For Non-Blonds

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Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Freddie says:

      This post was in draft since yesterday at lunchtime. The whole time I was in constant fear that someone would steal my pun.Report

    • Avatar Freddie in reply to Freddie says:

      Beyond the great title of the post….

      As an analytical critique of Blond, I think you are almost entirely right. What I think someone who is more Blond-ian than I am would say is that the trouble is that while there is indeed a division between society and governance, people with a (uh, small-l, I guess) libertarian bent, on both the right and the left, tend to think that normative constraints on the level of society are actually occurring on the level of state. In other words, I imagine Blond thinks that too many on the left and the right makes the exact reverse of the mistake you are accusing him of making, confusing state power for social power.

      So a Blondie might argue for a normative constraint on the level of society that others might argue against as being coercive in the way that you’ve defined it above. If you agree with Blond, I think you have to increase the room in which we can make normative (values) judgments, but people have a tendency to think of this as all a matter of coercion and thus invalid. On the level of philosophy, I doubt many studied libertarians would make this mistake, but perhaps as a practical matter, this tendency is more common. Certainly, many of the academic/leftist critiques of constraints on personal liberty with which I am most familiar tend to occlude the difference between state coercion and social coercion. (Often to their detriment, I think.)Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Freddie says:

        I think you’re probably right here.

        Also lurking in the background is a favorite bugaboo of mine, the ghost of G.W.F. Hegel. Many people follow Hegel whether they know it or not, and believe that the state should be the expression of their society’s highest aspirations or values. If the state reflects the wrong set of aspirations or values, then it’s time for politics to begin.

        I on the other hand see the state (at least the modern one) as sort of a kludge that we put together after we realized that we couldn’t significantly perfect human nature. It’s “an amalgamated mass of totally unrelated parts forming a distressing whole” — but I can’t see a way of doing without it.Report

  1. Avatar North says:

    This is an awsome post. Good job.Report

  2. Avatar Dan H. says:

    Thank you for this.Report

  3. Avatar Ryan Davidson says:

    Hang on here. You’re making a move which, while effective in establishing your point, I don’t think is necessarily justified and actually causes you to commit the mistake that you accuse Blond of committing. Specifically, I’m talking about your assertion that “Rights are claims against government.”

    Are they? Civil rights certainly are, by their very definition. But human rights? Their most obvious claim is against governments, but the modern human rights regime is far broader than that. The claim is not only that government cannot infringe upon human rights but that no one else can either, including private citizens.

    I should think this is obvious. Otherwise, there is no way to claim that many practices in the developing world which are widely decried as violations of human rights actually count as such. Female circumcision, forced abortions, inequitable divorce, none of these somehow implicate our concept of rights if the state isn’t doing them? Somehow that doesn’t seem to fit with what I understand of the way most of our contemporaries think about human rights.

    As a result, your claim, which is essential for your argument, winds up conflating society and government. If rights are also claims against other individuals, i.e. they are operative in society in the absence of any governmental structure, then Blond’s analysis is spot on. Indeed, I think the crux of Blond’s analysis is that rights as they are currently conceived are not merely civil conveniences but are claimed to have some sort of moral normative character. The international human rights community certainly seems to think so.

    I admit not being fully up to speed on the conversation here, but I don’t think you can get away from Blond quite that easily.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Ryan Davidson says:

      I’d agree with you entirely if all I wrote were that “rights are claims against government.”

      I went on in the very next sentence, however, to say “[Rights] are also things that I agree to give up doing, although I may find them personally appealing… We all give up certain things equally, because anyone claiming these things makes life either unfair or unlivable.”

      Now, one might argue that after we give up these things, we no longer have a meaningful society in some sense. I wouldn’t make that argument myself, and it may be pretty close to what Blond seems to be agitating for (minus the female circumcision, presumably). This would bring us closer to where I think he made his second mistake, namely thinking that a Lockean regime of rights voids society of meaning.Report

  4. Avatar Chris Dierkes says:

    I prefer Milbank’s analysis generally to Blond.

    Milbank would agree that Locke & Co. do have a vision of the good. In fact, he would say it’s a derived Judeo-Christian one, an outgrowth of a certain tendency in late medieval political theology, though in the end for Milbank he finds it contrasts with what he sees as the Christian narrative. Hence his term that modernity is a counter-eschatology.

    Negative liberty is, er a “positive” liberty I suppose (if that’s not too close to home).

    Which I think suggests (a la Sandel) a need for much more dialog at the level of society about the strengths and the weaknesses of said liberal vision of the good.

    What happens when communities become locations of home ownership in the housing market?

    What happens when a societal vision of the good becomes dominated by the notion that everyone gets what they deserve? Or if they don’t we simply have to create level playing fields (or something close to that) through redistribution? Or (per Republican practice) redistribute upwards?

    I don’t want to go anti-modern and I have no romantic notions of the 50s or the 1550s for that matter.

    But is tolerance enough? is the good just that we can get a bunch of people from different worldviews together, play hardball politics at the state level without killing each other and forcing their worldview on everybody else (not that this isn’t an achievement that liberalism should be proud of) and at the societal level not bothering each other?

    Habermas has talked about a post-secular society. Something like that I think is where we should be headed.

    Something that includes the great elements of liberalism but moves beyond it in some ways. Those some ways could include elements we typically call communitarian but I think they would look very different than how those ideas have normally been advocated.Report

    • Excellent points, Chris. I wonder how much of Blond’s or Milbank’s or many of these other critiques are really centered not so much around liberalism per say but around consumerism and materialism, and how these side effects of a capitalistic economy can seem to deaden the life of communities or drain away the most important pieces of our spiritual selves.Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to E.D. Kain says:

        I guess what I’d like to ask the anti-consumerists around here is: What do you propose? I’m seeing a lot of angst, and not a lot of policy.

        What is it you want, and how do you get it without returning to the pre-consumerist past, in which the vast majority of people lived lives that were not only intellectually and spiritually coarse, but also full of purely material misery?Report

        • Avatar JosephFM in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

          Well….that’s the question, isn’t it.

          I wish I knew. I know I hate the way things are, and I’m reasonably sure they aren’t sustainable. But I’m neither imaginative nor optimistic enough to see a really satisfactory alternative.Report

          • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to JosephFM says:

            As someone who studies the early modern period, I’m not sure what you mean by the “pre-consumerist past”. Are you talking about pre-industrial capitalism? Even there, the idea that Feudalism (is that what you’re talking about?) was abolished by capitalism is very Marxist/materialist and most of us think entirely too mono-causal, mechanistic, and sweeping in its assumptions. Certainly a lot of factors have contributed to the intellectual and material boons of the last three centuries, of which one, absolutely, was capitalism.

            So, I’m not really sure that anyone’s “anti-consumerist”, or if so only mildly, around these parts. Nevertheless, I did write a post recently arguing that several institutions in cultural and civic life suffer by not having an enduring guiding vision, and trying, instead, to submit themselves primarily to market economics.

            That all sounds airy-fairy, but what I’m thinking of, as ever, is the university. I was an undergraduate at a university that had a very traditional and strong vision of academia and its role in the creation of a good life, and this vision guided their decisions and justified their fairly high academic standards. That’s not to say that market considerations were excluded though. They had the Barnes & Noble university bookstore and worked with the local tourist industry, and made use of the market in other ways. It’s just that these considerations were subordinate to their vision of a university.
            Obviously, I compare this to the large university where I’m completing my PhD, which I jokingly call Mall University, but that’s because everyone, I know at the university calls it that. Here, they seem to have no idea what a university might be and, instead, judge the institution by the metrics of a consumer market model. What I’m saying is that’s a good idea for cars and toothpaste, but not necessarily for civic and cultural institutions. So, I don’t know if that’s anti-consumer so much as believing that the consumer model has its place, but should not be applied as a sole criteria of all aspects of human activity, which seems fairly moderate really.

            So I think what people are talking about is strengthening civic and cultural institutions as a sort of counterbalance or simply another sphere of public life.

            Also, having been beneath the poverty level at many times in my life, I can assure you that there are still places in the US where the majority live lives of spiritual and intellectual coarseness and material misery.Report

            • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Rufus F. says:

              I’m not sure what you mean by the “pre-consumerist past”.

              I mean the era during which most people even in the West lived under subsistence conditions and the constant threat of famine. This was an era which appears demographically to have ended around 1800, at least in the West, and with admittedly a few later exceptions.

              Even the poor in today’s America seldom live that poorly. A peasant in the eighteenth century had a good chance of being illiterate, might live in a dirt-floored hovel, might be subject not just to bland or fatty foods but to eating grass and tree bark, and might count it a really good year if he acquired a set of second- or third-hand clothes. That’s what I mean by the pre-consumerist past.

              So, I’m not really sure that anyone’s “anti-consumerist”, or if so only mildly, around these parts.

              I find this claim surprising in light of the others you’ve made. Being anti-consumerist seemed a reasonable inference from your writing that “a ‘consumer’ is a pitiable human.” Or from suggesting that the consumer’s soul might be “[s]omething in between a child and a sociopath.” Those are harsh words, aren’t they?Report

              • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                Ah, okay. I think you’ve misunderstood me, although I take full responsibility for that. Clearly, my writing style is way too abstract and unclear on this point. What I’m trying to get at is that none of us look at the other people in our lives in terms of their market preference because it gives a very, very limited image of the person. When I say, “a ‘consumer’ is a pitiable human”, what I’m trying to say is that reducing your understanding of another individual to their acts of conumption is to give a very pitiable image of them. I’d wanted to put some metaphor there about the actual person standing next to a voodoo doll, but I’m sure that wouldn’t have helped much.

                So, if you’re a member of a church, you want your priest to look at you in the widest terms possible and not in mere economic terms. Similarly, when I teach a student, I have to try to have as fully-formed and rich a picture of them as a human being as possible- the consumer image is very tiny and limited. And not particularly respectful. What I’m trying to say is that consumption is only one thing we do and there’s something callous and inhuman about intellectually reducing another person to that one activity. Maybe a better example really is my university seeing our students as “basic income units”. Civil society is based in human relationships that are much richer and more complex than that, and so reducing them to those terms is to diminish the people involved. Also, civic and cultural institutions should be rooted in a richer picture of human life.

                So, no, I’m not saying that there’s people walking around who fit the bill because they shop; just that the term ‘consumer’ is too limited to describe a full human life. As for the sociopath line, what I was trying to suggest is that looking at one’s self that way, as if shopping is the only meaningful activity in your life, or even the highest one, is to reduce all character traits to a very limited range that isn’t particularly healthy socially or psychologically. But, again, this is why none of us (I hope) actually look at ourselves only as consumers. It’s not that being a consumer is unhealthy, it’s that most everyone structures their lives around a wider range of experiences and activities, of which consumption is one, and I’d say probably not the most important or meaningful. After a certain age, it sort of becomes a hassle.

                So, what I’m trying to critique is understanding human beings solely or primarily by market behavior because I think it’s depersonalizing when institutions, of course aside from consumer services (obviously a mall should look at its customers as customers) look at the humans who deal with those institutions in this limited way.

                As for the medieval peasantry, I do think their suffering often gets exaggerated. But, there my point is really that a lot has changed since the 1700s and the development of capitalism was one part of it. Certainly, the average standard of living has risen to levels unseen in human history, and a big part of that is due to capitalism. But not all of it by any means.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Rufus F. says:

                Thanks for this, Rufus, it’s very helpful. I’ll have more to say about Economic Man sometime next week, I think.Report

              • Avatar Rufus in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                Yeah, I don’t know how to search comments, but somebody- I think maybe Mike Farmer- made a really apt comment here recently about libertarians seeing civil society as a means of keeping both the state and markets in line. Part of what it reminded me of was the island off Maine that my father lives on. They’ve got a few hundred people, a grocery store and one government official, and otherwise every need they have is met by the community, usually through pretty innovative means. My sense is that that sort of community cooperation has been the norm in most parts of the world throughout history because it’s embedded in our DNA to be social.Report

  5. In advance of something of mine that may appear in these pages shortly, I do just want to say that I am almost entirely comfortable with everything in this post. Indeed I think these liberal thought structures form to a great extent, with certain adjustments of emphasis, my, and I think really most Americans’, sort of basic background theoretical political operating system, to which other thoughts can be introduced for contrast, but which would require a widespread revolution in thought to overturn. To the extent modern liberals differ from what is here, I think it is just in how limited they think the state should be, and the extent to which they think a state controlled in some meaningful way by a broad polity might have some additional legitimacy in action than would a predatory, unaccountable state.

    I also entirely with the reminder that the essence of the state is violence. While I would question to the idea that all states are necessarily legitimate in their right to kill those in allegiance to it except under very limited cicumstnaces (belligerent outsiders being a separate matter entirely), it remains true that the essence of a state being a state is its competence in the use and control of violence That should not be forgotten. At the same time, it is rather a definitional point that I don’t think supports any attitude of blanket demonization (not to say that appears in this post). Rather, the circumstnaces of individual states’ use of violence against those in its allegiance are what should be subject to close scrutiny. Otherwise, we stand in danger of crticizing an entity for being exactly what we define it to be in the first place. Hobbes is also part of the liberal canon. Even though he would resist that assertion, it nevertheless remains true. We need Hobbes to understand in the first place what it is we have onour hands in the stte, why we allowed it and to come into existence allow it to endure, however much we have learned through bitter tears to regard it as a necessary evil and to limit it. Outside of the nightmarish conditions of the modern predatory state, there were surely more bitter tears shed per capita in the eons of the General War than there were in even the few centuries in which the modern liberal state was even glimmer in anyone’s eye. If we want (and I realize not all of us do) to rely in the main on the deterrent provided by the state against the use of violence on our persons by other free agents in our vicinity, then we do to some extent need to support a primary central control of violence there. (Some I realize prefer to rely on themselves for heir own protection, but that in absence of a state in turn leads rather inexorably to the amassing of competing stocks of arms, which ultimately will result in certain entities coming to dominate the means of violence in an area in any case. The question then becomes for the less- or un-armed whether to seek an alliance with the local stronger party, and on what terms. Questions of accountability and legitimacy arise; look where you find yourself. The point is that violence is a human force that will always have to be managed, and it isn’t so clear to me that the state isn’t both an inevitable, and a rather effective institution (all things considered and with massive exceptions) that we have devised for doing that. (That may seem a ridiculous statement until you grant that not every massively violent action taken by every state has been necessarily tied to the fact or nature of the institution generally, but rather to the individual decisions of those directing those states at those times.)

    But I digress, and moreover that is likely all familiar territory covered in service of a mere quibble with emphasis. Overall, I agree in the main with this post, and I certainly place myself unambiguously in the liberal tradition, very much in a similar understanding of it as it is so elegantly rendered here (whatever else I may have to say here going forward).Report

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