How to argue with people on the internet

2016-01-23 20.36.21I have been struggling quite a bit as the election and the aftermath have unfolded. Since losing my mum I’ve made a consistent, deliberate effort to connect with her side of the family and they are almost universally Mormon, Republican and old-school Conservative. This election has been hard to navigate when to speak up and when to stay quiet, who will listen and when it isn’t valuable to pursue. I love these people, especially these women, and I am so grateful for the ways they have welcomed and accommodated me. At the same time, we disagree profoundly about so many things. We come from the same place and yet we have taken such different paths across multiple generations. Remaining in connection is important to me and yet… it can be hard. I know that any conversation we have is visible to wider communities and reflects on us both.

Where I come from is this:

This country (and the world) has had problems that we have used band aids and smokescreens to avoid solving. My liberal-bias-side would say that in the 1960s the world evolved and there is a group who doesn’t want it to be that way. They find the changes (dare I say ‘evolution’) threatening for lots of reasons and are unwilling to compromise what they feel are core identity issues. But, being fair, I think there are also some good points buried in what they are saying too. Globalization has been displacing, diversity is difficult to navigate at times, and we have not supported our entire community to reap the benefits of ever-increasing-productivity.

I had the opportunity to witness a Mormon ward and although it was closed and ideologically driven, it was also the most committed, supportive community I have ever witnessed. In many ways it was a time warp to when we lived in communities close enough that our neighbors helped care for the ill and the less fortunate. It was also a beautiful thing. I think we have all had some situation when we didn’t want to face reality, or when we believed a good thing was under threat. We rarely think about the fact that even the space to contemplate ‘I don’t want it this way’ is a privilege.

Trump voters (and Brexit voters) are insecure enough (across economic, social and psychological measures) that they don’t have the capacity (or believe they don’t) to adapt to a post-structural order. That is my generous interpretation. All of these things don’t make their beliefs and narratives ok with my value-system, but it does allow me a higher level of empathy with their suffering and their attachment to their position.

In terms of approach:

I remember my first debate training ‘aha’ moment. I was 19 at the time with no formal training so I had a slightly different (read less effective) approach to argument. It was like a Klaxon bell for me. Nick Bibby taught me that in a real debate you will never be able to convince the other side, you can only hope to convince the audience. Your opponent is spending all their energy on trying to prove you wrong, regardless, so they are not particularly open to saying ‘oh, I guess I was wrong’. I’ve learned over time that if you believe you are in a fight to win you have no brain-space to contemplate anything other than how ‘they’ might be wrong.

My friend Ross K Allan is special because he is rare. He’s nuts (and he thinks I am), but he is open to the possibility he might be wrong and enjoys the argument as much to learn as to win. There are only a few people in the world who really enjoy arguing for sport and to find someone who loves the activity and disagrees almost entirely with the things that inform my personal ideology is only one of the ways I am lucky. When we were both at the LSE we had coffee and argued for fun for hours and never cared who ‘won.’ Another friend joined us once and immediately moved the goal-posts so he could ‘win.’ He never joined an argument again. I know how much privilege went into those afternoons of arguing and how much generosity I owe to anyone who hasn’t had the time to hone those skills.

I start from the premise that the other side is not ignorant or dumb (it is not my job to educate them), but instead that we have different core values. I use the information provided from previous interactions, or from the conversation itself to decide if that person is open to alternative information, and/or views. I state my views as simply as I can, accounting for their context/ language and use things that are easily googled for evidence. I try to respect what they come back with to the greatest extent possible and with the most generosity I can afford. If they are open, I pursue the conversation, if they are not, I invest less, but don’t dismiss them.

At the point when they become angry, hateful, or dismissive I’m happy to walk away from the conversation without needing to leave judgement and almost always happy to leave the door open if they want to re-engage. Examples can be seen both on this blog and on my Facebook page.

I always, ALWAYS try to take the high road, mostly so when I look back I feel good about my actions. I don’t think the important thing is how they respond to me, but how I respond to them, and what I can learn from the situation; about them, about me, about the world in which we co-habitate.

I try to use as much nuance in our interactions as I can, including using public or private communication, timing (if I see red I wait until I’m calm again to respond), directed or undirected comments. I respond and point out inconsistency or flaws to other’s posts, but I try to be positive as much as possible in my own. If I know I will hurt someone’s feelings or upset them, depending on how important they are to me, I will try to soften that blow or remind them that despite our disagreement, we still have areas in common. I’m happy to drop a topic if requested and don’t need someone to justify why. I try to stress things to balance where I call them out because it is hard to be wrong and everyone has pride. I think about our common links and the impact of our dialogue on the wider group. I choose when to engage in debate pretty carefully and practice observing in new spaces or if I am unsure of the majority opinion of a group. I check in with myself often.

Our advanced state of capitalism, poor education system, and marketing sophistication combined with a history that many don’t know and common narratives that are often simulacra (papering over previous generations of suffering), all contribute to a fully divided American polity. I know that it is my own privilege that lets me pass back and forth, even while my gender disenfranchises me in many places. This allows me to see both sides in many discussions.

I try to bring love, and hope and clarity as much as possible because I think fear, division and blame are the real dangers of our current political direction. I think these issues have been festering for centuries (or longer); our constitution has our original, unresolved, race-debate enshrined in its text. We amended the document (with a civil war) but the emotional labor to fully knit us together has never been done. Instead, there are regularly figures who exploit these tensions for their own gain. Exploitation for personal gain is not rare or unique, it is also buried in our national narrative.

Discerning what is a topic for rational discussion and what is a matter of emotion or faith is important to know where your valuable energy is worthy of use. Also helpful to know which battles are important (ones with large audiences who might be open to alternative ideas) and which are not (you and a douche in a coffee shop or supermarket queue with no one else around.)

It is a hard boundary to know how much to be kind to others during a period of ‘awakening’ and how much one’s kindness is used to help an intransigent avoid dealing with real issues. This is where reversing the burden of proof can be helpful. Instead of trying to prove them wrong, I ask them questions to make them support their racist point, or critique from a meta perspective (gently) things like lack of evidence, an assertion with no argumentation, poor sources of citation, etc. My goal is not to prove them wrong, but to engage in a Socratic dialogue to help them see my point. It could easily be argued that I am using my own privilege of intelligence and education to marginalize them, but I try to be aware of that and use it as much as possible to increase my own capacity for patience and empathy.

I try to remain engaged in the debate and avoid it ever being about a person. ‘I’ statements help, and remaining on issue (including steering back that direction) are helpful in that.

My mum used to say “the way in is usually a question but it’s rarely ‘have you thought of this?'”

I’ll usually follow a conversation through one cycle of dismissal, vitriol or ad hominem attacks and then I’ll let it drop. The point is more to plant seeds than to win battles. Change takes a long time, and Inception is a great strategy for large societal shifts.

Many people disengage or attack because they know they can’t win and it’s a way of avoidance. I won’t let them get away with that, but I won’t be mean about it either. Humility is important to me, and so I also remind myself that everyone has something to teach me, albeit sometimes it’s more about them as an object or a catalyst.

All of this is grounded in HUGE time devoted to doing my personal work and remaining balanced and grounded intrinsically.

This is meaningful to me: “People don’t want to be immediately dismissed because they might have a view that you consider wrong or even vile; they want to feel heard. And once that happens, it’s a lot easier for them to make mental space to understand other people’s problems.” (

It does take time, and stupid amounts of emotional labor. I think an unwillingness to do one’s own emotional labor is at root for a lot of this current aggression. In traditional Western societies, women do emotional labor and men fight the wars. Feminism has spent 50+ years attempting to upend this dichotomy. It is threatening and messy and complicated and scary when those simple binaries don’t exist. That is the root of much social conflict that I see today. Binaries always include and exclude and currently those inclusions, exclusions and boundaries are all under dispute.

I think honesty and deliberation are important personally and in relationship and the sensationalism of our media and the schism created by so much diversity so densely packed is both a new conflict and the same war we have been fighting since agrarian times. Intersectionality helps, but also just being candid about one’s own limitations, perspectives and biases.

So many people are scared for so many reasons. I have always marveled at things like the stock market and sovereignty as both are premised on a slightly unfathomably large group just agreeing to a concept, or having confidence in a system. It is all governed by how a huge number of people feel.

Politics is about power, but more importantly it is about people, relationship and community. Most people follow the law because it is the law, not because they will be punished if they don’t. People want to get along with others and fighting always must end at some point.

I spent a lot of time at the LSE thinking about the continuum between coercion and convincing. I understand the Realist drive to coercion and I agree there are many gangsters out there. But to believe in democracy is to believe that the power of more people, applied deliberatively and with love, can make the tide rise for all boats. US history is a mix of both gangsters and idealists and we must acknowledge both to be able to move forward.

The more someone pushes my buttons, the more I realize I have something important I can learn from them. Sometimes I also realize its ok to just take a break.

A constant source of comfort for me is the thoughtful, intersectional, feminist responses I see from young people around the world, and especially my peers from the debating community. International competitive debate has changed drastically since I was an undergrad. When I started competing I was a member of the most patriarchal, misogynist, xenophobic, chauvinist society you could imagine. When I got to international competition I thought it would be better but I took on the job of Women’s officer after a Women’s Forum that was… underwhelming in nature. No discussion of systemic inequality that impacted women and other marginalized group’s chances of doing well in the competition. The sea-change from then to now is amazing and was a series of tiny steps over almost 15 years.

My first act as Women’s Officer to WUDCouncil was to introduce an equity officer. I received so many concerns that first year, but only a portion were about gender equity and a great number about religion, accent, LGBTQ issues and access. We introduced the equity officer to better serve the needs of the whole community. That was a first step but it would be a further four years before Org Com had an equity team with any actual power. Those were a difficult and often impotent four years of constant battles large and small. It was worth it. This week I have had exquisite joy as the LSESU Open announced its equity team directly after announcing the CA team. It isn’t perfect, but it’s SO much better than it was and that gives me hope. We each impact a few people deeply, but if they are improved by it, and impact a few more people, those ripples can really make a difference.

If a single person sees my words and examines one belief more carefully then I consider my efforts valuable. I may be tilting at windmills still, but hope for greater understanding and more nuanced resolution is ultimately the only real strategy I have.

Please consider carefully

I feel compelled to write this because I am genuinely confused by something and it scares me. I have enjoyed debating friends on the other side of the political spectrum for well over a decade now.

I have always appreciated that we have different core values, or assumptions about people, groups and social drivers, but that we are united in a cause of contemplation, and finding the best solutions to make the world a better place for everyone.

After spending as much time as I have trying to find the other side of an argument, I can honestly say that I’m usually able to see and respect my opponent and the arguments they pose.

This is why I am confused:

I know that every friend I have, despite the ways in which we disagree, demonstrates integrity, commitment, and compassion. I know that you are kind and good people who practice respect to every individual you encounter regardless of gender, color, socio-economics, disability, sexual orientation, religion or even the dreaded apple/ android divide.

You believe in two sides to an argument and honest and direct engagement. You believe in the value of discussing issues with respect and tolerance. I would be shocked to hear you insult someone based on how they look, or how they pray, or how they struggle.

I know that you are leaders and hold yourself to high standards. So I honestly don’t understand why you aren’t fighting harder for the soul of your party and your side. You had a fringe group get really loud in a crowded field and yell to victory someone who demonstrates none of your best qualities, and undermines so many of your important arguments. Your candidate is openly bigoted, dishonest and corrupt. This is the foundation of his candidacy.

I like the idea of smaller government at times, I see how values around security can outweigh those of justice at times. But it terrifies me that we would further reduce a shoestring government, and empower our military and police, while simultaneously installing in our highest office a man who takes advantage of every loop-hole and exploits every person he can, who has already expressed a disregard for the checks and balances of our system. You could understand that the exploited would be in favor of more regulation given the way that his tactics are being celebrated as ‘good business’, and worse, ‘good leadership.’  That isn’t good business, it’s straight up exploitation.

I see the value of regulatory bodies when faced with someone who has no concept of enduring truth (or truth of any kind), has such little compunction being deliberately inflammatory for his own gain, and clearly doesn’t respect any laws or regulations if they curb his quest for more power. How will he enforce laws when he regularly disobeys them?

My side is terrified of gangsters like that, and see government as the best way to curb that kind of excess. You’ve repeatedly told me that there are other corrections for behavior like that, and that people are good-hearted and fair. But your party has chosen the biggest and most offensive gangster of our time and is anointing him king because they don’t like his opponent. He is currently under investigation for a number of crimes ranging from sketchy business and financial dealings to sexual assault of a child, his opponent has been cleared from every investigation against her.  Have we really stopped trusting all of our civil organizations? Do we have so little faith in our institutions and our fellow citizens? Have we left all reason and historical context behind?

This country is great because of our democracy AND our diversity. The experiment of the US was an inspiration around the world, and with the constant course corrections intended by the Framers, we have evolved so far beyond where we started. We all agree we still have a lot of work to do.

I have to ask, although I expect no response: All things being equal, are you really going to choose to install as the head of the most powerful military the world has ever seen someone who respects tyrants and not diversity? Who has no integrity and thinks facts and data are not important to the ability to govern? Are our families and future safe when the person who commits their lives to conflict can’t even rise above tiny hand jokes?  Do you believe that over the next four years he would be able to accomplish some of your goals, move the country closer to your ideals? Do you believe the economy, the environment, our education system, our infrastructure, our global security and social relations within the polity will be improved?

You are a member of a party because it represents your views, when it doesn’t, you have a responsibility to try to change that party, or seek an alternative. If a third party candidate is closer to your value-set, vote for them. But don’t vote for the guy who wears your jersey just because you want the win. The win in this case is such a loss for all of us, please, think carefully before you choose.

As a woman I am scared. I am beyond privileged that my gender is the only thing I have to really worry about. I am scared for my friends of color, of different sexual orientation, who carry any marker that isn’t white, cis-male, economically well-off and heteronormative. I am scared for their safety, scared for their mental health, scared for the environment in which their children will come of age.

You are all leaders, and good people, and some of the most intelligent people I know. You have a difficult choice in front of you; support your traditional side and the people who look like you, or choose your conscience, doing the right thing, but knowing your party will lose. Perhaps take as consolation the fact that the likely winner has skirted the political center for decades and demonstrated an ability to work across the aisle to move the country forward. The ability to compromise and evolve your thinking should not be demonized.

This is not Brexit, there is no argument on the other side. A denial or denigration of democracy is for keeps. If we don’t have a strong grasp of indisputable facts how can we even begin to understand where we disagree? How can we believe Trump will serve the public when so much of his life has been spent taking advantage of others? How will he bring together a deeply segregated polity when he himself is so deliberately divisive?

We are a divided country, with systemic and structural problems that need to be addressed right now. They are complicated problems that require difficult solutions and we have procrastinated for too long. I’m not asking you to vote for anyone, just to consider carefully before you give your very precious ballot to a bully who simplifies issues by denying their existence and like a ADHD puppy just moves on to the next thing. ‘Blizzard of lies’ is the best description I’ve heard about this election so far and it isn’t hard to identify the cloud causing the storm. I’ve never wished so much for a transferable vote system so we can see why people are choosing and how our priorities play out.

In the 1930s my grandfather, newly emigrated from Germany, was happy to be safe in this country even while he despaired for his family and friends suffering under the increasing strain of Fascism in Germany. My father grew up, secure in the belief that we would never forget and it would never happen again, I believed that too.

This is why I am now so confused and so scared. Edmund Burke once wrote: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” I don’t believe Trump is evil, but I think the rapid descent into white supremacy, fear, blame and lies is the greatest threat our democracy has seen in my lifetime. I’m terrified we will see and do nothing. I see so many leaders in the Republican party jumping on a bandwagon with someone I know they can’t respect, it scares me for the future of our entire political system.

I know we often have different core values that inform our choices, but fear, blame and post-truth politics are not values, or usually drivers of good decisions. This is why I want to ask, as a friend and fellow citizen, to please consider your choice carefully. Please discuss candidly and honestly with the people you know and vote for the person you believe is best equipped to govern the whole country. Please listen carefully to what Trump actually says during this debate about how he will help us improve our future. Weigh it against what you already know and what you find valuable. Decide how accurate or likely his plans are and the specifics of the policies he has in mind. If, after all that, you still believe he is the best person for the job, then vote for him. If not, vote for someone else. It doesn’t have to be Hillary, but don’t just go along this time. The consequences are too important.

Political Debates 9: (She said)

This was a difficult debate to find coherent themes for and I wanted to try to draw it back to some specific points of crystallization so I’ve grouped by theme below.

Individual v. Collective

I think you are mischaracterizing part of my argument, but for the sake of discussion I’ll engage with your comments about the individual unfettered or within a collective governance structure. I see the difference caused because she, the individual, isn’t simply left alone in isolation without any governance structure. She is placed in a situation that incentivizes rampant individualism acted out against others. That is the point, that our governance structures are created as a result of the need to contain individual self-actualization, protecting the rights of those who would otherwise be exploited, and protecting the majority from destructive forces that benefit the few by harming the many. My argument is not fully for one or the other but that there must be a balance between the two. That’s why I believe in sensibly regulated private exchange. I think regulation is pretty important though to create a more level playing field and ensure competition, maintain quality and protect consumers, protect the environment and our economy. (full disclosure: I copied most of these benefits of regulation directly from the Wikipedia article but that doesn’t make it any less relevant.)

I don’t disagree with your points about individual self-interest demonstrated by the VA case (actually, they kind of help make my point), but I also wonder what engenders the level of fear that would let people die instead of owning to a mistake? What allows someone to abandon a basic sense of morality? How close to disaster are they? What happens if they lost this job? How desperate must one be to sacrifice another? And why are they in that space? Surely if the government pays them enough, and they don’t fear unemployment the only reason they could sacrifice those others is because they are somehow evil. And yet- they took a job intended to help someone else. There must be powerful social forces at work that help engender this result, or we must write off whole groups of people as evil or subhuman.  I choose to believe there are forces at work, so I don’t have to write off other humans.

My perception of the individual is specifically not anarchic, I agree that people are naturally social and often come together voluntarily, but I think that Capitalism and Democracy are necessary correlates and serve to balance the dangers inherent in each. Democracy, when properly functioning, restrains the potential for human exploitation, and Capitalism encourages innovation and supports a vibrant and dynamic public sphere. Liberalism is an important third pillar, and ensures we navigate the dangerous path around majoritarianism and chauvinism, but it is important we are careful to maintain the bonds that unite us. People are both social and self-interested (for profit or to avoid danger), we need to take into account both possibilities, and structure society in such a way to help allow for and contain the opposing tides which means a discussion about a cohesive social fabric is highly germane! J

Also, I think I might totally agree with about moral relativism, although I think it might be a beginning, not an ending. I totally understand why it seems scary, but I think our government was founded as a first attempt at allowing for a high degree of difference while still making tactical decisions about matters of common concern. It would seem like maybe we should try to continue that project?

Power Imbalances/ Inequality

At the point you admit we have a major problem when income is concentrated year after year I think you kind of concede much of the argument we are having. I honestly thought you might be joking for a minute there.  I’m not ruling out completely movement within the 1%, or even some movement within the top 3%-10% (I think this is pretty generous, but why not indulge slightly), but pretty much all evidence points to stagnant social mobility across the country, and decreasing potential for those not already wealthy to become so. This isn’t inherently a problem, but when we take away the things that used to provide a basic safety net, and we are unable to grow our way out of our current societal ills, we need to rethink our equation.

I also think it’s pretty obvious that disproportionate levels of education in this country, as well as different access to health care, mental-health care, socio-communal acceptance levels, etc engender inherently unfair contract negotiations. There are clauses in contracts written specifically because if you went to law school the clause is meaningless and if you didn’t you are somehow automatically at a disadvantage (because- y’know, not having gone to law school wasn’t hindrance enough for the highly paid lawyers to beat them in any kind of negotiation) You can even put metrics against it- there are high levels of variability in the infant and overall mortality rates. Sure, overall we all live longer- but there is a widening gap. Inequality in our society is bad and getting worse and that’s a problem for all of us.

If you believe in any positive rights, but the government is not the agent who should be concerned with their provision, I would be interested in what actor is responsible instead?

‘Structural unaddressed violence’ is specifically not a debate term. It encompasses the idea that there are structural issues within our society- things like access to basic human-rights-based services- that unfairly advantage and disadvantage other groups; access to things like good schools, an education in the things necessary for functioning as a citizen and securing future basic provisions, or access to basic childhood preventative health care.

It also encompasses a similar argument from a different discipline. The idea that violence is executed sometimes by specific actors against others, and sometimes inflicted in such a way that the individual internalizes that violence and continues the harm against themselves. We don’t address it for a variety of reasons, but our choice to remain with the status quo should not be taken as proof that inherent power relations are ok. Also, I think it’s important to note that we are beyond any notion of patriarchy and exclusions that could ever be mistaken for vague.

I’m also a little confused about your statement about non-discrimination as I read news pretty regularly about how SCOTUS keeps making judgements that specifically discriminate access to basic health care based on gender. And specifically in ways that demonstrably lead to economic, educational and other forms of discrimination and disproportionality (a woman’s ability to plan her family has long-term material consequences for both her and her society. You can say she can ‘just go buy it herself’ but when many families live hand-to-mouth an additional $250/ year can be overwhelming)

I would actually love to hear your arguments about the ‘check your privilege’ brigade. I don’t believe in cutting off avenues of debate- if you think there is something to be said there that adds to your overall argument, or is in some way an answer or foundation I would say that is totally germane.

 What’s to be done?

I think what we both definitely agree on is that what we are doing now isn’t working. The problem with your charter schools example as the alternative is an age old question in research: what happens if they fail? What happens to that group of students- failure for them becomes a lifelong issue, that we either will pay for in forms of social insurance, crime, or the further moral decay of whatever relativistic place we inhabit?

I have to disagree with your premise that ‘despite enormous sums of money’ education is failing. That assumes that the only thing that impacts the education of our young people is the overall aggregate amount of material resources over a long period of time. This is a problematic statement on a lot of levels- a) not sure it really is all that much money when it all shakes out, and b) unfortunately isolating specific parts of social infrastructure, alternately funding and defunding them, subjecting them to huge outside pressures and then blaming them for failure seems a little like a thumb on the scale to me. There was an Economist article a few years ago about the importance of respect and parental involvement in the overall success of children. How well respected are our teachers when parents struggle to name their childrens’ teachers instead of reality TV stars?

I agree we need to try something else, because what we are doing isn’t working. But we also need to ensure that we do not lose more generations of students in our experimentation. I would also posit that there have been successes as well as failure. So my question is why scrap instead of reform? Why do we have to throw out everything and treat something that really shouldn’t be subject to market pressures in the same way we treat any other commodity for trade?

Also, as an aside (and with gratitude to my brother the policy-smart-guy) The argument that government size is related to income inequality “is absurd for a few reasons. First, the size of government has grown both under times of growing and shrinking inequality. Government grew a lot from 1930-1960, yet inequality shrank. The better indicator for inequality is marginal tax rates. As they have shrunk over the last 40 years, inequality has skyrocketed. Also, there is zero evidence that trickle down, supply side or minimalist government reduces inequality. In fact, the laisse faire 1920s saw a massive rise in inequality.”

On utopian socialism, it is, and I don’t advocate it, but it seems like almost every other industrialized country of the world has somehow gotten the balance better than we have. They oscillate between spectrums, but there are mechanisms to try to avoid barbarism, and a total denial of huge classes of people as people. I don’t believe all people will be totally equal and neither should they be. But I think we lose something as a society if most individuals are not allowed to at least have a fighting chance to reach their full potential. But for that to happen it takes a balance of functioning democracy and capitalism- we need both. I see your point re: xenophobia in Europe but I also don’t see furnaces, and the redirection of scarce resources to exterminate marginalized groups. I would still say we are doing better than we have.

I think I agree a little more with the Canadian system than you- there is both a letter and a spirit of the law, and to ignore the spirit completely is as foolish as believing we know what The Framers would think about politics today. Again, balancing the history and context, why they were writing, is as important to reading what they wrote. Sadly, writers almost always assume that audiences will understand their context- because they inhabit the same temporal space, or because they will inevitably be minor students of history. We know this, it’s demonstrated in literature critique and critical theory and cognitive psychology. We have to impute something of why they wrote what they did, as well as just the literal text. That is specifically the job of the judiciary, to interpret. If they were smart enough to know that interpretation was such an important piece of the functioning of law, they had to also expect that their intentions would be considered, as well as the letter of the laws they were drafting.

Also, do you honestly believe that we have the possibility of civil discourse at this point to deliberate on Constitutional amendments? Do you think if those in power even tried that there is even the slightest chance of an actual debate on the issue? In the chamber? With actual evidence? And would any of the media outlets actually respect the importance of the debate? The system is broken. I sincerely hope we all realize that and converse from within that context.

Laws aren’t usually created in abstract. At times they predate the actions they are designed to contain, when a large enough majority is afraid of the potential of something to make that decision. I would posit that more often however laws are made in specific response to needs within society. A harm that is large enough governors decide that action must be taken to curb or contain that harm. More than that, usually laws are created to protect those in society least able to protect themselves. I totally agree that in the last 30 years unfortunately some of that execution has shifted and the willingness of private interests to subvert the good of the people has taken hold. But it doesn’t negate the fact that we have to find a solution to the problems that face us, and that so far, some form of effect government has been the most successful means of doing that.

Honestly, that might be part of my difficulty. I still believe in an old-fashioned idea of government. In which it contains people of integrity- who see their job as a responsibility to be completed with honor. When did that change? When did we come to distrust those who stand up to take that responsibility? Does our slide into a never-ending political race mean we think only those driven by ego will put themselves up? Governance and its correlate government are specifically mechanisms of individuals trying to make efficient the mechanisms of our collective life. There are major issues in the manifestation we have, but I’m struggling to understand where the heart of your argument is. For example, you have many instances where our current bureaucracy is ineffective- is the issue that government should not be the mechanism for delivery of basic positive rights? Or do you truly believe that not all people have a right to a life unencumbered by preventable diseases?

The article you sent on positive and negative rights was a great one. (I mostly ignored the rhetoric at the beginning J) I mean, my basic and possibly simplistic answer is that it might just be easier if we viewed basic health provision as a positive right best ensured by government, and businesses paid higher taxes instead of purchasing the means for enacting that right privately (i.e. redirect the funds they pay one entity and pay another instead). The government could more effectively negotiate with large insurance companies and private citizens wouldn’t have to subject their negative rights to public negotiation. That way private groups wouldn’t have to be agents of the state and everything would be a bit easier? (I am awaiting your argument about the waste in government providing health care with great joy!)


I think that is plenty for us to be getting on with. But I can’t believe I forgot to talk about use-value and symbolic-exchange! Use value and symbolic-exchange-value are some of the best things I learned in my studies! It’s the spectrum between which something has value for the actual material resource it is/ can be used for and value based on the symbolism it invokes in us. A car is a car- but a branded car gives me a meaning and identity far beyond taking me to the store for milk. This is relevant because the concepts through which we understand society are becoming more and more abstract and difficult to negotiate. I think we need to reground ourselves in what we think matters, what we can agree on, and an attempt- however impossible it might seem- to agree to a process to negotiate difference in a way that leads to meaningful compromise and progress.

Always lovely to hear your ideas!

Political Debates 8: (He said)

Miranda – to keep the thread appropriately wieldy, albeit incredibly lengthy, an item-by-item response to your note, below in red text, composed over a few days. If some things don’t follow, that’s why!

1) (the danger of allowing an individual to pursue personal ends) Here’s my problem with this argument – if, to take your assumption, that an individual left alone to pursue personal ends is inherently destructive to society, how and why do individuals magically become good-hearted collectivists looking out for the well-being of society when we put them in this thing called ‘government’? As we see as bureaucracy ever increases, the danger that an individual acts in his/her naked self-interest actually increases when in government – see the VA scandal (falsifying wait times to meet a quota, rather than actually taking care of a fellow human being). The incentives become perverse. Set that aside though – I actually don’t buy into either your perception of individual action when left alone, or how to form a collective sense of the good. Your perception of the individual is one of solitary interest, almost anarchic. People are by nature social creatures, and thus, there are many times when they collectively come together voluntarily to pursue a common goal. While there certainly are individuals that are destructive to society, there are many more voluntary organizations formed specifically for the betterment of society. The most obvious example is prison ministry. Here’s a group of people – of their own accord, based purely on their faith/understanding of ‘the good’ – helping those most of us have cast aside. They didn’t need to be told to do it by government; they did it as a group of individuals.

 I don’t want to go too far down this path, as it’s not overly germane to the rest of argument, but I’d argue the primary reason we don’t have a cohesive social fabric anymore is the rise of moral relativism, the decline of religion and faith, and too many people who don’t buy the classical conception of natural rights. It is much easier – and government far less needed – to establish common sets of decency, morals, and societal standards when there is indeed a common language around faith, morals, virtue and ‘the good’ – historically established by a (relatively) common Judeo-Christian religious faith. When those latter parts are actively torn down, the individual will struggle to find him/herself (and opens the way for government as the faith/religion replacement). The world of moral relativism is a scary one – you’ve got today’s American left decrying a ‘war on women’ while simultaneously shouting down Ayaan Hirsi Ali because she reminds them that genital mutilation is still common in the Islamic world. As I said – that’s a whole other topic.

2) (Levels of inequality in our system are both highly problematic and increasing in disparity

I’m a bit confused on your point re: individuals fairly negotiating. I need an example. Are rich people steamrolling poor people in contract negotiations? Are there laws you’d like to see around contracts, private property, and other protections that aren’t there already? Shouldn’t we be prosecuting people for negotiating in bad faith? I’m just not seeing the tie between inequality generally and this notion of negotiating on an equal playing field. And can we use plain English? ‘Structural unaddressed violence’ is a debate term for points with no real meaning. If it’s unaddressed, why aren’t we? Not enough laws on the books? Prosecutorial discretion? Victims afraid to speak out? A vague notion of patriarchy?

 Some other related points though. I’m not saying that we should not be interested in positive rights. It would be great if everyone has a minimum standard of living. I’m simply saying that it’s not government’s responsibility to ensure them, and in fact by making it government business, we actually exacerbate the inequality. Our country’s own experience plays that out, particularly in the past 15 years. As government has grown in size and scope, so has income inequality. Jay Nordlinger, a National Review writer, has made a point that bears mentioning. Imagine a scenario where one individual makes $20,000 and another makes $50,000. The next year, after both get 20% promotions and raises, the first makes $25,000 and the second makes $60,000. Both are absolutely better off than they were the year before, as is ‘society’ writ large, but income inequality has increased. Is this acceptable to the left? For many, no, even though there is economic improvement across the board. Thomas Sowell also makes a key point that gets lost very often – income inequality is point in time, yet people move up and down the income spectrum across their life span. As I imagine is true of all of us on this chain, we were in a different income bracket when we started our careers than we are now. What we should actually be tracking is whether across someone’s productive career, they are moving up those deciles (his research shows that on the whole, that’s true). Where I would agree we would have a major problem is if income inequality actually becomes an oligarchy where there is zero movement across the income spectrum with income concentrated in the same hands year after year. Even the top 1% changes with pretty fair regularity. Again, I’ve gone a bit afield here, but a long winded way of saying that I simply don’t view inequality with as negative an eye as you.

3) (how to address the previously disenfranchised groups in society

A very difficult problem to solve, and one that I don’t have a great answer to. (I’ll spare you my cynical thoughts on the whole ‘check your privilege’ brigade). However, I will be incredibly redundant with my previous emails to make a point – what we are doing now isn’t working. There have been some GREAT articles on education in the black community to coincide with the 60th anniversary of Brown v Board. Regardless of ideology, they all point out that on many measures, education quality and achievement for black children remain miles behind that of white children. Schools remain remarkably segregated in many communities. All of this despite enormous sums of money into those very schools. If we collectively are truly focused on raising up previously disenfranchised groups, and not simply trying to spend more government money, at what point does today’s left say ‘it’s not working and we’ll try something else’? Let’s put some metrics in place to achieve and let’s experiment. Let’s try something new. If it doesn’t work, great! One try down, many more to go. If we aren’t happy with the progress disenfranchised groups have made to date, let’s throw out what we’ve been doing rather than simply saying we need more money.

 As a side note, I’m also in the Chief Justice Roberts school of thought: if we want to stop discrimination on the basis of race/sex/gender, let’s stop discriminating on the basis of race/sex/gender. Back to my very first point – maybe if we focused a bit more on the individual and a bit less on the group, we’d make some more progress.

4) (the literal constitution

Lots of ifs, ands, and buts in this one! I agree with your last two sentences – the colonists never expected to fully break with Great Britain. My wife and I watch Sleepy Hollow, and it had the good reminder that even the revolutionaries thought of themselves as English (e.g. Paul Revere couldn’t have said ‘the British are coming’ as people would have been very confused). Moving on to more substance, though – I begin and end my argument with the Constitution as while political theory is well and good, we have a country to run, and that country is governed by a set of laws, of which, the Constitution is first and foremost. I’d love to read your dissertation, as an aside. I’m personally not an originalist – trying to ascertain the precise motives and intents of individuals 200+ years later is a fool’s errand. However, I’m in Justice Scalia’s camp – I’m a textualist – I try (as best as my feeble mind enables) to look at what the text actually says, not as how we’d like it to be read. This is where liberals try to cheat – rather than be honest and simply say “we don’t like what parts of the Constitution says, and thus, we want to call for a convention to propose amendments,” they attempt to subvert it by passing laws that clearly go against the text that’s there. This is also where I fall in the Scalia camp – whenever he’s asked what part of the Constitution he’d like to change, he always says the amendment process – it is incredibly cumbersome and when you do the math, something like 2% of the population via their states could hold up an amendment. That said, to me, the Constitution isn’t something where we can waive our magic wands, cover our eyes, and just will it to be what we want it to be. If the Constitution does not hold – a law above other laws – then how can we expect any branch of government (or the administrative state) to hold in regard any law passed by Congress? You’re exactly right – there are probably parts of the Constitution not well suited to the life and times we live in. There’s a process to change it. Use it, and convince the public you’re right.

5) (what about socialism is terrible?

To your question in the middle of the paragraph. . .ummm. . .because it doesn’t work and has been shown every time it’s been used to leave people poorer and less well off than before? Or are you one of those “well, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Ho, Allende, Castro, etc. just didn’t do it right and my version would be infinitely better?” You’re smarter than that (I hope). In theory, socialism is utopian. People have different talents, different abilities, etc. and to ever imagine a world where all is equal is to undermine (again) the individual in service to the state. To a couple of my previous responses, I’m big on the outputs and metrics of things – my take on the 20th century is that socialism is an unabashed disaster, and to think that it continues to be pursued despite the evidence is an indictment of our political leadership.

 I’d counter quite quickly the ability of the EU to contain violence and xenophobia. Have you seen Greece recently? Neo-Nazis are taking 10-15% of the vote! The political parties that just swept to the European parliament in France? Are you forgetting the marked rise in Islamic extremism throughout the continent? Riots in the Paris suburbs? The murder of Theo van Gogh? The rise of Geert Wilders and the exile of Ayaan Hirsi Ali? The anti-Semitism that continues to infect some parts of Europe across the ideological spectrum? I could go on, but you see my point.

 Next time I see you, you’ll have to remind me of use-value and symbolic-exchange-value. Sounds like more rhetorical debate points again 🙂 And I’d care much more about the environment if the left didn’t use it as an excuse simply to expand government power, rather than actually try to come up with good solutions.

6a) (recognize that the practical realities of human nature make it almost impossible to practice natural rights) I actually agree with this paragraph in its entirely, yay us! To me, this is the very definition of government – to protect the natural rights we all have. You’re absolutely right – some people will try to take those rights away, absent a government with police power to ensure they don’t. As a leaning libertarian though, that’s pretty much where my definition of government ends – law and order to protect the natural rights of its citizens (a VERY simplified definition, but you get my drift).

6b) (almost all of history chronicles groups infringing on the rights of others)  Agreed again, with the big caveat that the government we have today does far more with far less effectiveness than the conception of government outlined in (a) and (b). I’d be entirely onboard if that’s all government was doing and not, to recall my first exchange, prescribing the number and type of trees on private property to surround a storage facility.

6c) (hoping to get to is an elucidation of what that would actually look like in practice). How about this – shut down the Department of the Interior and sell all federal land? Or remove the government from the health insurance industry? Or get rid of fuel economy standards? Or get rid of the Export Import Bank? Or provide vouchers so individual families could choose the school they wanted their children to attend? Or make the country right-to-work so there was greater freedom in labor markets? Privatize the VA hospital system, or give veterans vouchers so they could have the freedom to choose a hospital? There are so many policies we could pursue that would increase individual liberty and freedom, and yet we pursue none of them.

6d) (redistribution policies grew the overall economy and led to much greater equality)  I’d suggest reading Kevin Williamson’s broadside “The Dependency Agenda.” Fabulous quick read that undermines much of your proposition. I have it on my Kindle, so happy to share with you. The fact is this – much of the growth of the economy and the rising tide occurred BEFORE any of The Great Society programs of the Johnson administration. The poverty rate was falling just fine before we vastly expanded the scope of the state. (As an aside, Williamson’s piece also highlights the incredible racism of Johnson and others in pushing for Great Society reforms). I also can’t buy the argument that we had a ‘huge amount of deregulation’ when the government today is larger than is ever has been, and the Federal Register of promulgated regulations gets larger every year. Sure, we deregulated some energy markets and airlines, but government inexorably grew larger.

6e) (Positive and Negative rights are fundamentally intertwined). I simply disagree on the point, primarily due to where my own thinking on the issue starts. I not only believe in natural rights, but as a Catholic, I also believe I (and everyone else, whether they like to believe it or not) is made in the image and likeness of God. Because of that, we are born with an intrinsic dignity and freedom that government should be unable to take away. To me, the whole purpose of self-government is to ensure that to the best of our admittedly flawed human abilities, we protect those inherent (negative) rights of everyone. Is it better for the populace when economic growth occurs and people are better off? Of course it does. My interpretation of economic history though is that only when individuals are free to pursue their self-interest away from the machinations of the state does society truly flourish. As Williamson points out in his book, we spend $65,000 per poor family per year in government welfare, transfer payments, tax credits, etc. and yet our poverty rate is stubbornly persistent. Your proposed way hasn’t worked.

6f) (the breaking of social hegemony and expansion of bureaucratic institutions) I’m a letter of the law kind of guy. How naïve of me, right? To my earlier textual point – the law is what the law says. I feel like you’re looking for ‘emanations of penumbras’ to quote the horrifically argued Griswold opinion. I will admit that the 14th Amendment absolutely expanded the power of the federal government to ensure that Congress had the mechanisms to enforce equality where needed. But even now, the expanse of that power as exercised has gone far beyond what the 10th Amendment and the enumerated powers of Article 1 ever intended.

6g) (the Constitution without reference to either the context of writing or the context or interpretation)  I’m getting redundant so I’ll stop after this – but the law is the law is the law. We can’t wish what we want it to be. There’s a process for doing so – it’s called amending the Constitution or passing laws via Congress that comport with the Constitution. I realize I’m fighting a losing battle here, given all the infringement on the Constitution I see regularly, but someone has to stand up for common sense.

7) (What does the statement ‘we are all in this together’ mean) Honestly, I think it’s a statement made by liberals to make us feel warm, cuddly, and fuzzy about the government taking more of our individual liberty away. Your 3rd sentence (highlighted) reminds me of the DNC video at their 2012 convention – ‘government is what we call things we do together’ – which I so fundamentally disagree with. Don’t let my staunch individualism fool you – we do absolutely have the charge to look out for our fellow man. But that springs not from government telling us that it is so, but because (as I mentioned above) that each one of us is created by God. And when it comes from that point, there is a mandate to help one another, to serve our communities, to help the less fortunate, etc. It comes from faith and a knowledge that there is something beyond this earth. Government is coercion and dependence. Ultimately it’s semantics – what is ‘this’ that we’re in together? If it’s government, then I answer no. If it’s individuals choosing voluntarily to act collectively toward a common, shared goal, then yes, I’m all in.  

* (the recent controversies over policy debate rules.)  I ran into that link a couple weeks before you sent this note. Ask me for my thoughts on it when I see you in person. There aren’t enough curse words in the English language to describe the monumental level of asininity going on here. Perhaps the next time I’m asked to deliver on an MBO, I’ll just say that I think MBOs are an artificial construct created by corporate masters to ensure bonuses don’t get paid out equitably, and thus, I’ll be measured and paid against how often I show up to work. Because that would fly…

 Until next time. . .

Political Debates 7: (She said)

So I have lots of specific points of clash to the arguments you are making, and I will address them (probably to the detriment of the unwieldy documents once again), but I also have some higher level thoughts unrelated. There were a number of points I made in that last unwieldy email that were left unaddressed; neat rhetoric, slightly problematic argumentation.

1)      Namely, the danger of allowing an individual to pursue personal ends, specifically when there is a lack of social fabric that contains the ways that individual pursuit can have detrimental effects on society. The individual unaware (or uncaring) of fellow citizens can be highly destructive and we have little in the way of a collective conception of good to contain that. Constitution notwithstanding that is a very real danger in society that you left completely unaddressed. The individual as a locus of power also fails to address many of the collective issues we currently face: how does the free-market solve for environmental harm? Or historical disenfranchisement and disempowerment?

2)      Levels of inequality in our system are both highly problematic and increasing in disparity- this has consequences both on the individual and on the functioning of society. Violence and crime are often the manifestation of structural unaddressed violence and infringe on many citizen’s ability to exercise both positive and negative rights.  The majority of your arguments are predicated in a private sphere in which individuals can fairly negotiate, but you have not addressed a single one of the points I previously made about the impossibility of that function for many of our fellow Americans.

3)      I would be very interested to hear how you address the previously disenfranchised groups in society. It is simple to dismiss the fact that the framers were largely racist, misogynist elitist people. In and of itself that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and I recognize they were a natural product of their time. In fact, the privilege afforded them by that place in society allowed them more time to think and formulate ideas about societal structures that are more robust and have lasted incredibly long. Overall their privilege was a benefit to pretty much everyone that came after them. That being said, there are still a number of issues to which they (and many contemporary equivalents) were able to be blind while those less privileged are unable to ignore. (see new Harvard class on privilege)

4)      Similarly, I am surprised that the crux of your argument seems to begin and end at the constitution. While I agree that it is a pretty amazing piece of legislation, and the Framers were more intelligent individuals than most of us could ever hope to be, ignoring the context within which it was written, as well as the context within which we find ourselves is problematic to interpreting the document itself and applying it to current socio-economic realities. It is also dangerous to ascribe to the current narrative of the framers original intent. I may be more attuned to this (y’know, writing a dissertation on it and all), but the reality is that the story we are told (and continue to tell) is significantly different than historical fact bears out. The fact that almost a third of the colonists retired to Canada demonstrates the ambivalence with which the revolution was greeted. It has been the central tenet of the ongoing debate about Jefferson’ original intent with the Declaration ever since; the tension between the form of governance required for such a large state, and the levels of autonomy espoused as justifications for the Revolution. The Declaration was intended basically as an opening argument in an expected legal battle against Westminster. They had no idea it meant an actual split with Parliament. They saw themselves as an evolution within the canon of the Magna Carta, the establishment of Westminster and Cromwell.

5)      That canon has continued to evolve (albeit slowly and not without problems) but looking at alternative models of democracy can offer instructive lessons and we are naïve if we don’t consider the significant pitfalls we might be able to avoid. The expansion of bureaucracy throughout the EU, while problematic in myriad ways, has contained high potential levels of violence and xenophobia at the very least in Greece and likely in other states as well. Also, what is it specifically about socialism that is so terrible? Cooperative enterprise seems pretty important these days and making sure we continue to recognize use-value as well as symbolic-exchange-value ensures our system of exchange remains grounded in the material- pretty important for things like sustenance and making sure the environment doesn’t completely implode and kill us all 🙂

6)      I think most of my specific points of rebuttal are related to the previous overarching point, but I’ll go slightly deeper and rebut a few specific items.

  1. It’s disheartening that you don’t believe fully in natural rights. That essentially says that individuals really have no meaning without the paternalistic hand of government/the majority to tell us what we can/cannot do”: It’s not that I don’t believe in them, it’s that I recognize that the practical realities of human nature make it almost impossible to practice them, and while in the abstract there is value in recognition, if there is an impossibility of exercise I’m not totally sure of the actual value to society. It actually recognizes that there is the possibility of infringement of rights in a variety of ways that must be recognized and guarded against, if only through vigilance.
  2. “there are rights that existed before the creation of government”:  Totally agree, which is why I am a Constructivist, but I also recognize that almost all of history chronicles groups infringing on the rights of others. The only peaceful societies that are allowed to live without infringement are externally violent or serve as hubs for resource/ economic trade and are left alone because those militarily powerful recognize the value of a neutral sphere within which business can be done. We ignore this historical reality to our potential detriment, regardless of the laudable reasons for doing so.
  3. So for most, my arguments about individual liberty are an utter abstraction”: I think where I keep hoping to get to is an elucidation of what that would actually look like in practice. I think I don’t disagree with you completely in the abstract, but when attempted in practice, it rarely functions as the ideal, and more often disenfranchises those already less privileged.
  4. Inequality has not gone down despite an increased social safety net that spends more money every year… today’s liberals pursue more of the same” : Because it worked! In the 1950s and 60s redistribution policies grew the overall economy and led to much greater equality from all disenfranchised groups in society. Inequality overall had gone down and civil rights expanded across most groups, until a huge amount of deregulation during the previous administration increased income inequality and allowed those with power in society to continue amassing it while simultaneously disenfranchising those without power on a number of levels (income, general prosperity, voter rights etc) (if you want citations I’ll give them, but decided it was better to actually send this)
  5. Again, while an abstraction, if government were smaller and played less a role in our day to day lives, you’d find that the exercise of those negative rights will lead to improved social and economic outcomes.”  : So, wow. How is my previous statement hogwash?  Rhetorically strong, but doesn’t actually address the argument in the sentence just previous to that you quoted “Allowing all individuals access to some base level of provision/ safety net allows them to exercise all the other rights and improves civil society in precisely the way you advocate”   I’ll say it again more clearly. The two kinds of rights are fundamentally intertwined. It is impossible to exercise a right to free speech, or even to vote, if one doesn’t have a roof over one’s head. Moreover, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs demonstrates that if you don’t have dinner, or a safe place to sleep, you are probably going to put your energy there, instead of attempting to sway others in society to support your party of choice. Even if government were smaller, and some were able to exercise negative rights to the extent that it improved society overall, the group with that potential is a small and relatively privileged one. The extent to which their ability to exercise negative rights detracts from many others positive rights, and consequently their secondary ability to exercise negative rights must be taken into account when assessing the overall well-being of the body politic. To be clear: It wasn’t a mistake to intertwine them, it is rhetorical acrobatics to attempt to separate them when in reality they are fundamentally related to each other.
  6. The federal government was constructed as the least powerful governmental entity – not the most”: The difficulty with this statement is that while it is true in the letter of the law, in order to forge some kind of multi-national identity it was necessary to expand both the conception and the practice of federalism. It is not an accident that the federal government expanded at precisely the same time civil rights were being expanded to many groups oppressed for centuries. Integration was the only possible answer when so many were so disenfranchised that coercion by the dominant group was impossible. As that hegemony broke bureaucratic institutions expanded to codify the balances of power that have emerged as a result.
  7. “let’s not try to skirt around it with more and more regulation that doesn’t fit at all with how our country was founded – on the individual, on natural rights, with government there to protect those rights – not to create new-fangled ones because we can’t imagine an individual doing something ‘the majority’ doesn’t like.” : I think this is part of the difficulty of this argument, and my earlier point about grounding it in the Constitution without reference to either the context of writing or the context or interpretation. It wasn’t founded completely on the individual. The rhetoric used to justify the case against Westminster was highly individualistic, but the reality was then and continues to be that the negotiation between the individual and the mechanisms of state was intended as an ongoing dialogue and to ignore that (and proclaim the  individual as the only possible locus of authority is highly problematic)

7)      I think my last point is related to the non-sequitur question I posed some time ago. I am genuinely interested in what the statement ‘we are all in this together’ means to you. My conception is that as citizens, fellow members of the body politic and travelers of this particular space in time, there are things that we have in common with our neighbors and there are common problems that are best faced together. I’m interested in what the statement means to you. To what extent does ‘together’ mean only those to whom we bind ourselves by choice? To what extent are we bound by forces beyond our control? To whom are we bound? What obligations do we owe others in society and on what are those obligations founded? I think the difference in our answers might point to the deeper causes of our disagreement and actually, strangely to possible solutions. (and after all- aren’t we all solutions oriented people? J)

As an aside- I will defend to the death your right to say whatever you want and I actually agree that those who seek to shut down free speech are problematic, but I would also draw your attention to the recent controversies over policy debate rules. There are many ways of shutting down free speech, or failing to recognize how the rights of others to speak can be undermined by historical power imbalances 🙂 Totally agree that attempts to redress that imbalance must be done very carefully, but I would say that the issue is not totally one-sided…

Looking forward to all of your free speaking in return!!

Political Debates 6: (He Said)

Miranda – With the track changes in your last note, it was getting a little unwieldy, so starting a new thread. For much of our fundamental disagreement – both of individual v. collective, liberty v. government authority – I actually think George Will’s column from this week captures it precisely. In particular, the following two statements from his piece:

 The fundamental division in U.S. politics is between those who take their bearings from the individual’s right to a capacious, indeed indefinite, realm of freedom, and those whose fundamental value is the right of the majority to have its way in making rules about which specified liberties shall be respected.

 The argument is between conservatives who say U.S. politics is basically about a condition, liberty, and progressives who say it is about a process, democracy. Progressives, who consider democracy thesource of liberty, reverse the Founders’ premise, which was: Liberty preexists governments, which, the Declaration says, are legitimate when “instituted” to “secure” natural rights.

 It’s disheartening that you don’t believe fully in natural rights. That essentially says that individuals really have no meaning without the paternalistic hand of government/the majority to tell us what we can/cannot do. As Will argues in his piece, there are rights that existed before the creation of government. Government exists not to give rights; it exists to protect the ones that we are already provided (and please spare me the tangent on slavery, women not being able to vote, etc. etc. – the Founders weren’t the best at living out the ideals they set).

 With each of your emails, I’m constantly drawn back to my earliest point – that a smaller government confined to its original constitutional bounds actually best serves both the individual and the society. Your comment “How do you allow for all individuals to pursue the improvement of civil society (or their own situation) when it is patently clear that law benefits some and significantly harms others?” is a perfect illustration of this. If you have fewer regulations, fewer opportunities for the strong to leverage government power for their own benefit, then the individual/small business/local association/etc. has more space to flourish – which will benefit both those individuals and society. The problem for many on my side is that our government (at all levels) has gotten so large and so pervasive that the average individual cannot perceive a time where government does not intrude on their day-to-day lives as individuals. So for most, my arguments about individual liberty are an utter abstraction.

 I return to another argument – I’d be much more supportive of your thesis if it actually worked. It doesn’t though, while driving the nation to bankruptcy simultaneously. Inequality has not gone down despite an increased social safety net that spends more money every year. Life expectancy and health outcomes have essentially been flat (or even declining for the poor) despite healthcare expenditures rising double or triple the rate of inflation. Poverty has risen markedly in the past 10 years (chalk up some to the Great Recession, some to terrible government policy). Yet – today’s liberals pursue more of the same.

 As an aside – this is hogwash: I do think that political rights, in the absence of some social and economic rights are rendered somewhat meaningless as rights as exercise is impossible. Hence also my belief that our current primary goal must by deciding what we think that baseline must be, and the most efficient means to make sure the majority of people within society are at that minimum. Perhaps the most socialistic/communistic statement you’ve made so far. And it makes the fundamental error of combining negative rights and positive rights. Our Constitution protects the former, and doesn’t say a peep about the latter. Again, while an abstraction, if government were smaller and played less a role in our day to day lives, you’d find that the exercise of those negative rights will lead to improved social and economic outcomes.

 The last thing – the centralization that you refer to is utterly antithetical to our constitutional construction. Federalism, particularly the 10th amendment, was conceived as a ‘fourth branch’ if you will. Liberals (and many conservatives) forget that the constitution gave powers to the government that otherwise would have resided with individuals and states. Our regulatory and bureaucratic state fundamentally destroys one of the (many) protections of liberty in the constitution. The federal government was constructed as the least powerful governmental entity – not the most. If there was one clause in the Constitution I would change today, it would be rewrite of the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper clause. SCOTUS has misinterpreted those so badly.

 To the Hobby Lobby case specifically, I wanted to address this comment of yours: you would prefer that employees leave gainful employment and look elsewhere for jobs that meet the same criteria but also have specific clauses within insurance provisions that meet their personal ideological and medical needs? In short, yes. That’s the beauty of the free market and the free movement of labor. There are literally hundreds of businesses that sell arts and crafts supplies like Hobby Lobby. I’m sure many of those businesses provide birth control as part of their insurance plans. If I’m a potential employee looking for a job in that industry, perhaps that’s an important factor to me. Maybe it isn’t. If it is, I won’t interview with Hobby Lobby. And over time, if it’s an important enough factor for enough potential employees, Hobby Lobby will find that it may need to change the policy, or cut back on its growth plans. But here’s the point – all of that can be done without any government interference. There is zero need for government to be involved. Let the labor market work. And to your point about ‘religion against the economic health of the state’ – that’s cut-and-dry – the constitution protects the former and says nothing about the latter. Point for religion.

 Ultimately, your view on the size, scope, and sphere of government action simply doesn’t comport with the Constitution. If Democrats want to amend the Constitution, great – let’s have that debate. But let’s not try to skirt around it with more and more regulation that doesn’t fit at all with how our country was founded – on the individual, on natural rights, with government there to protect those rights – not to create new-fangled ones because we can’t imagine an individual doing something ‘the majority’ doesn’t like.

 Happy Easter (am I allowed to say that?)

Political Debates 5: (She said)

The point isn’t that the collective necessarily makes decisions, it is a short-hand for the will of the majority within society. When everyone in society agrees there is no issue and the point is irrelevant, when the individual wants to do something that impacts no one but themselves, or there is enough ‘space’ (be it physical or metaphysical) for them to take that action unhindered again the point is irrelevant. I can swing my arm wherever the hell I want until it meets your nose.

The point at hand though and where it matters is when the action that an individual, or a minority, wants to take is somehow counter to the will of the majority (or the detriment of the whole), in situations in which the majority perceive that action to somehow infringe on them it becomes relevant because the tension between those two wants must somehow be decided.

I’m not sure I totally believe in ‘natural rights’ (although I do support the UDHR so I know I’m a bit of a hypocrite/ incoherent there). A huge part of our current national conflict is that individuals who want to take specific action counter to the majority or ‘collective good’ often question the basis upon which ‘collective good’ is founded, or those individuals doing the deciding.

I would posit that this breakdown in the social fabric (by which I mean the social ties that bind groups outwith political systems) eat away at the trust that previously allowed us to find common ground and exchange privileges for responsibilities (read let others do things sometimes that we might not totally like for the good of the overall functioning of society/ promise of reciprocation in future).

This is the intractable problem we find ourselves currently negotiating and indicates to me that the basis upon which we predicate governance (and further politics) is currently threatened. Until we have some solid foundation on which to negotiate we will continue going around in circles.
To be clear, my friend was actually complaining about special interest groups who are trying to infringe on the free-market but I totally agree with the point 🙂

Now we are getting somewhere interesting! I think you hit the nail on the head as to our fundamental disagreement. I don’t know that I would go as far as you seem to think I do, but I think that when it comes down to it I pull towards collective as answer and you pull towards individual. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive, but I do think they exist in relationship and the level of orientation towards each waxes and wanes throughout history. Does one hunt for a rabbit or a deer when one cannot hunt for both? I choose deer and hope that others do too.
I think my difficulty with trusting the individual as the best unit to allow society to flourish is because of the tendency within society for power to remain largely inert and those in privilege to ignore their own privilege. I agree that the individual is the agent with the highest potential to create innovation and drive society forward. Looking at the US over the past 300 years demonstrates that unleashed the power of the individual is awesome (in the truest sense of the word, not the way I mostly use it day to day :))
I worry however at the collateral damage that is left in the wake of that in both human and, more recently, environmental harms. I also think that the individual as an agent is at times not well placed enough to answer some of the collective difficulties we face. I also worry that allowing individuals to pursue their own happiness or ends unfettered is a somewhat dangerous proposition. At some point, usually sooner rather than later, that happiness or goal is at the cost to others or to the whole. If the individual is completely unaware of, and uncaring for their context, the cost of their ‘success’ is problematic. I’m not even sure if I have an issue of taking away from another, as long as that is acknowledged.
I think this is where I come back around again too: ” Law and order, common defense, and enforcement of contracts”
These seem like simple and agreeable premises. But when accounting for historical reality and exigent power dynamics they become more complicated. How do you allow for all individuals to pursue the improvement of civil society (or their own situation) when it is patently clear that law benefits some and significantly harms others? How can we really claim we have any kind of functioning (let alone just) system of law when we incarcerate more people per capita than any other highly developed state, and we execute numbers similar to totalitarian dictatorships? Either people in the US are somehow inherently different from those in other countries, or something is flawed in our system of law and order. We could talk about Realist v Constructivist approaches to common defense but I think that is a tangent. All I’ll say is that again, defining and pursuing that as an end is a complex thing.

Contracts should be simpler to define/ talk about, but again, when levels of inequality are as high as they are I think it is difficult to claim that contracts can be fairly constructed between individuals. Coercion on paper is as destructive and violent as using a gun. (not a big fan, again, if you compare our levels of violence and gun deaths to every other developed nation it becomes clear that either we are inherently different in very bad ways or our governance is problematic about some things). Also, isn’t the narrative for many 2nd Amendment fans that it is necessary in case the government oversteps by making them do something terrible like have access to preventative care and basic medical provision and they must rise up in violent revolution to protect themselves? ;P

This is why I was making the argument/ posing the question as to equality in society. I agree that when individuals can negotiate within civil society, without need to get ‘authority’ involved everything functions more smoothly and easily. The difficulty is that for that negotiation to be possible and functional there is some modicum or basis of equality that must be supported such that they are truly negotiations and not coercion that looks pretty.

I could care less about income equality except that disparate access to resources seems to be the basis of much of the rest of inequality within society. (studying the history of the construction of mechanisms of disenfranchisement would seem that most of the construction was for the express purpose of a narrative allowing disproportionate access to resources and taking them away from groups within society) Allowing all individuals access to some base level of provision/ safety net allows them to exercise all the other rights and improves civil society in precisely the way you advocate.

I do think that political rights, in the absence of some social and economic rights are rendered somewhat meaningless as rights as exercise is impossible. Hence also my belief that our current primary goal must by deciding what we think that baseline must be, and the most efficient means to make sure the majority of people within society are at that minimum.

Looking at the expansion of government in the last 60 years, and the way that narrative has been told, especially from the far Right is informative. The second half of the 20th century was a time of increasing centralization. Some of that was afforded by technology and travel, some through media, and a lot of it through the increasing power and scope of the federal government. At the same time there were a number of supreme court cases that overruled long-held systems in more provincial areas of the country (to be clear, I am not using that word in any way pejoratively, simply that many of the communities involved tended to be more isolationist/ unconnected from major urban centers that are more ‘progressive’/ willing to change traditional societal structures).

Those decisions forced communities to more centralized social points of view, and often enabled branches of government to expand to protect previously marginalized groups within those communities. But it is important to note that there had been disenfranchised groups before, they were just unseen or unheard and many of those decisions afforded them the individual rights you celebrate but that had been reserved for those privileged within those groups.

(Read this excellent article about racial atavistic violence for more about what I mean- sorry about the popups, below the fold is the point, the stuff above is less )

To enable the idealized version of individualism that supports civil society and allows for dynamism that moves all of us forward there must be a container within which it functions. That is the entire body of the critique against Habermas’ Public Sphere. I love the premise, but can’t help but see merit in the critique that it is founded within praxis of privilege on a number of levels (white, wealthy, male, individualistic). The work of Nancy Fraser and others demonstrate that there are inequalities that undermine a singular functioning public sphere and while counterpublics function as a merited alternative, when the singular body politic breaks into too numerous counterpublics, with little reference between them, we begin to lose the thread of meaningful dialogue and interaction and our overall civil society begins to face intractable problems. This is exacerbated by media outlets that are individually pursuing capitalist ends and further distancing groups for sensationalism and profit.

All of this is to say, that without some baseline/ common context/ understanding/ goal we (like the universe post big-bang) drift farther and farther apart making more and more likely violent ruptures without diplomatic or non-violent means to overcome difference. The problem for my side is that bureaucracy has quite obvious limits (both in terms of actual functioning and in terms of human potential) but for the other side that the narrative sounds suspiciously like ‘we were ok with the rights of the collective when it disproportionately benefitted us but now that it is beginning to benefit the previously disenfranchised against us we would like a return to the individual as that is where the extent privilege continues to be housed and how our counterpublic will continue to be in charge of all the others because we do not trust that in a truly free market we would succeed.’

Political Debates 4 (He said)

In a back-door fashion, I think we actually agree more than we’d like to admit. I still posit that the ‘collective’ has no rights and the ‘collective’ doesn’t make decisions. Groups of individuals come together to make decisions – at times via the state, at times via civil society and the free associations that individuals make amongst themselves. A small distinction but an important one to me.

Your whole paragraph on getting government to do your individual bidding proves my point exactly. Your political friend lobbying for personally-beneficial bills does so precisely because government is so large, that getting ahead is easier via government legislation (when you have the means/resources/connections) than fighting it out in the open market where you have to win or lose on your own. Government’s attempt to legislate each and every outcome leads directly to more and more people wanting government to do it’s bidding. (Aside – here I have to call out my Republican brethren and their support of big business. Too many Republicans are not pro-free market, they are pro-big business, and use the machinations of big government to support large incumbents to the detriment of small business job creators). Only when you shrink the size and scope of government will your political friend realize that there’s nothing to gain via lobbying and there’s higher return in competing in the free market.

Where we disagree fundamentally though is your third major paragraph. You view government and the ‘collective’ as the only thing preventing us as individuals from taking up pitchforks against our neighbors and running naked through the streets waiting for the next Robespierre to save us. I take the opposite view – government is the rate limiting factor in individual human potential. Don’t get me wrong – government has a role. Law and order, common defense, and enforcement of contracts. Those three things, when done well, provide the necessary infrastructure to curb the wild side of individualism, while allowing space for the individual to flourish. You see the individual succeeding if and only if the ‘collective’ is somehow diminished. I see releasing the individual to freedom and liberty as the only way over time to enhance the collective well-being of society. Civil society and free association are the ways in which we moderate individual relationships without government support, and the more government intrudes into that space, the more individuals will feel the need to hunker down and defend themselves. (I get the sense from this paragraph that you might not be a big 2nd Amendment fan).

I also came across the article linked here that is only tangentially related to the course our argument has taken, but one that sums up my viewpoint on this issue of government intrusion into the individual sphere.

Political Debates 3- In which it gets longer (She said):

I think you slightly concede the original point when you recognize the state as the balance to the individual. The state is the institution by which the collective makes decisions, but prior to ‘state’ there is still collective. The modern state is the specific institution we have chosen to expedite the decision-making and execution process, but the balance, at a philosophical/ ideological level remains individual and group.

In many ways, the tipping that you refer to, and the expansion of the government, is specifically because individuals feel it is acceptable to attempt to subvert the government (i.e. the agent/ institution of the collective) to benefit their individual wants. There is no personal motivation for an individual to contain themselves against others. I talked to a guy in politics who says he spends most of him time attempting to stop the government passing bills that individuals want sponsored to solve a specific personal problem. When an institution that needs to govern such a large body politic is being used (or is attempted to be used) regularly as a vehicle for personal advancement it seems somewhat self-evident that any kind of functionality will be necessarily reduced.

Although rights travel with individuals it is also incumbent on them to exercise those rights with responsibility and to consider the larger social order when making decisions about how they comport themselves when in the public sphere. I would actually argue that bureaucracy expands precisely because without a social fabric organizing the collective other means emerge to reduce anarchy and chaos and allow people to live in high levels of population density without going postal on a regular basis.

I think that actually is part of the explanatory principle behind your example- in order to ‘reduce conflict’ (put in that way because it doesn’t actually accomplish that in the slightest) governments have attempted to reduce the potential friction points by mandating every minute detail and then making those who govern argue about whether or not each individual act meets the statutes enshrined in law. I would completely agree that it doesn’t make sense, and that the increasing level of conflict is inevitable when predicated on that system. As well, the increasing numbers of details mean that those who govern are able to spend less and less time deciding principles and higher-order issues and more and more time spiraling down into municipal planting hell. (I could make some argument about the connection of the trees to the environmental impact and offsets, but I think that is tangential and time wasting so I’m going to refrain!)

Think about the most recent CEB work actually, the world is too variable to mandate specific process and actions, instead it is incumbent on leaders to set a vision and guardrails within which each individual attempts to reach that goal in the best way they see fit. The difficult in applying this to our current political situation is that we have lost any concept of a shared vision. My fear/ issue with resting too much power with the individual (through reduction of discourse to rights and more specifically individual rights ala Locke) is that when the balance tips too far that direction we lose any semblance or possibility of finding or establishing any kind of shared vision. If we had less people in the world, and lived in less highly dense areas that might work as a proposition, but we don’t. We must find a way to negotiate with those around us and that has to start from some kind of shared hope or expectation that can allow us a guiding principle. For almost 500 years we have been able to rely on systems of governance that reduce variability and contain the chaos around us, largely by pushing specific groups out, and building on their disenfranchisement and deprivation. Unfortunately for that paradigm we have hit several kinds of limits at once and that ideology is inadequate to address the individual and collective challenges with which we are faced. Instead of attempting to control external chaos so the individual can live largely in peace I think one of the new challenges of our time is to teach individuals to personally address the chaos that comes at them so they can deal more deliberately in their choices.

Totally agree with your entire paragraph about big government. Completely. (including the last sentence J)

I think the next time we are in the same place we should sit down and talk about the inequality bit. I’ll go find and read the book and you can elucidate that argument a little more clearly J

I see the possibility you point out about exposing fraud, but at the same time, non sequitur numbers, out of context, are easily misunderstood. Having been involved in academic research I am the first to admit that there is a lot of schlock that should never be paid for (again, because individuals want to be academics and want someone else to pay for it without thinking about the broader applications of the work they do) but I have also seen brilliance in unexpected places, spurred by connections and cross-over that to the uninformed would be easy to point to as ‘waste’ but has moved forward lines of inquiry/ analysis/ innovation that does have real value. Secondly, it is a little too easy for us to label as ‘useless’ funds paid for things we don’t agree with when, again, it may have universal value, or value to a group within society that is deserving of whatever benefit that patronage might provide but without specific context it becomes a waste or a joke instead.

I would be interested to hear your take on how we hope to get some kind of functionality as a state with huge numbers of individuals all competing against each other, with little shared  vision and even less goodwill to work together. How do we get to a point where it is possible to have some kind of public discourse around both principles and tactics and what the mechanism for execution looks like while attempting to reduce the apathy that bureaucracy instills both within those who are a part of it (read civil servants) and those who have to deal with it (all the rest of us poor schmucks)?

Still believing in some kind of greater good…