Justice as Map

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Jason Kuznicki

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

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19 Responses

  1. Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    So… “Think Globally, Act Locally?”Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

      Try not to think globally, actually. Consider context, because different rules of justice will prevail in different areas, and a synthesis among them is unlikely to be (a) plausible (b) helpful or (c) even attainable.

      I may have to explain why this isn’t merely pragmatism, because it isn’t, and I haven’t distinguished them here. Possibly in a future post.

      I’d say that thinking globally is an artifact of the existence of the state. Thinking locally, however, might produce globally good outcomes. Schmidtz suggests near this passage that we can weigh prospective principles of justice and their application based on whether or not they conduce to the internalization of negative externalities. I thought that was clever, anyway, and I’m fairly sure that I agree.Report

      • Avatar MFarmer says:

        Very good Jason. In a reversal, the idea that America has become way more complex than ever imagined in the beginning, thus, the need for a controlling, powerful State, is actually wrong, and the complexity is more than a controlling, powerful State can handle, thus, the need for decentralization and a free market protected by rational, localized laws which protect individual rights.There are universal laws preventing coercion (majority rule and such) that make sense, but the environmental/educational/infrastructure/etc issues are better handled locally and creatively.Report

  2. Avatar Roger says:

    I’m a big fan of Schmidtz. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read of hisReport

  3. Avatar Simon K says:

    This seems very compatible with James C Scott’s, “Seeing Like a State”, which argues generally that the state’s need to understand the society its governing ends up determining a lot of the structure of that society.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

      Yes. And yet… I’m not entirely comfortable with it. The history of the United States suggests that local governments can be no better and often much worse than national ones, on some questions.Report

      • Avatar Simon K says:

        Is Schmitz advocating local government? Scott is, intellectually at least, an anarchist, so he generally opposes all government interventions including local ones (eg. in the section of Seeing Like a State about urban planning).

        There’s more validity to collective decision making when the collective is smaller and shares more day-to-day experience, but simply being geographically local is not enough if there are strong divisions of race or class or whatever that make people’s experiences very different.Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

          He’s not advocating local government directly, although I could see how his claims might be used to support it. Really he is arguing that the thing we call “justice” takes on various guises according to context — so much so that a unified theory of justice is perhaps unhelpful in attempting to learn the art of acting justly. A fragmented theory is in order instead.Report

      • Avatar kenB says:

        local governments can be no better and often much worse

        I’m curious about what exactly you mean by “better” and “worse” in this statement — are you saying there’s a set of “correct” answers for how the ideal local government should govern that’s not relative to the particular locality? If you think it’s rationally justifiable for you to pronounce the actions of a given democratic local government better or worse in some absolute sense, why aren’t you then entitled to enforce your judgments on a broader scale?

        Put another way, is your concession of non-perfect judgment limited to means and not ends?Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

          What I mean can be said in two words: Jim Crow.

          There isn’t necessarily a set of correct answers, such that we could apply them, formula-like, and get justice (this is one of Schmidtz’s claims as well) — but there are clearly sets of incorrect answers, and some of them have predominated within living memory.Report

  4. Avatar Stillwater says:

    Is it possible we all think too big and strive for too much coherence across too many domains?

    It is certainly possible. Likely, even. Minarchism also suffers from this: the application of general principles that will cross domains leading to the ‘best’ outcomes.

    Using education as an example, if a state wants both a requirement to attend school as well as a set of standards at each level a student progresses thru, then it seems natural to stipulate structures in a top-down, reasonably coherent fashion to achieve those goals. Historically, at least in the US, the state took an active role in creating and compelling attendance in educational programs because the industrial revolution required a literate work force: the capitalist engine apparently required state-sponsored fuel to run on (or so one story goes).

    It may be that we’ve reached a turning point of sorts, where cultural norms are doing the work the state used to do, and that, given where we are right now, liberating educational programs from the state – and its imposition of structural ‘coherence’ – would lead to better outcomes for all concerned. The presumption behind thinking this is that the base-level of what constitutes effective teaching and learning no longer requires state governance to be either determined or enforced. Generally, people now know what a good education is without necessarily having to read a manual about it. So the demand for coherence between different programs within a state and even amongst the states is arguably eliminated.

    I wonder, tho, if this isn’t the story of every type of cultural/social progress, especially economically driven progress. The state mandates or prohibits certain types of behaviors, culture more or less catches up to those demands, and at some later time the state ladder could be kicked away as superfluous.

    I also wonder if less coherence across certain types of problem-sets is even possible. Global warming strikes me as a problem that will require pretty vigorous state intervention, the fully general application of principles across many domains, and may even require a single global entity with the power to enforce to be resolved.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

      In the past, I have called this way of thinking the bundle theory of the state. I am delighted that you’ve picked up on it, because the original essay where I expounded it has been permanently lost, and I’ve only brought it up here and there, incidental to other topics.

      When David Hume introspected, he claimed not to find any one thing fit to be called the “self.” Instead there was only a group of rather detached phenomena, each one plausibly independent from the others. The self, he held, was a bundle.

      So too with the state, I think. We can add things to the bundle or take them away, always with varying results in our society. Might the bundle one day end up empty, and might we eventually be better off that way? I think it’s possible, but I don’t know how to do it yet, and doing it now I think would cause significant harm. Still, the state is a bundle of things — connected not by any particular essence, but only by a single fact: For all of these things, we have no remedy that’s any better than coercion.

      If and when we find a better remedy for any one of these things, it should be excluded from the bundle.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        If and when we find a better remedy for any one of these things, it should be excluded from the bundle.

        Agreed. (That’s why I like your libertarianism.) It gives an idea for an essay topic. Or title, really. “Tethered to the ladder.”Report

  5. Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

    Is it possible we all think too big and strive for too much coherence across too many domains?

    I think there’s a difference between thinking big across domains and thinking big in terms of scale. The changes that have come in the past 50 years or so, and more noticeably within the past 20 years is the change of scale, but also the change of domain.

    Commerce for example is substantially more globalized. Communications are too. Yet we’re still rooted in geographic thinking, which I think is partly an artifact of the state.

    I would argue in fact that thinking geographically is an artifact of the state, but thinking globally is something else. Large multinational institutions, whether they be corporations or non-profits tend to think in spatial terms that are quite a bit larger than states. They do so well because they tend to focus on narrow domains of competence.

    Maybe that’s where we need to start separating it. Spatial/geographic scale vs. domain scale.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

      Yes. And I think some of the confusion between these two is of my own making, here in this post. I definitely can’t ascribe it to Schmidtz. My apologies.Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain says:

      But there are still problems that require you to think geographically. Water — the level of an individual state is too small to deal with the Colorado River, the level of the US federal government is too large. Electricity generation in general — difficult to store or transport long distances, so generation is again a state or regional issue. Fossil fuels — easily extracted reserves are where they are, not where we might wish them to be. The CO2 from burning coal is a global issue, but the mercury is local. Much of the globalization of commerce has been enabled by the broad availability of petroleum-based liquid fuels. It is unclear if those fuels will continue to be available, or if they should be burned.Report

  6. Avatar Wardsmith says:

    Jason I don’t get it. This was an excellent op and yet you only got a smattering of comments. On the other hand I want to grab stillwaters comment and move it to the education op..Report

    • Avatar Rod says:

      And yet… this is your only comment. Just sayin’.

      Personally, I found it interesting as well, but I’m still digesting. For instance, this:

      …We are ignorant not only because all societies fall short of justice (although I think they do), but because societies are not built by a conscious design, and the few exceptions to this rule are also our clearest instances of injustice. A just society is grown, not made.

      Perhaps a better word than “grown” would be “evolved.” A seed, when planted, will yield a particular and predefined sort of fruit. Most of our older societies were never planned; for instance, no one ever sat down and designed what has become the United Kingdom. But the United States, on the other hand, was explicitly designed but has evolved considerably since it’s founding. And I would argue that, relatively speaking, both have arrived at reasonably just societies. Not perfect by any means, but better than average. And you can also point to examples of both planned and unplanned societies which are truly crappy.

      It’s easy to point to the planned societies along the Communist model and conclude that consciously designing a society is Not A Good Idea, but you have to also remember that the impetus for such endeavors were the short-comings in the pre-existing societies they arose from, societies that weren’t planned.Report

      • Avatar Roger says:

        The US was designed as a system which could “evolve”, change , learn and adapt. It splintered off the most liberal,powerful , economically robust state of it’s day and consciously attempted to build an open ended system with both centralized and decentralized learning ability. For the first 150 years it had the further advantage of a constant stream of new internal statelets forming that competed with each other for scarce citizens.

        The communists tried to design a system that required constant top down planning. The effort was doomed. Complex adaptive systems just don’t work that way.Report