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On Clarity and Ideal Theory

I know that I'm hugely late to the party on this, but better late than never, I suppose. Last week, the lefty blogosphere was all atwitter at Joe Klein's take on left wing extremism. I don't really have all that much to add to Klein's take. I said some fairly similar things once upon a time, though Klein's take manages to be at once both more detailed and less reasoned. At any rate, Klein's take wasn't terribly popular with the leftosphere, but as the debate itself is rather old at this point, I'm not going to try to add anything all that new. I do, however, want to say something about this claim, from Max Sawicky at TPMCafe, interesting:

As you get older, you do not get better. Sorry to break it to you. I am not talking physically; that's obvious enough. I mean in the capacity for moral reasoning. The unfortunate problem is that the valid ideals you learn while young become obstacles to professional, financial, and social advancement. You have to make compromises in order to progress, and you come to believe the justifications you devise along the way. This gives rise to unclear thinking. The better you do, the more muddle-headed you must become.

Now I realize that this is something of a throwaway line, or perhaps more accurately, it's a rhetorical device that Sawicky uses to take a cheap shot at Klein. But still, it led me to wonder whether Sawicky is right. Is it really true that ideals are a barrier to social, professional and financial advancement? The answer, I think, depends on how, exactly one cashes out Sawicky's claim. Consider:

    1. One can advance professionally, financially and socially if and only if one engages in immoral behavior.

Now if this is the claim, then its falsity seems obvious enough. Surely it's not necessary to list the hundreds and thousands of everyday, ordinary people who are quite successful without having to resort to overtly immoral behavior. But I suspect that Sawicky actually has something quite different in mind. Namely,

    2. One can advance professionally, financially and socially if and only if one abandons idealism.

I suspect that (2) may well be right. I saw that sort of reasoning pretty frequently when I worked in politics this past fall. Many of my young colleagues lamented having to construct ads that were sometimes...misleading. Most disliked writing negative pieces. Or more precisely, most disliked writing negative pieces on certain candidates; there was a general feeling that at least some of those guys were getting exactly what they deserved. But I digress. At any rate, nearly everyone with whom I discussed the issue said something to the effect of, "You have to get elected to govern and you have to campaign in order get elected." Under the assumption that our guy will be better than the other guy, we gritted our teeth and wrote the ads. Then celebrated when -- in most cases -- our candidates got elected last November. (The jury is still out on the underlying assumption.) Read more »

Public Intellectuals

The death of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. led Ezra Klein to ask where the next generation of public intellectuals will be found. Mark Schmitt laments that there are few incentives these days for intellectuals -- particularly for intellectuals on the left -- to forgo the academic route. Read more »

Public Intellectuals

The death of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. led Ezra Klein to ask where the next generation of public intellectuals will be found. Mark Schmitt laments that there are few incentives these days for intellectuals -- particularly for intellectuals on the left -- to forgo the academic route. Read more »

Unity\'08 and Major Strategic Blunders

Despite getting some fairly major props from David Broder recently, it seems that the fledgling political movement, Unity'08 isn't actually doing all that well. For those of you not familiar with the project (and given their numbers, I'd guess that that particular set contains just about everyone), Unity'08 aims to overcome a general disenchantment with the two-party system. To this end, they have set three goals:

1. Goal One is the election of a Unity Ticket for President and Vice-President of the United States in 2008 – headed by a woman and/or man from each major party or by an independent who presents a Unity Team from both parties.
2. Goal Two is for the people themselves to pick that Unity Ticket in the first half of 2008 – via a virtual and secure online convention in which all American voters will be qualified to vote.
3. Goal Three, our minimum goal, is to effect major change and reform in the 2008 national elections by influencing the major parties to adopt the core features of our national agenda. With a group of voters who comprise at least 20% of the national electorate, we feel confident that our voters will decide the 2008 election.

The group set its sights on 10 to 20 million voters at its online convention, reasoning that that sort of support would get its candidate(s) taken seriously. Probably they are right in that assessment. The problem, however, is that so far, they have only 35,000 people signed up. As Whiskey Fire gleefully quips:

Jeez, I bet a smart young advertising professional could get more than 35,000 people to sign an online petition for "Federline '08." Or "Aphids '08." Or the "Dysentery Ticket." Or the "Nigerian Inheritance Party."

Now I could write a well-reasoned analysis of why Unity'08 is such a silly idea. But that would (a) require a lot of effort, and (b) not end up being entirely true. It strikes me that it's at least an interesting idea, one which has the potential to bring together a pair of candidates who manage between them some good fiscal sense, a decent social policy, and some sort of coherent foreign policy. I don't think that there's any chance whatsoever that said candidate(s) could, like, actually win an election. Perhaps more plausibly, however, a run of this sort might help to shift the terms of the debate for '12. That's not enough to make me vote for a Unity'08 candidate, but it's enough for me to support such a run. Read more »

On Hypocrisy

I've been watching the whole Al-Gore-uses-tons-of-electricity mini-controversy with some amusement. Amusement because all the responses are pretty much a complete 180 from the whole Ted-Haggard-likes-gay-hookers mini-controversy of a few months ago. Back then you had lots of folks on the left playing gotcha, calling out Haggard for his blatant hypocrisy. Meanwhile various folks on the right offered lame defenses of Haggard's behavior. Now, many of those same folks on the left are busy defending Gore's energy use while conservatives gleefully mock the former VP.

For the record, I don't particularly care about the controversies themselves. Let's just go ahead and assume (for the sake of argument) that Haggard and Gore in fact did what they are accused of having done (though Haggard denied it, and the initial report on Gore's electric usage may be, well, made up). I'm more interested in the charge of hypocrisy itself. Specifically, I'm interested in what actually counts as hypocrisy. A quick trip to my old, trusty college dictionary (online version here) reveals that "hypocrisy" means

the practice of professing beliefs, feelings, or virtues that one does not hold or possess; insincerity

Now it's possible to quibble about whether this is really what we mean (or what we ought to mean) by hypocrisy, but let's just take this as our working definition. On this standard, is it really the case that Haggard and Gore are hypocrites? Let's take Haggard's case first. Read more »

Regulations, Energy and the Internet

At TPMCafe, former FCC chair Reed Hunt decides to take on a new topic: the energy sector. Lamenting the noticeable absence of "hundreds and thousands of start-ups that with huge funding and explosive entrepreneurship will wean the world off carbon-emitting energy generation and distribution," Hunt goes...hunting...for a public policy that will drive market-based solutions to our reliance on carbon. Here Hunt draws from his own experience in the communications industry; he asks, reasonably enough, what it is that drove the explosion in communications technology. Hunt's conclusion:

if law opens markets to new entry by adjacent firms and start-up firms, and makes that entry very easy, huge funds will flow from global capital pools into the new rivals in the markets dominated by big firms. In reaction the big incumbents are more likely to increase their own efforts to adopt new technologies.


The rule of law opened the door for this massive entrepreneurial change in many ways, but the two most important steps in the United States were the establishment of an "open" regime for the Internet and the auctioning of spectrum for wireless, which opened the industry to competition.

So far, so good. If you want explosive private-sector growth, then deregulate and privatize the industries. I'm not sure that I see what the "rule of law" business is all about, since in fact, the law that "opened" the Internet was needed only because there had been previous laws that closed it. Ditto for the spectrum for wireless; the state had to auction it only because the state had already claimed ownership of it. Still, the point is a good one: fewer regulations equals more competition and more private sector innovating. Read more »

Mill and Stupid Conservatives

I see that Andrew Sullivan passes along as genuine this bit from Mark Kleiman, who offers the usual misunderstanding of what is quite possibly the most misunderstood Mill quotation of all time. From Kleiman: Read more »

Random Political Observation

So just for fun, I gave out my e-mail address to both the Edwards and the Clinton campaigns. (I'll probably do the same with Obama...I've just not gotten around to it yet.) Read more »

Double Standards and the Yglesias Doctrine

I've decided that it's time to break out of my new pattern. You know, the one where I wave my hands at some problem and then sitting back and watch as my more competent co-bloggers to do all the serious analysis. That, however, will mean staying away from anything related to economics, since hand-waving is about all that I can do there. So I'll take a stab at saying something interesting about the Yglesias Doctrine. And yes, I know I'm late to the party on that one (see, for example Jane Galt's discussion of the "Condorcet Doctrine").

The gist of Yglesias' post is that the fundamental problem with nation-building in general and with the Iraq war in particular

isn't that the United States is insufficiently virtuous to remake the world, but that no country is sufficiently virtuous to wield the level of power that would be required to remake the world. The exercise of power needs to be constrained by some kind of widely acceptable rules.

Yglesias goes on to suggest that war is justified

  • In direct self-defense.
  • In defense of another country (i.e., we assist Costa Rica in repelling a Nicaraguan invasion).
  • When authorized by a UN Security Council resolution.
  • When called for by a relevant (i.e., the OAS can't authorize an invasion of Burma) regional organization.
  • In many ways, this isn't a bad doctrine. I actually liked it a bit better when I first read it in Just and Unjust Wars...which, come to think of it, was probably right around the time that Matt was worrying about whom to take to the 8th grade prom. So calling it the Yglesias Doctrine is maybe a bit problematic. Still, that's just a quibble.

    My real concern stems from the fact that it's not clear to me that Matt's third and fourth principles actually justify a war. Read more »

    How Not to Do History of Philosophy

    Start with political philosopher A. Then find two more contemporary figures B and C. Show that both B and C say things that are similar to (parts of) things that A says. Then conclude that B and C are really the same and that anyone committed to B-like things must, by implication, also be committed to C-like things. Example:

    Using the Law to (Gasp!) Protect Liberty

    Just in from Catallarchy's new (very small and extremely underworked) Department of Good Uses of State Law:

    Medical marijuana advocates have sued the federal Department of Health and Human Services, accusing it of lying to the nation about the drug's lack of accepted medical use despite scientific studies showing its efficacy.

    Mandatory Vaccines

    At TAPPED, Ann Friedman makes a case for mandatory HPV vaccination. I'm sure that this sort of proposal isn't going to do all that much for most people here at Catallarchy. I, however, am of mixed feelings. It seems to me that when it comes to something like vaccination, states do have something of an advantage over markets. Consider:

    War Crimes

    From CNN:

    A U.S. soldier was sentenced to 100 years in prison Thursday for the gang rape and murder of an Iraqi girl and the killing of her family last year.

    Sgt. Paul E. Cortez, 24, also was given a dishonorable discharge. He will be eligible for parole in 10 years under the terms of his plea agreement.

    Academic Freedom

    Via Hit & Run, I see that academic freedom is under assault in Arizona once more. Read more »

    Misunderstanding Madison

    Andrew Sullivan reprints a letter from NRO on Republican reservations about John McCain:

    The big problem with McCain is that he repeatedly takes a high profile stand for the Democrats on important partisan issues. He does this on important policies like W's tax cuts and torture legislation, and of course campaign finance. Even on the war he has often given credibility to the left's rhetoric about Rumsfeld, torture, administration incompetence, etc., even though he's been solid on the core substance. Its not just that he occasionally votes with the Democrats, its that he's willing to become their chief spokesman when he does it. Sure he may hold conservative views on 80% of the issues, but the other 20% seems to be what he really cares about.

    Sullivan rightly points out the worrisome partisanship. According to (at least some of) the Republican base, there is no attempt to analyze the rightness or wrongness of the positions in question. There's no attempt to question whether maybe, just maybe, McCain was right to offer criticisms of the Bush administration. No, the problem with McCain is that he refuses to toe the party line even when the party line is pretty clearly immoral (e.g., its torture policy), inept (e.g., anything having to do with Iraq), or simply incoherent (e.g., tax cuts combined with huge spending increases). Read more »