Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A moral basis of politics: Deirdre McCloskey and my interview on Justice Radio

Kristine Kubat, who works with the Justice Party and Justice Radio, did an interview with me on “liberating conservatism.” For the interview, listen here. She had been attracted to my claim that genuine conservatives – those who affirm habeas corpus, bar torture, and often criticize imperial wars, like Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott – differ from imperial and racist authoritarians. The latter are today routinely misidentified as “conservative” in American politics. As a conservative might insist, governments are enormously powerful compared to individuals, and frequently rip "subjects" apart. Thus, conservatives defend the essence of a system of law, considered as an ideal - see Phillip Soper, The Idea of Law - and name the element of decency in Anglo-American law as opposed to tyranny or dictatorship.

In addition, if we ask the core question of ethics: what is a decent life for human beings?, the answer includes a rule of law and a protection of basic equal rights for each individual (a breaking down of all racist, gender and class barriers to recognition as a person or the undergirding of a system of mutual regard for persons whatever their larger conscientious or, in John Rawls's phrase, comprehensive differences). One may compare living in the Weimar Republic and Hitler's Germany or in the segregated South and the post-Civil Rights Act South - both for the most oppressed and most people. The worst regimes massively violate, in Aristotle's idiom, a common good (see Democratic Individuality, ch. 1). In contrast, meta-ethical relativism, ranging from ostensibly value-free social science to postmodernism, has no answer to these examples and cannot itself provide a coherent, that is non-self-refuting explanation of what ethics is.*

Thus, all decent, well-stated or reasonable political positions pass through an answer to this basic question about the rule of law. They clash, however, empirically and/or in social theory on what makes this possible. (technically, they combine core moral standards with clashing empirical/social theoretical claims, to reach larger, clashing moral and poltiical positions - see Democratic Individuality). A judgment for the rule of law, in the words of Democratic Individuality, has moral objectivity or is true; it is the impartial or nonpartisan basis for fierce public debates. For if these complex positions pass too far empirically from these nonpartisan, underlying judgments, for example, because of pseudo-biological theories which affirm racism like Murray and Herrnstein's The Bell Curve or sociobiology, they become, in practice, immoral and sometimes evil (Hitler, eugenic laws in the United States for forced sterilization of the feeble-minded, anti-miscegenation laws and the like).

Reasonable political dialogue among complex public positions relies on this understanding of law; about the rule of law, for instance, condemning torture, conservatives (and liberals and radicals) have often taken a leading role. Often even civil disobedience - and sometimes violent resistance as in the American revolution - highlight the abuse of law, the betrayal of the rule of law or minimal fair treatment. Such resistance upholds the idea of law against a lawless and oppressive regime.

In the interview, Kristine raised many insightful questions and thoughts – even having the brilliant line that Rocky Anderson, former mayor of Salt Lake City and the Justice Party candidate for President – is “Ron Paul without the crazy…” Unfortunately, the connection is briefly lost, but I think the discussion is worth hearing out. The issue is really how to think about politics, morally speaking, and the way in which great moral issues often determine what we think of as great leadership, often from below – see my post on Xu Beihong, the artist of the Chines revolution here or Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement from below here and here or Churchill in the fight against the Nazis.

Another aspect of the core moral unity of conservatives and liberals or radicals, illustrated in Anti-War.Com, is the resistance to imperial crusades or aggressions (senseless murders at great cost, nothing like self-defense individually or as a country). Comehome USA has published a collection of writings across a broad political spectrum motivated by a fundamental moral insight into the wrongs of aggression and colonial (or neocolonial) dominion. The moral judgments here are not difficult or controversial. Aggression – mass murder – is wrong because murder is wrong (the counterargument, often a racist one, suggests some lives are not really human…). The book includes an historical aspect (that Lincoln and Thoreau opposed the aggression against Mexico in 1846-48, that the Anti-imperialist League opposed the aggression and genocide in the Philippines in 1898, that “isolationism” had in it a justifiable element of resisting racist occupations for instance in Central and Latin America - cf. General Smedley Butler - while “interventionism,” justified by American efforts against Hitler, has often been an excuse for atrocities. Now some isolationists were "small town" bigots, and racism is a potentially explosive issue undermining this common opposition to (what are, in fact, racist) crusades. But during the Cold War and today, interventionism is a reflection or and urging on of the militarism which now possesses America (the some 1280 military bases abroad; the huge privatized armies; in yesterday's news, the bragging that only the US has the bunker busters to conduct effectively aggression against Iran; increasing use of drones against countries with which "the US is not at war"; and the like.

Standard histories of the Cold War celebrate interventionists without argument - even though what was true about Nazism was not otherwise true and expansion became, against the Soviets, a key for America to dominate much of the globe (recall, for instance, Clinton's apology for the mass murders in Latin and Central America by regimes sustained and armed by the United States government). See Paul Buhle, Bill Kauffman, George O'Neill, Jr. and Kevin Zeese, eds, ComehomeAmerica.US as well as here for the website.

The next day, Deirdre McCloskey, a lively libertarian economist, came to speak at my school. As she is a former Marxist and still an anti-racist as well as a libertarian, her views are much more quirky and interesting than most – she often sees morally cross-cutting points - and rather strikingly, an improvement, in some major respects, on Ron Paul.

Deirdre makes the local or proximate point that nobody who claims to be able to figure the complexities of a market economy can make herself rich ("If you are so smart, how come you are not rich" is the title of her new book). Climatologists can predict the weather two weeks out; speculators on Wall Street, and economists, as we saw in the financial collapse, have little clue.

Her thinking, however, also rests on a misguided paradigm in which values are mere preferences (see here, here, and here on the errors in the epistemological concept of value freedom). That paradigm denies, without argument, morally significant cases and thus, skews any account. For instance, McClintock criticized Obama for trying to further a green economy as opposed to relying on the destructiveness of oil. And she attacked the minimum wage (emulators of Ron Paul seek out becoming unreconstructed Scrooges in domestic politics, a really unlovely and for a former radical, sad thing). The reasoning for this has a classical conservative form – supposedly, the consequences of seemingly decent policies will be worse for those who are supposed to be helped (cf. Albert Hirschman’s shrewd observations on the form and weaknesses in conservative rhetoric). In opposing a minimum wage, conservatives depict themselves as really concerned with the poor, more so than “liberals": more will get jobs. (Note again the underlying objectivity of the moral judgment that it is good people find work and be fed). Without organizing from below, a social floor or legal minimum and government action to preserve it, there is no limit to which the market will not push degradation (consider Bayer Aspirin at the concentration camps, slavery and the like).** Were conservatives to give their wealth to the poor or to radical causes, perhaps such words would sound, despite a social science veneer, less tinny…

I asked a question distinguishing genuine moral issues (a substratum or core underlying feature of intelligent social science or at least sound argument) from the mistaken rhetoric that everything is a preference. Starting with the struggle for abolition of slavery at the time of the American Revolution, the abolitionist movement internationally and the Civil War and civil rights, wasn’t it struggle from below and some legal acts that made some difference in decency over centuries here?

McCloskey ignored the point about democratic struggles from below except by implication, but spoke forcefully for the Civil Rights Act. In addition, she criticized herself for cowardice for not going on freedom rides to South Carolina (I said briefly she was being too hard on herself – but having been to Chestertown, Maryland on a freedom ride, and learned of police-led mob violence the week before, attacking a picket line in front of Woolworth’s, I didn’t go on Freedom Summer in the deep South as Andrew Goodman, my childhood friend, fighting for equality, did. He and James Cheney and Michael Schwerner were murdered by a mob led by the sheriff in Philadelphia Mississippi, see here and here ). The spirit of Deirdre’s self-criticism I agree with.

In addition, Deirdre’s point – that laws are necessary to undergird freedom – is right against Ron and Rand Paul, whose view that civil rights legislation is “government interference” is bizarrely racist. Deirdre's thought is just an extension of a well stated libertarian argument that the laws of civil society permit each person to seek her good as she sees fit, and change her mind about it, so long as she does not harm others. See Michael Oakeshott, On Human Conduct, essay 3 on civil association or civitas). American slavery and segregation is plainly inconsistent with this. That argument against racism is true (there are no putative human differences which could undergird such treatment) and a core moral standard– in this respect, nonpartisan – of liberalism and radicalism as well.

Deirdre also said, liking Ron Paul, that it was very important to reelect Obama, precisely to defeat the racists (meaning the Tea Party, and the Republicans who paint this centrist or moderate within mainstream - corporate - American politics as “other,” “European” in Romney’s bizarre fantasy, lacking a birth certificate in the wonder-world of his new supporter Trump, and the like). The first black President deserves, she said, again, in some difficult or complex sense, a second term. One sense of “deserves” here – it is very important for America, the land which overcame slavery and segregation, including the murder of Martin Luther King 40 years before Barack was elected, to elect him to a second term rather than sink back into anti-democratic and racist baseness. This is Mitt Romney striving to be the “white candidate” as Gingrich and Santorum and in the wings, Palin also exemplify…. And here Ron Raul's history of racism means that he cannot exempt itself, even though he is better than the Obama administration on decriminalizing marijuana and on the prison system, from this company.*** See here and here.

In arguing that a green economy given the threat of climate change is not a “preference,” I mentioned a decent thing the American military does. As Obama had said in the State of the Union and my 16 year old son had heard at a Bioneers conference in San Francisco last fall from Amory Lovens (he invents for the Pentagon and has an institute in Aspen), the government is fostering green energy even while Obama also shifts, in a foul political wind, back and forth between “clean coal,” an oxymoron, and nuclear, at least until Fukushima – see the Japanese demonstrations reported below. But Deirdre then outflanked me entirely on behalf of intelligence, and decency (amusingly, also to the left) . “If you really want to go green," she said, "cancel military spending and bases abroad.” This bit of ju-jitsu – a brilliant response in a debate – rests entirely on the moral force of what she was saying (moral objectivity or moral realism in the idiom of my Democratic Individuality). And in this context, she rightly praised Ron Paul, whose views about drones and mine are exactly the same: consider such missiles being fired by a late 21st century Saudi-China into Montana, Idaho and Texas: how would we feel about the powers that did and a collobarative government that enabled it? See here. It was striking that as an anti-racist as well as an anti-imperialist, despite opposing the minimum wage (none of us escape foolishness entirely), she weighed up likely electoral politics and came down for Obama (she means if Ron Paul has a third party candidacy as well).

In contrast, my emphasis is on Occupy and what has made Obama be Obama (a President turning again into a decent candidate). It is the international movement from below, starting with Arab Spring, which is generating comparatively hopeful possibilities and which might make of lesser evils something better (in pushing for green energy and trying to reverse the settlements in the Occupied Territories and deescalate American aggressions, Obama had – perhaps still has – the possibility of dong something better, parallel to FDR – rather than being a lesser evil. Yet in confirming and honing the police state and aggression by drone, he also extends evil and is no lesser…FDR, too, relied on the racist South in the Democratic Party, refused to sign anti-lynching legislation in 1938, and was formally "neutral" about the Civil War in Spain but actually harassed participants in the Abraham Lincoln brigade, who were eventually dubbed, by the House Un-american Activities Committee "premature anti-fascists," while turning a blind eye to General Motors's and Ford's provision of tanks to Hitler and Franco). Occupy needs to go much further, here and internationally.

Deirdre said nothing about Occupy (this paralleled the point about anti-racist movements from below with which I began, though she did identify with the civil rights movement and it would be interesting to discuss this further…).

In addition, against the current elite emphasis on “skills” teaching and narrow job training, McClintock also holds out for the value of teaching (seeking the truth). Seemingly ironically for a libertarian, She has joined the union at the University of Illinois precisely because only collective action will fight for the moral good of such truth-seeking against what can fairly be named the emptiness of rich trustees and the Scott Walkers/Mitch Daniels/Koch brothers of this world…(Brian Leiter has a category on his blog called “the less they know, the less they know it” and that caption certainly illustrates this contrast).

Interestingly, Deirdre’s own political stands are often guided by seeing deeply what is right (that the arguments for slavery are all false, or that what a university is is not something determined simply by a market, and if reduced to an ideology of “free” markets, becomes odious). Hence, this libertarian is also a union member…

As an economic historian, Deirdre’s teaching is informed by knowing something about history and the thought that each of us has to learn the skill of finding out what is true about important issues in life – at least how not to get taken in, as in her new book. What follows from this is that some important things one learns are morally true – for instance, there has never been a mass movement among former slaves to reestablish the “happiness” of the plantation – see a former slave’s comments here (h/t Hazem Salem) - even if such insights sometimes differ sharply from what is thought in powerful circles around here. See also my Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence (University of Chicago press, publication date: March 19, 2012). She conceives this as a genuine usefulness to students of experienced scholars in mapping out what people need to study, as compared to novices and the ignorant.

This is true, but I am more an anarchist or thoroughgoing libertarian in this respect than she is. The role of a teacher is, I think, to suggest a curriculum in the light of who each student is, to get each to pursue her own path. As one example, in a larger seminar, say 20, it is to invite each student to connect with the subject matter in her own way, finding something to engage with in it, and potentially have a conversation, if people raise questions or alternate topics, about how to order the course, or the topics to pursue in depth, and more rarely, an agreement about a new ordering of the course*****. The broad conception is part of what I mean by Democratic Individuality in my book of that title.

A teacher, as at the Open School where my youngest son goes, is a kind of advisor or mentor in this process, a course (or a course of study) a conversation in which each may learn form others. As my posts on Plato indicate – see, for instance, here - I learn a lot from energized students finding their own way into the material (and of course, interlocutors on this blog, for instance Peter Minowitz who recommended Eva Brann’s The Music of the Republic which helped me see that “going down” for Plato, not just for Socrates, was to resist tyranny. See here, here, and here.).

Having been a Marxist and anti-racist, Deirdre puts some insights of libertarianism in a wonderfully sharp way. Radicals, she says, recognize the dangers of the state and the police. They shouldn’t look to the state to do good things.

She draws, however, at least for the sake of presentation, the false conclusion that corporations and banks are better than the state. They often aren’t. As she says, they often use the state (as in the case of the would-be hand-puppet Scott Walker who gave an interview to a false Charles Koch which was widely publicized on the web during Madison, and who now is receiving the largesse of the Koch brothers to fight a mass movement for recall). Deirdre's defense of the Civil Rights Act shows that she, starting from moral insight and reasoning about how to offer an argument, has thought her position through in a way that the Pauls and many of their followers, let alone standard anti-unionists like the Koch brothers and Scott Paul, Mitch Daniels, Rick Snyder John Kasich and the like, have not.

McCloskey is also an amusing and sometimes powerful speaker – willing to take things on in a way which challenges, not just supports current "free" market ideology (i.e., the claim that an “unfettered” market in slavery or child labor or zyklon B promotes “freedom”) – is unusual and admirable, a breath of fresh air in an academia where participants often, of their own accord, take the edge off things, and is much less, intellectually, interesting.


Published on Saturday, February 11, 2012 by Common Dreams
Thousands March Against Nuclear Power in Japan

- Common Dreams staff
Thousands of people are demonstrating today in Japan against nuclear power.

The Associated Press reports that people are worried about the restarting of reactors that had stopped since the Fukushima disaster.

Agence France-Presse reports on the protesters:

Kenzaburo Oe, the 1994 Nobel prize winner for literature, told a central rally at Yoyogi Park, "Radioactive waste from nuclear power plants will be borne by generations to come."

"This must not be condoned by human beings. It is against ethics," the 77-year-old novelist said.

Japanese actor Taro Yamamoto, who has allegedly lost acting opportunities for his anti-nuclear advocacy, told the rally: "Our country will cease to exist if there is another big earthquake."

"To prevent our country from ceasing to exist, we shall not allow nuclear plants to be reactivated."

* * *

The Japan Times adds that a group of anti-nuclear activists has been pushing for a referendum to abolish nuclear reactors in Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s service area:

The group started collecting signatures from Tokyo residents Dec. 10 to hold a vote on abolishing nuclear reactors in Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s service area.

The campaign ended Thursday, and the group announced it had collected about 250,000 signatures — more than enough to ask the governor to submit an ordinance to the metropolitan assembly for a plebiscite on nuclear energy.

But a majority of assembly members must vote in favor of the proposal in order for a referendum to be held, and Nakamura said the group plans to lobby each one individually.

"I think that assembly members can't make entirely independent decisions because they have to vote in line with the policies of their political parties. So we must press each member to find out their own opinion, and lobbying them will be crucial," she said.

Her group plans to submit the signatures to the electoral council in each municipality in Tokyo for verification, and if the number of valid signatures exceeds the legally required minimum, the group will ask Ishihara to submit an referendum ordinance to the metropolitan assembly.

"A plebiscite is a way for all citizens to express their opinions on an equal footing, regardless of their beliefs. . . . I believe that's very important," Nakamura said.

The group has also been collecting signatures in the city of Osaka to hold a referendum on atomic energy in Kansai Electric Power Co.'s service area, and says it now has enough to ask Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto to submit a plebiscite ordinance to the municipal assembly Monday.

* * *

Brendan Barrett writes in Al Jazeera that public support for renewable energy in Japan is strong:

The type of Japan that emerges from the rubble of Fukushima will also depend on the energy policies embraced by Japan's leaders. Prior to the events of March 11, Japan had plans to construct nine new nuclear power plants by 2020 and at least 14 by 2030. Nuclear power supplies about 25 per cent of Japan's energy, with renewables accounting for around ten per cent. But after the disaster, Prime Minister Naoto Kan advocated phasing out nuclear energy, with an aggressive push for renewables. A poll in June 2011 by the Asahi newspaper found that 74 per cent of the public was in favour of abolishing nuclear power after a phase-out period.

But amid growing criticism of his handling of the crisis - and questions over his new energy strategy - Kan resigned in August.

The building of new nuclear power plants remains on hold, but Kan's successor, Yoshihiko Noda, has backed away from a rapid shift away from nuclear power. Vested interests, including the ten regional electricity providers and the companies that design the plants - Toshiba, Hitachi and Mitsubishi - continue to advocate for nuclear power. Officials in the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry have consistently argued that "nuclear power is essential" because "renewable energy alone isn't sufficient".

Yet public support remains strong for renewable energy. Transforming Japan's energy policy is an uphill, but not unwinnable battle, leading advocates insist. The Japan Renewable Energy Foundation, set up by the prominent business leader, Masayoshi Son, argues that Japan can have 60 per cent renewable energy by 2030. Tetsunari Iida, executive director at the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, has called for a 100 per cent shift to renewables by the middle of the century. Iida argues in a recent paper that Japan is experiencing its third historic reset with the Tohoku-Kanto triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident - the first reset was the Meiji Restoration in 1868 and the second was the end of World War II.


*This idea is ambiguous. The serious justification of it is to avoid bias. But to avoid bias is a derivative principle from the goal or moral value of seeking the truth. And to be value-neutral about truth, as say “objective” American newspaper reporting affects to be, is to tolerate error, ideology and even, to have no principled or intelligent objection to plagiarism. Put that way, the notion of value-freedom is incoherent or self-refuting – there is no more reason to think that the doctrine itself is true than that it is a lie…

**Marx makes a parallel point about the length of the working day and child labor in ch. 10 of Capital, volume 1.

***A large part of those incarcerated , black, Chicano and poor white, have been arrested for “possession” of marijuana. In the expansion of the American prison/industrial complex from 300,000 incarcerated to 2.3 million - 25% of the world's prisoners - drug offenses have accounted for most of the change (and possession of marijuana 4/5...See Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow). The Obama administration has recently been enforcing laws against marijuana more sharply and Andrew Sullivan has rightly called for protest among Obama supporters – he is one – and others against this.

****All markets are governed by laws. A sweeping attack on government for “interfering” in markets is an incoherent version of the plausible thought that not all laws are harmful but that some are. That, of course, is sometimes true (segregation laws for example). Properly reformulated, such a claim might say that any goods that come from the “free” market are derivative from laws which preserve individual freedom. “Minimum” government is not the absence of government.

*****In a class on Contemporary Political Thought, Hazem Salem once suggested that I should simply teach them Being and Time which was complicated and which he and other students would not learn to understand in other classes. The seminar agreed on this. Since I hadn’t read Being and Time carefully since I was a junior in college, I had to do a lot of serious study quickly (something of a diversion from what I had been planning to do). But I discovered that Being toward death (Sein zum Tode) was already – when "authentic" and expressing the "destiny" (Schicksal) of one’s generation – dying for the fatherland. Hazem read deeply and further in the book than I and discovered the section on historicity as the center of Heidegger’s Nazism in that book. I have since fully unpacked that argument as an argument for fascism, and very likely, Nazism (his wife Elfride agitated for the Nazis from the early 1920s - see Emmanuel Faye, Heidegger: the Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy and here - since the Weimar Republic fired professors who proclaimed for Nazism – here is one thing Strauss really meant, given his own politics and his influence on Schmitt, his reverence for Heidegger – by Persecution and the Art of Writing. When students are really excited to do something, I often learn a lot from them. A good seminar or class is thus a common enterprise in seeking the truth in which a teacher plays an important role as counselor or advisor about the materials, given the students’ concerns.

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