Thursday, July 3, 2008

Book Selection of the Month: "Critical Review," Vol. 19, Issue 1, edited by Jeffrey Friedman

american-flag.jpg Book Selection of the Month (July 2008): Critical Review

This month’s Book Selection is actually the twentieth-anniversary volume of an ongoing political science journal, Critical Review, edited by more or less libertarian Barnard political science professor Jeffrey Friedman, aimed at forcing libertarian ideas to be tested against the latest academic political science insights, and perfect for the Fourth of July — because CR has made it clear, like no other publication, that Kent Brockman was right and democracy simply doesn’t work.

I’ve been aware of CR for most of its twenty-year history (I cannot stress strongly enough how quickly time flies, young people), and I think it would be fair to sum up the progression in the averaged-together thinking of the many academic contributors — or at least its editor — like so (if one must sum it all up in four sentences):

•Around the end of the Cold War, when Friedman (who, like me and his senior editor, Dan Greenberg, had studied at Brown) started CR, it appeared libertarianism had some powerful insights about the dangers of state action and property rights violations but might not be as complete and coherent a philosophy as most of its adherents like to think, since its largely-empirical economic arguments cannot be made to blend seamlessly with its largely deontological rights arguments.

(As a good rule utilitarian, I don’t think it’s impossible to deduce socially-constructed but still largely rigid property rules from the empirical facts of econ and the insights from Austrian School economics about the impossibility of fine-tuned intersubjective utility comparisons, but that doesn’t stop me from reading the journal, and I recognize that Rothbardian rule-utilitarian leap is a more complicated one than your average Libertarian Party member concedes.)

•Being a bunch of highbrow academic types, some contributors considered basing arguments for freedom on postmodernism, arguing for the state’s elimination in order to leave people as free as possible to pursue their own projects — and like most things with the word “postmodernism” in them, this avenue of thought didn’t really lead anywhere.

•A “postlibertarianism” was nonetheless sketched out that would in essence be a large, empirical, steadfastly utilitarian and consequentialist research project — refusing to simply fall back on natural rights arguments — aimed at showing all interested observers, regardless of ideology, that markets really do deliver the goods, prevent events like the Great Depression, put the New Deal to shame, raise standards of living, solve problems better than governmental methods, etc. (exhausting but necessary — and ongoing).

•And Friedman hit upon his favorite theoretical argument for shrinking the state: the argument from ignorance, that is, the observation that surveys (their results largely unknown to the minuscule portion of the population who engage in political debate and possess ideologies) reveal such profound and near-total ignorance of even the most basic facts of politics (in the 80s, about half the population didn’t know who the vice president was, and in the 90s over half didn’t know who Newt Gingrich was) that the social-democratic dream of having everyone vote on everything or dragging all human activity (such as business) under the aegis of participatory, democratic decision-making is simply insane and, ample evidence shows, cannot be remedied by any remotely plausible amount of political education, consciousness-raising drives, or harangues to “get out the vote.”

In short, democracy is the rule of 300 million helpless prisoners by 300 million absolutely ignorant and incompetent slaveholders. Individuals can remember the details of their own individual lives but are absolutely clueless and dangerously deluded the moment they lift their eyes to the political horizon and ask themselves “How shall I tax and regulate the lives of my fellow citizens to make everyone happier?” Better to let us each efficiently run his own life while leaving others free to do the same — and above all, always leave people free to leave collective activities that they decide, even for unarticulated reasons, they wish to escape. Government, which is entirely based on mandates and forcibly extracted resources (taxes), can never, by definition, fulfill these requirements.

So this Fourth of July, give thanks not for democracy or American government but for the fact that the American Revolutionaries left us with so little government (at least at first, though we’ve slid a long, sad way toward European-style social democracy — or rather, its inevitable, real-world socialist-bureaucratic approximation) and such an individualistic notion of what “democracy” is. And check out Critical Review for the countless theoretical implications and empirical details that I haven’t time to go into here.

(But note that academics can be just about as ignorant as the rest of us: A snide article in Vol. 19, Issue 1 by Benjamin Ginsberg uses the Iraq War as an example of government misleading the ignorant masses — but twice refers to the war as starting in 2002, when it actually began in 2003. Intellectuals still tend to prefer theory to facts, as CR often notes — but that doesn’t make the masses any better, as Vol. 19, Issue 2/3 and Issue 4 explore with articles on the populist bully pulpit of the presidency and the pros and cons of primitive impulses like nationalism, respectively.)

And if you think the ignorance of the masses is exaggerated, consider two small personal examples:

•I once witnessed a Fox News commentator quite wisely pointing out to a frustrated National Review contributor that even NR, as perhaps the most popular political magazine in America, has only about 100,000 who read it, meaning that, as he put it, “about 299,900,000 people don’t — and that’s just in the U.S.” Surveys suggest that only about 2% of the population is even keeping track of what “left” and “right” mean, for whatever that’s worth these days, most people voting only on an extremely vague sense of candidates’ personalities and the assumption that the “tone of the times,” good or bad, is due largely to the actions of the president, pretty much the same “mandate of heaven” assumption underlying popular support or lack thereof for ancient Chinese emperors.

•I recently witnessed a liberal journalism professor — a journalism professor, I say — who shall remain nameless, admitting to mixing up John McCain with Howard Dean, not in some long-ago college seminar but this year, while watching campaign coverage — and as a result expressing surprise upon going online to learn that McCain is rather right-wing.

Who watches the watchmen? No one, and no one is competent to do so. So kindly stop governing me, all you ignorant pro-government power-junkies.

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