Monday, December 21, 2009

Commies, Punks, Academics

Partying my way across the political spectrum over the past few days (because life is so full of reasons to celebrate, don’t you know) brought me into contact with libertarians, then liberals, and tonight communists. I was on the massive invite list for the Communist Party USA’s annual holiday (??) party tonight at their Unity Hall headquarters on West 23rd St., so I may as well at least check it out.

The renting out of parts of that building is apparently their main source of income these days (landlords!), as the New York Post noted a couple years ago. The article mentioned one CPUSA official named Libero Della Piana, a Brown alum from my time who once played a game of Monopoly with an ex-girlfriend of mine, a prophetic ritual in retrospect.

Somewhat closer to me on the political spectrum, my self-described socialist friend Richard Ryan e-mailed a link to this New Republic rave for economist Amartya Sen’s new book, which ostensibly contains profound insights about why fundamental elements of economics ought to be questioned, such as the assumption that we should gauge the goodness of consequences by whether individuals’ preferences are being fulfilled. Weirdly, though, Sen does think that we should gauge people’s wellbeing by their capacity to enhance others’ preferences. Why the hypothetical second group of people’s preferences matter so much if the preferences of the first don’t is unclear — at least in the review, and I fear it wouldn’t be much better in the (much longer) book.

Sen is apparently building on Rawls’ intuition — hardly novel at this point and hardly something that takes hundreds of pages to explain — that helping the worst-off is the morally crucial thing, and should be seen as such even by developmental economists, requiring us to take the worst-off (even in distant places) into our democratic deliberations about how the rules of the world ought to be structured without clinging fast in advance to any particular set of intuited rules (such as purely libertarian or purely egalitarian ones). Sam Goldman responded to Richard Ryan by noting that several thinkers just at Harvard alone had already expanded on Rawls’ ideas in this way, such as Michael Sandel, Michael Walzer, and Judith Shklar.

(Sam, who jokes that he is the token atheist blogger at First Things, is the young scholar who, when I first encountered him a decade ago, was a straightedge punk, so he may well crop up in the chapter-length “Conservatism for Punks” essay I’m writing over the two-week vacation I’m starting today, assuming the Communists don’t alter my whole philosophy tonight.)

I find myself a lot less interested as I age in whether yet another philosopher or economist has intuited that we ought to do something about the desperately poor — we know, we know! — and more interested in what specific policies would work to get the job done (and of course, I’m guessing: markets, though one word may not quite do the topic Justice) and, perhaps more intriguingly, which specific policies do the most unwitting damage (foreign aid? licensure? protectionism?).

Here’s a practical consequence, if Sen wants to be a consequentialist: India, long suffering under de facto democratic socialism, partially deregulates…and poverty rates there decrease more rapidly than ever before in history (while philosophers come up with ever more rationalizations for why fully free markets aren’t the source of good outcomes).

I’ll grant Sen this, though: his ex-girlfriend (my former Brown prof Martha Nussbaum) is still kind of hot, though equally wrong about some things, despite the influence of her reportedly libertarian daughter.

Speaking of academics and communists, by the way, I was seated behind members of NYU’s Young Communist League in the studio audience of Stossel last week, and it was another reminder that I don’t think the liberal/academic mainstream can be trusted to ward off socialism (much as some market fans might wish there were a viable, more respectable alternative to pushing libertarianism). The YCL kids were the only ones in the audience shouting out comments about Kenneth Arrow and other esteemed liberal-mainstream thinkers as support for their pro-Obamacare position (and the Communist party invitation also noted the passage of Obamacare as reason to celebrate, by the way). By academic standards, they might have been A+ polisci students for all I know — and the very last people in the audience by whom I’d want to be governed.

I didn’t ask if they’d be at the party tonight, but I’m sure there’ll be plenty of people who are smart but wrong, and the “wrong” is the important part, from a consequentialist perspective. Those near-starving millions matter more than a handful of academics, no matter how impressive their credentials.


Jacob T. Levy said...

Shockingly enough, the Nobel-prize winning economist from India who has studied development for decades is not wholly ignorant of the economic transformation in his home country, though apparently this will come as a surprise to Todd as it violates his assumption that academics know less about their own subjects of lifelong study than he does.

See, just for a public example this Forbes column:

The growth rate of the Indian economy remained stuck at its low traditional point of 3% a year for a very long time. The economic policies needed substantial reform. In the old days, some wise guys used to put forward the thesis that India’s growth rate was low because of its democracy, which seemed to many of us rather ridiculous. But with continued low growth, that anti-democratic point of view gained some ground among high-octane commentators (never with the general public, though). When India changed its economic policies, the growth rate picked up as expected, without India becoming any less of a democracy to achieve this result.

The economic changes came amid much hesitation and huge resistance. To start with, India hastened slowly. The 1980s, which saw some moderate reforms, produced some quickening, with an economic growth rate of 5%, which may now seem sadly slow but was much faster than what had happened in the early decades of independence, not to mention a century of colonial semi-stagnation. But the economy was still full of problems connected with financial instability, trade imbalances and choking public administration. In general, what used to be called the “license Raj” made business initiatives extremely difficult and at the mercy of bureaucrats (large and small), thereby powerfully stifling enterprise while hugely nurturing corruption.

When Manmohan Singh came to office in the early 1990s as the newly appointed finance minister, in a government led by the Congress Party, he knew these problems well enough, as someone who had been strongly involved in government administration for a long time. (This was after his stint as a very successful university professor at Delhi University where I was privileged to have him as a colleague.) And Singh’s response was sure-footed though cautious, given the complex politics of policy reorientation. While the going has been rough from time to time, the direction of policy change has been unmistakable from that point onwards, endorsed even by successor governments run by other political parties.

India is now getting used to its much higher rate of growth, first around 6% a year and now about 8%, occasionally touching 9%. It is also remarkable that India’s main success has come not in traditional areas of exports but largely on newer industries, with a large component of high-tech, such as the information technology industry, which has rapidly grown to be a giant from a very modest beginning.[...]

Todd Seavey said...

No, my point is that this level of knowledge does not seem to quell the temptation to come up with less-capitalist sets of proposed rules than the ones that less-academic versions of market activism do. _They can know all this_ and still turn around and say explicitly that what we need to avoid is espousing some strict set of rules such as property rights — just as American intellectuals can describe the fall of the Berlin Wall in great detail but then come away with their main worry being that East Germans will become overly obsessed with shopping malls.

Intellectuals, even when far better acquainted with the empirical details than the common man, still can’t resist anti-capitalist philosophical or legal embellishments. If he concluded all these observations by saying “We must push for laissez-faire,” we’d have something. That he doesn’t should leave us wondering whether we’d be better off without all the stats, footnotes, academics, and egalitarian redistribution theories.

That more right answers emerge from Tea Parties than from Harvard ought to give academics themselves the courage to ask whether something is severely wrong — just as Hayek (radically paraphrased) suggested that more often than not, people who sit down to contemplate how society can be fixed will come up with disastrous ideas. The track record of expertise _helping_ in this area doesn’t seem very good, and we might _really_ be better off simply trying to spread a “simplistic” libertarian philosophy, embarrassing as it may be to toot one’s own horn, ideologically speaking.