Thursday, February 12, 2009

Does genuine liberalism have a future?

I mostly agree with the tone of this Will Wilkinson post, but I can't help feeling that the prospects for a broadly, genuinely liberal political movement are bleak. At the same time, I'm fairly optimistic about liberalism as a political reality. The following are my highly conjectural claims to back up this point. (This reason post gets at some similar points as mine)

It seems to me that the public choice choice theorists are right. Democratic politics is about the logic of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs. Add to this Caplanite rational irrationality, and you've got policies that pander to the prevailing biases of the electorate, and serve those with an incentive and the means to lobby the government for favors. It's a simple model, but I think it pretty much captures a great deal of what's going on.

Liberalism, or any other coherent ideology, doesn't play much of a role in this picture. People do vote according to certain values, those that do so according to a coherent ideology are few. This is partially because most people don' t really care about ideology, and partially because political values are largely influenced by group affiliation.

Among people who are invested in having a coherent worldview, like folks at think tanks, professors, etc., there may be some hope in forming a broadly liberal movement, one that may have some influence on policy. But I fear that the group affiliation effect is strong among these types as well.

More importantly, though, I doubt many liberal ideologues identify as liberal because of concern for human freedom per se, but rather because they identify with certain issues, like abortion rights. Contemporary American liberalism is largely a product of various social movements, which addressed concerns of specific groups. Many of these struggles may have been justified on liberal grounds, but liberalism wasn't really a motivating factor.

Yet it seems like our society really is becoming more liberal (here meant in the broad sense, in a way that libertarians ought to basically endorse). My guess is that this is because rising material prosperity has freed people to pursue higher order values, and more freedom is largely what people want. The thing is, people mostly don't do this for ideological reasons. They just act according to what they want for themselves. And it turns out that a more liberal order really does satisfy peoples' preferences more fully than the alternatives.

This is great news for liberals of all stripes. But what about ideology? I suspect that any new consensus will emerge more out of gradual social changes than from lots of people being persuaded by theoretical arguments.

I could go on, but I'm going to leave it at these scattered remarks. I wanna build on some of these points later- if I can keep writing regularly...

Monday, August 11, 2008

Some Notes on My Recent Philosophical Thinking

I hope to keep this brief, as I'm hungry.

Over the last two months or so, I've been spending much of my free time reading reading Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. After that, I got to Richard Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. This got me thinking again about the role of philosophy in our larger discourse, and if it still has a meaningful role at all.

I also read Hernando De Soto's The Mystery of Capital. Though it's not a philosophy book, it got me going on an idea for a kind of rough model of philosophical discourse. What got me thinking about that was De Soto's indictment of lawyers and legislators in developing countries. De Soto's main prescription in the book is for political leaders to institutionalize the informal property system of migrants who have flooded the outskirts of most cities in the developing world. Only then, he argues, can the true potential of capital be unleashed to create greater wealth by formalizing property rights and creating a unified system.

Lawyers get in the way, says De Soto, because they insist on maintaining the institutionalized legal system, and trying to extinguish the extralegal systems. They try to impose an outmoded and dysfunctional system over a system that has emerged more organically to meet the real needs of people.

Rorty, channeling Wittgenstein, has a similar critique of philosophers. Rorty argues that philosophy since Decartes has been rooted in vocabulary with origins in notions that philosophers don't accept anymore. I haven't finished the book yet, but he seems to take the radical view that philosophers should abandon all attempts to construct a framework to judge other areas of knowledge (this has been, Rorty claims, the goal of epistemology).

My thought is this: the Rorty's philosophers are like De Soto's lawyers. Taking a cue from De Soto, and if Rorty is right- philosophers should keep this in mind:

We don't fully understand how other areas of knowledge and inquiry work. They don't always arrive at the conclusions we expect (could Newton have anticipated quantum theory?). Thus it's silly to think that we can determine, through philosophical reflection, what the bounds of knowledge are.

That said, constructive contributions from epistemology may still be possible. Just because we don't understand the whole system doesn't mean that we can't point out what seem like contradictions, or possible conclusions that may, thus far, have been overlooked, etc. Discourse, like law, is an emergent phenomenon, and by its nature contributions will happen in unexpected ways. Yet emergent phenomenon still have systematic features, and critiques of and inquiries into those features may bear fruit.

This is all pretty rough, I realize. But I'd rather get it out now and improve on it as I can.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

An Orgy of Nationalism

That's pretty much what I think about the Olympics. I appreciate the effort and accomplishment of individual athletes, but the way those efforts are used by governments and the bulk of audiences is repulsive. What do I care if people who hold the same citizenship as me win at pistol shooting or whatever?

I watched the opening ceremony last night at my school. My feelings were mixed. It's kind of touching to see how excited my Chinese students and colleagues were. And the sentement of the ceremony was, as these things go, fairly cosmopolitan.

Of course, there was the required Chinese nationalistic nonsense. I always enjoy the parading of the "56 ethnic minorities" which, you see, one can distinguish from their various hats. To think I always used to sneer at the cultural studies people who talked about "cooption strategies". It's all true. Of course, I also think any notion of "right to self-government" based on perceived ethnic identity is pretty silly too. Thus I also have mixed feelings about China's internal conflicts with seperatist movements.

I'm not one to make statements about huge groups of people, but many Chinese seem to really need to believe in the greatness of their country, and the Olympics have become the way to do this at the moment. This kind of sentiment is, of course, hardly unique to the Chinese.

Meanwhile, it seems that the Chinese government has taken an approach to the preparation and holding of the games more reminiscent of Berlin 1936 than of a prosperous and open society. Amnesty International recently released a report claiming that the human rights situation has worsened significantly in the run up to the games. Migrant workers have been deported from Beijing. Common people protesting mistreatment by the government have been wisked away by police. Thousands of businesses have been shut down, and many more have been hurt badly by trafic restrictions. It's been difficult for foreigners to get visas, and the tourism related businesses across China have seen the worst summer in years.

I feel I'm meandering a bit. My mixed feelings toward the Olympics can be are basically as follows: Cosmopolitanism, China's developement and opening, achievement are great. Nationalism, collectivism, corporatism, and state thugery are all deeply repugnant. The entire spectacal in Beijing seems to be oozing with all of them.

Oh, and, for Chinese officials reading this- I come in peace:-)

Friday, August 08, 2008

I can't believe I missed this...

Brian Doherty, author of Radicals for Capitalism, posted a link on his blog to my review of the book, and even mentioned my name! (Google "Nico Dornemann"- it's the second result. I would include the link but the Great Fire Wall and my tech incompetence prevent me)

I know it's pretty small potatoes, but as someone who's harboured dreams of being a "public intellectual", it's still exciting. I'm kinda giddy, to be honest. I mean, I never thought anyone even read my blog. I feel like I've been inspired to continue my efforts again.

So expect some more posting- you, my non-existent readers!
UPDATE: I'm a moron- here's that link.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Degrees of Confidence in Belief

I've come to believe that it is important to state your degree of confidence, or at least be aware of it, in any assertions you make. The reason is that there are many things of which we are uncertain, and that fact itself has a lot of implications.
Here's an example I've found myself running into a lot: given the existence of a market failure, you can implement a government solutions or allow the market to provide a solution. Both solutions are not sure to succeed. If we're not completely confident in either approach working, what can we do? I think the answer is to first weigh your confidence in both outcomes, and which ever you think is more likely to succeed, you choose. (This example is actually more complicated, because government intervention tends to creates certain institutions which has effects outside of the issue at hand.)
I think this point is pretty obvious, but intellectual discourse, especially in philosophy, often simply presents arguments consisting of various premises, which are assumed to be true, and a conclusion. But what if you are uncertain about what the facts are?

Monday, October 22, 2007

A Brief Summary of How I've Changed My Mind

I attended what is seen by most as an extremely left-wing liberal arts college. For most of my time there I was fairly hostile to most of the predominant ideas floating around campus. Since then, however, I've become less emotional about certain issues, and have changed many of my positions, some of them, though certainly not all, closer to those of the left. I thought I'd offer a brief summary of how my views have changed on a couple of issues.

9/11 happened about a week or so into my college career. I was never really emotional about the attacks, but I did support the invasion of Afghanistan for what I saw as good, non-nationalistic reasons. I then also came to support the invasion of Iraq, for a lot of the reasons that were floating around previous to the start of that war.
I've pretty much pulled a 180 on my position on war, from fairly supportive of extensive U.S. military intervention to an extreme skepticism that verges on isolationism. The reasons for this, as I see it, are as follows:
1. The clear failure of the war in Iraq to achieve any end worth the loss of life and enormous use of resources the war has claimed.
2. A better awareness of the enormous costs of previous wars, and an emerging skepticism of the gains from them are as large as is often claimed.
3. The discovery of the simple inference that we can expect the military to perform about as well as any other government program.
4. The observation that civil liberties and other freedoms tend to erode during wartime.
5. War has often correlated with the expansion of the state.

This is an area where my views are closer to the those typical of the left then they were before, but remain different in important ways. I've moved closer to the left in the following views:
1. Race matters. It's a mistake to allow your egalitarianism blind you to the importance of race and the perception of race in American society.
2. Institutional racism exists.

I still remain far from the left, however:
1. The state should not attempt to right the above problems through income redistribution or regulations such as anti-discrimination laws.
2. The state, not 'capitalism' bears the majority of responsibility for racial problems in the U.S. today, thus:
3. These problems are more likely to go away in a libertarian society than in the the one the left envisions.

I'll add more as they occur to me.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Reactions to "Radicals for Capitalism"

I finished reading Brian Doherty's book about a month ago. I figure posting my obligatory reaction is a good way to end yet another long blogging hiatus.

For those of you at all interested in libertarianism, I can recommend it as not only informative but also really entertaining; for a 600 plus page book it seemed like a quick read. I especially enjoyed its treating of some of the more obscure figures in the movement's history, as well as it's coverage of Murray Rothbard, who emerged as a more sympathetic figure than my previous image of him, which was mainly as a crank and ideologue who's highly axiomatic system of economics and ethics made him basically incapable of engaging in any constructive discourse. The presentation in the book didn't totally alter that perception, but I did come away with more admiration for his principled opposition to war and to the state, to which I've found myself increasingly sympathetic.

The book also makes an important contribution in going to considerable lengths to show that libertarianism is a substantively different ideology from modern conservatism. I find this especially important, because I've recently felt that many libertarians have become too comfortable with conservatives, who have largely become advocates of the expansive state created by the progressives. Early libertarians seemed to understand the pernicious effects of America's involvement in the cold war, which clearly separated them from the mainstream of the conservative movement. Indeed, great thinkers like Mises and Hayek clearly understood that communism was bound to be moribund and was not the omnipresent threat that conservatives saw.

I do have a few minor complaints with the book. I came away with the impression that I didn't really have a much better understanding of libertarianism as a movement. I would have liked more exploration of the broader social context in which libertarianism came about. There is some of this- Doherty does address how utterly alien libertarian ideas seemed to almost all people until the 70's or so. Perhaps I'm just craving a neat historical-sociological thesis, which may well end up being contrived.

The book also has some stylistic flaws. I felt a few passages felt a bit tacked on in an attempt to convey the "free-wheeling" spirit of our movement (this phrase does in fact appear to have been literally inserted into the sub-title of the book shortly before publication, and also appears on the cover made to look like it was stuck in there by hand). Overall, however, the prose is very clear and avoids too many flourishes, and, as I mentioned, it is a very fun read.

I'll be sure to post any other thoughts that occur to me on this subject. Till then, I recommend you read it.