“Socialism”: The Provocative Equivocation

The socialists are back, but is it a big deal?  It’s tempting to say that it’s purely rhetorical.  Modern socialists don’t want to emulate the Soviet Union.  To them, socialism just means “Sweden,” right?  Even if their admiration for Sweden is unjustified, we’ve long known that the Western world contains millions of people who want their countries to be like Sweden.  Why should we care if Sweden-fans rebrand themselves as “socialists”?

My instinctive objection is that even using the term “socialism” is an affront to the many millions of living victims of Soviet-style totalitarian regimes.  Talking about “socialism” understandably horrifies them.  Since there are plenty of palatable synonyms for Swedish-type policies (starting even “Swedenism”!), selecting this particular label seems a breach of civility.

If this seems paranoid, what would you say about a new movement of self-styled “national socialists”?  Even if their policy positions were moderate, this brand needlessly terrifies lots of folks who have already suffered enough.

On reflection, however, this is a weak objection.  Yes, if a label’s connotations are – like “national socialism” – almost entirely horrible, then loudly embracing the label is uncivil.  “Socialism,” however, has long had a wide range of meanings.  Even during the height of Stalinism, plenty of self-styled “socialists” were avowedly anti-Communist.  The upshot: Even if you were a victim of Soviet oppression, assuming the worst when you hear the word “socialism” is hypersensitive.  And hypersensitivity is bad.

Yet there’s a much stronger reason to object to the socialist revival.  Namely: It’s far from clear that the latter-day socialists do mean Sweden.  While some (like John Marsh) plainly say so, others (like Elizabeth Bruenig) are coy indeed.  Which raises deeply troubling questions, starting with:

1. Are latter-day socialists unaware of the history of the totalitarian movement that shares their name?  Given widespread historical ignorance and the youth of the new socialists, we can hardly rule this out.  A troubling thought; isn’t it negligent to champion a radical idea without investigating its history first?

2. Are latter-day socialists ambivalent about the totalitarian movement that shares their name?  Do they look on the Soviet Union as a noble experiment with unfortunate shortcomings?  How about Chavez’s Venezuela?

3. Do latter-day socialists think of Sweden as a starting point, and something more radical as the ultimate goal?  Are there outright crypto-communists among them?  If so, do their comrades know?  Care?

4. Do latter-day socialists realize that being coy raises the preceding concerns?  Do they care?  Or is the raising of these concerns a “feature, not a bug”?  I.e., they enjoy making people wonder if they’re secret Leninists?

What’s the truth?  While I don’t personally know any latter-day socialists well, I do read a lot of articles in The Nation, which publishes a wide range of modern socialists.  So here are my best guesses about the preceding possibilities.

1. Older socialists (age 50+) know a lot about the actual history of socialism.  The younger ones (age 40 and under), however, know little and care less.  They’re negligent romantics.

2. Most historically-literate socialists are indeed ambivalent about the totalitarian movement that shares their name.  Very few will defend Stalin, but they just can’t stay mad at Lenin, Castro, or Ho Chi Minh.  Even the historically-naive socialists feel pretty good about Cuba today and Venezuela in 2015.

3. Yes, most avowed socialists have a more radical ultimate goal than Sweden.  In our Capitalism-Socialism debate, even the reasonable John Marsh mused about a future that realized radical socialist dreams without degenerating into a typical socialist nightmare.  How extreme, then, are ultimate goals of the unreasonable socialists?  While I really don’t know, videos like this make me strongly suspect that Bernie Sanders is literally a crypto-communist.  Even if I’m wrong, how many latter-day socialists would care if Sanders was a crypto-communist?

4. Latter-day socialists really do enjoy making people wonder about their ultimate agenda.  When you read The Nation, for example, authors almost never specify exactly what policy should be.  Instead, they focus on radical movement in a desired direction, with minimal discussion of their ultimate objective.  In particular, they almost never say what would be “too far.”  Of course, this describes most political movements; they want to rally the troops, not provide blueprints of an ideal world.  But when you cultivate a “radical” image but withhold specifics, you should expect critics’ minds to go to dark places.  Rather than try to calm the critics, the latter-day socialists court their disapproval.  In fact, most seem to positively enjoy the imagined intellectual trauma they’re inflicting on the unbeliever.

On reflection, then, the return of the self-styled socialist is indeed a travesty.  The reason, though, is not that the word is offensive, but that it is deliberately confusing.  If you really thought Sweden was a model society, you would just praise Sweden.  The “socialist” label, in contrast, is a provocative equivocation.  Latter-day socialists adopt it because they would rather insinuate their possible support for totalitarian horrors than earnestly promote an intellectually defensible position.

To what end?  In modern parlance, the latter-day socialists could just be trolling.  This is bad enough, but some socialists probably sincerely believe what they’re insinuating.  Or worse.  If all you want is Swedish social democracy, making common cause with such socialists is a grave mistake.

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Everything Dies Baby, That’s a Fact

Nebraska is the only good album by Bruce Springsteen. But that’s not the point of this post. This post is about death.

For something good to happen, something has to die. Harsh but true.

When you get married, your single self dies. When you become a parent, your childless self dies. When you move into the future, the present dies to the past. Every time.

We see death every day in plants and animals and seasons. Its cyclical nature and preponderance to create something new seem obvious. But it’s harder to see the same process at work in our human lives. We associate death with, well, death. Really, we should associate it with life. For something new to be born, something must die.

This principle is so unavoidable and fundamental that every culture has myths and rituals mimicking it. Apparently, despite its universality and inescapability, we fear and misunderstand it so much that we need to make strange, regular recreations of this principle of nature just so we don’t forget or miss the lessons.

The ancient idea of sacrifices is the crudest and most obvious version, but all cultures are full of less extreme and literal representations of the death-to-life cycle. I remember hearing about a ritual among some African tribes, where adolescents were awakened in the night by masked parents, dragged into the woods, and buried alive. To enter adulthood, they had to dig out of the grave and find their way back to the village.

If you can put aside the oddness and cruelty of the ritual, it’s pretty profound. Adulthood is a kind of death. The ideas, beliefs, habits, frameworks, assumptions, and actions of a child are wonderful. And they must die. If you continue to see the world and the people in it as mostly built around you, owing and freely giving you protection and sustenance, the world will destroy you. If not in body, in spirit. An adult living like a dependent child is a soul-dead existence. To be fully alive as an adult, the child in you has to die.

The cold shock of masked people carrying you off to the woods, burying you, and leaving you to die is quite the metaphor. (The more intense rituals seem to blur the line between literal and metaphorical). It’s an awakening to the fact that the world doesn’t care about you qua you. You won’t be cared for just because you exist. You have to shatter the illusion that you are owed or will be given anything you don’t earn. The ritual is like a hardcore version of this timeless Cracked article.

New vistas, challenges, projects, and adventures beckon. We all talk about them, assume we’ll experience them, and plan for progress. Some people constantly achieve new stuff, while others don’t. It’s not always lack of goals and dreams that keep people from progress. Sometimes it’s fear of death. The difference between a dream deferred and a dream pursued isn’t so much the step into future as the killing of the present. You’ve got to cut the baggage of where and who you are loose and let it sink to the depths before you can become the next version. The old Dr. Who must die for a new one to emerge. (Very sad in the case of David Tennant.)

That’s why I don’t think it helps much when, at some momentous parting, someone says, “This isn’t the end, it’s just the beginning!” No, it’s the end. The status quo is dying. Never to live again. You must accept, acknowledge, and own its death.

Of course it is also the beginning of a new era, and one that’s even better. But to ignore the death part and quickly move to the new part is a mistake. You need to really kill it. Really let it go. If you try to let the old live subconsciously with the new, you’ll tear yourself in two. (You’re welcome for the rhyme). This is why those rituals exist, remember? It’s too easy to try to sneak one past old death. “Yep, nothing to see here, just moving on to be a new version of myself”, meanwhile the rotting zombie of your former self is snarling suspiciously under the desk. Time to take it out back and shoot it.

The reason it’s so hard for us to fully embrace the death step as a precondition to new life is probably because the one kind of death that looms largest for us is one after which we can’t see the next step. We don’t exactly know what happens after our heart stops. The unknown hereafter is a lot to ponder, so we tend to avoid it. This avoidance trickles and seeps into all the lesser forms of death that ought not trouble us so much. Like our physical death, we ignore the other deaths. To our detriment. It gets pretty ugly when you see someone dragging along a bunch of dead versions of themselves, insisting they’re still alive, refusing to bury them and give life to the new.

So, if you want to do cool stuff you’ve got to learn to die. There are all kinds of death, and each new level in each area of life requires a different kind. There’s ego death, reputation death, innocence death, ignorance death, nice guy/gal death, and so many more. A good life is a series of deaths. So you’d better find some ritual or process or belief that helps you make your peace with death so you can burst into life.

And who knows, maybe when you get comfy with lesser death, you won’t fear the big one quite so much either.

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Governing Least‘s Immigration Oversight

Dan Moller’s Governing Least barely mentions immigration.  But it should have, because of its strong implications for this hugely important issue.  Applying Moller’s approach, there is not only a moral presumption in favor of open borders, but a host of residual obligations that accompany even justified restrictions on immigration.

Recall that Moller’s libertarianism highlights the effrontery of extra-libertarian moral demands:

Imagine calling a town hall meeting and delivering the following speech:

My dear assembled citizens: I know most of us are strangers, but of late I have fallen on hard times through no fault of my own, by sheer bad luck. My savings are low, and I don’t have friends or family to help. Now as you know, I’ve previously asked for help from you as private citizens, as a matter of charity. But unfortunately that hasn’t been sufficient. Thus, I’m here now to insist that you (yes you, Emma, and you, John) owe me assistance as a matter of justice. It is a deep violation if you don’t work additional hours, take fewer vacations if need be, live in a smaller house, or send your kids to a worse school, in order to help me. Failing to do so is no less an injustice than failing to pay your debts.

Moreover, calling this an injustice means that it’s not enough that you comply with your obligations by working on my behalf. No, I insist that you help me to force your fellow citizens to assist me. It doesn’t matter if these others say to you that they need the money for their own purposes, that they prefer worthier causes, or if they’re just hard-hearted and don’t care. To the extent you care about justice, you must help me to force these others to assist me whether they wish to or not, since that is what is owed me in light of my recent bad luck.

Could you bring yourself to make this speech?

But Governing Least also gives this imaginary speech a libertarian foil:

Compare, then, a similar speech advancing a different substantive claim:

My dear assembled citizens: of late, some of you have been stealing my money. I’m here now to insist that you (yes you, Emma, and you, John) give it back. This means that you owe me thousands of dollars which you stole. It’s a deep violation if you don’t work additional hours, take fewer vacations if need be, live in a smaller house, or send your kids to a worse school, in order to pay me back what you stole. Failing to do so is no less an injustice than failing to pay your debts. Moreover, calling this an injustice means that it’s not enough that you comply with your obligations by working on my behalf to repay me what you’ve stolen. No, I insist that you help me to force the thieves among you to pay restitution. It doesn’t matter if these thieves say to you that they need the money for their own purposes, that they prefer worthier causes, or that they’re just hard- hearted and don’t care. To the extent you care about justice, you must help me to force these others to repay me what they stole.

No one is likely to be embarrassed by this variant. Even if we are shy and uncomfortable about confronting others in public speeches, there is nothing strange about the idea of giving such a speech, or about someone giving it. To the extent there is a problem with the first speech it lies not in its manner but its substance.

When a foreigner demands his right to work for a willing domestic employer or rent from a willing domestic landlord, it closely parallels the second speech.  The only out is to appeal to the very “emergent moral powers of the state” that Moller decisively rejects:

Essentially, the issue is whether there are emergent moral powers of the state — permissions that the state enjoys that mere individuals do not. It is an important assumption in some of my arguments that we can compare the actions of the state to the actions of individuals, and that objections to what individuals or groups of individuals do to us by way of infringing our rights can be objections to what the state does, assuming the circumstances and grounds of infringement are similar. I will assume, that is, that it makes sense to ask such questions as, “Could I and my friends break down your door and compel you to give us your money for reason X under circumstances Y?” and to draw conclusions about what the state may do. We can call this the non- emergence assumption.

Since it would be normally be morally wrong for my friends and I to exile someone for being born in a different country, it is also normally wrong for governments to do so.  In other words, Moller’s work implies an open borders presumption.  Furthermore, even if the consequences of immigration were sufficient to surmount this presumption, regulators must mind Moller’s residual obligations:

I propose the following non-exhaustive list of residual obligations for cases like Emergency:

Restitution: although I didn’t do wrong, I must repay the $1,000 if possible, perhaps in reasonable installments.

Compensation: to the extent you are otherwise harmed by my actions, I should attempt to compensate you. For instance, if I smashed your windows getting in or forced you to incur some loss because you had to come home at short notice, I must compensate you at some reasonable rate.

Sympathy: it is incumbent on me to convey, if not an apology for my (permissible) actions, at least sympathy for the harm I have caused you. (“I’m very sorry I had to do that” would be the natural if slightly misleading phrase.) I cannot offer a Gallic shrug at your distress and announce, “I did nothing wrong— it’s your problem” as you survey the wreckage of your home. To do so would exhibit a serious character flaw.

Responsibility: my obligations are not just backward looking, but forward looking. If I can reasonably foresee that some action of mine will put me in the position of facing an emergency that will then render it permissible to harm you, I must take responsibility to avoid such actions if possible. I should not think that I have less reason to take responsibility because I can avoid harms by transferring them to you instead. And failing to take responsibility weakens my claim to impose costs on others when the time comes.

So even when immigration regulations are morally justified responses to dire consequences, governments cannot legitimately restrict immigration unless they also:

a. Pay restitution/compensation to innocents denied admission.

b. Earnestly apologize to innocents denied admission.

c. Scrupulously eschew policies that give immigration dire consequences.  For example, governments cannot rightfully refuse immigration on the grounds that, “Our welfare state is so generous that you would be a big net fiscal burden.”  Even if this is true, Moller’s framework places the blame on the governments that create dangerously generous welfare states in the first place.  Once a government adopts these irresponsible policies, they have no right to “avoid harms by transferring them” to immigrants.

To repeat, I’m the one using Moller’s approach to morally assess immigration.  He focuses almost entirely on the welfare state, mentioning immigration only in passing.  To my mind, this is doubly unfortunate because…

First, the harm of the welfare state, though serious, is minor compared to the harm of immigration restriction.  Denying billions of desperately poor people the right to move to opportunity is far worse than forcing hundreds of millions of fortunate people to “donate” a quarter of their income.

Second, it reinforces the false stereotype that libertarianism disregards the rights of the poor.  When the U.S. government jails families for the “crime” of seeking asylum, an exclusive focus on the evils of programs like TANF and SNAP really does reveal a major moral blind spot.  Since Moller reads abundant empirical research, moreover, he can’t easily plead ignorance of the facts.

Fortunately, Moller can remedy this situation… by writing a follow-up article on the ethics of immigration.  He totally should.

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Governing Least: A Litany of Insight

Dan Moller’s Governing Least is packed with random insights and philosophic wit.  Some highlights:

Why so much political philosophy sounds desperate:

Only those already unsympathetic to utilitarianism are likely to be swayed by Rawls’s brief observations. Those who begin their political philosophy by defending the morality of rights don’t so much preach to the choir as exorcize the elect.

Why so much political philosophy sounds so blind:

The reason France does not require aid is not because some external group took pity on the French, but that they were able to generate exponential economic growth themselves. This makes it puzzling that philosophers write long books about aid without mentioning economic growth, and generally seem to imply that the path to escaping poverty lies through individual altruism. Why ignore the only mechanism that has ever succeeded in lifting millions of people out of poverty when thinking about poverty?

A great explanation of the Theory of the Second-Best:

Suppose that a company enjoys monopoly powers that we cannot immediately remove under the present regulatory regime, but that one of its upstart rivals enjoys a market- distorting state subsidy which we can remove. It is a fallacy to infer that market efficiency will be improved by at least killing the subsidy— the reverse may well be true— just as it is fallacious to reason that if our military lacks both bombs and bombers the second- best solution is at least to build the bombers.

Why predictable outcomes can co-exist with abundant opportunity:

The data on intergenerational mobility or its absence is sobering, to say the least. In the United States, sometimes this leads commentators to call into question the traditional self- conception of America as a “land of opportunity.” It’s hardly a land of opportunity if outcomes are determined at birth, runs the criticism.

Let us consider this reasoning in more detail. The critic seems to reason as follows: If there were anything like equality of opportunity, then we couldn’t predict outcomes at birth, but we can, and so the land of opportunity is a myth. Let us assume the standard to meet here isn’t exact equality of opportunity for every single citizen. Could there still be reasonably high levels of opportunity despite outcomes— including bad ones— being highly predictable from the start? The critic seems to assume the following principle:

Predictability defeats opportunity: if we are able to specify social outcomes with a high degree of accuracy in advance, then the people in question cannot enjoy much opportunity.

Why accept this principle? What is it that connects predictability and opportunity? The obvious answer is that we think we know enough about people to be confident that if they did enjoy opportunities, they wouldn’t exercise them in a way that leads to bad social outcomes. The fact that we know that Smith will end up poor in all likelihood suggests that he is powerless to avoid it, since if he were capable of influencing the outcome, then he would. This amounts to another, deeper principle:

Predictability is evidence of incapacity: the fact that we can predict poor social outcomes is evidence that those who experience them lack a capacity for avoiding them.

Another way of putting the matter is that a fixed proportion of poor outcomes might be bad, but it wouldn’t be bad for reasons of diminished opportunity, since it might be the case that there are going to be winners and losers in anything resembling a free society, and as long as everyone has a fair shot at being a winner, things aren’t so bad. (No doubt more would need to be said about what “losing” amounts to for us to feel reassured.) What is terrible about predictability is that the losers aren’t just random, but never had a chance. Because predictability is evidence of incapacity, we know that those with poor outcomes never had a chance to succeed, and a fortiori they lacked anything like an equal or reasonable opportunity for success.

The problem is that it isn’t true that predictability, in itself, is evidence of incapacity, that outcomes are beyond our control. I don’t want to deny in the end that certain forms of incapacity do play a role in social outcomes, but how much is far from settled, and by opening with the assumption that predictability implies incapacity, we go wrong from the start. The fundamental confusion is between the epistemic question of what we can say about the future and the metaphysical question of what people are able to do at a given time in given circumstances. There are various fancy examples to illustrate this in the free- will literature, but for our purposes we can stick to some everyday examples:

Rope line: at the airport, we predict with great confidence that people will walk along a particular circuitous path— the one laid out by the velvet ropes. Nevertheless, the passengers are free to step over the ropes any time they like. It’s just that hardly anyone does. Predictability here doesn’t imply incapacity, it’s just that the passengers all have reason to exercise their freedom in a certain way.
Victim-blaming is (often) question-begging:
[I]t sounds mean to claim that people generally have a capacity to influence social outcomes when thinking about the poor, a bit like victim-blaming. But such a denial would involve insisting that something like the following claims are generally true (readers are invited to imagine these in the mouths of their own children facing unfavorable social circumstances, such as a lousy school system):
• “I can’t help it that I skipped class.”
• “It wasn’t possible to do my homework.”
• “I had no control over whether I had children.”
• “There was no way I could have worked this past year.”
It is important to acknowledge that for some people, these statements will be true. Mothers have children due to rape, classes go unattended because of gunfire or violence in the school, recessions destroy employment opportunities even for those who are highly qualified and persevering and willing to accept low wages. The point isn’t that all poor social outcomes are blameworthy, but that most (not all) people can exercise an enormous amount of influence over whether they lead a decent life in the developed world, even when ignorance or other internal impediments bar the way.
Governing Least is so packed with insight that I could easily have made this post three times longer.  Read it and see for yourself!
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“Intellectual”

“Intellectual” is not a dirty word. It disturbs me how often it is used as one.

On the other hand, many of those who are called “intellectuals”– particularly “public intellectuals”– are really just government extremists and elitists. They may have degrees and positions, but their position on issues is anti-intellectual. They follow the religion of statism and worship the god of government.

It is not rational to be a statist. It is vulgar to believe people should be governed by others, and to use politics as a tool for this purpose. Any illiterate punk might believe the same thing, but without claiming the “authority” to force everyone to go along.

They believe they know better how to run your life than you do. And they are willing to use government violence to prove it.

These people may be clever. They may be smart in some ways. But their ignorance and emotionalism overwhelm their intellect. They betray their own intellectualism with their belief system. They’ve decided which is more important to them, personally. And it’s a shame.

Think of all the good they could have otherwise done if they are really as “intellectual” as they are made out to be. The world is poorer for having lost their contributions. When you side with darkness and ignorance– with statism– your intellect, if any, becomes a net negative to society.

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There’s No Way to Know Everything

It’s a bitter pill to swallow, and one many people can’t accept, but you and I can never know everything.

This means if you want to act politically, you’ll come from a place of ignorance whether you mean to or not.

I can’t know the ultimate reality about Anthropogenic Global Climate Change — commonly called “global warming.”

I can’t know all the possible consequences of building a new “Berlin Wall” between America and Mexico.

I can’t know how a total gun ban would affect actual aggression statistics.

I can’t know all the consequences of adopting fully socialized medicine in America.

I can’t know exactly what my life would be like without police, government schools, taxation, laws, and all the rest of the socialistic things I would like to see go away.

And it doesn’t really matter.

It’s enough to know when something violates other people’s rights and liberty; to understand I have no right to violate others even if I can’t know with certainty how things would go if no one violates them.

This knowledge — that I have no right to violate others — is sufficient and essential.

There are people who are arrogant enough to believe they can know it all. They may claim the reason you don’t know it all is because you won’t research it for yourself, or you’re just not smart enough. They are dishonest.

They don’t know it all. They only know enough to be satisfied with the position they’ve taken; a position that justifies their favorite violations of life, liberty, and property. If your research leads you to a different opinion, they’ll claim you don’t know enough until you agree with them.

They expect to use government against those who don’t agree with them on whatever issue they care most about. They’d like to have you on their side; superior numbers, expressed through a vote, to gang up and force others to go along with what they believe.

Yet, even if they are right in their beliefs, they aren’t right about how to carry them out. No one has the right to use government violence to force you to go along with them.

Such a right has never existed and can’t be invented.

Accept that no one can know everything and that no matter what you know it can’t give you the right to govern others, nor to select people to govern them on your behalf.

This knowledge will liberate you.

That’s one thing I can know for certain.

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