a case for liberalism

Prominent people like Cass Sunstein and Samuel Moyn are publishing manifestos for–or at least about–liberalism, evidently responding to heightened critiques from both right and left.

The word “liberalism” has many meanings and is applied retrospectively to authors who lived before it was even coined; therefore, it lacks a clear and detailed definition. Instead, it names a field of debate with debatable outer bounds.

But most classical liberal texts are at least about the same topic: how best to design authoritative institutions, such as governments or schools. Typically, liberals argue that the individuals most affected by such institutions must hold enforceable rights and entitlements–cards that they can play to obtain things or to block actions against themselves.

Liberalism is biased in favor of making such rights extensive and equal. Although not everyone can hold the maximum conceivable rights, liberals are skeptical about goods that could compete with rights in general, such as religious values or the intrinsic worth of the state or the group.

In order to make rights enforceable, liberals advocate a mix of institutional safeguards, such as limited powers for leaders, rule-of-law, and universal suffrage–with varying recipes, depending on the flavor of liberalism. Another major dimension of debate within liberalism is whether to include positive rights or entitlements, and if so, what they should be.

Liberal ideas are sometimes grounded in ambitious philosophical views, such as a Kantian notion of autonomy. But liberals’ philosophical premises vary, and one can also arrive at liberal principles pragmatically, believing that rights must be safeguarded to avoid disaster.

I often think about the case of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). At first it advocated equality and a certain kind of freedom in a very radical way, eschewing individual rights and constitutional limits as obstacles to revolutionary change. While retaining its official charter and passing power from fathers to sons within the party, it evolved from radical egalitarianism to rapacious capitalism and then to a kind of statist corporatism, all during my lifetime. Chairman Mao’s successor belongs to a family with $300 million in personal assets. This shift happened because goals and missions hardly ever trump institutional design. Liberals recommend the fundamental design-principle of using individual rights to limit rulers. Since the CCP’s leaders were never limited by rights, they altered their values to advance their interests.

My sense is that when people are focused on designing or reforming authoritative institutions, many are attracted to liberal design principles. Not everyone: for example, Maoists are explicitly opposed, as are Catholic integralists. But quite a wide range of thinkers and activists, when they consider institutional design, will endorse limited powers and enforceable rights and will envision individuals as the literal bearers of rights, even if they are concerned about structural injustices against social groups and even if they aim for social or economic equality.

However, many people do not think about the design or reform of institutions. To some extent, this is understandable. There are other ways to change the world. Social and cultural movements often seek to alter people’s beliefs, values, and identities. That work can be effective and important. If it is your main mode of political action, then you may not naturally think about who should hold which enforceable rights against whom. Although your own civil rights may be helpful, similar rights for other people can pose obstacles to your cause. Thus we see lots of people endorsing freedom of speech for me but not for thee. A charitable interpretation is that they are not focused on designing or running institutions that establish general rules about speech; they are using their own speech to change mentalities.

If you are deeply invested in a social movement that aims to change hearts and minds, then perhaps constitutional issues are not your problem. You’re not asking to be a federal judge. Likewise, no one says you have to be the Dean of Student Affairs, deciding which forms of protest are allowable on a campus. You can just protest.

On the other hand, we may be called upon to make decisions that are primarily about institutional design. For example, the outcome of the 2024 US election may cause dramatic changes in rights, enforcement mechanisms, and powers. When the question is whether or how to change the basic rules, our answers should be relevant to those rules. And I believe that the good answers fall within the broad boundaries of liberalism.

Some activists may be skeptical that institutions will change for the better, or optimistic about social transformation through informal channels, or so anti-authoritarian as to be against institutions and leaders per se. They may see rules as mainly constraints to be wielded against themselves, or they may feel morally superior to the people who hold offices and make compromises and decisions with limited resources.

In the US context, pessimism is understandable; our system is remarkably static and resistant to change. Many people have long experience with being mistreated and have learned to be skeptical. But such attitudes can be self-reinforcing and disempowering–they can block people from pursuing strategies that involve institutions and can dissuade them from trying to lead institutions. In any case, liberalism does not require trust; quite the contrary, it is a way of institutionalizing mistrust.

See also: introducing republicanism; from classical liberalism to a civic perspective; the core of liberalism; what defines conservatism?

people are not points in space

This is the video of a lecture that I gave at the Institute H21 symposium in Prague last September. The symposium was entitled Democracy in the 21st Century: Challenges for an Open Society, and my talk was: “People Are Not Points in Space: Opinions and Discussions as Networks of Ideas.” I’m grateful for the opportunity to present and for the ideas of other participants and organizers.

My main point was that academic research currently disparages the reasoning potential of ordinary people, and this skepticism discourages efforts to protect and enhance democratic institutions. I think the low estimate of people’s capacity is a bias that is reinforced by prevalent statistical methods, and I endorse an alternative methodology.

See also:  individuals in cultures: the concept of an idiodictuon; Analyzing Political Opinions and Discussions as Networks of Ideas; a method for analyzing organizations

spammy academic invitations

I am getting an average of more than one invitation to contribute to a journal every day. They are generally dubious, and some are deliciously so. These are among my favorites from the past two weeks:

Dear Doctor. Levine Peter,

Hope you are doing good…!

This is a reminder mail as we have not received any response from your end regarding manuscript submision.

The  Journal of Clinical and Medical Images (ISSN 2640-9615) (IF – 2.6)” is pleased to submit your valuable research to our esteemed journal.

Dear Levine Peter

We hope this letter finds you in good health and high spirits. It gives us great pleasure to cordially extend our invitation to you to attend the IPHC 2024 event. …

Greetings Levine P,

We have genuinely emailed you quite a lot of times but received no response, so we’d like to try once more as courtesy.

The most recent issue (New Edition) is missing one article. Could you please aid us by putting forward an article to this edition of the Journal of Pulmonology and Respiratory Research

Dear Doctor,

Hope you are doing well.

As you being eminent author in the field who have contributed excellent work. With an immense pleasure, we would like to request to help us release best quality articles for the Upcoming issue of the journal.

Dear Dr. Levine P,

Wishes for the day!

We are excited to announce the Call for submissions, an engaging platform for researchers, academics, and industry professionals to share their latest findings and insights. This invitation is dedicated to promoting open access to knowledge and fostering collaboration.

We invite you to contribute your expertise by submitting your research papers on diverse topics within Emergency Preparedness. This is an opportunity to showcase your work to a global audience and be part of meaningful discussions on the latest trends and advancements.

Hi, Doctor,

Greetings from “Current trends in Internal Medicine”

We have gone through your recent publications, have found them interesting, and are of Superior Quality. We would be grateful if you can submit your next paper for our volume-7, issue-04.

We are looking forward for a long and productive relationship with you.
Hoping for your positive reply.
Have a nice day.

preparing for a possible Trump victory

I make no predictions about the 2024 election. It is still far away, and all kinds of dramatic shifts could occur between now and then. But there is a clear chance that Donald Trump will win. One of several paths to that outcome leads through a recession during the next six months.

I am also reluctant to predict what Trump will do if elected; I suspect he doesn’t know himself. But we should take seriously the possibility that he would do what he has been talking about lately, including directly ordering the prosecution of political opponents, invoking the Insurrection Act, building mass camps for immigrants, purging the civil service, and even attacking Mexico.

I disagree with Hillary Clinton that these events “would be the end of our country as we know it.” On the contrary, they would mark the beginning of a new phase with highly uncertain outcomes. Much would depend on how opponents respond. Now is the time to prepare for this contingency.

Trump would have significant support, including a popular base. Certain organizations and institutions would take his side, perhaps including at least one house of Congress.

But he would also face mass resistance from segments of the population and from important organizations and institutions–notably, from some state and local governments. He would quickly encounter roadblocks, which would frustrate him and his supporters. Some of his efforts might go forward, at least temporarily, which would enrage his opponents.

The result would be intense conflict, not only in Congress and courts but also potentially on the streets. I don’t think a literal civil war is likely, if only because the US military and security services would refuse to be drawn in, and it’s extraordinarily difficult to create an army from scratch. But it is common around the world to see periods of political conflict, typically labeled “unrest,” “instability,” or “disorder.” We might expect:

  • constant debates about whether various institutions should make statements about recent incidents, with repercussions for members of these institutions who disagree;
  • frequent crises that are permitted by existing laws, such as government shutdowns and even a debt default;
  • politically motivated pardons, amnesties, and blocked prosecutions;
  • prominent dismissals and resignations;
  • bans and purges of ideological minorities within institutions such as universities, corporations, and publications;
  • overt refusals to follow constitutionally permissible directives (e.g., state governors might resist federal mandates);
  • temporary closures of schools and colleges that are political hotbeds;
  • attempts to declare martial law and states of emergency at various levels;
  • arrests of questionable legality;
  • illegal orders that are either accepted or refused;
  • Increasingly flagrant displays of weapons;
  • paramilitary and revolutionary organizations, with training programs, uniforms, insignias and the like;
  • large and frequent protests, some of which may involve clashes with counter-protesters or the police;
  • frequent threats of violence;
  • politically motivated assaults and homicides of various kinds (not only assassinations, but also quasi-accidental deaths).

I’d expect similarities to periods like the Years of Lead in Italy or The Troubles in Northern Ireland–among many other examples. In fact, we may already have entered a period like that.

I would anticipate passionate and fraught disagreements within the potential resistance to Trump. For example:

  • Should the objective be to restore and protect the constitutional system as it has been, or was that system already flawed (and responsible for the present crisis) so that it needs to be changed? If it requires change, how basic and radical must that be?
  • Is the Democratic Party a worthy vehicle of resistance, or even the main opposition, or is it part of the problem? This debate will be especially fraught if it looks as if Biden would have won without third party presidential candidates in 2024.
  • How broad should the coalition be? It’s easy to say “As broad as possible,” but the hard questions arise when activists must consider whether to defer causes that they consider important in order to collaborate with people who are ideologically dissimilar. For instance, imagine that it is possible to draw businesses into a pro-democracy movement, but at the cost of delaying strong action on climate. Many people would balk at that tradeoff. But what if strong federal environmental action seems impossible, anyway? Would it then be worth submerging environmental goals to expand the pro-democracy movement?
  • What means are appropriate–or necessary–to combat authoritarian tendencies and street-level violence?

I think the response should be massively nonviolent, and we should eschew concrete, physical violence even in the face of institutionalized injustice. Nonviolent direct action is a powerful strategy with a strong record of success. It is particularly likely to draw broad participation and to yield a stable democracy as its outcome.*

There may be times when violence is appropriate: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt all commanded armies that fought for freedom. And sometimes it is a mistake to criticize acts of violence even if you wouldn’t endorse them. In response to the Detroit riots of 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. walked a careful line. He said that crimes committed during the riots were “deplorable” but also “derivative.” He explained, “If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.” Nevertheless, King continued to defend nonviolence because he believed that it was the most powerful option, with the greatest chance of creating a better society. That argument will be even stronger under conditions of social unrest and escalating, tit-for-tat violence. Apart from anything else, as Bayard Rustin argued, political success requires the support of a substantial majority, and violence alienates people.

Nonviolence takes skill, discipline, and values, all of which that can be taught and practiced in advance of a crisis. Now is the time for practice and training.

I am discussing a threat that comes from the extreme right. This threat is not symmetrical. However, intimidation and violence may be reciprocated, and ugly behavior may spread across the spectrum; this common pattern must be resisted.

It will be crucial to promote dialogue and listening. People will need ways to exit extremist movements and be reintegrated. And we need to hear about legitimate grievances from all quarters so that they can be addressed.

Anyone who is knowingly involved in violating civil rights should ultimately be held accountable. But tens of millions of people will vote for each major party’s nominee in the 2024 election, and voters on both sides are members of our national community. As the risk of violent conflict rises, so does the need for empathy and curiosity across partisan differences.

*See also: the case for (and against) nonviolence; Why Civil Resistance Works; tools for the #resistance; timely quotes from Bayard Rustin (1965)

introduction to Gandhi

This is a lecture that I pre-recorded for Introduction to Civic Studies this semester. It provides some background about the life and fundamental ideas of Mohandas K. Gandhi.

Students will also read these texts:

  • Ramachandra Guha, Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World (2018), chapter 16 (on the Great Salt March)
  • Gandhi, Satyagraha (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing Co., 1951): excerpts
  • Gandhi, Notes, May 22, 1924 – August 15, 1924, in The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, New Delhi, Publications Division Government of India, 1999, 98 volumes,  28, pp. 307-310

In class we will will discuss such questions as these: How (if at all) can one organize voluntary collective action at a sufficient scale to bring about change in Gandhi’s preferred ways? Is Gandhi right to demand sacrifice and to see sacrifice as intrinsically meritorious? How can Gandhi know whether his stance is correct when he finds himself in conflict with other idealists, such as B.R. Ambedkar? And is it fair for Gandhi to claim that he only knows the means, not the result, of the struggle, if the end is actually predicable?

See also: Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948 by Ramachandra Guha; Gandhi versus Jinnah on means and ends; Gandhi on the primacy of means over ends; notes on the metaphysics of Gandhi and King; Rev. James Lawson, Jr on Revolutionary Nonviolence; etc.

synchronize elections

I voted today in Cambridge, MA, but I wish that local elections were synchronized with national ones. Turnout would be far higher, and the electorate would be more representative.

Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, Jessica S. Lieberman, and I published an op-ed in the Boston Globe today, making that point. It was nicely timed to coincide with an election day in an off-year. It’s entitled Massachusetts should move local elections to even-numbered years. It’s behind a paywall, but the photo of the print edition that accompanies this post should be legible.

Politics by Other Means: Civic Education in a Time of Controversy

Newly published: Levine, P. (2023). Politics by Other Means: Civic Education in a Time of Controversy. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science705(1), 24-38. https://doi.org/10.1177/00027162231189037. Abstract:

After being overlooked in major education debates and policy initiatives for decades, civic education has recently become the topic of highly polarized debates and legislative battles over what and how we should be teaching our young people about the nation’s history. How should racial injustice be discussed in schools? Are schools indoctrinating students? In a robust democracy, controversy about what students should learn is appropriate and desirable, but some of the rhetoric that has dominated the recent discussions violates the deliberative norms that schools should help students to develop. At a time when the public should be carefully deliberating how to educate students, civic education is instead being used instrumentally to win political contests. I present one approach to facing this challenge—the Educating for American Democracy project. This project is not the conclusive answer to the question, “What should we teach?” but rather an attempt to model deliberative values, and I show that it offers important lessons for people and institutions who are attempting to address matters of curricular content.

This article is part of a special issue on Civic Education in a Time of Democratic Crisis and is specifically paired with Paul Carrese’s piece, “Civic Preparation of American Youth: Reflective Patriotism and Our Constitutional Democracy,” under the heading “Finding Common Ground among Progressive and Conservative Visions of Civic Education.” My friend Paul and I represent those two visions, and we discuss the common ground that we and others found.

core curricula without the concept of the West

This post is prompted by Stanford’s new Civic, Liberal, and Global Education (COLLEGE) requirement. Stanford makes no claim to present something called “Western Civilization” in chronological order. Instead, it assigns texts about common themes from diverse sources. I basically want to endorse this approach (which is not unique to Stanford).

Shared readings provide the basis for focused conversation that can encompass disagreement. I also see an argument for choosing works that illuminate the ideas, values, and institutions that have become globally dominant in the wake of European imperialism, which we can assess both critically and appreciatively. However, I cannot see a legitimate rationale for selecting authors and texts that are labeled “Western.”

Important lines of influence have always crossed any border that would demarcate the West, which has itself been deeply diverse. The word “West” sometimes names the countries where the majority populations are seen today as white, but that is an indefensible basis for selecting sources. A tenable justification would have to explain how something called the West is both internally consistent and intellectually distinct (whether for good or ill); and I don’t see a basis for that.

It’s true that some works from non-European regions extoll community and denounce individual selfishness or advance holistic and integrated metaphysical views. These texts are taken as evidence that “the West” is uniquely materialistic, dualistic, and individualistic. But authors from traditions like Buddhism would not have taken the trouble to argue so forcefully against materialism and selfishness if those values had been limited to people thousands of miles to their west. Their elaborate and sometimes urgent arguments to their own compatriots provide evidence that the values labeled “Western” have actually been widespread in many times and places. Meanwhile, Europe has produced powerful voices for mysticism, communalism, and deep ecology.

I’ll quote a passage from Leo Strauss, not to criticize him individually (even though I once published a roman-à-clef about him), but as an illustration of a view that I think was commonplace not long ago:

All the hopes that we entertain in the midst of the confusion and dangers of the present are founded, positively or negatively, directly or indirectly, on the experiences of the past. Of these experiences, the broadest and deepest—so far as Western man is concerned—are indicated by the names of two cities: Jerusalem and Athens. Western man became what he is, and is what he is, through the coming together of biblical faith and Greek thought. In order to understand ourselves and to illuminate our trackless way into the future, we must understand Jerusalem and Athens.

Leo Strauss, “Jerusalem and Athens: Some Introductory Reflections (Commentary, June 1967)

One premise here is that modern European ideas derive from two main sources, classical Greece and ancient Judaism. Perhaps Strauss also thought that the resulting ideas were good or true, although I suspect his own view resembled the deeply skeptical argument that he attributes to Nietzsche in the same article.

Regardless of Strauss’ ultimate position, my focus here is not the claim that it’s valuable to understand the intellectual history that flows from “biblical faith and Greek thought.” I object to following that history only through European countries and their colonies.

We might envision Athens as a label for a set of contesting ideas that emerged in the Greek classical period, and treat it as node. We might likewise use Jerusalem as the name of a node that represents the various strands of ancient Judaism. Some thinkers of the Hellenistic period connected these nodes, forming the basis of Christianity. For example, when John writes (in Greek), “In the beginning was the logos,” he combines these two sources.

Zooming out from those two nodes, we can identify many influences on both. The Hebrew Bible describes a people who were profoundly connected to Egypt and Mesopotamia. Greek thought drew on the same sources, plus South Asia and perhaps Scythia. For example, Pyrrho of Elis may have been a Buddhist and was certainly influenced–as were several other Greek philosophers–by his travels in India.

The nodes labeled Athens and Jerusalem then radiated influences on many periods and places. Leo Strauss was an expert on the ways that Greek philosophy and Hebrew scripture shaped classical Islam. One center of medieval Islam was Spain, from which Greek and Jewish ideas and texts spread to Catholic Europe. The first people to depict the Buddha in statuary were Indo-Greeks, while Catholic monasticism may be modeled on India’s bhikkhus and sanyasis. Examples of such radiating influence could be explored endlessly.

It is then very odd to name the zone that was influenced by Athens and Jerusalem as “the West.” The influences of Greece plus ancient Judaism extend, for example, to predominantly Muslim Indonesia, which lies at the east end of Asia. Jerusalem is also in Asia, and Athens is far to the east of (say) Marrakesh. Until the 1800s, the word “west” referred to a compass direction and bore no other implications. The first use that I can find that clearly defines the West in terms of culture–or race–is from 1892, around the apogee of European imperialism. By the way, one reason that the phrase “Western civilization” then became prevalent was a deep anxiety about the condition and prospects of Europe, especially following the First World War.

Studying a canon of works that relate to Athens and Jerusalem has value. For one thing, it’s an opening to discuss extraordinarily diverse and contesting ideas. But defining its scope as the countries where most people have had white skin is untenable.

See also: the history of the phrase “the West”; Europa was an Asian woman, and other thoughts on the definition of Europeto whom do the ancient Greeks belong?Jesus was a person of color; The lack of diversity in philosophy is blocking its progress (in Aeon)