Liberal Democracies and Authoritarian Regimes: The Case for Law Enforcement. (Part 3 of 12)

This reference to the distinction of values ​​between the short and the long term also refers to the theory of capital and interest that Eugen v. Böhm-Bawerk and Austrian and Swedish economists who followed him in such developments, such as Ludwig v. Mises, Knut Wicksell, the already named Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig Lachmann, or the British economist John Hicks. Current economic science recognizes the element of time preference in the interest rate, but emphasizes the predominance of the value of money as its main component. In contrast to this, the Austrian and Swedish economists referred to had emphasized a characteristic of homo economicus that brought them closer to the behavioral presuppositions of David Hume: agents prefer the same good in the present than in the future, or, expressed in other terms, for an individual to agree to defer the use of a present good towards a future time, such abstention from consumption must be compensated by an increase in the future value of such good. Thus, if a person lends a certain sum of money and therefore incurs an opportunity cost by abstaining from its consumption, it is because he expects to receive compensatory interest on his waiting in the future. Of course, Böhm-Bawerk’s theory of interest received its timely evaluation by numerous economists, pointing out its weaknesses and subsequent developments by his disciples met with mixed luck – to the point that, for example, Friedrich Hayek declared that he had never undertaken the task of writing the second part of his work The Pure Theory of Capital attentive to the extreme complexity of the theory of interest that inspired him. However, re-expressing David Hume’s legal-political theory in terms of the Austrian and Swedish theory of capital represents an intellectual exercise with a significant heuristic function.

In “natural” terms, an individual will “spontaneously” fulfill a promise if he calculates that the present value of breaching it is less than the future loss of credit with respect to his creditor or the community with which he habitually – a term proper to the Humean empiricism – it interacts. This is consistent with Hume’s own theory of empathy, according to which each individual can understand how his neighbor would feel and judge a certain situation, better if he is someone known than a complete stranger. Thus, the tendency to cheat is less corroborated with those who have the expectation of interacting more than those in whom the interaction will occur in a single play – as illustrated by the best known game theory.

We can thus see how, in the absence of the incentives provided by the coercive powers on the part of the state, the natural tendency to keep promises is better corroborated among acquaintances, with continuous interaction over time, than with strangers with what will have to be done. interact only once. This is what led David Hume, likewise, to reject any theory of the social contract – since, by definition, in the supposed state of nature there would be no one to guarantee its fulfillment – and to consider that, in a primitive stage of the individual and society, the primordial political unit would have to be the family – in fact, the very etymological meaning of this term conveys a “micro-political” connotation.

It will be later Adam Smith who will extend the foundation of a human interaction order beyond the nearby nuclei through his concept of “Great Society,” in which unknown subjects are capable of spontaneously coordinating their respective activities through the signals transmitted by the system. of prices, which indicates the relative modifications in the terms of exchange of complementary and substitute goods, contemporary or deferred in time. However, neither did Adam Smith deny a fundamental function that some mechanism must fulfill in order to emerge and sustain such an extended cooperation order: the application of the norms of peaceful coexistence, which guarantee stability in the possession of goods, the transfer by consent of said possession and the fulfillment of the contracts entered into for the purpose of perfecting said transfers.

Consequently, the problems of law enforcement, which concern the degree of effective compliance with the legal norms that condition human conduct, must represent a major chapter of the political philosophy and theory that characterizes legal institutions and policies as true incentive systems.

[Editor’s note: this is Part 3 in a 12-part essay; you can read Part 2 here or read the essay in its entirety here.]

Liberal Democracies and Authoritarian Regimes: The Case for Law Enforcement. (Part 2 of 12)

Obviously, there is a whole question of information and transaction costs surrounding the game between empirical social norms and positive legal norms. The former are more agile and immediate, better adapted to the circumstances, but at the same time they are not enough to guarantee peace when the interests at stake gain social relevance. There are cases in which the legal system takes advantage of the immediacy of the empirical norms to give dynamism to the daily traffic and at the same time reserves the last word for a case of serious controversy: it is the referral made by the positive right to the validity of uses and customs. A typical example of this is commercial law.

Although in another frame of reference, but in the same vision, we can find in David Hume an antecedent of this distinction between empirical and positive norms. The Scottish philosopher called the first “natural virtues” and the second “artificial virtues,” and it was precisely justice that was among the latter. In turn, in the 20th century, Friedrich Hayek expressly collected his political philosophy in order to enunciate his concept of “spontaneous order”, which, among other characteristics, consisted of that diffuse zone in which the norms have not yet bifurcated between empirical and positive – and for which reason it is so elusive to categorize the first volume of Law, Legislation and Freedom, entitled “Norms and order,” either within social theory or within the theory of law.

The truth is that – something that Hayek did not have the opportunity to address – in that diffuse area in which it is difficult to distinguish a social norm with empirical compliance from another with recognition by the legal system – to use H. L. A. Hart’s own concepts – a determining factor for both types of norms, in addition to the violence that its non-compliance or its subsequent retaliation may involve, is the opportunism that acts as an incentive for the acting agents -with which here we return to the Humean distinction between natural and artificial virtues: stability in possession, the peaceful transfer of it and the fulfillment of promises are three virtues that make up the idea of ​​justice but that, for its fulfillment, require from the agents a general vision of the social consequences compliance or non-compliance, or the incentive provided by government sanctions in anticipation of non-compliance.

Opportunism on the part of private agents consists in preferring a present good to deferring that good in order to obtain a greater good in the future. For example, breaking a promise in a pressing situation constitutes a present greater good for the defaulter. However, the generalization of such default by all debtors would destroy a credit system that would, in the future, go against the interests of the entire society as a whole, including the defaulter himself. However, for the debtor, the default means an obvious immediate advantage, which can only be counteracted by the threat of a social sanction – stop being seen and treated as a “good businessman” – and, if this does not reach to modify their behavior, due to the threat of a legal sanction, such as compensation for non-compliance or, if necessary and if this non-compliance had been deliberate and obtained through a ruse, imprisonment.

It is here where the superiority of representative democracy is manifested over direct democracy, and of mixed systems, which combine long-term and even life-long terms or “while their good conduct lasts.” In these cases, the rulers exercise the “opportunism” of enforcing the law, following the adage of Herman Melville regarding “private vices, public benefits” or Machiavellian realism: greater wealth and, consequently, higher taxes come from societies in those that are characterized by a high fulfillment of promises and contracts, since it goes without saying that, abstaining from a present good to achieve a greater good in the future, generates in the long term a greater volume of wealth than enjoying a good present at the cost of giving up future good. If a government had to be revalidated daily, its incentive to stay in office would be to make short-term benefits prevail. Likewise, it is not only enough with a political system with stability in office, but also with legal and political responsibilities around the demand to make the long term prevail over the short term.

In this distinction between legal responsibilities and political responsibilities of officials, the Humean distinction between artificial virtues (the legal responsibility for the poor performance of the position) and the natural virtues (the personal desire to continue in office, through re-election or by avoiding impeachment). The legal-political system is articulated through opposite incentives: individuals have a “natural” tendency to breach promises, which is counteracted by the incentive of the legal system that establishes forced fulfillment of contracts; while the political system is expected to align incentives in such a way that rulers have “the natural tendency” to enforce contracts. This natural tendency of the rulers does not come from any “natural” characteristic of the person of the ruler but from the incentives provided by the constitutional system.

[Editor’s note: this is Part 2 of a 12-part essay; you can read Part 1 here or the whole essay in its entirety here.]

Liberal Democracies and Authoritarian Regimes: The Case for Law Enforcement. (Part 1 of 12)

The topicality of the distinction between natural and artificial virtues

This essay aims to highlight that the low generalized application of positive legal norms in any legal system, by allowing greater discretion on the part of the public powers, leads to a gradual increase in the levels of authoritarianism, both on the part of governments and of society itself.

Here the concept of “positive legal norms” is used in order to establish a distinction with empirical social norms. The latter consist of factual rules, not enunciated by any specific authority, which are of common and spontaneous observance by the members of a given society and which have extremely diffuse enforcement bodies. The rules of courtesy, of what is known as “fair play,” the expected ethical conduct among the members of a certain group constituted in an unintentional way -such as a business community or a group of friends-, are typical cases of empirical social norms, of which everyone knows their content to a certain extent, although they are not always in a position to state it and transmit it clearly and precisely and that, in general, do not have a “disciplinary court” that applies sanctions; rather, these are usually administered by the group members themselves in a tacit and diffuse way, or they are still relegated to the own conscience of each individual.

A positive legal norm, on the other hand, is sanctioned and promulgated by the public powers and has bodies for the application of its consequences before the verification of certain antecedents, which may consist of repressive sanctions or the establishment of certain creditor relations between individuals. The said consequences will be supported by the application also of the public powers or, expressed in other terms, the officials who exercise the public powers will not incur in any crime or contravention if they execute the dictation of a given sentence. Furthermore, they risk receiving a legal sanction if they abstain from enforcing the law without just cause of its own accord.

To illustrate what has just been expressed with some exemplary cases: If a private individual claims a certain sum of money from another – such as compensation for a breach of contract, or for damage caused to his property- he goes to court, the evidence is debated and the titles of the claim are examined and the court sentences condemning the defendant to a certain sum of money, if he does not pay it within the term stipulated in the sentence, then the claimant would be authorized to initiate the enforcement proceedings. As a consequence, an official with specific powers, summoned for this purpose, would be legally authorized to seize the debtor’s assets and sell them at auction in order to obtain the sum of money whose ownership corresponds to the creditor. Furthermore, the creditor has the power to order the official to activate the enforcement procedures, under the threat of incurring, likewise, legal consequences for the official himself in the event of a possible omissionate conduct.

On the other hand, if in a group of friends someone lies with the purpose of refraining from attending or inviting a certain member of the group to a given social gathering, the eventual discovery of the lie by the rest of the friends or the victim himself will not entail more than what is usually known as a “social sanction,” i.e., a change of concept about the person of the offender. In these cases expressing a negative opinion about the offender or “retaliating” with a similar attitude in turn would not have to carry any social sanction. Or perhaps yes, if the offender is offended by the interpretation given to his actions or considers the retaliation disproportionate or illegitimate. Logically, this can lead to an escalation of sanctions, but since this does not involve relevant interests for society nor does it generally lead to events of physical violence, everything remains at the level of the empirical social norms system.

Finally, if the interests involved gain social relevance -for example, retaliations involve events of physical violence-, positive legal norms begin to be activated that clearly demarcate the antecedents and responsibilities of each party and the compensation and sanctions to be determined and applied by part of an impartial tribunal. This is because, as is well known, one of the main tasks of the law is to “keep the peace.”

[Editor’s note: this is Part 1 in a 12-part series; the essay in its entirety can be found here.]

Julian Simon’s life against the grain

I did not meet many of the postwar great thinkers of classical liberalism. There are two exceptions. In 2005 I had a chat with James Buchanan to ask him if I could translate the talk he gave to an audience of graduate students at the IHS summer seminar at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. He agreed and I translated and published his ideas on ‘the soul of classical liberalism’ in a Dutch liberal periodical.

The other exception is Julian Simon. Perhaps not in the same league as Buchanan, he was certainly a maverick thinker and a classical liberal great. A navy officer, business man, and advertising expert who turned to academia, he is known, to name just a few, for his arguments in the field of population growth, immigration studies and of course the book The Ultimate Resource. In it he argues that all raw materials become cheaper, while humans are the ultimate resource, among many other issues. He also won a famous wager with his critic Paul Ehrlich, stating that the prices of the raw materials Ehrlich could choose (in fact copper, chromium, nickel, tin, tungsten) would decrease (inflation adjusted) over the period of a decade they agreed upon. But that is just the tip of iceberg of this most interesting man. You should really read his autobiography A Life Against the Grain, whenever you have the chance.

In 1995 a friend of mine and I founded the Dutch Benedictus de Spinoza Foundation, meant to group young people educated in (classical) liberalism. In our first public Spinoza-lecture in 1996 Simon agreed to be the speaker. If memory serves right he was on his way to or from a Mont Pelerin Society meeting in Vienna, and was willing to make a small detour. We spent two full days with him, touring The Hague, arranging an interview in a national paper, have a formal dinner with Simon as gues of honor and speaker, and so forth. He was the most congenial guest one can wish. He clearly did not want to be among the hot shots only. In fact he insisted that we should visit ‘the worst neighborhood of the city’. So we went to one of the poorest parts in town, which he found delightful, not because of the (relative) poverty, but because of the multicultural experience and multicultural food at the market.  An other remarkable feature was that in the half hour before we opened the lecture hall, he wished to take a nap on the floor right there!

In his autobiography he is open about his many rejected papers throughout his career, and the way he described how difficult it is to convince academic colleagues of a point that goes against conventional wisdom. No matter how strong the counter-evidence, people will choose to ignore the new facts or insights and keep the author out of the inner circle for as long as possible. I must say it sounds familiar to me, as an author who has attempted to change the views of (classical) liberals and IR theorists on international relations and (classical) liberalism. Even the obvious fact that trade cannot possibly foster peace seems impossible to establish. Alas, reading Simon one also learns to never give up, the truth shall be told, although there is no guarantee of success!

Reflection on the 2020-2021 Job Market

I am happy to report that I have survived the 2021-2021 political science academic job market. I will be a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton University starting September 2021. It is a dual appointment between the Department of Politics and the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics. I also have a few additional appointments, but I am waiting to finalize the paperwork before formally announcing them. Given that the 2020-2021 job market was one of the worst in recent memory due to covid19’s impact on university budgets, I think I did well enough.

I am writing this post in the hope that it can be of some help to others entering future political science job markets. Information is provided as is and I make no promises about getting a job.

My Statistics:

This was my first time on the job market. I come from a top 50 program. I had about 7 peer reviewed articles at the time. My publications in Political Analysis and Legislative Studies Quarterly got me considerable attention.

I applied to approximately 70~80 academic jobs, counting both tenure track and postdoc positions.

I got initial interviews for about a quarter of them. During these interviews (all on zoom), I was asked about my research and teaching. Most of these meetings were between 30 minutes – 1 hour.

I ended up getting job talks for tenure track positions at four research universities (two R1s, two R2s) and one teaching orientated university. Additionally I got offered two job talks for postdoc-to-tenure track positions at two additional research universities. Most of the job talks took approximately a day. The job talks consisted of a job talk (1 hour including Q/A), meeting with faculty and graduate students, and a teaching demonstration.

I ended up getting job offers from three of the above. Additionally, I was the 2nd choice for at least two of the other positions.

I also applied to a few industry jobs – mainly government and think tank research positions.

Job Market Updates:

Most US-based political science jobs will be advertised on APSA’s ejobs website (https://www.apsanet.org/eJobs). You can find jobs in the UK at https://www.jobs.ac.uk/. Additional jobs will be posted on https://www.higheredjobs.com/ and https://academicjobsonline.org/.

I highly encourage future candidates to join the slack: http://supportyourcohort.com/. Candidates on the slack keep each other updated about the progress of searches. Shout out to Alexis Lerner for organizing the slack channel this past cycle.

Types of Jobs:

There are six major types of jobs in the political science job market.

The first major category is tenure track jobs. These are the golden goose most of us are chasing. If you get a tenure track job you will be employed full-time and granted full benefits (healthcare, retirement, etc.). Salaries are in the 60-80k range. There is a lot of heterogeneity within tenure track jobs, but they can be broadly subdivided between research and teaching orientated universities.

Research orientated universities have salaries on the upper range of the salary range. Teaching loads tend to be around “2/2”. This means that you’ll be expected to teach about 2 classes per semester. There isn’t a magic number for tenure, but I was given a ball park estimate of needing 7-10 articles minimum once I went up for tenure.

Teaching orientated universities have salaries on the lower range of the salary range. Teaching loads fluctuate widely. I mostly saw “3/3” positions, but I saw a few positions that were 4 courses a semester. Tenure expectations were 2-5 articles minimum.

The second major category is postdocs. These are usually appointments of 1-2 years and their primary function is to give candidates a chance to spend more time applying for tenure track jobs. Salaries are in the 50-60k range. Most of these positions have minimal teaching obligations.

The third major category is postdoc-to-tenure track positions. These positions start out as postdocs, but have the potential to convert to tenure track positions. Similar to postdocs, these positions have minimal teaching obligations. These positions are increasingly common in midranking universities. Their purpose, as I was told, is to try to win over candidates that show potential. I think they’re also a clever way to solve the lemon problem. When a department hires a candidate they have minimal information about how they’ll fit in with the department’s culture. By hiring candidates as postdocs, the department has the option to not extend the tenure track offer to candidates that end up being lemons after they show up. Salary range is in the 50-60k range.

The fourth major category is adjunct/VAP positions. These are similar to postdocs in that they are usually appointed in the short term. Unlike postdocs, these have high teaching obligations. I have minimal information about these types of jobs, so I defer to others. My sense is to avoid these positions if you plan to go on the market again because their high teaching obligations eat up your time.

The fifth major category is community college jobs. Similar to adjunct/VAP positions, I have minimal information about these so I defer to others with more information. In a few states, including my home state of California, some of these positions get full benefits and are eligible for tenure. If you can get a tenure track community job, the initial salary range is 70-80k. Research obligations are minimal. I actually think these are really good jobs if your passion is teaching. They also offer a high degree of control over your location.

The last major category of jobs is industry. For political scientists these mostly means jobs in government, think tanks, and non-profits. I applied to a few industry jobs and had modest success. The salary range for these jobs seems to be 70-120k with full benefits. These jobs are really tempting because they give you a high degree of control over your location.

Cato’s Slippery Slope: How the Institute of Liberty Squashed Freedom of Speech

Once upon a time there lived a scholar named Andrei Illarionov, a prominent free market economist who at some point became a senior economic advisor to the Russian government at the end of the 1990s. Yet, in the early 2000s, he quit on the new Putin regime.  Illarionov became disgusted with the growing authoritarianism of his boss, who was slowly but surely squashing private businesses, increasing the powers of the secret police (who are the untouchable ruling elite in current Russia) and enlarging governmental bureaucracy.

Andrei Illarionov

The place that gave Illarionov a chance to pursue his scholarship and to further exercise his criticism of the Putin regime was Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, DC that hired him in 2006.  Hiring a prominent dissident scholar who quit a lucrative and well-paid governmental position and who was raising his voice against the autocratic regime is very commendable and very libertarian.  Furthermore, after securing his position, Illarionov returned to Russia a few times, where he took part in the antigovernment street protests, firmly supporting anti-Putin opposition forces. 

The professor also became active in social media and on YouTube, drawing millions of viewers on various Russian-language channels and sites.  Besides, he regularly published his pieces in a personal LiveJournal. I liked and agreed with some of his assessments, especially the ones that analyzed the 1990s reforms in Russia, and Putin’s crony capitalism.  I also became drawn to his insights into existing threats to the values of Western civilization coming from the current US and European woke mainstream that increasingly breeds intolerance, “tribalism,” racial animosity, erodes the rule of law, and undermines constitutional values.  At the same time, some of his other assessments aroused my skepticism.

As a popular social scholar, Illarionov became part of current debates in the Russian-speaking internet community, speaking on topics ranging from the Putin regime to the notorious corona and to the woke cancel culture that currently suffocates American pollical, intellectual, and cultural life.  Some people agreed with him, whereas other rebuked him – a normal process in a normal democratic republic.  And everything was OK in the life of the scholar until January 6, when the “storming” of the Capitol building took place and when suddenly the Cato Institute decided to quickly get rid of him.

Now I must expand on what Illarionov said about the January 6 event. This is not to convince the reader whether he was right or wrong but to give some context to the story that will be unfolded below.  For this reason, I ask you to bear with me.  First, the scholar dared to question the validity of the voting in the five swing states and suggested in his Russian-language blog that the whole “storming” business and the passivity of Washington DC officials and the Capitol police, several of whom let the “insurrectionists” in, somewhat reeked of the so-called Reichstag fire – an incident that had opened doors the ascension of totalitarianism in Germany in 1933.

Then, in the same posting he dared to come up with a few other “uncomfortable” statements. For example, Illarionov remarked that, if we went by the one person-one vote rule, the winner of the US elections was clearly Joe Biden; yet, if one went by the constitution (the electoral college), the results of the elections in swing states were rather murky, considering the lax corona mail-in voting rules that were railroaded into our society at the last moment.  By refusing to even consider Trump elections lawsuits, the US court system failed to play the role of an independent umpire and missed the opportunity to validate the quality of the presidential elections in the eyes of people.  Illarionov stressed that, since about 40% of American voters, including 73% Republicans, questioned the results of the swing states’ elections, it was essential to take extra legislative and judicial steps to check and verify those results to regain the popular trust into US electoral, judicial, and political system rather than to simply jump to announce the winner of the 2020 elections.

The scholar also shared his personal experience of being in downtown Washington on January 6 among tens of thousands of protesters who were walking along the Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol and who were insulted by tiny groups of BLM supporters who shouted obscenities at the demonstrators. The latter either responded with such phrases as “Join us” or warned each other by saying, “No violence,” and “Don’t touch them, they want to instigate a fight.”

Illarionov also drew our attention to another “uncomfortable” fact: none of the “insurrectionists” who broke into the Capitol building used weapons against police. Later, FBI confirmed that among all arrested for “storming” the Capitol no one faced firearms-related charged and no arms were recovered.  It was in fact the Capitol police that shot one of the protestors: a veteran air force officer named Ashlie Babbitt; Illarionov nevertheless found it necessary to add that a Capitol police officer was hit in his head by a fire extinguisher, which turned out to be a fake information spread by the mainstream media, including New York Times.  In reality, the man died after the incident and the cause of his death was completely different.  Yet, the mainstream media and democratic legislators for the whole month cynically exploited the original “fact” of his death to amplify “insurrectional” dimension of the January 6 break-in and present the officer as a martyr for the cause of democracy.

A few days after Illarionov came up with those and other LiveJournal remarks, popular Politico condemned him , distorting his utterances and ascribing to him what he never said. Politico insisted that the scholar denied the results of the US elections and argued that January 6 event was a trap set by police following a deliberate provocation by BLM activists with a silent agreement of Democrats.  Ironically, after Cato rushed to ditch Illarionov, it was revealed that, besides Trump supporters who rushed into the building, there was indeed an Antifa and BLM sympathizer, a provocateur named John Earle Sullivan, who too took part in the “storming” of the Capitol.  Sullivan was arrested for vandalism and directly inciting violence while being inside the building. Dressed in a “Trump garb,” he was caught on tape by encouraging the right to be more assertive and aggressive. But the story does not end there. An additional and cruel irony was a publication in Time magazine, a mainstream liberal publication, which literally bragged about how Democrats, “decent” Republicans, Big Tech, and their radical Antifa and BLM informal allies worked together in a united “shadow campaign” to orchestrate changing election rules, purging media of “wrong” opinions, and enhancing mass street protests to “fortify” the elections in the “correct” direction for the greater cause of “saving democracy.”

What was stunning in that situation was not Politico’s public condemnations and bot the content of the scholar’s utterances but a reaction of the Cato Institute, Illariniov’s employer, that too denounced the scholar and began an internal investigation of what he said about the 2020 elections and how he said it, which led to his immediate dismissal a few days later. 

The whole Illarionov incident reveals not only how quickly our intellectual mainstream has degenerated for the past year by moving fast forward toward the elimination of the constitution’s first amendment.  What is the most appalling here is that it was the administration of the libertarian think tank that, instead of dismissing outright any attempt to penalize the scholar for what he said and how he said it, followed the lead of an academic snitch, initiating an investigation and purging him in a lightning speed.  It is hard to figure out what drove the minds of the Cato scholar-bureaucrats when they made an instant decision to crucify Illarionov for saying things they did not agree with. Did Cato fear that, being in the den of the DC “deep state” area where 91% of people vote Democrat, they could be cut from the available publicity venues and networks they established in the Washington area?  Or could it be a simple opportunism – a fear that Cato could become a target of the woke mob if it did not throw the sacrificial lamb to the pack of the cancel culture wolves?

I never heard about progressive scholars losing their jobs over calling Trump an illegitimate president and insisting that the 2016 elections were a fraud perpetrated by massive Russian interference; in fact, it was an acceptable mainstream discourse for the past four years.  Moreover, neither academic nor state and federal bureaucrat was penalized by losing his or her job for endorsing BLM, whose mass rallies last summer were responsible for urban pogroms (destructive property damages in the amount of more than $1 billion, 25 people killed , and 2037 police officers wounded). No academic or politician was disciplined for raising funds to bail out “racial justice” rioters that were looting and burning stores, court houses, smashing statutes, and intimidating people. Both the left and the right know full well that, except spent time, public posturing as a “civil rights activist” or “minority advocate” hardly cost a person anything morally, politically, or financially.  In fact, in government and especially in academia, which is currently held in tight grips of the left hegemony (I have borrowed the latter word from the leftist jargon), such posturing can be an excellent career booster.  The first analogy that comes to my mind in this case is the officially endorsed and politically correct activism, which motivated millions of opportunists and would-be young apparatchiks in “good” old socialist countries of Eastern Europe and Soviet Union. 

I am sure many in academia carry the abovementioned activities on their sleeves as the badge of honor.  In fact, as early as 2011, in several universities, left-leaning instructors began incentivizing students by trying to make a participation in demonstrations for “progressive causes,” including the 2018 Kavanaugh hearings, part of their social science course work and offering students brownie points in a form of extra credits. By the way, among the leftist protesters who “stormed” the Capitol that year, 227 were arrested for obstructing the hearings and harassing congress people they did not like.  Nobody (and rightly so) ever thought about treating them as insurrectionists, and their only penalty was meager fines of $35 to $50. Better than anything, such state of things tells us about who currently represents the power elite in the country and who really calls the shots in our political, intellectual, academic, and cultural mainstream. 

The Illarionov incident is not something extraordinary. It is unfortunately a manifestation of the systemic (another favorite word of choice among the current left) impact of the cancel culture or, putting it simply, an ideological witch hunt, in our cultural and intellectual mainstream.  The cancel culture flourished in earnest last summer, when those people who refused to endorse urban pogroms and false BLM claims about thousands of unarmed black people being murdered by white police were routinely silenced, ostracized, and fired.  National Association for Scholars recorded 128 of cases in US and Canadian universities, where people with predominantly conservative and libertarian views (along with several leftist academics!) were silenced by their schools when they expressed “incorrect” opinions on various racial and political issues. Among them one can find, for example, Professor Gordon Klein, UCLA, who “incorrectly” responded to a request to postpone final exams for black students in his online course (in the wake of the George Floyd death) by saying that he intended to treat everybody equally irrespective of their skin color.  Legal scholar John Eastman from Chapman University made a mistake to speak at the January 6 rally that prompted the university to force him into retirement.  In its turn, Duquesne University immediately fired its professor of educational psychology Gary Shank for using N-word in his class to simply illustrate how the word was used in the past: the professor wanted to make a point about the progress of race relations in US! Even though several of the fired people were restored in their employment, the draconian McCarthyism-like message is very clear: toe the line or else. 

Petrified of potential accusations in racism and bigotry, corporations, universities, state institutions, just in case, literally bow down to the aggressive woke mob, morally disarming themselves and the whole society, planting in our midst the atmosphere of fear and self-censorship that reeks of Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China during their “best” days. Not infrequently, for the past months, we have been witnessing the communist-style practices when “progressive” people have been routinely denouncing their colleagues and relatives (on many occasions retroactively for past “sins”) for being “reactionaries” and “racists.”  Moreover, most recently, the cancel culture practice has reached grotesque proportions, when family members report to FBI their relatives if they happened to be participants of the Trump January 6 rally.

The Cato Institute that shut down Illarionov should remember the famous “First they came after” confession credo from German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) who referred to the cowardice and compliance of German intellectuals and clergy during the time of national socialism. And sure enough, we already have radical voices among Democrats who have suggested to phase out and deprogram not only conservatives but also libertarians. If current woke censorship and self-censorship escalates further, tomorrow there might be nobody left to protect Cato.  This liberty institute claims that it works to enlighten our society to “better understand and appreciate the principles of government that are set forth in America’s Founding documents.”  Something tells me that the woke mob, which does not care about these founding documents, will not spare the cautious and politically correct preachers of constitutionalism.

Andre Van Doren, a humanities scholar of a Polish-American extract, who is interested in the issues of political economy and culture. He can be contacted at borismoriarti@gmail.com, the list of his publications can be found at https://muckrack.com/andre-van-doren-1

St. Patrick’s Day Cerebration

It is fascinating how foreign societies that loathe someone else’s nationalist movements over time amplify the revitalized traditions from such movements in their mass culture and celebrate a parodied version of it. A case in point is the St. Patrick’s day celebration.

Ireland’s vibrant folklore tradition was revitalized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with a vigorous nationalist movement. Following this movement, a tiny rural Irish folklore tradition carried over to the Irish American context, like leprechauns decorating St. Patrick’s day cards, for example. The communal identity of the pastoral Irish homeland revitalized by their nationalist movement was vital for the Irish group consciousness in America over many generations, even for the new generations who didn’t visit their old sod.

Today the Irish group has to remind itself of its kinship and traditions as it continues to fade into the American mass culture. As an outsider, what I get from the American mass culture— that supposedly celebrates multiple cultures—is not the rich Irish folklore and tradition that arrived on the scene but mere stereotypes of it. The 19th century WASP anti-Irish caricature can be seen even today. Implicit in every Irish joke is either the image of a drunken Irish devoid of any cultural sophistication or a fighting Irish who is endlessly combative. Had the Irish been a brown or black community, would such a depiction—in a less mean spirited form or not—carry forward in today’s hypersensitive, race-obsessed American society? 

Did you know that Ireland contributes significantly to global science and technology?

St. Patrick’s Day, for the most part, a quiet religious holiday in Ireland, started as an occasion to demonstrate Irish heritage for those living in the United States. Instead, one primarily receives an American mass culture-induced Irish self-parody: holiday associated with alcoholic excess. How much of the self-parody was consciously nurtured by early Irish Americans is debatable. But, I recognize the Irish have resisted from being entirely consumed by the American mass culture in several ways, for example, by employing traditional Irish names such as Bridget, Eileen, Maureen, Cathleen, Sean, Patrick, Dennis, etc.

If you think you know the Irish, then think again.

As a Hindu immigrant myself, I realize it is essential for immigrant groups to assimilate in several ways, like speaking English, which the Irish did effortlessly. Isn’t it the American mass culture’s duty to comprehend a certain authentic Irishness or Hinduness in popular culture without caricatures? As a Hindu, I have faced disdainful “holy cow” jokes from Muslims and Christians in the United States, but of course, Hinduphobia isn’t a politically dominant thing you see. In this light, when just about anything goes on in the name of a “melting pot,” I don’t see cultural salad bowls as regressive but protective. Interestingly, folks who sermonize blending of cultures, dilution of conserved cultural traits like names, etc., as the only form of progressive new beginnings in the social setting also shore up conserved group identities for certain communities in politics.

Not everything is healthy with the immigrants who wish to conserve their authentic identity as well. There is a bias among such immigrants to regard the United States as lacking a unique, respectable culture. Such immigrant-held prejudices get magnified when one-half of the country goes about canceling all faces on Mount Rushmore and actively devalues every founding document and personality of the United States. The impact of immigration and assimilation is complex. It requires the appreciation of traditions maintained by the immigrants and the immigrants appreciating the culture of the land they have entered.

Over time, however, colorful cultural parades that aim to link immigrant folklore and traditions to public policy and popular culture via song, dance, and merriment also dilute the immigrant’s bond with their authentic cultural heritage. In a generation or two, immigrants embody their projected, simplistic self-image parading in the mass-culture. Soon, the marketed superficial traits become deeply authentic pop-cultural heritage worthy of conservation in a melting pot. A similar phenomenon is taking over the diaspora Hindus and some communities back home in India, where a certain “Bollywood-ization” of Indic rituals and culture is apparent. I call this a careless collective self-objectification.

When a critical mass of people recognize a weakening of valuable cultural capital, reviving it is natural. If not for the revivalist Irish cultural nationalism, would there be a sense of pride, a feeling of collaboration among the Irish Americans in the early years? Would there be a grand sweep of Irish heritage for the melting pot to—no matter how superficially—celebrate?

Nightcap

  1. NATO, Russia, and bias (values vs. empirics) Rachel Epstein, Duck of Minerva
  2. Leftists loathe libertarians at DC think tank Daniel Lippman, Politico
  3. Free speech, committees, and Georgetown law Jason Brennan, 200-Proof Liberals
  4. Biden and his anti-socialist stimulus legislation Thomas Knapp, WLGC
  5. Contemplating nullification in the U.S. federation NEO, nebraskaenergyobserver

Former president Lula out of jail… again

Former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is currently considered innocent and can run for president in 2022 if he wishes. Lula was arrested in April 2018 under Operation Car Wash, conducted by judge Sérgio Moro in the Brazilian southern city of Curitiba, in the state of Paraná. In November 2019, the Supreme Federal Court ruled that incarcerations with pending appeals were unlawful and Lula was released from prison as a result. Yesterday, March 8, 2021, the Supreme Court Justice Edson Fachin ruled that all Lula’s convictions must be nullified because Lula was tried by a court that did not have proper jurisdiction over his case. This is so complicated that I had to check in Wikipedia to make sure I’m getting the basic facts straight.

Now I wonder: what changed between April 2018 and November 2019? And what changed yesterday? Don’t know! Was Lula illegally arrested in April 2018? What kind of country is this, in which people are arrested unlawfully?! Why it took Edson Fachin almost three years to realize that Sérgio Moro had no jurisdiction in this case?! Is Brazilian law really so complicated that it takes even to a supreme court judge three years to realize that something is wrong? What is going to happen to Lula now? After all, he was in jail unlawfully for more than a year! But mind this: Edson Fachin didn’t say that Lula is innocent! He said that Sérgio Moro had no jurisdiction to judge him. Theoretically, Lula can be judged by a new court, with the same proofs, and be condemned… again. You know, Seinfeld was right:

“What are lawyers, really? To me a lawyer is basically the person that knows the rules of the country. We’re all throwing the dice, playing the game, moving our pieces around the board, but if there’s a problem, the lawyer is the only person that has read the inside of the top of the box. I think one of the fun things for them is to say, ‘objection.’ ‘Objection! Objection, Your Honor.’ Objection, of course, is the adult version of, ‘’fraid not.’ To which the judge can say two things, he can say, ‘overruled’ which is the adult version of ‘’fraid so,’ or he could say, ‘sustained,’ which is the adult version of ‘Duh.’”

I’m afraid that in the case of Brazil, if the supreme court judges don’t quite understand the rules of the game, neither can I.

Does federation unite or divide?

I am reading a lot on federation lately, for an article I would like to contribute to Brandon’s special issue of Cosmos + Taxis. I am going back to the debate about federalizing (parts of the) the democratic world which was very lively in the 1930s and 1940s. Reading the texts, for example the best-selling Union Now! (1939) by American journalist Clarence Streit, you can feel the scare for the authoritarian rulers and their nationalistic and militaristic policies. As an anti-dote, Streit proposed the federation of all the grown democracies in the world at that time, 15 in total, spread over the globe. This Union of the North Atlantic had to include a union citizenship, a union defense force, a union customs-free economy, union money and union postal and communications system After the war broke out, Streit published a new version, now calling for a union between Britain and the USA. Needless to say, none of these or other proposals went anywhere. Still some interesting perpetual questions remain.

Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek also wrote on federation during this period, as I described in Classical Liberalism and International Relations Theory (2009). I now went back to their writings, which is a treat. It is nice to have a fresh look, I also have deeper insights now (at least – I think!) than I had about 15 years ago when first encountering these ideas.

One of the divides between Mises and Hayek (which they never openly discussed, as far as I am aware) revolved around the alleged pacifying effect of federations. Mises made the point that joining a federation would lead to a larger loss of sovereignty than was normally conceived in the debate. It was not just about pooling some powers at the federal level. In an interventionist world, Mises argued, the number of policies that are dealt with from the center, or the capitol, continually rise. After all, the call for intervention will be made from all corners of the federation, all the time. This leads to a call for equal treatment, which in turn lead to a larger number of policies and regulations administered from the capitol. Consequently, the member states increasingly lose sovereignty and eventually end up as mere provinces. This would be a new cause of division, especially when the member states of the new federation used to be powerful countries on their own. Hence, a federation divides, not unites. Therefore, he proposed a much more radical solution in his plan for Eastern Europe: no federation but a strict central union (administered by foreigners, in a foreign language he even once suggested) where the members would basically have no say at all over all the important legislation normally associated with sovereignty. The laws and regulations would be limited, ensuring maximum economic and political freedom for the individual citizen.

This blog is not meant to discuss the merits of Mises’ ideas. It solely aims to point at a division between Mises and Hayek. Hayek, and most thinkers on federation with him, Streit included, had different expectations about the political effects of federation. They expected that federation would be a force of unity.  In a federation you arrange the most difficult and divisive policies at the center (for example defense, foreign policy and foreign trade), while leaving all other policies to the constituent parts. This allows room for different policies in those states, while taking away their instruments to start violent conflict. Yes, this would mean less sovereignty, but also less trouble, while the freedom within the federation still ensured as much or as little additional policies as the individual states see fit. Hayek would favor his idea the rest of his life, also proposing it for the Middle East, for example.  

Who was right? That is impossible to say, I think. There are elements of both Misesian and Hayekian arguments in the real-life experiences of federations around the globe. For some it is indeed a good way to pool the core of sovereignty, while remaining as diverse as possible. Although most them do not disintegrate with violent conflict, the increase of all kind of policies at the federal center has certainly happened. However, this is not unique to federations and most importantly, it is not a question of formal legal organization. It is a question of mentality of both politicians and populations. This is another reason to keep fighting ‘the war of ideas’, because ideas have the power to change societies.

A Tribute to Mary Lasker

In the early twentieth century, cancer assumed a more prominent place in the popular imagination as the threat of contagious diseases reduced and Americans lived longer. In this regard, the American Society for the Control of Cancer (ASCC), founded in 1913, had identified three goals: education, service, and research. However, until midcentury, largely due to the limited budget, the society contributed little to cancer research.

Enter Mary Woodard Lasker

One of the most powerful women in mid-twentieth-century New York City, and perhaps North America, Lasker demonstrated that women could command transformations in medical institutions. Born in Wisconsin in 1900, Mary Lasker, at the age of four, found out that the family’s laundress, Mrs. Belter, had cancer treatment. Lasker’s mother explained, “Mrs. Belter has had cancer and her breasts have been removed.” Lasker responded, “What do you mean? Cut off?” Decades later, Mary Lakser would mention this early memory that had inspired her to engage in cancer work.

After having established herself as an influential New York philanthropist, businesswoman, and political lobbyist, when Mary Lasker inquired about the role of the ASCC in 1943, she learned that the organization had no money to support research. Somewhat astounded by this discovery, she immediately contemplated ways to reorganize the society. She wanted to recreate the society into a powerful organization that prioritized cancer research.

Well-versed in public relations, connected to the financial and political circles of the country, Lasker played a central role in the mid-1940s. Despite notable opposition, Lasker convinced the ASCC to change the composition of the board of directors to include more lay members and more experts in financial management. She urged the council to adopt a new name, the American Cancer Society. She also convinced them to earmark one-quarter of its budget for research. This financial reorganization allowed the ACS to sponsor early cancer screening, including the early clinical trials. The newly formed American Cancer Society articulated a mission that explicitly identified research funding as its primary goal.

By late 1944, the American Cancer Society had become the principal nongovernmental funding agency for cancer research in the country. In its first year, it directed $1 million of its $4 million in revenue to study. Her ardent advocacy for greater funding of all the medical sciences contributed to increased funding for the National Institutes of Health and the creation of several NIH institutes, including the Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Mary Lasker continued to agitate for research funds but resisted any formal association. As she explained it, “I’m always best on the outside.” Undoubtedly, Mary Lasker’s influence and emphasis on funding cancer research contributed to promoting the Pap smear in U.S. culture. As a permanent monument to her efforts, in 1984, Congress named the Mary Woodard Lasker Center for Health Research and Education at the National Institutes of Health.

A portion of a letter ACS administrative director Edwin MacEwan wrote to Lasker encapsulates her contribution to our society. He wrote, “I learned that you were the person to whom present and potential cancer patients owe everything and that you alone really initiated the rebirth of the American Cancer Society late in 1944.”

“If you think research is expensive, try disease.”
Mary Woodard Lasker (November 30, 1900 – February 21, 1994) 

Source:

  1. The Lasker Foundation (http://www.laskerfoundation.org/about/)
  2. Mary Lasker Papers, Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library, New York, N.Y.
  3. Early Detection: Women, Cancer, & Awareness Campaigns in the Twentieth-century United States by Kirsten Elizabeth Gardner

Affirmative Guilt-Gradient and the Overton Window in Identity-Based Pedagogy

Yesterday, I came across this scoop on Twitter; New York Post and several other blogs have since reported it.

Regardless of this scoop’s veracity, the chart of Eight White identities has been around for some time now, and it has influenced young minds. So, here is my brief reflection on such identity-based pedagogy:

As a non-white resident-alien, I understand the history behind the United States’ racial sensitivity in all domains today. I also realize how zealous exponents of diversity have consecrated schools and university campuses in the US to rid the society of prevalent racial power-structures. Further, I appreciate the importance of people being self-critical; self-criticism leads to counter-cultures that balance mainstream views and enable reform and creativity in society. But I also find it essential that critics of mainstream culture don’t feel morally superior to enforce just about any theoretical concept on impressionable minds. Without getting too much into the right vs. left debate, there is something terribly sad about being indoctrinated at a young age —regardless of the goal of social engineering— to accept an automatic moral one-‘downmanship’ for the sake of the density gradient of cutaneous melanin pigment. Even though I’m a brown man from a colonized society, this kind of extreme ‘white guilt’ pedagogy leaves me with a bitter taste. And in this bitter taste, I have come to describe such indoctrination as “Affirmative Guilt-Gradient.”

You should know there is something called the Overton Window, according to which concepts grow larger when their actual instances and contexts grow smaller. In other words, well-meaning social interventionistas easily view each new instance in the decreasingly problematic context of the problem they focus on with the same lens as they consider the more significant problem. This leads to unrealistic enlargement of academic concepts that are then shoved down the throats of innocent, impressionable school kids who will take them as objective realities instead of subjective conceptual definitions overlaid on one legitimate objective problem.

I find the scheme of Eight White identities a symptom of the shifting Overton Window.

According to Thomas Sowell, there is a whole class of academics and intellectuals of social engineering who believe that when the world doesn’t reconcile to their pet theories, that shows something is wrong with the world, not their theories. If we are to project Thomas Sowell’s observation on this episode of “Guilt-Gradient,” it is perfectly reasonable to expect many white kids and their parents to refuse to adopt these theoretically manufactured guilt-gradient identities. We can then —applying Sowell’s observation—predict academics to declare that opposition to the “Guilt Gradient” is evidence for many covert white supremacists in the society who will not change. Such stories may then get blown up in influential Op-Eds, leading to the magnification of a simple problem, soon to be misplaced in the clutter of naïve supporters of such theories, the progressive vote-bank, and hard-right polemics.

We should all acknowledge that attachment to any identity—be it majority or minority—is by definition NOT a hatred for an outgroup. Assistant Professor of Political Science at Duke University, Ashley Jardina, in her noted research on the demise of white dominance and threats to white identity, concludes, “White identity is not, a proxy for outgroup animus. Most white identifiers do not condone white supremacism or see a connection between their racial identity and these hate-groups. Furthermore, whites who identify with their racial group become much more liberal in their policy positions than when white identity is associated with white supremacism.” Everybody has a right to associate with their identity, and equating one’s association with an ethnic majority identity is not automatically toxic. I feel it is destructive to view such identity associations as inherently toxic because it is precisely this sort of warped social engineering that results in unnecessary political polarization; the vicious cycle of identity-based tinkering is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hence, recognizing the Overton Window at play in such identity-based pedagogy is a must if we have to make progress. We shouldn’t be tricked into assuming that the non acceptance of the Affirmative Guilt Gradient is a sign of our society’s lack of progress.

Finally, I find it odd that ideologues who profess “universalism” and international identities choose schools and universities to keep structurally confined, relative identities going by adding excessive nomenclature so they can apply interventions that are inherently reactionary. However, isn’t ‘reactionary’ a pejorative these ideologues use on others?

The Prose and Poetry of Creation

Every great civilization has simultaneously made breakthroughs in the natural sciences, mathematics, and in the investigation of that which penetrates beyond the mundane, beyond the external stimuli, beyond the world of solid, separate objects, names, and forms to peer into something changeless. When written down, these esoteric percepts have the natural tendency to decay over time because people tend to accept them too passively and literally. Consequently, people then value the conclusions of others over clarity and self-knowledge.

Talking about esoteric percepts decaying over time, I recently read about the 1981 Act the state of Arkansas passed, which required that public school teachers give “equal treatment” to “creation science” and “evolution science” in the biology classroom.  Why? The Act held that teaching evolution alone could violate the separation between church and state, to the extent that this would be hostile to “theistic religions.” Therefore, the curriculum had to concentrate on the “scientific evidence” for creation science.

As far as I can see, industrialism, rather than Darwinism, has led to the decay of virtues historically protected by religions in the urban working class. Besides, every great tradition has its own equally fascinating religious cosmogony—for instance, the Indic tradition has an allegorical account of evolution apart from a creation story—but creationism is not defending all theistic religions, just one theistic cosmogony. This means there isn’t any “theological liberalism” in this assertion; it is a matter of one hegemon confronting what it regards as another hegemon—Darwinism.

So, why does creationism oppose Darwinism? Contrary to my earlier understanding from the scientific standpoint, I now think creationism looks at Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection not as a ‘scientific theory’ that infringes the domain of a religion but as an unusual ‘religion’ that oversteps an established religion’s doctrinal province. Creationism, therefore, looks to invade and challenge the doctrinal province of this “other religion.” In doing so, creation science, strangely, is a crude, proselytized version of what it seeks to oppose.

In its attempt to approximate a purely metaphysical proposition in practical terms or exoterically prove every esoteric percept, this kind of religious literalism takes away from the purity of esotericism and the virtues of scientific falsification. Therefore, literalism forgets that esoteric writings enable us to cross the mind’s tempestuous sea; it does not have to sink in this sea to prove anything.

In contrast to the virtues of science and popular belief, esotericism forces us to be self-reliant. We don’t necessarily have to stand on the shoulders of others and thus within a history of progress, but on our own two feet, we seek with the light of our inner experience. In this way, both science and the esoteric flourish in separate ecosystems but within one giant sphere of human experience like prose and poetry.

In a delightful confluence of prose and poetry, Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin, wrote about the evolution of life in poetry in The Temple of Nature well before his grandson contemplated the same subject in elegant prose:

Organic life beneath the shoreless waves
Was born and nurs’d in Ocean’s pearly caves;
First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,
Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;
These, as successive generations bloom,
New powers acquire, and larger limbs assume;
Whence countless groups of vegetation spring
And breathing realms of fin, and feet, and wing.

The prose and poetry of creation — science and the esoteric; empirical and the allegorical—make the familiar strange and the strange familiar.

The poverty of the middle-class: lack of savoir-faire

In 2009, the film An Education came out. It was a Bildungsroman of sorts but it was beyond a coming-of-age story. It showed the life of the aspiring, post-World War II nouveau riche middle-class. The protagonist is a schoolgirl whose aspirationally-minded parents send her to a private school. They have no notion of what a good school is, how to tell if one is good, or why a person should attend one; they only know that “all the best” send their children to fee-paying schools. In the process, they’re swindled. The film’s characters descend into wallowing self-pity as nothing works out quite right for the protagonist. The story showcases a reality that we’re dealing with today. A fiction created by and for the post-War nouveau riche is collapsing. Those caught in its net do not recognize that what is collapsing is a fantasy, believing instead that the social order is declining, that a social contract has been broken.

Adam Smith wrote in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759),

The rich man glories in his riches, because he feels that they naturally draw upon him the attention of the world, and that mankind are disposed to go along with him in all those agreeable emotions with which the advantages of his situation so readily inspire him. At the thought of this, his heart seems to swell and dilate itself within him, and he is fonder of his wealth, upon this account, than for all the advantages it procures him. The poor man, on the contrary is ashamed of his poverty.

In the twenty-first century, achievement replaces riches as a font of glory. And that is good. It means that we have reached a point where being monied by itself is no longer a distinction. Achievement is the currency of the realm now (if anyone wants to imagine me saying that in the voice of Cutler Beckett from Pirates of the Caribbean, please feel free). What we face today is a society of rich men whose hearts have dilated but who haven’t reinvested their wealth to procure advantage. And herein lies the rub: procuring advantage requires savoir-faire and those who built and benefitted from the society of post-War nouveau riche for the better part don’t have it.  

The savoir-faire needed is a type of street-smarts, but for life and careers rather than the literal streets (though it’s good to have that as well). This knowledge is not particularly secret, yet when caught out, the nouveau riche middle-class squawks and cries foul. Take for example Abigail Fisher and her lawsuit against UT-Austin: the young woman required the Supreme Court to validate UT-Austin’s assertion that graduating above average from a public school, playing in a section of a youth orchestra, and being one of two million Habitat for Humanity volunteers did not make her remarkable. The Abigail Fisher story is not one of racism or affirmative action. It’s a story of lack of savoir-faire. A person who thinks that any of the extracurriculars entered into evidence at the trial were résumé enhancing is as deluded as the parents from An Education who thought that merely forking out money ensured social mobility, a better life, the prospect of great things.

Making unfounded assumptions is part of the nouveau riche middle-class’ lack of savoir-faire. A lawyer I know has made it well into adulthood without knowing that advanced degrees from Ivy League schools are fully funded, i.e. free. Believing that he could neither afford an academic advanced degree nor that it would pay off professionally, he pursued law at a school where he received in-state tuition. He suffers from a stagnant career and fears that he doesn’t have a vocation for law. In contrast, this lawyer has already been surpassed by another attorney I know who is still in her twenties. In addition to being fiercely intelligent overall, she is worldly-wise. When she decided on law school, she pursued only Ivy Plus schools exactly because they were the ones with the best funding and scholarships; name recognition was an aside. She received merit-based full tuition funding, a stipend, and major professional opportunities because she was a prize winner.  

Nor is it an anomaly that the highest tiers of education are free, or less expensive than people assume. Those who have read George Elliot’s Daniel Deronda know that Daniel was on track to win a fellowship which would refunded his tuition at Cambridge to his father Sir Hugo Mallinger. This was a huge honor which had almost nothing to do with money. Sir Hugo was fabulously wealthy; he didn’t need the money refunded – though of course it would have been nice. The honor was the primary attraction for him. “Daddy paid all my tuition” can’t be put on a résumé; “___ Fellow” or “winner of ___ Scholarship” can be. To be clear, I fully support parents saving for their children’s college. But I have had genuine conversations with people who told me that even though their children qualified for merit scholarships or grants, they wouldn’t apply for them because “those are for poor people.” The middle-middle class’ false pride of refusing to apply for scholarships and grants, euphemistically call “paying their way,” has only disadvantaged middle-middle class children as they arrive at the ages of twenty-two, twenty-four, twenty-six without plums, without proof of their abilities, without signs that someone, some institution took a bet on them and that they held up their end of the bargain. Further as Daniel Deronda’s story shows, this false pride has never been the way of the upper-class.

A lack of savoir-faire affects in career shaping as well. I know two artists, one of whom is quite young, just over thirty, and highly successful; the other has had an unnecessarily disappointing career. Artistically, both are remarkable. The difference between the two is that since undergraduate the first has submitted her work to art journals, competitions, galleries, any opportunity where her art could be seen. Acceptance rates are less than one percent, and it is entirely standard for artists to apply multiple times to a single opportunity. The first artist has learned to take rejection on the chin, get up, and reapply. She said to me once, “all grant applications want to know what journals you’ve been published in, what shows you’ve had and where; all the journals and competitions want to know what grants you’ve won, where you’ve been published, and what shows you’ve had. The only thing to do is to keep having shows, keep applying, keep building.” Her persistence shows as she wins more and more prizes which in turn lead to bigger opportunities. She’s already developed a name and reputation within the professional community.

In contrast, the second artist submitted her work to a handful of opportunities when she graduated but gave up when the everything ended in rejections. Now, decades later, she understands how the “numbers game” works, and she’s submitting her work for consideration again. Just because she “didn’t know” she has lost decades she could have spent building her professional reputation and career. She lives in a kind of disappointed daze, wondering why things never quite worked out. She’s reached the point where she can afford to support herself by art alone, but she feels as though somehow some vague, inchoate rules of the game have been broken.

This is not about having money. The artist who has drifted and the first lawyer both come from and have enough money to do anything they might desire. This is about knowing how things work. In the age of the internet, such ignorance and lack of savoir-faire is inexcusable, and it is only right for it to be treated as a flaw. Back in 1905, my great-grandfather who had grown up in unfathomable, though genteel, poverty managed to figure out that Harvard doctorates were fully funded. He pursued one to the benefit of himself and his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. If he could gather information and take action in 1905, in a part of the country without telephone, running water, electricity, or proper roads, what excuse is there for people today?

Gathering information and then taking action has another name: meritocracy. Both the left and the right have united against meritocracy, as predicted by Michael Dunlop Young, the man who coined the term “meritocracy.” Both sides agree that the meritocracy is bad because it is unfair, it breaks social bonds, however fictious. The rub with meritocracy is that it favors those who have savoir-faire over those who do not.And perhaps it is unfair. For example, the artists are equal in that each is technically strong and expresses interesting concepts with their art. Subjectively speaking, I would pay to go see the work of either of them in galleries. Yet one is ahead of the other in her career because she knew what was needed to cultivate her professional reputation and promote her work.

The second lawyer, the first artist, the UT-Austin students who had superb applications all earned their laurels because they took the extra steps of gathering information and learning how the world works. We owe nothing to people who won’t inform themselves, who create fictions about how the world around them works and then become angry when their ideas are shown to be fantasy. Saying that we are in a social contract with such people is coercive because such a contract compels those with savoir-faire to be the custodians of those without it. It would mean that Abigail Fisher would have to be admitted to the school of her choice because she “didn’t know” that all her extracurriculars were ordinary; it would mean that the first lawyer would have to be elevated to equality with the second one, even though the first one is literally less knowledgeable about the law, because he “didn’t know” that better quality legal training was in his grasp; it would mean that we would have to hold the artist who “didn’t know” to submit to journals and gallery competitions as equal to one who has a strong career and recognition because she submits her work regularly. How is this world, a society of excusing ignorance, pandering to an affluent but uninformed, uninquiring people, more fair than a meritocracy?