Some Reflections on Liberal Democracy, Political Meritocracy, and Critical Rationalism

We live in times in which the liberal democracy is challenged by a sort of political meritocracy according to which a performance legitimacy — i.e., the utility that government management brings to the population – would be more important than the legitimacy of origin, based on the consent of the sovereign people. Thus, economic growth and its beneficial consequences for the governed are presented as substitutes for liberal values, which often also encounters difficulties in its governance. The next step would be to replace liberal democracy with a single-party meritocracy, legitimized in its ability to efficiently provide public goods to its population. In this context, is Contractualist Rationalism still a sufficient foundation for liberal democracy? We will seek to respond to this query with the answer to another question, related to the previous one: What position would the so-called anti-Contractualists or anti-Rationalist assume in the current context?

Both for David Hume and later for Edmund Burke, political power lacks legitimacy of origin. They stated that every government is born either by conquest or by usurpation, since for a social contract to even be conceived, it must be preceded by a system of legal norms in which to fit. Therefore, if there is a political obligation on the part of the governed, it has its source in the legitimacy of exercise that, day after day, the rulers gain. However, such source of legitimacy does not come exclusively from the force with which governments impose compliance with their laws, but in the common interest of the rulers and the ruled to maintain the validity of certain norms of coexistence or justice, whose discovery is born of the practice of interactions between different individuals, its fulfillment generates a long-term benefit for society and its application begets concern for the aforementioned common interest among all members of the social and political body.

Norms and human nature

David Hume distinguished, for this, between natural and artificial virtues, belonging those norms of justice to this last category, since the man in himself would not have a natural propensity to comply with them, but they depend on a critical reasoning capable of being able to see the convenience of the universalization of such standards. For this reason, the Scottish philosopher proposed a model of an agent who behaved in accordance with a principle of limited generosity: he was not exclusively selfish, but rather had an empathetic capacity capable of putting himself in the place of his fellow man. In turn, he was not entirely rational, but that same empathy moved him to act according to his passions, such as to prefer his own kind to strangers. Continuous interactions with other human beings following this behavioral model of limited generosity allowed the social fabric to be endowed with certain structuring regularities, by virtue of the habit born from the repetition of actions inspired by said principle of limited generosity -and the consequent expectations regarding the behavior of own and others arising from the aforementioned habits of conduct.

This plexus of habits and expectations allows agents to make decisions based on a given structure of human interactions that can be identified through a standard of expected behavior, distinguishing what should be from what is not expected to be. Such rules of conduct are called by David Hume as “of justice” and their compliance habit configures “artificial virtues,” since on certain occasions they may conflict with the natural virtues concerning the principles of limited generosity that make the agent prefer his own kind to the others.

In this way, David Hume stated that human interactions form a social structure that is built upon notions of justice that he identified as those of stability in possession, its peaceful transmission and the fulfillment of the promises. These consist of social institutions that arise spontaneously from human interaction and that, because on certain occasions they may conflict with private interests, are not universally accepted spontaneously, but rather, on the contrary, need the support of force for their fulfillment. It is by providing such enforced compliance with the norms of justice that governments gain their legitimacy of exercise.

Although, as we said, the observance of these practices and institutions constitutes a particular interest shared by all members of society, since they all share the natural virtues of looking after the interests of their own group and this is what make them peacefully prosper. Nevertheless, it would be useful to illustrate those instances in which the passions that make up the natural virtues conflict with the rules that maintain such a peaceful order of coexistence and exchange: such is the case, for example, of compliance with the promises.

If a person hires another for the manufacture of a certain work that will take a certain time to complete, pays him an advance on account of the payment of the total price at the end of the work, both will be faced with possible conflicts of interest when fulfilling their respective promises. Once the contractor receives the advance of the price, he will be faced with the dilemma of complying with the execution of the work and bringing it to completion or assuming the opportunistic behavior of allocating such a sum of money for another more desired interest: to buy toys to their children, for example. Suppose that the contractor complies with his commitment and delivers the work to his client in a timely manner. In this case, the latter will be faced with the dilemma of honoring his commitment and paying the balance of the price, receiving the work, or allocating that money to a more urgent and priority need at the moment, such as helping his parents to raise a debt. If social organization were structured exclusively around natural virtues, Hume reasoned, the fulfillment of promises would be highly unlikely. Thus, artificial virtues are born, such as justice.

The role of government, in Hume’s view, is to give mandatory force to the spontaneous norms of justice -such as the aforementioned stability in possession, the peaceful transmission of said possession and the fulfillment of promises- through the establishment of sanctions and compensations that discourage non-compliance. Thus, if the contractor in our example chooses to allocate the money from the advance of the work for which he had been hired to buy toys for his children – since, naturally, the happiness of his children is above the happiness of his client -, then he should pay his counterpart a compensation for damages that will far exceed the value of the said toys. In this way, the happiness of the children of the contractor will be better guarded if he fulfills his commitments. Correlatively, if at the end of the work the contractor hands it over to his client and the latter refuses to pay the balance of the price, given that he prefers to allocate the said amount of money to pay a debt from his parents, then he will have to face a compensation that probably would exceed the value of the debts, so the debtor in this case will have a strong incentive to fulfill his part of the contract.

However, there are cases in which the breach of a promise is still advantageous even when opportunistic conduct is threatened with the payment of its compensation. In those cases, the need to be met is so urgent that its value exceeds the standard set by the positive law for breach of contract. These are the cases in which the contractor in our example no longer must buy toys, but rather food or medicine for his children, or in which the parents of the buyer of the work will have to put their house up for auction if their son does not help them in due time. In both cases, what we have is a general and abstract rule: in the case of a breach of contract, the debtor owes the payment of principal and an interest rate. On certain occasions, it will be convenient for the debtor to make the payment, on others, to face the costs of the breach.

Every system of abstract norms is articulated around standards of conduct in accordance to which the agents make decisions that will have to be rational from an ecological point of view. For example: in American law system of torts, the Rule of Hand (in honor of Judge Learned Hand) establishes that a person, in order to avert a certain risk, cannot be asked to incur in costs greater than the value of the said risk (that is, the value of the protected asset multiplied by the probability that the loss will occur.) Thus, if to avoid losing an asset with a value of $1,000 and whose probability of the loss occurring is 1%, it is unjustifiable because it is unreasonable to require its guardian to incur costs greater than $10. Likewise, in this case, personal utility and social utility coincide, since higher expenditures would mean a decrease in aggregate wealth. Correlatively, in the legal world linked to the European Continental tradition, heir to Roman law, there are expected standards of conduct such as those of a good businessman and a good family man, which establish the upper and lower limits of the duty of care.

In all cases, the person who makes the final decision about whether or not to carry out a certain action and face the consequences, natural and legal, is the individual. Empathy towards someone who is considered as one’s own works as a natural limiting factor for action, as well as rules of courtesy and moral guidelines. They all act as empirical institutions. When these are insufficient for the purpose of maintaining a stable structure of peaceful exchanges, positive legal norms become relevant, establishing mechanisms of patrimonial compensation and repressive sanctions that have a dissuasive purpose with respect to a certain range of actions. However, a liberal legal system will never prevent the commission of certain actions, but will limit itself to discouraging them and, if carried out, to compensate them. In this way, each individual will have to decide their course of action according to their particular circumstances of time and place, refraining in some cases from carrying out certain actions and, in others, carrying them out knowing that their omission is more disadvantageous than the compensation or threatened sanction.

Suppose a man wants to avenge the outrage and murder perpetrated against a daughter of his, who went unpunished due to difficulties in the evidence. The state cannot apply repressive sanctions against the suspect of the crime because he has procedural guarantees that are inviolable. However, nothing prevents the offended party from choosing to take revenge at the price of being criminally sanctioned. We can assume that the suspect of the crime achieves an interdiction against whoever is chasing him, prohibiting him from approaching him within a certain radius of meters. However, the vigilante will have to prefer to violate such a prohibition and kill the person who, according to his particular conviction, is the author of the crime against his daughter. In this last case, there is no room for doubt: the avenger is the author of the homicide against the suspect of the previous crime. The avenger ends up sentenced to serve some years in prison, plus the payment of a fine for having violated the interdiction and the payment of compensation to the relatives of his victim. Well then, the criminal being convinced of the justice of his decision, that conviction will seem like a convenient price to pay in order to avenge the outrage followed by the murder against his daughter.

Such a case does not represent a failure of the legal system as an incentive structure for decision-making. On the contrary, it is a typical case of how such a system works. Compensation and repressive sanctions are prices that structure a certain ecological rationality, since under a certain matrix of compensation and sanctions one decision will be rational, while it will not be under another. If, for example, simple homicide is punished with a sentence of deprivation of liberty from eight to fifteen years, which can be extended to twenty-five years for cases of aggravated homicide, then certain actions will be irrational and others will remain reasonable. It is unreasonable to risk receiving such a penalty in the face of a verbal insult and, as we have already seen, there are other circumstances in which an individual is willing to assume not only the risk but also the certainty of being punished.

As a result of this system of incentives represented by the norms of justice, the final distribution of resources will correspond to a greater social utility, even in cases of violation of the aforementioned norms of justice, since no one will be forced to sacrifice resources inefficiently, above its opportunity cost. In this way, we see how David Hume offers us a sort of pre-utilitarian foundation for the norms of justice. However, this utilitarian-like notion also makes it possible to comply with an ethical requirement: for the purposes of complying with the rules of justice, no one is taken as a mere means, since compliance with them must provide some type of utility for each subject and, in otherwise, he is free to break the law and voluntarily face the consequences of such non-compliance, which he judges more advantageous than obeying the law itself.

The antagonism of interests between rulers and ruled

However, although a legal-political system understood in this way preserves its morality – since it encourages each individual to act contributing to the general welfare without losing sight of the fact that each individual is an end in himself -, its raison d’etre is not in the immediate interest of each agent in general, but in the immediate interest of a particular agent, who has interests diametrically opposed to the generality of the rest of the agents: the ruler. This does not pursue the protection of the general interest in the long term by enjoying a special moral predisposition, but by the particular interest of increasing its tax collection by increasing general wealth. The ruler who has a long-run horizon does not find it convenient to consume capital, but rather to increase it. Consequently, the government -being understood as the state– is directly interested in enforcing the rules of justice, although this often implies contradicting the direct and short-term interests of the governed.

Of course, David Hume also admits that, under exceptional circumstances, it would also be convenient in the long-run to temporarily suspend the rules of justice. This would be the case, for example, of a foreign exchange or bank run, in which, respectively, the foreign exchange market is suspended or the return of deposits is rescheduled. Both a devaluation of the currency and a rescheduling of bank deposits mean a disappointment to the legitimate expectations of holders of local currency or depositors, but a bankruptcy of the currency board, the national treasury or the banking system would cause greater damage -for both the ruler and the ruled.

But, removing those exceptional cases, the general rule is that the interests of the government are the opposite complement of the interests of the governed. While the former maximizes the utility of its resources by promoting the norms of justice, the latter do so by assuming opportunistic behavior – it is worth remembering here the well-known phrase by John Maynard Keynes, insofar as “in the long run, all we are dead”. However, the long term arrives and the societies that have a high level of enforcement of the rules of justice experience higher capitalization indices than the societies do not. It remains, of course, to see who appropriates such a surplus, if everything belongs to the ruler, or if the ruled can capture some of the surplus wealth generated by the effective enforcement of the rules of justice.

In this aspect, the classic forms of government are of particular incidence: a monarchy will have the advantage of having a greater incentive to enforce the rules of justice, which in the long run increase and deepen the structure of capital and, consequently, the tax collection. At the other pole, direct democracies would tend to find numerous exceptions to the rules of justice, rendering them completely ineffective. A mixed form of government, such as a constitutional monarchy in which the king is the head of state and the leader of parliament the head of government, would balance the interests of the rulers and the ruled. Those who are interested in increasing tax collection and those who seek to reduce it. The best way to reconcile both interests would be to encourage the formation of capital through the reassurance of the rules of justice: stability in possession, the peaceful transmission of it and the fulfillment of promises. In this way, governments legitimize themselves through the exercise of power aimed at ensuring compliance with a spontaneous regulatory system, which works at the same time as a system of incentives. In this line of argument, we can find the previously named Edmund Burke and Benjamin Constant.

Not in vain are the national states the natural heirs of the absolutist monarchies. The state is an institution -or a fiction, as Quentin Skinner points out- with a vocation for permanence and perpetuity. For the state, there is no short-term calculation, although it does find -in return- opportunistic behavior by officials and magistrates. When a simple individual acts in a way contrary to the law, he assumes the risk of being discovered by the state, which watches over the long-term interest. However, when this same individual manages state assets, his willful conduct has more devices to go unpunished. Therefore, we find in all systems a special responsibility of state administrators and other officials. But, above all things, we find ourselves with a system of checks and balances, of officialdom against opposition based not on virtue, but most of the time on the desire and competition to seize power and displace under any pretext the competitors. Modern liberal democracy means not only an abstract legal system for the governed, but also a set of abstract rules and anonymous procedures that encourage competition between different aspirants to political power.

The problem of the legitimacy of power

David Hume’s empiricism allows us to conceive how the legitimacy of the government does not come from its conditions of origin but from the exercise of power for the profit of the rulers and of the ruled. Furthermore, the norms of justice are regarded as desirable or good because compliance with them increases wealth and guarantees an equitable distribution of the said income between the rulers and the ruled. However, there is no a priori content of such norms of justice, but it emerges from the nature of things and only after a critical study of such circumstances can we infer the enunciation of the abstract norms and patterns that compose it. Furthermore, the abstract normative system that precedes governments and legitimizes them through their exercise is also made up of empirical norms that are not enunciated or are impossible to enunciate -as Friedrich Hayek noted in his work “Law, Legislation and Liberty“. It is worth saying that the spontaneous normative order that we call under the category of “norms of justice” does not depend on a positive enunciation but on its observance in the facts. It is through the positivization of certain principles of justice that governments, lacking in themselves any legitimacy of origin, acquire legitimacy of exercise.

Denying that every government has legitimacy of origin implies denying that there is a moral obligation to obey positive law whatever its content. Positive law is accompanied by a moral obligation to be obeyed when its purpose is to give binding force to spontaneous norms of justice, which contribute to the general well-being of the members of society. However, this does not mean that each individual has the competence to decide for himself if a positive legal norm has moral legitimacy to be followed, but rather that this depends on a critical judgment that is made taking into account not only the particular interest of a given subject, but the general interest of the whole society. To be valid, the particular judgment of each individual regarding the legitimacy of a positive norm must meet a necessary but not sufficient requirement of impartiality -and, thus, universality.

At this point, then, it is appropriate to ask how the rulers can identify those norms of justice from others that have only the appearance of being so but actually only respond to a particular interest. It is in this instance that the characteristic of spontaneous, tacit, or express compliance with the norms that make up a spontaneous order takes on special importance. This is because, if there is a given order, in which individuals interact, form expectations around the actions and decisions of their peers and coordinate individual plans among themselves, the observed empirical norms at least fulfill the task of maintaining stable, albeit in a precarious and provisional way, the said order. Furthermore, our own personal constitution, as subjects who recognize themselves as identical to themselves over time, depends largely on a stable order of events from our environment. As Friedrich Hayek explained at the time, what we call spontaneous order can also be characterized as the structure of reality in its aspect concerning human interactions, both instantaneous and sustained over time.

In conclusion, the line of the so-called anti-Contractualists or Empiricist could in no way be affiliated with the current critique of liberal democracy by surrogate candidates, such as a single-party meritocracy, which is efficient in promoting the economic growth for the population, at the cost of their political rights and the subjugation of certain human rights, such as freedom of expression or the right of assembly. On the contrary, the way in which governments legitimize themselves, regardless of the legitimacy of their origin, is to give mandatory force to a set of norms and values that concern fundamental or natural rights and political freedoms.

Some Monday Links

Shadows of the First World War loom over Germany’s ambiguous response to Russia (New Statesman)

The Wild West Outpost of Japan’s Isolationist Era (Narratively)

Vivid glimpses of life on an artificial island – called Dejima – in Nagasaki Bay. Dejima was a Dutch outpost and the sole trading route between an isolationist Japan and the rest of the world (meaning the Dutch, that had privileged access, and also the Chinese) from mid-17th to mid-19th century. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and its oriental, chauvinist Dunmer, obviously drew inspiration from the era.

The West’s Struggle for Mental Health (WSJ)

Picked it form Marginal Revolution’s assorted links. Paywalled, but I somehow briefly skimmed it and sensed “post-Christian” world stuff, à la Jack Curtis.

Lit in Review: The impact of epidemics on historical economics, part 1

The most recent Journal of Economic Literature includes four essays on how historical epidemics and pandemics affected major macroeconomic variables. Together, they account for 170-someodd pages, which I will summarize below. Each of them is a detailed literature review on decades of historical research. While they are dense, they are for the most part readable. Part 2 will summarize three articles from The Journal of Economic Perspectives on Macro Policy in the Pandemic.


“Modern Infectious Diseases: Macroeconomic Impacts and Policy Responses” – D. Bloom, M. Kuhn, and K. Prettner The greatest strength of this paper is in critically discussing the various methodologies and theories we have available to even answer the question of how epidemics affect the economy. This is aside from the problem that “narrow economic considerations take inadequate account of the ethical, normative, and political dimensions of decisions that relate to saving lives.”

Generally, micro-based methods that focus on the impacts on individuals and add them up ignore indirect, complex interactions that macro-based methods do capture. For instance, increasing the probability that a 15 year old survives to age 60 by 10 percentage points (roughly equivalent to moving from India to China) increases labor productivity by 9.1 percent. On the other hand, most macro models miss behavioral responses are an insufficiently complex. One problem is that my individual incentive to take preventative actions depends on everyone else. This is something I noticed in my own life – here in Texas where almost no one wore a mask, I had a strong incentive to stay masked myself; when we traveled to any state west of us, almost everyone was masked and surfaces were regularly cleaned, so I felt much less urgency to wear a mask myself. Their conclusion is that diseases will be difficult to eradicate via “private actions alone.” They therefore conclude that some form of government lockdown is likely to be warranted.

Epidemics will have different impacts on the economy depending on a) disease-specific characteristics (how much do they impact working-age population, how much long-term damage do they do, etc) b) population characteristics, particularly how much poverty there is and c) country characteristics, particularly government capacity. Because of this, the same epidemic might have minor impacts in one country, create a poverty trap in a second, impose economic hardship in a third while leaving long-run health mostly untouched, or leaving the economy mostly unaffected but harming health and increasing the incidence of other diseases in a fourth.

“Epidemics, Inequality, and Poverty in Preindustrial and Early Industrial Times” – G. Alfani Most important point: epidemics reduce poverty by either a) changing society/laws/markets in ways that are pro-poor and b) killing more poor people than other socioeconomic groups. If a particular disease leads more to the latter, then there will be very small impacts of disease on poverty. Standard intermediate macroeconomics says that wages come from productivity and the more land or physical capital each worker has, the higher their wages will be. Because of this, the usual story I tell my students about the Black Death that killed off 20-35% of western Europe but left the capital alone is that it raised wages for the poorest and created a large middle class, setting the stage for the Renaissance. Alfani shows Gini coefficients [measures of inequality] falling by 30 percent or more.

But this didn’t happen everywhere. “Government intervention may have suppressed wage bargaining for an extended period of time” in post-Colombus Mexico (Scheidel 2017), or Black-Death-era Spain (Álvarez-Nodal and Prados de la Escosura, 2013), and Poland.

And it didn’t happen always. Repeated epidemics in the 17th century that were as deadly as the Black Death in some communities didn’t seem to reduce inequality at all, either in total or compared to what happened in communities that were unaffected. Why not? One difference is that when epidemics happened more often, governments changed inheritance rules to ensure large amounts of wealth stayed controlled by only a few. He also argues that demand for labor will decrease, and if it decreases as much as the labor supply, wages may not increase at all. On top of these effects, I infer from his paper that later epidemics killed a higher percent of skilled workers than the Black Death did, and that stunted any change in the skill premium. Then there are diseases like cholera that not only hit poor areas hardest, but tended to increase and concentrate the negative aspects of poverty.

Alfani and Murphy (2017): “From the fifteenth century, most plagues were particularly harsh on the poor. This has to do both with the poor’s relatively unhealthy living areas, but also with how they were treated during the epidemics. Once doctors and health authorities noticed that plague mortality tended to be higher in the poorest parts of the city, they began to see the poor themselves as the potential culprits of the spread of the infection.” That attitude is contrasted with efforts to improve sanitation and nutrition to both reduce disease and improve the lives of the poor.

“The 1918 Influenza Pandemic and Its Lessons for COVID-19” – B. Beach, K. Clay, and M. Saavedra “The first lesson from 1918 is that the health effects were large and diffuse” and we may never know just how large because of inaccurate record keeping, “issues that also undermine our ability to quantify the impact of COVID-19.” The second lesson: The Spanish flu epidemic was more likely to kill working-age adults, so it had a major long-run labor supply shock which COVID is unlikely to cause, even though both have caused recessions.

Among the differences between the two are that epidemics were not unusual in 1918 and it happened right at the end of World War I, which had upset many economies already and led to falling productivity for reasons unrelated to the pandemic. We have also documented a wide range of negative health impacts from the 1918 epidemic and are only beginning to document the longer-term impacts of COVID, which will have to be studied in the future.

Interestingly, while there was some attempt at social distancing and closing society down in 1918, it was much shorter-lived and not as severe as what we tried during COVID. While they were “somewhat effective at reducing mortality in 1918, … the extent to which more restrictive [regulations] would have further reduced pandemic mortality remains debated.”

“The Economic Impact of the Black Death” – R. Jedwab, N. Johnson, and M. Koyama There are three primary lenses through which economists have viewed the Black Death. Malthusians argue that smaller populations increase wages (by raising the capital/labor or land/labor ratios) and lower inequality. The “Smithian” view is that larger populations are necessary for a greater division of labor, specialization, and larger markets that support important technologies. The third strand focuses on the role of institutions, both as causes and effects.

“In the very short run [the Black Death] caused a breakdown in markets and economic activity more generally.” In a longer run sense, though, England, Spain, and Italy had very different divergences between wages and productivity. Put another way, England had larger Smithian effects than Spain or Italy and Italy had the largest Malthusian effects. Thus, rather than one model being “right” and the other “wrong,” there is more of a continuum, moderated in part by institutions.

In the years after the plague, people moved out of rural areas to the cities that had been hardest hit because wages had increased more there, which also increased reforestation. In Western Europe, workers’ bargaining power increased, eroding the institution of serfdom. Craft guilds increased dramatically, though their net effect is questionable – decreasing competition through monopoly power but increasing human capital accumulation through apprenticeships. States grew in size and influence, perhaps because there were fewer people to oppose them, with growing taxation accompanying investment in public health and the ability to impose quarantines.

On Persons, Individuals, and Humans

It is only from a notion of the human, common to all men, that the concept of person can be dissolved into the idea of individual.

The relevance of the concept of person lies in its ability to describe functional relationships with its environment: sui juris or alieni juris, noble, patrician, commoner, serf or lord, father, minor, capable, incapable, etc. In pre-modern times, according to each function, a normative system exclusive to caste, position or estate, known as “privilege”, corresponded.

Rather, Modernity dissolves fixed personal relationships into an undifferentiated diagram of spheres of individual autonomy. Each human being ceases to be a person attached to a certain fixed function in the social fabric and, by the mere fact of being human, is the holder of his sphere of individual autonomy, equal to that of any other human being.

The legal system ceases to govern particular relationships between people to become a structure empty of intentions and purposes, which only determines procedures and delimits equal and predictable fields of interaction and clear methods for the resolution of disputes among the holders of the different spheres of individual autonomy.

The principle ceases to be that of difference to become that of equality. The difference becomes the exception, to be justified on a functional basis that results in a public benefit.

However, in the non-political sphere, that of civil society, the difference does not disappear, but is expressed in each of the individual exceptionalities, within each respective sphere of individual autonomy, while it is accidental and irrelevant to the legal-political system.

There are certain special situations framed within specific legal regimes, such as minority and intra-family relations, which enshrine assistance obligations, usufruct rights and a system of representation and guardianship.

Consequently, the role of the public sphere within civil society is defined by the procedure to be followed to settle the conflicts that could arise from the collision of the different spheres of individual autonomy.

From the moment in which each human being is an autonomous individual, the legitimate exercise of power in relation to the population does not consist in giving specific orders to subjects but in administering a set of procedures whose specific purpose is to serve as a means for different individuals settle their disputes peacefully.

Of course, in Modernity and in liberal democracies relations of command and political obedience subsist, but within the governmental structures themselves, which in turn incorporated procedural rules that limit discretion in the exercise of power and establish functions and hierarchies that define competencies and delimit individual responsibilities.

However, both modern government structures and the legal consecration of a social structure composed of equal individuals in dignity and respect are not the result of an invention but the consequence of a historical evolution whose becoming does not cease and whose hindrances persist in the field of the aforementioned civil society.

That the differences between people are exclusively functional and that such functions report a benefit to all the individuals involved, in such a way that none of them is used exclusively as a means, but is seen as an end in itself, is an imperative for the public sphere, but only a programmatic aspiration in the field of civil society.

In turn, that each person deserves equal consideration and respect is a discovery in the true sense of the word. Quentin Skinner in “The Foundations of Modern Political Thought” recounts the role played in the Late Middle Ages by the discussion that every person was endowed with an immortal soul, deserving of salvation, for the subsequent conceptualization that every human being is worthy also of legal protection regarding their fundamental interests, such as their life, their personal freedom, or their possessions.

Regarding the natural law doctrine of human rights, which states that human beings enjoy a certain set of guarantees and rights against the state and against other people, it is usually dismissed as metaphysical.

However, such statement can be understood more clearly if it is related to its historical evolution: the different freedoms already existed but assigned to different people according to their caste or status, who had an immediate and specific interest in their protection.

To cite an example, in the Partidas of Alfonso X of Castille, we find every detail of social life regulated: some had the right to bear arms but not to work, since they had to be available to the king in his court to eventually go to war; others had the right to exercise a certain trade or profession, excluding those who did not belong to their corporation, but they were not free to change their activity, neither in terms of their subject matter nor their geography. In the pre-modern world, the holders of freedoms had a specific interest in defending them, but their ownership depended on circumstances that, in the vast majority of cases, were out of their control and, in others, obsolete in terms of their functionality.

Given that this legal-political system had very little plasticity to adapt to changes in the surrounding circumstances, it was generally inefficient, stagnant, and unstable and, therefore, conflicts manifested themselves in recurrent revolts.

Modernity consisted in the universalization of liberties. This means that freedoms – or immunities against power – that already existed and whose entitlement was limited to reasons of belonging to certain castes or estates, to the exclusion in many cases of one another, began to be extended to all human beings by the mere fact of being such.

That is to say, there is nothing metaphysical in the natural law doctrine of human rights. It actually consists of the universalization of rights that already existed and were recognized.

The novelty that this brought is that each human being ceased to be considered as a person in relation to his family, his social status or his caste, to be considered as an autonomous individual and equal in rights to any other, holder of rights that he was actively interested in exercising as well as others whose content he hardly had any news or specific interest.

In turn, men exchanged differentiated rights that protected certain personal interests in exchange for new abstract freedoms, the same for each of the remaining individuals. As a result, each person gained potential spheres of action and saw specific regions of power restricted.

The nobleman gained a freedom to work and trade that he may or may not have an interest in exercising, but he lost the power he had over his serfs or was displaced by commoner bureaucrats in government functions. The shoemaker gained the freedom to emigrate to other cities or to change his trade to that of a blacksmith, in which he may or may not be interested, but he also received competition in his own town from other new shoemakers who emigrated from other latitudes, who effectively exercised such rights.

Such transformations and their discontents can be verified in the conservative authors of the beginnings of the Contemporary age, as is the case of Charles Dickens, among others.

That is why the universalization of fundamental rights -for the English tradition- or natural rights -for the American conception- constitutes both a discovery of intellectual research on historical evolution and a political program.

Whether such an extension is desirable and to what extent it should be continued or reversed largely defines political positioning from right to left. For this reason, historical evolution is not a legitimizing device in itself, but a process of discovery of various forms of social and political organization that is subject to a critical evaluation regarding which institutions and practices to incorporate, preserve, resist or modify.

Two visions of multilateralism are competing in the Indo-Pacific

The Indo Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), signed by a total of 13 countries on May 23, 2022, in Tokyo, is being dubbed by many as a means of checking China’s economic clout in Asia and sending out a message that the US is keen to bolster economic ties with its allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific.

Many Chinese analysts themselves have referred to the IPEF as an “Economic NATO.” China has also been uncomfortable with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), which consists of the US, Australia, Japan, and India, and has even referred to Quad as an “Asian NATO” – though members of the grouping have categorically denied this assertion.  

The countries which joined the US-led IPEF are: Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

IPEF

These countries together account for 40% of global GDP. The four key pillars of the IPEF framework are:

  1. supply-chain resilience;
  2. clean energy, decarbonisation and infrastructure;
  3. taxation and anti-corruption;
  4. and fair and resilient trade.

While launching the plan, US President Joe Biden said

We’re here today for one simple purpose: the future of the 21st Century economy is going to be largely written in the Indo-Pacific. Our region.

US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, while commenting on the IPEF, said that it was important because it provided Asian countries an alternative to China’s economic model.

A few points need to be borne in mind. First, many of the countries — Australia, Brunei, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam – which have signed the IPEF are also part of the 15-nation Region Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade agreement of which China is a key driver (Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar have not ratified RCEP). RCEP accounts for 30% of the world’s GDP. Trade between China and other member countries has witnessed a significant rise, year on year in Q1 of 2022.

RCEP

Second, many of the countries which are part of the IPEF have repeatedly said that they don’t want to choose between China and the US. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who was amongst the first to hail the IPEF, has emphatically stated this point on a number of occasions. In an interview to Nikkei Asian Review on May 20, 2022, Mr Lee reiterated this point. In fact, he even pitched for making China a part of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). (The precursor to the CPTPP, the TPP, was a brain child of the US).

Here it would be pertinent to point out that China had submitted an application for joining the CPTPP in September 2021. In the interview, Lee stated that countries in Asia needed to have good relations with the US, Japan, and Europe.

Indonesia’s Trade Minister, Muhammad Lutfi, who attended the signing of the IPEF on behalf of the archipelagic country’s president, stated that he did not want to see IPEF used as a tool to contain other countries.

One of the reasons why many countries are skeptical about the IPEF is the fact that it does not have any trade components. A number of ASEAN member states have pointed out that the IPEF makes no mention of tariffs and market access, a major drawback. At the US-ASEAN Summit held earlier this month, Malaysian Foreign Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob had explicitly referred to this point. Like many other countries, Malaysia has welcomed the IPEF, but in the immediate future sees RCEP as a far greater opportunity.

US President Joe Biden has not deviated significantly from the policies of his predecessor, Donald Trump, with regard to trade and the US is unlikely to return to the CPTPP, at least in the immediate future. Biden and senior officials in his administration have spoken about the need to check China’s growing economic influence, specifically in Asia, and to provide an alternative model. The US, though, along with some of its Indo-Pacific partners, has only recently begun taking some steps in this direction. Leaders of the Quad countries, for example, during their meeting at Tokyo, announced that they would spend $50 billion in infrastructural aid and investment in the Indo Pacific.

Given Biden’s low approval ratings and diminishing political capital, it is unlikely that he is likely to change his approach towards trade significantly. US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said the TPP was “fragile,” and that there was no domestic support for the same. 

In conclusion, while the IPEF does have symbolic importance, bear in mind that many signatories themselves have close economic relations with China and would not like to get trapped in competition between the US and China. Unless the US re-examines its approach towards trade, which is highly unlikely, and unless countries which are part of the Indo-Pacific vision are able to strengthen economic cooperation, China is likely to dominate Asia’s economic landscape – even though there is growing skepticism with regard to the same.

Stimuli For Your Moral Taste Buds

Based on anthropologist Richard Shweder’s ideas, Jonathan Haidt and Craig Joseph developed the theory that humans have six basic moral modules that are elaborated in varying degrees over culture and time. The six modules characterized by Haidt as a “tongue with six taste receptors” are Care/harm, Fairness/cheating, Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion, Sanctity/degradation, and Liberty/oppression. I thought it would be interesting to organize articles I read into these six moral taste buds and post them here as a blog of varied reading suggestions to stimulate conversation not just on various themes but also on how they may affect our moral taste buds in different ways. To some of you, an article that appeals to my Fairness taste bud may appeal to your taste bud on Authority.

I had planned to post this blog yesterday, but it got delayed. Today, I can’t write a blog without mentioning guns. Given that gun violence is a preventable public health tragedy, which moral taste bud do you favor when considering gun violence? Care and Fairness taste buds are important to me.

I’ve only ever been a parent in the United States, where gun violence is a feature rather than a bug, and my childhood in India has provided no context for this feature. But, I can say that India has not provided me with reference points for several other cultural features that I can embrace, with the exception of this country’s gun culture. It is one aspect of American culture that most foreign nationals, including resident aliens like myself, find difficult to grasp, regardless of how long you have lived here. I’d like to see a cultural shift that views gun ownership as unsettling and undesirable. I know it is wishful thinking, but aren’t irrational ideas salvation by imagination?

Though I’m not an expert on guns and conflict, I can think broadly using two general arguments on deterrence, namely:

A) The general argument in favor of expanding civilian gun ownership is that it deters violence at the local level.

B) The general case for countries acquiring nuclear weapons is that it deters the escalation of international conflict.

I sense an instinctual contradiction when A) and B) are linked to the United States. The US favors a martial culture based on deterrence by expanding civilian gun ownership within its borders while actively preventing the same concept of deterrence from taking hold on a global scale with nuclear weapons. Why? The US understands that rogue states lacking credible checks and balances can harm the international community by abusing nuclear power. Surprisingly, this concept of controlling nuclear ammunition is not effectively translated when it comes to domestic firearms control. I get that trying to maintain a global monopoly on nuclear weapons appeals to the Authority taste bud, but does expanding firearms domestically in the face of an endless spiral of tragedies appeal just to the Liberty taste bud? Where are your Care and Fairness taste buds languishing?

Care: The Compassionate Invisibilization Of Homelessness: Where Revanchist And Supportive City Policies Meet/ Liberal US Cities Including Portland Change Course, Now Clearing Homeless Camps

[I’m sharing these two articles because my recent trip to Portland, Oregon, revealed some truly disturbing civic tragedies hidden within a sphere of natural wonders. I hadn’t expected such a high rate of homelessness. It’s a shame. “Rent control does not control the rent,” Thomas Sowell accurately asserts.]

Fairness: America Has Never Really Understood India

[I’d like to highlight one example of how “rules-based order” affected India: In the 1960s, India faced a severe food shortage and became heavily reliant on US food aid. Nehru had just died, and his successor, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, called upon the nation to skip at least one meal per week! Soon after, Shastri died, and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi took over, only to be humiliated by US President Lyndon B. Johnson for becoming dependent on food aid from his country. The progressive US President was irked by India’s lack of support for his Vietnam policy. So he vowed to keep India on a “ship-to-mouth” policy, whereby he would release ships carrying food grain only after food shortages reached a point of desperation. Never to face this kind of humiliation, India shifted from its previous institutional approach to agricultural policy to one based on technology and remunerative prices for farmers. The Green Revolution began, and India achieved self-sufficiency. The harsh lesson, however, remains: in international relations, India is better off being skeptical of self-congratulatory labels like “leader of the free world,” “do-gooders,” “progressives,” and so on.]

Liberty: Can Islam Be Liberal? / Where Islam And Reason Meet

[I would like to add that, in the name of advocating liberalism for all, personal liberty is often emphasized over collectivist rights in the majority, while collectivist rights are allowed to take precedence over personal liberty in minority groups, and all religious communities suffer as a result.]

Loyalty: Black-Robed Reactionaries: Has The Supreme Court Been Bad For The American Republic?

[Is it all about Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Supreme Court Majority?]

Authority: How Curing Aging Could Help Progress

[In my opinion, the indefinite future that awaits us compels us to contextualize our current activities and lives. What do you think will happen if anti-aging technology advances beyond the limits of our evolutionary environment? Furthermore, according to demographer James Vaupel, medical science has already unintentionally delayed the average person’s aging process by ten years [Vaupel, James W. “Biodemography of human ageing.” Nature 464.7288 (2010): 536-542]. We have 10 extra years of mobility compared to people living in the nineteenth century; 10 extra years without heart disease, stroke, or dementia; and 10 years of subjectively feeling healthy.]

Sanctity: India and the Indian: Hinduism, Caste Act As Unifying Forces In The Country

[Here is my gaze-reversal on caste as a moderate Hindu looking at a complacent American society: If caste is a social division or sorting based on wealth, inherited rank or privilege, or profession, then it exists in almost every nation or culture. Regardless of religious affiliation, there is an undeniable sorting of American society based on the intense matching of people based on wealth, political ideology, and education. These “American castes,” not without racial or ethnic animus, organize people according to education, income, and social class, resulting in more intense sorting along political lines. As a result, Democrats and Republicans are more likely to live in different neighborhoods and marry among themselves, which is reflected in increased polarization in Congress and perpetual governmental gridlock. The intensification of “American castes,” in my opinion, is to blame for much of the political polarization. What is the United States doing about these castes? Don’t tell me that developing more identity-centered political movements will solve it.]

I intend to regularly blog under this heading. To be clear, I refer to regularly using the Liberty taste bud rather than Fairness.

Nightcap

  1. Houellebecq’s omelette Theodore Dalrymple, First Things
  2. Hayek and the Lucas critique David Glasner, Uneasy Money
  3. An interesting alternative to federation Maxwell Tabarrok, Maximum Progress (h/t Vishnu)

Some Monday Links

Capitalism and autocracy (Critical Quarterly)

Undiminished by Decadence (Quillette)

Connected to the pop culture discussion here.

Baby formula industry was primed for disaster long before key factory closed down (The Conversation)

A history of punctuation (Aeon)

On the open texture of conflicts

Just as language carries with it a phenomenon of open texture, according to which the reference and meaning of some of its terms are modified in response to changes in the environment — for example, saying that the head of state is commander in chief of the armed forces implies different denotations and connotations as war machines, communications, and command styles evolve -, conflicts that are prolonged over time also undergo changes in the terms that define them, as their surrounding context varies.

Thus, a dispute between individuals about the ownership of a certain asset, such as that of two heirs in dispute over the award of a property that is part of the hereditary heritage, will have to vary in intensity according to the changes in the market value of the said asset and according to the changes in the needs of those heirs as well.

Note, likewise, that the said transformation of the conditions in no way affects the conformation of the hereditary rights, but rather it is in the interest of each of the parties to enforce them.

Under certain circumstances, some of the said heirs will have to prefer to maintain the undivided inheritance and under others they will have to activate the dissolution of the hereditary community, generating a conflict in case of disparity among the heirs.

Although rights protect interests -such as life, personal liberty or stability upon possession-, not all interests deserve legal protection -such as the claim of an individual to hold a monopoly in the production of a certain good- and, among those interests which do enjoy legal protection, it will be relative and hierarchical.

Given that a legal system forms a set of consistent normative parameters, the changes in the decisions of individuals are motivated by variations in the relative value of the interests protected by said legal system, also assuming that such individuals are rational agents – i.e., they have transitive preferences.

As a corollary of the above, the normative system, while remaining identical to itself, will have to be neutral for the dynamics of the conflict, since the parties will have shaped their plans and expectations in accordance with their prescriptions.

That is why we often find analyses devoid of axiological and merely descriptive approaches. This does not mean that the rules, be they positive or natural, are not observed, but rather that a degree of compliance and constant enforcement is verified, which makes it possible to look for the reason for the changes in the decisions of the agents in other conditioning factors, such as the technology, the relative prices of goods, climatic phenomena, etc., etc..

Nor does this mean that the law does not evolve or undergo disruptive changes: there are legislative changes and judicial precedents that are modifying the content of the norms and, in turn, the norms themselves suffer the consequences of the open texture of the language in which they are expressed.

When these changes do not respond to a change in the value of the interests, but respond to a need of the legal system itself to maintain a stable and predictable order of events, the legal system maintains its neutrality, since it is transformed, jurisprudential or legislatively, when its formulations – even when they have a high degree of enforcement – are not sufficient to maintain a peaceful order of human interaction and, therefore, legal innovation has the function of reinforcing the maintenance of peace.

At this point in the discussion, it is appropriate to venture into the consequences of a legislative or jurisprudential change that had in view a different purpose than strengthening the function of law as a mechanism of social control aimed at maintaining peace between individuals who interact with each other.

If the change is jurisprudential, many times the law solves such a phenomenon endogenously: any jurisdictional pronouncement by a judge or court that departs from the content of the legal norms or that such departure is motivated by the transgression of its legal duty of impartiality with respect to of the parties to the conflict will render such pronouncement null and void and the judges will have incurred prevarication.

However, when a law is sanctioned by the legislature in contravention of its duty to dictate general and abstract norms and, instead, has the aim of favouring vested interests, little can be done beyond achieving a declaration of unconstitutionality, either by part of a constitutional court or by an ordinary court in the exercise of diffuse control of constitutionality.

This is for those cases in which the law in question also violates laws of a higher rank such as the Constitution.

Notwithstanding, when a norm is constitutional and, however, it was not enacted for the purpose of legislating in general and abstract terms, but instead sought with its sanction to favour certain vested interests to the detriment of others or public interests, little can be done for the legal system to correct itself according to an endogenous mechanism and the law, therefore, will have lost its neutral character.

It is this lack of neutrality of the legal system that delegitimizes it as a peaceful means of resolving disputes between individuals and, consequently, sharpens the intensity of conflicts, whether they consist of disputes between individuals or escalate into political questioning regarding the legitimacy of the legal-political system itself.

It was not for nothing that there were revolutions, such as the French one, which led to the enactment of civil codes, as a way of crystallising the reestablishment of a neutral normative order, generally described as fair. Note, likewise, that the Napoleonic Code did not contain any innovations, but rather consecrated –and synthesised- legislatively the jurisprudential evolution of the previous centuries.

Similarly, a territorial dispute between two countries could remain diplomatic for decades and, under a change of circumstances, escalate the conflict to a warlike stage.

This change in circumstances may be due to a redefinition of the interests of one or both countries, discoveries of wealth in the disputed territories, or technological innovations that modify the relationship of the respective countries with the geography of the disputed territory.

Note that in no way do these changes in the conditions surrounding the conflict affect a change in the titles of sovereignty over the disputed territory, but what changes is the intensity of the interest in it and the calculation of the chances of success in the event of a war escalation.

However, at the international level we find a plurality of normative sources -international custom, treaties, the norms of international organisations-, without courts of application in most cases and without a clear enforcement system to guarantee impartiality.

Despite arbitral awards can be found among small nations, which submit a territorial issue to the arbitration of a third power or institution that enjoys prestige between both countries, an issue that the parties involved do not consider of vital importance to them; but in most cases we are faced with conflicts or claims that will last over time, as long as the war alternative is disadvantageous for both parties.

Sustaining the principle that all agents who make decisions are rational, it is appropriate to ask under what conditions for such agents it is still reasonable to maintain a negotiation and under what others the most reasonable indicates escalation in the intensity of the conflict.

When the controversy occurs between two parties subject to the jurisdiction of a state and the object of the controversy has a certain relevance, the options of the parties follow one another between negotiating or going to trial.

On the other hand, among sovereign nations, although there is the alternative of submitting to an arbitration award, when the disputed issue interferes with a vital interest or makes the country’s own survival, the military confrontation constitutes the option to negotiation.

Paradoxically, when two individuals have a confrontation that is so insignificant as to be taken to court, the options also lie between negotiation or the deployment of violence -verbal or moderately physical, below the threshold of what the law would consider a crime. This occurs because both the international sphere and certain spheres of human interaction are naturally regulated.

From our point of view, this is one of the most relevant theoretical controversies: if such a natural system can be entirely deduced from reason -as maintained from Hugo Grotius onwards- and, therefore, can be stated and agreed upon by the consensus of the parties through a rational discussion, or if we can characterize natural law as an empirical normative system -as conceived by David Hume in the 18th century and later rescued by Friedrich A. Hayek- that grows spontaneously.

This last conception about the empirical character of the international rule-based order can be a convincing alternative to both realism and idealism. Even more so when the question of the neutrality of the liberal international order is questioned, both from realism and from critical currents. Since the empirical rule system emerges at the same time as the expectations of the agents, the neutrality of the resulting order will be highly probable.

Therefore, in accordance with this vision, the variation in the intensity of the conflicts will not have to be sought or justified in a modification of the rules of the game, but in a change in the relative weight of the interests in dispute, that is, in the open texture of the nature of conflicts.

Nightcap

  1. Federal-republican security versus democratic peace (pdf) Daniel Deudney, EJIR
  2. Republics in the New World (don’t forget about the Cherokee) John Majewski, TIR
  3. Fresh air and fascism in the Bavarian Alps Lucy Lethbridge, Spectator
  4. After Christendom Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt, Commonweal

In the Ruins of Public Reason, Part II: The Barbarians at the Gates

Note: This is a part of a series on public discourse. View part one here.

How exactly do dialogical illiberals view themselves during a heated discussion without epistemic norms? Dialogical illiberals of all political stripes–from populist conservative culture warriors to sanctimoniously censorious progressives, from screeching parents at public school board meetings to ostensibly liberal democrats, from nationalistic xenophobes to anti-fascist anarchists—view themselves as soldiers under siege in a war using their ideas as the only defensive tool to keep the barbarians at the gates. They view every conversation, every intellectual exchange as a zero-sum game, and their interlocutor is either on their side or the side of the putative barbarians–no in-between. I admit I have fallen into this habit of thinking in years past, but it is an extremely unproductive mindset and contributes to dialogical illiberalism for three main reasons.

First, it is just a way of viewing discourse that, for one, is usually simply untrue. Sometimes, the barbarians literally do not exist. This is usually true when conservatives fear-monger on, say, a liberal pedophile cabal, or progressive elitists trying to turn their kids LGBT, or evil conspiracy of immigrants trying to replace them. It is not just right-wingers who conspiratorially invent barbarians: leftists often imagine there is some deep-money libertarian conspiracy to undermine democracy, or some cabal of rich corporate fat cats to raise prices and oppress the poor. Even if there might be some sophisticated steel-manned sociological story that might make some version of these more than mere conspiracy theories, the problem comes when these imagined “barbarians” are used as an excuse to write off someone they might have fruitful disagreements with as a member of “them.”

Sometimes, in the case of progressives fighting racists or anti-populist liberals and anti-fascist anarchists fighting actual fascist terrorists, the barbarians are a very real, significant threat. However, for one, they often radically overestimate the magnitude of the threat or engage in dangerous forms of concept creep about who counts as a barbarian. Whoever they are talking with is not often part of the barbarians, but they get so in the habit of outgrouping anyone who doesn’t agree with them,they start seeing barbarians everywhere. They then are viciously uncivil towards potential allies or people with whom they have fruitful disagreements that truly are not the sort of “dangerous” disagreements that are helpful to barbarians.

Second, this “activist vs. barbarians” mentality just poisons the well and makes it difficult for these activist gatekeepers to rationally engage with basically anyone who has normative or empirical disagreements with them in good faith. They view themselves as a warrior fighting barbarians rather than more humbly as a curious person trying to find wisdom to cope with this world from wherever they can. It makes them engage in motivated reasoning for why your disagreement makes you on the barbarians’ side or why their view is the true “American” or “liberal” or “radical” view rather than engaging with the substance of the disagreement rationally. It makes them embrace subrational forms of communication that are just toxic, and more interested in signaling their ingroup bona fides to other members of their ingroup than trying to persuade people who might not be in the “outgroup” exactly, but that they irresponsibly paint as being in the outgroup.

It is a very similar toxic social and psychological dynamic to what drives so many sources of illiberal intolerance both large and small–from McCarthyism, to the religious banning of “heresy,” to book bannings, to horrible screeching on social media that makes everyone dumber and unhappier. As Arnold Kling would put it, this “civilization vs. barbarism” language game is a deeply conservative one. But in recent years, few have noticed how even progressives and radical leftists fall into this small-c conservative mode of thinking indefensibly when they consider themselves as activists first and foremost. It is no coincidence that many leftists trapped in the contra barbarian mindset start rationalizing illiberal attitudes more generally.

Third, it makes them rather arrogantly over-estimate their own activist powers in implausible ways. Chances are, the argument you are making, the candidate you are trying to convince me to vote for, or the direct action you are defending isn’t going to be the thing that stops the barbarians. The social world is complicated, and you humbly should be willing to be open to the possibility that your political action might actually backfire and help them. It might help, or it might not, depending on the circumstances. Better to humbly admit your epistemic and practical limitations in changing the world and be open to other perspectives from good-faith interlocutors than just thinking that someone who has a substantive disagreement with you about political action or an idea is either a contemptuous barbarian or a “useful idiot” for the barbarians simply in virtue of your disagreement.

Be realistic, you and I are not heroic activists trying to save our beatific political visions from evil barbarians. Better to think of ourselves as curious individuals trying to learn what we can to cope with the perplexing quandaries of modernity.

In the Ruins of Public Reason, Part I: The Problem of Dialogical Illiberalism

Note: This is part of a series on public discourse. View Part 2 here.

Older readers of NOL may have noticed I have been absent from the blogosphere for the last four or so years. Part of this has been that I have rather intentionally taken a somewhat monkish vow of silence on many things that perplex me about the contemporary world. On many of these issues—the growing tide of global populist authoritarianism, the policy and cultural responses to COVID, and increasing political polarization to name a few—I still don’t know what is true or if I am equipped to say much other than express a vague, general sense that almost everyone in those debates has gotten something fundamentally wrong. Consequently, I have taken time in a philosophy grad school program to think about more fundamental issues rather than get lost in the daily obsessions of the internet. Now, I am done with that venture and have decided for various personal reasons to not pursue an academic career so I will have more time to write more freely here.

I think even more than my being epistemically overwhelmed by the…everything…of the last few years or even the time and energy constraints of grad school, a bigger reason why I have been loathe to blog or engage in public discussion has been a sense of frustration, exhaustion and melancholic angst with the state of public discourse, especially online. It seems like nearly everyone today—from partisan activists to family members, to friends, to even respected thinkers whose ideas have influenced me in the past, seem to be guilty of contributing to this problem. I surely do not exclude myself from these criticisms of the zeitgeist, for the zeitgeist very much lives in my head. For now, rather than discuss any substantive issues, I am going to start a series about some meta-issues that have poisoned our public discourse and made it unpleasant and even psychologically impossible for me, and I am sure others, to write publicly.


For now, I just want to narrow in on identifying the symptoms of our ruined discourse. I am talking about how almost every one of almost every ideological stripe these days constantly displays a vicious lack of charity to almost everyone they engage with who they vaguely associate with some outgroup. An illiberal intolerant attitude where their first impulse is to try to censor ideas that they find disagreeable. For the politically engaged and outraged, it seems like no disagreement can be a good-faith one. So many seem to just assume that almost anyone they disagree with is acting in bad faith. To be sure, many people are acting in bad faith, but that is no reason to become the monster one is fighting or assume that as the default with every interlocutor. So many people treat nearly every difference of opinion, no matter how great or small, not as potentially interesting differences in values that can be commensurably discussed or interesting empirical disagreements, but as “dangerous” ideas that need to be quashed.

I am talking about the tendency for people—everywhere from cable news, to Thanksgiving tables, to Twitter–to “nutpickoutgroups to outrage other members of their ingroups. How so much of political discourse has substituted sub-rational bumper stickers, memes, and tweets for substantive positions and arguments. How so many clearly rationalize terrible arguments they should know better than to make because said arguments have ideologically convenient or politically expedient conclusions. How so many seem more interested in morally grandstanding to their favored ingroup than trying to learn more from those with whom they have fruitful differences. How for some people to even listen to you, they make you engage in some sort of ideological purity test. How they engage in dishonest guilt by association to try to assassinate the character of people they might have minor disagreements with. How they generally view anyone with whom they have disagreements contemptuously

Of course, much of this has always been an element of how hooligans engage in democratic politics. However, the degree to which it has reached a fever pitch is a change from a few decades ago. Further, this loathsome creeping intolerance and lack of epistemic virtue have now seeped from screeching political rallies, Twitter, or Yahoo News comment sections to many self-important elites who fancy themselves above the fray of the irrational cacophony of political discourse, and often help shape that discourse. I am talking the sort of people who stridently read or write for NY Times and The Atlantic, legal professionals, elites in the ivory tower where I once delusionally hoped to find a bubble of safety.

The problem goes by many names—right-wing reactionaries call it “wokeness” or “cancel culture” when done by the left, leftists and progressives call it fascist authoritarianism when right-wingers do it. To some varying extent, both are correct about each other and wrong about themselves. To be clear, I do think the right’s illiberal authoritarianism is very much a bigger threat in this political moment, but rather than spending time unproductively fanning the flames of that culture war debate, let me neutrally call the problem dialogical illiberalism in the small “l” sense of liberalism. It is a form of brain rot that seems to have infected every one of all political persuasions to varying degrees of significance—from conservative culture warriors to socialist Breadtubers, to ostensibly “liberal” centrists, to anarchist antifascist activists, to even my (former) ingroup of some libertarian academics. None of you are free from sin.

In the extreme, the dialogical illiberal is not just an unreasonable conversation partner, but a dialectical rent-seeker demanding the state coercively censor those with whom they disagree. For now, I want to focus on the merely dialogical and social form of this illiberalism simply to avoid getting lost in the complicated intricacies of liberal free speech norms and First Amendment legal disputes. Those are complicated debates worth having but beyond the scope of this series. Suffice it to say, I have little patience for this form of actively statist censoriousness in whatever form. But I think its increasing prevalence has its roots in a culture of dialogical illiberalism that has evolved in the norms of public discourse, which is what I am interested in analyzing here.

This is where, usually, this genre of article goes into some detailed examples and case studies of “the problem” to convince you it is real. Typically, these are rather dishonestly cherry-picked to support whatever implicit tribal position the author happens to have. Frankly, I have no interest in such a performative exercise here—it is better left to the reader. It would just distract us by tempting us to engage in the accidental details of some particular examples rather than stepping back and seeing the bigger picture. I don’t wish to miss the trees for the forest, and neither should you. Suffice it to say, if you are unconvinced of that what I am talking about is a genuine problem, this series of posts probably isn’t for you. You have either been living under a rock (in which case I urge you to return because ignorance is sometimes bliss), are unusually patient with bad argumentation (in which case, I envy you), or might be part of the problem.

I imagine you are nodding your head in agreement and recalling times when this has been done to you or by someone in some other political tribe to someone in your tribe. I encourage you to stop this now and try to recall a time when someone you respect and agree with was being unreasonable and uncharitable to someone else, or perhaps when you yourself have done this in a social media exchange, or with a family member or friend. I know I have. If you are completely incapable of doing this, I encourage you to save yourself some time and stop reading now—this series isn’t for you. Perhaps return to Twitter.

Perhaps at this point, you are trying to rationalize your own version of dialogical illiberalism as somehow justifiable. If you can give an original good faith argument for it, go ahead and I might consider moderating my hardline position against dialogical illiberalism. Perhaps you are thinking something like this: “But they really are so terrible and bad-faith that we should not take them seriously as debaters. You are just engaging in toxic both-sideism!” Perhaps you are right about “them,”—whoever that outgroup might be in your head. However, that is no reason to become just like “them” to the point that you cannot engage with nearly anyone in good faith. Maybe you should reflect on whether you are projecting a caricature of “them” on people who genuinely are not one of “them.” Again, avoid becoming the monster you are fighting. If you do not wish to make that effort, return to the Twitter mob.

Most readers will agree with something like this, to put it bluntly: political discourse is terrible because politically active people are massive assholes to each other. I wish to understand why people of all ideological stripes have become such massive assholes and how I can stop being one myself. If you are interested in trying not to be an asshole too, perhaps you will join me.

I don’t have an explicit plan for this series, I am not sure how many posts it will comprise. But I expect to focus on topics such as how dialogical illiberals psychologically think of themselves while they are engaging in bad-faith discussion, the role of social media in making the problem worse, the extent to which the incentive structure of democratic institutions leads to dialogical illiberalism, the chilling effect this lack of civility has on discourse, and other cultural causes and effects of dialogical illiberalism.  

If you wish, consider this an exercise in therapeutic edification for me and, if you feel similarly, perhaps for you. I am not trying to make an argument trying to convince you of much substantively. If you change your mind about something, consider that a bonus. My goals here are to express my frustration with this moment in American cultural discourse, diagnose some of what I see as the psychological and social factors contributing to the problem, and hopefully come away making myself (and, with any luck, the reader) closer to the sort of person who is not part of the problem.

I do not have all the answers and do not think I will find them here, but I do have two ground rules I hope to establish: 1) It will be hard at times for me not to hide my frustration with people who are characteristically dialogical illiberals, I am sure that has already come through. But, when possible, my hope is to analyze these individuals with the empathetic self-detachment of a good philosophical anthropologist. Do, please, call me out in the comments when I fall short of that ideal.  2) To make my biases clear: I am a very idiosyncratic sort of radical liberal/anarchist/left-libertarian hybrid. I am very much on the left side of the culture wars instinctively, while at the same time I am strongly disposed to think any policy solutions the state could enact are bound to fail. Consequently, I am more likely to be harsher to the dialogical illiberalism on the right side of the political spectrum, yet more knowledgeable of the dialogical illiberalism on the left side. You do not have to be on the same side of those anti-statist policy conclusions or be sympathetic to my radically leftist cultural tendencies to learn something from this series. My aim here is not to convince you to join my oddly specific and strange “team.” I think that sort of mindset is what encourages the dialogical liberalism I am chiding to begin with. I will try to bracket my cultural and policy views where possible and focus more on the meta-issues poisoning our discourse, but I cannot help that those views will often seep through.

Nightcap

  1. Think big, but don’t buy Greenland Scott Sumner, EconLog
  2. Institutions, intentions, and Hayekian international relations” (pdf) Nicolas Onuf, RIS
  3. F.A. Hayek and the Reinvention of Liberal Internationalism” (pdf) Jorg Spieker, IHR
  4. Hayek, Colonialism, Kantian Perpetual Peace, and… Eric Schliesser, D&I