Last week I guest-blogged at Andrew Sullivan’s, whetting the blogging appetite, but there is an MFA thesis to write, so there won’t be too much until summer. I’m not teaching in the Spring, so I’ll be back at Democracy in America after the holidays with maybe a couple posts a week.
Free Will Is Back
I’m back at Bloggingheads TV. In this iteration, you can expect Free Will to be about 1/2 literary, 1/2 big ideas, 5/2 awesome. We kicked off last week with Matt Quirk, author of The Directive, a thriller about ripping off the Fed. Next week, I’ll chat with Jason Brennan about Why Not Capitalism?
Are Conditional Transfers Paternalistic?
Jessica Flanigan defends an unconditional basic income (UBI) against standard strings-attached welfare transfers on the grounds that the strings, such as work requirements, are paternalistic. Brink Lindsey defends conditional, strings-attached transfers against Flanigan’s paternalism charge:
I don’t think the paternalism charge really gets us anywhere. After all, the purpose of both a UBI and wage subsidies is to help people who are failing to support themselves adequately. In one sense, then, both policies are paternalistic, since in both cases the state is assuming a paternal role of providing for dependents. Viewed from another angle, though, neither policy is properly considered paternalistic. Paternalism, after all, is about reducing people’s choices for their own good. But either a UBI or wage subsidies would expand the choices of their intended beneficiaries relative to what they would be in the absence of any government provision at all.
I’m not sure Brink has fully engaged Flanigan’s argument here. I take it that Flanigan is arguing that work requirements do reduce people’s choices by taking off the table the option of having an adequate income without working. Brink argues persuasively that, ceterus paribus, unemployment makes us unhappy and so it’s better for people to work. However, unless he can establish that it is not the case that a certain threshold-level of income without working is an option to which people are generally entitled–unless he can establish that people don’t have some sort of right to an unconditional income–his argument does look like classic paternalism. You might prefer to surf all day and get a check from the government, but we’re not going to leave that option open, because not working is bad for you. In order to defend against the paternalism charge, Brink needs to take the right to an unconditional income head on. It’s not paternalism to close off that option because it’s not an option we’re due.
This argument is simple for a standard libertarian. To be entitled to a work-free income is to be entitled to other people’s money. But people are entitled to dispose of their legitimately acquired property as they see fit. To make good on a putative entitlement to an unconditional income would require violating property rights–would require something tantamount to theft.
However, matters are not so simple for bleeding-heart libertarians who have conceded the justice of redistribution. I think what Brink needs is something like a standard liberal contractualist argument against unconditional transfers.
The rules governing our institutions need to embody ideals of reciprocity and mutual respect. Welfare transfers are required to ensure that the system works more or less to the benefit of everyone. But those who are able but unwilling to contribute to the commonweal have limited claims to the product of the system. The same principles of reciprocity and mutual respect that underwrite the safety net prohibit taking out without putting in. Reciprocity is essentially conditional. I’ll be good to you if you’ll be good to me. So it would seem that an unconditional claim on some portion of a society’s resources necessarily violates principles of mutual respect based on fair reciprocity. Therefore people cannot be entitled to an unconditional income. Furthermore, because having an income without working is not an option people are generally due as a matter of right, taking that option off the table cannot be paternalistic.
Searle on Universal Human Rights
In an NYRB interview with Tim Crane, John Searle makes some intriguing comments on human rights within the context of his theory of social ontology.
Are you skeptical of the idea of universal human rights?
No, I’m not skeptical about the idea of universal human rights. I’m skeptical about what I call positive rights. You see, if you look at the logical structure of rights, every right implies an obligation on someone else’s part. A right is always a right against somebody. If I have a right to park my car in your driveway, then you have an obligation not to interfere with my parking my car in your driveway. Now the idea of universal human rights is a remarkable idea because if there are such things, then all human beings are under an obligation to do—what? Well, I want to say that with things like the right to free speech it just means not to interfere. It’s a negative right. My right to free speech means I have a right to exercise my free speech without being interfered with. And that means that other people are under an obligation not to interfere with me.
Now, when I look at the literature, I discover that there is a tradition going back to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, where not all of the rights listed are negative rights like the right to free speech, or the right to freedom of religion, or the right to freedom of association, I think all those negative rights are perfectly legitimate. But there are supposed to be such rights as “every human being has a right to adequate housing.” Now I don’t think that can be made into a meaningful claim.
The claim that “every human being has a right to seek adequate housing,” or that there are particular jurisdictions where the British government, or the government of the State of California, can decide “we’re going to guarantee or give that right to all of our citizens”—that iseems to me OK. But the idea that every human being, just in virtue of being a human being, has a right to adequate housing in a way that would impose an obligation on every other human being to provide that housing, that seems to me nonsense. So I say that you can make a good case for universal human rights of a negative kind, but that you cannot make the comparable case for universal human rights of a positive kind.
Now I come up with one counter-example. One exception to that is that it does seem to me where life and safety themselves are concerned, we’re all under an obligation, where we can, to help people whose life is threatened. If someone has been hit by a car, he has a right to expect that he will receive assistance from us, and we have an obligation to afford him assistance. And the reason that’s an exception is that a condition of anything else in life is that you have rights of survival. But in general, I think it’s a big mistake in contemporary political thinking to suppose that there is a list, an inventory, of universal human rights of a positive kind. I don’t think I can make sense of this.
I think that Searle, given his ontology of institutions–which has had a huge influence on me–ought to be more skeptical of universal negative rights as well. Positive and negative rights aren’t that different. In the case of positive rights, such the right to adequate housing, it’s impossible to fulfill the correlative obligation without the right sorts of institutions in place. As Searle notes, it’s hard to understand what it might mean to say that everybody everywhere–Ghanians and Vietnamese and Dutch–is somehow party to the violation of my rights if my housing should turn out not to be “adequate.” It’s rather easier to grasp how everyone everywhere might meet their obligation not interfere with me in various ways. Still. The noninterference I am owed is by no means obvious. We may have compelling “natural,” pre-institutional reasons to refrain from various form interference. If a negative right is simply a sort of structure of natural reasons with strong normative authority, then I can see universal negative rights. Yet it seems to me that the decisive step is the move from reasons to the general recognition of reasons. Rights, including negative rights, have an essentially social ontology.
Having rights of non-interference in the absence of a social fact that says so–in the absence of general convention to the effect that non-intereference is due–seems to me the same thing as saying that there is, as a matter of actual social fact, no effective rights. It seems better to say that, on the basis of certain natural reasons, everyone ought to adopt certain norms or conventions of non-interference–which is a way of saying that people would have rights if people acknowledged the force of these reasons. Just as it is conceivable that there could be global institutions that could make good on universal positive rights, it is conceivable that everyone everywhere could adopt certain norms of noninterference that would make good on universal negative rights. But in both cases, reality falls short of conceivability.
A further complicating factor is that there may be no natural reason to, say, acknowledge negative rights to property in the absence of the systems of social and institutional facts that make property claims clear, enforceable, and advantageous to more or less everyone. Our reasons to adopt certain norms or conventions of noninterference may depend on a substructure or scaffolding of prior social and institutional facts. In that case, it would seem odd to say these sorts of negative rights exist independently of the institutions that bring into being the reasons that supply those rights with their normative force. If universal positive rights are problematic because the reasons and institutions that can make good on the entitlements implicit in those rights are not universal, then universal negative rights are similarly problematic.
I think it’s easy to confuse the constitution of rights with the recognition of rights precisely because the constitution–the construction of the social fact of rights–has depended historically on a rhetoric of recognition. The first step toward rights with a real social and institutional existence has often been the propagation of the belief that the aspirational right has a freestanding, natural, preinstitutional existence we are obliged to recognize and honor. The defense of universal human rights is a good strategy making rights more universal. Fake it ‘til you make it.
My sense is that as a piece of political rhetoric, the UN Declaration’s notion of universal positive rights has done a lot of good, so I see no particular reason to abandon the strategy of trying to bring rights into existence by pretending they already exist.
I have a conference paper somewhere that I presented in front of Searle in I think 2004, which combined his theory of social ontology with Doug North and John Rawls to interesting effect. Searle said, approvingly, that he’d never thought of applying his theory to political philosophy in that way. Really wish I could find where I put that thing.
Understanding Observer Narration
In the Fall, I’ll be satisfying my “later American” lit requirement for the MFA through an independent study I’ve arranged with the brilliant Pete Turchi. I’m working through a pile of novels–mostly 20th c. American, requirement in mind–featuring an “observer narrator,” i.e., a character narrator who is not obviously the protagonist of the story. I say “not obviously” because observer narrators have a way of insinuating themselves into the emotional heart of their narratives, even as they cast themselves as secondary characters, watching the real hero of the real story from the wings. This is one of the things I find weird and captivating about observer-narrator tales, and one of the aspects of the form, among others, that I’m trying to get a handle on, since I’m trying to write an observer-narrator novel and would prefer not to fuck it up.
Lawrence Buell’s “Observer-Hero Narratives” and Kenneth Bruffee’s “Elegiac Romance” offer some theoretical guidance with which to get oriented, but as far as I can tell there isn’t a ton to go on, otherwise.
Anyway, my plan is to work through the books on my list, recording my comments here as I go. If anyone would like to read along, or chip in about books they have read, I should be delighted. So here is my (evolving list) in roughly chronological order.
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 1925.
- Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, 1926.
- Willa Chather, My Mortal Enemy, 1926.
- William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom, 1936.
- Glenway Westcott, The Pilgrim Hawk, 1940.
- Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men, 1947
- Mark Harris, Bang the Drum Slowly, 1956.
- Wright Morris, The Huge Season, 1956.
- Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire, 1956.
- Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1962.
- James Salter, A Sport and a Pasttime, 1967.
- Joan Didion, The Book of Common Prayer, 1977
- William Styron, Sophie’s Choice, 1979.
- John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany, 1989.
- Donna Tartt, The Secret History, 1991
- Philip Roth, The Human Stain, 2000.
Not American, but probably going to (re)read anyway
- Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim, 1900.
- Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier, 1915.
- Vladimir Nabokov, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, 1941.
- Thomas Mann, Dr Faustus, 1943.
- Graham Greene, The Quiet American, 1955.
I’d like some more recent stuff, and would love some tips.
I’m not going to do this in order. I’ve just read The Sun Also Rises, about which more next week. I’m in the middle of All the King’s Men, which is exceeding expectations. Jake Barnes seems to me a creature of formal and narrative vacillation. Jack Burden–his combination of self-effacement and self-obsession, his incessant essaying–hits the sweet spot of my own concerns.
It’s funny that a number of the books on my list were recently recommended by Brooks, and for the elegiac tone! All the King’s Men is not, by the way, “nominally a novel about Huey Long.” Oh, Brooks.
On the SOTU
Here’s my take on the SOTU at Aljazeera America. Excerpt:
Obama brought upon himself the circumstances requiring such a constrained, insipid speech. The scandal of his IRS targeting tea-party activists suggested that his administration was either corrupt or mismanaged. Had he honored his campaign pledge to restore the civil liberties eroded in George W. Bush’s war on terror, Edward Snowden would not have had evidence of the NSA’s massive violations of the Fourth Amendment to leak. The Afghanistan surge was an ultimately ineffective face-saving operation that sent more than 1,000 Cory Remburgs to early graves — an operation that his then–secretary of defense openly doubts he really believed in. Finally, the catastrophically inept rollout of the Affordable Care Act has sown doubt in the electorate about Obama’s honesty and competence to govern.
What This Guy Says about Inequality Will Make You Stand Up and Cheer (or Puke)
I’m tired of arguing about inequality. It’s frustrating. It’s unproductive. Nobody is really interested in the analytical arbitrariness and moral insidiousness of measuring intra-national economic inequality. Nobody is really interested in the fact that multiple mechanisms–some good, same bad, some neutral–can produce the same level of measured inequality, rendering the level of inequality, taken in isolation, completely useless as a barometer of social or economic justice. Nobody really cares. Because many different combinations of causes can produce the same level of inequality, it’s not so clear that high inequality, as such, can reliably cause anything. The consequences of inequality depend on the mechanisms driving inequality. Nobody cares.
I tend to be misunderstood when I say that this or that argument about inequality is terrible. (Poor me!) Will just doesn’t want to raise taxes on rich people! Will just doesn’t like redistribution! But I don’t really care about tax rates on rich people. If the optimal tax had higher top rates, I’d want higher top rates. And I do like redistribution, but it’s got to be effective. Everything’s in the design. “Let’s raise taxes on rich people because that’s the most efficient and fair way to fund this very effective, humane, and fair transfer scheme” is a way better argument–like, unfathomably better–than “Let’s raise taxes on rich people because inequality is too high.” I find it completely vexing that this is not obvious, but clearly it isn’t. Left-leaning folks are very attached to arguing for many of their favorite policies in terms of economic equality, despite the fact that they could argue for the same policies in terms that are at once more cogent and more broadly persuasive.
Anyway, let me just say that if someone points out that the anti-inequality argument for X is terrible, that doesn’t mean he or she opposes X. He or she might be frustrated that you’re screwing up chances of achieving X by making terrible arguments.
I’m tired of this dialectic… Inequality caused states to cut education budgets! No, the recession did. But inequality caused the recession! No, an incomprehensible combination of housing policy, banking policy, financial regulation, normal cyclical adjustments, and yadda yadda caused the recession. But inequality caused ALL THOSE THINGS. How so? It enabled rich people to co-opt every aspect of policymaking and bend it to their whims. Rich people wanted to lose billions crashing the economy? Well, they didn’t MEAN to. Lots of these policies had bipartisan support, expert and popular. Look, states could have cut things other than education/unemployment insurance/nutritional assistance/etc, but they didn’t because Republicans. So democratic bodies are screwing over the poor, and not inequality? No! The Koch Brothers made them do it! Are “inequality” and “the Koch Brothers” equivalent in your mind? Yes!
There are very smart people who think like this. I don’t know what to say to them. Doesn’t matter. I’m too tired to say it anyway and nobody cares.
Now that that’s out of my system, onto the SOTU. I’m Mr Blue at DiA.
The Best Things in Life are W.E.I.R.D.
Trying to finish a novel-opening assignment for Boz, so this has to be quick…
This piece on libertarianism by the sociologist Claude Fischer is really quite powerful. Taken by itself, Fischer’s point that the libertarian attenuation of liberal individualism is a not very sound, and really quite peculiar, picture of human nature is less compelling than it may seem. More promising is the observation that the rise of the powerful central state is responsible for a huge reduction in violence and war, and that, empirically, all the best places on Earth have large, powerful states.
I think Fischer might connect the dots a little better. The best places on Earth are also the W.E.I.R.D.-est–Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic. That’s why the crack on extreme liberal individualism has so little force. It would seem that the W.E.I.R.D-er the better! If libertarianism is an ideology of next-level W.E.I.R.D.-ness, that may not be so bad.
The better point, I think, is that W.E.I.R.D.-ness and a certain kind of powerful central state go hand-in-hand–that liberal individualism and the liberal-ish nation-state co-evolved. This is Hegel, people! A Hegelized version of libertarianism might say, “Sure. But the apotheosis of history is the withering away of the state.” I think the better inference leads to the mundane liberal conclusion that liberal individualism, liberal rights, and the high quality of life they produce are best sustained by a certain kind of powerful central state.
None of this is to say that things wouldn’t be better if things got W.E.I.R.D.-er still. The sort of W.E.I.R.D., powerful, central state under which people seem to flourish best might do even better by their citizens were they to integrate certain libertarian insights into their institutions and their governance. I think this is true! But it doesn’t leave you anywhere even close to the minimal state. It leaves you with a fresh flavor of so-called “neoliberalism,” which, despite all the vague grumping about it, is uncontroversially the best humans have ever done.
Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood Chat
Munro asks, “Has anybody ever written a book that was really good with people who are nice all the time, or even part of the time?” Atwood doesn’t think so.
Munro on the hate mail of her early days: “I didn’t understand that you read books in order to feel that the world is better than it is. And so I was offending without really understanding it for quite a while.” But folks came around.
My heart aches for my Canadian grandmother.
Old School Blogging
Every time I’ve been hacked and had to take the blog offline, it felt a little like an amputation. A blog is a sort of history of one’s mind, like a diary or a journal, but it’s public and that makes a huge difference. I think the public existence of my blog stabilizes my sense of self. The idea that the self is an “illusion” tends to be grounded on the false assumption that if the self is anything at all, it must be a stable inward personal quiddity available to introspection. But of course there is no such thing. The Zen masters are right. There is nothing in there, and the deeper you look the less you find. The self is more like a URL. It’s an address in a web of obligation and social expectation. According to my my idiosyncratic adaptionist just-so story, a self is an app of the organism “designed” to play iterated cooperative games, and we desire a sense of stable identity because a stable identity keeps us in therepeated games that pay. (Also those that don’t. The self can be a trap.) Expectation, reputation, obligation–these are what make the self coalesce, and the more locked in those expectation and obligations become, the more solid the self feels. There’s nothing wrong with blogging for money, but the terms of social exchange are queered a little by the cash nexus. A personal blog, a blog that is really your own, and not a channel of the The Daily Beast or Forbes or The Washington Post or what have you, is an iterated game with the purity of non-commercial social intercourse. The difference between hanging out and getting paid to hang out. Anyway, in old-school blogging, you put things out there, broadcast bits of your mind. You just give it away and in return maybe you get some attention, which is nice, and some gratitude, which is even nicer. The real return, though, is in the conclusions people draw about you based on what you have said, about what what you have said says about you, about what it means relative to what you used to say. People form expectations about you. They start to imagine a character of you, start to write a little story about you. Some of this is validating, some is irritating, and some is downright hateful. In any case it all contributes to self-definition, helps the blogger locate and comprehend himself as a node in the social world. We all lost something when the first-gen blogs and bloggers got bought up. Or, at any rate, those bloggers lost something. I’m proud of us all, but there’s also something ruinous about our success, such as it is. We left the garden behind. A guy’s got to eat. I mostly stopped blogging for myself because I thought I couldn’t afford to give it away. But I miss the personal gift economy of the original blogosphere, I miss the self it helped me make, and I want at least a little of it back.