The Theologico-Political Problem

I’ve been reading a lot of Leo Strauss and Strausseans lately. The novel I’m working on is told from the perspective of the son of a famous (fictional) Straussean academic, and his inherited Strausseanism, his oddly philosophical way of seeing the world, shapes the narrative. Anyway, it’s a weird thing to pickle in, Strausseanism, if you’re not disposed to believe in it, and I need to get a few thoughts off my chest.

I find that I’ve badly underrated Strauss as a subtle and stimulating thinker about the down-and-dirty reality of politics. Yet the preoccupations that divides Strausseans are bizarre, and seem to be based on the worst in Strauss. The best one can say for the so-called “theologico-political problem,” which Strauss a couple times said was the central theme of his work, is that he’s up to some kind of sophistical mischief he expects his brighter readers to see through. But even when you see through it, what you see is crazy.

Strauss is intoxicatingly romantic about PHILOSOPHY. For reasons that remain obscure to me, Strauss suspects, if he does not quite believe, that the philosophic life, the life of unrelenting rational inquiry, best exemplified by Socrates, is the best human life according to nature. I like this thought a great deal. I feel the draw. I may even irrationally believe it. But the only way I can make sense of the idea is to dwell on the mystery of reason. That reason actually can, as a matter of fact, infer through a rigorously tortuous chain the existence of the Higgs particle, or get very close to estimating the frequency of the cosmic background radiation – well, that’s stupendous. The fact that pure(ish) reason ever works so well is the greatest of all mysteries. How does it work? How could natural selection, that great force of the merely adequate kludge, leave us with these mystifying powers? Nobody knows! It puts me in a very heady Aristotelian mood. Reason seems very unlikely and very special and it’s not so hard to imagine that the point of it is just to participate in, or even to constitute, the thought that thinks itself thinking, which is just what the Aristotelean universe is, what God is. It’s an idea so beautiful it makes me hyperventilate. Bring the salts. If I thought this was strictly, literally true, then I might be tempted to say that that’s what we’re for – to be that through which the cosmos achieves self-conscioussness, the window inside the whole onto the whole, and that therefore the life of reason is the life that is naturally right, every other mode of human existence a bit disappointing, a failure to live up to our grand, cosmic telos. Swoon.

But Strauss isn’t this romantic about philosophy. He slags on modernity, because he’s a man of his time, a German post-modern critic of the power of Enlightment reason. All his alarmed warnings about the nihilism implicit in “positivism” and “historicism” do not add up to any great confidence in the reliability of reason to arrive at significant truth. Strauss has no time for Plato’s forms. He has no time for Aristotle’s divine theoria. His beloved reason, the only hope held out against the Heideggerian abyss, is a modest reason. His rationalism is Socratic rationalism. He believes in the power of reason to find the flaws in convention, to debunk the dogmas of the folk, but not to to do much to establish any big useful facts beyond the fact of our ignorance. It’s the life of skeptical, debunking Socratic reason that Strauss suspects is the best answer to the question how to live, the one endorsed in some sense by nature. No doubt I’m missing something profoundly important and of the utmost gravity, but I really don’t get it.

I get and very much like the skeptical, anti-theoretical thrust of Strauss. I like his deep wariness of ideal theorizing, his exhortations to pay attention to the political life we are always already living. He’s right to see reasoning with others about about how to live as an inherently political activity. He’s right to insist on honoring the distinctive excellences of those sensitive to the texture of real political life and expert in its ceaseless negotations. He’s right that social scientific theories about politics are less politically valuable then good political judgment, and that people who think they’re going to govern “scientifically” are dangerously stupid. (Paraphrasing, here.) And, yes, when philosophy is merely a handmaiden to the dogmas of our age, pursued under the “ecumenical supervision” of the universities, it is profoundly compromised. To be a philosopher is not to have a job you clock in and out of. To be a philosopher is simply to be, philosophically, always. Right! But the Socratic life is the one very best life? The naturally right, life? Nope. Nope. I’ve read and read and never quite follow how we end up there. I mean, I think this is a great life, beyond wonderful. But nope.

Anyway, Strausseans are strangely obsessed with this idea that the philosophical life, so construed, is the best human life, full stop, and are therefore obsessed with the tension between the best life, which is in the business of exposing bullshit, and the political life, which is built on it. (Under certain conditions, then, philosophers will need to be discreet and hide what they really think. It’s amazing that this was ever a controversial idea!) The tensions between philosophy and politics is real, and it’s easy to see. But then there’s a parallel obsession with the putative tension between reason and revelation – the life of philosophy and the life of faith, Athens and Jerusalem. What’s the problem? Well, Strauss says reason can’t rule out the possibility of bona fide revelation, and therefore can’t rule out that scripture contains the truth about how to live. The philosopher can’t so sure he’s living the best human life, because there’s the Bible. Say what now? This is nuts.

First, that reason can’t disprove the possibility of revelation without begging the question against it isn’t what you really ought to be worried about if you’re a Straussean worried about establishing the claim that the life of Socratic rationalism is the best human life. You ought to be worried that the Straussean case for philosophy as the best way of life, if it’s not simply missing, is very hard to credit. Anyway, Strauss’s arguments to the effect that reason can’t rule out revelation are just bad. His smarter acolytes see that they’re bad, and assume the whole business is exoteric squid ink intended to leave religion open as an option for those who require its consolations, and thereby to maintain a buffer of goodwill for secretly atheistical Socratic philosophers who might otherwise experience the hemlock wrath of a superstitious public. The funner but perhaps less plausible interpretation is that, in this hollow, Godless age, Strauss’s “secret” atheism is actually the exoteric doctrine, and that the really real hidden esoteric teaching is that divine law is the only truly authoritative law. Edgier, I think. The boring, safe, middle-ground view is that there’s really a problem after all, and there’s something nourishing about inhabiting the irreconcilable tension between Athens and Jerusalem. Live the tension! Teach the controversy!

In any case, the supposed stalemate between Athens and Jerusalem – neither being able to rule out the authority of the other – seems largely an artifact of putting a weak conception of reason, verging on global skepticism, next to a quite strong prior conviction about the likelihood of the existence of God. Start with a stronger, more authoritative notion of reason, a weaker prior probability of divine communications, or both, and the supposed problem dissolves.

Now, if you don’t think that the advent of modernity was some sort of disaster that threatens to hasten the eschaton, it’s going to seem fairly obvious that, since the enlightenment, there have been a multitude of advances in the various methods of reason, and that this has led us to learn a great deal more about our world than we used to know, to excellent practical effect. Cures to diseases, men in space, countless incremental innovations in material production leading to a vast reduction in suffering and early death. Etc. Here Strauss types will grumble about modernity’s “lowering of sights” and harumph some evidentially arbitrary, completely speculative claims about the loss of the noble and virtuous and the “high,” and maybe make some noises about the forgetting of nature, and what is truly in accordance with nature, in the quest to conquer nature by reducing it to a collection of mechanisms. Yadda yadda. It’s all smokescreen. None of it changes that we’ve gotten a great deal better at knowing things, or that reason in its several guises is the way we’ve achieved this. Strausseans moan about the emptiness of a politics aimed at “the relief of man’s estate,” but the fact is that man’s estate has been greatly relieved, and reason is why. This ought to win for reason some real positive authority, and not just Socratic debunking authority.

Revelation has made no such strides in establishing its authority as a way of knowing. Conflict between sects in doctrine and religious law raises an ancient, obvious, and ongoing problem that weighs heavily against the credbility of revelation as a source of knowledge. Even if one takes up an epistemology that gives a lot of weight to personal religious experience, such that it can count as evidence of the supernatural, and can establish the rational permissibility of religious belief, that won’t get you too far. It will remain that revelation does little to no work in our best and most authoritative accounts of the physical and human world. In cultures where the epistemic authority of rational methods are widely recognized, even people of faith tend to accept anthropological, cultural, and psychlogical explanations, rather than religious explanations, of other people’s religions. I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to say that, given the well-demonstrated epistemic authority of the methods of applied reason, it is not irrational to adopt an ontology that contains no god and therfore no revelation. If you happened to think that the life of reason is the best human life, a modest, moderately naturalistic worldview is all you really need to not worry about the possibility that, really, the Bible contains the real answer about the best way to live. You don’t need to “prove” the impossibility of revelation, as Strauss sometimes said. You don’t need to be in possession of a comprehensive true account of “the whole” that excludes god, as Strauss sometimes said. You just need it to be the case that it’s not irrational to adopt a partial account of “the whole” according to which the best explanation of the content of scripture is not supernatural.

Suppose that it’s the case that you, personally, believe that (a) the existence of God is at least as likely as not. Furthermore, (b) you take divine revelation to be at least as likely as any other explanation for the contents of scripture. However, (c) you take the authority of reason so seriously, that you suspect that living according to the dictates of reason alone is the best human life. Additionally, you take it be the case that (d) reason and revelation cannot possibly be reconciled. Now, if (a), (b), (c), and (d) are true of you, then you’ve got Strauss’s Athen-Jerusalem problem. But how likely is (a) and (b) in light of (c)? If you start with (c), Strauss’s problem is unlikely to arise for you. No devoted rationalist who’s not already Mormon, for example, thinks that divine revelation is remotely likely as an explanation of the contents of the Book of Mormon. Its existence, the vague, remote logical possibility that the Book of Mormon is more than a human artifact, is not a challenge and a rebuke to your commitment to Socratic reason and philosophy. There is no fruitful “tension” here between reason and revelation to dwell within or draw upon as a source of intellectual inspiration and moral deepening. Now, if you start with (a) and (b), temporally, logically, and your idea of reason is already wrapped up in the idea of yourself as a divine creation and reason as a divine endowment, then (c) might remain plausible. You might be a Thomist. You might be Harry Jaffa. But then you have to give up (d). You’d never think (d) in the first place. Seriously, I don’t know if it’s even possible, as a psychological matter, to get all these propositions in one’s head at once. Even if it’s possible, it’s hard to see how this sort of thing could be the general condition of mankind.

I think probably it’s true that Strauss intended the problems inherent in this stuff to point to some deeper teaching. But it’s not just that the framing of the exoteric problem is specious, it’s that if you can really see what’s really wrong with it, you ought to be able to see that the esoteric interpretative options Strauss’s followers lose friends fighting over inherit the same basic problem, which is that, in the light of reason, neither socratic rationalism nor adherence to divine law look like very good answers to the question of how to live. What are these people doing?

Okay. Feel better now. Back to noveling. Back to living the tension.

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

Intrinsically worthwhile.

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.