Tuesday, April 7, 2015

45 Thoughts Inspired by Jacob Levy and Rand Paul (Prez #45)

1. Like the rest of you, I’ve spent the past several years making mocking comments about enemies and rivals on the Internet. But there was a deeper meaning to my activity even when making brief, dismissive remarks about longwinded professors or filibustering politicians. (I don’t just want argument or the rustling of jimmies.)

Truth be told, I’m a rule utilitarian -- that is, someone who (really) wants everyone to be as happy as possible and thinks we need a few relatively simple moral and legal rules to make that happen. As a very left-wing friend of mine once wisely put it, John Rawls’ Theory of Justice can’t be the actual set of moral rules we’re supposed to follow because it’s 500 pages long. That’s a joke, but it’s sort of true.

A lot of complex political theorizing must be dispensed with quickly (perhaps even snidely) if we’re to keep people focused on the few easily-promulgated ideas that work, chiefly property rights, which are a radically-decentralized and easily understood way of settling nearly all political and economic disputes with clarity. Veer away from strict adherence to that legal rule, and you quickly get into messy territory in which everyone sounds full of competing metaphysical and social theories out of Hegel. No good person wants that.

To their credit, though, people do tend to want some sort of peaceful political compromise most of the time. If people aren’t going to sign on to strong property rights as that simple conflict-resolution formula, I must at least partially respect those whose looser political formulas (A) approximate that ideal and (B) seem similarly rooted in a (broadly) libertarian desire to enable everyone to get along with each other (as opposed to silencing some in favor of others’ master plan).

Take, as conflict-resolution-formula examples, the federalist/constitutionalist conservatism of Rand Paul and the pluralist liberalism of Jacob Levy.

2. I’m delighted to see Rand Paul formally announce his candidacy for president at noon today in Kentucky (though that linked video from yesterday has a bit more fat, sunburn, and cultish chanting than I might have used if I had edited it). His efforts to blend libertarian and conservative thinking with outreach to the left confuses some but seems to me quite in keeping with his father’s use of constitutional, states’-rights thinking as a means of settling deeply divisive arguments in America in a civil, freedom-respecting fashion.

I don’t think young libertarians (delighted as I am by their growing numbers) really appreciate how unprecedented it is to have someone as libertarian as Rand Paul as close to presidential electoral success as he now appears to be, whether he ultimately prevails or not. This is not an opportunity to be lightly dismissed.

I can understand people avoiding all entanglement with the evil realm of electoral politics, but I’m baffled, really, by how anyone can intensely dislike Rand Paul while loving Ron Paul. No one ever seems to give me a good answer, merely pointing out some tiny flaw of Rand’s (usually falling in any area that many minarchist libertarians would consider a moral grey area anyway) that often as not was even more true of Ron. They tolerated Ron holding office, supporting Israel’s strike against emerging nuclear facilities in a nearby country back in 1980, voting to authorize the Afghanistan war in 2001, working with more moderate political allies in Congress, occasionally voting for the best available (least-statist) of several competing bills, and so on. Why are all these things monstrous when Rand does them?

And Rand does them without wandering off into conspiracy theories or dizzying run-on sentences about banking.

I mean, he’s far from perfect -- he’s a politician, for one thing -- but in the current context, I think he’s clearly our best bet (as does Cato’s David Boaz). Sit out the whole process if you like, but I question whether anyone backing any other major-party candidate is serious about radically shrinking government and expanding freedom. (And as a strategic sidenote, I’ll repeat something I said about the elder Paul’s 2012 run: If and only if the Republicans nominate Paul, then Gary Johnson, who keep in mind is no anarcho-capitalist himself, should suspend his Libertarian Party campaign.)

3. And if you think Rand Paul is some sort of warmonger because, say, he sounds unimpressed by the “deal” with Iran, consider this, please, recent historical reason to be unimpressed by such deals (h/t Jeremy Kareken).

4. I’m amused by the unusual length of what is apparently Rand Paul’s official campaign slogan:

Defeat the Washington machine. Unleash the American dream.

It’s got a certain poetry. Bit more badass than “Hope, Growth, and Opportunity.”

And, hey, he’s got J.C. Watts in his corner, which may help with his ongoing black-outreach thing.

5. I wish ethnic calculations didn’t matter at all, but clearly they do when crunching vote totals. The Hispanic ties of Jeb Bush, Rubio, and Cruz -- even Romney -- have clearly been an implicit part of their resumes, which is not unreasonable. After all, we now live in a country where a friend of mine just this weekend overheard a woman describe her daughter being bullied for not speaking Spanish and being told by teachers that until she learns Spanish she should expect to be bullied.

6. We must come to grips with multiculturalism and pluralism. That’s where the two books of Jacob Levy come in, respectively. The second, just out, is Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom, and it’s great.

There are many different ways of carving up the political realm (I hesitate to say “spectrum,” since that’s most definitely one specific model and perhaps a tired one). I’ve long known, roughly since we were undergrads twenty-six years ago, that Jacob’s not fighting the usual right vs. left battle, but neither is he fighting the usual individualism vs. state battle that occupies libertarians and socialists alike.

His liberalism is a middle way, not only within the usual American spectrum but within the history of liberalism itself (in the broad sense that includes both individualist classical liberalism and modern statist liberalism), conceptually if not necessarily in terms of any specific policy recommendations. Like Vartan Gregorian, the man who was president of Brown when Jacob and I were there -- and like no small number of Burkeans and even paleoconservatives, though Jacob might not want to be associated with them -- he admires de Tocqueville and emphasizes civil society’s intermediary institutions (from churches to universities to bird-watching societies, those entities that are neither individualist nor statist).

He describes both the methodological individualists (like most libertarians including me) and the statists as rationalists but thinks (like many academic left-liberals) there’s a neglected strain of liberal pluralists in intellectual history who have more to teach us about how multiple sets of lawlike customs can coexist. (There’s some similarity here to anarchist David Friedman’s online book-in-progress Law Codes Very Different from Our Own, which surveys gypsy, Amish, and other rule sets.)

Jacob is describing the European experience, he says, not that of the U.S. or other parts of the world, but there is an unmistakable resemblance to the letter he wrote to Liberty magazine over twenty years ago reminding me not to be too dismissive about the Amish, and indeed I’ve come to see them as a model of practical anarchism regardless of their conscious philosophy. The Constitution, and American liberty in general, can be thought of more as a truce, he told me, than as a perfected rational philosophy. Aiming for the latter may be asking too much.

If boosting the left or right is a doomed proposition because of their co-dependent relationship in which each move by one causes a countermove from the other side, perhaps (depressingly) the same is true of the classical liberal/modern liberal tension (individual vs. state). A way out of the bind may be needed: pluralist liberalism as a path between the individualist-rationalists and the statist-rationalists. As a practical strategic matter, it might well be so, even if that’s still a messy, not tidily-resolvable path by the abstract standards of philosophy.

I still think real individualist philosophy -- methodological individualism and Austrian economics -- has barely been tried (despite all the hate already directed at it by the left). In my experience, it catches on rather well when explained to people without compromises and mushy add-ons, and it achieves wonders on the even rarer occasions it’s implemented. We should at least give that a more serious try, I think. But Jacob offers a far less-statist route than the currently dominant crop of liberals.

Liberalism has a real history, though, not just abstract theories, and even traditionalists may be surprised how much they enjoy seeing Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom weave important lessons from that centuries-long conversation and the real social conflicts that produced it and shape it even today.

7. As an aside of particular personal interest, I must say Jacob’s main argument against pure anarcho-capitalism (or Nozickian pure liberalism, as he frames it) is a pragmatic yet hypothetical one: What if you’re stuck in a world where all land is claimed by groups with strict customs to which you must adhere, and the best you can hope for is to choose among those groups? How is that individual freedom?

Fair enough, but as a rule utilitarian, I must ask: what if popularizing theories other than anarcho-capitalism is the fastest way to create a world in which people are routinely stuck in restrictive rule-making groups that claim all surrounding land and don’t like to sell it or allow for individual diversity? That seems far more likely to me. (Even in an unlikely world of vast, inescapable, repressive anarcho-capitalist compounds, though, we could presumably pursue some small Georgist fix such as limiting the ownership of land in emergencies rather than go the more intrusive route of telling people on a given parcel of land how to live or what forms of autonomy and personhood they must foster.)

The impure capitalist theories may thereby be more self-refuting in practice than is the pure theory, which is so rarely even spoken aloud. The pure theory may confront difficult hypotheticals in extreme cases, but the impure theories are already causing disaster in reality.

8. By my atheist-anarchist lights, the worst-case scenario philosophically, though, is the theist-socialist. Having recently come out as super-Christian hasn’t made the ludicrous Ana Marie Cox averse to using force against her fellow Christians for left-liberal ends, for instance.

9. There are, I will admit though, extreme cases in which private action borders on state-like coercion, as a recent documentary and this old article argue is the case with Scientology. But does either the anarcho-capitalist or the Levyan pluralist really have reason to single out Scientology for criticism among all the other restrictive religions and cults? Short of assault and fraud, we largely have to let people do what they want.

10. The first person Jacob footnotes is Larry Siedentop, who I blogged about last time -- and who earnestly pushes that (rationalist) individual-and-state model in his book despite, ironically, dealing almost exclusively with intermediary church institutions in his analysis. But Jacob has learned from an array of influences without necessarily endorsing everything they say and also thanks people like MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry. He’s a peacemaker and bridge-builder.

11. By contrast, the once-useful Southern Poverty Law Center has become an antagonistic, alarmist joke and instead of defending blacks against oppression is now reduced to calling black doctor and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Ben Carson an extremist threat. I think we’ll survive him, SPLC.

12. The Indianapolis Star front pages seen nearby, from forty years apart, are a reminder (h/t Mollie Hemingway) how far we’ve fallen from protecting basic liberty to imposing a left-liberal cultural agenda.

13. For good or ill, Jacob might more or less agree with both headlines, though. Witness the nuance in his take on the whole Indiana gay legal fracas. He’ll irk many hardcore libertarians, in this case managing to endorse anti-discrimination laws and the morass of common law on the meaning of “public accommodation” even as he condemns the Indiana law as ugly, redundant, and purely symbolic all at the same time. Yet that’s consistent with the cautious view in his new book that principles are derived from the thicket of history instead of standing wholly outside that thicket.

I would often prefer philosophers to stand outside history shouting “Wrong!” Admittedly, political science professors have a different function and way of approaching problems than (often simplistic) pure philosophers -- but my basic objection to the political scientists’ usual approach is that no one but professors and lawyers has time for all those details. Saying so isn’t anti-intellectualism. It’s a (mildly but realistically populist) recognition that the experts will take over and centralize decision-making if no one else can follow the conversation.

14. Time and again, I worry about the pretense of neutrality, objectivity, and expertise. It goes awry easily. Heck, these days reporters at places like Richmond, VA’s CBS News Channel 6, namely Alix Bryan, apparently think it’s just part of their job to report the pro-Memories Pizza fundraiser for fraud, despite zero evidence of fraud, for instance. (Alinsky politics in action, as one Twitter user put it -- welcome to the left’s twenty-first-century America.)

15. And the current perpetually-outraged left, unlike, say, right-wing pizza-sellers, are not just acting like opinionated customers in the market. They are urging state action and knowing they’re likely to get it (they already have, meaning that this whole “Indiana Law” venture, started by religious conservatives, is basically going to end up making it harder to discriminate legally in Indiana than it was before all this began).

If, as Jacob himself has argued, Jim Crow was pernicious in part because it so thoroughly entwined public and private authoritarianism, the same is true of the mounting collaboration between the government and the cultural left in our own day. It is the left, not the right, that is pushing things farther and farther toward open violent confrontation in the streets instead of voluntary pluralism.

16. The left always has to maintain its pretense of being the underdog, but here’s a nice, long Ace of Spades rant about a leftist who can only argue against strawman Christian theocrats, not libertarians.

17. Liberalism changes over time. The Economist changes, too, alas, with former Party of European Socialists intern and Marxist literature major Jeremy Cliffe, who narrated a TV show saying we should take Russell Brand seriously, becoming the new Bagehot columnist (h/t J’Lien Sorbo and Guy Fawkes’ Blog).

I am reminded of sitting at the Economist table at a Reason event and realizing only one member of the Economist group was a laissez-faire advocate and the others thought he was a funny relic (and catch me in politically-mixed company again onstage April 18 at 6pm (not 7!!) at the PIT in one of their Electoral Dysfunction panels, 123 E. 24th!).

18. I fear this new Bagehot columnist will not do, say, interviews that embarrass the Green Party prime minister candidate the way this one does (h/t J'Lien Sorbo). If you can bear to hear 3min 42sec of the most painfully awkward political interview in history, that’s a typically snide UK interviewer effortlessly destroying a completely flustered Green Party candidate for prime minister who admits she hasn’t done the math(s) on public housing costs, despite it being central to her platform. Brutal.

19. Back in the U.S., though, I wonder sometimes amid overblown battles about race and abortion, on Twitter and occasionally even in reality: do modern liberals today consider it more urgent in the days ahead to fight the battles they won decisively fifty years ago or the battles they won decisively forty years ago? If you see what I mean.

20. Speaking of Twitter, I predict Trevor Noah will in fact cave under criticism and mute his offensive comedy. He joked in a recent stand-up routine (h/t J’Lien Sorbo) about how Charlie Hebdo basically had it coming, so while he’s stupid and offensive, he’s not the champion of free speech that Patton Oswalt is. He’ll do what the left wants. Alas, Voltaire, etc., etc.

21. Society has become so leftist-hypersensitive so quickly that there is now a controversy raging within the comedian community because one of their own made a joke about another comedian (who herself does a lot of low humor) being a fat woman with one arm. Think about that: COMEDIANS ARE HANDWRINGING (those that have two hands) over COMEDIANS joking about OTHER COMEDIANS and about THE “COMEDIAN COMMUNITY” NOT STEPPING IN FAST ENOUGH TO CRITICIZE IT. That’s how fucking sensitive the idiot-crybabies composing this society have become.

22. Would that everyone had the patience and thick skin of this sleepy French bulldog. If Michael Malice, Austin Petersen, Alex Jones, and (my fictional hero from youth) Jonny Quest all love that breed, it must be the dog of liberty and high adventure.

23. Anyone who claims not to see how government regulation, p.c., terrorism, and the police state all encourage each other now, slowly melding in an overall presumption against liberty and thought, is either very naive, very ideological, or insane. I have rarely been more pessimistic about the culture in my adult lifetime.

24. Thirty years ago this month, though, we thought the future would look more like this wiseass, Max Headroom, and we weren’t all that far wrong.

26. Similarly: many people have joked that this ad for the new music-streaming service Tidal looks like a meeting of the Legion of Doom.

27. Meanwhile: despite what you’ve likely heard, Zoe Quinn (the online harasser who plays the victim to uncritical media acclaim) and other anti-GamerGate forces of this world are mostly lying political-zealot jerks, but it looks like their efforts to seize control of sci-fi’s Hugo Awards have failed, thank goodness.

28. I don’t know if the dwarf-tossing jokes in the Lord of the Rings movies were appropriate, but my complaints would be more comedy-driven than offense-driven. If they were going to do awkward references to current-day culture, though (something Tolkien himself was not entirely above -- note his golf jokes in The Hobbit), one I would like to have heard is Gandalf saying, “The Ents speak in low tones, always a powerful bass. You should hear an Ent whistle.”

29. That crossed my mind while watching the cool documentary Lampert and Stamp about the Who’s managers, which ends up being a very intimate look at the early band as well. It also made me realize Townshend’s reason for saying elsewhere that he dislikes Zeppelin: They nearly stole Moon and Entwistle! Small world. (And Stamp is the brother of Gen. Zod, I now know.)

30. Far from ours being a hopelessly patriarchal world that silences female voices, I could probably turn anything with tits and a political opinion into a successful pundit. You have no idea how desperate and eager TV is for women. But believe what you like.

31. Meanwhile, it sounds like Mindy Kaling’s brother ought to make a fact-based mildly conservative comedy film called Oversoul Man.

32. As one very wise friend of mine put it, if X-Men were real life, much as everyone loves its liberal metaphor for oppression, we wouldn’t see Sentinels hunting down mutants, we’d see people saying it’s time for Supreme Court Justice Ororo Monroe.

33. But what does nerddom's most beloved Canadian (besides Jacob and Geddy Lee) say about such culture wars? The context here is hopelessly, hopelessly complicated (h/t Charles C. Johnson), but perhaps William Shatner, like the rest of the world, is beginning to worry that liberalism is turning into primitive tribal score-settling.

34. This look at the campus left is not a bad summary of the current situation (and colleges, alas, tend to be a model for the future).

35. But I have not forgotten that more moderate figures like Michael Bloomberg can do even more damage (don't help him, Boris!!). They more easily rally a consensus and perform bipartisan mischief. Everyone is terrible, really.

36. In return, England gives us “10 Medieval Rabbits That Hate Easter and Want to Kill You” (h/t Timandra Harkness).

37. In the modern world, by contrast, do liberals actually believe this nightmare scene will occur with any frequency? (And what church does the gentle-sounding yet resolutely racist old man belong to anyway?)

38. I mean, sure, it’s something that could happen once in a while, sort of like these five minutes of clips from Night of the Lepus (h/t Franklin Harris).

39. But cats will always be more badass, even faced with bears (h/t Margaret Scobey Austgen).

40. I read Grant Morrison’s Ultra Comics #1, in which a central character pleads with the reader to stop turning the pages because the story itself is evil and must not be completed, and I’m pleased to see multiple people online voicing my suspicion -- that Morrison at some point read the terrifying Grover-from-Sesame-Street book The Monster at the End of This Book.

Jacob similarly joked about Hegel being the monster at the end of his book.

41. Immigration is crucial to Jacob’s thinking, I now understand, in part because it’s vital to avoiding that trapped-in-enclaves effect that would make anarcho-capitalism become creepy. I see NYC, for its part, might give a million non-citizens the right to vote. Frightening! We could end up with a communist mayor who honeymooned in Cuba. Oh…right. Never mind. Same dif.

42. Wariness of abstract model societies makes Jacob admirably averse to most formulations of “social justice,” and from the ButtHurt Libertarians page comes a scary reminder of what Atlas Shrugged might sound like if Ayn Rand had believed in so-called social justice:

“If you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down upon his shoulders -- what would you tell him?”

“I...don‘t know. What…could he do? What would you tell him?”

“Check your privilege.”

43. OK, that’s a joke, but here’s some real Communist propaganda (h/t Tim Cavanaugh), a cartoon short in which a decadent American bulldog inherits vast wealth -- and becomes totally awesome and wins at life!

44. And in a simple reminder of the clash between modern fragmentation and the echoes of the old paterfamilias that Siedentop describes: an emotional farewell, one of the most memorable scenes in TV history, from All in the Family (h/t Mark Judge).

45. All of the tensions described above, much as we may fight about them, are trivial, of course, compared to some of the life-or-hellfire battles of the Middle Ages -- and we’ll look at those next time in the form of the new book Medieval Heresies by Christine Caldwell Ames.

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