Tag Archives: Jason Kuznicki

And Now The Caplan Has Been Cloned!

Bryan Caplan:

Now that I’m finishing up Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, another controversial passage is on the chopping block.  In the current draft, this paragraph concludes my discussion of cloning:

I confess that I take anti-cloning arguments personally.  Not only do they insult the identical twin sons I already have; they insult a son I hope I live to meet.  Yes, I wish to clone myself and raise the baby as my son.  Seriously.  I want to experience the sublime bond I’m sure we’d share.  I’m confident that he’d be delighted, too, because I would love to be raised by me.  I’m not pushing others to clone themselves.  I’m not asking anyone else to pay for my dream.  I just want government to leave me and the cloning business alone.  Is that too much to ask?

My reasons to keep it, as before, are: (a) it makes a good point, and (b) angry reactions would confirm my broader thesis that many people senselessly oppose assisted reproductive technology.  The downside, of course, is alienating otherwise sympathetic readers.  The upside of the downside is that controversy is excellent publicity.  Should my cloning confession make the final cut?

Advise me.

Tyler Cowen:

If you don’t like his proposal for a cloned son, I will ask why you think your preferred degree of genetic similarity — between you and your next kid — is right and Bryan’s is wrong.

More Cowen:

I don’t have the same preference as Bryan, far from it.  I think most of us desire children who are “too similar to us” and there are obvious Darwinian reasons why this is the case.  Nonetheless we should try to overcome this attitude and there are many successful instances of adopted children or various other “mixed” arrangements, such as foster parents.  We can only hope there will be more and that means we need a greater flexibility of intuitions about parenting and inheritance.

As a proud step-parent, I find it increasingly odd how many of you insist on the “fifty percent solution.”  Ew!  What if it — heaven forbid — looks like you?  What if you’re both economists named Keynes?  But there’s more: the rest of your daughter looks just like the woman you chose to marry?  Yuck!!!!!  And so on.  Maybe you all think that fifty percent is great but one hundred percent is unacceptable, when it comes to the genes.  Good luck arguing that one with a committed nominalist.  And I bet most of you don’t find it repugnant if a father wants a son rather than a daughter, but similarity of gender is pretty important too.

If I have any criticism of Bryan, it’s that he’s pro-natalist (fine in my book) but I’ve never heard him promote the idea of adopting a child or defend the idea of raising a biological child who is, for whatever reason, very different from his or her parents.  (Don’t overreact here and interpret his silence in a negative way, I’m simply goading him to take up these issues, which I think will force him to revise his thought.)  Furthermore I think his intuitions about similarity, and child-rearing, will change once (some of) his kids start rebelling against him.

Most of all, I found this thread to be a lesson in how quickly smart people will side with their Darwinian intuitions, and attack another smart person with intolerance, just because something feels icky to them.  It’s not so different from how some people find gay people, and also “what they do,” to be disgusting.  They also don’t want gay people to be adopting children because they see that as offensive too.  It’s not, least of all for the child.

That all said, I guess he shouldn’t put the passage in his book.

Brad DeLong:

Before, all he wanted was to claim that women in the 1880s were “more free” than women today–than, for example, the character Carrie Bradshaw played by Sarah Jessica Parker in “Sex and the City.”

Now–well, read for yourself

[…]

He wants to take the genes of the mother of his children out of the baby she is carrying and substitute his own genes in their place.

Wow. Just wow.

Steve Sailer:

Unfortunately, Professor Caplan doesn’t inform us what his wife thinks about his desire to create a child untainted by her genes. Does Professor Caplan intend to have Mrs. Caplan bear his clone for him? Does Professor Caplan intend to have Mrs. Caplan pick up after his clone for 21 years? Will Mrs. Caplan appreciate it when she and her husband’s immature clone get into an argument and Professor Caplan sides with his clone against his wife? Will she be concerned that he might favor his clone in his will over their mutual children?

Of course, that’s assuming that Bryan’s assumption that he and his clone would be Best Friends Forever is correct. More likely, the opposite would be true.
Generally speaking, people who would like to clone themselves tend to be arrogant and lacking in common sense. Their children will tend to also be arrogant and lacking in common sense. The interpersonal dynamics between cloner and clonee would likely be disastrous.
Are families in which the sons are exactly like the fathers happier? I don’t see a lot of evidence for that. In fact, I see a lot of evidence from memoirs and fiction that strong-willed fathers tend to have strong-willed sons, and the two clash relentlessly over who will be dominant. Too much similarity does not always make for happiness within a family.

Both Sailer and DeLong via Andrew Sullivan

More Sullivan

Jim Henley:

Caplan’s paragraph isn’t creepy because he wants to rear his own clone, but Caplan’s paragraph is creepy. Wanting to rear your own clone is eccentric, sure, and more than a little narcissistic, but I have a “Keep the Blogosphere Weird” bumper sticker across my Macbook screen, and man does it make blogging harder. To this day, I’m glad that Kim du Toit wrote the hilarious “Pussification of the Western Male” because, ridiculous as the essay was, it was exactly the kind of eccentricity – total, fucking eccentricity – DARPANet knew the country needed if it was going to survive a nuclear attack by the Russians.

The creepy part is compounded of his certainty that he and his clone-son will share a “sublime bond” and his avidity for it.

Tyler Cowen is right that it’s a bit narcissistic when we men prefer at least one son to only daughters. Caplan’s narcissism is so much greater and denser than that that I suspect it has an event horizon. But it’s worse than that.

For one thing: Let’s consider the Cap-Clone as a person in his own right for a second. That’s a hell of a lot of expectation to burden a kid with. Returning to Tyler’s “50-percent solution” parents again, we already know the minor and major tragedies that can ensue when parents have too-specific, too-intense hopes for their children. Caplan’s rebounding conviction that “he’d be delighted, too, because I would love to be raised by me,” is every overbearing Dad’s determination that Junior become the same great athlete dad was/heir to the family business/doctor he could never be collected together and crushed down until the electrons all collapse into their nuclei. And Caplan is old enough that he should realize this.

For another thing: no, it’s not misogynist as such, but wanting to cut your wife out of the breeding program in hopes of a super-special dad-son relationship of a kind your actual existing children can’t provide strikes me as, at the very least, something better kept to yourself.

And, then, what if the joke’s on Caplan? Meaning, why is he so certain his bond will be all that sublime? Those of us who read Gide’s La Symphonie Pastorale in French class are surely thinking, “Thank heavens there was a movie version, even if it had subtitles.” But also: “Man, sometimes these things don’t work out so well.” cf. “Pygmalion.” (Why can’t a baby / be more like a professor?) Our protegées have a distressing habit of not being us, and resenting us for not being cool with that. The Google tells me that there’s no evidence that twins suffer higher degrees of sibling rivalry than singleton kids, and the anecdotal literature includes, yes! some sublime bonding (that causes its own problems). But monozygotic twins don’t just share chromosomes. They share environments, experiences and generational context. They are peers. Bryan Caplan and the Cap-Clone will be different ages, from different eras. Whatever experiences they share, one of them will experience it as a naive, only partially matured intellectual, emotional and moral being, and the other as a little kid. (STOP MAKING ME SAY THESE THINGS, DAVID HOROWITZ!) Plus, the Cap-Clone’s music will be just noise.

Jason Kuznicki at The League:

Bryan, I’m right with you about the stupidity of anti-cloning arguments. Most of them are just plain silly and not even worth discussing (“Will clones be less than human?” Only if you treat them that way…). Many anti-cloning arguments were trotted out not so long ago about IVF, and before that they had an equally dismal run against the smallpox vaccine. Hooray for cloning!

But here’s where you’re wrong. You are deluding yourself when you say you will experience a “sublime bond” with your cloned son. The bond will be no more, and possibly a good bit less, than the bond shared between identical twins. Romanticizing cloning is just as silly as demonizing it. And the more you insist on the reality of that sublime bond, the more your cloned son is going to rebel against you. Perhaps he will even end up as a Marxist. It would serve you right, frankly.

I also have to say I am always puzzled when people — it seems to be exclusively straight people — valorize their own genes so much. Your genes are nothing special. They are shared by thousands of other people, in different combinations, all across the world. What you do or don’t do with them will scarcely affect your genes’ chances of survival at all. This is thanks to the thousands of others who also carry precisely the same genes — the same genes for brown hair, or pale skin, or hemoglobin, or whatever. Will your genes survive? It depends vastly more on what they do, and hardly at all on what you do.

Your genes are not little avatars of your Self. They are not post-theistic souls on which to pin your dashed hopes for immortality. They are not even alive, for crying out loud. Want to save your genes for all eternity? Build a fifty-foot granite monument and inscribe them. It would work about as well for your purposes.

More Caplan:

I’m touched to see Tyler publicly defending me and my clone, and think I ought to respond to his only reservation:

If I have any criticism of Bryan, it’s that he’s pro-natalist (fine in my book) but I’ve never heard him promote the idea of adopting a child or defend the idea of raising a biological child who is, for whatever reason, very different from his or her parents.  (Don’t overreact here and interpret his silence in a negative way, I’m simply goading him to take up these issues, which I think will force him to revise his thought.)
I probably haven’t addressed these issues because my views are conventional.  On adoption: I think that adoption is a noble, generous act, and admire those who do it.  But I personally don’t want to adopt.  On raising a biological child very different from myself: Of course I’d still love and raise him/her.  My post on “parenthood as the trump of all past regret” is predicated on this endowment effect.  Still, I’m honest enough to admit that I’d be happier if my child and I had a lot in common.

More Kuznicki:

I am astonished that someone writing a book about children can have such prejudiced views about adoption. I see these views all the time among friends and family, but never, as a rule, among experts in the field.

I wonder how many adoptive parents Bryan talked to in his research. How many books and articles did he read about adoption? Did he talk to any social workers, child psychologists, or even — call me crazy — actual adopted kids? Or did he just recycle the same glurge I always get from casual acquaintances when I tell them that I adopted a daughter? (“Oh wow, that’s so great of you. Tell me though, why didn’t you get a surrogate mom?”)

Overwhelmingly, parents adopt for exactly the same reasons that lead others to have kids in the biological way. The “mode” adoptive parent in the United States is heterosexual, married, and infertile. But they want kids just like anyone else, and for the very same reasons. The only catch is that they aren’t able to have kids in the cheap, fun, and conventional way.

Adopting is a pain — it means tons of paperwork, hours of interviews, repeated hearings before various officials, thousands of dollars in fees, criminal background checks, home safety inspections, financial reviews, invasive medical tests, and possibly years of waiting. (All for good reasons, I’d add.)

Compare all that to an evening of sexual intercourse, and it’s obvious why adoption is a second choice — as a method.[1] But that doesn’t mean that adopted kids are a second choice. If anything, it may mean that adoptive parents are more committed to parenting than many “natural” parents. It’s not like we end up here on accident. Which quite a few bio-parents do, of course. And many infertile couples — those among them least committed to parenting — don’t ever adopt.

Perhaps all this is what brought Bryan to think of adoption as noble. But saying that adopting a child is “generous” is both an insult and an undeserved, patronizing compliment.

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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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All Slippery Slopes Lead To Robert Young

Glen Whitman at Cato Unbound:

For as far back as memory reaches, people have been telling other people what’s good for them — and manipulating or forcing them to do it. But in recent years, a novel form of paternalism has emerged on the policy stage. Unlike the “old paternalism,” which sought to make people conform to religious or moralistic notions of goodness, the “new paternalism” seeks to make people better off by their own standards.

New paternalism has gone by many names, including “soft paternalism,” “libertarian paternalism,” and “asymmetric paternalism.” Whatever the name, it arose from the burgeoning field of behavioral economics, which studies the myriad ways in which real humans — unlike the agents who populate most economic models — deviate from pure rationality. Real people suffer from a variety of cognitive biases and errors, including lack of self-control, excessive optimism, status quo bias, susceptibility to framing of decisions, and so forth. To the extent such imperfections cause people to make choices inconsistent with their own best interests, paternalistic interventions promise to help them do better.

What sort of interventions? To the casual reader, the new paternalism might seem to have little to do with government at all. Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s Nudge and Daniel Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, for instance, often read more like advice manuals than policy manifestos.

But if you dig deeper, you’ll find a wide-ranging policy agenda at work. In seminal journal articles by Sunstein & Thaler, Camerer et al., O’Donoghue and Rabin, and others, you’ll find a panoply of policy proposals from mild to downright intrusive. The story begins with the seemingly innocuous proposal to enroll all employees in savings plans automatically (with the ability to opt out). Then it progresses to new default rules in contracts, such as a presumption of “for cause” rather than “at will” employment, again with an opt-out. And then? Default rules that can be waived only through a cumbersome legal procedure. Then default rules with some options ruled out entirely — such as maximum hours that cannot be waived for less than time-and-a-half pay. Then cooling-off periods for high-cost purchases. Then sin taxes for fatty or sodium-rich foods. Then outright bans on ingredients like trans fats.

Not every new paternalist supports every one of these policies, and they don’t advocate them all with the same confidence. But they’re all on the list, and all justified by an appeal to behavioral economics.

The Claim to Moderation vs. The Slippery Slope

New paternalists often present their position as striking a reasonable middle ground between rigid anti-paternalism on the one hand and intrusive “hard” paternalism on the other. But as the list of policies above suggests, this claim to moderation is difficult to sustain.

My claim (along with my frequent coauthor, Mario Rizzo) is that the new paternalism carries a serious risk of expansion. Following its policy recommendations places us on a slippery slope from soft paternalism to hard. This would be true even if policymakers — including legislators, judges, bureaucrats, and voters — were completely rational. But the danger is especially great if policymakers exhibit the same cognitive biases attributed to the people they’re trying to help.

The slippery slope is not, of course, the only argument against new paternalism. The slippery slope is not intended as a solo knock-out argument against any and all new-paternalist policies. In some cases, their benefits might be high enough to justify their costs. The key point is that the slippery slope risk must be counted among the relevant costs.

Unfortunately, the very manner in which the new paternalism paradigm has been advanced makes it likely that risk will be ignored.

Jason Kuznicki at Cato:

One often-cited example takes place in the cafeteria: Put fruit and healthy snacks up front, and people will be more likely to choose them. Put the chocolate cake first, and that’s what they pick instead. Paternalism, the argument runs, lies on a continuum, and some forms of it are really quite harmless. It’s not (or not only) a boot stamping on a human face forever. It’s also the nice lady at the cafeteria, who helps you pick out healthy food. Healthy food is what you really wanted anyway. So what could be wrong with that?

Whitman, however, turns the argument around a bit: Legislators, too, suffer from bias. What if paternalistic legislation proves sort of like that chocolate cake? By placing it up front, and by making it look appealing, legislators may choose it too often, and they may neglect the healthier — but to them less appealing — choice of freedom. What if a little paternalism now turns into a lot of paternalism later? And where are our “real” preferences, anyway? Whitman offers arguments for why a slippery slope may very well exist here, and examples of how the theory of soft paternalism has developed teeth in practice.

Katherine Mangu-Ward at Reason:

Small case study: Sodas in schools. Kids are fat. Bans loom. Soda companies—which generally prefer to fight to the death—collaborate to remove full-sugar sodas entirely from schools. Is this what a victory for non-coercive nudging looks like?

Will Wilkinson:

Call it “soft paternalism,” “assymmetric paternalism,” “libertarian paternalism” or whatever With Cass Sunstein as Obama’s regulatory czar, we all may be feeling the gentle nudge of the new paternalism soon enough. Whitman puts us on guard, arguing that the logic of the new paternalism sets us on a slippery slope toward plain old-fashioned not-so-gentle paternalism.

Eugene Volokh

Julian Sanchez:

I’ve been relatively open to at least some of the ideas circulating under those banners—at least as libertarians go—but Glen’s arguments certainly provide ample reason for severe skepticism.  Certainly, I share his concern that initiatives that begin as “soft” paternalism, in the form of default rules meant to steer people away from ill-considered decisions, may “harden” if people continue to make what regulators perceive as the “wrong” choices.  In particular, I think there’s an unjustified tendency to  privilege temporally later preferences—so that if someone in ill-health regrets their youthful excesses, we treat this as reflecting the “real” preference. But if we think people overvalue the short term pleasures of fatty food, drink, or tobacco, and undervalue the long-term costs, surely it’s equally possible that those costs will loom large when the bill comes due, and cause people to discount too heavily all the enjoyment they got while running up the tab.

Especially important, I think, is Glen’s argument about framing effects: Soft paternalism may currently seem like a middle-ground between a relatively more laissez-faire approach and “hard” paternalism that forecloses options rather than merely establishing defaults.  Yet, as Glen points out, once “soft paternalist” policies are implemented, the debate may shift to position some more aggressive intervention as the new reasonable middle ground.

Yet it’s this very sort of logic that has made me at least somewhat interested in the potential of libertarian paternalist arguments. My (perhaps vain) hope is that this reframing effect can be exploited in the other direction, to make reform in the direction of greater freedom more appealing, provided libertarian paternalists are primarily deployed in spheres that are already heavily regulated.  So, for instance, it seems that most Americans consider straightforward legalization of gambling or prostitution or drugs too extreme a position—though at least with regard to marijuana, the public opinion trend seems to be moving steadily in a more libertarian direction. But a proposal to combine legalization with some mechanism for permitting “problem users” to limit their own access—supposing the obvious privacy problems presented by such mechanisms could be worked out—might conceivably be presented as a reasonable compromise, recasting the status quo prohibitionist policies as the new “extreme.”  At the very least, I’d be interested to see some polling that examines how people’s responses change when a “soft paternalist” alternative is added alongside prohibition and legalization.

More Kuznicki at The League:

Among non-libertarians, there’s a strong tendency to collapse all the different types of costs together. You’re unfree if you have a family you feel obliged to support. You’re unfree if you live far from civilization. You’re unfree if you get cancer. You’re unfree if your personal tastes are expensive. You’re unfree — I infer — if you’re thrown in a prison camp. Just another type of cost to pay. Something seems way off here to me.

That’s because political unfreedom is different. Political unfreedom isn’t the result of bad luck, or your moral code, or your freely made but unwise choices. Other humans did it to you, and those other humans could stop doing it if they wanted. Whitman’s argument above is that we should think carefully about which people get to impose costs, and how, and to what end — even though other costs exist, even though the world remains full of dysfunctional markets, bad personal choices, and brute facts of nature.

Now, these cost-imposers may act with a smile on their face, or they may be brutal about it. They may have a representative government to validate their acts, or not. But political and non-political costs should never be confused. Political freedom is the freedom from arbitrary interference on the part of other people. We find it striking, and worrisome, when we see political theorists who aren’t so careful about the distinction. (For more on this idea, see Tom Palmer, writing in last month’s Cato Unbound.)

Now, the obvious rejoinder is that our decisions are continually subject to the arbitrary interference from other people. And this is quite true, even apart from the trivial example that we are all constrained equally from killing each other, in a clever little constraint-on-constraint. Other constraints abound.

mistermix:

This is what libertarians always seem to get wrong—it isn’t paternalism (or, at least, it isn’t the “bad” kind of paternalism) when the state is protecting me from direct harm caused by someone else’s actions. I can claim a direct harm from inhaling second-hand smoke: emphysema and lung cancer. I can’t make a similar claim about somebody else’s lack of a savings plan.

I’d expect better from a guy at Cato, because I’m counting on them to help get pot, gambling and prostitution legalized everywhere

UPDATE: Will at The League

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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

4 Comments

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

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Flashback To Our Mystic Past

Luke Timothy Johnson at Commonweal:

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all best known as exoteric traditions, each with the full array of formal worship, religious law, sacred books, and codes of morality. Yet each has also contained, from the beginning, a strong element of mysticism. The Judaism that formed in the second century on the basis of a strict interpretation of Torah, demanding observance of all the commandments, including dietary and purity regulations, also expressed itself mystically through the heavenly ascents accomplished by the adepts of Merkabah Mysticism, riders of the heavenly throne-chariot. The earliest Christian books contain a powerful visionary composition (Revelation), while Christian mystical impulses found early expression both in Gnostic literature and among the desert fathers and mothers; and in Islam, the Sufi movement, dedicated to the quest of God through renunciation and prayer, grew together with the exoteric framework of the Shari’ah, the system of Muslim law and observance. It is among the Sufis where we find the passionate pulse of early Islam, as in the words of the female saint Rabi’a al-’Adawiyya (d. ca. 801):

“I love thee with two loves, love of my happiness, and perfect love, to love thee as is thy due. My selfish love is that I do naught but think on thee, excluding all beside; but that purest love, which is thy due, is that the veils which hide thee fall, and I gaze on thee. No praise to me in either this or that. Nay, thine the praise for both that love and this.”

Exoteric and esoteric religious impulses coexist in tension with one another: the mystic’s tendency to derogate the visible can lead to neglect of external forms in the name of purity of heart, while the lawyer’s concern for common standards can encourage the suspicion and even suppression of private devotion. The great monotheistic religions have not found it easy to reconcile their exoteric and esoteric sides. The Gnostics’ esoteric religion posed a direct challenge to the early institutional church, and Irenaeus, the second-century bishop and theologian, responded with Adversus haereses, attacking the “heresies” of such groups with an argument for a public Christianity based on creed, canon, and the apostolic succession of bishops. Eventually the extreme forms of Christian mysticism fled to a more congenial home in the new religion of Manichaeism. The mysticism of the desert fathers and mothers, in contrast, was thoroughly orthodox, and the mysticism that so invigorated medieval Catholicism gladly embraced the exoteric forms of the Christian faith.

Like Christianity, Islam early on faced the challenge of a radical esoteric movement that threatened the authority of the Shari’ah. The earliest Sufis were adventurers of the spirit who sought immediate union with Allah, and some issued statements that pushed the implications of ecstasy to the limits. The Sufi Mansur al-Hallaj was executed for his claims of union with the divine, which outraged the fundamental conviction that Allah has no partners. “I am al-Haqq,” he is reputed to have said, “I am the Truth.” Reconciling the esoteric and exoteric within Islam was the monumental intellectual labor of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058–1111), a man whose absolute devotion to the Sufi way—he said it saved his soul—was matched by his commitment to the Shari’ah as the framework of true devotion: “I saw that Sufism consists in experiences rather than in definitions, and that what I was lacking belonged to the domain, not of instruction, but of ecstasy and initiation.” Al-Ghazali held that the mystic’s knowledge did not consist in new revelations, but in an ever deeper penetration of the truths disclosed by the Qur’an. This principle, once established, helped Sufism flourish at the heart of Islam, becoming at times the dominant expression of the religion.

Of the three great monotheisms, Judaism has proved most successful at harmonizing exoteric and esoteric expression. The masters of the heavenly throne-chariot were among the greatest scholars of the early rabbinic tradition, and demanded of the mystic the punctilious outward observance of Torah. The medieval German chasid Eleazar of Worms (d. 1230) declared, “The root of love is to love the Lord. The soul is full of love, bound with the bonds of love in great joy. The powerful love of joy seizes his heart so that at all times he thinks: How can I do the will of God?” Similarly, practitioners of Kabbalah from the twelfth to the twentieth century assumed as the ground for their speculation a total immersion in the practices common to the community of faith. The early Hasidic movement aroused concern for its apparently antinomian tendencies, yet quickly became integrated in the exoteric tradition, and is found today among the strictest of observant Jews.

The benefits of the exoteric to the esoteric forms of religion over the ages have been clear to see. The framework of law and worship, creed and Scripture, provided both a social meaning and shared social practices that enabled individual mystics to thrive. They shared with their nonmystical fellow believers the public practice of prayer, the study of sacred texts, and the deeds of charity. Their passionate quest for the experience of God through prayer was the more secure because it pursued the God proclaimed publicly in synagogue, church, and mosque. Their asceticism was not an exception to, but rather an intensification of, the strict rules of behavior followed by the exoteric community. Mystics were able to swim freely, and dive deeply, in an ocean bounded by public profession and practice.

In return, mysticism enriched the outer tradition, providing a medium for impulses of passionate devotion, producing generations of saints who represent the best within each religion. By recognizing all visible forms as less than ultimate, mysticism challenges the claims of religious law to total control over humans, and stands as an anti-idolatrous witness within exoteric religion. It makes clear that religion is not simply another version of politics, but a form of faith that in its essence seeks to serve the living God; and that religion’s efforts to stabilize the world are not solely about the assertion of human power, but about the service of humanity. Because everything in religion must be measured by God, mysticism insists, and because God is not a controllable or even a fully knowable entity, religion must always be measured by a reality beyond definition. Asserting the ultimate reality and power of this invisible presence, and willingly sacrificing pleasure in this life for the sake of a future life with God, mysticism reminds the exoteric that it too is called to a service larger than itself.

Ross Douthat in NYT:

Mysticism is dying, and taking true religion with it. Monasteries have dwindled. Contemplative orders have declined. Our religious leaders no longer preach the renunciation of the world; our culture scoffs at the idea. The closest most Americans come to real asceticism is giving up chocolate, cappuccinos, or (in my own not-quite-Francis-of-Assisi case) meat for lunch for Lent.

This, at least, is the stern message of Luke Timothy Johnson, writing in the latest issue of the Catholic journal Commonweal. As society has become steadily more materialistic, Johnson declares, our churches have followed suit, giving up on the ascetic and ecstatic aspects of religion and emphasizing only the more worldly expressions of faith. Conservative believers fixate on the culture wars, religious liberals preach social justice, and neither leaves room for what should be a central focus of religion — the quest for the numinous, the pursuit of the unnamable, the tremor of bliss and the dark night of the soul.

Yet by some measures, mysticism’s place in contemporary religious life looks more secure than ever. Our opinion polls suggest that we’re encountering the divine all over the place. In 1962, after a decade-long boom in church attendance and public religiosity, Gallup found that just 22 percent of Americans reported having what they termed “a religious or mystical experience.” Flash forward to 2009, in a supposedly more secular United States, and that number had climbed to nearly 50 percent.

In a sense, Americans seem to have done with mysticism what we’ve done with every other kind of human experience: We’ve democratized it, diversified it, and taken it mass market. No previous society has offered seekers so many different ways to chase after nirvana, so many different paths to unity with God or Gaia or Whomever. A would-be mystic can attend a Pentecostal healing service one day and a class on Buddhism the next, dabble in Kabbalah in February and experiment with crystals in March, practice yoga every morning and spend weekends at an Eastern Orthodox retreat center. Sufi prayer techniques, Eucharistic adoration, peyote, tantric sex — name your preferred path to spiritual epiphany, and it’s probably on the table.

Mollie Wilson O’Reilly at Commonweal:

Together, Johnson and Mujica’s articles explore some of the questions Douthat raises today. And of course, there’s more on these topics in our archives. Lawrence Cunningham’s February 2006 overview of “Catholic Spirituality” is worth revisiting, as is Luke Timothy Johnson’s own 2006 take on popular religion, “Keeping Spirituality Sane.” Is there anything else you think Douthat’s readers should check out while they’re here?

Rod Dreher:

I’ve always been mystically inclined in my spirituality, but also lazy and impatient. When I’ve hungered for a numinous experience of the divine, I’ve tended to see it as a matter of reading the right book to discover the secret. There is, of course, no secret wisdom that will help you plug in to the divine without much effort. Anything that promises you that is a false mysticism, is a lie. From my own experience, I’ve only been able to have truly transformative numinous experiences after submitting to a prayer discipline of some time. It’s like that with my body, too: in the past, whenever I’d be sick of my slack belly, I’d look for some fad diet that promised to help me shed pounds quickly and easily. It’s all a lie: the only way to lose weight in a healthy way is to both diet and exercise. Similarly, absent a rare road to Damascus moment, you’re not going to experience God mystically unless you seek Him earnestly through regular prayer, fasting and ascesis.

The Orthodox Christian way is the way of ascesis and mysticism. I hadn’t understood this from the outside, but once you enter Orthodoxy and take it seriously, it is not so much a set of rules to be obeyed as it is teaching to bring you to spiritual health. I was reading around in a book over the weekend in which an Orthodox bishop taught that there are no good people and bad people, there are only those who are suffering in various degrees from sickness, and those who are healed (the saints). Orthodoxy is to be seen as the authentic way of healing the soul. From an Orthodox point of view, you cannot really know God unless you know him mystically, through prayer. The word Orthodox theologians use to describe this way of knowing God is “noetic,” meaning, “related to the nous.” This is a good short introduction to the Orthodox mindset, and this from OrthodoxWiki explains what “nous” means in Orthodox spirituality.

In Orthodoxy, we can only be healed (= sanctified) through constant purification of the nous, through prayer, fasting and other forms of asceticism. Ascesis is not considered optional, or something only for monks, nuns and other spiritual athletes. It is, in Orthodox teaching, the normal way of Christian spirituality (though certainly the severe acts of ascesis practiced by monastics, especially on Mount Athos, are extraordinary). Mind you, many, many Orthodox Christians don’t know about this, or don’t care. But to be a normal Orthodox Christian is to be mystically inclined, and mysticism of the soul cannot be separated from “orthopraxis,” or right practice. The exoteric and the esoteric must live in balance. The thing I’ve observed from living and practicing Orthodox Christianity for nearly four years is how absolutely central mysticism is to the life and thought of the Church. You may live as a Protestant or a Catholic and never deal directly with the mystical dimension of the Christian faith, which includes ascesis. But I don’t know how you can do that as an Orthodox Christian.

The book, by the way, for curious laymen to read on this is “The Mountain of Silence” by Kyriacos Markides. It’s a fantastic introduction to Orthodox spirituality, very engaging and approachable.

Jason Kuznicki at The League:

Given that in the meantime our culture discovered magic mushrooms and LSD, I am hardly bowled over. This is not as flippant as it sounds. Research from my alma mater confirms what the hippies were only just discovering back then — that a single dose of magic mushrooms will commonly turn into one of the most important mystical experiences of a person’s entire lifetime. Yes, it really is that easy, as even proponents of the psychedelic experience, like Aldous Huxley, were wont to celebrate. (Not to condemn, but to celebrate. Mysticism for the masses — Huxley wasn’t born in America, but he probably should have been. He sure knew a typically American turn of mind when he saw one.)

I’m not presumptuous enough to rule one way or the other on the sincerity of drug-induced mystical experiences. I’ll just say that in 1962, the vast majority of Americans were either unaware of them or unwilling to consider them legitimate. Now, however, we read of a noted author who had a mystical experience after dental surgery, and it’s not all that shocking to us. Some of us may even have had similar experiences in similar perfectly legal and socially approved settings, and we feel comfortable calling them mystical in a way that our grandparents certainly would not.

And Douthat again, almost as if to prove himself a conservative:

[It may be that] something important is being lost as well. By making mysticism more democratic, we’ve also made it more bourgeois, more comfortable, and more dilettantish. It’s become something we pursue as a complement to an upwardly mobile existence, rather than a radical alternative to the ladder of success. Going to yoga classes isn’t the same thing as becoming a yogi; spending a week in a retreat center doesn’t make me Thomas Merton or Thérèse of Lisieux. Our kind of mysticism is more likely to be a pleasant hobby than a transformative vocation.

I have a hard time seeing anything other than snobbery here. America is a mass-produced society, the first and the most resolute of the type. You want full-time mystics? We do happen to have those by the dozens. You want a weekend — but only just a weekend — of mystical transport? Heck, we invented that trip.

Chris Dierkes at The League:

Whether Ross is being a snob I’m not sure (maybe? partially?); I’ll leave that to the readers to make up their own minds.

But I think a similar or related critique of pop mysticism could be made that wouldn’t be intrinsically snobby.

To wit, Ram Dass (nee Richard Alpert), one of the godfathers of the LSD mystical hit turned pilgrimage to India, author of the magisterially trippy (Remember) Be Here Now (from which the above picture is taken), said the real issue was “altered traits not altered states.”

I would further say (contra Ross and seconding Jason) that the American phenomenon of religion, from its inception, is, as Harold Bloom argued, spiritual experientialism:  Pentecostalism, Revivalism (out of which grew Joseph Smith and the uniquely American religion of Mormonism), The Great Awakenings, The Shakers, New Thought movements, Esalen, William James and the scientific study of mysticism, pre Vatican II “High” Roman Catholic Eucharistic Adoration and Liturgy, Spiritualism, Billy Graham stadium spectacles, and now since the 60s the entrance of Eastern forms of mystical experience.

America , as Jason says, is a mass-produced society and so we mass produce mystical experiences–whether in sports, sex, even cooking.  And of course in various meditation practices, retreats and so forth.  (I’m 2 out of 3 on that scale, which, as they say, ain’t bad.).  And of course drugs as temporary ecstatic states, technically exogenous mystical states (which I definitely have never experienced).  Meditation-induced states are labeled endogenous.

Still, these are all leave open the issue of altered traits, not altered states.  As in, a person can have all kinds of altered states but if their traits aren’t altered, what’s been gained really?

This isn’t snobbery but to ask, “What’s the point?” Or in 1980s language, “Where’s the (transformative) beef?”  Though I’m not sure that later question will go over with a lot of would be seekers, (of the Eastern-influenced variety), given the popularity of vegetarianism in such circles.

Mystical states are generally higher potential capacities of the human body-mind.  I would say they are only “higher” insofar as humans haven’t yet adapted to them as common occurrences as a species.  [You might call that view a naturalized mysticism if you like].  That means they have a relative value and can be good things, but they can also be (as mystics of all traditions have long pointed out), just another source of egocentrism–in fact arguably an even more pernicious form of egocentrism as now you are (as a friend of mine once said), “Enlightened yes, but still an asshole.”

But it leaves open the question of an Absolute Awakening (often incorrectly called mystical/spiritual).  What Ram Dass above calls Absolute Compassion and therefore a changed way of being human at fundamental levels of identity, emotion, speech, bodily action, and thought.  As opposed to temporary groovy experiences or “getting spiritually high” (with or without actually getting high).

More importantly the necessity for such an Absolute awakening to occur in the context of cultures dedicated to life–that’s what I think is missing from the current scene, not that it’s too “bourgeois” or whatever.

UPDATE: Andrew Stuttaford at Secular Right

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Everybody’s Got An Evil Twin Except For Me And My Monkey

Mike Konczal at Rortybomb:

Maybe it is because I’ve binged on Michael Sandel’s Justice series on youtube over the holidays, but I want to create a moral dilemma to see how far you are willing to go in thinking this justification works for our current financial system. But first I’ll need to go into Evil Financial Rortybomb mode. Ever see that Star Trek where in the Mirror Universe everyone is evil and has a goatee? It’s like that.

I want to pitch to the credit card and financial industry a new innovative online survey. It is targeted for older, more mature long-time users of our services. We’ll give a $10 credit for anyone who completes it. Here is a sense of what the questions will look like:

– 1) What is your age?
– 2) What day of the week are you taking this survey?
– 3) Many rewards offered are for people with more active lifestyles: vacations, flights, hotels, rental cars. Do you find that your rewards programs aren’t well suited for your lifestyle?
– 4) What is the current season where you live? Are any seasons harder for you in getting to a branch or ATM machine?
– 5) Would rewards that could be given as gifts to others, especially younger people, be helpful for what you’d like to do with your benefits?
– 6) Would replacing your rewards program with a savings account redeemable for education for your grandchildren be something you’d be interested in?
– 7) Write a sentence you’d like us to hear about anything, good or bad!
– 8 ) How worried are you you’ll leave legal and financial problems for your next-of-kin after your passing?

Did you catch it? Questions 1,2,4,7 are taken from the ‘Mini-mental State Examination’ which is a quick test given by medical professionals to see if a patient is suffering from dementia. (It’s a little blunt, but we can always hire some psychologist and marketers for the final version. They’re cheap to hire.) We can use this test to subtly increase limits, and break out the best automated tricks and traps mechanisms, on those whose dementia lights up in our surveys. Anyone who flags all four can get a giant increase in balance and get their due dates moved to holidays where the Post Office is slowest! We’d have to be very subtle about it, because there are many nanny-staters out there who’d want to coddle citizens here.

E.D. Kain at The League:

The point he’s making is basically that the whole “irresponsible borrowers deserve what they get” argument is a false one, and I tend to agree.

The whole process of luring in irresponsible borrowers and then saddling them with fines, fees, and extremely high interest rates strikes me as fairly awful. People with very little credit and fairly poor credit – high risk people like college kids, poor people, and so forth – are nevertheless given high credit limits, are lured in with perks and benefits, and are then pushed into a cycle of debt that is often extraordinarily hard to recover from. Many of these people were high enough risks that responsible lenders should never have extended so much easy credit to them to begin with.

At the very least, already we have two irresponsible parties – the borrowers and the lenders. Both have incentives to get into bed with one another.  The borrowers are typically low income or young. Having a line of credit increases their standard of living, at least at first, giving them some financial wiggle room, more purchasing power between paychecks, and a lifeline in case of emergencies. A relatively short line of credit is usually enough for this. A thousand dollars in case the car breaks down or in case you run short on bills and still need to pay for food and gas.

The lender has a more insidious incentive: when the borrower inevitably fails to “act responsibly” the irresponsible lender starts making some real money. That’s why they don’t give out just a thousand dollar credit limit but rather two, three, five thousand dollars – on top of other credit card companies who have already extended similar lines to the same borrower.

People who don’t see a problem with this relationship usually focus on the borrower rather than the lender as the sole irresponsible party, but that’s a wrong-headed way to look at things, especially since many of the people who get into these situations are young, ill-informed, and not prosperous or wise enough yet to manage the sort of responsibility that comes with having credit. In America, this sort of borrower is considered fair game, and the people who lend to them are called “bankers”. In more civilized places we refer to these people as “loan sharks”. In civilized places the burden of determining who is a responsible borrower falls on the lender’s head. This is what separates bankers from loan sharks.

Andrew Sullivan:

A Libertarian Litmus Test

Mike Konczal transforms into his evil twin to propose a way for credit card companies to rip off old people suffering from dementia.

Megan McArdle:

I’m not sure why this is supposed to be a hard question for libertarians.  I mean, I might argue that preventing people from ripping off the marginally mentally impaired would, in practice, be too difficult.  Crafting a rule that prevented companies from identifying people who are marginally impaired might well be impossible–I’m pretty sure that if I wanted to, I could devise subtler tests than “What day of the week is it?”  And while the seniors lobby is probably in favor of not ripping off seniors, they’re resolutely against making it harder for seniors to do things like drive or get credit, which is the result that any sufficiently strong rule would probably have.

But it’s pretty much standard libertarian theory that you shouldn’t take advantage of people who do not have the cognitive ability to make contracts.  Marginal cases are hard not because we think it’s okay, but because there is disagreement over what constitutes impairment, and the more forcefully you act to protect marginal cases, the more you start treating perfectly able-minded adults like children.

The elderly are a challenge precisely because there’s no obvious point at which you can say:  now this previously able adult should be treated like a child.  Either you let some people get ripped off, or you infringe the liberty, and the dignity, of people who are still capable of making their own decisions.

Konzcal is, I take it, in favor of more paternalism.  But the objection that I have to paternalism is not that it prevents companies from more effectively ripping off their customers.  The presumption that a majority of American adults are essentially children puts the state in loco parentis, which hands too much power to people who are not nearly as clever and wise as they believe themselves.  It is morally wrong for companies to attempt to capitalize on dementia, just as I believe it is morally wrong for casinos to attempt to identify, and monetize, their customers with serious gambling problems.  But giving that moral belief force of law is not necessarily a good idea, particularly if it involves eroding the presumption that we are adults capable of, and responsible for, running our own lives.

Jason Kuznicki at Cato:

I’d add two responses of my own.

First, I can’t believe there’s all that much money to be had here. Anyone who wanders into Tiffany’s and back out again without remembering what they bought is, generally speaking, a bad credit risk. Mildly irresponsible people — those who slightly overspend, then have to make it up later — those are probably great for creditors. Lesson learned: If you’re not demented, don’t be irresponsible. (If you are demented, you’re not going to follow my advice anyway.)

Second, I am always amazed at how border cases are dragged out, again and again, as if they proved something against libertarianism. Border cases — How old before you can vote? How demented before a contract doesn’t bind? — are a problem in all political systems, because all systems start with a presumed community of citizens and/or subjects. We always have to draw boundaries between the in-group and the outliers before we have a polity in the first place.

What makes the classical liberal/libertarian approach so valuable is in fact that it draws so few boundaries. Where other systems depend on class boundaries, race boundaries, religious boundaries, and so forth — with annoying boundary issues at every stop along the way — libertarians make it as simple as I think it can be. We presume that all mentally competent adults are worthy of liberty until they prove themselves otherwise.

The boundary cases are still there, but they are fewer and more tractable. Konczal just wandered into one of them. It proves much less than he thinks.

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