capacity.
Some other time, I'll return to Hayek's (much more complex) ideas on free discussion on majority rule. But here I conclude with an observation. One may wonder, how in a democracy, even one with a free press and spaces for free discussion, one would come to agree on what topics or policy areas true agreement is possible, that is, how self-limitation is embraced by a democratic populace. Here, it turns out, is a function for liberal ideology or, if one dislikes the term, religiosity ("widely accepted creed"). That is to say, on Hayek's view a liberal society can be a democratic society if its citizens accept liberal values. This puts Hayek closer to nineteenth century (classical) liberalism than to the neutrality endorsing liberalism (of later Rawls) that stakes its claims on a tenuous overlapping consensus. It also suggests that the Hayekian liberal state may well have to embrace a species of civil religion through which liberal values (the creed) and its institutions are entrenched.
The election’s similarity to the Asch experience was no accident. It stemmed from a deep philosophical divide. This election presented Americans with a clear choice: someone who agrees with the political philosophy of the nation’s founders, or someone who utterly rejects it. The United States was founded on the political philosophy of John Locke, adapted by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and other founders. According to that “bottom-up” political theory, people have natural rights to life, liberty, and property. Government gets its power from the people; it is legitimate only with the consent of the governed. Its mission is to promote the general welfare by providing a framework for ordered liberty, a framework within which people can exercise their freedoms and pursue happiness. That is Donald Trump’s vision of government. There is considerable flexibility, of course, in the concept of a framework for ordered liberty. Trump’s enthusiasm for building an infrastructure for liberty places him on the Henry Clay–Dwight Eisenhower end of a continuum the other side of which is Robert Nozick’s minimal state....
Trump stands on the other side of all these issues. He favors freedom of speech; his flouting of political correctness and, sometimes, outright incivility underscores that. He respects freedom of religion. He believes in the right to self-defense. He rejects the culture of perpetual offense that makes life on campus and, increasingly, off campus a minefield of arbitrary and often ridiculous rules. His positions on these issues are in accordance with common sense. They also accord with the Lockean vision that constituted the common ground of American political life until Woodrow Wilson.
Perhaps the central issue of Trump’s campaign was something also found in the campaign for Brexit, to return decision-making authority to the people and their elected representatives. He described the administrative state and the regulatory burden it imposes as “the anchor dragging us down,” pointing out that its growth since 1980 has cost us as much as one-fourth of our Gross National Product. He pledged to issue a moratorium on new regulations and, in the longer term, to insist that any proposed regulation accompany a proposal to eliminate two existing regulations....
I voted for Donald Trump partly because I share his political philosophy (which I view as akin to that of the British Whigs); partly because I share his view of the current state of American society and the international order; and partly because I see the American political system as teetering on the edge of a cliff. A Clinton victory, I believe, would have ended the American republic. Obama set out to transform the United States of America. He has done so by transferring power away from the people, and away from Congress, to the courts and to the executive branch. He won a few legislative victories, but has mostly ruled by decree, by executive order and especially by the rule-making of executive branch agencies. Clinton promised to continue the trend. She would have ruled more or less as a monarch with little Congressional limit to her power. The Constitution would have been a dead letter. She would have been able to impose her own moral vision on the entire country. That vision, moreover, rests on a narrative with limited correspondence to reality. And she would have removed the checks and balances of the American system designed to keep narratives and reality in line with each other.---Professor Daniel Bonevac "Why As A Philosopher I Voted For Trump: Trumpism And The Future Of The American Republic." The Critique. [HT Dailynous]
Bonevac writes "as a philosopher," and explains that he "voted for Donald Trump partly because I share his political philosophy (which I view as akin to that of the British Whigs)." Above I quoted the main passages in which Bonevac talks about philosophy. And I write in response, not as a partisan or even a citizen, but as a philosopher.* (Recall that I responded to an earlier piece when he wrote as a 'conservative.')
Before I get to that, I want to stress a point of agreement. For, the invocation of philosophy is not what is distinctive about the piece, which is organized around an extended interpretation of the Asch experiment(s). Bonevac's key insight is that "[in the Asch expeirment] Having a partner who sees things as you do, right or wrong, despite the opinion of the majority is what generates the attachment." According to him something like this is the "source of the enthusiasm Trump’s supporters showed for his candidacy;" they see him as a truth teller who, against the claims of the majority, says it as it is. Bonevac does not pause to note that rather than being part of a silent, moral majority (a la Nixon), the Trump voter does not on this view belief himself to be in the majority (and judging by the raw numbers, they are not). They feel themselves to be an embattled minority in a rigged environment slanted against them. (This was also a central characteristic of the Tea Party (recall).) From such a perspective, attachment to President Trump is to be expected, even rational (recall here, and, more polemically, here).
Bonevac notes (correctly) that "If he sometimes says extreme things, that only increases his supporters’ resolve." Yet, he does not pause to note that feeling oneself an embattled minority makes for a tricky governing philosophy. It is, in fact, hard to see how in a democratic order one can defend the embattled minority and at the same time insist on "the consent of the governed" rather than, say, doubling down on the protection of constitutional rights.
Now, I happen to think (but have never argued) that attachment to party and candidate corrupts one's philosophy. This is not to embrace (i) a Weberian neutrality model as the only legitimate one or to deny that (ii) philosophers can be legitimate activists in the service of causes or principles with philosophical integrity; that (iii) politicians can be applied philosophers in Burke's sense (recall); (iv) that as citizens, professional philosophers, can be active politically (including serving party and politician). I think we see some such corruption at work in Bonevac's editorials (and undoubtedly we saw some such corruption also in the partisan writings in support of candidate Clinton or candidate Libertarian). Here is an example: in passing, he offers an interpretation of the state of play in climate science ("Nor is there any consensus about the proportion of warming due to human activity, the effect that even drastic cutbacks in carbon dioxide emissions might have on climate, or the viability of geoengineered solutions") that seem to echo familiar pro-polluting-business talking points [viability of geoengineered solutions], but can hardly be said to be the result of a dispassionate analysis of the technical evidence.*
Bonevac is best known for his logic textbook, but in scanning his writings I was pleased to see he has ranged widely. Yet, he has a peculiar interpretation of Trump's relationship to philosophy (a topic not of notable interest to Trump) or the Lockean principles of the American founding. As a real estate developer, Trump has (unsurprisingly) shown an excessive fondness for the aggressive use of eminent domain--this was been well noted by (conservative and libertarian) critics of Trump (see here and here). Such critics of eminent domain, who see it as exemplary of the abuses generated by crony/rent-seeking capitalism, have a fondness of quoting Locke (although Locke did not rule out the use of eminent domain) (or writing on behalf of the John Locke foundation). This is not the place to explore Locke's exact relationship to Madison and the Fifth Amendment and Nozick's (historically probably anachronistic) reinterpretation of Locke in terms of his more absolutist, Libertarian "Lockean proviso." The point, rather, is that Bonevac gives no hint of the existence of these complications in his invocation of Locke.
This is connected to the most peculiar and even distressing aspect of Bonevac's analysis. Throughout his piece, he criticizes the growth of the "administrative state" and the use of "executive action." It is a bit peculiar that he exclusively blames former President Obama for this (although at one point he indirectly and tacitly acknowledges that this growth has occurred for over a century under many Administrations, since "the common ground of American political life until Woodrow Wilson.") Yet, whatever one can say about the future of President Trump -- and notably, in passing Bonevac grants that Trump may well be a "bully" -- the first few days of his administration can be characterized by a fondness for the deployment of the executive order (here's a partial list supplied by Fox news; here's a more complete list). Bonevac's piece was published on January 20, so perhaps this will have surprised him. But he may well be the only one person to be surprised. Trump has so far shown no interest in any deliberative process.
The most striking claim in Bonevac's article is his insistence that Trump respects (and campaigned on) freedom of religion given that Trump actively campaigned on a (temporary?) ban on Muslims entering the United States. (This may well be constitutional but not because it respects freedom of religion.) Currently, it seems that Trump will propose an executive order that bans refugees from certain countries (with majority Islamic populations) and so create a de facto ban of Muslims in need. Trump also hinted that he would close down Mosques. What Bonevac really means by 'freedom of religion' seems to be the freedom of (generally but not only) Christian conservatives to discriminate based on their beliefs and to resist attempts to provide insurance coverage for abortion and contraception. This is a very partial understanding of religious freedom.
Finally, I suggested that partisanship corrupts. Here's one more instance of this in a peculiar bit of logic: Bonevac writes "He [Trump] favors freedom of speech; his flouting of political correctness and, sometimes, outright incivility underscores that."+ The underscoring evidence that Bonevac provides, only shows that Trump defends a wide latitude for Trump's freedom of speech (and the like-minded). The evidence Bonevac appeals to offers no evidence that in power, Trump would respect the freedom of speech of his opponents or that he recognizes their right, say, to protest. (That he seems to lack such respect can be seen from a very modest search on (ahh) Tweeter (see here and here)).++
If Bonevac had argued that a vote for Trump was a vote for a lesser evil or a means toward resisting Liberal secularism (or Liberal technocracy), I could have respected his argument--this is, essentially, a version of the sober-minded Christian Conservative defense of Trump (recall): God sometimes uses the imperfect and wicked for Holy purposes, after all. I have also written with considerable respect for Trump's intellectual defenders (here, here, here, here, etc.).
But I find Bonevac's portrayal of Trump as a Lockean constitutionalist hard to fathom. For, while it's pretty clear that Trump's presidency will be characterized by various forms of graft (something that also characterized the British Whigs), I honestly think nobody really knows, least of all President Trump, what kind of president Trump will be and what kind of constitutional constraints he will turn out to respect.** I say this not because I underestimate his intelligence or political instincts (or the significance of his rise). But rather because Trump says (as Bonevac acknowledges) "extreme things" and regularly flirts with profoundly illiberal ideas, and because -- as Trump's most insightful defenders recognize -- his fundamental unpredictability (recall), one must be oddly optimistic to see in Trump a defender of ordered liberty.+++ That kind of optimism is not a vice, but it turns into one if one becomes incapable of acknowledging the fears of those that do not share in one's hopes.
Some 59 million people chose to enact horror and obscenity, and they’re agents in the world. They acted wrongly and are blameworthy. Whatever mistakes other people made in persuading them don’t lift the moral responsibility from their own shoulders.
I’ve got arguments aplenty with other people who rejected Trump, and there are of course prudential reasons to care intensely about how best to persuade those who chose him not to choose horror and obscenity in the future. But I’m going to try to avoid the temptation to be angrier at the people who seem closer to me—because they’re smart and could have chosen differently!—than at the directly responsible actors.--Jacob Levy "They Make Choices, Too" @Dailynous.
There are few people I admire more professionally and personally than Jacob Levy (who was on faculty when I was a PhD student at Chicago and whose writings I often engage with), so I was startled by his anger and by his treating electoral agency primarily as the occasion for moral judgments. Levy and I share a scholarly and emotional fondness for the complexities of classical liberalism as a living tradition -- and the Constitutional order of the U.S. is, warts and all, one of its central legacies. The tradition recognizes human imperfection and emphasizes that our knowledge of social reality tends to be occluded to agents at a given time. (The preceding sentence explains some of the tradition's warmth toward markets.) Even so, I do not share his perspective on the Trump voters.
In particular, voters qua being voters should not be judged in moral terms (on the whole); whatever the responsibility of voters is, it is not primarily a moral one. Levy's remarks share here a tendency, also notably present in recent just war theory and often on display in Jason Brennan's anti-democratic theory, to moralize exactly bits of social reality where morality is out of place (and also likely to lead to permanent and increasingly harsh conflict).
For, first, voting is not primarily a moral act. It is an opportunity to express one's choice for a political representative or a political leader. There are lots of a-moral and even immoral considerations that enter into such a choice. To be sure, I am not denying that a voter can legitimately chose to let morality guide her vote or that she can choose to be concerned primarily with morality in her vote. But it is not reasonable to demand that other voters be guided wholly by (your sense of) morality. Let me elaborate.
Voting is the wrong sort of behavior to evaluate morally. Because of secret balloting we have no access to the intentions and characters of particular voters, so there are no deontic or virtue-theoretic grounds to judge voters qua voters. The outcome of a vote is a merely a winning candidate (or party in some countries); that is, the main effect of voting is, on the whole, fundamentally a-moral. So, there is no easy consequentialist ground to judge a voter morally. It's only the behavior of the elected representatives and leaders that can be judged morally. But crucially voters do not control that behavior. In addition, due to the division of labor and lack of government transparency, voters often know very little about what their representatives do. (How little and to what degree this matters in judging the nature of democracy is subject to controversy [recall].)
Moreover, any voter's individual responsibility for the outcome is trivially small. (This is analogous to a kind of argument rational choice theorists love to trot out to claim that voting is irrational--I don't accept that interpretation of voting.) This suggests that the blameworthiness that attaches to their action, if any, is rather thin.
Levy may suggest that it is a foreseeable consequence of this election that as President Trump will enact horrible things, and so his voters have a collective moral responsibility for these outcomes. Let's stipulate, for the sake of argument, that Levy is right about the future President Trump and that the horrors to be produced by him are worse than what the alternative candidates would have offered. (Bill Clinton's execution of Ricky Ray Rector remains, I think, the most horrid thing done by an American politician while running for office in my adult life-time, and I say that without wishing to justify any of Trump's awful things.) Liberals ought to be cautious about going for collective moral responsibility. In part because it prepares the way for the very illiberal collective punishment. (We learned that lesson in our reflections on the war-crime firebombings of Dresden, Tokyo, and than the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) This is not to deny such a thing as collective complicity in the horrors perpetrated by others; but this complicity is not a feature of voting, but rather a feature of the silences and passivity during hate crimes and other horrors.
In his post, Levy explicitly rejects the idea we should criticize others for the rise of Trump. This is a bit odd because the media and several other politicians enabled the rise of Trump through their actions and in-actions. The media's role is especially important because it raises challenging questions for liberalism more generally--both for the nature of free speech as well as about the role of profit in the media-landscape. In addition, the anti-intellectual celebrity culture of a wealthy, capitalist society played some role in generating Trump's fame (not to mention the absence of serious estate taxes). If we are going to continue and revive our tradition, we will have to face these challenges (and --to briefly mention my own interests -- the foreseeable byproducts of technocracy and meritocracy, and here) unflinchingly. The political class seems to have been entirely oblivious to the existential threat to and fragility of the body politic until rather late in the day--again stipulating Levy is right about this (for some of my views on Trump see here). By contrast, I claim (to paraphrase Spiderman), with greater power comes greater moral responsibility.
Levy's post instantiates a peculiar and recent reversal of understanding of liberal democracy. Rather than requiring moral voters, it is an institutional response to human imperfection (including immorality). It is designed to mitigate the dangers of civil war and to ensure peaceful transfer of power. It is designed to empower people's tribal feelings and other aspirations; when the institutions and political class function properly, these are channeled to slightly better ends. It is undeniable that we're living through a period in which liberal institutions are malfunctioning; the voters' decisions are a symptom of this.
Finally, assigning moral responsibility to (other) voters is also futile.+ It is unlikely to change behavior and if it is heard at all, it is likely to be interpreted as a kind of sanctimoniousness that only entrenches positions in ongoing cultural conflicts.* I doubt it will invite the kind of conversations that are needed to have people recognize and acknowledge each others fears and aspirations.
One thing is certain: If the Republican party had the same rules in 2015 as it did in 1915, Donald Trump would not be a problem. His entire candidacy is premised upon the breakdown of the relationship between the elites and the base, whose mutual accord has been central to the effectiveness of the postreform rules. For all its defects, the old nomination process, which placed power exclusively in the hands of the state and local organizations, would have dispatched Trump's candidacy with ruthless efficiency...
After this cycle, the Republican party desperately needs to reform its rules. This does not mean tinkering at the margins, playing with delegate allocation formulas and debate schedules, as the Republican National Committee did after 2012. The 1970s reforms allocated power within the party based on a premise of mutual trust and respect between the voters and the establishment. Without that foundation, the rules are a liability and need to be substantially redrafted. The real danger is not that a clownish demagogue like Trump will win the nomination this cycle, but that a demagogue who is not so much a clown eventually will.---Jay Cost, The Weekly Standard,
The mixture of democracy and free markets (and free movement of people) is unstable. This is due to the fact that markets are inherently disruptive, given that they aggregate the the constantly bombarded preferences of (thereby?) fickle consumers, and that (democratically established and/or enforced) existing rules skew the outcomes toward those with political clout. As I noted before this instability can become toxic if, in the context of heterogenous populations, the status quo generates reasonable expectations that get violated--as they must given the way markets generate uncertain outcomes. In times of stagnation, increasing inequality, and huge gains for well-protected (rent-seeking) insiders, it is to be expected that populist appeals can be mapped onto some us/them distinction that allows some us to be the authentic, united people -- even a moral community -- that excludes elites and would be (inauthentic -- e.g., immigrants, wrong religions, 'inferior' ethnicities, etc. --) members of the people.* The electoral and political success of populism, and (more important) accompanying polarization and destabilization of the familiar status quo, in turn makes some of the elites mistrustful of democracy.
One such mistrust, familiar from libertarian circles (recall) with mistrust of redistribution and rent-seeking, sees in democracy a potent moral danger in which in the polling booth the uneducated, whom cannot grasp complex phenomena, make bad decisions in the voting booth that turn out to have immoral consequences. Such libertarians prefer either markets or experts (or both, but with preference for markets) over democracy (sometimes they prefer lots as a species of democracy). Of course, it is not just libertarians that may prefer expert rule--as I have noted the European Union is a technocratic enterprise in which, thanks to the fate of Weimar and the instability of Third Republic, democratic 'input' is kept to a minimum.
There is also a longstanding conservative mistrust of democratic, popular sovereignty (going back to Burke). The impact of the Donald Trump is re-activating this trope the Republican party. What makes Jay Cost's analysis noteworthy is not that he is openly calling for an end to the accessible, primary system of picking the party-standard bearer, but rather his analysis that what makes intra-party democracy possible is a kind of tacit social compact involving mutual trust and respect between (party) 'base' and (party) 'elite.' This trust facilitates a structure in which "The [Republican] party voters possess the formal power to decide, but there is a vast infrastructure of donors, strategists, and insiders—an elite establishment—whose job is to control informally the people's decision." The intra-party success of populism (which is directed against the elite(s)) undermines that trust and respect (etc.).
As an aside, Goldwater-Reagan style conservativism was, itself, a successful, popular and (in its race-baiting moments, populist) revolt against moneyed, East coast elites (and the 'culture' of welfare/hand-outs, etc.). This conservative movement fizzled out, after forty to fifty years of success, in the second term of G.W. Bush (Iraq, Wall Street, etc.). (Trump is clearly a very different kind of populist.)
Cost, who calls for a return to a more heavy handed (formal) elite-managed selection procedure to maintain the integrity and longevity of the institution, does not reflect on the causes of the breakdown of trust between base and elite (which has been manifested, in part, by successful electoral challenges to (powerful) Republican incumbents). In fact, Cost is merely expressing the elite side of the breakdown of the trust. One important way in which trust breaks down if (tacitly) agreed upon expectations are systematically violated. (This is why there is a close connection between justice, trust, and stability.) The conservative movement has always been a coalition between cultural and Christian conservatives with (a much smaller group of) libertarians (who tended to represent, sometimes uneasily, business interests). While this is not always and everywhere a natural coalition, it is not entirely strange: markets and open borders generate permanent disruptions, and, for all the benefits these may bring, the subsequent dislocation feeds a desire for cultural and social stability (and slowing down of change).
Cost names a real danger: that a demagogue who is not so much a clown (but still a bit!) eventually will win the nomination and, thus, have a shot at the Presidency. He does not name the other danger (exhibited by his piece, but prevalent in Europe, too): that the "vast infrastructure of donors, strategists, and insiders" -- the rich, the highly educated, and the technocrats -- will give up on democracy as an end, and only see it as as a, dispensable, tool.
When people target abortion doctors, or bomb abortion clinics, pro-choice people exclaim, “See how extreme the pro-life crowd is! They’re insane!” But, no, if abortion = baby murder on par with murdering adults (or five-year-olds), and if there are no effective non-lethal means to stop these murders, then there seem to be very strong presumptive grounds for killing abortion doctors and bombing abortion clinics, according to the commonsense moral doctrine of killing in defense of others. The main normative dispute should really be about the moral status of the fetuses. Otherwise, the dispute would just be over whether killing is necessary (are there equally effective non-lethal means?), or whether the proper targets are being killed (e.g., abortion clinic bombers must avoid killing innocent people when they rightly kill abortion doctors).--Jason Brennan "Abortion and Killing in Defense of Others."
I agree with Jason Brennan that it is a mistake to claim that those that kill abortion doctors and bomb abortion clinics "are insane!" I also agree with Brennan that the moral status of fetuses is one of the central normative issues. I would, in fact, welcome learning why Brenann thinks "that abortion (or, at least early abortion) is" not "baby murder." The post that I have quoted from above (it's the concluding paragraph) is based on the supposition (which Brennan rejects) that "for the sake of argument the anti-abortion crowd [is] correct" that abortion is murder. So, while Brennan does not himself encourage killing abortion doctors and bombing abortion clinics, the conclusion of his argument is that there would be such encouragement if one came to think that abortion is baby murder.
The two-fold engine of Brennan's argument is (i) "the doctrine of defensive killing, a doctrine enshrined into common law. By default, killing is presumed wrong. However, a person can become liable to be killed by performing certain wrongful or unjust actions." And (ii) "the common law tends to be a reliable guide to people’s moral intuitions. The doctrines of self-defense and defense of others are doctrines that developed through the common law process that embody centuries of experience regarding how best to discourage violence and resolve violent disputes."
For those of us who do not live within a common law tradition the (moral) truth of (ii) is not self-evident, and Brennan's embrace of (ii) may also be viewed as a kind of useful fiction within a civic religion or, more cynically, an ideology that enshrines a certain, moral-juridical status quo bias (with the bias toward those powers capable of influencing and shaping the inherited legal status quo). [We also ignore to what degree post-Revolutionary America can really be understood as a common-law.] Given that the common law was, for example, for a very long time not very favorably disposed toward abortion, it's not clear, in fact, on what grounds Brennan thinks we could have morally innovated away from the tradition of banning abortion. (This is a familiar objection to any such normative, spontaneous order theory of the law.)
But here I want to focus on a further claim embedded within (ii); Brennan also claims (iii) that common law is also a kind of cumulative wisdom on how to "discourage violence and resolve violent disputes." It is by no means obvious that judged by this standards the common law as practiced Stateside is all that successful; by most empirical metrics America is notoriously more violent country than other advanced Liberal Democracies. But even if we ignore such inconvenient empirical facts, it is by no means obvious that to "encourage killing abortion doctors and bombing abortion clinics" in the name of the doctrines of self-defense and defense of others is a way to discourage violence. Perhaps it's because in Europe the memories of religious wars (associated with many decades of warfare: Thirty-years, Eighty-years, etc.) are taught in school, but it seems more likely to me that such an encouragement will only generate more violence so long as the main normative dispute is not settled.
That is to say, history suggests that when the doctrines of self-defense and defense of others are embraced and promoted in the context of fundamental moral disagreement, they (these doctrines) are a recipe to return us all to the state of nature of religious warfare. At that point the recipe of following the common law would become self-undermining.
It is not all books that are as dull as their readers. There are probably words addressed to our condition exactly, which, if we could really hear and understand, would be more salutary than the morning or the spring to our lives, and possibly put a new aspect on the face of things for us. How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book! The book exists for us, perchance, which will explain our miracles and reveal new ones. The at present unutterable things we may find somewhere uttered. These same questions that disturb and puzzle and confound us have in their turn occurred to all the wise men; not one has been omitted; and each has answered them, according to his ability, by his words and his life.-- Thoreau, "On Reading," Walden.
If we can get past Thoreau's immodesty -- he comes close to grouping himself among "the wise" --, we can understand him as saying that there is no progress in the underlying circumstances of human life. There is, however, variation in the answers given to the enduring "questions that disturb and puzzle and confound." Some of that variation can offer a "new aspect," but he resists the idea that the new is also an improvement. Rather, the best books (past and present) make available in speech what we may call, purportedly impossible thoughts ("the at present unutterable things we may find somewhere uttered"). The denial of progress does not entail pessimism. For, as Thoreau insists time and again, once articulated or exhibited, impossible realities can be made to exist: "If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them."
Thoreau insists that the wise exhibit a kind of integrity between words and deeds. That is, philosophy and philosophical lives disclose and revive options that are were locally unavailable in word and deed. These disclosed options can be improvements over the present baseline--they are "salutary" because they are life-affirming (recall), but it is clear that Thoreau thinks these do not secure permanent improvements. Why this is the case is not explained entirely. (To be clear: Thoreau thinks industrial and material advancements are not an improvement because they generate wants that make us psychological slaves.)* Evoking Montesquieu, he claims that ages have spirits apt to them; but Thoreau warns his confident nineteenth century readers, eras come and go.
While, in context, Thoreau is primarily concerned with spiritual and cultural flourishing, there is also a political tenor to his remarks. That's clear from the fact that the section ends with the observation that "to act collectively is according to the spirit of our institutions." Here "our" refers to American or, more likely, New England's (or even just Concord's) institutions. In fact, while there is (echoing Emerson's Self-Reliance) a non-conformist, individualist strain in Thoreau, he also recognizes that at least in some ages, collectives are the proper locus of action for some purposes: "Instead of noblemen, let us have noble villages of men."
Thoreau's general denial of progress keeps him relevant. (This is compatible with the thought that some changes involve some moral progress.) Every generation thinks itself ahead of those that came before; that our belated, temporal starting-point somehow secures us special privileges in solving life's questions. (I often note with fascination how students can be amazed to discover the characteristics of their modernity in texts written one or two millennia ago.) By this I do not merely mean that we have not beaten death nor that we have not implemented an equitable tax-regime yet. Rather, every age has eluded finding a formula to generalize living wisely or, what amounts to the same thing, peacefully.** Yet, as always, there is no paucity of seers that point the path toward the annihilation of our enemies.
Let's distinguish between crony capitalism and regulatory capture. An exemplary case of the former is the way in which campaign donations can be linked to financial support during the 2008 bail-out, the so-called 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program, (as I learned from Diane Weinert Thomas): "firms that lobbied or had other types of political connections were not only more likely to receive TARP funds, they also received a greater amount of support earlier than firms that were not politically involved through lobbying or direct political connections. For every dollar spent on lobbying during the five years prior to the TARP bailout, firms received between $485.77 and $585.65 in TARP support." This is an unremarkable (albeit harmful), legal form of corruption.* Such trading of political favors is also an endemic, even inherent feature of democracy, as the ninth century political philosopher Al-Farabi noted in his Political Regime (section 114) [recall; and here].
But in the aftermath of the financial crisis, it's so-called regulatory capture that captured the imagination not just of academics, but also of insiders within the financial industry. I first saw it linked to the financial crisis by the Dutch banker-economist, Willem Buiter, who coined the term cognitive regulatory capture to describe the intellectual bubble that forms among central bankers, financial industry, and certain economists (recall this post on the roots of the idea in Chicago economics). A shared intellectual framework had corrupted regulators so that they did not pursue options that could have served the public interest rather than the partial interests of the financial sector (and privileged agents within it).
But, in the (ongoing) aftermath of the financial crisis, it also became a trope to see the flawed oversight that preceded it and the monetary and fiscal policies that followed it as evidence of regulatory capture in the technical sense: it "occurs because groups or individuals with a high-stakes interest in the outcome of policy or regulatory decisions can be expected to focus their resources and energies in attempting to gain the policy outcomes they prefer, while members of the public, each with only a tiny individual stake in the outcome, will ignore it altogether." As the regulated issues become complex and technical the opportunities for regulatory capture only increases. This has become a core intellectual commitment in the literature on so-called international political economy (IPE). (Full disclosure: my department has two leading figures in that field, Geoffrey Underhill and Daniel Mügge.)
I return to regulatory capture (of the cognitive and the straightforward lobbying side) in future posts. But here I want to note a historical irony. These days regulatory capture is entrenched within the critique of neoLiberalism. But the idea of regulatory capture was developed by the Chicago economist (and Nobel laureate), George Stigler (see this classic 1962 paper and also his Presidential Address to the AEA) [recall this post, too], and is also strongly associated with the so-called public choice literature associated with the Virginia school of (other Chicago trained economists) Buchanan and Tullock and law economics (see this classic article by Coase). That is to say, the intellectual framework of regulatory capture was developed to help understand and criticize the effects of the New Deal and became influential in the aftermath of understanding the successes and limitations of the Great Society by market-friendly economists.**
The issue is not just ironic. If the proper functioning of markets (let's stipulate that's desirable) requires the right sort of legal and regulatory framework (whatever that may be) then the theory of regulatory capture tells us that it will be nearly impossible for the political and regulatory process to achieve that desired outcome. To put the point more tragically: it's often thought that economists presuppose a tacit theodicy (and it is true that much bread and butter economics can be traced back to the mathematics and tacit metaphysics of Leibniz, Euler, and the Bernoullis); but the theory of regulatory capture teaches otherwise: we should expect not to live in the best possible world.