Culture and Order


Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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91 Responses

  1. Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

    So anyone who says “no” to a violent revolution is the worst kind of liberal?

    I’m not getting something here.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      You’re not getting the context, but I left it out. Arnold and Mill were in disagreement about the somewhat rowdy worker’s protests going on in the London parks at the time. Mill believed the problem would be solved by opening up more legitimate avenues for political engagement and Arnold leaned towards using the police to keep protesters out of the parks. It was not really a question of supporting violent revolution or not. I’d imagine Mill and Arnold would have agreed if it was.Report

  2. Avatar Jaybird says:

    “Human Perfection”.

    My irritation with the Left can be summed up in that one phrase.Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:


    • Avatar Chris says:

      You, Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, Foucault, Deleuze, Chomsky, etc., etc., and even the late Marx (determinist in place of humanist) himself. Wait, did you mean a different Left? I’m pretty sure the Left doesn’t read much Arnold anymore.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. says:

        Actually, the paleocons have claimed Arnold as one of their own. Incorrectly, but there you have it.Report

        • Avatar Chris says:

          To be honest, I don’t know what the present-day progressives’ overall philosophy looks like. I mean, I know there are a fair number of humanists among them, but I don’t know exactly what sort of humanism they adhere to or how far they take it. I suspect human perfection isn’t part of it, but I could be wrong.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            I think the Progressives are in flux too. The Iraq War changed a lot of things. 9/11, for that matter.

            We’ll see what the new shuffling looks like before 2020, I reckon.Report

        • Avatar greginak says:

          The belief that somehow lefties or liberals or progressives believe in creating some sort of utopia or perfecting people is about 99.44% strawman.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            The problem with you young people today is that you don’t read.Report

            • Avatar greginak says:

              I went to college and got a degree, i don’t have to read anymore.Report

            • Avatar Michael Drew says:

              Read what? Are you saying that the Left is still now promoting a quest to perfect humanity in print somewhere where I am not seeing it? Or are you here finally admitting that your critique of the Left relies entirely on thinkers and writers of the past whose thought no longer reflects the views or agenda of those who identify with the label today?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Faulkner comes to mind.

                “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

                To paraphrase another guy, there are specters haunting the Left. (It’d probably be better if the Left knew more about evolution and didn’t put so much stock in Special Creation.)Report

              • Avatar greginak says:

                “specters haunting the Left”??? I’m sure that is not spectral red baiting at all. Conversation might be more constructive if some of us weren’t supposed to defend writers we haven’t read, don’t agree with or never heard of. Why exactly aren’t we read and understood by what we say? If we try, we can find specters haunting every bodies beliefs. For example states rights has some icky white hooded ectoplasm all over it.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Ah, Greg. You seem to think that I read Marx the same way that people who use the term “reds” do.Report

              • Avatar greginak says:

                Well i would assume you actually know what socialism is or Marx wrote as supposed to the 99% who throw out those words. But knowing what those things are should make it pretty clear how different they are to what modern liberals are looking for.

                Everything human has nasty specters in its past given the grizzly nature of human history.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Ah, Greg. Do you really think that I’d admit to being part of the 99%?Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                To be clear, I don’t claim the history of progressivism (or conservatism) isn’t worth taking note of and allowing to inform one’s view of the ideology. I’m just asking whether you admit that your irritation with the Left is completely tied up with its past, and that it has no subject to be concerned with in the substance of what today’s progressives have to say.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                I see today’s progressives as direct descendants of yesterday’s.

                If I am wrong about this (and, hey, I’m wrong about gobs), I’d love to know which books or essays I need to read.

                Who are the, oh, three most essential progressive thinkers today that, if I don’t know about them, I don’t know Jack.

                (I’m still reading Zizek in my free time, you see.)Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                I’m not going to try to disabuse you of anything. I’m just trying to clarify what you think so I understand what it is. If you’re interested in determining the veracity of certain propositions, do the work.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Three essential progressives. Just three.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                Honestly. Is this about that, or about making a meta-demonstration of this discussion in some way? If you ever wonder why people don’t always interact with you in a straight-up way, you might reflect on that question at certain intervals in your conversations here.

                I can’t give three writers I’m confident represent modern progressivism. I’m not an expert. If you want to satisfy yourself progressivism is continuous with its past, do the research. It’s your contention. I haven’t even denied it.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                You asked me: “Or are you here finally admitting that your critique of the Left relies entirely on thinkers and writers of the past whose thought no longer reflects the views or agenda of those who identify with the label today?”

                I pretty much admitted as much in my answer.

                Now I’m asking you for three progressive thinkers whose thoughts represent the views or agenda of those who identify with the label today.

                If you don’t know who those thinkers are, I’m going to go back to reading my Bellamy and I’d thank you very much to not ask me to put him down until you have someone I ought be reading instead.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                It’s not my job to keep you current. It’s not my job to make sure you maintain an accurate idea of what modern progressives say. You can do it or you can not and I don’t care if you do or don’t. If you want to, you will; if you don’t, you won’t. I can still express whatever opinion of Bellamy to you that I want (though I’m not expressing any opinion of Bellamy).Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                I’m sure that it’s not.

                However, if you accuse me of not knowing what modern progressives think, it might be considered at the very least gentlemanly to share the thinkers who will let me catch up and provide better criticism… the last thing I’d want to do is assume that “The problem with you young people today is that you don’t read” if that’s not accurate.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                I didn’t accuse you of not knowing what modern progressives think. I merely asked if indeed you were saying that your main or only critique of progressivism is based on the views of progressives of many, many decades ago. You could say no it isn’t or you could say yes it is (apparently you said yes it is, but I don’t see where you did), but either of these could be the case even if you were highly conversant in the ideas of contemporary progressives.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                Reviewing my questions of you, I’d say that they rather clearly assume that you do have a working knowledge of what modern progressives say, since I repeatedly ask you whether your critique of progressivism is concerned with it, or simply based on the writings of people who are long dead. I nowhere accuse you of being uninformed.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Who are the thinkers who could quickest bring me up to speed on the ideas of contemporary progressives?

                Greg mentioned three guys who, if I had to pigeonhole them, I’d pigeonhole them as closer to “somewhat lefter-than-normal neolibs”. Who should I read instead?

                Believe me: I’d prefer my criticisms to be bleeding edge if I could make them so. My assumption is that I’m dealing with people who feel more than they think and certainly more than they read and aren’t aware of the historical bedbugs hiding at the bottom of their historical baggage.Report

              • Avatar Stillwatera says:

                three progressives

                Intellectual progressives?

                I can’t think of one. Or one that I take seriously anyway. Progressivism today is concerned with animal rights, and sweat shops, and global warming.

                All very important issues, but there’s no deep philosophy there. And certainly no deep commitment to the ‘perfectability of man’.

                Progressivism in the sense you’re using the word died loooong before the Berlin wall came down.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                See now… that’s a dang shame.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                I don’t honestly know what group of people you want me to try to represent to you by naming three (or do you now want more?) authors. I’m no more clear on where “the Left” leaves off and “progressives” starts, where “liberals” starts, where “neoliberals” starts, and so forth, than the next guy. To me, there are just a lot of people out there saying stuff, some of them consciously as part of a certain tradition such as progressivism (or conservatism), others not, and we try to classify them from without. If I don’t have any confidence in the reality of these groups, then I’m not sure how I can say who represents what.

                If you believe that intellectual strains of a century ago largely define the views of a set of people you think comprise a real social grouping today, I have no particular need to try to get get you to stop believing that. If it were me, I’d want to try to put that belief on a solid footing in some way via tracing the older ideas forward and finding the ties to the ideas I think they influence today. The result of that might be a broad familiarity with what people are saying today, in which case all of this need to suggest ways to get up to speed would be moot.

                You said, “My irritation with the Left can be summed up in that one phrase [Human Perfection].” I merely meant to ask whether your frustration with the idea of that phrase finds renewal in things that people say in earnest about policy today, or whether your frustration is just a direct response to the exact reprinting of words first written in 1860, 1887, or 1920. It could certainly be either, and my assumption was that you did have the familiarity with today’s discourse to be able to answer. If you are simply saying that you do not, I just accept that for what it is. I remain uninterested in providing you with a curated reading list for helping you complete the task of acquiring a basic familiarity with the broad outlines of mainstream political discourse in this country. I just think that’s something we all have to do for ourselves.Report

              • Avatar Stillwatera says:

                That it’s dead, or that there aren’t any big thinkers writing about the ideological principles linking a mishmash of focus-group issues?

                I will say this tho: not having to look over your shoulder at the scowling face of a dead white philosopher can be liberating. It might cause you to go occupy a financial district or somethin.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                You’re still reading Zizek? Why? Why? Eww… Why? Are you just trying to justify all reading all that Lacan once upon a time.Report

              • Avatar wardsmith says:

                I think Jaybird asks an extremely important question. Who are the leading lights of the new left? I also thing bloggers (while important) do not carry the gravitas of those writing books. There is only so much that fits in a blog.

                To answer his query with those authors from the New Right is a trivial exercise.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                It is an interesting question, one I’d have to give some thought to. But for Jay to hold that the older ideas have exponents today, he’d have to have an idea of what someone, somewhere is thinking and writing now to even have that idea, is that not right? I mean, it’s a positive assertion, isn’t it?Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

                Mr. Drew’s objection is sustained. The perfectibility of systems, however, remains a corollary and a live wire.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                It’s more that the progressives of today are the descendants of the progressives of yesterday (memetically, anyway).

                The claim that they aren’t strikes me as one that would need more backing up than my own.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                Absolutely agreed – human systems included. But clearly perfection is something else again from perfectability, which is in turn something else from improvability. You will be able to find people today talking about the improvability of human systems. If that had been what Jay said is his beef with the Left, then I wouldn’t have needed to ask if he has a live issue with today’s Left; clearly he would. But the issue was Human Perfection (capital H capital P): he said his irritation could be summed up by that phrase. It led me to think I had to confirm with him that he actually had any ongoing irritation with the Left that actually exists today.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                I don’t claim they’re not descendants; I’m not sure if anyone does. The issue is if the sum of your problem with the Left is the idea of Human Perfection: has that trait been memetically inherited? Or have you been rendered unwillingly reconciled with the Left by virtue of the natural process of the sloughing off of bad ideas? If Human Perfection is still something that animates people today, we should be able to see it. You are saying it is more unreasonable to contest a flat assumption that it does by merely asking the person so contending where he sees this than to insist that the pre-empirical assumption is so valid that it justifies a requirement that the negative be proved? If I could cite thirty writers where I think the meme is absent this would still not prove the idea has not survived natural intellectual selection, but it would only take your giving one or two examples of where you see it at play to establish that you are not working on pure assumption. And since I don’t even make the claim that the meme is completely extinct; rather from the beginning I have just asked where you see it, I think that is in fact a reasonable response.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Here’s where I tend to see its echoes, if you will:

                It’s in the arguments of what we, as a society, are obliged to provide where when the obligation is questioned, its questioners are mocked for some form of heartlessness or similar.

                Where the creation and advancement of technology is seen as creation of poverty… be it medical or business or whathaveyou.

                You might be interested to know that I saw it in the arguments on behalf of remaking the Middle East (and in the questions asked of those who opposed it).

                Now, I admit to being careless when I don’t necessarily make distinctions between “The Left” and “The Progressives”… certainly as some of the Progressive spark has been carried over into the Neocon camp… but the Progressive idea of “Justice” and the idea that it can be significantly hastened with enough brute force is always there in the background.

                A Justice without God, a Justice without clearly defined morality, and, more and more, a Justice without having read Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Marx, or Rawls (but the specters remain, of course).Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                Now, was that so hard? These are arguments where I can at least consider the subject about which a claim is being made.

                Where you’re really being careless is in adopting a reductive symbol that you can use as a marketing tool against the Left on the assumption that practically no one will defend the symbol on its own terms. I say this is careless because you should know that this will be transparent and unconvincing to people such that even people included to be sympathetic to your case feel the need to clarify and add some nuance to the locution (‘Well, what is really observable today is that people think that Systems are Prefectable, not the Humans Must be perfected…’). Of course, when this is done, much of the instinctual revulsion to what is being discussed drains away for a lot of people (not people fully on your wavelength already, mind you, but many in your target audience), and the whole gambit loses much of its force.

                It’s careless also because so much of what you want to oppose by taking this approach is so reasonably argued against on particularized terms relevant to those things. But not everything of course, and doing that also doesn’t further the general aim of diminishing support for any idea that you can associate associated with an particular label. (“The Left” in this endeavor being merely a useful name for you to stand apart from, rather than any particular group of set of ideas you have shown any interest in setting out to define with any precision, even just for the purposes of your own argumentation, setting aside any reference to how the world actually uses the term.)

                At least that’s my impression of what you are up to when you show such interest in reducing your objection to what you describe as “the Left” to such simple, antiquated (whether completely extinct, or alive only in rare cases, or still alive, you argue, as implications of various specific undertakings of contemporary political causes) as the idea or pursuit of “Human Perfection.”Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Insofar as “society” is coextensive with “Human” (as opposed to “individual” being coextensive) among “the Left”, I’m still comfortable enough making sweeping generalizations.

                Hell, just getting to the atom being “the individual” is usually enough for me in those arguments.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                I take your point on human = society (though, again, the one has a connotative value that the other – the one that best describes what strictly speaking you really mean – doesn’t quite, does it). But even accepting that identity, there is still the matter of “Perfection” vis a vis “perfectability” vis a vis “improvability.”

                The language you employ tends to be highly leveraged, and this was an extreme example. Using the language you use but then falling back on the moderated meanings you give above is, in my view, highly tendentious. An alternative would be to use the words that most closely convey your actual contentions in modern usage, even if they have less polemical value to you. But it’s just one alternative.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                I definitely think that progressives share something in common with the progressives of the first few decades of the last century, though I’m not sure how much of that is the result of a common overall philosophy (as I said, I don’t know what that is for contemporary progressives). I also don’t think that’s a bad thing. Bull Moose progressives were all for things like a minimum wage, universal health care, women’s suffrage, social security, the 17th amendment, etc., all of which I consider good things. I don’t think this necessarily means that the current breed carries with it the baggage of the breed of a century ago (e.g., racism and euginics that were associated with some progressives, particularly since the first of these was associated with pretty much everyone, and the latter with a lot of different political and social groups).

                On the intellectual leaders of the progressive movement, if there are any presenting overall philosophical visions, I don’t know of them. My impression has always been that the progressive movement has been driven by issues, and as a result, the bulk of the intellectual work is done on issues. If you read the progressive academic blogs, like say Crooked Timber, you’ll get a long reading list.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                The problem with “improvability” is that there is no stopping point. There is no point at which I have seen people say “yeah, that will be good”.

                There is always one more level of Maslow’s hierarchy that we, as a society, are responsible for making sure has everything it needs. Look, for example, at the Heritage study. It’s not even conceeded that Heritage would be making a good point if it had different things on its list, for example.

                “Improvability” is a word swap.Report

              • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

                That’s not the problem with improvability. But it’s close.


                > But clearly perfection is something
                > else again from perfectability,
                > which is in turn something else
                > from improvability.

                This is perfectly valid. Here’s the criticism.

                When You (not you you, but the You that is Them) offer a policy proposal with the tagline, “this (foo), which will change (bar), will improve (blah)”, it is incredibly common for there to be lots of heavy lifting going on behind the scenes.

                Oftentimes nobody is discussion what the cost of foo is. Oftentimes people aren’t clear by what measure they are marking change in bar. Oftentimes people conflate blah with something that isn’t blah; blah is just a proxy.

                Typically, this happens in these parts when someone (of either political stripe) talks about how this concrete proposal will do this philosophical good thing. And typically Jaybird and/or I are sitting over in the corner saying, “Wait, how? How are you measuring this? Why is this better? When do we decide if it works or not? If it goes on for N years and nothing changes, do we stop or double down? Why would we want to double down if you say we should do that? When do we draw a line and say, ‘This program was a failure’? (and typically, me asking the small government folk): What do we do if taking this away has consequences worse than keeping it around? Are we going to pay for that, or let it happen, or re-institute the policy that you want to get rid of?”

                It’s very uncommon for either of us to get these answers. In fact, rather like this short blurb of the comment thread, we often have to spend time defending our ability to ask the question.

                Improvability is fine. Things can get better. But if you’re not telling us how what you want to do is going to produce some sort of result and how you’re going to measure it, there’s not difference between saying “things are improvable” and “things can attain perfection”; in either case, you can constantly be striving to go nowhere, all in the name of a goal that you’re never going to achieve doing what you’re doing *right now*.

                Because without a definition of success and a definition of failure, there is no way to know if you actually moved a ball down the field.Report

              • Avatar Stillwatera says:

                TVD: The perfectibility of systems, however, remains a corollary and a live wire.

                We’ll have to agree to disagree about this. I don’t see anything on the empirical side of things that would suggest that lefties, or more narrowly ‘progressives’, believe in the perfectability of institutions.

                I certainly don’t see anything at the level of theory or ideology that supports the claim either. My take on current progressives is that they’re concerned with issues rather than institutions, and there is – in my view – no premise or conclusion they embrace to the effect that institutional perfectability is the logical outcome of reason or human interaction or even a goal of policy advocacy.

                And insofar as I’d be willing to concede that progressives and liberals generally are concerned with perfectability of institutions, they would be no different than any other advocacy group or political movement that attempts to shape policy to better fit their conception of how the world should be. So it’s fully general.

                Jaybird is probably right that current progressives share some links to prior progressives, but that seems empty to me: the current Chicago Bears are in some sense the same team and a radically different team than they were in 1922.Report

              • Avatar Stillwatera says:

                Patrick: Because without a definition of success and a definition of failure, there is no way to know if you actually moved a ball down the field.

                I tend to think this criticism is often overused and based on unrealistic expectations of large institutional structures. In short: I think it’s a straw man. (There. I said it.)

                Here’s the thing: demanding a ‘definition of success’ for any action P is empty – and unrealistic – except when given a metric to determine what would constitute success. Often, in almost ecvery case, the metric for determining the success of the policy is simply the policy itself. And it succeeds or fails in a pretty transparent, trivial way: it either achieves its goals or it is doesn’t (because it was subverted/corrupted/not enforced/etc.).

                But then the above criticism is employed in the following way: ‘well, there are other metrics to determine success, ones that I think are important but aren’t considered by advocates of policy P, so the advocates of policy P aren’t giving me what I consider a valid definition of success’.

                The criticism is often a) question begging against the specific policy or policy generally, b) suggests that all the implications of a policy need to be considered and independently justified before that policy itself is justified (which is practically impossible), and c) account for all the unintended consequences of a policy (which is logically impossible). That’s too high a bar for any person, let alone large institution, to meet.

                Also, I don’t think there is any large institutional structure that ever does provide a definition of success beyond the first order. In the corporate world, it’s the bottom line, or increased efficiency. In union activity, it’s better compensation packages. In government, it’s to implement the policy. In all these cases, unanticipated consequences as well as nth-order consequences are ruled out from the decision-making process.

                I mean, the criticism that I hear very frequently from certain parts of the commentariat is that policy must meet a burden of justification that sounds really nice and simple – let’s make sure that policy does what we want it to do, OK? – but that in principle cannot be met. So it’s primary utility, ISTM, is to set a straw man on fire.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                @ Stillwater

                > Often, in almost every case, the
                > metric for determining the
                > success of the policy is simply
                > the policy itself.

                I don’t know about every case, but this is certainly a valid point.

                Then it behooves the supporters to stop bullshitting the world about it, and fess up (this is so vanishingly rare I’m okay with saying that this never happens).

                “I think this policy is a good thing, on its own merits. I don’t see any downside to it, and I see ways that it could result in better outcomes.”

                This in and of itself is okay (although almost nothing is ever sold this way, it’s sold as “Obviously this is going to make everything awesome, and if you don’t agree you’re a moron!”)… but “I think this might make some things better” also at least should come with, “… but since I don’t how to measure it and I don’t know what it might break, I’m willing to stick a rider in here that says 5 years from now this sunsets unless it gets confirmed.” Then, five years later, if someone comes along and says, “Hey, you know how you didn’t see any downside to it? Well look at this and that and this other…” it’s on the guy who was promoting the policy to stop and take a really hard look at themselves. And the thing, whatever it is, is going away unless they can make the argument again.

                This, I’m also okay with saying, also happens rarely enough that I’ll call it “never”.

                > But then the above criticism
                > is employed in the following
                > way: ‘well, there are other
                > metrics to determine success,
                > ones that I think are important
                > but aren’t considered by
                > advocates of policy P, so the
                > advocates of policy P aren’t
                > giving me what I consider
                > a valid definition of success’.

                This is also a valid point; this is also a piss-poor way of arguing the counter side.

                If I don’t like your policy, because I don’t like your metric, I can certainly say, “I don’t like this metric. I think it’s a weak one, and here’s why.” That all well and good and dandy.

                But I don’t get to decide that this is the only “valid” measure of success, because it presumably comes with the policy. Whether or not the legislation passes determines whether or not it is valid or not.

                Breaking out the storyteller again:

                – One –
                Let’s say I propose that we spend $500 million dollars on subsidizing cold fusion research over the next 10 years. I say, “I think we should spend this money for the following reasons: one, I think scientific research is a good thing to subsidize. Two, I think our existing base of scientific capability is underutilized in energy research. Three, I think that regardless of whether or not they actually come up with cold fusion in the next 10 years, we’ll probably get some good results somewhere anyway. And finally, if we get cold fusion, zawzome.”

                Most of that stuff isn’t measurable. Indeed, the “some good results” part is really handwavy.

                If this passes, though, there isn’t really a measure of success (or failure). We’re doing the thing. We expect no particular results. Ten years from now, we can decide to do it again, or not.

                – Two –
                Let’s say I propose spending $500 million dollars on a dam. I say, “I expect this dam to be completed in 5 years. In 10 years, I expect it to hit the break-even point, at which point we’ll sell the dam to a private company and put the didge in the general budget fund. We will sell the dam to the electric company who offers to buy it for the largest price while retiring an equal amount of MWage in coal-fired plants. This will juice up the local economy, get the construction guys back to work, cut emissions, and eventually be incorporated into the public market at a breakeven for the taxpayer and enable existing power companies to slough off sunk costs without taking an appreciable loss”

                Now this is a pretty complex proposal, but clearly there are a bunch of places where we can measure stuff. We can set limits on how much we’re willing to go overbudget, for example. Also: if someone comes along in seven years and proposes that, in order to fix a budget shortfall this year we sell the dam two years early, if it’s the same dude who proposed building the dam and suddenly in the interim he’s gotten 10x his donations from a power company we can take him outside and shoot him. Finally, though, the opposing side may disagree that this is worth doing because it’s going to cost $500 million right now and they don’t want to spend the money. Well, tough patootie. If the law passes, it passes.

                But the opponents should still have clearly defined battle lines. “I didn’t like this legislation then, and I don’t like it now, and the other side said it was going to do (a) (b) and (c) and they were right but I still don’t like it.” is a fair bit of campaigning. It might be a hard sell, but it’s fair.

                “I didn’t like this legislation then, and I don’t like it now. The other side said it was going to do (a) (b) and (c) but it went over-budget, they sold it two years early at a loss to the taxpayer, and in the last meeting of the legislature they sold it to a power company but lifted the MWage retirement option because everyone’s complaining that power is too expensive in the state as it is.” <- that's also fair campaigning. "Hey, dickhead, the guys that lifted the MWage requirement were your fellow party members in the legislature who held the budget hostage to get it passed." might also be fair campaigning, if it's true. The point is, as long as things are squishy, everything that is good is always because your side is right, and everything that is bad is because the other side was wrong. And most of the public can't untangle all this stuff because they don't have the time and the legislative process is murky enough that both parties can often mask stuff that they want to hide under plausible deniability.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Patrick, I certainly agree that playing fast and loose with metrics is a piss-poor way to counter your opponents argument. But I’m not sure that’s an accurate description of what actually transpires during the debate over policy.

                It’s also difficult to tease out what would constitute a metric sufficient to determine that policy P shouldn’t be passed in advance of its passage that doesn’t beg the question against advocates of policy P. Or in other words: your preferred metric for evaluating P might be X, while mine is Y, but my failure to reject P based on your preferred metric doesn’t mean I’m not considering it. It means that, on my view, Y is a more important metric.

                Isn’t this type of value-ordering the basis of political disputes and policy debate?

                And I completely agree that systemic corruption is a problem. I’m reluctant (no, *more* than reluctant) to agree with some of the libertarian commenters here that the way to eliminate corruption is to reduce/eliminate government and the resulting corruptible policies.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                > Or in other words: your preferred
                > metric for evaluating P might be
                > X, while mine is Y, but my failure
                > to reject P based on your preferred
                > metric doesn’t mean I’m not
                > considering it. It means that, on
                > my view, Y is a more important
                > metric.
                > Isn’t this type of value-ordering
                > the basis of political disputes and
                > policy debate?

                This type of value-ordering *ought* to be the basis of political disputes, but from my viewpoint, it’s typically not.

                It’s often framed that way, though, to sell a message to a body of fairly willing listeners.

                Hm; I’m exploding the combox. Perhaps I should write up a whole post about measurement and valuation, because it’s a hard subject to tackle.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                I think it’s a great idea. We’ll continue the discussion there and then.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:


                if you’re not telling us how what you want to do is going to produce some sort of result and how you’re going to measure it, there’s not difference between saying “things are improvable” and “things can attain perfection”

                I don’t see how the way a refusal to be accountable for one’s specific claims renders both the claim of improvability and perfectability similarly meaningless in those instances makes a claim to be able to improve something and a statement of a desire to perfect things just the same things.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Identical? Of course not.

                Close enough for commenting? Sure.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                Right, especially since the one word sounds so much more unreasonable than the other one, amirite? I mean never mind that that one actually is less accurate (how ever small the difference), and the more accurate word to be use to characterize the position you want to characterize stands constantly at the ready, with no impediments to its use. Objectively, the large gain in polemical value clearly offsets the small loss in accuracy – even I can see that.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                “Policies pushing toward unmeasurable improvability based on gut feelings where sympathy is seen as an argument in itself”?

                Yeah, I’d say that that’s my problem with the left in a nutshell.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                I like this better, because I at least understand that I am supposed to be looking for this thing among people who are actually doing things in the world nowish.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                > I don’t see how the way a
                > refusal to be accountable for
                > one’s specific claims renders
                > both the claim of improvability
                > and perfectability similarly
                > meaningless

                Sigmund Freud had some things to say about how the human mind worked. He had (I would argue) valuable things to say about how the human mind worked.

                The problem is, Freud isn’t falsifiable.

                That doesn’t mean that in a particular case, a Freudian psychoanalyst couldn’t give a person a diagnosis and a successful treatment scenario.

                However, given two cases which were exceedingly similar, a Freudian psychoanalyst could give two diagnoses and two treatment scenarios to two patients and if one worked and the other didn’t, it didn’t tell you anything about the treatment proposed, and the analyst could always come up with a reasonable explanation inside Freud’s framework to accept one as a reasonable success and discard the other as an outlier.

                Freud’s framework wasn’t generalizable. Even when we got something right, and we were using it, we had no guarantee that the next time we tried it it could work. We couldn’t say we learned anything.

                Karl Popper had a lot to say about why this is bad. I don’t agree with everything Popper ever wrote, but I will say this: if you have some sort of of stake that you’re willing to plant in the ground and say, “This is success”, I’m much more inclined to give whatever you’re saying weight than someone who will not provide such a stake.

                Given some time T, we might all agree that in a particular case you plonked the stake down in the wrong place. Maybe, we all decide that the stake *ought* to be over there, and heck, that’s where you wound up, so you succeeded in spite of having the wrong idea about failure.

                We might agree that the converse is true, too; you picked the wrong spot, so even though you hit the target that doesn’t count as a real success.

                Finally, at the very least, over time, we will be able to say something, though: either You (or people of Your Tribe) have demonstrated a track record of being able to hit the stake when you plant it in the ground, or you have not demonstrated such a track record.

                This tells me something, as a consumer of public policy outcomes. Either you’re probabilistically good at hitting stakes or not; shoot, even if I disagree with you this can be useful information.

                If Party A is really bad at hitting their stakes, and they lay out a public policy that aims to a stake that I think is a really bad stake to aim at, but the cost is really low, hell let ’em try. They can’t hit the broadside of the barn anyway and it doesn’t cost anything. Throw ’em a vote and make ’em pay for it with a vote on something that the other side has demonstrated an ability to hit what they aim at, for example.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:


                I was prepared to give you four maybe five paragraphs to come to your point, and I did so, but you still hadn’t, so here I am writing this sentence.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                Okay, if you need a shorter answer:

                I find your position, in many cases, to be similar to a faith-based argument. I find your utter unwillingness to provide some sort of baseline for you to admit you are even potentially incorrect to be further evidence supporting this proposition.

                I don’t really find this to be compelling, even if you’re correct. Especially if I agree with you.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                Or is it just that no true member of the Left, at least as far as you’re concerned, doesn’t adhere to the ideal of Human Perfection?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                I think that the idea of “Justice” is always there. Justice capable of being imposed and maintained and, most importantly, internalized.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                Offering up a commitment to “Justice” as the thing to turn people off to the Left just doesn’t have the juice that offering up the idea that they’re (still) animated belief in “Human Perfection,” does it? But since you see these as the same, I guess I can’t fault you for making the switch.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                It’s more that I see them as the fittest descendants.

                There’s very much a familial similarity.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

      That we don’t believe that Ronald Reagan was an example of it?Report

  3. Avatar wardsmith says:

    LOL, the +1 was for Jaybird, but it works where it landed too.Report

  4. Avatar greginak says:

    @Jay- Karl Marx…..DOH….damn you caught me.

    I’d actually direct you to three bloggers: Kevin Drum, Ezra Klein and Mike Konczal off the top of my head. I haven’t read any book length poli philo in years which i am fine with( Those Godzilla movies don’t watch themselves). Us spectral types are big on pragmatism and empiricism so philo only goes so far. It should be evident in a lot of the conversations here abouts, but many of us don’t go in for all that heavy philo, discussions of official canon of our beliefs or abstract aged guff.

    I’d actually think a dry and exciting as white toast PDF filled meta analysis of various health care systems would be more useful then quotes from Hayek or Keynes for that matter. Not saying my preference is best or the only one, but there it is. There are plenty of others to discuss philo.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      Thank you, Greg. I read the first two, I haven’t read the third.Report

    • Avatar Murali says:

      Us spectral types are big on pragmatism and empiricism so philo only goes so far

      But greg, there does seem to be something wrong ith this. What this means is that you are claiming that you dont really care about what the goals of public policy should be.

      That is either dishonest or nihilistic.
      It could be nihilistic in that all you care about is what the goals of public policy happen to be. This explains a certain type of wonkish focus on politics instead of policy. This would explain the semi-recent stuff about theories of politics. It also explains the kind of thing some leftist political bloggers (like Ezra Klein) do, which is to say this is what Obama needs to do to win. i.e. its all about the politics and the strategising and the re-electability and not about whether it is actually just.

      To the extent that progressives care about what is just, then this pramatist, empiricist stuff is not entirely honest or not self aware. If we say that we want a certain kind of social policy, it is because said policy will achieve a number of policy goals. (or at least that is what would make it rational) Where the policy goals are not stated, it is impossible to know whether the goals are worth pursuing, or whether the policies achieve the goals. What seems to be the case is that pragmatists could be positioning themselves to accuse others of being ideologues when they themselves have an unstated underlying philosophy. This is not to accues you of anything specifically, but just to note that either way, philosophy is important.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi says:

        Ya, but my philosophy might just be something simple.
        “Fix the World. By any means Necessary.”

        I think that’s what a lot of the liberaltarians are all about — they’ve figured that some things work best governmentally, and some things work best marketally, and they just want to find empirically which are best.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          “That? Oh, that’s not broken. It’s supposed to do that.”

          Now what?Report

          • Avatar Kimmi says:

            … we line up our arguments on whether or not it’s broken, and if it isnt’ broken, whether we still want it, or want to ameliorate the problems its causing. (free markets still cause problems, people! we may not care, but they Do)Report

            • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

              Sure, but see the comment I just wrote to Michael.

              If you don’t say ahead of time what you’re trying to do, and how it’s supposed to be measured, when we get around to lining up our arguments, we have to spend most of our time arguing about what is the actual basis for the conversation.

              And typically, one side can say, “look at all this bad!” and the other side can say, “none of that bad counts!” because of course we’re dealing with human systems without clear causality. Shoot, we can’t even get both sides to agree to use high frequency of correlations to be considered good enough evidence to revisit.

              “The Patriot Act will protect us from Terrorism”

              ten years pass

              “Uh, guys? I’m pretty sure this isn’t really Constitutional and anyway it seems to be a really bad idea and look at all these bad things that come with it”

              “There hasn’t been any terrorism! Patriot Act good! That’s not misuse of the power, look, it caught drug dealers! And what do you have to hide, anyway!”

              “The minimum wage will reduce poverty!”

              “Won’t this just encourage companies to move jobs overseas? How is that better?”

              “You hate children, you love corporations, and you probably kick puppies!”

              years pass

              “Outsourcing has left us with an unemployable generation! We need to raise the minimum wage so that these people can have a living wage!”

              “Wait, didn’t we say that this was going to happen, like, 40 years ago? And we still have poverty, right? And now you want to make a living wage? Why? Heck, can we get rid of this minimum wage thing?”

              “You hate the common man, and you’re stupid because you’re destroying your own wage base! Also, the poverty we still have doesn’t count!”

              “But how does forcing a…”

              “You’re funded by the Koch brothers!”

              Conversations kill.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi says:

                these may be stupid arguments to get into. truly, they might be.
                1) What are we trying to do? Make Perfection — even if it is utterly hopeless, and even if there are ten ways of doing it, all of which have a 10% chance of success, and 90% chance of utter ruin. [god, i’m in a black mood today.]

                2) Measuring causation is a bitch and a half. I think most people can agree on what is good — “Most people getting enough to live on, people who work harder getting more than the lazy bums.” What’s harder is getting us to that point.

                Can I consider it a foul play on the Republicans part to, rather than convincing people of “what we are trying to do”, convince them that “The Democrats Can’t do it Anyway”? (noting that substantial majorities of Americans agree with Democratic policies, but doubt that they can get implemented). [I’m rather taking as a given that the gov’t can get some things right. Like the weather.]

                What does that tell you about “what we should do?” and “how we measure it?”Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                > These may be stupid arguments to get into


                > What are we trying to do? Make
                > Perfection — even if it is utterly
                > hopeless, and even if there are ten
                > ways of doing it, all of which
                > have a 10% chance of success,
                > and 90% chance of utter ruin.

                You need to tell me how much this costs. I need to know. Because even if I agree with your stated type of “Perfection” (and I almost certainly don’t), you’re asking me to probably try something 8 times with 7 failures.

                See this and this for examples of someone on the Right giving me a list of stuff that might be really cool and me thinking he’s probably full of crap, largely because of this reason.

                > Measuring causation is a bitch and a half.

                Yes. This means that we ought to be very, very, very cautious about the conclusions we draw about our public policy decisions, right?

                So why is it that both sides are so goddamn convinced that every single policy outcome points solidly at why they’re awesome and simultaneously at why the other side is full of a bunch of bumpkins?

                > Can I consider it a foul play on the
                > Republicans part to, rather than
                > convincing people of “what we
                > are trying to do”, convince them
                > that “The Democrats Can’t do it
                > Anyway”?

                Sure. This is a legitimate foul play. Note, however, that both sides do this. So…

                If you’re calling this out as a substantive reason not to vote for the GOP, are you likewise going to do the same when a Democrat does it? Or will this be a case of, “When this GOP person does it, that’s reason to vote against her all other things aside, but when a Democrat does it, it’s only because of these practical politiking reasons that are forced upon them by political realities?”

                Because I have to say, if you regard this as “right out, no matter who does it” you’d better be voting for a Green or a Libertarian or some other minor party member, or I’m calling shenanigans 🙂Report

              • Avatar Kimmi says:

                Even if it costs us everything, it is unacceptable not to try. Note though, that I haven’t bothered telling you what exactly Perfection is. Is freedom a part of it? How about Equality? I wonder, sometimes…

                Nope. There’s a better metric than causality. Incentives Distort. It’s a rule that is truthful, and can be used to find the holes in most policies. It may take a sharp mind to find the incentives… but it is possible, and before you put it into bloody motion.

                … Because people are being “rarah I love my team”. It ain’t so, and you know it. Likewise, there are people on the Democratic side that know it too. Yer mind gets sharper when you try to find holes in things you don’t like. Well and good, just remember to keep the other team around, so that they can find holes in your arguments too.

                I’ll count it as a substantive reason to not vote for anyone. But it won’t be my only reasoning, and other things truly place high enough that it probably won’t matter if you call out bullshit on something.

                Foul Play is foul play — it’s not a matter of who is right or wrong, just a note that they’re breaking the rules of the game.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                > Even if it costs us everything, it
                > is unacceptable not to try.”

                I reject this line of reasoning, almost utterly. Nearly completely. Within a hair’s breadth of entirely. I will almost never agree to any political philosophy that relies upon this to carry any water beyond a thimblesfull. Again, see the links as to examples on the Right. I can whip up ones for the Left, too, if you want me too.

                I see no reason to believe that we live in a Boolean Universe. We can only say that some things are much more probable than others. We can only say that this thing is very likely much worse than that. Once we accept the level of certainty that is required to make the judgment you pose, here, we have likely made an irrevocable change in our thought process and turned our Bayesian Universe into a Axiomatic one.

                There are many things that come up against the wall that are disagreeable enough that they bear the label “unacceptable to allow to continue even at significant cost.”

                There are some things that come up against that wall that are monstrous enough that they bear the label “unacceptable to allow to continue even at great cost”.

                Nothing is worth everything.

                If it was 1988 and the Soviets suddenly launched a widespread attack against the United States and I’m sitting in the chair of the Presidency, I don’t launch. The U.S. is done; pressing the red button doesn’t save the U.S. Pressing the red button ends the Soviet Union. But it also ends humanity. No humanity, no chance of recovery. This says, “Destroying the Soviet Union is worth the end of humanity.” Well, that’s downright silly. No major tyranny has lasted forever, sooner or later the yoke is thrown off. Ending the Soviet Union condemns those in the future who would dissolve it the opportunity to do so.

                If someone came up to me and gave me a well thought out policy proposal that said, “Here, if we do this and this and this, it will likely eliminate world poverty within a decade, within a 98% confidence interval. But it’s going to kill your daughter.” I’m not taking that deal. Because even if we end poverty in a decade (which I’m hugely disinclined to believe is possible), I’m a pretty strong believer that there will still be plenty of badness around. It isn’t worth my daughter to me.

                Yes, this means I’m likely not ever going to give up my life for a worthy cause. But it also means I’m also very unlikely to erroneously give up my life for an unworthy cause. There are many more of the second than there are of the first.

                That’s just me.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi says:

                … weren’t we just talking about Perfection?
                It’s alright to be kantian about things. But I reject the notion utterly that we shouldn’t try, even if the costs are great.

                … but I agree with your example. I too do not launch the nuclear weapons, and I pray that those were birds on the radar.

                Scientists are problem solvers — they see problems, and they want to tinker, to find some way of making things work better, work righter.

                I believe the same principle applies to humans.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                > But I reject the notion utterly
                > that we shouldn’t try, even if
                > the costs are great.

                This isn’t what I said, I’ll note.

                It’s also not what you said here:

                > Even if it costs us everything,
                > it is unacceptable not to try.

                Truth tables left as an exercise for the reader 🙂Report

              • Avatar Kimmi says:

                I stand by what I said.
                I’m a gambler at heart.Report

  5. Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

    All of the gross failures of the Enlightenment we we still produce derailed people like Kimmi. Amazing, absoutely amazing.Report

  6. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    I am tickled pink at the different directions that this conversation has taken. Honestly, I posted the quote because I felt a bit of sympathy for both positions. For the record, I was not making a comment on 19th century liberals or the 1960s New Left, although the contrast is interesting to me.

    Ahem! I should probably drop the mysterial pose here and explain this post a bit. What appealed to me about Matthew Arnold’s comments in Culture and Anarchy and Raymond Williams’s commentary upon them was that I can recognize the wisdom of both positions: let’s say the “Arnold” and “Mill” positions in this debate. I don’t see either argument as Utopian in the slightest; or, at least, no more Utopian than Hobbes, who says something quite similar to Arnold in Leviathan, and who never gets accused of Utopianism or having a scheme to perfect humanity.

    Frankly, I don’t think we should take the Arnold line as delineating any particular project for human perfection either. What he is saying, in my opinion, is that civil society under a central authority is the precondition to all human flourishing, which he does assume is progressing, but note that he sees it as progressing by individual effort in a relatively stable order. It’s not an idea of “perfection” as I see it, but just the idea that people, if put in the right situation, will tend to perfect themselves as they see fit. Similarly, Hobbes says that the creation (and it’s an artificial creation) of civil society provides not just safety (the first reason to create a union offered in Federalist #3!), but all of the things that follow from that: industry, navigation, arts, letters, and so forth, ending of course with group blogs! In other words, if civil society provides people with safety and enough leeway (we might use the word liberties) to accomplish whatever it is they have the will and ability to, the result over time will be a general improvement in the nature of man’s accomplishments, particularly cultural. Arnold recognizes that philistinism can win out in the end, but he sees cultivation as the product of education and that as facilitated by order and stability.

    And he’s right in much of that. We might be pessimistic about what people can accomplish if left to their own devices, but if one cares deeply about education and culture, they are enlisted (like it or not) on the side of order and stability (and, oh by the way, tradition). What wins out in a mobocracy is force- usually he who has the most of it and the least reservations about using it. If we are gentlemen and ladies, we may side with particular protests or movements, but only up to a point. We remain partisans of social stability- if that stability remains possible. An interesting note about these protests, though, is that they seem to be animated largely by a vision of a stable civic order, as opposed to fantasies of “revolution”. They seemingly want the social contract to be enforced, not undone.

    So, I feel the lure of Arnold’s argument. It’s got nothing to do with a particular model of Human Perfection; if we want to live in a world in which the individual is free to perfect himself however he sees fit, that will have to be a society not of orders, but of Order. Let a thousand (individual) enlightenments bloom, but let them do so in an environment of civic peace. In fact, I would say the Natural Rights tradition, beginning with Hobbes (seriously!) and extending through Locke (seriously, Mr. Locke!) to Mill and beyond is rooted in an understanding that a healthy social order will balance freedom and authority, and that this will never be an easy balance to attain. Without order, social life is nasty, brutish, and short. In other words, understand where Arnold is coming from.

    But, I also understand Raymond Williams’s argument: namely, that there are times and places in which the political system creates its own instability by shutting entire groups out of the political process. If we take order and stability as ends in themselves, regardless of the context, should we side with the Egyptian government? Should we have been opposed to the Polish Solidarity movement? Would it be best to tend to our own garden under the Vichy Regime? The point Williams is getting at, I believe, is that regimes can more easily “put down” rebellions simply by not creating the sorts of conditions that give rise to them in the first place. In the case of the protesting London workers, Arnold’s position seems to make him unable to recognize any legitimacy in any rebellion simply because it is rebellion, or to fully emphasize the gulf of difference between power and authority in maintaining order.

    Surprisingly enough, Hobbes did recognize the legitimacy of rebellion in cases in which the reigning authority failed to keep up their end of the social contract. The fact that he tends to describe their role in terms of safety further solidifies his image as a “totalitarian”, but note that his argument that the rebellion of the people is God’s vengeance against an unjust ruler is nearly the opposite of the usual belief of the time that a bad ruler was God’s punishment against the people!

    And I do sense that the protesters are making a Hobbesian argument- not remotely “un-American” if one actually reads the strongly Hobbesian Federalist Papers- namely that the Common Power has failed to “keep them in awe, and to direct their actions towards a Common Benefit”. It is directed most visibly towards the bankers and stock jocks who they believe have failed to submit to the Leviathan, but ultimately, the Leviathan itself has failed on both counts entrusted to it. So, it’s still a bit unclear to me why they’re in New York City instead of D.C., since you don’t call for more “law and order” by picketing criminals.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      So, it’s still a bit unclear to me why they’re in New York City instead of D.C., since you don’t call for more “law and order” by picketing criminals.

      I’m not sure that picketing DC will fix that last problem.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck says:

      “it’s still a bit unclear to me why they’re in New York City instead of D.C.”

      Because, whatever else happens, Obama will solemnly and say (in his lovely, well-spoken, clean voice) that he honestly believes in us, truly believes in us, and that everything he does is for us. Because he loves us. Sometimes he loves us too much and gets things wrong. Sometimes he has to be hard to us to show us the right way, but he wants to show us the right way. And sometimes we fall down the stairs or bump our arm on the counter because he just loves us too much to be happy about how we’re acting.

      But he loves us. Not like those nasty Jew bankers who just want to make a buck. They don’t love us. And they’ll say so, right to our face, because they’re mean. So it’s okay to hate them.Report