Tag Archives: Daniel McCarthy

You Already Know The Words To That Old Janis Joplin Song

David Boaz at Reason:

For many libertarians, “the road to serfdom” is not just the title of a great book but also the window through which they see the world. We’re losing our freedom, year after year, they think. They (we) quote Thomas Jefferson: “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” We read books with titles like Freedom in Chains, Lost Rights, The Rise of Federal Control over the Lives of Ordinary Americans, and yes, The Road to Serfdom.

The Cato Institute’s boilerplate description of itself used to include the line, “Since [the American] revolution, civil and economic liberties have been eroded.” Until Clarence Thomas, then chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, gave a speech at Cato and pointed out to us that it didn’t seem quite that way to black people.

And he was right. American public policy has changed in many ways since the American Revolution, sometimes in a libertarian direction, sometimes not.

[…]

Has there ever been a golden age of liberty? No, and there never will be. There will always be people who want to live their lives in peace, and there will always be people who want to exploit them or impose their own ideas on others. If we look at the long term—from a past that includes despotism, feudalism, absolutism, fascism, and communism—we’re clearly better off. When we look at our own country’s history—contrasting 2010 with 1776 or 1910 or 1950 or whatever—the story is less clear. We suffer under a lot of regulations and restrictions that our ancestors didn’t face.

But in 1776 black Americans were held in chattel slavery, and married women had no legal existence except as agents of their husbands. In 1910 and even 1950, blacks still suffered under the legal bonds of Jim Crow—and we all faced confiscatory tax rates throughout the postwar period.

I am particularly struck by libertarians and conservatives who celebrate the freedom of early America, and deplore our decline from those halcyon days, without bothering to mention the existence of slavery. Take R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., longtime editor of the American Spectator. In Policy Review (Summer 1987, not online), he wrote:

Let us flee to a favored utopia. For me that would be the late 18th Century but with air conditioning….With both feet firmly planted on the soil of my American domain, and young American flag fluttering above, tobacco in the field, I would relish the freedom.

I take it Mr. Tyrrell dreams of being a slave-owner. Because as he certainly knows, most of the people in those tobacco fields were slaves.

Take a more recent example, from a libertarian. Jacob Hornberger of the Future of Freedom Foundation writes about the decline of freedom in America:

First of all, let’s talk about the economic system that existed in the United States from the inception of the nation to the latter part of the 19th century. The principles are simple to enumerate: No income taxation (except during the Civil War), Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, economic regulations, licensure laws, drug laws, immigration controls, or coercive transfer programs, such as farm subsidies and education grants.

There was no federal department of labor, agriculture, commerce, education, energy, health and human services, or homeland security.

Then he writes:

Why did early Americans consider themselves free? The answer is rooted in the principles enunciated in the Declaration of Independence. As Thomas Jefferson observed in that document, people have been endowed by their Creator with certain fundamental and inherent rights. These include, but are certainly not limited to, the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

But wait. Did “early Americans consider themselves free”? White Americans probably did. But what about black Americans, and especially the 90 percent of black Americans who were slaves? Slaves made up about 19 percent of the American population from 1790 to 1810, dropping to 14 percent by 1860. (In that period the number of slaves grew from 700,000 to about 4 million, but the rest of the population was growing even more rapidly.) Did Mr. Hornberger really forget that 4 million Americans were held in bondage when he waxed eloquent about how free America was until the late 19th century? I know he isn’t indifferent to the crime of slavery. But too many of us who extol the Founders and deplore the growth of the American state forget that that state held millions of people in chains. (I note that I’m not concerned here with self-proclaimed libertarians who join neo-Confederate organizations or claim that southerners established a new country and fought a devastating war for some reason other than the slavery on which their social and economic system rested; I just want to address libertarians who hate slavery but seem to overlook its magnitude in their historical analysis.)

Will Wilkinson:

What Boaz calls “thoughtless and ahistorical exhortations of our glorious libertarian past” is a central element of the fusionist conception of traditional American identity. But it’s just wrong. I call the syndrome of questionable conservative cultural assumptions and habits of thought that continue to pervade the libertarian movement the “fusionist hangover.” I say it’s time to sober up.

Eugene Volokh

Doug Mataconis at Below The Beltway:

Does that mean that the infringements of liberty and encroachment of the state that we see today is acceptable ? Of course not, but it does mean that we need to recognize that the idyllic American past never really existed and that the fight for liberty is a fight for the future, not the dead past.

Roy Edroso:

at Reason David Boaz suggests (albeit gently) that maybe America wasn’t more free, in the way libertarians like to think about it, back when it was full of slaves. The Perfesser reads Boaz’ piece, and is much more concerned with the tragic loss of American liberties under Jimmy Carter.

Also funny: the Hit & Run commenters to the story. I especially liked the guy who says the Donner Party was “perfectly libertarian” because “they were free to make a bad decision, made it, and suffered the consequences.” I couldn’t have put it better myself!

Mori Dinauer at Tapped:

Boaz points out the obvious omissions to this false nostalgia, women and slaves, and wisely asks of his fellow libertarians to have a little historical perspective: “Libertarians have not opposed those appeals for freedom, but too often we (or our forebears) paid too little attention to them. And one of the ways we do that is by saying ‘Americans used to be free, but now we’re not’ — which is a historical argument that doesn’t ring true to an awful lot of Jewish, black, female, and gay Americans.” It’s all well and good to have a conversation about whether taxation and the federal bureaucracy are infringing on freedom. But compared to the struggle to simply gain equal recognition as human beings — there’s simply no contest.

Jacob Hornberger at Reason:

Boaz raises another point that needs addressing: He attempts to diminish the significance of what our American forebears achieved.

It is true that the principles of liberty on which our ancestors founded the U.S. government were not applied to everyone, especially slaves; and there were, of course, other exceptions and infringements on freedom, such as tariffs and denying women the right to vote.

But should those exceptions and infringements prevent us from appreciating and honoring the fact that our ancestors brought into existence the freest, most prosperous, and most charitable society in history?

I don’t think so. I believe that it is impossible to overstate the significance of what our American ancestors accomplished in terms of a free society.

Let’s consider, say, the year 1880. Here was a society in which people were free to keep everything they earned, because there was no income tax. They were also free to decide what to do with their own money—spend it, save it, invest it, donate it, or whatever. People were generally free to engage in occupations and professions without a license or permit. There were few federal economic regulations and regulatory agencies. No Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, bailouts, or so-called stimulus plans. No IRS. No Departments of Education, Energy, Agriculture, Commerce, and Labor. No EPA and OSHA. No Federal Reserve. No drug laws. Few systems of public schooling. No immigration controls. No federal minimum-wage laws or price controls. A monetary system based on gold and silver coins rather than paper money. No slavery. No CIA. No FBI. No torture or cruel or unusual punishments. No renditions. No overseas military empire. No military-industrial complex.

As a libertarian, as far as I’m concerned, that’s a society that is pretty darned golden.

Will Wilkinson responds:

Nope. Sorry.

How about the female half of the population? By 1880 coverture laws, which basically denied married women any meaningful property rights, were still in place in many states. (Coverture laws persisted in some states until the 1920s.) And there were  plenty of further paternalistic regulations on the sort of work women were allowed to undertake. Of course, women in 1880 had almost no meaningful rights to political participation, ensuring that they were unable to demand recognition and protection of their basic liberty rights through the political system.

Slavery was gone in 1880, but systematic state-enforced racial apartheid was going strong. The economic and political rights of blacks were severely curtailed under the various antebellum state Black Codes and then under the Jim Crow laws. What formal rights Southern blacks did have were often denied in fact by extralegal enforcement of racist norms by lynch mobs and other campaigns of terror.

By 1880, most of the the U.S.’s imperialist efforts to secure North American territory against the claims of competing European imperial powers were complete. But the government’s campaign of murder, theft, and segregation against native populations continued.

One could go on and on in this vein in gruesome detail. But this is enough to establish the point: 1880’s America was a society in which well more than half the population was systematically and often brutally denied basic liberty rights. If that’s golden, I’d hate to see bronze.

It’s just plain wrongheaded to cast the libertarian project as the project of restoring lost liberties. Most people never had the liberties backward-looking libertarians would like to restore. I know the rhetoric of restoration can be very seductive, especially in a country unusually full (for a wealthy liberal democracy) of patriotic traditionalists. But restoration is a conservative project and liberty is a fundamentally progressive cause.

Boaz responds at Cato:

I am a great admirer of the Founders, as I write on many occasions. When I talk about the progress we’ve made in expanding freedom for blacks, women, gays, and other once-excluded groups of people, I often say that we have “extended the promises of the Declaration of Independence — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — to more and more people.” I love and respect those promises, I appreciate the extent to which the Founders made good on them immediately, and I am glad that they have indeed been extended.

I share Hornberger’s commitment to a world with no income tax, no alphabet soup agencies, no central banking, no drug laws, and so on. I’m just not sure that the world of 1880 — much less the world of 1850 — is actually more free, on balance, for Americans as a whole, than today’s world. But that’s a reasonable argument, and I am happy to engage Hornberger and others in it.

Of course, the world is full of unreasonable arguments, too. In case anyone’s been reading some of them in the Reason comments or elsewhere on the Web, let me make just a few comments: I did not “attack” or “malign” Jacob Hornberger; I criticized an article he wrote. In fact, I took pains to call him one of the “libertarians who hate slavery” in distinction to some self-styled libertarians who sound like neo-Confederates. I did not say that “we have to accept” the Civil War, anti-discrimination laws, the income tax, or anything else as the price of abolishing slavery; I just said that we shouldn’t overlook the crime of slavery when we write paeans to 19th-century freedom, and that on the whole we may very well be freer today than in antebellum America. I did not say that “it was necessary to reduce everyone’s freedom drastically before we can morally allow anyone to have more freedom than another.” Here’s a tip: If you’re shocked by what someone says my article said, please read the article.

OK, that’s all for this topic. I have a D.C. power-elite meeting to go to, and then a Georgetown cocktail party.

Arnold Kling:

I would rather live with the group-status configurations that we have today than with those that prevailed in 1880. For that matter, I would rather live with the plumbing and dentistry that we have today than that which prevailed in 1880. But it’s a swindle to suggest that if we had a libertarian polity we would be back in the days of Jim Crow or women’s subservience. Just as it is a swindle to suggest that if we had a libertarian polity we would be back to using outhouses and having our teeth pulled without anesthetic.

If what you really, really care about are group-status issues, and you really, really think that those battles should be fought politically rather than culturally, and if you are really, really scared of where you think some older Americans stand on those group-status issues, then you can end up where Will Wilkinson is–deeply frightened of the Tea Party movement in spite of its libertarian focus. In that case, your plan is to slip something into the ruling intellectuals’ drink to make them amenable to your free-market seductions.

Wilkinson responds to Kling:

What I really, really care about is liberty. If the culture and the law denies liberty to some groups, then I think we ought to fight culturally and politically to win equal freedom for the members of those groups. If people have been denied liberty on the basis of group membership, caring about liberty then entails caring about the “group status issues” standing behind historical oppression.

I am not scared of the fact that older Americans are more racist, sexist, and homophobic that younger Americans. I regard this as a hopeful sign that historic inequalities in status and freedom are on their way out. And I’m not frightened of the Tea Party movement (which is not especially old.) In fact, I hope it helps deliver divided government by helping Republicans win a bunch of seats. I just don’t think it’s very substantively libertarian. It is a populist movement centered on a certain conservative conception of traditional American identity. Libertarian rhetoric is definitely part of that, but rhetoric is rhetoric.

By contrasting the Tea Party with “ruling intellectuals,” Arnold seems to recognize that it is as a populist movement, and he seems to prefer it for that reason. But, contrary to what Arnold implies, a distaste for conservative identity politics and a disinclination to see much real libertarian potential in the Tea Party does not leave the libertarian with no alternative but to “slip something into the ruling intellectuals’ drink to make them amenable to your free-market seductions.” One thing a libertarian might do is to publicly set forth persuasive arguments that over time shifts the balance of both elite and popular opinion. Why Arnold thinks that straightforward persuasion is possible only through some kind of subterfuge or seduction eludes me.

It is true, though, that you’re more likely to be taken seriously by “ruling intellectuals,” and lots of other people besides, if you acknowledge that the rights and liberties of women and historically persecuted minorities really do count. And rightly so. But I have the sense that Arnold thinks that this is not rightly so, and that a libertarian would only acknowledge this sort of “group status issue” strategically, as a way of sucking up to elites so that they will be more likely to listen to your free-market ideas. Please tell me I’m wrong Arnold.

John Holbo:

Obviously Kling and Hornberger could not have done a better job of proving Boaz’ original point. It’s tempting to accuse them of just not caring about liberty for anyone except white men. How else could they miss this stuff? But I doubt that’s it. (Anyway, aren’t they Jewish? It’s hard for me to imagine men named Kling and Hornberger seriously believe they, personally, would be made more free by being transported back to the late 19th Century.) It seems to me the most probable explanation of this truly bizarre blind spot – it really is bizarre and there’s no other word for it – is a sort of strange entrapment in the conservative ‘restoration’ narrative, but perhaps induced by Hayekian rather than conservative rhetoric. If the 20th Century was the Road To Serfdom, it can hardly have been a long march to increased freedom. If progressives and liberals are the authoritarian enemy, it can hardly be that their victories have, on the whole, made us more free. Since the 20th Century was when the bad stuff really got going, how can it NOT be appropriate to be thoroughly nostalgic for the 1880’s as a Lost Golden Age?

I guess I’ll leave it at that. Libertarians really ought to know better than to try to argue against the utterly obvious points Boaz made in that post. That’s just basic intellectual hygiene, surely.

Orestes Brownson at FrumForm:

Fair enough; one can easily see that ending slavery certainly ought to have been a libertarian end.  However, it was accomplished with stunningly anti-libertarian means (not that I’m complaining; I’m not a libertarian), and by a political coalition — the Republican coalition — that held no other libertarian ends.

Look, the Republican party was anti-free trade, for “corporate welfare” to railroads, for a national bank, for expansive executive powers, and wanted to use the federal government’s powers to ban marriages not between one man and one woman during the polygamy controversy.  Once the Civil War was over, they pretty much got what they wanted.

So, some liberties and alleged liberties went by the wayside, to create a greater liberty.  ”A new birth of freedom,” even.  But what I don’t see among a lot of libertarians today is the same willingness to make tactical compromises to accomplish their greater ends.

Mark Kleiman:

The main occupation of the U.S. Army between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the Spanish-American war was “Indian fighting,” or, as we call it today, “ethnic cleansing.” Of course Wilkinson blames it all on “the government,” as if much of the work hadn’t been done by free individuals exercising their right to keep and bear arms in defense of the private property they were engaged in stealing.

But even if we look only at heterosexual males of European descent, and even if we agree to treasure such rights as the right to grow up without schooling and to be free of employment discrimination against eight-year-olds, the right to consume adulterated food and drugs, and the right to starve to death if incapacitated from earning a living by misfortune, disease, or old age, in one respect the 1880s were much less free than, say, the 1950s. In 1880 any attempt to form a labor union was treated by the courts as a criminal conspiracy. It was also likely to be met with extra-legal violence by the Pinkertons (and sometimes the national guard). Today, however, the right of workers to organize is an internationally-recognized human right (except in El Salvador and Libertarianland).

In practice, the right to unionize has been under siege from union-busing consultants, aided by capital mobility and a complaisant NLRB. But even post-Reagan, American workers remain free, in principle, to try to bargain collectively with their employers. This is not, of course, a right that libertarians cherish; Brink Lindsey lists the collapse of private-sector unions as a gain for liberty. But the utter helplessness of a railway worker, textile operator, or coal miner of the 1880s (who enjoyed, thanks the the “fellow sevant” doctrine, the right to be injured at work without receiving compensation) in the face of the tyranny of the boss and the foreman is not a condition to which all of us aspire to return.

Daniel McCarthy at The American Conservative:

Which model provides a better starting point? Should a libertarian prefer a decentralized republic along broadly Jeffersonian lines, but without slavery and government discrimination (though this may mean tolerating private discrimination) or a large and centralized rights-enforcing government akin to the New Deal state but with an emphasis on personal liberties instead of redistribution? And of these two models, is one more inclined than the other to decay into its illiberal form? That is, would slavery or segregation re-emerge in a restored Jeffersonian republic more readily than redistribution and other evils would arise in a purified New Deal state?

It seems to me that the tutelary ambit of the modern progressive state logically inclines toward providing for the basic material necessities of its wards as well as for the protection of their rights, and to ensure provision of needs and protection of rights a great educational apparatus may be desirable. The freedom of the tutelary state is the freedom of a free-range dairy cow: in exchange for care and protection, you pay your taxes and may frolic in the fields as much as you please. It’s a timid sort of freedom, but it is freedom of a kind.

An alternative based on the older American tradition, by contrast, need not logically lead to a slave-state; indeed, most of the Founders recognized that slavery was inconsistent with the principles of their system. That system, even in its most benign form, would not be purely libertarian, of course: there too state schools would be desired to inculcate proper values into republican citizens. Private discrimination would be permissible, and if states or localities adopted unfair or unjust laws, one would have little recourse to federal remedies. But you could move to a different jurisdiction more in keeping with your ideas of liberty. It’s an uneven but robust freedom.

This is what libertarians who laud the old America have in mind. Why slander them as being ignorant of slavery, when liberaltarians do not want to be slandered as social democrats? If the socio-political order that libertarians like Hornberger desire really does naturally incline toward the sorts of injustices Boaz names, then make that case and argue against the model on those grounds. But I don’t think Boaz even believes that, let alone that he can present a convincing argument for it. On the other hand, those who believe that the modern state naturally tilts toward social democracy or worse have frequently and cogently made their case –not least in that “great book” Boaz mentions in his first paragraph, The Road to Serfdom.

Jason Kuznicki at The League:

We can only think to ask such a question if we radically discount the experiences of nearly all other people in society. And this violates one of the fundamental formulations of libertarian political thought, the law of equal freedom:

Every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.

Language issues aside, under a standard like this, it’s impossible to justify, for example, the fact that marital rape was never a crime in the nineteenth century. Or that women surrendered all of their property, present and future, to their husbands at marriage. Or that women at marriage couldn’t have a legal place of residence separate from their husbands. Or that children were presumed in law to belong solely to the husband, and never to the wife. Or that (contra Bryan Caplan) contracts between husband and wife were typically invalid under law, so one couldn’t escape the shackles by contracting around them with a well-intentioned husband. Or that cohabitation without marriage — another attempt to escape the bind — was plain illegal. Or that divorce was exceptionally hard to obtain.

To put it bluntly, the white men of 1880 were for the most part brutes and tyrants. Even if they didn’t want to be, the law forced them. They either claimed, or had foisted upon them, all kinds of “freedoms” that intrinsically infringed on other people. And I’m not even talking about what they did to blacks in the South or Asians in the West, though I easily could.

I certainly wouldn’t want everyone today to be in the same position that white men had in 1880. Putting them there would require that we find some rather large population for them to personally oppress, to rape, to steal property from, and to hold in permanent thrall.

Neither slave nor master has any place at all in utopia.

Bryan Caplan:

I largely agree with David Boaz’s recent attack on libertarian nostaglia.  While many Americans were freer in the Gilded Age than they are today, plenty were not.  But precisely who belongs on the list of people who have more libertarian freedom in 2010 than they did in 1880?

Boaz mentions “Jews, blacks, women, and gay people.”  For blacks, his case is obvious and overwhelming: Slavery was finally over, but blacks still suffered from both Jim Crow and private racist brutality.  The case for gays is similarly strong: If you were openly gay in 1880, you probably would have been prosecuted under the sodomy laws – and lived in fear of private violence even if the law left you alone.  However, it’s hard to see why Jews belong on the “freer than they used to be” side of the ledger; 19th-century America not only had legal religious toleration, but as far as I’m aware, pogroms and other private anti-Semitic violence were virtually absent.

It’s when we get to women, though, that things get interesting.  Women are more than half the population.  If they’re freer today than they were in the Gilded Age, we can truly say that most people in America are freer today than they were before the rise of the welfare state.  On reflection, though, this is a very big if.

Without a doubt, women lived much harder lives in 1880 than they do today.  So did men.  In those days, almost everyone endured long hours of back-breaking toil.  But of course the standard libertarian take on this is that while freedom causes prosperity in the long-run, prosperity and freedom aren’t the same.

In what ways, then, were American women in 1880 less free than men?  Most non-libertarians will naturally answer that women couldn’t vote.  But from a libertarian point of view, voting is at most instrumentally valuable.  Will Wilkinson seems aware of this when he writes:

[W]omen in 1880 had almost no meaningful rights to political participation, ensuring that they were unable to demand recognition and protection of their basic liberty rights through the political system.
Yet the fact that women were unable to vote in defense of their “basic liberty rights” doesn’t show that American political system denied them these rights.  Did it?

Caplan responds to critics. More Caplan and more Caplan. And even more Caplan

Will Wilkinson:

Kerry Howley sensibly suggests that we approach the question of how much “libertarian freedom” women enjoyed in the late 19th century by looking to see what a libertarian woman of that era had to say about it.

Kerry suggests this passage from Voltairine de Cleyre’s Sex Slavery (1890):

He beheld every married woman what she is, a bonded slave, who takes her master’s name, her master’s bread, her master’s commands, and serves her master’s passion; who passes through the ordeal of pregnancy and the throes of travail at his dictation, not at her desire; who can control no property, not even her own body, without his consent, and from whose straining arms the children she bears may be torn at his pleasure, or willed away while they are yet unborn.

I would not characterize this as an illustration of one form “libertarian freedom” might take. But Bryan Caplan might persist in arguing that women were in some sense free to opt out of this sort tyrannical arrangement. If de Cleyre could opt out, other women could as well, right? I don’t think it’s that easy. Bryan is unjustifiably ignoring the developmental prerequisites for autonomous or robustly voluntary choice. One way to deny an individual the ability to choose really freely is to raise her in a way that constantly cultivates and reinforces a set of preferences and expectations that fit comfortably within a social and legal order of paternalistic control and systematic inequality of status and rights.

One time-honored criticism of paternalism is that it infantilizes adults and leaves them unprepared to make wise choices on their own behalf, thereby reinforcing paternalistic laws and norms by making them seem necessary. I wonder if Bryan thinks this is an ineffective criticism of paternalism? I take it that he would be unwilling to endorse slavery even if slaves could be conditioned from childhood to consent to their chains?

John Holbo on Caplan:

Having made one non-libertarian-related post, I can now say, with a good conscience, that Bryan Caplan has responded to his critics. It is a wonder to behold.

I will make two notes. (No doubt you yourself will come to have your own favorite moments.) First, a lot of the trouble here obviously rotates around the issue of systematic social oppression. Caplan barrels straight through like so: “there’s a fundamental human right to non-violently pressure and refuse to associate with others.” That hardly speaks to real concerns about violence. But beyond that Caplan doesn’t notice that, even if he’s right about this fundamental human right, he’s no longer even defending the proposition that women were more free in the 1880’s, never mind successfully defending it. He’s defending the proposition that there is a fundamental right, which can be exercised, systematically, to make women much less free, that was better protected in the 1880’s. So if women value this libertarian right more than freedom, they might rationally prefer that sort of society. But even so, they should hardly regard themselves as more free, for enjoying this right. Rather, they should regard themselves as (rationally) sacrificing liberty, a lesser value, for love of libertarianism, a higher value and separate jar of pickles altogether

DJW at Lawyers, Guns and Money

Matt Steinglass at DiA at The Economist

Tyler Cowen:

Bryan Caplan set off a debate which has spread to many corners of the blogosphere.  I have no interest in recapping and evaluating the whole thing but I’d like to make a simple but neglected point: negative liberty and positive liberty are not separable.

Here is one simple scenario.  Let’s say the government tells me I have to buy and place a five-foot ceramic grizzly bear statue on my front lawn.  How bad an act of coercion is that?  If I have an upper-middle class income, it’s an inconvenience and an aesthetic blight but no great tragedy.  If I have a Haitian per capita income, it is a very bad act of coercion and it will impinge on my life prospects severely.  I either give up some food or they send me to jail.

In other words, even theories of negative liberty — purely libertarian theories where only negative liberty seems to matter — require standards for degrees of coercion.  Those standards will very often depend on how much wealth the victims of the coercion have and they will depend on a more general concept of positive liberty.  Negative liberty standards can’t help but seep into a concern with consequences.

Fast forward to said debate.  When people are poor, apparently small interventions can be quite crushing and quite coercive.  To cite the “smaller” interventions of 1880 doesn’t much convince me.  The real impact of the depredations against women was very, very large, even from some “small interventions” (and I don’t think they were all small).

(Also, I would not in this case take the *legal* oppressions to be a stand-alone or exogenous variable, separable from more general societal attitudes.  There were various male desires to oppress women, which took a mix of legal and non-legal forms.  Asking how bad the “government-only” restrictions were is an odd division of the problem, since the governmental and non-governmental restrictions were an integrated package which worked together in non-linear fashion.)

Every negative liberty theorist is a positive liberty theorist in disguise and this comes out once they start citing degress of outrage, degrees of harm, degrees of coercion, and the like.

UPDATE: More Holbo

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Filed under Feminism, Go Meta, History

Go Patent Yourself!

The Economist:

Since the decoding of the human genome, biotechnology companies have claimed that by matching a person’s genetic make-up with specialised treatments, they can tailor drugs to maximise benefits and minimise side effects. Alas, researchers have discovered that the link between a given person’s genetic make-up and specific diseases is much more complex than they had hoped. The tantalising vision remains out of reach.

A rare exception has been the success that Myriad Genetics, an American firm, has had with two genes called BRCA1 and BRCA2. Certain versions of these genes, it has been shown, are associated with a high risk of breast and ovarian cancer. The University of Utah has patented the genes and licenses them to Myriad. The firm uses that exclusivity to create expensive genetic tests for cancer risk which only it offers for sale (the patents and licensing conditions are different outside the United States).

The BRCA patents have long frustrated medical researchers, cancer lobbyists and legal activists. They claim that the firm’s grip on the two genes unlawfully stifles both innovation and basic science. Given the history of patent rulings in America, that has been a fringe argument—until now.

On March 29th the New York District Court made a ruling that, taken at face value, turns America’s approach to the patent protection of genes on its head. A coalition led by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had challenged the very basis of Myriad’s patents. The nub of the case was this question: “Are isolated human genes and the comparison of their sequences patentable things?”

Until now, the answer had been “Yes”. But Robert Sweet, the presiding judge, disagreed, at least as far as the BRCA genes are concerned. After weighing up Myriad’s arguments, he ruled: “It is concluded that DNA’s existence in an ‘isolated’ form alters neither this fundamental quality of DNA as it exists in the body nor the information it encodes. Therefore, the patents at issues directed to ‘isolated DNA’ containing sequences found in nature are unsustainable as a matter of law and are deemed unpatentable subject matter.” Mr Sweet reasoned that DNA represents the physical embodiment of biological information, and that such biological information is a natural phenomenon.

Genome Web:

The ACLU’s and PUBPAT’s lawsuit against Myriad Genetics and the University of Utah Research Foundation, which hold the patents on the BRCA genes, as well the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), charged that the challenged patents are illegal and restrict both scientific research and patients’ access to medical care, and that patents on human genes violate the First Amendment and patent law because genes are “products of nature.”

The specific patents that the ACLU had challenged are on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Mutations along the BRCA1 and 2 genes are responsible for most cases of hereditary breast and ovarian cancers. The patents granted to Myriad give the company the exclusive right to perform diagnostic tests on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.

William L. Warren, partner at Sutherland Asbill & Brennan, believes this is a “poor decision that may have negative short-term implications for financing in the biotechnology sector, and hence the development of new diagnostics and therapeutics, until it is overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in the next one to two years. Certainly, the sequencing of genes and disease-associated mutations for use in developing diagnostic probes and assays provides useful nonnaturally occurring subject matter that should qualify for patentability under the statute.

“While native genes in the body are originally products of nature, isolating portions of the DNA in order to perform a diagnosis transforms the DNA structurally and functionally into patentable subject matter,” he continues. “The isolated DNA has been markedly changed to become a useful product, even though it carries some of the same information as the native gene.

“Whether through the progress of scientific knowledge and techniques the isolation of such DNA fragments becomes routine or obvious is a separate question, which was not at issue in this case.”

Megan Carpentier at The Washington Independent

Ronald Bailey at Reason:

GenomeWeb quotes ACLU attorney Chris Hansen as saying:

“Today’s ruling is a victory for the free flow of ideas in scientific research. The human genome, like the structure of blood, air or water, was discovered, not created. There is an endless amount of information on genes that begs for further discovery, and gene patents put up unacceptable barriers to the free exchange of ideas.”

Hansen is making the argument that gene patents have created an anti-commons that is impeding important research. But is that so? I looked into the issue three years ago and could find little empirical support for the …

… concern that the over-proliferation of patents, instead of encouraging innovation, is stifling it. This argument achieved prominence in an influential 1998 article published in Science by two University of Michigan law professors, Michael A. Heller and Rebecca S. Eisenberg. Heller and Eisenberg worried that the privatization of biomedical research “promises to spur private investment but risks creating a tragedy of the anticommons through a proliferation of fragmented and overlapping intellectual property rights.”

By “anticommons,” they meant a situation in which the existence of a large number of intellectual property rights applicable to a single good or service unduly retards or even prevents its provision. The blockage to innovation would occur because of high transaction costs, the conflicting goals of various intellectual property owners, and cognitive biases in which owners overvalue their own patents, undervalue others’ patents, and reject reasonable offers.

As evidence for a biomedical anticommons, analysts regularly cite the high profile case of “probably the most hated diagnostics company,” Myriad Genetics.

As evidence against the existence of a research anti-commons, I cited a number of studies by the National Academy of Sciences and I further noted that …

… in 2006, Nature Biotechnology published a review (free registration required) of the academic literature on the existence of a research anticommons. The review concluded that “among academic biomedical researchers in the United States, only one percent report having had to delay a project and none having abandoned a project as a result of others’ patents, suggesting that neither anticommons nor restrictions on access were seriously limiting academic research.” Worryingly, the review noted there was evidence that secrecy was growing among academic researchers. However, patent issues do not seem to be fueling this secrecy. One study suggested that increased academic research secrecy arises chiefly from concerns about securing scientific priority (scientific competition) and the high cost and effort involved in sharing scientific materials and data.

In 2007, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) released a report, International Intellectual Property Experiences: A Report of Four Countries, which surveyed thousands of scientists in the U.S., Germany, the U.K. and Japan to assess their experiences in acquiring, using, or creating intellectual property. The AAAS study found “very little evidence of an ‘anticommons problem.'” As Stephen Hansen, the director of the AAAS study, noted in a press release, “All four studies suggest that intellectual property rights had little negative impact on the practice of science.”

Perhaps there is newer and better evidence for a research anti-commons. I will look into it again and report back.

Daniel McCarthy at The American Conservative:

Biotech businesses and their scientists say the decision will stifle research, destroy incentives for product development, and grow government by leaving federally supported universities as the only institutions willing to undertake further genetic studies. None of this rings true. No doubt holding legal monopoly over a part of a human being is more lucrative for any firm than having to compete with other companies in developing biotechnology, but it is not necessarily best for patients. Other industries do just fine in terms of innovation, and much better in terms of cost control, without being able to patent their consumers.

I think this paragraph from the New York Times‘ story gets at the nub of the matter:

[The company] sells a test costing more than $3,000 that looks for mutations in the two genes to determine if a woman is at a high risk of getting breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Plaintiffs in the case had said Myriad’s monopoly on the test, conferred by the gene patents, kept prices high and prevented women from getting a confirmatory test from another laboratory.

Considering the amounts of money at stake in the principle, we’ll be hearing much more about this in months to come.

Josh Rosenau at Science Blogs:

This does not invalidate patents on organisms with modified genes or genomes, nor does it invalidate the act of modifying a gene in order to insert it into an organism. This does not, by my reading, set up Monsanto’s genetically modified Roundup Ready crops to lose patent protection, though it may free up competitors to develop similar genes, and may give farmers an easier way to protect themselves against a claim when Monsanto asserts patent violations because of crosspollination.

The court was asked to consider the chilling effect on research produced by patents for naturally occurring genes. Fortunately, the decision seems to have avoided that line of argument, as it opens a massive can of worms. In general, I’m inclined to oppose patents and copyright laws that restrict research, artistic development, medical care, or other humanitarian services. On the other hand, I don’t think that’s a call judges ought to be making. I’d rather see the laws themselves fixed when such chilling effects are seen. This judge’s ruling fired a shot across the bow of lawmakers about the abuses of genetic patents, and one hopes lawmakers will listen.

Given the sweeping victory on a summary judgment motion, the ACLU is understandably elated. “We are extremely gratified by this groundbreaking decision,” said Sandra Park, staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “This is the beginning of the end to patents that restrict women’s access to their own genetic information and interfere with their medical care.” We can hope so. The appeals are inevitable, and are headed toward a notably pro-corporate and anti-woman Supreme Court, so there’s no guarantee that this ruling will hold up, but it’s a good first step.

As John Ball, executive vice president of the American Society for Clinical Pathology put it: “It’s good for patients and patient care, it’s good for science and scientists. It really opens up things.”

Katherine Harmon at Scientific American

Ashby Jones at WSJ Law Blog:

Peter Meldrum, Myriad’s chief executive, said the company will appeal. “I don’t believe that the final outcome of this litigation will have a material impact on Myriad’s operations,” he said. “We have 23 patents relating to BRCA genes, and this litigation only involves seven of those 23 patents.

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Filed under Health Care, Science, The Constitution

Absolut Regressive Tax

Mark Kleiman at The American Interest:

Not all drugs are equally risky or abusable. But since different drugs are abused in different ways and have different harm profiles, there is no single measure of “harmfulness” or “addictiveness” by which drugs can be ranked. Moreover, the overall damage caused by a drug does not depend on its neurochemistry alone; the composition of the user base and the social context and customs around its use also matter. Alcohol, for example, constitutes a major violence-and-disorder problem in Britain, but not in Italy.

And alcohol is a drug, one that ranks high along most dimensions of risk. Among intoxicants (that is, excluding caffeine and nicotine), alcohol abuse accounts for more than three-quarters of total substance abuse in the United States, and for more death, illness, crime, violence and arrests than all illicit drugs combined. A drug abuse control policy that ignores alcohol is as defective as a naval policy that ignores the Pacific.

Some pairs of drugs are substitutes for one another, so that making one more available will reduce consumption of the other. (Brands of beer compete; beer competes with wine; heroin competes with morphine.) On the other hand, some pairs of drugs are complements, so that making one more available will increase consumption of the other (any depressant is likely complementary with any stimulant, as illustrated both by rum-and-Coke and by the heroin-and-cocaine combination known as a “speedball”). We know much less about these relationships than we should; it isn’t even clear whether making beer more expensive and less available to adolescents would reduce their cannabis use or increase it (and vice versa).

[…]

The average excise tax (Federal plus state) on a can of beer is about a dime. The average damage done by that can of beer to people other than its drinker is closer to a dollar. Those costs consist mostly of crimes, accidents and the health care costs redistributed through insurance—and the one-dollar figure doesn’t count the costs to the families and friends of drinkers.

Of course, not all drinks are created equal; a dollar per can would be too high a tax on the great majority of drinkers whose drinking does no harm, and too low on the dangerous minority. But in the words of an old Chivas Regal advertisement, “If the extra money matters to you, you’re drinking too much.” (Note that the optimal tax level would fall if we denied alcohol to bad drunks.)

Matthew Yglesias:

Kleiman says that this would be a particularly effective way of controlling over-indulgence by teenagers (who, after all, barely have any money) and would allow us to get rid of the not-really-enforced minimum drinking age and eliminate the culture of fake IDs and casual law-breaking that it encourages.

In distributive terms, data from the Consumer Expenditure Survey indicates that an alcohol tax is pretty progressive for a consumption tax, and certainly far less regressive than taxes on tobacco (which, to be clear, I also favor):

boozetax

The poor consume a much larger share of their income than the rich. Indeed, total expenditures from the bottom quintile exceed the income of the bottom quintile. So all consumption taxes are regressive with respect to income. But you can also look at different categories of goods as a share of expenditure, and you see that the richer you get the larger the share of your consumption going to alcoholic beverages becomes.

Daniel McCarthy at The American Conservative:

Matthew Yglesias seconds a very bad idea mooted by Mark A.R. Kleiman in an old article on booze ‘n’ drugs: Raise the tax on alcohol, especially beer. “The average excise tax (Federal plus state) on a can of beer is about a dime,” Kleiman claims, while “The average damage done by that can of beer to people other than its drinker is closer to a dollar,” and what’s more “Raising taxes is also among the best ways to reduce heavy drinking by teenagers, for whom price is often a major consideration.”

Just about every word of this is wrong. Does anyone buy the assertion (unfootnoted in the original) that that a can of beer does, on some “average,” a dollar’s worth of damage to “people other than its drinker”? Every bar and restaurant would turn its neighborhood into downtown Beirut circa 1980 if that were true. Kleiman produces this risible estimate by averaging out all the harm done by louts, drunk drivers, and dipsomaniacs with failing livers, but raising the price of beer isn’t going to stop any of that — in fact, it will make matters much worse, for teenagers as well as adults. Kleiman’s article reflects some understanding of the monstrosity of the drug war, but one of the fundamental lessons of that war, and of earlier efforts at alcohol Prohibition, is that raising barriers to the procurement of weak intoxicants incentivizes the production of stronger ones. That was the case during Prohibition, when bootleggers brewed the strongest stuff they could (the better to get drunk on less, and the more profit per pint), and it’s been the case with the War on Drugs, leading to more potent marijuana, crack being developed out of cocaine, and crystal meth becoming an epidemic. Raising taxes on beer make hard liquor relatively more attractive; it does not much dampen underlying demand. (Least of all among teenagers, who contrary to Kleiman are willing to pay a good deal more than other people for their beer because that’s often the only way they can get it.)

Josh Barro at Reihan Salam’s place:

Matt’s analysis does not account for the fact that wealthy people tend to buy more expensive alcoholic beverages than poorer people.  Since alcoholic beverage taxes are generally specific excise taxes (levied by the ounce, not as a percentage of price) the effective tax rate is highest on cheaper products.  And from a perspective of trying to offset the social costs of alcohol consumption, that makes sense: an ounce of Grey Goose isn’t more socially problematic than an ounce of Popov.

Back in 2004, the Tax Foundation released a paper that estimates the distributional effects of major taxes levied by state and federal governments.  They found (see page 42) that the average household in the top income quintile spends 0.09% of its income on state and federal alcohol taxes, while a bottom-quintile household spends 0.16%.  Essentially, people in the bottom income quintile spend a 78% larger share of their income on alcohol taxes than people in the top quintile.

This makes alcohol taxes less regressive than cigarette taxes (where the difference between effective rates in the top and bottom quintiles is a whopping 583%).  They are also not as regressive as public utility taxes or insurance taxes.  But they are still more regressive than general sales taxes (which have a gap of just 32%), as well as gasoline taxes, diesel fuel taxes, air transport taxes, severance taxes, import duties, “other excise taxes” and “other selective sales taxes.”

So, while they are not an outlier like tobacco taxes are, I don’t think it’s true to say that alcohol taxes are “pretty progressive for a consumption tax.”  It looks to me like they are much more regressive than broad-based consumption taxes and also more regressive than most taxes aimed at specific kinds of consumption.

E.D. Kain at The League:

Second, beer – unlike soft drinks – is a social drink. High taxes on beer in the UK have led to many pubs shutting down and more and more people staying home to drink. This may be good for drunk driving (I don’t know if that’s true or not) but it certainly isn’t good for fostering more community. We have to be wary of taxing ‘sin’ when so much of what we consider sin is actually a great way to bring people together as a community. Indeed, much of what busy-bodies consider sin is a great economic benefit to many communities. The sin of destroying jobs because some people might get drunk seems much greater than the sin of drink itself.

Third, the very logic behind sin taxes is flawed. We tax what we believe is unhealthy to society in an effort to punish bad or socially destructive behavior, but if our devious plan works and people stop buying and consuming these unhealthy things, then our revenue stream dries up. Then what? The problem with revenue streams drying up is that new revenue streams must be found, so new reasons to levy taxes must be conjured. Sin taxes, therefore, are simply unsustainable taxes and serve a prohibitionist purpose more than a reasonable alternative revenue source. It is social engineering plain and simple and will – as McCarthy notes above – lead to grave unintended consequences. Namely, people turn to untaxed, unregulated substances that are cheaper but often result in a much more destructive social cost.

A much more sensible approach would be to quit raising taxes on already-regulated substances and instead break up the black markets on at least one of the drugs we now criminalize: marijuana.

Mark Thompson at The League:

I’m actually less opposed to sin taxes than one would expect me to be, at least under the right circumstances.  In the context that Mark Kleiman is proposing the liquor tax, for instance, I think a liquor tax makes a decent amount of sense as a legitimate Pigou tax that need not be dependent on an “increased-cost-to-social-programs” rationale.  In other words, the negative externalities would exist independent of any social programs.  In the context that Matt Yglesias proposes such a tax, however, I firmly disagree with the rationale for the reasons stated above.

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Filed under Economics, Food, War On Drugs

Remembrance Of Books Past

Tyler Cowen is asked “which have influenced your view of the world:”

The books are in no intended order, although the list came out in a broadly chronological stream:

1. Plato, Dialogues.  I read these very early in life and they taught me about trying to think philosophically and also about meta-rationality.

2. The Incredible Bread Machine, by Susan Love Brown, et.al.  This was the first book I ever read on economics and it got me excited about the topic.

3. Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, by Ayn Rand.  This got me excited about the idea that production is what matters and that producers must have the freedom and incentives to operate.

4. Friedrich A. Hayek, Individualism and Economic Order.  The market as a discovery procedure and why socialist calculation will not succeed.  (By the way, I’ll toss a chiding tsk-tsk the way of Wolfers and Thoma.)

5. John Maynard Keynes: The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money.  Keynes is one of the greatest thinkers of economics and there are new ideas on virtually every page.

6. John Stuart Mill, Autobiography.  This got me thinking about how one’s ideas change, and should change, over the course of a lifetime.  Plus Mill is a brilliant thinker and writer more generally.

7. Willard van Orman Quine, Word and Object.  This is actually a book about how to arrive at a deeper understanding than the one you already have, although I suspect few people read it that way.

8. Reasons and Persons, by Derek Parfit.  This convinced me that a strictly individualistic approach to ethics will not in general succeed and introduced me to new ways of reasoning and new ways to plumb for depth.

9. Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae.  I don’t think the ideas in this book have influenced me very much, but reading it was, for whatever reason, the impetus to start writing about the economics of culture and also to give a broader focus to what I write.  Alex, by the way, was the one who recommended it to me.

10. Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past.  This is still the best book on interiority.

I’d also like to mention the two books by Fischer Black, although a) I cannot easily elevate one over the other, and b) I capped the list at ten.  La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims also deserves honorary mention, on self-deception and related issues.  Plus there is Shakespeare — also for thinking with depth — although I cannot point to a single book above the others.  Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon comes to mind as well.

I would encourage other bloggers to offer similar lists.

Peter Suderman at The American Scene:

I’m not sure if the books below are truly the absolute most influential in my life, but they’re certainly the ones that immediately stick out in my mind as having stuck with me over time.

Fahrenheit 451 — Ray Bradbury: I’ve always been a little perplexed by the book’s reputation as a defense of free speech. It is, of course, but that’s not its most important point by far. Instead, it’s a novel about mental debilitation and loss of empathy induced by media overload — in particular, overload on shallow, visual, electronic media. It’s also a novel about the love of stories, and the way written stories in particular can provide humans with meaning, purpose, and escape; by the book’s end, the hero joins an outcast community in which individuals devote themselves not only to learning works of literature, but to immersing themselves in them, fusing their identities with these works and, in a sense, becoming them. For reasons that should be obvious, I’ve long found this wonderful and tremendously appealing.

Videohound’s Guide to Cult Flicks and Trash Pics: Before the Internet, and thus before easy access to IMDB and the rest of the digital cinemaverse, cinephiles had to rely on incomplete reference books in order to familiarize themselves with back catalog films. For years, I poured over Videohounds’ cult film guide almost daily, and its sensibility — a quirky mix of giddy, passionate, erudite, snarky, and critical — helped shape my appreciation of and attitude toward pulp ever since.

The Caves of Steel — Isaac Asimov: As an eight year old first reading the book, I loved Asimov’s cleverly constructed murder mystery story, and as an already-devoted sci-fi geek (Star Trek was a staple in my household), I loved the intricate future world Asimov designed even more. But what stuck with me most was the slightly detached, slightly cranky, cerebral-but-not-stuck-up quality of both the detective protagonist, Elijah Baley, and the storytelling itself. As with most of Asimov’s characters (and, as I understand, Asimov himself), Baley was a hyper self-aware invert somewhat vexed by people and social situations, but who solved problems by thinking them through as thoroughly as possible and accepting whatever results, often imperfect, came of this method. Perhaps to my detriment, I related to this quite a bit and found it a useful model for understanding human relations.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns — Frank Miller: I got my first copy of this at nine or ten years old, and I literally read and reread it until it fell apart (for a while I held it together with duct tape, but eventually I lost so many pages that it was no longer worth saving). Miller’s fusion of gruff noir sentiment and comic book action helped define the way I think about pop art and genre storytelling; sure, it’s low culture — frequently crude and base — but it’s executed with such verve that it somehow makes it into the upper middlebrow (or near enough) anyway.

Ender’s Game — Orson Scott Card: Speaking of hyper-cerebral! Scott Card’s later books descend into a near-parody of the Asimovian worldview, with protagonists who presume (and act upon) an absurdly concrete and knowable understanding of human behavior. But while you can find hints of this in Ender’s Game, it works anyway, in large part because of the young age of its heroes. These days, I prefer the first two sequels, Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide, both of which are more mature in their outlook. But the original is the one I’ve read most often, and the one I think of most.

The Catcher in the Rye — J.D. Salinger: Yes, another novel about a social outcast who spends too much time in his head. But it’s a classic for a reason, and an enduring portrait of adolescent questioning.

American Pastoral — Philip Roth: Probably the finest work of prose in the bunch, and arguably also the most mature, it’s one of those novels that’s both impressive and gripping — not only do you admire it, but you can’t stop flipping pages as you do.

Mike Schramm:

He doesn’t know me and I don’t know him, but it seemed like an interesting idea, and I needed something to write tonight. Note that these books are some of the influential books in my life, not the most influential or the best books I’ve ever read. Like Tyler, this is top-of-my-head stuff, not a definitive list.

1. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. This book (and the subsequent “trilogy” of five books — I haven’t read “And Another Thing” yet, so I’m not sure if I consider it canon or not) defined my humor, my geekiness, my wit, my insight into our species and what a silly, messed-up set of creatures we are.

2. Dracula, by Bram Stoker. I bought an edition of this called “The Essential Dracula” back when I was a kid, and it got me into literary analysis long before I ever minored in English in college. Here was a pulp story about a supernatural villian told in an interesting way, but when I read the analysis on it, I realized it was actually a commentary on class and wealth, on Victorian sensibility and sex, and the proper modern balanced up against the great old evil myths of history.

3. The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller. Batman was my favorite long before I read this book, but this series taught me about how you can deconstruct a legend, take it over, and place it in your own time. I remember reading that Miller wanted to write this because he was worried — Batman, to him, was always an old man figure, and Miller was rapidly approaching the age at which he imagined Batman had always been. So in this book, Miller pushes the clock back, and turns Batman into a guy who will always be the old grumpy bastard. Not to mention the Joker’s death scene — just a perfect ending to that mythical relationship.

4. Jennifer Government, by Max Barry. I found this book later than the other books on this list so far, but it’s one of my favorite books, and it’s the first book that really convinced me that I could sit down and write a novel. Not only is it a cracking good and funny read, but it was written by Barry while he was working at HP — in short, he was like me, a guy stuck in a tech job and trying to write fiction in the evenings about the geeky stuff he knew. I still haven’t come up with a premise or a book this good, but I am still working on it.

5. The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. My high school teacher told us that this was the best novel ever written, and though I didn’t believe her at first, I reread it a few years later, and eventually came around to her point of view. It’s not my favorite novel at all, but yes, in terms of voice and story and themes, it could well be the best novel ever written.

6. In the Hall of the Dragon King, Stephen R. Lawhead. There’s nothing really special about this book — it’s straight fantasy, with a kid who starts out humbly but eventually has to save the world with all of his magical buddies. But this was the first fantasy book I ever read, and so it was my introduction to the genre that I keep finding myself coming back to again and again. Nowadays, fantasy is super popular, and there are all sorts of subgenres and different takes, and it’s much more of a commodity. But this book hearkens back to when it all started for me: a little pudgy kid who was pretty unpopular who found all sorts of magical worlds and wonder in the pages of a book.

7. Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson. As if you didn’t already know I was a nerd — it’s cliche to like this book at this point. But still, this was my introduction to cyberpunk. Nowadays, I think that The Diamond Age is a very much superior book, and I think Neuromancer should be much more respected for its influence and role in the creation of the genre. But Snow Crash was the first one I read that really vibed with me — Neuromancer was always a little too intellectual when you compared it to Hiro Protagonist’s pizza delivery adventures.

8. The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. If you want to talk lifetime, this might not register quite yet, as it’s only in the past year or so that this book has influenced me. Still, if you want to talk quality over quantity, this book is more or less responsible for all the thinking I’ve done in the past year about what I’m eating and how I’m dealing with food in general. There are quite a few factors that have influenced my changes in lifestyle over the past 16 months or so, but this book is a big one of them.

9. Gamma World, 4th edition by James M. Ward and Gary Jaquet. I’ll come clean: my introduction to roleplaying games wasn’t through D&D. I never actually played D&D much as a kid — I was in that weird spot where the few friends I had were too cool to concern themselves with video games or D&D dice. But I did buy this book somewhere and I poured over it for hours, reading up on character creation and various weapons and how to design settings for players this postapocalyptic world. I only remember playing this once with my brother, and he didn’t have any interest in it at all (partly because I didn’t really understand it myself, but mostly because he didn’t really care), but I was so darn fascinated by the idea of it.

10. The Holy Bible. Let’s be honest here — I would almost argue that anyone who says they weren’t influenced by this one is lying. But even if you want to claim that this book isn’t a part of your life, I’ll admit that it’s been a big part of mine. I don’t mean to evangelize — personally, I have no real idea what exactly I believe right now, and that doesn’t give me any position to tell anyone else what they should or shouldn’t believe. I figure, as long as you’re not hurting yourself or someone else, more power to you. But from “In the beginning” to “Amen,” I would argue that there isn’t a part of anyone’s life this book hasn’t influenced in some way. You can talk about quotes, you can talk about story (almost all of our stories involve some sort of messianic figure, and who’s the most messianic figure you know?), you can talk about laws and politics and gender relations and wars, and you name it, this book’s had a hand in it. And even if you want to get personal, I went to a Lutheran school — I know all the stories of Jacob and Esau (oh hi Lost) and Isaiah and Solomon and David and Jesus and Peter and Paul and so on. Like it or not, if you want to list influential books, I’m putting this one on there.

Arnold Kling:

1. David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest. My take-away from that book might be described as “The Exclusive Country Club Theory.” He makes foreign policy in the 1950’s and early 1960’s in the United States sound as if it was the province of an exclusive country club of people with a certain temperament and background. Wall Street lawyers, mostly. I have to say that I have carried this model with me for a long time. To this day, I view the relationship among Treasury, the Fed, the New York Fed, and large financial institutions in Exclusive Country Club terms. These people vet one another, agree with one another, and support one another. They do not question whether their interests coincide with those of the rest of the country–they just assume that the country depends on their institutions and their class leadership.

2. George Goodman, aka ‘Adam Smith,’ The Money Game and Supermoney. He was the Michael Lewis of his time–a great storyteller who also understood the substance of finance. I think his books still read well, although I could understand it if others find the stories themselves too dated. These books sparked my interest in finance theory and in the temptation to both believe and refuse to believe in efficient markets.

3. Carl Shapiro and Hal Varian, Information Rules. Again, you may find that the examples seem old, but no better book has been written on the economic issues of the information-driven economy. Among other things, this book convinced me that Price Discrimination Explains Everything.

4. Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines. At first, I did not buy it. However, I have mostly come around. It is now possible to evaluate his predictions for 2009 (made around 1997). He did score with this one (p. 190):

Computers routinely include wireless technology to plug into the ever-present worldwide network, providing reliable, instantly available, very-high-bandwidth communication. Digital objects such as books, music albums, movies, and software are rapidly distributed as data files through the wireless network, and typically do not have a physical object associated with them.

However, for the most part, his predictions are far too aggressive. He was about right on hardware capability, somewhat optimistic on software capability (he thought that functions like language translation would be pretty much mastered by now), clearly too optimistic on the emergence of applications (he predicted computer-controlled cars on main highways by now) and ludicrously optimistic about the speed at which education and health care will be transformed by technology.5. Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man. Folks on the left scorn this book, and it is not without its flaws. But ultimately, I think the left hates Shlaes not for what she gets wrong but what she gets right. What she gets right pokes huge holes in the high school book narrative of the Depression (Herbert Hoover sat back and did nothing, Roosevelt saved the economy). My takeaway from this book is the importance of the battle over historical narrative. We see that today in the determination of the left to blame the financial crisis entirely on “free-market ideology,” even though that narrative is not such a good fit for the facts.

6. George Gilder, Microcosm. This was his history of the microprocessor. My guess is that it will not read well today, but at the time his emphasis on the relative unimportance of the materials in computers (he refers to silicon as “sand”) stimulated me to focus on intangibles in the modern economy.

7. Thomas Sowell, The Vision of the Anointed. This book got me started thinking about the origins of the differences between the left and the right. I do not think anyone has fully satisfactory answers, but it is a fascinating question.

8. Amar Bhide, The Origin and Evolution of New Businesses. He breaks down the business ecosystem into two dimensions–degree of capital intensity and degree of ambiguity, and he gets remarkable mileage out of the resulting matrix.

9. Bill James, The Baseball Abstact, 1987. Others can be equally analytical about baseball. What is striking about Bill James is how well he wrote–when he cared. If only Amar Bhide wrote this well…

10. Ernest Graham, The Wind in the Willows. The character of Toad is brilliantly drawn and offers great insights.

11. Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age and Snow Crash. How I came to understand nanotechnology and competitive government, respectively.

1. Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell. For me it all started with Sowell. In hindsight what intrigued me about the book was not the economics, but Sowell’s ability to use human reason to understand the world, but in a concrete way. Call it empirical philosophy.
2. Moral Theory by David Oderberg. A defense of natural rights morality against Peter Singer and other utilitarians, but this also inspired by interest in philosophy.
3. The Myth of Monogamy by David Barash. The first work of sociobiology that I’d ever read and it opened my eyes. Interestingly enough, it also removed the last glimmer of the belief that Judeo-Christian sexual morality was an obselete relic of the past. It is about creating peace in the war between the sexes more than avoiding out of wedlock childbirths.
4. Civil Rights by Thomas Sowell. I still think this is Sowell’s best book. Takes a birds eye view of culture and cultural values and shows why it matters.
5. Reasonable Faith by William Lane Craig. I used to be an atheist and began my walk with God with a very shaky and weak faith. This strengthened me.
6. Microeconomics by Samuel Bowles. Let me slough off my neoclassical chains and learn some real economics, and made me appreciate the need for social norms and cultural models of “life strategies”.
7. Luxury Fever by Robert Frank. A lot of this book was fluff, but the crucial insight of people in an arms race with each other for relative rank (social status) reoriented my thinking about incentives and taxes. I now realize that it brought me to the economic center.
8. Choice Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Allingham. Opened up the world of political philosophy.
9. The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker. I knew a lot of the material already but the section on children and behavioral genetics opened my eyes. Culture > family.
10. Herbert Gintis’ Amazon Book Reviews. Ok, I’m cheating a bit. If I wanted to conform to the challenge then I could put his book The Bounds of Reason, but after reading all of his book reviews a couple times I’d already been acquainted with the major points he’d made. Opened my eyes to really good work in the social sciences.

E.D. Kain at The League:

I have thought about this some, and come to the decision that the books I read as a child were by far the most influential – far more influential than anything I read later as a college student or the ones I read nowadays.  So here’s a list, from memory, of the most influential books I read as a child.

The Lord of the Rings – This one is the obvious choice for a fantasy reader, I suppose.  I read it in fourth grade for the first time and loved it, and have read it several times since. It is still the definitive work of epic fantasy, I believe.  The only downside is that so many people attempted to imitate Tolkien when they should have been writing their own ideas.

The Prydain Chronicles – Lloyd Alexander was never as well known as Tolkien, but his Prydian books were wonderful young adult fantasy novels steeped in Welsh myth.  So while some of the characters mirrored those in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the stories themselves were unique and interesting and lively.  I read these ones countless times.

The Dark is Rising Sequence – This series taps into the old Welsh and British mythology fairly heavily, mixing the modern world and Merlin and time travel together in an epic clash between good and evil.  One of many books I read and loved that transports us from the mundane world into one much darker and more fierce.

A Wrinkle in Time – This was one of those books that really stopped me in my tracks. Free will, conformity, and the seduction of evil are all present here.

The Giver – Another glimpse into totalitarianism and conformity and the dangers of ‘sameness’ and ignorance of history.  Less fantastical than my typical childhood read, but sort of shocking also.

The Bridge to Terabithia – They made a movie about this book recently.  Please don’t watch it.  Sometimes movies can enrich the book experience, but not when they are mangled by over-Disneyfication. Terabithia helped me understand tragedy and loss better.

The Castle in the Attic – To be honest, I can barely remember this book, but like Narnia it helped transport me into another world – something I did a lot of as a kid.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – This was a good, funny, cynical take on the King Arther stories.  Very helpful to round out all that heroism and chivalry with some good, honest, witty realism.

Narnia – Like the Lord of the Rings, these books are simply staples of young adult fantasy.

King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table – I have read so many King Arthur books at this point I can barely keep track of them.  This was one of the first.

I Am the Cheese – This was far more dystopian a tale than I typically read as a child, and still sort of haunting whenever I think about it.

Some honorable mentions:

Watership Down, Lord of the Flies, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, The Wind in the Willows, The Last Unicorn, the Redwall books, the books of Roald Dahl and many others…

Matthew Yglesias:

So my list in no order:

— 1. Derick Parfit, Reasons and Persons: This is my alternative to a theological system or religious belief, the set of preposterous-to-those-who-don’t-believe-it-yet ideas that underlies how I think about morality, who we are, and what it all means.— 2. Friedrich Nietszche, On the Genealogy of Morals: I first picked up Nietszche because his image has a kind of appeal to smart, pretentious, angry, lonely teenage boys. But this is a really important book! The fact that Caplan “ultimately didn’t learn much of substance” from Nietszche except the value of being arrogant strikes me as telling.

— 3. Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained: The precise content of Dennett’s ideas about human consciousness isn’t important to me, but the practical methods at work are. I’m drawn to Wittgeinstein’s thing about how you need to “show the fly the way out of the flybottle” rather than “solve” these timeless dilemmas, but I find Wittgeinstein almost impossible to read and didn’t understand what he was saying at all when I tried. Dennett I think gave me an example of the shewing.

— 4. William McNeil, Plagues & Peoples: This had a kind of revelatory quality to me, the idea that everything you thought was important about history was actually kind of trivial and the real determinants of human destiny are something else entirely. Guns, Germs, and Steel is arguably the better book in this genre, but I only ever read it because I’d read P&P first so I’m giving McNeil the nod.

— 5. Maxine Hong Kingston, Tripmaster Monkey: For two reasons. One is that I used to be the kind of jerk who thought education was being ruined by PC demands to represent more women and minority writers. Then I wound up randomly assigned freshman year to a class that was all about women and minority writers. And damnit, if some of the books weren’t really good! Turns out I didn’t have it all figured out when I was 18. This was my favorite of the bunch, and from it I acquired my love of pastiche. If you like “Miley Cyrus and American Exceptionalism” you have Kingston to thank.

— 6. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground: The very beginning from “I am a sick man” to “I will talk about myself” is the greatest stretch of prose in human history. Dostoevsky is also an illustration of the power of great writing to convey radically unsound or even totally nonsensical ideas. And at the end of the day, coming to grasp the difference between the true, the right, and the beautiful is hugely important. Many if not most of the most compelling artistic visions are espousing somewhat crazy ideas, and sober thinking about big issues is boring.

— 7. Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature: This books is ultimately why I stopped trying to get good grades and go to grad school. Most people, of course, don’t suffer from the “might want to be a professional philosopher when I grow up” problem and don’t necessarily need to be un-bewitched about the nature of the enterprise. But Rorty more generally is the summation of a whole series of thinkers on the Hume-Wittgeinst-Quine-Sellars trajectory who teach a deflationary way of approaching problems.

— 8. Susan Moller Okin, Justcie, Gender, and the Family: I think that to a lot of heterosexual left-of-center men, distinctively feminist ideas can easily seem to be either trivial or else censorious and annoying. I know some men who say their thinking about this was changed when they had a daughter, which makes sense. For me, though, it was Okin that showed that there were intellectually important claims here and that the feminist revolution is likely to continue to challenge the status quo in important ways for years to come.

— 9. Gregory Clark, A Farewell to Alms: I feel like this book is too new and non-classic and I read it too recently for it to deserve a place on this list. But I’m constantly hearing or reading things that remind me of it, and wanting to tediously explain Clark’s whole thesis to people. It’s certainly not convincing in all respects, but I think it’s the model of how to frame a big question and attack it.

— 10. Thomas Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution: I actually find Structure a bit obscurantist in certain respects that encourages misreadings. Certainly it’s an important classic, but I think I think I would have found it totally unconvincing had I not read Kuhn’s earlier and more accessible book first (and thanks to Michael Rescorla for structuring the tutorial that way). Suffice it to say that the story you think you know about how a diligent empiricist looked at the stars and debunked religious superstition about planetary orbits is totally wrong.

Tyler Cowen has a list of bloggers who have participated

Conor Friedersdorf

Jason Kuznicki at The League:

Following the meme, here are the ten books that changed my life the most.

  • The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. This book de-Catholicized me, or at least it began the process. It set me on the path to libertarianism, after I’d read Atlas Shrugged. It offered a sense of life, and a lifelong obsession. I still live here a lot of the time.
  • The Once and Future King by T. H. White. The most insightful book about government ever written for young people. It taught me that government is a nasty business, even at its best. I have never since been able to see government as noble in the way that I think most people do.
  • Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama. Sparked another lifelong interest — the French Revolution, which was also a nasty business, but an instructive one. After years of reading in French history, I have all kinds of complaints with this book, but it’s still a great read.
  • Candide by Voltaire. I pick this one out of Voltaire’s many short stories both because it’s one of the longer ones — plausibly, it really is a book — and also because it’s familiar. Voltaire’s style, his absurdism, and his sense of justice have always appealed to me.
  • The Book of Predictions by David Wallechinsky, Amy Wallace and Irving Wallace. Published in 1981. Obscure but fascinating; its influence would be hard for me to overstate. Every year on New Year’s Day I revisit this book to see what various people got right and wrong about the future, which I’ve been lucky enough to live to see. Patterns have emerged over time, and these patterns have deeply influenced how I think about society.Lesson one: psychics are never worth your time. The most accurate forecaster in the book is F. M. Esfandiary, by a landslide (yes, that guy). He got many things wrong, but it’s clear that he was in another league from all the rest.The biggest mistake made by nearly all forecasters (though not so much by Esfandiary) is to think that the future would be controlled by a central agency or authority. No one imagined how decentralized we would be in 2010. We were blindsided by a mostly libertarian, decentralizing technological revolution. This is a tremendously good thing. Most predictors were pessimists, and they were mostly wrong.
  • Island by Aldous Huxley. It’s hard to read or understand this book without Brave New World, but Island is a positive statement of Huxley’s beliefs, not a negative one, so what he really thinks comes across more clearly. It’s also the only utopian society in fiction that I’d ever really want to live in. The others either leave me cold or make me want to run away as fast as I can. I’d have some problems with Huxley’s utopia, but I think I could live in it.
  • Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault. Sort of a stand-in for all of his other works. Didn’t dare cite The Order of Things because that one’s so hard to understand that I’m not sure whether it’s had an influence on me. Whenever I try self-consciously to “be” a libertarian in my writing, I often end up sounding like Foucault.
  • Virtually Normal by Andrew Sullivan. Andrew would do better to blog less and to write more in print. He’s an extraordinary prose stylist, and maybe among the best of all time, when he slows down. When he blogs, he’s repetitive and formulaic. I learned to write by reading Virtually Normal. It was also the first book I ever read about gay politics, and it seemed just so clear, so right, and so wise.
  • Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett. This is the closest I’ve ever read to a convincing theory of everything. The book is too modestly titled, however, because while Darwin is certainly the key to the story, we also get Diderot, Hume, Leibniz, Popper, Gould, Penrose, and a host of others. It’s an intellectual tour de force, and especially remarkable for its linkage of biological evolution to a theory of mind.
  • Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World by Jack Goldstone. This book nearly destroyed my faith in non-quantitative historical methods. I take it as a reminder that while philosophy may be a tyrant, she is a tyrant with short, pudgy little arms.

Ezra Klein:

I’ve written this sort of thing before. The mainstays on my list are John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,” Tom Geoghegan’s “Which Side Are You On?,” Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity,” Richard Ben Cramer’s “What It Takes” and maybe a handful of others.

But I always feel like a fraud.

These books meant a lot to me, but they were much less influential in my thinking — particularly in my current thinking — than a variety of texts that carry consider less physical heft. Years spent reading the Washington Monthly, American Prospect and New Republic transformed me from someone interested in politics into someone interested in policy. So, too, did bloggers like, well, Matthew Yglesias, Kevin Drum and Tyler Cowen. In fact, Cowen, Brad DeLong, Mark Thoma and a variety of other economics bloggers also get credit for familiarizing me with a type of basic economic analysis that’s consistently present in my approach to new issues.

Much of my emphasis on the institutions of American government and the processes by which they work (or don’t) came from my relationship with Mark Schmitt, first through his blog and then through his editorship at the American Prospect. That was cemented, of course, by reporting deeply on health-care reform, which is an opportunity that TAP gave me but that few other outlets would’ve been even mildly interested in letting me pursue. I consider reading the blogger Demosthenes use the word “props” in relation to politics as something near to an epiphany; it was the first time I realized that I could speak about Washington in a language I recognized.

Kieran Healy:

1. Clive James, Visions Before Midnight or The Crystal Bucket. His TV criticism. I think I read one or other these when I was twelve or thirteen, having bought them on holidays somewhere. Not exactly Leavis or Empson, I know. But it taught me a lot about how to write, encouraged me to pretend I knew about the literary stuff James habitually referred to in passing, and I’m pretty sure helped make me an insufferable teenaged shit.

2. Steven Vogel, Life’s Devices. Another random bookshop discovery. This is a book about biomechanics but also, and more importantly, a terrific introduction to what is means to do science. A lot of it went past me when I read it first, but it was still irresistible in part because (as I remember) it’s written with this quiet wit right the way through. Chock full of trivia that isn’t really trivia. Strangely enough, I think Vogel still teaches here at Duke. I should thank him personally for writing such a great book.

3. Bernd Heinrich, Ravens in Winter. Another book by a biologist. (Are you seeing my imagined career path here?) Another classic book on the practice of science. Heinrich follows ravens around in Vermont, trying to figure out why the hell they would share carrion they find. I’d recommend this book to anyone.

4. Thomas Schelling, Micromotives and Macrobehavior. So clever, so unassuming, so it made me want to be an economist. Then I took some economics and it wasn’t much like Schelling at all.

5. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger. I think this book made me want to do sociology. Bluntly creative. Briskly suggestive. Deeply frustrating.

6. David Warren Sabean, Power in the Blood: Popular Culture and Village Discourse in Early Modern Germany. I don’t know a damn thing about medieval German history, but I had to read this book very, slowly, carefully and repeatedly as part of a Sociology of Community course as a third year undergraduate. I learned a tremendous amount in the process. The cases are fascinating: a girl branded as a witch, a man who refused to say his prayers, the ritual burial of a bull at a crossroads. The analysis is subtle: Sabean is excellent on the fine grain of relations between the State and the peasantry, and how religion and cultural meaning generally express these relations. But for me it was the first academic monograph I really grasped and, in the process, came to understand how hard it must be to write a book that good.

7. Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice. I had to read chunks of it as a postgrad in Ireland, and as my reaction was one of constant irritation at Bourdieu’s writing style coupled with the feeling that he was getting at something important. I reread the first few chapters recently and was struck by how direct (and properly documented) its engagement with the literature was in comparison with much of the rest of his work, so I guess professional socialization has had its effect on me. But I was also surprised that it was as compelling as I remembered.

8. Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve. This came out the year before I moved to the U.S. for graduate school. The book and the ensuing controversy around it taught me a lot about American academia, the wider world of the chattering classes in the U.S., the institutional structure that supported them, and the American public sphere generally. It wasn’t a pleasant lesson. As a piece of social science the book was terribly executed and written in transparently bad faith; the social sciences in general and sociology in particular botched their response; the pressure of media narratives flattened people into parodies of themselves; and many people who I’d thought might have known better turned out to have a healthy appetite for eugenic tripe, as long as it was presented more in sorrow than in anger.

9. William S. Cleveland, Visualizing Data. “This book presents a set of graphical methods for displaying data”. Does it ever. Tufte gets the Presidential Commissions and the high media profile, and deserves all that, but Cleveland shows you how it’s done in practice and wrote the software that lets you code it yourself. For me it opened up the world of serious thinking on data and model visualization for quantitative data.

10. Richard Titmuss, The Gift Relationship. Reading this wasn’t a transformative experience in some existential sense, but it obviously left a mark seeing as I ended up writing a dissertation and a book that revisited its main questions.

Will Wilkinson:

1. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer. This book made me realize that it is possible to play with words and ideas. I can’t even remember much of the story now.  (Is it Milo?) What I remember is the revelation that it is possible to get a thrill from manipulating ideas and the words that express them.

2. Dune by Frank Herbert. The Dune books connected with me deeply as a teenager. They appealed, I think, to the sense that people have profound untapped powers that discipline can draw out; e.g., Mentats, Bene Gesserit. Also, it appealed to the fantasy that I might have special awesome hidden powers, like Paul Atreides, and that they might just sort of come to me, as a gift of fate, without the hassle of all that discipline. I think this book is why I was slightly crushed when I turned 18 and realized that not only was I not a prodigy, but I wasn’t amazingly good at anything. I sometimes still chant the  Litany against Fear when I’m especially nervous or panicking about something.

3. The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller/The Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. I’m cheating on this one, since these came out about the same time and had a similar effect on me, and I don’t know which one to pick. Superhero comics can give a kid a pretty comprehensive mythology, a well of types and tropes and quests to draw from in the effort to make sense of the world. Miller and Moore/Gibbons convinced me at a vulnerable, self-conscious age that superhero mythology was not necessarily kid’s stuff, and that even superhero comics could be real art. So I planned to become a comics auteur, like Frank Miller.

4. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. This book ordered and amplified my awe at the natural world. The fact that I could more or less understand it made me feel confident about being smart.

4. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I read this at nineteen while working at the Joseph Smith Historic Center in Nauvoo, IL for the summer. I was just getting a strong sense of myself as a person apart from my family and hometown friends. I’d been excited by Bill Clinton in the 1992 Democratic convention and was toying with voting for him. Then I read Atlas Shrugged. I began reading the libertarian canon and I voted for Andre Marrou that Fall. I started paying more attention to my philosophy classes than my art classes. Ayn Rand is why I almost became an academic philosopher, why I became a libertarian, and why I work at Cato. She also all-but destroyed my interest in making art, since I could not at the time I was under her influence square her ideology of art with my own creative impulses.  I still suffer from this.

5. The Bell Curve by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein. This is the first intellectual book I ever reviewed in print. I gave it a mixed review in the Northern Iowan. (I think I had some misgivings about some of the race and IQ stuff, but I understood that it was not a book about race.) A sociology professor either sent me an email or wrote a letter to the editor (I don’t remember which!) condemning me for not condemning the book for being racist. This was my first taste of the excitement and frustration of participating in public intellectual life. I was  impressed with Murray’s fortitude and grace in the face of what seemed to me to be outrageously unfair, truly scurrilous attacks. And it helped me understand the difference between trying hard to honestly think through tough social problems because you care and mouthing comfortable pieties in an effort to get credit for caring.

6. The Geneology of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche. Morality has a history and its value is open to question. Our deepest intellectual commitments reflect deeper psychological needs. If this book (or Nietzsche generally) doesn’t make you wonder why you really believe what you do, then you are a clod. If I am hungry for the buzz of illumination, I go back to Nietzsche.

7. Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle. The best class I had as an undergraduate was a grad seminar on the Nicomachean Ethics taught by a Straussean. This is one of the best books ever written (or best set of lectures compiled) by one of the best minds ever. The paper I wrote for this seminar on what it means to have a stable disposition to action sparked my interest in moral psychology.

8. Law, Legislation, and Liberty by F.A. Hayek. Rand made me a libertarian. Hayek made me a liberal. I don’t know how much of what I believe comes from Hayek, but it’s a lot.

9. Tractatus Logic0-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Still dominates how I think about modality and the bounds of what may sensibly be said. There is no book more like great architecture.

10. Universals: An Opinionated Introduction by David M. Armstrong. Initiated my love of metaphysics and Australian realism, though Armstrong never did argue me out of nominalism.

11. In Praise of Commercial Culture by Tyler Cowen. This book angered my inner Randian, but delighted my native sensibility. When I got home from my first IHS seminar, Tyler Cowen lecture in mind, free Tyler Cowen book in hand, I went straight to my computer to begin writing a furious denunciation, which I never finished. But I’m still curious about folk art and foreign cuisines and have since repeated Tyler-like arguments to so many people so many times that I forget what I ever thought was wrong with them.

12. Morals by Agreement by David Gauthier. This book was the key that unlocked the contractarian treasure chest for me. Made me understand at a much deeper level the point of moral constraints on self-interested behavior, and why they would be impossible if we were well described by stripped-down models of instrumental rationality.

13. A Theory of Justice by John Rawls. I dug into this book with the intention of saying what was really, really wrong with it. Instead, I ended up feeling like I understood political philosophy.

Ta-Nehisi Coates:

So I guess I’ll throw out my ten books. But just to be ignorant, I’m going to list eight

1.) Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neal Hurston–I always hated the exhibitionism of Native Son. I felt like Richard Wright was basically using black people as a prop to make a point to white people. Their Eyes, on the other hand, struck me as the best aspects of the Afrocentric idea, and certainly that part of it which I carry with me today–the notion of writing, and thus existing, on your own terms.
2.) The Orgins Of The Urban Crisis, Thomas Sugrue–A brilliant corrective to the whole “Negroes and Coleman Young ruined Detroit” myth. Sugrue debunks Detroit’s golden age by depicting the city’s deep-seated institutional racism, and illustrates the complexities of white flight, and effectively argues that the exodus began almost two decades before the 67 riots.
3.) When And Where I Enter, Paula Giddings–This is just masterful and colorful history of black women in America. It was the first place I really learned about Ida B. Wells, feminist, militant, and later Garveyite, packing a pistol while investigating lynchings. Beautiful book, and in no small measure the reason for my son’s very existence.
4.) Battle Cry Of Freedom, James MacPherson–They need to make people read MacPherson’s history of the Civil War in order to vote in this country. I don’t think I’ve read an 800plus page book that moved so smoothly. This is the greatest work of history I’ve ever had the privilege of reading.
5.) The Country Between Us, Carolyn Forche–Heh. I spent much of college trying to ape this book. Once I realized I would never write anything as beautiful as “The Return,” I gave up poetry.
6.) Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow–I think about this book almost once every day. Books like Ragtime really define, for me, how writers should deal with inserting the politics into books. Doctorow’s pinko-commie leanings definitely shine through, but the book is so damn beautifully written that you almost don’t notice. On another note, this book–weirdly enough–was actually a guide for me when I went to write my memoir.
7.) Crabgrass Frontier, Kenneth Jackson–Much like Sugrue’s book, Jackson’s history of American suburbs is just a superb take-down of much of the mythology surrounding the fall of the American city in the 70s and 80s. I think Jackson’s greatest contribution is how he outlines the distorting effects of red-lining on black people, and on cities themselves. I’m waiting for someone to write an entire history of housing segregation, covering red-lining, restrictive covenants, the whole gamut. This is the closest that I’ve seen to that.
8.) Drown, Junot Diaz–Much like Their Eyes, Drown was a book that really convinced me that that your voice, the one native to your neighborhood, was OK. There’s a story in there called “No Face,” about a kid whose face is so mangled that he wears a mask. But, a’la M.F. Doom, No Face  has super-powers (or imagines himself having super-powers) that allow him to avoid the neighborhood bullies. I can’t recall the line, but at the end of the story, the boy comes home to his little brother who says something like, “Where have you been all day?” And the boy just says to him, “I’ve been fighting evil.”

Matthew Continetti at The Weekly Standard

Ross Douthat

UPDATE: Daniel Drezner

Will at The League

Ned Resnikoff

UPDATE #2: Tom Ricks at Foreign Policy

UPDATE #3: Austin Bramwell at TAC keeps score

UPDATE #4: Tim F.

UPDATE #5: Matthew Schmitz at The League

UPDATE #6: Mark Thompson at The League

UPDATE #7: Daniel McCarthy at The American Conservative

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Filed under Books

There’s A Blond Wondering Around Georgetown

Phillip Blond in Prospect Magazine:

We live in a time of crisis. In such times humans retreat to safety, and build bulwarks against the future. The financial emergency is having this effect on Britain’s governing class. Labour has withdrawn to the safety of the sheltering state, and the comforts of its first income tax rise since the mid-1970s. Meanwhile, the Conservatives appear to be proposing a repeat of Thatcherite austerity in the face of economic catastrophe. But this crisis is more than an ordinary recession. It represents a disintegration of the idea of the “market state” and makes obsolete the political consensus of the last 30 years. A fresh analysis of the ruling ideological orthodoxy is required. Certainly, this new thinking isn’t going to come from the left. New Labour is intellectually dead, while Gordon Brown promises an indebted return to a now-defunct status quo. But, in truth, Brown’s reconversion from post-socialist free marketeer to state interventionist is only plausible because the Conservatives have failed to develop an alternative political economy that explains the crisis, and charts a different future free of the now bankrupt orthodoxies. Until this is achieved, Brown’s claim that the Conservatives are the “do nothing” party has real traction, and makes the result of the next election far from assured.

On a deeper level, the present moment is a challenge to conservatism itself. The Conservatives are still viewed as the party of the free market, an idea that has collapsed into monopoly finance, big business and deregulated global capitalism. Tory social thinking has genuinely evolved, but the party’s economic thinking is still poised between repetition and renewal. As late as August 2008 David Cameron said: “I’m going to be as radical a social reformer as Margaret Thatcher was an economic reformer,” and that “radical social reform is what this country needs right now.” He is right about society, but against the backdrop of collapsing markets and without a macro-economic alternative, Thatcherite economics has been wrongfooted by events.

Thankfully, conservatism is a rich and varied tradition, and re-examinating its history can provide the answers Cameron needs. These ideas are grounded in a conservatism with deeper roots than 1979, and whose branches extend into the tradition of communitarian civic conservatism—or red Toryism. This is more radical than anything emerging from today’s left and should be the way forward for the right. The opportunity to restore a radical, and progressive, Toryism must not be lost to the economic downturn.

To date, neither political party has offered a plausible analysis of the origins of the meltdown. Brown denies all responsibility while George Osborne and Cameron hold him wholly and uniquely culpable. Given that no reasonable person can think either position is tenable, both parties have surrendered the intellectual high ground. But the financial crash does provide an opportunity to think through a renewed “one nation” conservatism. Cameron says that Disraeli is his favourite Tory. Disraeli attempted to ameliorate a society destroyed by the rampant industrialisation of 19th-century capitalism, whereas Cameron’s chief target (until now, at least) has been a 20th-century creation: a disempowering, dysfunctional state. Nineteenth-century Tories criticised liberal capitalism, while 20th-century conservatives condemned the illiberal consequences of statism. But 21st-century Tories, especially against the backdrop of the current crisis, must inveigh against both in favour of the very thing that suffers most at the hands of the unrestrained market and the unlimited state: society itself. And conservatism, so imagined, could reject the politics of class—of “our people”—and the interests of the already wealthy in favour of a national politics that serves the needs of all.

It was Edmund Burke who famously spoke of conservative radicalism being founded on the little platoons of family and civic association. “To love the little platoon we belong to in society is the first principle of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.” This is the true spirit of Cameroonian conservatism and, taken seriously, it represents a break with the monopoly logic of the market state. But to recognise this innovation for what it is we have to contrast the potential of Cameron’s civic communitarian conservatism with what it aims to transcend: the corrupt and rotten postwar settlement of British politics.

Daniel McCarthy at The American Conservative:

“Red Tory” Philip Blond is giving a talk this evening at Georgetown University, hosted by the invaluable Tocqueville Forum. Well worth attending if you’re in the D.C. area. And tomorrow Tocqueville is hosting two panel discussions on Blond’s ideas, the first featuring Rod Dreher, Ross Douthat, and yours truly, the second with John Millbank, Andrew Abela, and Charles Mathewes. Details are here.

Blond’s Red Toryism is not welfare statism — he’s for breaking up and devolving much of the British welfare system, and he prefers a morality-infused market to further government regulation. But how would that work? His talk will give some ideas. (As does his upcoming book, Red Tory: How Left and Right Have Broken Britain and How We Can Fix it.)

Patrick Deneen in WaPo:

Contemporary party arrangements have tended to understand one or the other outcome of this settlement as the root of contemporary problems. For conservatives in the Thatcher/Reagan mold, the State threatens the liberty and independence of the individual (particularly the economic freedom of autonomous individual actors in free markets, itself premised upon the atomized and individualistic liberal anthropology of Hobbes, Locke and Adam Smith). Liberals have seen the market as the threat, and have argued on behalf of the need for a centralized State to trim its excesses. What Blond perceives – echoing the discerning analysis of Distributist thinkers such as Chesterton or Hillaire Belloc in his penetrating work The Servile State or Robert Nisbet in his classic work The Quest for Community, or even the more recent work of the agrarian writer Wendell Berry – is that the centralized modern State and the concentrations of wealth and power deriving from modern “free” markets are mutually reinforcing entities.

What both of these entities mutually seek to eviscerate are the “mediating” institutions of society, those allegiances to more “partial” associations that stand in the path of the simultaneous realization of the atomized individual and the centralized State. Partial associations – whether in the form of more local forms of governance, civic associations, strong bonds of community, religious devotions, and family – are simultaneous obstructions to both radical individualism and encompassing State power. They are the traditional bulwarks against both aspects of the liberal settlement, and as such, have been mutually the object of attack by both the State and the Market. “Conservatives” and “Liberals” alike have (with different emphases) contributed mutually to the destruction of the “Associational State.”

The recent economic crisis – fueled simultaneously by the depredations of radical free agents in the market (buying and selling abstractions of financial instruments that at some point had some actual relationship to homes, that most basic building block of human associational life) and the State system that ended up supporting this economic and social arrangement – lifted the veil on this deeper symbiosis. The crisis exposed the fact that what had been sold to the American and British public for some 50 years – that one had to choose between the State and the Market – was in fact a grand illusion, and that the Left hand was as intent in making the citizenry the subjects of the Servile State as surely as the Right hand was. While inchoate in its anger and inadequately schooled in the causes of the modern crisis, the tea party movement – in its anger toward both parties – reflects this growing understanding that the purported political alternatives of our time represent no real choice at all.

Blond arrives in the U.S. to lecture at Georgetown University on Thursday evening, March 18, and to participate in panel discussions with various journalists and academics on the afternoon of Friday, March 19 (among the participants are the “radical orthodox” theologian John Milbank). From D.C., Blond will travel to Philadelphia, where he will lecture on Monday, March 22 at Villanova University. For more information on all of these events, see this announcement.

Rod Dreher:

Greetings from Georgetown, where we heard tonight the English public intellectual Philip Blond introduce Red Toryism to an American audience. Blond is an engaging speaker and and real optimist about the possibility of positive political change (at dinner tonight after the speech, it was encouraging for a pessimist like me to hear him speak so vigorously about how world-changing ideas can start small). He’s just received a huge launch in this country, courtesy of David Brooks’ Friday column.

That David Brooks column (obviously, in NYT):

But there is another way to respond to these problems that is more communitarian and less libertarian. This alternative has been explored most fully by the British writer Phillip Blond.

He grew up in working-class Liverpool. “I lived in the city when it was being eviscerated,” he told The New Statesman. “It was a beautiful city, one of the few in Britain to have a genuinely indigenous culture. And that whole way of life was destroyed.” Industry died. Political power was centralized in London.

Blond argues that over the past generation we have witnessed two revolutions, both of which liberated the individual and decimated local associations. First, there was a revolution from the left: a cultural revolution that displaced traditional manners and mores; a legal revolution that emphasized individual rights instead of responsibilities; a welfare revolution in which social workers displaced mutual aid societies and self-organized associations.

Then there was the market revolution from the right. In the age of deregulation, giant chains like Wal-Mart decimated local shop owners. Global financial markets took over small banks, so that the local knowledge of a town banker was replaced by a manic herd of traders thousands of miles away. Unions withered.

The two revolutions talked the language of individual freedom, but they perversely ended up creating greater centralization. They created an atomized, segmented society and then the state had to come in and attempt to repair the damage.

The free-market revolution didn’t create the pluralistic decentralized economy. It created a centralized financial monoculture, which requires a gigantic government to audit its activities. The effort to liberate individuals from repressive social constraints didn’t produce a flowering of freedom; it weakened families, increased out-of-wedlock births and turned neighbors into strangers. In Britain, you get a country with rising crime, and, as a result, four million security cameras.

In a much-discussed essay in Prospect magazine in February 2009, Blond wrote, “Look at the society we have become: We are a bi-polar nation, a bureaucratic, centralised state that presides dysfunctionally over an increasingly fragmented, disempowered and isolated citizenry.” In a separate essay, he added, “The welfare state and the market state are now two defunct and mutually supporting failures.”

David Blackburn at The Spectator:

Blond’s premise is unanswerable – the twin revolutions of left (prescriptive rights) and right (free market liberalism) have, perversely, centralised power. Everything is highly contestable.

First, Blond has an advanced case of David Miliband Syndrome: he expresses himself exclusively with meaningless abstractions:

In order to reclaim a civilised society, market and state should not be regarded as the ultimate goal or expression of humanity…We can create a civic economy based on trust, sustainability and reciprocity.’

Markets are Blond’s schtick. From what I can gather he’s agin ‘em. He fixates on what he perceives as the ‘unprecedented reduction of market diversity and plurality’. The Luddites would object to the idea this is ‘unprecedented’, and the prosperity of all that followed them undermines the assertion that a ‘reduction of diversity’ entrenches poverty. But Blond is unperturbed. He argues that local shops should be protected from larger competitors through co-ops, mutualism and state intervention when necessary.

It’s deeply conflicted thinking. Consumers are at their most powerful in a genuinely competitive and well policed market. Blond’s ideas don’t address competition; they simply replace corporatism with mutualism. Rooted in an Enid Blyton historical fantasy of cottage industries, Blond would manipulate and skew markets. He’s attracted reams of criticism. Iain Martin’s and Alex Massie’s critiques are essential reading. Perhaps Blond’s sojourn in the States reflects his growing isolation in conservative circles.

Alex Massie’s critique, from November 2009:

I think Blond is bemoaning a certain homogenisation of urban life and, sure, there’s something to that. But the fact remains that, for instance, it can never have been cheaper (in terms of a percentage of average wages) to feed your family and you’ve never had as great a choice of provisions with which to do so. I bet Blond disapproves of supermarkets (fair enough) but poor people like supermarkets. And they’re not stupid to like Tesco or Aldi or whatever.

Similarly, the horrors of the modern economy have brought us to a situation in which the average person spends much less time at work each year than did their grand-parents or great-grandparents. I think it’s about 800 fewer hours per annum in Britain. This too does not seem a negligable gain.

For that matter, one financial crisis, no matter how serious, does not prove the “failure” of markets. Apart from anything else, they’ve not been tried* for decades in areas as trivial as secondary education (except for the rich) and health (ditto).

Sometimes, if I understand him correctly (not as simple a task as it ought to be), it seems as if Blond wants to take us back to the 1930s – at home and at work. I think he’d like everyone to live in small towns or, preferably, villages too. Now there was much that was good about the 1930s but time, and society, moves on and it’s futile to suppose that the clock can be wound back. Equally, for all that progress or, if your prefer, time, causes some valuable things to be lost, it also brings valuable improvements. In the end, Blond comes across, perhaps unwittingly, as a nostalgist. And, I’d hazard, it’s but one hop from nostalgia to full-blown reactionary status.

Because, of course, even when the state was smaller, that hardly meant an absence of coercion (especially, one might note, for women). Social mores can be just as stifling as the state even if they also have overwhelming local support and play a significant, even important, role in fostering social cohesion. Look at the Western Isles for instance, or pockets of Bradford today. Which is also why it’s important that there be a means of escape and that the individual, no matter how much Blond dislikes such folk, be, to use a think tank word, “empowered”.

That doesn’t mean that more mutalisation, an emphasis on local and voluntary associations and trying to expand and widen opportunity are bad things. They’re not. But whether Red Toryism is more than a few good (and less than earth-shattering) ideas buried benath a mass of bewildering and sometimes contradictory assumptions is something that, for now, remains a matter of some confusion.  Certainly, it’s apparent belief that you can have everything and it’s apparent belief that trade-offs are extinct suggests that more work needs to be done. Time will, I guess, tell.

*Yes, yes, yes. Just like “true” Communism, “proper” or “authentic” libertarianism can never fail because it will never be tried…

Zach Dundas:

I’m way too much of a Big Government nerd to go all the way with Red Toryism, or any kind of Toryism at all—I’m in the middle of two books, one about Teddy Roosevelt’s brilliant national-forests land grab, one about the Great Society, and between them, I’m geeking out so hard on the benevolent state that I might end up with pin-ups of Gifford Pinchot and Lyndon Johnson in my locker. And, anyway, until my theoretical Middle Earth Liberation Front arises, there’s no electoral outlet for the radical decentralism that Blond articulates.

On the other hand, I like a nice cup of tea or a pint of real ale, and can’t help but feel some sympathy for a tradition which, in a broader manifestation, produced “If Pooh Were President.” I think it would be awesome if the American right would drop the crazy act and go after Wal-Mart or something Red Tory-ish. Get down with your bad selves, boys. (Q: Have there been any Tory females since Thatcher? Reply confidentially.)

Will at The League:

Despite my nasty libertarian streak, I found a lot to like in Blond’s talk, particularly in his enthusiasm for decentralization and local competition. My only quibble is that while Blond’s diagnoses are often compelling, his proposed solutions are sometimes less so. When talking about the importance of political subsidiarity, for example, Blond spoke of “giving democracy back to the streets,” which sounds more like a Students for a Democratic Society slogan than a concrete political program. “Driving capital to the periphery” and decentralizing our financial system sound great in theory, but I’m still left to wonder how economic subsidiarity works in practice. One important caveat: I’m new to Blond and was late to the lecture, so my first impressions may not do justice to the Red Tories’ program.

Blond’s philosophy also seems better suited to cultural renewal than, say, political or economic reform. His most compelling examples of Red Toryism in action – A Birmingham neighborhood taking back the streets from pimps and drug dealers; the persistence of Northern Italy’s artisan economy – struck me as the result of cultural factors that aren’t easily replicated or recreated through state action. When we do transmogrify a cultural agenda into a political one, the results are sometimes messier than anticipated, which may have been what Ross Douthat was getting at when he asked Blond about the parallels between his philosophy and Bush’s compassionate conservatism at the end of the presentation.

One last observation: Blond spoke movingly of the plight of poor and working class citizens stuck in low-wage service jobs with no prospects for social mobility. His economic vision stresses the importance of creating stakeholders – skilled artisans, small businesspeople, and so on –  who feel more invested in their communities. This reminded me of the American experience after World War II, when millions of returning GIs received free college educations and federally-backed homeownership loans helped create the American middle class. But while these programs were largeky  successful, they’re not exactly models of decentralized governance. Is Blond willing to compromise or moderate his small government sympathies to create new economic stakeholders? I ask because state efforts to create or impart social capital – from public schools to the Federal Housing Administration to Bush’s compassionate conservatism – are rarely characterized by decentralization or subsidiarity.

Exit question: Is liberal society, as Blond suggests, fundamentally dependent on older traditions, cultural practices, and civic institutions? Does radical individualism undermine these institutions? I know Blond isn’t the first to make this argument, but his prognosis was both unusually grim and surprisingly persuasive. I’d be curious to hear what the League’s commenters and contributors have to say on the subject.

UPDATE: Chris Dierkes at The League

E.D. Kain at The League

Rod Dreher

UPDATE #2: Jason Kuznicki at The League

Patrick Deenen at Front Porch Republic

More Kain at The League

UPDATE #3: Shawn Summers at FrumForum

UPDATE #4: Daniel McCarthy at TAC

E.D. Kain at The League

Daniel Larison

UPDATE #5: Russell Arben Fox at Front Porch Republic

Daniel Larison

More Kain

Ross Douthat

UPDATE #6: Deenen at Cato

3 Comments

Filed under Go Meta, UK

We’ve Been Talking Indoctrination All Week

Brick2-5

Steve Benen has had his eye on the Texas Board of Education:

Benen Post #1:

The Texas Board of Education has put together a six-member committee to help develop new curriculum standards for social studies classes and textbooks. It’s not going well.

The board picked, among others, an evangelical minister named Peter Marshall to help shape the standards, as well as Republican activist David Barton, a pseudo-historian and religious right celebrity who gives speeches about the United States being founded as a “Christian nation.”

One of their first tasks: downplaying the contributions of civil rights leaders.

“Civil rights leaders Cesar Chavez and Thurgood Marshall — whose names appear on schools, libraries, streets and parks across the U.S. — are given too much attention in Texas social studies classes, conservatives advising the state on curriculum standards say.

“To have Cesar Chavez listed next to Ben Franklin” — as in the current standards — “is ludicrous,” wrote evangelical minister Peter Marshall, one of six experts advising the state as it develops new curriculum standards for social studies classes and textbooks. David Barton, president of Aledo-based WallBuilders, said in his review that Chavez, a Hispanic labor leader, “lacks the stature, impact and overall contributions of so many others.”

Marshall also questioned whether Thurgood Marshall, who argued the landmark case that resulted in school desegregation and was the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice, should be presented to Texas students as an important historical figure. He wrote that the late justice is “not a strong enough example” of such a figure.”

This is bound to help Republicans with their outreach to minority communities, right? It’s quite a message to voters in Texas — Vote GOP: the party that thinks civil rights leaders get too much credit.

Barton went on to say the state curriculum should ignore the contributions of Anne Hutchinson, a New England pioneer and early advocate of women’s rights and religious freedom, and argued that Texas social studies books should discuss “republican” values, not “democratic” ones.

It’s unclear how successful the far-right activists will be in shaping the eventual policy, but remember, what happens in Texas doesn’t necessarily stay in Texas. Textbook publishers are reluctant to create different materials for different states, and when one big customer makes specific demands, the frequent result is changes to textbooks nationwide.

Benen Post #2:

By way of Lee Fang, it seems the board is still hard at work, and moving in the wrong direction.

“Texas high school students would learn about such significant individuals and milestones of conservative politics as Newt Gingrich and the rise of the Moral Majority — but nothing about liberals — under the first draft of new standards for public school history textbooks. […]

The first draft for proposed standards in United States History Studies Since Reconstruction says students should be expected “to identify significant conservative advocacy organizations and individuals, such as Newt Gingrich, Phyllis Schlafly and the Moral Majority.””

A Democratic state lawmaker said, as it stands, Texas students would get “one-sided, right wing ideology.” He added, “We ought to be focusing on historical significance and historical figures. It’s important that whatever course they take, that it portray a complete view of our history and not a jaded view to suit one’s partisan agenda or one’s partisan philosophy.”

That certainly sounds reasonable, but this is the Texas Board of Education we’re talking about.

Benen #3:

Board members — 10 Republicans to 5 Democrats — have recommended downplaying the contributions of civil rights leaders, minimizing an “emphasis on multiculturalism,” and trying to “exonerate” Joe McCarthy.

And let’s also not forget that these indoctrination efforts may have broader implications. As we talked about in July, what happens in Texas doesn’t necessarily stay in Texas. Textbook publishers are reluctant to create different materials for different states, and when one big customer makes specific demands, the frequent result is changes to textbooks nationwide.

Dana Goldstein adds that this reinforces the value in national curriculum standards, an idea pushed by the National Governors’ Association and supported by the Obama administration. “If 46 states can come together around core standards, it means a populous, outlier state like Texas will have less influence over textbook manufacturers,” Dana noted.

As for those deeply concerned about the politicization of America’s classrooms, I’m sure the right-wing critics of the president’s stay-in-school message will be quick to denounce the conservative efforts in Texas. Any minute now.

Justin Elliot at TPM:

The first draft of the standards, released at the end of July, is a doozy. It lays out a kind of Human Events version of U.S. history.

Approved textbooks, the standards say, must teach the Texan student to “identify significant conservative advocacy organizations and individuals, such as Newt Gingrich, Phyllis Schlafly, and the Moral Majority.” No analogous liberal figures or groups are required, prompting protests from some legislators and committee members. (Read an excerpt here.)

The standards on Nixon: “describe Richard M. Nixon’s role in the normalization of relations with China and the policy of detente.”

On Reagan: “describe Ronald Reagan’s role in restoring national confidence, such as Reaganomics and Peace with Strength.” (That’s it.)

The Cold War section is rendered as “U.S. responses to Soviet aggression after World War II … ”

The state board of education, made up of 10 Republicans and five Democrats, has to vote on the standards twice in the coming months before they would go into effect.

[…]

Here’s what makes this a national story: what happens in Texas doesn’t stay in Texas, says Diane Ravitch, professor of education at NYU.

That’s because Texas is one of the two states with the largest student enrollments, along with California. “The publishers vie to get their books adopted for them, and the changes that are inserted to please Texas and California are then part of the textbooks made available to every other state,” says Ravitch, who wrote a book about the politics of textbooks.

Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute explains it as a simple economic calculation by the big textbook publishers. “Publishers are generally reticent to run two different versions of a textbook,” he says. “You can imagine the headache the expense the logistics, the storage, all of it.”

But don’t start saving for private school tuition just yet. A spokeswoman for the Texas State Board of Education tells TPMmuckraker the board will have to pass the standards first in January, in a “first reading and filing authorization vote,” and then in March in a final vote, before they would go into effect. In an article on the controversy in the Houston Chronicle, one of the conservative leaders on the board actually predicted the standards will pass at least the first vote.

This one bears close watching.

Josh Marshall at TPM

Dana Goldstein at Tapped:

This story reminds us why the new push for national curriculum standards — led by the bipartisan National Governors’ Association and supported by the Obama administration — is so important. Texas, unsurprisingly, is one of just four states choosing not to participate in that project. The others are Alaska, Missouri, and South Carolina. If 46 states can come together around core standards, it means a populous, outlier state like Texas will have less influence over textbook manufacturers. And if this curriculum passes, that will be a very good thing.

Lee Fang at Think Progress

James Moore at Huffington Post

UPDATE: More from Justin Elliott at TPM

UPDATE #2: Mariah Blake at Washington Monthly

UPDATE #3: More Elliott

UPDATE #4: Russell Shorto at NYT Magazine

Doug J

Razib Khan at Secular Right

UPDATE #5: James McKinley in NYT

Tristero

Pareene at Gawker

UPDATE #6: Henry Rollins in Vanity Fair

Peter Hannaford at Human Events

Polimom at Moderate Voice

Mark Kleiman

Don Suber

UPDATE #7: Sam Tanenhaus at NYT

Daniel McCarthy at The American Conservative

UPDATE #8: Steven Thomma at McClatchy

More Benen

UPDATE #9: Justin Elliott at TPM

UPDATE #10: Huffington Post

Ann Althouse

Jonathan Adler

Mark Kleiman

5 Comments

Filed under Education, Politics

The First Rule Of The Conservative Movement Is That Everyone Gets Read Out Of The Conservative Movement, Eventually

D-reagan-old-school

Richard Gamble in TAC with a provocative essay, “How Right Was Reagan?” An excerpt:

Doubting the depths of Reagan’s conservatism sounds akin to doubting FDR’s liberalism. We are so accustomed to thinking of Reagan as the pre-eminent conservative statesman of our time that any shadow on that reputation seems nonsensical. But some conservative dissidents have recently blamed Reagan for giving his benediction to the most culturally corrosive tendencies in the American character. In his recent bestseller, The Limits of Power (2008), Andrew Bacevich harshly criticizes Reagan for just this failing. Bacevich notes the irony of Carter’s seemingly more conservative plea for limits juxtaposed against Reagan’s boundless optimism. “Reagan portrayed himself as conservative,” Bacevich writes of the campaign underway in 1979. “He was, in fact, the modern prophet of profligacy, the politician who gave moral sanction to the empire of consumption. Beguiling his fellow citizens with his talk of ‘morning in America,’ the faux-conservative Reagan added to America’s civic religion two crucial beliefs: Credit has no limits, and the bills will never come due.” Bacevich charges the “faux-conservative” Reagan with nothing less than undermining America’s moral constitution, its adherence to such timeless “folk wisdom” as “save for a rainy day.”

Dissent about Reagan among conservative intellectuals goes back surprisingly far, back even to Reagan’s first term. Historian John Lukacs, writing in Outgrowing Democracy (published in 1984 and later reissued under the title A New Republic), found it necessary to put Reagan’s “conservatism” in quotation marks, calling it “lamentably shortsighted and shallow.” He conceded that much of Reagan’s rhetoric was conservative and that it spoke to certain durable conservative instincts in the American people. But overall, Reagan preached yet another version of sinless, progressive America that had more in common with Tom Paine and Woodrow Wilson than with Edmund Burke. In a chapter added in 2004, Lukacs attributed the record budget deficits of the 1980s in part to Reagan’s populist message that demanded no self-sacrifice or hard choices from the American public. They could have it all. He also credited the collapse of the Soviet Union to the Russian people’s own loss of faith in Communism and to the political skills of Mikhail Gorbachev, not to Reagan’s military build up.

In a further criticism, Lukacs traced the “militarization of the image of the presidency” to Reagan. It was Reagan, after all, who began the practice of returning the salutes of the military—a precedent followed by every president since. While doing so may seem to honor the military, it in fact erodes the public’s understanding of the presidency as a civilian office, Lukacs argued. Indeed, Fox News bears out Lukacs’s warning. The cable news giant got into the habit during the Bush II administration of referring to the president as commander in chief no matter what story they were reporting, seemingly unaware that the nation’s executive is the commander in chief of the Armed Forces of the Untied States and not commander in chief of the American people at large. If the president visits a city ravaged by a hurricane, he is emphatically not there in his role as commander in chief. If every American thinks of the president—of whatever political party—as my commander in chief and not narrowly as the Army or Navy’s commander in chief, then we have taken another decisive step from republic to empire. If every American expects the president to be the commander in chief of the economy, then we can’t be surprised by nationalized banks and corporations.

Peter Lawler at PomoCon (read the comments for the meat of the discussion):

Is the pope Catholic? Well, some think not. According to the erudite Richard Gamble, ol’ Ronald was too Puritanical in the wrong way to be conservative. He gave us irresponsible tax cuts and a “Wilson” or evangelical, transformational foreign policy. His speeches were full of an “expansive liberal temperament” that flowed from Reagan spending his wonder years in “the pietistic, revivalist world of the Disciples of Christ.” His activist faith morphed into a Christianity without Christ that became our optimistic civil religion. He had nothing but contempt for any talk about limits to our power and wealth. Real Puritans talk about original sin, personal and national guilt and all, but not the selective Puritanical civil theologian Reagan. Gamble thinks we should return, instead, to the malaisian wisdom of the 1979 Jimmy Carter, a far more authentic Christian conservative who knew that patriotism wasn’t really about getting and spending.

This article was recommended to me by the porcher page and was published in THE AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE. It goes without saying that I don’t agree with most of it, but why don’t all of you divide up into small groups and discuss. (Hint: One possible criticism is that there’s no talk about the defeat of COMMUNISM and all.)

EdmundBurkeInkSepia

James Poulos at PomoCon:

A semi-tangent apropos of the thread developing below on Reagan’s is-it-or-isn’t-it conservatism: it’s true that Reagan’s public brew of conservative moralism and vigilence combined with western-libertarian free-range thought, inclusive of religion, reflects in telling or cautionary ways his hodgepodge of a private life. But this has been old news since Constant, whose long tormented relationship with Germaine de Stael surely sucked more out of a man’s marrow than Reagan had lost by the time he made President. There does seem to be an inevitable — and in quarters left and right disturbing — link between the politics of independence and a culture of incoherence. The glorious jumble of conservatism, liberalism, and libertarianism on display in America since its most hashed-out Constitutional coming of age (I’ll have to leave the Civil War out of it for now) is the political byproduct and reinvestment of a culture ever without, as Philip Rieff says Tocqueville showed us, an officer class.

Mark T. Mitchell at Front Porch Republic (look at the comments there, too).

Fast-forward 29 years. Sam Tanenhaus has a new book out called The Death of Conservatism.

Lee Siegel at Daily Beast:

For Tanenhaus, the conservatives have abandoned their core values of respect for tradition and sensitivity to the necessity of change—of pragmatic, principled adaptability—for a rigid absolutism that expresses itself in a politics of destruction and mechanical negativity.The party that once stood for governmental ballast and probity in the ’50s, and for governmental order and responsibility in the late ’60s—as the liberals’ well-intentioned war and their well-intentioned welfare state came crashing down on society—now identified government itself with the forces of evil.

An interesting consequence followed. Since political power can only operate through government, the conservatives had chosen to exert their power more directly, around politics, as it were, by means of cultural confrontation, personal attack, and reflexive stonewalling. This is why conservatives seem most politically organized when out of power, and why when they attain political power, they immediately begin to act like apolitical outlaws.

[…]

What is most fascinating about Tanenhaus’s fascinating book is his nimble grasp of what Hegel called “the cunning of history.” He is ultra-sensitive to the social-psychological aspect of American politics, to the way opposing factions project themselves onto their adversary, covet and envy the opponent’s principles and social position, express antagonism by impersonating and/or parodying the enemy’s most successful values.

So, as Tanenhaus writes, the liberal rhetoric of compassion and the state’s responsibility to its most hard-pressed citizens—the poor—which led to the New Deal became the Reagan conservatives’ rhetoric of compassion and the state’s responsibility to its most hard-pressed citizens—the middle class—which led to tax cuts that undid or diminished many of the New Deal’s social programs.

Tanenhaus himself embodies this ironic complexity. He writes with warm admiration of the Ur-conservative Edmund Burke’s “distrust of all ideologies, beginning with their totalizing nostrums.” He glowingly describes how Burke “warned against “the destabilizing perils of extremist politics of any kind.” This conservative credo seems to be the root of his revulsion against today’s conservative extremists.

Jon Meacham in Newsweek:

Meacham: So how bad is it, really? Your title doesn’t quite declare conservatism dead.
Tanenhaus: Quite bad if you prize a mature, responsible conservatism that honors America’s institutions, both governmental and societal. The first great 20th-century Republican president, Theo- dore Roosevelt, supported a strong central government that emphasized the shared values and ideals of the nation’s millions of citizens. He denounced the harm done by “the trusts”—big corporations. He made it his mission to conserve vast tracts of wilderness and forest. The last successful one, Ronald Reagan, liked to remind people (especially the press) he was a lifelong New Dealer who voted four times for Franklin D. Roosevelt. The consensus forged by Buckley in the 1960s gained strength through two decisive acts: first, Buckley denounced right-wing extremists, such as the members of the John Birch Society, and made sure when he did it to secure the support of conservative Republicans like Reagan, Barry Goldwater, and Sen. John Tower. This pulled the movement toward the center. Second: Buckley saw that the civil disturbances of the late 1960s (in particular urban riots and increasingly militant anti-Vietnam protests) posed a challenge to social harmonies preferred by genuine conservatives and genuine liberals alike. When the Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan called on liberals to join with conservatives in upholding “the politics of stability,” Buckley replied that he was ready to help. He placed the values of “civil society” (in Burke’s term) above those of his own movement or the GOP.

[…]

Is there an analogous historical moment? Conservatives argue that this is 1965 and that a renaissance is at hand.
I disagree. Today, conservatives seem in a position closer to the one they occupied during the New Deal. The epithets so many on the right now hurl at Obama—”socialist,” “fascist”—precisely echo the accusations Herbert Hoover and “Old Right” made against FDR in 1936. And the spectacle of citizens appearing at town-hall meetings with guns recalls nothing so much as the vigilante Minutemen whom Buckley evicted from the conservative movement in the 1960s. A serious conservative like David Frum knows this, and has spoken up. It is remarkable how few others have. The moon party is being yanked ever farther onto its marginal orbit.

Daniel McCarthy in TAC:

In this interview with Jon Meacham, Tanenhaus makes like Basil Fawlty and doesn’t mention the war — the Iraq War, that is, which “serious conservatives” like David Frum supported. Tanenhaus had no problem criticizing the war until now and tying it to the Republicans’ dwindling electoral fortunes. But now that a Democrat is in office, suddenly health care is the thing that conservatives are supposedly screwing up. Even though attacks on the president’s plan have so far been rather popular.

But let’s go back to the idea that Republicans have somehow drifted away from the “conservatism” of TR. There’s a deep body of literature out there — Gabriel Kolko’s Triumph of Conservatism is perhaps the best known specimen — making the case that trust-busting actually favored big business. So perhaps Teddy and Enron’s recent man in the White House have something in common. And there’s another, more obvious sense in which movement conservatives are very much in the mold of Teddy Roosevelt — they are heirs to his machismo, nationalism, and militarism. Tanenhaus would probably agree that these are qualities which have not served the con movement well over the last four years (at least). But TR embodies them. He was the first to thump the pulpit for 100 percent Americanism, and he was much more eager to intervene in World War I than Woodrow Wilson was. TR is a great inspiration to neocons today: there’ s a reason the summer books issue of the Weekly Standard bears a cover image of Teddy in an inner tube. Yet Tanenhaus, who knows the neocons had something to do with the Iraq War and the Iraq War has something to do with conservatism’s death, praises TR and calls David Frum a “serious conservative.” The conclusion one is lead to is that Tanenhaus is so sympathetic to the social-democratic tilt of the neocons and economic interventionism of TR that he absolves them of the blame he knows they deserve for the Right’s ruin. Conservatives would be ill served to heed him. What’s needed is exactly the opposite of what Tanenhaus prescribes: the Right should sharpen its economic differences with the big-government Left while repudiating the catastrophic foreign policy promulgated by the likes of David Frum.

More McCarthy:

If all a Tanenhaus wants is a Right that is a.) a little abashed about how Iraq turned out, but not really repentant, and b.) in favor of a “pro-family” welfare state, then he already has much of what he wants, since Ramesh Ponnuru, David Frum, Ross Douthat, David Brooks, and a host of neoconservatives already affirm a program exactly like that. Hell, Karl Rove belongs in that category, too. These are the most prominent names in “conservative” print media, and fairly influential voices within the Beltway. They would all complain that the grassroots aren’t on board with their “moderate” military welfarism — the grassroots are too brusque, too bumptious, too worked up about Obama’s birth certificate and illegal immigration. But the grassroots Right is in the state it’s in thanks in no small part to the likes of Ponnuru, Frum, Douthat, and Brooks. Since their program of welfare for families doesn’t inspire anyone, their political allies wind up having to whip up enthusiasm for the military side of the program, and have to throw in some red meat about gays, immigrants, and abortion. But the NY-DC axis have no cause to complain, since that’s the only way to sell the public on their insipid welfare-warfare program. He who wills the end must will the means. The only means toward getting the Right to embrace the welfare state is to get the Right hopped up about real wars or culture wars. But that’s precisely what has cost the Right political power over the last four years.

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Andy McCarthy at NRO links to James Piereson in The New Criterion. Piereson:

Tanenhaus argues that conservatives failed because—well, because they did not act like conservatives at all but rather as extremists and radicals out to destroy everything associated with modern liberalism. The paradox of the modern right, he says, is that “Its drive for power has steered it onto a path that has become profoundly and defiantly un-conservative.” According to Tanenhaus, conservatives have been divided since the 1950s between their Burkean inclinations to preserve the constitutional order and their reactionary or “revanchist” impulses to tear up and destroy every liberal compromise with modern life. “On the one side,” he writes, “are those who have upheld the Burkean ideal of replenishing civil society by adjusting to changing conditions. On the other are those committed to a revanchist counterrevolution, whether the restoration of America’s pre-New Deal ancient regime, a return to Cold War-style Manichaeanism, or the revival of pre-modern family values.” In recent years, he concludes, the “revanchists” have gotten the upper hand over the Burkeans, and have thereby run the conservative juggernaut over a cliff and into irrelevance. In an entry that gives the reader a flavor of some of the exaggerated rhetoric contained in the book, Tanenhaus writes that, “Today’s conservatives resemble the exhumed figures of Pompeii, trapped in postures of frozen flight, clenched in the rigor mortis of a defunct ideology.”These “exhumed figures” are presumably free-market economists and conservatives like Jonah Goldberg and Amity Shlaes, whose books have been critical of the New Deal, neo-conservatives who supported the war in Iraq, and social conservatives who have opposed abortion, easy divorce, and gay marriage. In Tanenhaus’s view, genuine conservatives would accept the New Deal and the welfare state as “Burkean corrections” that served to adjust the American economy to modern conditions. Nor would “real” conservatives have supported a war in Iraq that was based upon a utopian ideal of bringing democracy to the Middle East. He also thinks that conservatives should accept gay marriage as an extension of family values to a new area. The reason conservatives have not followed such advice, he says, is that their attachment to orthodox doctrine trumps the practical advantages of finding areas of accommodation with adversaries. In a most un-Burkean way, he says, they have allowed ideology to prevail over experience and common sense. Thus, as he suggests, the right is the main source of disorder and dissension in contemporary society and the instigators of the long-running culture war that has divided the country.

Employing this framework, Tanenhaus arrives at surprising judgments about some prominent conservatives—for example, that Ronald Reagan was a “real” conservative because, despite his rhetoric, he made no effort to repeal popular social programs but accepted them as an integral aspect of the American consensus. This is gracious on the author’s part, though it is a judgment that few liberals will accept simply because they are certain that the only reason President Reagan did not repeal many of those programs is because Congress would not permit it. After all, one of Reagan’s favorite sayings was that “Government is the problem, not the solution.” Reagan, like every other major Republican office-holder of recent decades, including George W. Bush and Newt Gingrich, was constrained in this area by a mix of congressional politics, interest groups, and public opinion. Tanenhaus also says that Buckley, while starting out as a “revanchist” in the 1950s, turned into a Burkean in the 1960s by his acceptance of liberal reforms, especially in civil rights.

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