On Civil Society

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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126 Responses

  1. rj says:

    There’s no such thing as a minimally-invasive “watchman weed.” Weeds aren’t needed to have a monopoly of force so the lawn stays clean and unmolested.

    A weed is simply a derogatory term and not some sort of analogy, it’s just a basic insult. Kling doesn’t like government (or is pandering to people who don’t like government) and that’s all he’s saying here. To dress it up into some coherent argument on the limits of the state is a waste of effort.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to rj says:

      The analogy to plants is actually very helpful.

      Mint is an essential kitchen herb. If you’re growing an herb garden, you absolutely must have mint.

      But mint is one hell of a weed if it gets out of control. Is it essential? Yes… in moderation.Report

  2. BlaiseP says:

    In an odd moment of synchronicity, taking a break from reading Chomksy and Foucault’s debate, I uncovered this semi-appropriate gem from Foucault:

    On the other hand, one of the tasks that seems immediate and urgent to me, over and above anything else, is this: that we should indicate and show up, even where they are hidden, all the relationships of political power which actually control the social body and oppress or repress it.

    What I want to say is this: it is the custom, at least in European society, to consider that power is localised in the hands of the government and that it is exercised through a certain number of particular institutions, such as the administration, the police, the army, and the apparatus of the state. One knows that all these institutions are made to elaborate and to transmit a certain number of decisions, in the name of the nation or of the state, to have them applied and to punish those who don’t obey. But I believe that political power also exercises itself through the mediation of a certain number of institutions which look as if they have nothing in common with the political power, and as if they are independent of it, while they are not.

    One knows this in relation to the family; and one knows that the university and in a general way, all teaching systems, which appear simply to disseminate knowledge, are made to maintain a certain social class in power; and to exclude the instruments of power of another social class.
    Institutions of knowledge, of foresight and care, such as medicine, also help to support the political power. It’s also obvious, even to the point of scandal, in certain cases related to psychiatry.

    It seems to me that the real political task in a society such as ours is to criticise the workings of institutions, which appear to be both neutral and independent; to criticise and attack them in such a manner that the political violence which has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.

    This critique and this fight seem essential to me for different reasons: firstly, because political power goes much deeper than one suspects; there are centres and invisible, little-known points of support; its true resistance, its true solidity is perhaps where one doesn’t expect it.

    I don’t generally agree with Michel Foucault, but here I do.

    The metaphor of the Weed is craptacularly bad. I can’t find the metaphor used anywhere in the linked article, perhaps he used it elsewhere. Society is a jungle. When it’s operating properly, it can support an amazing variety of interdependent life forms. Yet jungles are often found on the poorest of all soils: every molecule of nutrient is carefully recycled on the jungle floor, the primates and birds move through the canopy above, eating each fruit as it comes into season.

    Cut the jungle down and put in a “lawn” and you can’t keep cattle on it for two years. What was once jungle can become a desert, as it has in some places like Madagascar. The “lawn” will become a desert. A weed is a plant growing well where you don’t like it to grow.

    And as you point out, if a community wants a library, hey, I’ve helped put up over a dozen community libraries in Guatemala on the exact model you describe.

    Kling’s fallacy is the same as most libertarians: he simply will not see government itself as a voluntary association, its elected members the triumph of the popular will, their mandate derived from our votes. All this hooey about Voluntary Association — Kling needs to own a condo for a while and see how that Voluntary Association business works when it comes to the snowplowing. As for all that Theocracy bushwa and One Nation Under God, Eisenhower had it put in during the Cold War as an insult to the Warsaw Pact which was busily murdering and jailing members of other Voluntary Associations, the people of faith. The Constitution provides us with the No Religious Test clause: I think, between the atheists and the freethinkers and the deeply suspicious people of faith like myself, we can keep the Pharisees at bay for another two centuries.

    Reliance on charity is DOA. The homeless families I feed will start arriving at the Walmart down the road in their cars at sundown tonight, surreptitiously, trying not to stick out too much, trying not to offend. That this society tolerates such conditions, especially for children, is a national disgrace.Report

    • Scott in reply to BlaiseP says:


      Who do think killed reliance on charity and civil society? Fourty plus years of liberal social policies have taught americans to expect a gov’t handout to fix their problems. Liberals don’t seem to like the unintended side effects of their policies.Report

      • Robert Cheeks in reply to Scott says:

        Amen Scott. It’s a wonder a man of the world such as BP hasn’t figured that out, yet?Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Scott says:

        The poor I deal with don’t expect a Gummint Handout and they do not get one. Maybe you ought to get out and meet a few of these people.Report

        • Robert Cheeks in reply to BlaiseP says:

          Well, you never invited me. And, as you say I lead a purposefully sheltered life….also, I have feelings!Report

        • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to BlaiseP says:

          Except it’s not the poor who have that expectation, it’s the middle class, who don’t contribute to charities because they expect the government to take care of it, because that is what they’ve been told, time & again.Report

          • BlaiseP in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

            The middle class do contribute to charities: the USA is the most philanthropic nation on earth at a personal level. It’s the churches who run the food pantries. As I recommended to the worthy Mr. Cheeks above, come out to see the poor. It will change your opinions of them, for many of them these days were recently middle class folks, with a home and a lawnmower and Everthang Needful for a Suburban Existence.Report

            • MadRocketScientist in reply to BlaiseP says:

              I’ve grew up dirt poor & I have worked with the poor, in some of the poorest parts of the world (i.e. Somalia). Don’t assume you know how I feel about the poor.

              According to the NCCS, 67% of money for charities came from the government, with only 22% from private giving.

              So, people pay their taxes, and the government burns some of that tax money in order to redistribute it to private charities. How is this better than just lowering our taxes and encouraging us to give?Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to MadRocketScientist says:

                Very good of you to point that out. I contend the very worst approach to the poor is to condescend to them: they want dignity every bit as much as food, often more.

                Here’s where we differ, sorta. I see the government as Our Government, you see it as The Government.

                Here’s where we agree: we’ve both worked in refugee camps, it seems. The very worst ones are run by UNHCR and the best ones (comparatively speaking) are run by private NGOs. I simply refuse to work with UNHCR anymore after a stint in Lebanon. They don’t keep good order in the camp, won’t crack down on the bullies, won’t make sure the women and children are fed first, sanitation is horrible. These UNHCR types’ idea of refugee work is to drive around in their big white Land Cruisers and take the prettiest girls in the camp off for a fun-filled weekend at Baalbek. In the Congo, the UN peacekeepers are involved in prostitution. And my God do they waste money on themselves.Report

              • MadRocketScientist in reply to BlaiseP says:

                I’ll go with that. I stopped feeling that it was Our Government long ago. I believe it can be Our Government once again, but not without dismantling the power structure to a degree. Power corrupts and all that. We have too many bullies, megalomaniacs, & tin-pot dictators in political or bureacratic leadership positions. Far too often, we’ve all seen that environment, that power structure, take in new, idealistic leaders, and turn them into the very creature they despised when they took the job.

                I’m certain the UNHCR folks all took the job hoping that they’d make things better for the least of us. And I’ll bet the UN bureacracy destroyed that idealism pretty quickly.

                There are times when I think we, as a society, would all be best served if there was no career politician or government worker (or union leader, or corporate leader). If people could not work in government for more than 10 years total, there would be little time for power to become entrenched, and you would no longer have the permanent bottlenecks in government workflow (having worked in state government as a manager, that bottleneck is usually one person who refuses to do any more than the bare minimum, and who enjoys making people jump through hoops).Report

      • well okay in reply to Scott says:

        I think this argument has some salience – but far less than its advocates think.

        (1) It would be interesting to run a regression analysis regarding private charity over time versus government spending on the poor. I suspect that it wouldn’t lend much support to the argument you are making. But it would be nice if people making this argument would, at least, offer some evidence to support it.

        (2) Let’s at least when having this discussion be honest about the dimensions of the “problem.” Government anti-poverty spending is a tiny fraction of the budget. The biggest such program by far is medicaid. The rest are a relative pittance. And, except for medicaid, which is growing mainly because the cost of medical care is growing, if you look at the last 30 years spending on the poor has decreased as a portion of the budget (and perhaps even in raw inflation adjusted dollars; I’m not sure about that, though).

        (3) These programs got started in an environment where, for whatever reasons, private charity was not getting the job done. Now, maybe since we are now a more affluent society, it would be different if such programs were eliminated. I doubt it.

        All that said, the disgusting need of the current right – and the tea partiers in particular – to whine about spending on the poor – when middle class entitlements are much much larger, and in terms of the long term budget picture an almost infinitely bigger problem, is disgusting. Any sympathy I might feel for the tea party crowd – and I share some of their scepticism of big government, and concede that they sometimes get a raw deal in the media – is entirely erroded by their whining about the few crumbs that our government throws the poor, combined with their unwillingness to bear any pain themselves to solve our budget problems.

        Conservatives who argue that we need to reign in entitlement spending (very little anti-poverty spending falls into this category) as well as other government programs, including anti-poverty spending, earn my respect – and even partial agreement. So-called conservatives who want to place all of the pain onto the least well off members of society – and none of the pain on the middle and upper classes, who by and large suck much more greedily at the government tit than the poor – earn only my contenpt.

        (To be clear, that last paragraph of my response does not necessrily apply to Scott, whose position vis a vis entitlements, defense spending, corporate welfare, and farm subsidies, and so on, is unknown to me.)Report

    • Heidegger in reply to BlaiseP says:

      Chomsky?? Um Himmels Willen! Please tell me it’s not for pleasure. Old Noam has to be the most virulent, self-hating Jew on the planet. Besides being a pathological liar and a churl of the worst order, he’s become a very wealthy man under a capitalist system he’s been railing against for the last 50 years. He surely must be the all-time King of Cranks and a hypocrite to boot. And guess who was responsible for the 3.5 million deaths in Cambodia? (Chomsky actually says only 20,000 were killed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and that was for “self defense” against U.S. aggression.) The Khmer Rouge? Pol Pot? The Vietnamese Communists? NO, of course not. It was the good ole U.S.A. Yes, we murdered 3.5 million Cambodian civilians. When, where and how have never been answered nor will they ever be because Chomsky has pretty much had his head up his ass for his entire life. May Chomsky have long, painful death–he’s just a vile, revolting parasite feeding on the blood of left wing imbeciles.Report

      • Simon K in reply to Heidegger says:

        If I remember the debate correctly, Foucault pretty pretty much kicks Chomsky’s inconsistent, incoherent ass.Report

        • BlaiseP in reply to Simon K says:

          Well, I finally finished reading it, and didn’t reach the same conclusion. Foucault maunders on repeating his Communist paternoster about Class Struggle and the Proletariat as Chomsky’s trying to make a point about civil disobedience. Chomsky finally corners him and Foucault squirts some rubbishy Nietzsche in an attempt to escape.Report

      • Robert Cheeks in reply to Heidegger says:

        Another ass was Howard Zinn!Report

        • Chris in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

          Foucault does kick Chomsky’s arse, largely because it’s clear Chomsky has no clue what Foucault’s saying, and not because, as some would have you believe, Foucault’s generally incomprehensible. It doesn’t help that Chomsky’s politics are fairly superficial (which is why he’s so inconsistent — there’s no real underlying principle behind any of it).

          This tendency towards the superficial and overly simplified is also what got us the Minimalist Program. X-bar + change!Report

          • stillwater in reply to Chris says:

            It doesn’t help that Chomsky’s politics are fairly superficial (which is why he’s so inconsistent — there’s no real underlying principle behind any of it).

            Could you elaborate on this?Report

            • Chris in reply to stillwater says:

              But Chomsky does propose a political economy, or at least the outlines of one. If I remember correctly (and it’s been some time since I watched the Chomsky-Foucault debate), he does so right there, after all the talk of human nature and creativity and the like. If he doesn’t there, he certainly does in his works on anarchism. But it’s there that we see the superficiality of both his critique and his proposal. His proposal, as I believe he admits frequently, is without a great deal of detail. His critique is simply that political structures, coercive ones at least, must be justified, and they aren’t, so they don’t have a reason for existing except to enforce existing power relationships (I don’t think he’d put this last bit quite that way, but it’s what he means anyway). With this I both agree, and ask, now what? What comes after this for Chomsky? In practice, what comes after this is East Timor, Kosovo is NATO’s fault, and the Cambodian civil war would never have resulted in the deaths that it did if we hadn’t bombed Cambodia, and the Khmer Rouge wasn’t as bad as people say they were. There’s just not much else there (I disagree with his essentialism, which is where I think Foucault wins that debate; that, and much of what Chomsky ends up saying in the discussion of politics is, if I remember correctly, of the form of, ‘Yes, you are correct, and if we accept my essentialism then we can create a just society’).

              By the way, I don’t remember Foucault being at all jargonny, or full of Marxist terms, in that debate, even if his perspective is, ultimately, heavily influenced by Marxist critique (his Marxism, it’s worth remembering, came via Althusser and M-P, not Sartre and the doctrinaire communists). If I remember correctly, the only difference in terminology is largely one of depth and breadth. Chomsky, for example, uses creativity to mean something like what we find in generative linguistics: that is, humans are creative beings in the sense that they add something to the input they receive from the world, whereas Foucault argues a.) that this conception of human nature is a recent one, made possible by certain creative acts on the part of human beings since the late 18th century, and b.) it’s much deeper than just giving structure to linguistic input, or any other sort of thing you might get from Chomskyan nativism. Furthermore, if I remember correctly, it’s Chomsky who uses “creativity” as jargon, and completely misunderstands what Foucault means by creativity largely because Chomsky’s jargony use of the term is so limited. The same when they discuss justice. Chomsky’s justice is a simple, idealistic notion from which it’s impossible not to ultimately confirm one’s own biases, while for Foucault there’s something deeper at play (power relations, will to power, whatever). In every case, Chomsky looks at things shallowly, and Foucault takes it at least a little bit deeper. And in every case, I at least think Chomsky comes out looking the worse. I suppose one could disagree, but that’s definitely my impression. And like I said, on at least some of the basics, Chomsky and I are on the same page (as are Foucault and I).Report

          • BlaiseP in reply to Chris says:

            It didn’t help that Foucault kept relying on his Marxist vocabulary to express the most obvious of points. I loathe Marxists and love Karl Marx: a little Marx is always a dangerous thing.

            A great deal of Marx, well, it’s the only argument with which anyone can beat the Marxists with all their mendacious doubletalk about the Proletariat and Boozhwah.Report

            • stillwater in reply to BlaiseP says:

              I remember reading that debate long ago. I didn’t think Chomsky got his ass handed to him, and I thought insofar as there was any substantive debating, it went Chomsky’s way. But it may be because I couldn’t really understand the jibberish coming from Foucault.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to stillwater says:

                Well, maybe I ought to write something about Foucault, for he reads far better in French than English. At the risk of oversimplifying him, here’s Foucault for Dummies:

                Ever go back to read an old diary you wrote long ago and get sorta embarrassed by what seemed so vitally important back then?

                We change.

                We are taught in grammar school that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. We are taught in high school (if we are lucky) of the union of Aragon and Castile and why Queen Isabella would bankroll Columbus’ ragtag expedition. In college, we may learn of Columbus’ misrule of Hispaniola.

                But all these things happen in a web of history. Greater forces were at work than even the machinations of the Spanish Crown: they would be bankrupt in less than a century, despite and very likely because of all the gold and silver they extracted from the New World. The reason we remember Columbus is because his was the tale spread all over Europe, of riches to be had for those who could sail west.

                History gives us a new page with a nice title in boldface every time the game changes. On that page, we read of some marvelous advance, with a picture of Albert Einstein and a picture of the detonation of the Trinity bomb on 16 July 1945. We know these things didn’t happen in a vacuum: we vaguely remember Niels Bohr and there was Marie Curie in there somewhere, maybe a few pages back but I don’t think this book is that detailed: it’s history, not physics, remember… But that’s Foucault’s point, when the game changes, we change. We don’t think we change, but we do. And it’s those changes which are truly important, the part that doesn’t fit neatly into the history books. Maybe, sometimes, we look at the intersections of these forces: there’s General Groves, running the Manhattan Project, desperately racing to get a nuclear weapon before Germany does. And there’s Klaus Fuchs, deciding the USSR deserved to know what the Americans were up to out there in the desert. It’s never as tidy as the history books or the physics textbooks would like to make it. Foucault wants to tell us, however ponderously, the vast parade of history has no spectators on the sidelines, we’re all part of it. We accept the world, not as we find it, but as it’s explained to us by the authority figures: the doctors, the philosophes-du-jour, the classifications and axiomatic truths we accept — but on whose authority?

                Look at our model of the brain as science slowly descends like an aircraft on final approach, looking down onto the brain like a city, its structure and purpose comes into view the lower we get. We watch the lights of the cars on the expressway, wondering what purpose guides each driver? The plane lands, we climb into our snow covered cars out in long-term parking and drive home by reflex. Pulling into the driveway, putting our things away, we pour a little scotch and that odd juxtaposition of those cars on the highway returns and the porch lights of the houses of people we do not know. For those of us who fly a lot, it’s a familiar perspective. Trying to explain those feelings to someone else, well, it’s very hard and philosophy doesn’t much address how we adapt, though it sure does like the view from the window seat.Report

      • Chris in reply to Heidegger says:

        To be fair, Chomsky’s estimates of the death toll under the Khmer Rouge and during the civil war were around 500,000 (in each), not 20,000. And it’s during the civil war, not during the Khmer Rouge’s rule, that he thinks the U.S. did a bunch of killing… which of course we did, but not on the scale that Chomsky likes to claim.

        Chomsky still has a small, loyal group of followers within a segment of the left, but by the time he started saying that nothing happened in Kosovo until NATO got there, he’d lost the bulk of his following. Manufacturing Consent is still pretty interesting, though.

        In some ways, I see Chomsky as the Rand of the left. He’s shallow, he’s arrogant, he’s so convinced he’s right that he thinks only people who agree with him are thinking rationally (rather than being manipulated), and he’s a terrible writer. What’s more, his fans tend to be young, white males of privilege. The only real difference is that Chomsky’s accomplishments in linguistics in the 50s, 60s, and 70s (and to some extent, the 80s) were–are–very important. His review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior will remain a classic in the history of psychology for a long, long time, whatever the fate of generative linguistics. It’s not clear Rand made a lasting contribution to any intellectual field.Report

        • stillwater in reply to Chris says:

          Ah, ok. I was going to write something in defense of his pre-Minimalist accomplishments, thought better of it – but you’ve covered that ground quite nicely.

          But again (as above) why is he shallow? He’s not offering a theory of political economy. He’s critiquing the existing one.Report

          • I agree with this. Chomsky’s political commentary is totally unambitious, and we can’t really fault him for being unambitious. In “Imperial Ambitions”, he says that most of what he does in regard to politics is “clerical work” that really anyone can do if they know the right places to look and have enough time on their hands.Report

        • Koz in reply to Chris says:

          “In some ways, I see Chomsky as the Rand of the left. He’s shallow, he’s arrogant, he’s so convinced he’s right that he thinks only people who agree with him are thinking rationally (rather than being manipulated), and he’s a terrible writer.”

          That’s an provocative way of putting it, and I think there’s probably something to be said for that in a way that illustrates some of the difference between the Left and Right.

          Rand built a particular variant of libertarianism from philosophical first principles and forced it into cultural discourse. Blaise and a few others aside, nobody really cares about Chomsky’s linguistics work, especially in a political context. Instead, Chomsky and a few others form a cultural milieu where Leftist politics can be coherent and imperative.Report

        • BlaiseP in reply to Chris says:

          Chomsky was useful in his way, politically. If we are to consider all the lies told in the 60s and early 70s, Chomsky can be separated from his enemies by this simple distinction: his enemies knew they were lying.

          When they build the statue of George W. Bush in front of his library, I propose the pedestal be constructed in a cube formed from granite slabs the exact dimensions of a military tombstone. There ought to be one slab for every serviceman killed in Iraq. That’s his legacy.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Heidegger says:

        I will not defend Chomsky on his estimates of casualties, nor will I defend his linguistics. I come from a very different school of linguistics.

        From whence this rusty old rant against Chomsky arises I do not know, for I didn’t even quote him. I guess you saw his name and reflexively began to repeat the Usual Shibboleths.Report

        • Chris in reply to BlaiseP says:

          I will not defend Chomsky on his estimates of casualties, nor will I defend his linguistics. I come from a very different school of linguistics.

          This is certainly not on topic, and probably of interest to no one but me, but what school of linguistics is that? Since you say “very different,” I assume you mean empiricist, but that just makes me curious about which “school” of empiricist linguistics you come from. Also, since your professed background is in computers and programming, I find it interesting that you’re not a Chomskyan, as I’ve always found that the built-in computationalism of his linguistics appeals to computer folk, especially programmers.Report

          • Christopher Carr in reply to Chris says:

            I’m interested in this topic too. I’d guess BlaiseP is a Wittgensteinian.Report

          • BlaiseP in reply to Chris says:

            I guess, if you had to put a label on it, Connectionist is as close as you can get. But there are other considerations than merely-grammar. I worked with creoles and their pidgin roots. A creole stabilizes in predictable ways.Report

          • BlaiseP in reply to Chris says:

            I came out of a standard structuralist background, with my professors making addenda. My focus was the learning of language and how to rapidly teach language, much of it in a military context. Urdu literally means “the language of the barracks” and some have posited much of German was accreted around Roman army influence, particularly German’s use of the Datif.

            As you move along the Silk Road from Baghdad to Bombay, you’ll hear varying amounts of Arabic, Court Persian and its lesser brother Farsi until you’re well into Afghanistan, where the Persian-esque Dari and its local variant Pashto appear, then into what’s now Pakistan, full of many languages where this odd creole language Urdu was formed. Upper class Pakistanis will often use the Persian synonym, though they don’t realize they’re doing it.Report

            • Chris in reply to BlaiseP says:

              Interesting. I admit to not being a fan of connectionism, because spatial models of representation are so early 1980s, and connectionist models are just spatial models, but even by most pro-connectionist standards, connectionist models of language have tended to be pretty bad. At least I was right about the empiricist bit, though (not too hard, as it’s really the only alternative… heh).
              By the way, I didn’t know there were any structuralists around anymore, particularly after Chomsky’s early work. At least not in “synchronic” linguistics. Though interestingly, your discussion of the commonalities between languages is pretty much exactly in line with what Chomsky says.Report

              • Christopher Carr in reply to Chris says:

                Chris and BlaiseP, how do you feel about John Searle’s linguistic models, his disagreements with Dennett, and Functionalism?Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Christopher Carr says:

                Daniel Dennett is a petty annoyance, as Encyclopedia Galactica put it “mostly harmless”. Anyone who uses the word Darwinism ought to be made to eat the page he wrote it on and start again, avoiding any reference to Charles Darwin unless it pertains to the English gent himself or what he wrote. This tendency to misuse words he does not understand, especially philosophical and scientific terms, is proof positive he doesn’t understand what he’s talking about, at any level.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Chris says:

                Truth is, I’m not a big fan of connectionism, but it’s as close as I can get, armed only with ready-made labels.

                One good example where Connectionism doesn’t work for me: embedded in most modern shooter/strategy games are the AI modules driving the individual characters. These are little more than heuristics. I have AI in my rice maker. Again, nothing to write home to Mother about, just pointing out where what I call the Chomsky Barrier appears.

                The Chomsky Barrier is a term I invented. Back when I a kid, my old man volunteered me for to the madrasa so I could learn Qu’ran Arabic. I found out there were ways of saying things in Arabic you couldn’t render into any of the languages I could speak or read and the imam told me that’s why you can only read the Qu’ran in Arabic. Told my old man, who agreed (he and the imam got along very well, for both were men of scholarly mien) and said any serious Bible scholar must learn Greek and Hebrew.

                Chomsky fails because there is no Universal Grammar. It’s a complete botch of a theory. Putting words in order, that’s simple heuristics, very useful in its way, but you’re wasting your time trying to completely encompass a language in rules-based system: you’ll get to some untranslatable verb or a proper name and you’re stuck. A data driven approach is faster, more effective and good enough.Report

              • Chris in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Well, Chomsky rarely concerns himself with semantics, and in fact frequently reminds us that he’s not talking about semantics. What’s more, when he does talk about semantics, and uses the word, he means something very different from what we, and even from what other linguists, usually mean by semantics (to be honest, I’m still not quite sure what the hell he means by it, but I’m not a linguist, so in the end I don’t have to care). He would readily admit that there are untranslatable words in different languages, or at least I assume he would, since it’s neither here nor there for the focus of his work. I’m quite certain he’d read Word and Object by the time he did the bulk of his post-dissertation research, anyway. He simply (haha, “simply” is funny in this sentence) argues that the structure of language is, at a certain level, universal (what that level is for him has changed over time), and that this universality is necessary because if it weren’t universal and innate, then computationally the syntactic structure of language, the rules that govern its organization, would be impossible to learn given the input available. Nothing about untranslatable words, or even the indeterminacy of translation, affects that argument.

                Christopher, do you mean his speech acts stuff? If so, I find it interesting and useful from a psychological and representational perspective. On his critiques of Dennett and functionalism, I’m not sure what you mean specifically. His critiques of functionalism and computationalism stemming from his Chinese Room paper are important but antiquated, given advances in cognitive science over the last 30 years. As for Dennett, I can’t stand him, and I think that in most of their debates Searle got the better of him.Report

              • Christopher Carr in reply to Chris says:

                I did mean Searle’s speech-acts stuff. On his critiques of Dennett I explicitly meant Searle’s emphasis on epistemic subjectivity, but I’m at the edge of my knowledge here and I don’t think I can contribute anything more meaningful without checking out those debates.

                Is functionalism the same as empiricism here?Report

              • Chris in reply to Christopher Carr says:

                No, functionalism is a type of computationalism. It essentially says that a mental state is its function, not its constituents. This means, among other things, that the same mental state can be realized in multiple mediums, which is why strong AI is possible, to a functionalist.Report

              • Heidegger in reply to Chris says:

                Gentlemen, gentlemen, Chris and Blaise, that’s some very, very, fine order of writing. I immensely enjoyed your exchange of ideas about semantics, Chomsky, AI, language acquisition, etc. and if I’m to have any further discussion with you two gents, I better look into renting IBM’s Watson–you know, the super Deep Blue computer that pummeled the hapless and helpless Kasparov. Poor fella, he had no chance if you watched any of those matches.

                I also implore you both, if you haven’t already done so, to go pick up the Norton Lectures (The Unanswered Question) with Leonard Bernstein (he was invited to be the Charles Eliot Professor of Poetry 1973). I think you’ll find much enjoyment in the lectures as they go into great depth with the very subjects you were both discussing. You will be in rapt attention from beginning to end–at least I was. So, a very enthusiastic thumbs up! Enjoy.

                And speaking of Christopher Columbus and his adventures at sea, his coordinates led him to believe he had landed in India–hence, calling natives, “Indians”. To which a native could only say to their new guests, thank God you didn’t think you had landed in Turkey!
                Sorry–couldn’t resist.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Heidegger says:

                One of my favorite poems, by Seamus Heaney:


                Between my finger and my thumb
                The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.

                Under my window a clean rasping sound
                When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
                My father, digging. I look down

                Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
                Bends low, comes up twenty years away
                Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
                Where he was digging.

                The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
                Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
                He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
                To scatter new potatoes that we picked
                Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

                By God, the old man could handle a spade,
                Just like his old man.

                My grandfather could cut more turf in a day
                Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
                Once I carried him milk in a bottle
                Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
                To drink it, then fell to right away
                Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
                Over his shoulder, digging down and down
                For the good turf. Digging.

                The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap
                Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
                Through living roots awaken in my head.
                But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

                Between my finger and my thumb
                The squat pen rests.
                I’ll dig with it.

                – from Death of a Naturalist (1966)Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Chris says:

                Heh. I’ve watched software theory and linguistics theory co-evolve, misappropriating vocabulary from each other.

                Software’s often gone on mad quests in search of the Universal Language. CORBA was the first. Java was another: “write once, run anywhere”.

                Higher and higher they erected their Towers of Babel, each in its turn. Eventually the compiler and operating system designers would rebel and secretly work on other projects like Linux and Apache.

                Folks, it all comes down to the protocol. Anyone can implement a protocol. If only folks would go to the conferences and contribute to the spec… well it’s pointless to weep over spilt milk anymore. Now we have a reference platform, Linux, the product of thousands of contributors. The Cathedral and the Bazaar aren’t really in competition: the market spaces of Merrie Olde Europe were right in front of the cathedral.Report

              • Chris in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Chomsky, and most linguists (though not all) are not looking for the Universal Language, but the universal building blocks of language. They’re nativists; they think that these building blocks are part of our makeup, part of what is it is to be human. If you read Chomsky’s limited work on the evolution of language (the work is limited, and his contribution to it even more limited still), you’ll get an idea of what he’s all about. Or read Pinker’s The Language Instinct, which lays out the program in much less technical terms than Chomsky ever has or will or is capable of, even if Pinker disagrees with Chomsky on where language came from.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

                I had an interesting encounter with Daniel Pinker. I’m something of a photographer and do a good deal of image fixup, YouTubes and the like. A fellow consultant took his wife on a 25th anniversary trip up Pacific Coast Highway and lost most of his pictures. He wanted me to see what I could do with what remained.

                Most of the digital images were too far gone to rescue. I went out to the Internet, looking for replacement images. I found Daniel Pinker’s images of essentially the same run. So I wrote Pinker an email, explained my predicament and asked permission to use his images. He graciously consented.

                I felt a little abashed. I wanted to write a mash note back, explaining I had read pretty much everything he’d ever written and didn’t agree with very much of it but genuinely admired him where he was right. But I didn’t.

                So that’s my Daniel Pinker story.Report

              • tom van dyke in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Chris, Chomsky on language is similar to Krugman on trade.

                They left the solid ground of their expertise—if not downright brilliance—for the world of opinion, for politics is the world of opinion, not knowledge.

                In the world of opinion, theirs are no worthier than yours or mine, or Barack Obama’s or Sarah Palin’s. Ms. Palin is demonstrably less smart and less sophisticated than President Obama, but this does not mean he is wiser than she.

                Vice President Biden is a good and intelligent and admirable man, but if there’s a public figure who is most often wrong about things, it’s him. You could look at the record.

                Go figure.

                I happened to like Ronald Reagan’s political philosophy, and Bill Clinton’s worldly wisdom. I’m an unapologetic conservative, but Bill Clinton was and would have been the superior candidate in every election since 1988.

                [And, trumping Clinton, Reagan, all things being equal, since 1980, if not 1976.]Report

              • Chris in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Blaise, I can’t say that I have ever heard of Daniel Pinker, but it’s good to know that you’ve corresponded with him.Report

              • Chris in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Tom, that’s patent nonsense. Just because Chomsky doesn’t have a PhD in political science, or philosophy, doesn’t mean he can’t be an expert in it those areas. And the fact that he’s been writing and doing extensive research on politics and society for more than four decades, and that his writings and research in that area have been widely studied and very influential, certainly suggests that he is, in fact, an expert in those areas. You may disagree with him, I know that I do most of the time, but that doesn’t mean he’s no more qualified than you or I to talk about these things.

                Frankly, I find it a bit odd, coming from someone who’s so down on the academy, that you would treat academic credentials as the one and only sign of expertise.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Did I say Daniel Pinker? Blaise, you are a moron. I meant Dr. Steven Pinker, he of The Language Instinct. Essentially, it’s a brilliant reworking of what Chomsky had to say about the Language Organ.

                Since my specialty is creole languages, I found his thoughts on the subject perfectly congruent with mine. Though many languages fall prey to what I call the Chomsky Barrier, where a time-based grammatical expression can’t make its way from one language to another, creoles evolve in such a way everyone can understand them.

                Returning to the problem of zarf containers and the Absolute Appositive, koine Greek simply prepends the simpler if less accurate apo to form up a rough cognate.Report

              • As much as Theodore Dalrymple runs hot and cold for me, I think he really takes Pinker to task in this review of The Language Instinct:


              • Jaybird in reply to BlaiseP says:

                I found out there were ways of saying things in Arabic you couldn’t render into any of the languages I could speak or read and the imam told me that’s why you can only read the Qu’ran in Arabic. Told my old man, who agreed (he and the imam got along very well, for both were men of scholarly mien) and said any serious Bible scholar must learn Greek and Hebrew.

                I’ve always had a problem with this concept. It strikes me as a vocabulary problem more than anything else. Other languages provide a richer and fuller vocabulary… but I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered a concept that can only be communicated in, say, English.

                Technological advances might provide the best modern example but Einstein was able to explain a telephone using the concept of a cat, for example… I’m pretty sure that we’d be able to explain even the internet to uncontacted tribes using simple concepts (perhaps we could say that the internet was a series of tubes…).

                Other languages probably have better portmanteaus (schadenfreude is an example of German’s spectacular ability to use one word where we’d probably have to use a sentence) but the basic concepts of any word ought to be translatable into any other. Maybe you need to use a paragraph in English where Arabic uses a syllable. Sure.

                But I’m pretty sure that the whole “oh, you can only understand this concept in *THIS* language” thing is, at best, an overstatement.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Jaybird says:

                English utterly lacks the zarf form in Arabic. It’s rather like an adjective, but it’s decidedly not. It’s what in Latin would be called an Absolute Ablative.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Greek has a similar construction, if I recall correctly (Eureka!).

                I’ve no doubt that there are things more easily done in this or that language. I’ve no doubt that a phrase that is clumsy in English is eloquent in another language (“obit anus, abit onus” is the first phrase that comes to mind as an example of “really snappy in one language, crappy in another”).

                Heck, maybe there are things that we don’t have words for… but that’s what paragraphs are for.

                I wonder if the only concepts that “can’t be translated” are religious concepts where vagueness is preferable to precision…Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

                I sure wish I could read better Classical Greek. Koine, which I learned from my old man’s Strong’s Concordance, hardly uses the absolute ablative at all, except in a few title phrases. But zarf is a little different than the absolute ablative, literally, it’s a container. More hereReport

              • BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Chomsky’s important at a certain level of linguistics, as AI is important in certain highly-specific and segregated aspects of information processing. There’s a codicil in my will which states the last two words on my tombstone will read “Data First”.

                Gosh, does anyone still remember the Chinese Room experiment? The basic and fatal flaw to the Chinese Room experiment is this: Chinese doesn’t place as much import on word order as other languages. Each character contains enough information to convey meaning on its own. All the Chinese and Japanese characters related to vehicles will contain a stylized chariot: it’s therefore possible to infer the partial meaning of a character.

                Furthermore, the longer the man remains in the room, the more Chinese he will learn. He will also learn, from the screams of the outraged women he encounters, the difference between Male and Female characters on the restroom doors.Report

              • The fact that so much meaning is already encoded in characters plus a widespread de-emphasis on learning through conversation I think is what drives the tendency towards hyperlexia here in Japan.Report

              • That is to say, the thought experiment would have made more sense if it were called “Kawasaki’s English Room”.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Christopher Carr says:

                Those poor nihonjin bastards, how they ever master English is a mystery to me. It must be pure torture. Japanese has a beautifully constructed verb form. Limping along with our aux verbs and pronouns, English must seem like a busted up old junkpile of a language, useful enough for appropriating a few nouns and interesting phrases, but otherwise an enormous pain in the butt.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Christopher Carr says:

                That’s an interesting observation, the conversational aspect of learning. So much of the Japanese language is dedicated to deference.

                When I started in with Panasonic, I asked my Japanese peers how to approach the language. They said to learn the characters first and avoid conversation entirely until I’d mastered at least 1000 kanji, so I’d know the on and kun synonyms for everything, saving me time later when I did apply myself to learning to speak it. Furthermore, it would make my life easier, since almost everything I’d be doing with Japanese would already be written down.

                Furthermore, I was told, both by competent foreigners who were fluent in Japanese and by the Japanese themselves, there was the problem of knowing exactly who you were speaking to, for it would affect all the verb usages. Once you start playing the game of o-jigi you can’t back out and behave like gaijin again. A cautionary lesson it was, too: I stayed in the appropriate honorific forms like a man in a minefield.

                Then I came on a little girl in Nagoya, talking to her friends, using the male boku wa in a sentence. I started laughing and couldn’t stop. Japanese is the one culture I’ve always wanted to really enter and it’s the one I never really could.Report

              • I tried as many different strategies as possible when I first came here. The most successful by far was going out almost every night to a yatai. Whenever alcohol is involved, all the rules go away and everyone forgets their manners (Like carnival on demand). I remember sitting one time at my favorite place, which held about eight people. On my left are two salarymen and a gay couple. On my right is a hostess on break flanked by two yakuza. Putting what I learned here together with what I heard at work gave me a real intuitive foundation in Japanese I think.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Christopher Carr says:

                Hanging out at yatai, heh. The more yatai you see, the closer you are to the red light district.Report

      • Robert Cheeks in reply to Heidegger says:

        Geez, H-man, I wish you weren’t so ambivalent!Report

    • E.D. Kain in reply to BlaiseP says:

      Very well said, Blaise. Democracy is a voluntary association, absolutely. It’s an effort to make governance more in line with civil society.Report

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

        Kling’s fallacy is the same as most libertarians: he simply will not see government itself as a voluntary association, its elected members the triumph of the popular will, their mandate derived from our votes.

        With as ignorant — as rationally ignorant — as the voters are, I cannot believe that anyone seriously believes the quoted passage. For its officials, government is an elite club, with exacting rules, but often very great rewards (particularly for those who place a high value on having power over others!).

        For the rest of us, high exit costs from society mean that we must accept what the government tells us to do. Our voice in democracy is trivial, usually, and the “popular will” has as much to do with the decisions of Barack Obama as it has to do with the decisions of me. Which is to say, almost nothing, now that he’s in office. And in the second term, when he need not worry about re-election, it will be nothing.Report

        • BlaiseP in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

          More civics for you, Jason. This is a republic, not some anarchic Democracy. We elect our officials, we turn them loose for some time to do the needful. If government is Elite, that is because the word comes from the Greek, meaning Chosen.Report

          • Jason Kuznicki in reply to BlaiseP says:

            And more civics for you, too. The triumph of the popular will stinks of fascism. Surely you knew this, right?

            Americans elect their officials amid rank ignorance of who they really are or what they do. Then they are turned loose to exercise powers of we know not what extent. If the officials are Elite, it’s got not a bit to do with the ancient Greek, of which we (and they) are wholly ignorant, and not a bit to do with their actual work, which might as well be ancient Greek to most citizens.

            One difference only remains. Most citizens seem to believe that they actually do know the subject of politics. Call them up for an opinion poll, and they will be happy to give you an earful, something they won’t do for Greek, although they are roughly as qualified.Report

            • BlaiseP in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

              Thanks to James Madison and the Division of Powers, it’s awfully hard to corner the market on power in the USA.

              It may well be Americans elect their politicians, ignorant of their goals, but that’s the great thing about it: we know what their goals are, to gain more power for themselves and therefore for their constituencies. How else can we explain Congress’ abysmal popularity ratings and the fierce loyalty exhibited for the local congresscritter?

              Politics, ecch, let’s not condescend here. Politics is power and the pursuit of power. Justice is the virtue of cities, not persons, Socrates tells us. Insofar as we may rely on our politicians to seek power, their venal struggles will be translated into the popular will — so long as power remains divided.Report

              • DensityDuck in reply to BlaiseP says:

                “Thanks to James Madison and the Division of Powers, it’s awfully hard to corner the market on power in the USA. ”

                The Federal regulatory bureaucracy seems to have managed pretty well.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to DensityDuck says:

                Bureaucracies. Plural. We must take the much-damned regulatory bureaucracies apart at the seams, to see where each derives its power.

                A law without an enforcing bureaucracy is no law at all. Conversely, a bureaucracy without purpose will attempt to justify itself by pointing out how many folks they employ and how valuable they are to each state. This gets the attention of the congresscritters. When their military bases, established in the era of Manifest Destiny exhibit a manifest destiny of their own, you may rely on each congresscritter to defend it with any means, fair or foul.

                And then there’s the FBI data campus up in West Virginia, the magnum opus of Robert Byrd.

                We must always resist the urge to use the word Bureaucracy. One man’s bacon is another man’s pork.Report

              • DensityDuck in reply to BlaiseP says:

                What exactly do military bases have to do with regulatory bureaucracy?Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to DensityDuck says:

                ROFL! I can only surmise you’ve never spent much time on a military base.Report

              • Heidegger in reply to BlaiseP says:

                “Thanks to James Madison and the Division of Powers, it’s awfully hard to corner the market on power in the USA.”

                Blaise, yes, yes, yes! Did I say yes? Our Constitutional Republic, is without question, the most brilliant and ingenious, creation to come from a human mind. Two hundred plus years and not ever, even the slightest scent of tyranny or dictatorship to befall us. It is not that we are inherently better human beings but rather, we have been blessed to be governed by the greatest governing document in the history of the mankind, the Constitution, a document that shall forevermore be the guarantor and foundational bedrock that “personal liberty, natural rights and political freedoms” are., in fact, unalienable rights endowed to us by our Creator. In other words, we are saved by our system, not by some unique, innate moral goodness. And federalism is simply genius to the tenth power. Has any other government ever instituted a similar separation of powers? Or perhaps more accurately, a sharing of powers?Report

            • Robert Cheeks in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

              Excellent, if a bit cynical, analysis.
              It almost says to me that the collapse of the American polity is just about complete given that the political ‘elite’ has almost totally blurred the distinctions that define the symbols of a federated ‘nation’ and now you can’t tell the ‘republicans’ from the commie-dems/statists.
              But, perhaps that’s not what you were saying.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

                From every generation goes up the same cry: o tempura o morels. When it comes to Statism, the GOP’s exhibited more o’ that of late than any Commie-Dem. Don’t Communists want the State to wither away, etc.? But I digress.

                It’s easy enough to tell the difference between the GOP and the Democrats: the GOP prefers a tax break and the Democrat prefers a subsidy. The sums remain the same. Guvnor Walker gets to plead poverty, this after giving business a big tax break. See? Political algebra, rendered simple enough for even a paleocon.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Don’t Communists want the State to wither away, etc.?

                Not the ones who volunteer to oversee State withering, in my experience.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Jaybird says:

                Well, there you are. I haven’t seen a Republican who ever really wanted Smaller Gummint, either.Report

              • Chris in reply to Jaybird says:

                Big C communists were, at least in practice, all about the State.Report

              • Robert Cheeks in reply to BlaiseP says:

                I dunno, if your analysis holds true, and it may collapse, I would think that a GOP “tax break” infers the possibility of the construction of some facility that will not only employ, possibly Americans, but may, in the long run, bring in additional revenues to the federal coffers.
                Sadly, the commie-Dem’s subsidy (handout) is merely utilized to secure the support of the parasitic and bureaucratic classes. One would think our educational institutions would offer programs and courses of study in how to fill out welfare forms.
                It is interesting to note that thanks to our heroic Tea Partyers we now, seem to have elected a cadre of Paleo, no nonesense, Republicans determined to restore the honor of a nation damaged by the machinations of confused Neocons/RINOs and the purposefully injurious intentions of our marginally documented, Kenyan-Marxist president and his cadre of commie-Dems.
                I don’t know but I’d guess that Gov. Walker’s tax breaks to evil corporations is an effort to bring jobs to Wisconsin citizens who have been put outta work by previous commie-dem regimes and their successful efforts to force bidness outta the state in order to expand the size of those citizens reliant upon the state. The fact that the Governor appears to have the stones to put an end to collective bargaining for state employees is just the kind of icing on the cake of good gummint that even a librul can understand.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

                Would that these much-vaunted tax breaks did produce the Alabaster Cities of the future. They have not, to date, though as St. Paul tells us, “faith is the evidence of things not seen”, which may explain the GOP’s predilection to Faith Based solutions to many a vexing problem.

                I have written about the Tea Parties yesterday. I cannot say if they will have any lasting influence. Every politician comes to Washington, believing he will change it. Alas, experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer while their districts get the pork, as Rand Paul’s retreat from Hard Choices when it comes to his own reveals.

                Never you worry yourself about corporations leaving or coming or anything else. Employers look for qualified employees and schools are a primary consideration in their choice, not that you seem to have made that connection.

                As for the rest of your pawky shibboleths, let’s just call them what they are: troll bait.Report

              • Robert Cheeks in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Well, I’m rather optimistic that the TP supported freshmen congressmen and governors will do the Lord’s work. Knowing human nature, I’m sure some will and some won’t.
                But, that’s a beginning and to see our librul friends ducking and dodging, issuing implications of violence and stockng ammo at the Wisconsin rotunda if the much abused citizen-taxpayer refuses to continue to bend over, I am encouraged that some Americans have come to a realization that commie-Dem largesse comes at too great a price and it’s time for them to actually become citizens, again.
                But, maybe not. We’ll see?Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Would that the Lord’s Work could be so identified, with a certificate of provenance from On High. In the absence of those certificates, I will resort to Bunyan:

                Pliable: The hearing of this is enough to ravish one’s heart. But are these things to be enjoyed? How shall we get to be sharers thereof?

                Christian: The Lord, the governor of the country, hath recorded that in this book, Isaiah 55:1,2; John 6:37; 7:37; Rev. 21:6; 22:17; the substance of which is, if we be truly willing to have it, he will bestow it upon us freely.

                Meanwhile, in the Dark Vale of Sin and Suffering, we shall pay taxes for every good thing. When I see a good thing like Education going unfunded while corporate tax cuts are pushed through with nary a whimper or a thought of potential consequence, I shall ascribe this Bein’ Broke business to the greatest collection of grifters upon the earth today, the Grand Old Party.Report

              • Robert Cheeks in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Your use of the term ‘education’ requires a smile as it is applied to overpaid teachers in Wisconsin, who, it is alledged have failed to bring their students anywhere near reading compliance. Yes, the student can stay home where the possibility of learning something may actually increase while the abused taxpayers of Wisconsin, are, for a moment at least, relieved of their onerous responsibilities.Report

  3. tom van dyke says:

    Who owns the town square? Technically, the government that administrates it, but in a less formal sense, society, “the people.”

    [Technically, “society,” the people, own the government, but this isn’t precisely the fact in practice. The public sector labor unions own it, or the corporations, depending on your POV, heh heh.]

    [I’m not sure I agree with BlaiseP’s reading of Foucault here, and of course the slag at religious folk is gratuitous.]

    [I would think Edmund Burke and his “little platoons” figure in here somewhere. On the whole, I quite agree with Kling. His introduction of corporations into the equation of society/state is interesting, and should find resonance with the left.]Report

  4. I can’t sign off on calling either corporations (in the sense of organized business interests operating for profit) or government as “weeds on the lawn.” They are strangers, intruders, or diluters of a pure “civil society” in which there are no corporate or governmental activities. These are, and have been for a long time, the principal actors in civil society.Report

    • I’m not a reflexive anti-corporation type by any means, but I think Transplanted Lawyer is agreeing [and so am I] with Kling that corporations are real entities that have inserted themselves into the society/gov’t equation and must be figured in.

      “Moral agent” is a common term in these discussions, and by the best and most charitable definition, corporations are amoral agents: their only purpose and fiduciary duty is to maximize profits and return to their investors.

      Human beings have moral duties, corporations do not. But at the heart of the current crisis is that human beings staff corporations, and when they cheat morality—what is right and what is just—in the course of their duties, they short their very humanity.

      “I was only following orders” is an unacceptable defense, as we have learned. The problem isn’t with corporations or any human institution, it’s with the people who inhabit them. The crisis continues. I will not assert that it’s any worse than it ever was, though. People are people, human nature is what it is.

      But I think Kling’s corporation thing has great merit. “Morally neutral”—amorality—is like fiber in the diet. Some is good, but you can’t live on sawdust.Report

  5. greginak says:

    Nice call out to democracy in the paragraph. The apparent libertarian dislike of democracy has always been a bit puzzling ( insert Churchill quip here). In a democracy, civil society and the gov are correctly intertwined. It is completely whiten the purview of the people in a democracy to assign the gov certain civic tasks. ( insert disclaimer: gov can be bad also)Report

    • Scott in reply to greginak says:


      Except that we live in a republic not a democracy.

      As for E.D.’s library example, he assumes that the right wants to see them privatised. Maybe some do but others, like myself just see them as one service that gov’t can provide if it has the money and not a sacred cow that must be funded even if means rasing taxes.Report

    • well okay in reply to greginak says:

      Republic versus Democracy distinction is not really relevant – the libertarian distrust of democracy extends to Republics as well.

      And I don’t really think it’s as strange as some people seem to think. Democracy (or Republic) inevitably lead to the tyranny of the majority. Banal but true. For a libertarian, democracies that over reach whatever level of government can be justified on minarchist grounds* are not legitimate. Democracies (and Republics) have overstepped those limits routinely, and without a sea change in human nature – or, more optimistically, a sea change in social/political mores – democracy will always lead to a much larger state than a libertarian will be comfortable with.

      Of course here the (probably apocryphal) Churchill quote comes in – what is the alternative? There is none. Smaller states (federalism here) are a partial answer but just that – plenty of examples of small states abusing their power/citizens. Better constitutional/institutional design is a better answer, but still ultimately subject to the vagaries of a democracy.

      For myself, this tension is largely why I’m not a full fledged libertarian. I don’t think it’s resolvable – and to the very limited extent that it is, we would end up with a Kochian dystopia – the worst aspects of the modern democratic/republic state, with none of the advantages.

      *I think that anarchists correctly argue that – for natural rights libertarians, as opposed to utilitarian libertarians – arguments for minarchy tend to be incoherent. A strict natural rights libertarian almost has to be an anarchist to maintain philosophical consistency. Of course, the anarchist critique of the utilitarian libertarians also rings true – it’s really hard to draw the line at a minimal state once you introduce utilitarian concerns into the equation.Report

      • greginak in reply to well okay says:

        Well it is up the vagaries of democracy as you say. Yup. There is no perfect document or structure that 100% protects everything we hold dear. That’s the struggle of democracy. The libertarian feeling that D’s and R’s overstep is fine as far as their opinion goes, i even agree in some cases. But the Lib case reads as, ” we want the gov to be exactly the way want and damn all those people who disagree.” How is that different from anybody else: it isn’t except the Lib argument is it should happen, not only regardless of what most people want but because most people want something else. There is certainly no support in the Constitution for taking the minority rights position that far and when those damned founders ditched the Articles of Confederation they sent a clear message.Report

  6. stillwater says:

    Krill writes:

    McCloskey says that “Faith is the virtue of identity and rootedness.” My secular, liberal friends clearly derive much of their identity and their rootedness from their political faith. I do not begrudge their having a political faith. I just wish they had chosen more wisely. Civil Societarianism is a better faith than a faith in the evil of George Bush, in the need to punish the rich, and in the virtue of any well-intended government program.

    If McCloskey is correct, then there is an element of theocracy in any political belief. We have no choice but to live under a theocracy, but some theocracies are worse than others.

    One of the most frightening aspects of radical Islam is its version of theocracy. Fortunately, the Muslims I know are Americanized. In America, every religion is a minority religion, and everyone understands that we do not want government by sharia.

    E.D., are you seriously looking to this person for insights and ideals? I hope there’s more you reject in his argument than merely his view on corporations.Report

  7. stuhlmann says:

    If I may direct the discussion back to lawns and weeds, I think that weed is the wrong analogy for government – or for corporations for that matter. Weeds are, by definition, just about any plant that grows somewhere where it is not wanted. A corn plant in a soybean field is a weed, as is a soybean plant in a corn field. Government is not a weed because it is wanted. Societies create government through conscious acts – someone wrote the US and state constitutions. Government plays a desired role in society, and sometimes roles that are not desired. I think a better analogy for government is a clump of decorative bamboo planted with the lawn. Whoever landscaped the yard put in the bamboo for a purpose. The reason that bamboo is a good analogy for government is that both tend to spread out and take over more of the lawn than was originally planned. Both must be trimmed back occasionally.Report

  8. “Kling pictures civil society as a nice lawn and government as a weed attempting to overtake that lawn. He wants private companies to do much of the heavy lifting governments do today, thereby clearing the lawn of weeds.”

    Such an unintentionally appropriate metaphor: lawns are vulgar and weeds waste their energy on vulgar lawns. Give me a path through the forest and a meadow full of wildflowers.Report

  9. “To replace state institutions (if it is necessary to do so) with local, non-profit cooperative institutions rather than for-profit corporations.”

    That’s definitiely an idealistic notion, as you admit. In my hierarchy of providers I see the following:

    1) Corporations
    2) Non profits
    3) Government

    In most cases Uncle Sam should be our last resort. With certain functions, police, fire, military – the government is the best institution to provide these and so we skip #1 & #2. Likewise, sometimes a non-profit is a better source for a specific service than #1 or #3. Most of the time though #1 provides the fastest and best service and if the price is right, they remain the best option.Report

  10. Simon K says:

    Why do you want to exclude corporations from civil society? The Sierra Club is a corporation. Presumably you don’t mean them. I’m imagining from what you say that what you really mean is profit making enterprises. But why? I mean, what is this civil society thing anyway? What is it supposed to accomplish and why can’t corporations be part of whatever-it-is? Perhaps a quick re-read of Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” might be in order?

    Recent use of the term “civil society” seems to be by NGOs trying to muscle in on the negotiating table for this and that. Nothing wrong with that, to the extent that NGOs represent real interests and aren’t just self-appointed busy-bodies, but it does mean I wouldn’t take the term as meaning anything very concrete or useful except “entities that aren’t governments or profit making enterprises that nonetheless will cause a nasty stink if we don’t show them due deference”. Certainly it that recent usage of “civil society” I’m not sure it represents anything necessarily organic or virtuous. Some NGOs merely give respectability to the nastiest, most illiberal aspects of society. Some are well-intentioned but in fact do a great deal of unintended harm. Some do a great deal of good.

    The fact NGOs don’t make profits is not in and of itself a sign that they’ll help improve people’s material conditions. And the fact that commercial enterprises do make profits it not in and of itself a sign that they won’t. So why are we working so hard to make distinctions between them? You don’t say. There are things I wouldn’t want a for-profit corporation doing. I can’t for the life of me figure out why a right-wing libertarian would care whether libraries were for-profit or non-profit as long as they were voluntary, and I see good reasons to prefer them to be non-profit. But there are things non-profit entities shouldn’t do either. Its dangerous, for example. for them to provide long term food aid.

    I think what you’re getting at is that you’d like to reduce society’s dependence on the state and increase our reliance on what in the left-anarchist tradition is called mutual aid. I agree. I think you miss the role of the profit motive in this, though – its the profit motive that encourages people to spend time and resources building things that will, in the future, be useful to others. Its reasonable to expect that libraries should be non-profit. Its a little harder to see how publishers can be, although some are since certain kinds of material need to be published whether you can make money off them or not. Its almost impossible for the manufacturers of printing presses to be non-profit, however. The further back you go in the chain of capital creation, the harder it is to see how anything could get done without the profit motive. At the very highest levels of capital creation maybe you do need governments.Report

    • Koz in reply to Simon K says:

      “Why do you want to exclude corporations from civil society?”

      Corporations are an important part of civil society, for much different reasons than the lawn vs. weeds business.

      The social interactions inside most corporations are there because people have to earn a living. There’s no getting around that really, but it’s not the same as other parts of civil society. For the other parts, people engage there because they want to. And it’s very useful that people have a context for that, and for the most part corporations aren’t it.

      On the other hand, because being economically beneficial, corporations are also a crucial part of a private capital base which is the key part of the defense of civil society against the predations of the state.

      I guess, in this way for-profit corporations aren’t the lawn, they’re Roundup.Report

      • stillwater in reply to Koz says:

        corporations are also a crucial part of a private capital base which is the key part of the defense of civil society against the predations of the state.

        What about the predations of corporations against civil society? Do those exist? Is it conceptually possible that private power could undermine civil society as well?Report

    • stillwater in reply to Simon K says:

      its the profit motive that encourages people to spend time and resources building things that will, in the future, be useful to others.

      This is, of course, an excellent point and a good reminder of the positive utility of systems encouraging – perhaps only by permitting – the production of goods and services in competitive markets. But profit motive as a general principle is also a slippery slope: when, if ever, does excessive desire for profits within a market result in negative utility? What role ought government play in allowing/restricting the otherwise unfettered expression of profit motive? Is the system that maximizes total profit in a sector of the economy the best system, or is it the one where (perhaps) less total profit is made by more individual market participants? Or finally, is maximizing profit viewed as the purpose of markets, or do markets serve a multiplicity of other purposes and merely permit the expression of profit motive, in which case maintaining profit motive is merely part of a general calculus used to determine a markets health? Government has a role to play here.Report

      • Simon K in reply to stillwater says:

        Its good for people to be motivated by profits. Its not good for people to actually make profits. At least not in the long run, and not above the rate needed to compensate them for their time and patience. Of course, we can’t know for sure what the level of profit needed to compensate people for their investment actually is, but if we see a firm or a sector of the economy generating high profits for any prolonged period, we’re looking at one of the following three things – accounting fraud, some kind of monopoly, or an excellent investment opportunity, in roughly that order of probability. So certainly maximising the rate of profit is not something we should be aiming for in the economy as a whole, any more than maximising wages or prices.

        Accounting fraud is annoying, but it only affects the actual investors. Its the monopolies we should probably worry about more, since they affect everyone. I’m using monopoly here in a very broad sense, to mean a firm that gets to control either its prices or its costs in some systematic long-term way. The “purpose” of markets (in some free-floating sense) is allocative efficiency. Using everyone’s skills and assets as efficiently as possible to get everyone what they need. Monopolies distort that by getting the monopolist a large share than their contribution is really worth.

        So should government do something about that? In most cases I would say no – even though monopoly power creates allocative distortions, its somewhat inevitable and the alternatives are usually worse. Gas stations near freeway intersections make more profits because they can charge more for gas. This is an example of “monopolistic competition”, a scenario in which some participants have in-built market power but there’s no actual monopoly. Should government force them to cut their prices? Or move away from the freeway? Or force some proportion of drivers to go further for their gas? All of those solutions make the customers worse off, though, although they help the owners of other gas stations.

        In a great many cases, where the government intervenes, its exactly this kind of scenario – its shuffling profits from one supplier to another to make things “fairer” while generally hurting consumers. Trade protection is the classic example, but there are lots. In a great many cases, government intervention ends up creating monopoly power – for example, Sarbannes-Oxley did sod all to prevent another outbreak of financial shenanigans, but a great deal to give money to accountants and investment banks.

        I’d say there are three cases where intervention is justified – to prevent harms external to the market (eg. pollution), to compensate for government-granted monopolies that are unavoidable (eg. utilities), and to create the framework for properly functioning markets to begin with (eg. by making sure information is not hidden from participants).Report

  11. stillwater says:

    I’m using monopoly here in a very broad sense, to mean a firm that gets to control either its prices or its costs in some systematic long-term way.

    Well, I agree with this formulation, but one thing that concerns me here is that a monopoly is operating under a paradigm in which there is closure of the retail market to competition as well as a codified insulation from market pressures that would increase it’s bottom line. As an example, there is an in principle openness of the labor market (from capitals POV): they can choose (in most states) to hire union workers, not hire union workers, or move out of the country to hire third-world workers. More more generally, there is an openness (that is, a lack of restriction) permitting capital to find locations/systems that minimize overall cost, a cost incurred by any particular set of regulatory restrictions, without effecting price, or incurring any other cost. I’m not sure that such a system can be defended except consequentially, ie., that the overall benefits of this are greater than any reasonable alternative. And I guess I’m not convinced that this case has actually been made, even given all the trumpeting of neo-liberalism’s successes.

    Additionally, you say that such monopolies are somewhat inevitable – and I agree with that, but that’s true only if we reify the existing market principles under which those with greater capital have the ability to purchase monopoly share either by direct acquisition of competing firms, or via governmental policy. I’m not sure there’s anything inevitable about that, except that capital exerts a relentless, indefatigable pressure on politicians and people to acquiesce to whatever institutional structures best serve their interests, which is, of course, their bottom line.Report