James Burnham on liberalism and decline

James Burnham’s Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism proposes the thesis that modern liberalism is the ideology of a society in decline; its doctrines motivate and justify the contraction of Western civilization and reconciles us to it.

In the chapter “Liberalism vs. Reality” Burnham observes that liberals feel uncomfortable about power and force. Liberals are reluctant to use force against  ordinary criminals (which are, after all, just “victims” of an unjust society) but feel little hesitation to use it against those who are productive and successful.

It is not that liberals, when they enter the governing class…never make use of force; unavoidably they do, sometimes to excess. But because of their ideology they are not reconciled intellectually and morally to force. They therefore tend to use it ineptly, at the wrong times and places, against the wrong targets, in the wrong amounts.

Although Burnham ends his book by considering the possibility of a reversal of modern liberalism, the section that precedes it reads as follows:

Liberalism permits Western civilization to be reconciled to dissolution; and this function its formulas will enable it to serve right through to the very end, if matters turn out that way: for even if Western civilization is wholly vanquished or altogether collapses, we or our children will be able to see that ending, by the light of the principles of liberalism, not as a final defeat, but as the transition to a new and higher order in which Mankind as a whole joins in a universal civilization that has risen above the parochial distinctions, divisions and discrimination of the past.

IQ and the wealth of nations

Jason Richwine reports on Robert Putnam’s reluctant finding that “the more ethnically diverse a community is, the less social capital it possesses” and suggests that our immigration policies should be altered in favor of preferring skilled immigrants with high IQ’s because

higher IQ people appear to be more morally sophisticated, altruistic, and forward-looking. They exhibit higher levels of civic participation, more strongly adhere to middle-class behavioral standards, and cooperate more readily. This evidence, taken as a whole, confirms that intelligence and social capital are strongly related.

From this perspective, contemporary American immigration policies tend to produce the opposite result. The emphasis on family reunification, “human rights”, diversity, and protecting American workers produces a situation where highly educated people face formidable obstacles to (permanently) relocate to the US.  These “dysgenic” effects are further reinforced by the existence of massive entitlement programs which weaken the link between productivity and rewards.

Theodore Dalrymple on rights and moral imagination

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Theodore Dalrymple (Anthony Daniels) makes the following observation:

When the supposed right to health care is widely recognized, as in the United Kingdom, it tends to reduce moral imagination. Whenever I deny the existence of a right to health care to a Briton who asserts it, he replies, “So you think it is all right for people to be left to die in the street?”

When I then ask my interlocutor whether he can think of any reason why people should not be left to die in the street, other than that they have a right to health care, he is generally reduced to silence. He cannot think of one.

Dalrymple opens his piece by noting that “concrete benefits in pursuance of abstract rights, however, can be provided by the government only by constant coercion.” The obsession with “abstract rights” is not just confined to modern liberals and socialists. This kind of metaphysical thinking about rights is just as prevalent among libertarians and neoconservatives.

Health care as a right?

To understand the background of the recent debates on health care it is instructive to look at how this issue  is being approached in “progressive” states like Oregon. Last year a Constitutional Amendment was discussed  which would declare access to health care in Oregon to be a “fundamental right.” But what is so progressive about a proposal that increases the scope of collective decision making over individual choice?

We can think of a right as a contract between two people in which both parties have agreed to accept the obligations of the agreement because it provides them mutual benefit. Evidence that such rights and obligations exist can be found in a verbal or written agreement. For example, person A is obliged to pay person B a specific amount of money, and person B is obliged to deliver A the product before an agreed date. So far, so good.

But when we talk about health care as a constitutional right we no longer talk about rights in this sense. We talk about rights as the outcome of political decision making. Rights conceived in this fashion do not reflect actual agreement between individuals but political authority. This may not be necessarily problematic when the rights in question reflect the “common good,” but rights that generate massive entitlement programs do not reflect this kind of  consensus.

The right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” reflects the freedom of individuals to live their lives as they see fit. The only obligation these “rights”  impose on others is not to interfere. These obligations can be satisfied by doing nothing and we all have an interest in having such freedoms. Such universal agreement is not possible when we talk about a right to health care. The right to health care does not just mean that people have a right to obtain medical care, but that others have an obligation to supply it.  A right to health care will impose obligations that are far reaching in nature and inevitably lead to a state-run health care system where all people are equal in having no choice and health care is rationed by “experts.”

There are many things in life we think as desirable, perhaps even necessary. But from this it does not follow that other people have an obligation to supply these things. During the 20th century there has been an increasing tendency to claim everything we desire in life as a “right.” This does not just undermine the ideal of having a government that serves the common good, it also produces a society where mutual assistance, charity, and self-reliance are increasingly undermined. The movement to make health care a constitutional right reflects a cynical view of the purpose of a Constitution. Instead of protecting fundamental freedoms that all citizens will recognize as just, the Constitution is used to secure greater protection for partisan political issues.

It is guaranteed that a constitutional right to health care will not come about without a political struggle. This itself is indicative that such a right is the outcome of non-unanimous decision making (to put it mildly) and does not represent the common good. If we secure a right to health care this way, it will not reflect right but might. It should go without saying that “might makes right” is not a progressive but an authoritarian principle to organize society.  The situation is not much different in the case of current proposals to reform health care.  If any breakthroughs will be made it will be in the form of one coalition prevailing at the expense of others.

Arthur R. Jensen against politics

At one point in the conversations between Frank Miele and Arthur R. Jensen in the book Intelligence, Race, And Genetics: Conversations With Arthur R. Jensen, Jensen becomes impatient with all the questions about his politics and makes the following statement:

You keep harping on politics. Over the years, I have become increasingly disillusioned about politics and increasingly suspicious of it. What I see of partisan politics and government’s interference in people’s lives these days lends considerable appeal to the philosophy of libertarianism, although I am not a libertarian with a capital L.

It is interesting that when scientists who are routinely identified as “fascist” actually make statements about their political views they are often in favor of limited government. Charles Murray, co-author of the The Bell Curve, even produced a little book outlining his own views called What It Means to Be a Libertarian. Is seems clear that in the case of people like  Jensen and Murray words like “fascist” are not so much used to make cognitive statements  but to intimidate the writer or (potential) reader. Using phrases from historical politics to identify the work of practicing scientists is indicative of how politicized our society has become.

Liberal and religious creationism

The blog OneSTVD [One Standard Devation] has produced a useful table that outlines the similarities between religious creationists and “blank slate” liberals:

These educated, liberal elitists believe their shallow acceptance of evolution distinguishes them from the ignorant “Jesus freaks”. Yet, it is amusing how closely liberal creationism matches the creationism supported by religious fundamentalists.

This chart reminds one of a section in Bertrand Russell’s discussion of Augustine’s philosophy and theology in his  “A History of Western Philosophy.” Russell draws attention to the similarities between Jewish/Christian eschatology and Marxist socialism:

Yahweh=Dialectical Materialism
The Messiah=Marx
The Elect=The Proletariat
The Church=The Communist Party
The Second Coming=The Revolution
Hell=Punishment of the Capitalists
The Millennium=The Communist Commonwealth

The theme that socialism and modern liberalism have been shaped by, or at least display, quasi-religious, anti-realist,  and puritan tendencies has recently received interesting support in a recent piece on the early religious thinking of the political philosopher John Rawls.

Further reading:

The New Enemies of Evolutionary Science

Liberal Creationism and Transhumanism

HT Secular Right

Rudolf Carnap politicized

I like to keep my philosophical work separated from my political aims.” (Rudolf Carnap)

It is a welcome development that there is an increasing interest in the history and substance of logical positivism (or logical empiricism). Most of this literature, however, is produced by professional philosophers and social scientists, and, therefore, should be approached with caution.

Despite the refinements that have been made to the basic tenets of the early Vienna Circle, logical positivism remains identified with physicalism, the unity of science, a rejection of metaphysics, and non-cognitivism; an overall outlook, at least in its implicit moderate form, that has become dominant among most practicing (natural) scientists.

As a general rule, the more obscurantist and multi-interpretable a philosopher, the higher the probability (s)he will be admitted to the ranks of “important thinkers.” Therefore, as one browses the philosophy section in a book store one should expect to find numerous books on Martin Heidegger and Theodor Adorno, and little, or nothing, on systematic and disciplined writers like Rudolf Carnap or Hans Reichenbach.

In the case of Carnap this situation is changing. For a long while, Carnap was being perceived as an outdated thinker whose contributions had been “refuted” by Karl Popper and other critics of logical positivism.  In the case of Karl Popper this opinion has been further reinforced by Popper the person, reflecting his desire to establish himself as an important philosopher by distancing himself from the philosophers of the Vienna Circle.  In his essay on Popper, Martin Gardner writes that  “it seems that every time Carnap expressed an opinion, Popper felt compelled to come forth with an opposing view, although it usually turned out to be the same as Carnap’s but in different language.”

In hindsight, Popper’s vanity has been unfortunate because both philosophers would most likely have been appalled with the state of contemporary philosophy. The differences between Popper and Carnap  are a lot smaller than the differences between them and what constitutes “critical thinking” today. What could have been a potential refinement of logical positivism became “critical rationalism.”

Since Rudolf Carnap has the reputation of being a bone dry and technical philosopher who did not allow hyperbole, moralism, and politics in his published philosophical writings (presumably because he recognized the challenge, if not  impossibility, of linking his technical writings and political views in a logical manner), one would think it would be impossible to use Carnap’s technical writings as a starting point for social philosophy. Enter A. W. Carus’s Carnap and Twentieth-Century Thought: Explication as Enlightenment, who takes on this task.

The author of this book must have realized himself that  his proposal has a strong subjective component, as evidenced by the following self-conscious passages from the Preface and Introduction:

“The purpose of this book is to describe that proposal , to make it more explicit than Carnap did…”

“In the particular case of the Vienna Circle, certain assumptions about the broader cultural and ethical context of their philosophical project were so obvious to them they were never made explicit in their writings.”

“But although he remained politically aware during his American years, and involved in radical politics, he made no effort whatever to connect these activities with the philosophical work he was publishing.”

Towards the end of the introduction, Carus informs us that he will not engage with  most of Carnap’s specific technical writings but proposes to work out a “general programme of explication”, “something toward which Carnap approached, in his later years, but which never quite crystallized, probably not even in his own mind.”

It cannot be denied that Carnap had political interests that preceded or continued during his academic work. As a number of quotations from Carnap’s autobiography make clear, Carnap certainly had an interest in political matters and was even engaged in political organization throughout his life (for example, Carus mentions Carnap’s apparent sympathy for the socialist anarchism of Gustav Landauer). But some writers cannot resist to treat these personal political and cultural ambitions as necessary linked to (or a prerequisite for) their technical work, an exercise that seems to me just as futile as envisioning the idea of a “socialist chemistry” or a “feminist physics.”

Moreover, to the extent that there are indications of ideological bias in someone’s scientific work (Otto Neurath’s writings may be a good example) the proper approach is to highlight those and separate them from the meaningful (sic) work. Carus’s approach, on the other hand, seems to embrace such tendencies and further amplifies them, an attitude that seems to be highly at odds with the logical positivist tradition and presents a formidable obstacle to clear and disciplined thinking.

The result is a book that cannot seem to decide what it wants to be (see Alan Richardson’s review on this point).  The introduction and the final chapter of the book attempt to link Carnap to a specific cultural, if not political, philosophy and produces a rather artificial and arbitrary brew as a result. The remaining bulk of the text is a well researched and interesting review of the evolution of Carnap’s (early) thinking. No doubt the author could claim that these two elements are not mutually exclusive, perhaps even complementary to each other, but the parts in which the author allows more space for Carnap’s broader ambitions convey as much information about the author as about Carnap.

Even if an attempt along the lines of this book is made it does not strike me as obvious to place the relevance of Carnap’s thought in debates such as those between John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas.  The tradition of logical positivism, and its associated meta-ethical theory of non-cognitivism, seems to be more compatible  with an outlook that is influenced by evolutionary or game-theoretical approaches to social phenomena.

Although Carnap has admitted in his autobiographical writings to have remained sympathetic to a planned economy and world government, the general worldview that was implicit in the logical-empiricist movement permits secular views ranging from analytical marxism to “right wing” counter-modernism. This tolerance to various interpretations of the Enlightenment is very clear in its 1929 “manifesto” “The Scientific Conception of the World: The Vienna Circle”, which mentions Adam Smith as well as Karl Marx as predecessors of a scientific and anti-metaphysical attitude.

In my opinion, if there is an urgent matter in which the perspective of logical positivism can be of important value it is the explicit  post-war taboo on the use of evolutionary biology in the shaping and evaluation of public policy. Although a logical-empiricist approach may not be be able to shed light on the formation and persistence of this taboo (although public choice might), it can critically analyze the arguments that have been offered to justify the “modern denial of human nature.” I do not think that it would be proper to offer this proposal in a book about Carnap though. And this brings us back to the topic at hand. The renewed interest in Carnap is wonderful and deserved, but I’d rather see works on Carnap that are more modest and which do not propose “a framework of discourse in which a utopian partnership for reason and Enlightenment can co-exist with a pluralism more radical and fundamental than that envisaged by liberal political philosophers such as Rawls.”

One of the real strengths of the logical positivists was how their views were shaped by modern developments in the physical sciences and mathematics. Carnap’s work can benefit from placing it in a broader perspective but I think that it will be more  illuminating to review his relevance in light of recent developments in science instead of contrasting his thinking with other (political) philosophers. There is a lot of contemporary work in science that is close to the spirit of Carnap’s thinking, and logical empiricism in general, but it is rarely identified as such because many of these scientists (physicists, biologists, neuroscientists, etc.) are not aware of the empiricist and anti-metaphysical premises in their work. 

Animal spirits in public policy

In the Summer 2009 issue of the Independent Review, Arnold Kling reviews George A. Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller’s new book Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism. Reading his review, one wonders how it is still possible for a serious scholar to make a case for more government intervention by simply documenting all the ways in which actual human behavior differs from the (strong) rationality postulates of classical economics. As Arnold Kling points out, and this must be getting quite tiresome, why assume that these same “animal spirits” do not inform and shape public policy as well? It is not hard to imagine a book that uses politics and government policies as illustrations of irrationality, conformity, and unfair decision making. As a matter of fact, current government responses to the financial crisis should provide a wealth of examples for numerous volumes about “politicians in panic.”

What might be more illuminating from a scholarly perspective is to investigate how different incentives and institutional environments produce lesser and greater diversions from the postulates of rational choice. A focused contribution to investigating these topics has been made by the economist Bryan Caplan, culminating in his excellent, and courageous, book, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies.

Of course, purists will rightly argue that the case of Akerlof and Shiller is dead on arrival because no prescriptive statements can be derived from their detailed descriptions of irrational behavior without accepting the authors’ own outlook, in their case expressed in the metaphor of society as a family in which the government behaves as the parents. The use of this metaphor sheds an interesting light on how some modern liberals view society as an extended family.

Macroeconomics in politics

Steve Chapman writes:

If the economy improves and unemployment drops, Obama can take credit. If it fails to improve and unemployment rises, though, he can say he averted an even worse showing. Republicans will take the opposite tack — attributing any improvement to the natural resilience of the economy and blaming the administration if things get worse. And neither side will really know who’s right.

A scientifically trained politician (or journalist) often has good reasons to simply say, “I do not know.” But in politics, or especially in politics, such statements are considered a sign of weakness, and therefore, political suicide. To be a successful politician you need to signal strength, not epistemological sophistication. To a lesser extent this applies to (partisan) journalists who write about macroeconomic matters as well. If Paul Krugman would just confine himself to sketching a number of different scenarios without taking sides, many people would find his columns boring and would look for ammunition to engage in political debate elsewhere. The addiction to politics is so strong that we are prepared to throw everything we have been taught about valid reasoning and how science operates out of the window.

Related reading: Looking at the world through politically-colored glasses

On economic forecasting: A positive-sum game against nature

Political classification and economic reductionism

At Taki’s Magazine E. Christian Kopf writes:

As conservatives and right-wingers like Oswald Spengler, Julius Evola, Whittaker Chambers and many others have pointed out for over a century, free marketeers (19th century liberals or modern libertarians) differ from Marxists and democratic socialists (20th century liberals) only superficially, while sharing fundamental traits that range from a commitment to economic reductionism (what Albert Jay Nock and Wilhelm Röpke called “economism”) to a pervasive obsession with globalism. Gutzman is right about himself and his fellow libertarians.  They are left-wingers and do not differ in fundamentals from other left-wingers.

There are number of problems with this statement.  First of all, what constitutes a “superficial” or “fundamental” trait is arbitrary. For any two schools of political thought one can find similarities that can be designated as fundamental and differences that can be designated as superficial. For example, one could just as well argue that the policy differences between liberals and traditionalists are superficial and their shared tendency to believe in the existence of non-material justifications for political authority (“human rights”, “religion”) are fundamental.  From this perspective, the real dichotomy is between positivist and superstitious political thought.

Secondly, “economic reductionism” is not a normative political view but an approach to study human interaction. Economic reductionism, and its practical application “rational choice,” may yield new knowledge or not, but it cannot be dismissed for political reasons. Despite its limitations, the economic rationality postulate has a number of advantages over its competitors. As the self-designated “conservative anarchist” Anthony de Jasay writes in his piece ‘Rational Choice in Conflict’:

…the “economic approach” really reduces to the consistent application of a workmanlike rationality postulate. It is an approach that recommends itself, not because it can conquer all, but because without the postulate, deductive reasoning about human behavior is not possible; instead “anything goes,” any retrospective explanation is as good as any other, and no discipline can be imposed to curb prattle and mumbo-jumbo. In fact…reference to rationality is required even for the concept of irrational action to have meaning. The achievement of the postulate is not so much in the new knowledge it is producing in fields to which it is a relative newcomer–notably sociology, political theory, law, and perhaps history too, though the last is a moot point–but in blowing away the vari-colored fogbanks of historicism, institutionalism, behaviorism, structuralism, functionalism, dialectical materialism, and the rest.

It may be true that the differences between classical and modern liberalism are trivial but, as argued here, this perspective does not take into account that the case for libertarianism can be argued on completely different Hobbesian, “mechanistic” grounds.  Would this kind of liberalism still be “fundamentally” the same as Lockean rights-based liberalism, or would this present a major departure from the liberal tradition?  Similarly, if traditionalist/ reactionary conclusions are reached using a strictly “materialist” outlook, would this be considered a “right wing” view?

As should be evident from these thought experiments, there is some merit to the view that there are serious limitations to the left-right dichotomy. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is whether political views are consistent with empirical observation and/or reflect coherent reasoning. No amount of (re)classification of political views  or “essentialist” searching for the “true” meaning of a word can substitute for this.