- Fascinating piece on Ming China’s censorial system Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
- On the farmer’s protests Jeet Singh, Time
- Understanding the rise of socialism Brad Delong, Grasping Reality
- Understanding middlebrow Scott Sumner, Money Illusion
I hope you have been enjoying the nightcaps. Life has been busy. I read somewhere that so-called “progressives” are pushing to make the executive branch as strong as possible. It’s like they learned absolutely nothing from the Trump years.
Luckily, Joe Biden doesn’t pander to the loudest factions on his side of the aisle. Things are already looking up for 2021.
Andrei has a new book out: Socialism as a Secular Creed: A Modern Global History. I’ll have more on it later. Here’s the link. Y’all stay safe out there.
I believe I wasted a lot of time some years ago arguing if Venezuela was a democracy or not under Hugo Chávez. The difficulty with this kind of conversation is that people can have very different views on what constitutes a “democracy”. That is part of the reason why North Korea can call itself a “democratic republic”. However, when somebody claims something about Christianity, and specially about what the Bible says, I feel more comfortable to debate.
I understand that it is like flogging a decomposing horse, but some months ago representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez supposedly called out the hypocrisy of religious conservatives using their faith to justify bigotry and discrimination in the United States. Her speech can be watched here. I believe her point is this: conservative Christians only care about religion in order to support their so-called “bigotry”. AOC believes that Christians should support socialism, because after all, that’s what Jesus would do.
AOC says some truths: sadly, the Christian Scriptures have been distorted many times over American history to defend political agendas they were never meant to defend. AOC could go even further on that if she wanted: the Cristian Scriptures were completed almost 2 thousand years ago, and they simply don’t talk specifically to many of the political issues we have today. One can say they offer principles of conduct, but it’s really up to us to figure out how these apply to concrete situations we find today. In this case, using Scripture to support political agendas can be not only morally wrong, but also naive and misguided.
AOC is also right when she says that human life is special (although I would question if “holy” applies) and that we should “fight for the least of us”. All these statements and more are true!
What AOC really doesn’t seem to understand (and frankly, this is quite scary) is that Christianity can’t be forced upon people. Yes, biblically speaking, we are to care for the poor. However, the Bible is addressing we as individuals. There is absolutely nothing in the Bible that says that we are to provide medical care for those who cannot afford via government fiat. Actually, there is nothing in the Bible that says that I can force people to act as Christians when they are not.
One of the great gifts from modernity is separation between church and state. I would submit that this separation was present in Christianity from the start, but the concept was so radically different from everything people were used to that it took some centuries for it to be put into practice, and we are actually still working on it. One of the things we realized in modern times is that we can’t force people to be Christians via government. And in her speech, AOC is trying to undo that. She wants government to force people to do a charitable work that can only be done if it is their choice.
As a Christian, I would say this: I would like to diminish suffering in this world, and this is exactly why I’m against the socialism AOC supports. One doesn’t have to be a genius to realize that the poor are much better off in countries that go further away from what Ms. Ocasio supports. It’s not simply a matter of wanting to help the poor, but of doing it in efficacious way. And also: I want to invite people to look to the example of Jesus, who being rich made himself poor for the sake of many. I do hope that more and more people might have their lives changed by Jesus. But I don’t want to force anybody to do that. I want to invite people to consider what Scripture says, and to make their choice to change their lives. As for now, I believe that capitalism is the most efficient way to help the poor humanity has discovered so far.
When socialism collapsed in the late 1980s-early 1990s, many debates and contentions were settled, but the issue of sovereignty has only grown in importance thanks in large part to more economic integration. The European attempt at federation, undertaken after the fall of socialism, has not gone well precisely because it cannot close the Westphalian sovereignty gap. The bloodshed in the non-liberal world has largely been a product of the inability of states to fragment, an inability which is encouraged by notions of Westphalian sovereignty and institutionalized by IGOs such as the United Nations or World Bank.
If states wish to break away, but are prohibited from doing so by enormous costs (such as violent aggression from the state it wishes to break away from, or hostility from illiberal states that can use IGOs as mediums to act on those hostilities), then a federation which welcomes states into its union, and which is strong enough to deter aggression, would be a welcome, liberal development.
This is from my forthcoming article in the Independent Review. Here’s a sneak peak (pdf) at the whole thing. I’m guest editing a symposium on the subject at Cosmos + Taxis, in case any of you want to write a response, or add to the conversation…
- How the anti-communist alliances of the Cold War have ended David Goodhart, Literary Review
- The end of interest (and capitalism) John Quiggin, Crooked Timber
- The democratic road to socialism Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
- Masks, pollution, and implied consent Johnathan Pearce, Samizdata
- Communist China’s dream of total information Arunabh Ghosh, Aeon
- The romance of American Communism Hannah Gold, Commonweal
- The Last Utopians: Four late-19th century visionaries Robert Greer, History Today
- The role of science in Enlightenment Universalism Nick Nielsen, Grand Strategy Annex
One of the things that I discussed in my Ph.D. dissertation some five or six years ago was the concept of left and right in politics. In the context of my dissertation, the discussion had to do with the fact that 19th century Brazil had primarily two political parties, the Liberal and the Conservative. I was trying to find ways to make sense of these two parties. My advisor said that the Liberals were the left, and the Conservatives the right. I came to the opposite conclusion, but mainly because we were using different criteria to define what is left and what is right.
At least in my experience, people call left something that is closer or more sympathetic to socialism. Right is something that is opposite or aggressive towards socialism. This explains why most people believe that nazism and fascism are far-right movements: they are perceived as archenemies of socialists. Liberals (in the American sense) are also considered left-wing, although true liberals would not go so far as to embrace full socialism. Conservatives and Libertarians are in the right because they are more opposite to socialism. The left is also identified with revolution, for wanting to radically change things, while the right is perceived to be conservative (with a small c) or even reactionary.
Even when I was in high school, learning these things for the first time, I found them to be somewhat confusing. Really, what is the difference between Hitler and Stalin? How can it be that one is on the far-right and the other on the far-left if I perceive them to be so similar? In my 15 or 16 years old mind, a possible explanation was that left and right are not in a straight line, but in something that resembles a horseshoe, with the extremes very close to each other. I thought about that sitting in my high school History class before I read it anywhere, and it served me well for many years. All I had to do, I thought, was avoid the extremes, for they end up being equally totalitarian. For many years I thought of myself as a social democrat, in favor of a substantial welfare state and some level of economic intervention by the state, but only when market forces were unable to do their job right.
Since I truly started learning about classic liberal, conservatives and libertarians, my horseshoe theory started to make less sense. I think that the traditional way to think about left and right already makes less sense because we have to bend the line like this for it to work somehow. But also, I think that this model has a problem because we use socialism as a reference: we classify things and people as left or right depending on how they relate to people and things like Marx, Stalin, Lenin, and the USSR! Intuitively I think that there is something wrong with that. And that’s when I started to think that we should classify things as left and right according to how they relate to individuals.
Today I think of left and right according to how much freedom we are willing to give to individuals. In my mind, far-right means maximum freedom. Far-left means minimum. That’s it. Of course: Rousseau will say that people are not really free until they are free according to his definition of freedom. In a Rousseauian state you might believe that you are in chains, but you’re actually free and your process of reeducation is still ongoing. Granted, Christians think something in similar lines: you’re not truly free until you serve God. However, I think that this is mistaking freedom and flourishing. You can have whatever understanding of what human flourishing (or happiness) really means, but the point is that if you want people to be free, you can’t force it on them.
And so, that is it: when I think about left, I think about forcing on people your concept of human flourishing. When I think about right, I think about letting people free to figure this out by themselves. I don’t think it’s a perfect system. After all, am I not forcing upon people the concept that they have to find their flourishing ideal by themselves? But I avoid thinking about that. Of course, this model might make some conversations harder, because I’m thinking about Hitler and nazism as far-left movements, while a lot of people (maybe the majority) learned to think about them as far-right. But on a personal level, it has helped me to think about politics. On my part, I believe that a society where people are in general free to choose (Milton Friedman) is a better society. Generally.
Democracy was once viewed as a counterweight to despotism. Democracy was also once more exclusionary, too.
However, once democratic regimes in North America and France were established in the late 18th century, despotism flourished. How to deal with democratic despotism is at the heart of the conservative-liberal split (socialists embrace democratic despotism).
Conservatives believe a stronger executive “branch” will temper democracy’s excesses, while liberals believe a stronger judicial apparatus will do a better job of keeping democratic despotism at bay. (By “liberals” I mean libertarians.)
Thus Hamilton and Trump argue for a stronger executive branch. Thus Madison and Hayek argue for a stronger judicial branch. Thus Marx and Sanders argue for more power to the people. This is at the heart of all political disagreement, and not just in the United States. Indeed, it’s at the heart of politics itself. Discuss.
The 20th century was a century in which societies consolidated the belief that governments should provide certainty and protection from collective risks and developed the expectation that governments are well equipped to do so through large-scale interventions in the social environment.
The image of the state was transformed from that of an alien and often hostile apparatus in the service of the king and nobility to that of a collective organization entrusted with society’s safety and prosperity. This view grew stronger in the years of war-like economy and post-war reconstruction during the 21st century. Nationalism gave it the face of a father taking care of his extended family. Socialism gave it the image of a collective machine serving the interests of the working class. Democracy promised to tame its power, make it accountable to its subjects and harness it for the provision of public goods, whose definition was open to public deliberation.
The image of the state was also shaped by a growing belief in the use of science to give meaning to the ‘common good’ and offer prescriptions as to how a powerful central planner should work to achieve it. The state and science together provided a replacement for the loss of divinity. They offered a rationalization of power as enlightened parenthood. They created a secular Deus Ex Machina. Governments cultivated this paradigm as they were strengthening their role and clout over society through increasing levels of taxation, regulation and distribution, which in turn fostered public expectations for state effectiveness and political accountability. Recurrent failures led to policy re-adjustments some of which were historical political transitions. Yet all these transitions were responses that complied with this paradigm and sought to re-establish confidence in it.
Consider one of the most discussed economic and political transitions, the neoliberal turn. In light of recurrent economic crises, most prominently long-standing stagflation in the 1970s, neoliberalism best describes a re-adjustment of the role of government in the economy through privatizations, a drift away from Keynesianism to monetarism, and the re-regulation of economic structure. In the field of ideology, there was an effort to reshape public perceptions of what the state should not do with the promotion of economic freedom. Governments – most of them very reluctantly, such as both the Conservative and Labour governments in the late 1970s and the Ford and Carter administrations, while others very enthusiastically such as the Reagan and Thatcher governments – adopted versions of a ‘take some economic decisions back to you’ approach.
In the so-called neoliberal era, the state did not become less interventionist overall. Instead, governments redefined the nature of interventions in some areas to forms of surveillance of the responsibilities and individual risks that were given back to businesses and workers. Neoliberalism was a large-scale intervention in itself. It was an effort to revamp the economy and protect the capacity of states to extract resources from the market for political allocation. Governments preserved interventions that privileged the few and maintained those that continued to offer a safety net for the many (such as health insurance, progressive taxation and welfare state spending).
A remarkable juncture occurred when the 2009 crisis posed a systemic threat. Governments intervened to patch the financial system from a sequence of cascading events – partly the result of imbalances attributed to its own macroeconomic policies. The management of collective risk came center stage.
Terrorism is another case of the interventionist state. Spectacular terrorist attacks triggered a war-like response that combined the use of the criminal justice system with extra-judicial actions, including the mobilization of security and military forces and the introduction of new intrusive norms of intelligence collection and surveillance.
It is easy to discern that, over time, demand for drastic state action is more pronounced in the presence of dramatic single-source events or cascading events that are traceable as a single sequence. While millions are killed by car accidents and diseases, large-scale massacres such as the 9/11 or unravelling developments from the collapse of a major bank trigger a collective alarm. The public expects the state to intervene and give a heroic fight against the visible threat on behalf of society.
The most extreme version of the protective state is the current general lockdown. Not knowing any way out, governments can only deliver a form of collective protection that requires a general population quarantine. They offer society the kind of shield that a medieval wall and a locked gate offers in times of siege. Society both expects and accepts this.
Yet in the current pandemic governments still cannot deliver a cure. If a safe vaccine is not found, if the epidemic does not recede with growing immunity, if seasonal change doesn’t make any difference with contagion and if an effective anti-viral treatment is not found, governments will oversee their economies in rapid collapse and will soon have to make tough choices about how to turn the epidemic into a chronic manageable condition. For the time being, citizens remain disciplined in their lock-down and are the ones demanding strict measures. Governments know that, like in terrorism, citizens can be overwhelmed by fear as well as managed through fear.
In our efforts to understand what has happened and to make informed guesses about what could happen, metaphors can help or distort our perception. Societies have subscribed to an ideal image of political power that metaphorically resembles the biblical God: omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent. They call for a divine intervention, they express their dissatisfaction when they see no signs of it but they never question its raison d’ être. But there is an ontologically different metaphor. In Greek mythology gods are superhuman creatures struggling for domination and survival with their own moral regards, vices and ignorance as they mess around with the world of humans. They struggle to rule based more on terror than wisdom, imposing justice that serves their order. Humans have to worship them in order to appease them. I find this imagery closer to a realist depiction of government.
- What’s the difference between Italy and the rest of the Western world? Scott Sumner, EconLog
- Viruses, civil rights, jails, and prisons Premal Dharia, Slate
- Is YIMBYism the answer to California’s housing crisis? Apoorva Tadepalli, New Republic
- Even Hayek quoted FDR Peter Canellos, Politico