how Brexit is unlike Trump (and what to do about it)

When they think about Brexit, most of my American friends equate it with the election of Donald Trump. Both events are seen as manifestations of xenophobia, paranoia toward elites, and even Russian propaganda.

You can tell that this analogy is weak from the stance of Labour, which is meeting right now for its conference in Liverpool and debating a huge range of motions on Brexit. Yesterday, the Guardian reported:

Consensus appeared to break out as Jeremy Corbyn insisted he would follow the democratic will of his party if delegates voted for a second referendum on the final Brexit deal. But trouble could still be brewing. The Labour leader refused to say which way he would vote. The Unite chief, Len McCluskey, added his tuppence worth, suggesting it would be wrong for any new vote to include the option of staying in the EU. Remainers will be unimpressed.

Last night, after 5.5 hours of negotiation, party leaders emerged with a draft statement that criticizes “the Tories’ chaotic approach to the Brexit negotiations,” calls for a general election, and fudges everything else. Corbyn himself voted against Brexit, but he also voted against the key European treaties of 1975, 1992, and 2008; he has little positive to say about the current EU; and he has frequently pledged to “respect the referendum” that passed Brexit.

Imagine if Bernie Sanders won control of the Democratic Party and refused to say which way he would vote on Trump’s Wall or the refugee ban, while expressing respect for the policy implications of an election held several years ago. That would be plausible if Brexit were like Trump–but it isn’t.

I can’t overstate my own disappointment with the Brexit vote. My commitment to European integration goes back to the 1970s, when I was a child in a London primary school with a literal WWII bomb site next door. The European Economic Community was forming in those days, and we studied each member country in turn–in order to become peaceful, pluralist, democratic Europeans. (By the way, this was a Christian socialist state primary school run on progressive lines.) I’m proudly a citizen of the USA but have remained deeply invested in the ideal of European unity.

However, it is a matter for debate and reasonable disagreement whether the current form of the EU merits membership. One doesn’t have to be a bigot or a fool to want to leave. If you approach politics from the left, you will see both pros and cons to exit.

For Labour politicians, ambiguity is attractive, because they can hope to win votes from both sides on Brexit while blaming the inevitable fiasco on chaotic Tory management.

I happen to believe in what Bill Galston once called “the obligation to play hardball,” and I think a Labour policy of deferring on Brexit until the outcome crushes the Conservatives is possibly a good hardball play (to use a baseball metaphor for the land of cricket).

But it also has risks, even from a Labour perspective:

  1. Constitutional risks: there is now a widespread sentiment in Britain that respecting a referendum is the best way to honor democracy. (And holding a second referendum would somehow undermine the people’s will.) The traditional view was that the British people were best represented by Parliament, which they choose to exercise sovereignty between elections. That is a better political theory, because government should be deliberative and flexible. Parliamentary sovereignty would return if Labour took a clear position against Brexit. No one would doubt that Parliament could overrule the referendum once voters gave Labour a mandate to do so. It would then be equally clear that Britain is heading toward Brexit because the Tories are in the government. Hence there is only one reason that parliamentary sovereignty is at risk: the opposition refuses to take a position on the most pressing issue of the day.
  2. Risks to the European left: many have noted that if Labour takes over and Britain gains the same status as Norway (all the rules without a vote in Brussels), then Europe will lose the strongest potential voice of the left–Corbyn, as the leader of the second-biggest EU economy. The best way for a Labour voter to try to influence all of Europe is to stay in the EU.
  3. Risks to the United Kingdom: the most obvious danger is the collapse of Irish peace due to a hard border. But you can also see pro-European Scotland constantly looking to leave Britain if the UK leaves the EU. There are arguments for Scottish independence, but if you’re a Labour voter (either north or south of the border), you should definitely want to keep all those leftish Scots in the country.
  4. Risks to Labour: I can believe that Britain will sustain a terrible shock from Brexit and that voters will long blame the Tories for it. But will they respect Labour if Labour didn’t oppose Brexit while it had a chance? On the other hand, if the exit goes reasonably well, the Tories will benefit. Thus ambiguity presents electoral risks, not just as benefits, for Labour.

self help: a short story

Political prisoner K. was sentenced to solitary, with only cement walls, a cot, a stinking bucket, and a food slot for company.

One day, on his way back from interrogation, he saw a tattered paperback on the floor. The guard let him take it with him. It turned out to be Letting Your Inner Boss Shout by Dr. Bradford P. Bradley, PhD.

K. was enraged at first by its solecisms, trivialities, cliches and lexical trespasses. Anything would be better than this! After reading it several times without finding any value in its Six Winning Strategies for Asserting Your True Needs in an Office Context, he began selecting fragments from the pages. The rule was to leave chosen words in place but hide the rest. For instance:

Another game: rearranging all the words of a sentence to say something better:

The Six remember. Strategies, always.

True, winners: their real minds speak.

These activities engaged K’s. attention for several days, but something kept intruding. Or rather, someone. Dr Bradley, PhD.–Brad Bradley–just Brad. Was he raggedly bearded and balding, with spots on his head and long speeches to give? Or a young guy, bored out of his mind, looking for new life though writing? A pseudonymous woman, quiet observer of her office culture? An ironist, chuckling as he typed?

K. couldn’t quite tell. Alternatives multiplied into a whole community of Brads.

The real author, whoever it might be, seemed to deserve the respect of attention. Maybe Brad really had only five strategies in mind, but the book was too short and he’d wracked his poor brain until he came up with a sixth to pad the pages. Or maybe Brad knew that eleven strategies were necessary for achieving your life goals, but the cheapskate publisher forced him to cut five of them, and now he was worried to death about his misinformed readers.

It was good, in any case, to have a companion. The six strategies had been meant as gifts; perhaps it would be better to accept them as such. With thanks, even.

Prisoner K. and Dr. B. Just the two of them, in solitary but not solitary. Shouting their inner bosses. Hearing the other’s shouts. Having someone to walk with blindfolded to the final wall.

(Chicago, Sept. 20)

why learn game theory? (a lesson plan that includes a game)

You may or may not be interested in games: playing them, designing them, or analyzing them with the tools of game theory. It is certainly understandable if games are not your thing. However, I believe that everyone should develop the skill of understanding interpersonal situations in terms of the choices and consequences that confront every actor, which is the essence of game theory.

This is a way of detecting problems that you might be able to fix. It is also a way to be more fair. Too often, we analyze situations in terms of the choices that confront us and the results that will befall us if we make any choice. We see other people as doing the right or the wrong thing, from our perspective. It is important to step away from that first-person view and assess the choices–and the costs and benefits–that confront everyone. Then their behavior may seem more reasonable, and the root of the problem may lie in the situation, not in the other people’s values.

When used as models of real life, games simplify and abstract. That is both a limitation and a huge advantage: a model can clarify important problems and patterns that may be hidden in the real world’s complexity.

Games do not presume that the players are selfish; in fact, altruists can get tangled up with coordination problems that games model well. Nor do games assume that people have full information or act rationally; uncertainty, randomness, and error can be built in.

Games do model situations in which people or other entities (e.g., animals, companies, nations) make separate choices, and the outcome results from the interaction of their decisions. Games are not very helpful for modeling other kinds of situations. One important form of civic action that they do not model well is a discussion about what is right (and why). Exchanging opinions and reasons isn’t well illuminated by a game. Therefore, I do not think that civic actors should only learn from games, yet game theory is a useful skill.

One way to introduce game theory is to play a game and reflect on how it works as a model.

Almost identical lesson plans can be found all over the Internet for a classroom game that models the Tragedy of the Commons using Goldfish crackers. I’m not sure who deserves the authorial credit for designing this lesson in the first place, but I have adopted it for several different classes and will share my current design.

Materials: goldfish crackers (“fish”); plastic bowls (“lakes”); and forks (as tools for fishing).

Each group of four people should sit in a circle around its lake, which contains nine fish to start. Players “fish” by removing the goldfish from the bowl with a fork. All groups fish for 15 seconds while the instructor keeps time. Then students put down their forks and the fish “reproduce”: each fish left in the lake produces two offspring, up to a total population of 16, which is the carrying capacity of the lake. Then you repeat fishing for another season until either the seasons are over or the fish run out.

I do not explain the goal or what counts as winning, because that will vary in interesting ways.

Each round has different rules.

  1. We play three seasons without talking at all.
  2. We play three seasons and may talk before the game begins and during it.
  3. Each group plays an unannounced number of seasons before I stop them. They may talk.
  4. We play three seasons silently, and each group rotates one fisher at a time. That person may spend as little or as much time as she likes. As long as she holds her fork, the others must wait.
  5. We play using game 2 rules, except students may take fish from any table.

I keep track of the largest number of fish collected by any individual in each game and the number of fish left in the whole room at the end of each game.

Below are the results from yesterday’s game, with 52 Tufts undergrads. Note that 68 fish were left when the number of seasons was unknown and students could talk. That is more than seven times more fish than survived in the first game, with a known number of seasons and no ability to communicate orally.

Questions for discussion:

  • Did we observe “tragedies,” or not?
  • When we did not, why not? What solutions did groups come up with?
  • What were individuals trying to achieve? (Responses will likely vary: obtaining the most fish, trying to be fair, trying to look like nice people, learning by experimenting with different tactics.)
  • Were your objectives affected by your perception of what other players were trying to achieve? (A norm can be understood as a shared sense of the goal.)
  • What is the optimal solution? (Students should consider: maximizing the number of fish consumed, or the number of fish preserved at the end, and/or equity among the players. Other proposals may also emerge.)
  • What parameters are included in the game? (Responses should include: attributes of the physical world; attributes of the community; official rules; and rules-in-use.)
  • How realistic is the scenario? What is it a realistic model of?
  • What assumptions does it make? How might those differ in reality? For instance, what if we played with $100 bills instead of Goldfish crackers?
  • Why did everyone follow the instructor’s rules? Why not just grab the Goldfish?
  • To what extent did additional rules emerge in practice? Is it realistic that people followed rules?
  • In general, is it helpful to model a society using games? What assumptions does a game model make? (Selfishness?) What might a game not model well?

See also: evolution, game theory, and the morality of modern human beingsthoughts about game theory; and game theory and the fiscal cliff (ii).

nonviolent civic work under conditions of extreme violence

My Tufts colleague Anjuli N. Fahlberg, a sociologist, has done extraordinary work in Rio de Janeiro’s City of God. Despite a staggering level of violence in that neighborhood, the residents have created a wide array of impressive initiatives that offer social services, education, and culture and promote social justice. Local activists are networked with peers in other communities they have been effective at the national level in Brazil.

Anjuli helps rebut the claim that “civic engagement” is only for privileged people. She also reveals interesting patterns that may generalize to other places. For example:

CBO [community-based organization] leaders had to monitor their activities and tactics closely so as not to conflict with the political and economic interests of the drug trade. They did this in several ways. For one, they decidedly avoided local politics, which meant avoiding any contact with political or community leaders known to be working for the drug trade and declining favors from local political candidates. … Since Solange and other CBOs refused to engage in violent governance, they found power in its opposite: moral governance. Moral governance emphasized transparency, fairness, equality, justice, and the use of resources for their stated activities. Notably, nearly all CBO leaders were women and thus offered a visual, embodied distinction from violent politics, which were controlled almost entirely by men.

This is from Anjuli N. Fahlberg, “Rethinking Favela Governance: Nonviolent Politics in Rio de Janeiro’s Gang Territories,” Politics & Society, September 11, 2018. Read the whole thing. You can also watch Anjuli’s talk at last year’s Frontiers of Democracy conference, here:

churchgoing and Trump

The Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group has released an important new paper by Emily Ekins entitled, “Religious Trump Voters: How Faith Moderates Attitudes about Immigration, Race, and Identity.”

Ekins notes that Trump performed best in the 2016 GOP primaries among Republican voters who never attend church (getting 69% of their vote). Examining Trump voters during 2018, she finds correlations between regularity of church attendance and positive attitudes toward racial and religious minorities, acceptance of diversity, approval of immigration (and opposition to the border wall), and concern about poverty.

Here I illustrate that pattern with attitudes toward Black people as the dependent variable. The trend line controls for race, gender, income, education, and age. All the data come from Trump voters. Because the correlation between church attendance and racial attitudes among Trump voters holds with these controls, Ekins suggests that it is causal.

This might not be a case of cause-and-effect. A third factor might underlie both tolerance and church attendance. However, I posited a similar causal hypothesis early in 2017, after I’d met with a conservative Southern pastor who despised Trump’s leadership style and attitudes. This pastor blamed Trump’s support on coach-potato “Christians,” those for whom Christianity is an identity rather than an actual faith, those who get their ideas from Fox News or Breitbart, not from fellow congregants.

Some colleagues and I tried to test this hypothesis using survey data and failed to find it, which is a null result worth noting. Still, I’d like to think that Ekins is right—perhaps more so in 2018 than in 2016.

Why would this pattern hold?

First, Ekins shows that church-attending Trump supporters volunteer and trust other people much more than Trump supporters who rarely or never attend Church. It may be that people who help others and feel they can rely on others are less likely to despise and fear strangers. In turn, church-attendance may promote volunteering and trust, or it may manifest a broader form of social capital that explains both tolerance and church-attendance.

Robert Putnam introduced a distinction between “bridging” and “bonding” social capital. The bridging kind connects people who are diverse in some respects; the bonding kind may increase solidarity in opposition to outsiders. One could imagine that churches enhance bonding social capital. America is said to be most segregated on Sunday mornings, and churches distinguish insiders from outsiders. But volunteering and trusting generic others are measures of bridging, not bonding, social capital. Insofar as churches encourage volunteering, they are trying to create bridging social capital.

Another mechanism could be leadership. Real churches have leaders, both clergy and laypeople. Church leaders are expected to be responsive and responsible and to hold the group together. In contrast, Trump just says whatever comes into his mind, usually makes no effort to deliver what he promises, and is happy to divide. I have hypothesized that people who are familiar with real leadership in local voluntary associations would despise Trump’s style. Although we were unable to show that pattern using survey data, Ekins’ new results may suggest that it holds.

A third mechanism could be the content of the faith. I happen not to be religious, and I could criticize the specific content of many sermons and texts on ethical grounds. I am aware that there are mega-churches that show huge audiences jingoistic videos of American military might; there are clerics who praise Trump or cite Romans 13 to defend the administration’s policies. In my opinion, these examples are idolatrous as well as unjust, but my argument does not depend on romanticizing the content of religious expression.

I would argue, instead, that real faith is demanding. You can find passages and examples that reinforce bigotry, but you will also encounter texts that challenge you. Faith may be consistent with almost any policy position—as we can see from the enormous range of political opinions among clergy—yet participation in a deep and complex religious community is inconsistent with all simplistic attitudes about other people. Cable news and propagandistic websites reinforce what their audiences want to hear, but scripture is strange and demanding. Since religious texts are very hard to figure out by oneself, they require discussion and debate. In turn, the people in any given discussion usually turn out to have idiosyncratic and incompatible interpretations. This is why Martin Luther, despite his break with The Church, believed that we all need a church to keep us honest. Even if the content of preaching and liturgy doesn’t turn us into people who understand and care for others, the decision to attend a service may reflect a desire to become such a person.

In short, religion as a pure identity: bad. Religion as a community of people who struggle to address issues of moral and existential importance: good. Voters who actually attend church are more likely to experience the good form of religion, compared to those who identify as Christians without showing up on Sunday.

See also: the prospects for an evangelical turn against Trumpthe Hollowing Out of US Democracywhy Trump fans aren’t holding him accountable (yet); and why Trump fans aren’t holding him accountable (yet)

undergraduate Introduction to Civic Studies Course

PHIL-0020-01-Intro to Civic Studies at Tufts University (Fall 2018)

  • Ioannis D. Evrigenis, Professor of Political Science
  • Erin I. Kelly, Professor of Philosophy
  • Peter Levine, Lincoln-Filene Professor and Academic Dean, Tisch College

Civic Studies is an interdisciplinary field of study that focuses on critical reflection, ethical thinking, and action for social change. People who think and act together to improve society must address problems of collective action (how to get members to work together) and deliberation (how to reason together about contested values). They must understand how power is organized and how it operates within and between societies. They must grapple with social conflict, violence, and other obstacles to peaceful cooperation. When tensions arise within a group, people face questions of justice and fairness, and they must confront questions about appropriate relationships to outsiders of all types. This introductory course explores ethical, political, and theological frameworks for understanding how people can and should organize themselves to improve societies. Readings are drawn from philosophy and political theory, economics, the history of social movements, and other disciplines. This course provides theoretical grounding for Civic Studies majors and for other students interested in social change.


Mark Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics. On order at the Tufts bookstore. Recommended: David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon.

Final grades will depend on:

  • 10% class participation
  • 25% first paper (5-7 pages)
  • 25% second paper (5-7 pages)
  • 30% a simulation (a group exercise that comprises six short writing assignments, each worth 5%)
  • 10% in-class midterm exam

September 5: Introduction

September 10: A “feeling of personal responsibility for the world”

September 12: What is a citizen? Who is a citizen?

Aristotle, Politics III.1-5 .

September 17: The citizen in a modern democracy

John Dewey, The Public and its Problems, Chapter 5, “Search for the Great Community.

Problems of Collective Action

September 19: Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School

Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Prize Lecture  (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.(video or text)

September 24: Ostrom Continued

Thomas Dietz, Nives Dolsak, Elinor Ostrom, and Paul C. Stern, “The Drama of the Commons” in Elinor Ostrom, ed., Drama of the Commons, pp. 3-26.

Elinor Ostrom, “Covenants, Collective Action, and Common-Pool Resources

September 26: Collective Action Problems at Scale

James Madison, The Federalist #10.  (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

Jane Mansbridge, Beyond Adversary Democracypp. 23-35, 59-76, 163-182 293-8 

October 1: Spontaneous Order

Friedrich Hayek, “The Pretence of Knowledge ” Nobel Prize Lecture (1974)

Friedrich Hayek” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed,Introduction (pp. 1-8), Chapter 3 “Authoritarian High Modernism”

Draft of first paper due

October 3: Social Capital as a Solution

Robert D. Putnam, “Community-Based Social Capital and Educational Performance,” in Ravitch and Viteritti, eds., Making Good Citizens, pp. 58-95

Identifying Good Ends and Means

October 9: Habermas and Deliberative Democracy

First group assignment  (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. due

October 10: Habermas Continued

  • Jürgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms, pp. 359-379

October 15: Implementing Deliberative Democracy

Nabatchi, Matt Leighninger, Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy (2015), pp. 241-285 and 305-324 

Danielle E. Allen, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown, v. Board of Education pp 140-186

Final draft of first paper due

October 17: Scholars in Public Deliberation

Visiting speaker: Prof. Jonathan Garlick

Bent Flyvbjerg, ” Social Science that Matters ” (2006)

(additional reading)

October 22: John Rawls

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, pp. 3-19, 52-57

October 24: John Rawls, continued

John Rawls, “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited”

Nina Eliasoph, Avoiding Politics, pp. 1-22

Lynn Sanders, “ Against Deliberation

Exclusion and Identity

October 29

Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” 

Steve Biko, Black Consciousness and the Quest for True Humanity” 

The Book of Nehemiah 

Second group assignment   due

October 31: Identity and the Common Good

Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal 

November 5: Social Movements

Charles Tilly, ” Social Movements, 1768-2004″

Jürgen Habermas, Theory of Communicative Action, vol. 2, pp. 391-6.

Marshall Ganz, “Why David Sometimes Wins: Strategic Capacity in Social Movements,” in Jeff Goodwin and James M. Jasper, Rethinking Social Movements: Structure, Meaning, and Emotion (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004) pp.177-98.

November 7: Community Organizing

Saul AlinskyReveille for Radicals1946 (1969 edition), pp. 76-81; 85-88; 92-100, 132-5, 155-158.

Myles Horton and Paulo Freire, We Make the Road by Walking, pp. 115-138

November 14: Midterm in class

November 19: Nonviolent Campaigns

Martin Luther King, Stride Toward Freedom, chapters 3, 4, and 5.

? Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, chapters 1 and 2 

November 26: Nonviolence

Bikhu Parekh, GandhiChapter 4 (“Satyagraha”), pp. 51-62;

Timothy Garton Ash, “Velvet Revolution: The Prospects,” New York Review of Books, December 3, 2009

The Person in Community

November 28: Plato, Apology of Socrates

December 3: Plato, Apology of SocratesCrito

December 5: Civic Education: What all this means for what students should learn

Joel Westheimer and Joseph E. Kahne, “Educating the ‘Good Citizen’: Political Choices and Pedagogical Goals,” PS Online

Third group assignment  (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. due

December 10: Civic Studies at Tufts and Beyond

Draft of second paper due

Dec. 20: Final paper due.

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V.S. Naipaul’s view of culture

I read a lot of Naipaul in my youth and see value in his work. But Ian Buruma’s obituary profile reminds me of the main way in which I disagreed with him.

Naipaul believed there were “whole cultures”: comprehensive, harmonious, indigenous, and hermetic. Examples included classical India, England, and pre-colonial West Africa. A whole culture was “wounded” when it was mixed up with foreign elements, usually as a result of conquest or deferential imitation.

Naipaul was politically incorrect in three respects. He admired the “whole cultures” of Europe, such as England, and emphasized their indigenous roots. He saw many interventions as imperialistic–not just European conquests but, for example, the Islamic influence in India or the Arab influence on non-Arab Muslims. And he mocked people in the global South who made unsophisticated efforts to imitate the imperial centers: West Indians pretending to be British, or Malays pretending to be Arabs.

On the other hand, Naipaul was in sync with certain strains of post-colonial thought: he liked indigeneity and opposed cultural appropriation.

It’s true that “cosmopolitan” was a positive word in Naipaul’s lexicon, and he claimed to be cosmopolitan himself. But he insisted that a cosmopolitan was at home in more than one culture, truly understanding and living it. Lightly borrowing some elements of other cultures didn’t count:

[Satyajit] Ray was a Bengali intellectual and artist who was as much at home in European as in Indian culture. He loved Indian art and music as much as European classical music or literature, and had a deep knowledge of all these things. The fact that most of us eat American junk food, or watch Hollywood movies, doesn’t make us necessarily more cosmopolitan. To be cosmopolitan you need to feel at home in various different cultures, as Ray did, and few people do even now. As far as the shrinking world is concerned, this is easy to exaggerate.

For what it’s worth, I believe:

  1. There is no indigeneity. We have all migrated. Not only people but also ideas move constantly. Every group has been deeply influenced by other groups for as far back as we can see.
  2. There are no whole cultures. A culture is an assemblage of ideas about the world (defining both “ideas” and “world” broadly). Since everyone holds at least slightly different ideas, labeling people as members of a culture just means that most of them share some important ideas. It’s a statistical generalization about the beliefs of a population. Furthermore, the ideas that we happen to hold are always badly insufficient, and we are always looking for more. Because of our profound human limitations–cognitive and imaginative–every culture is drastically incomplete.
  3. Mixing is good. India, for example, is not a “wounded civilization” because the original Hindu whole has been rent by Muslims and Europeans. It is a fabulous quilt of diversity, and has been for three millennia. Even the Hindu aspect is massively diverse.
  4. Imitation is good, although you have to do it with creativity, respect, and taste. Some of Naipaul’s most effective criticism was aimed at poor efforts at imitation.
  5. Imperialism is bad. But that’s not because it disrupts indigeneity and cultural harmony or because it introduces ideas that should stay somewhere else. It’s bad because it involves forcibly seizing land and goods while usually also killing, exploiting, and (literally) raping people. The bad part is the violence and exploitation, not the mixing.

See also: what is cultural appropriation?notes on cultural appropriation after the royal wedding; and everyone unique, all connected.

from classical liberalism to a civic perspective

Earlier this summer, I was in the van Mises Room in the Friedrich von Hayek Program in the James Buchanan Building at George Mason University, talking about my intellectual hero, Elinor Ostrom, who learned a great deal from Hayek and Buchanan. This is a sketch of how I presented my own position. By the way, the audience was ideologically diverse, and each attendee held nuanced views; but I wanted to say something about the people for whom the space was named.

Hayek objected to thinking about “social justice” for two reasons that I endorse. First, no person or group has nearly enough cognitive or moral capacity to decide what everyone deserves across a whole society. Second, thinking about “social justice” encourages ideas about what the state should do to make the society just and to keep it just. I’ve collected quotations from a wide range of political theorists who move quickly from ideas of social justice to blueprints for states. There’s an interesting “tell” in Philip Pettit’s influential book Republicanism when he distinguishes between the objectives of “the authorities” (people who exercise power in a republican system) from what “we, as system designers” seek. He imagines his readers to be system-designers, but we are not that. We are participants in existing systems. And if we had the power to design and enact a real polity, we should be primarily concerned with humility and with placing limits on our own power to dictate to others. Hundreds of millions of people were shot or gassed in the 1900s by people who thought their job was to design polities and who had opportunities to do so.

The main question that confronts us is what should we do, not what regime should we live in. If I could choose which country I’d like mine to resemble–Denmark, Burkina Faso, or North Korea?–I would vote for Denmark. But I don’t need an elaborate theory to help me answer that question, nor do I need a theoretical rationale for my choice. Interestingly, everyone from a classical liberal to a social democrat would concur. It appears that well- designed, balanced regimes that rest on strong civic cultures optimize both freedom and equality.

I can vote on whether to make the US a little more like Denmark, and that is the way I usually choose to vote (i.e., for candidates of the left or center-left in our system). But my vote is far from the most consequential civic decision I make, and those candidates won’t redesign our regime. Like me, they are embedded in complex systems that they seek to adjust from where they are.

However, none of the above means that we should cease assessing the justice, fairness, and desirability of the situations that we observe around us. In fact, we must not only assess but try to remedy the injustices we see. That is our duty as ethical persons. We can think about social justice as members of a society, not as designers of it.

In a polycentric world, we are participants in many overlapping and nested political, economic, cultural, linguistic, and natural systems, all at once. We are immanent in these systems but we can influence them. We have moves to make in the “games” that we find ourselves in, but we can also change the rules or shift to different games. We are public entrepreneurs who can choose where and how to exercise leverage.

As such, we have much to gain from Vincent and Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School of Political Economy. First, we obtain the concept of polycentricity itself and a theory of ourselves as a participants in numerous interrelated systems. Second, the Institutional Analysis and Development Framework gives us a way of identifying the “action arenas,” “contexts,” “actors,” etc. that we must understand in order to be effective. Third, the list of design principles that Lin Ostrom and colleagues gleaned from experiments and observations is not only useful for practice–which it is–but it also exemplifies a process of gleaning rule-of-thumb guidelines from complex reality.

Yet the Bloomington School does not suffice. It focuses on certain problems that confront groups of people–e.g., how to encourage contributions and discourage free-riding–but not on other problems, such as how to deal with disagreements about principles or about the justice of boundaries among groups. The School offers a response to power asymmetries (basically, the classical liberal response of reducing concentrated power and encouraging people to manage their own concerns at the local level). This response is important but it doesn’t satisfy me as way of dealing with massive disparities in wealth and power or oppressive mentalities and norms.

Finally, the Bloomington School’s concrete suggestions (when abstracted from its philosophical background) are too value-neutral. The design principles, for example, would be just as useful for fascists as for democrats; just as useful for a cocaine cartel as for a community hospital.

We need to know what is right. As human beings, we lack direct access to certainties about ethics and justice. Our intuitions and are badly fallible. Most of our forebears had terrible values, and we are also subject to error for the same reasons they were. The best we can do is to listen and learn from people who have different values and interests from our own. Under the heading of “listening and learning,” I include not only discourse and deliberation but also art and narrative.

Thus we need a theory of communication, a theory that helps us to avoid propaganda and ideology, to distinguish good rhetorical moves from bad ones, and to design good formats for discussion (broadly defined). For that theory, I’d look to the Frankfurt School more than the Bloomington School, to Habermas more than the Ostroms.

And both the Frankfurt School and the Bloomington School are most helpful for relatively stable situations in which a community exists and faces problems of collective action or of disagreement. These schools are less helpful for moments when a community needs to be formed, when some people are excluded from a community that they have a right to join, or when some people want to exit a system that they find oppressive. For these situations, we need the tradition of nonviolent civil resistance represented by Gandhi and King. I come to that tradition without a fixed commitment to pacifism (I happen to think that some wars are just). Instead, I believe we can learn general principles from cases in which people forego violence yet still confront power.

The Bloomington School offers a framework: a cluster of theories, models, theses, and findings. I think we need a larger framework that encompasses the Bloomington School plus theories of deliberation and of nonviolence.

See also: social justice from the citizen’s perspectiveagainst state-centric political theorythe legacy of Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School; and Habermas, Ostrom, Gandhi (II).

postmodernism and Trump

In the Washington Post, Colby College English professor Aaron Hanlon argues that postmodernist theorists didn’t inspire or prepare the way for Donald Trump and other politicians who openly disparage truth. Rather, postmodernists lamented a world in which propaganda and media manipulation badly distorted our understanding and judgment. The death of truth “was a diagnosis, not a political outcome that [Lyotard] and other postmodernist theorists agitated to bring about.” Thus, as the Post’s headline puts it, “Postmodernism didn’t cause Trump. It explains him.”

I think I agree with every sentence in Hanlon’s article, which is a valuable contribution. But he seems to omit an important dimension: our changing views of journalism, science, and scholarship.

Most thoughtful people have long been concerned about political propaganda (in the narrow sense). Lippmann, Dewey, Orwell, Arendt, Hayek, and many others worried that politicians who obtained influence over the state could distort public opinion and obfuscate the truth. That concern has been a central theme in liberalism since long before postmodernism.

Hanlon makes the French postmodernists sound like liberals, in this sense:

But if we bother to understand Baudrillard’s thesis — that our impressions of the [First Gulf War] conflict have been warped by media framing and agitprop — it’s clear that the real enemy of truth is not postmodernism but propaganda, the active distortion of truth for political purposes. Trumpism practices this form of distortion on a daily basis.

But postmodernism also treats natural science, other forms of scholarship, professional disciplines like law, and independent journalism as purveyors of propaganda rather than pursuers of truth. The validity of science, for example, was the issue in the “Science Wars.” Postmodernism is concerned about “the active distortion of truth for political purposes,” but it extends “politics” to laboratories, classrooms, and newsrooms as well as elections and governments.

In the 1980s and 1990s, people who defined themselves as postmodernists were quick to reject the pretentious of institutions like scholarly disciplines and The New York Times. Nowadays, similar people are more likely to defend the elite consensus on matters like climate change, to use findings from social science in their arguments, and to decry the failure of politicians like Donald Trump to respect the truth as presented in venues like The New York Times. On the question of whether The Times or the NSF is a source of truth, Trump sounds like the postmodernist.

Pure objectivity is a myth, almost universally acknowledged as such. However, if you don’t like what influential people are claiming to be true, you have options. First, you can decide where you stand on a spectrum from relativism (“Any claim depends entirely on who makes it”) to critical objectivity (“There are obvious truths that are being overlooked or concealed because the people in charge of knowledge are bad”). Another spectrum goes from reformist (“New people and new research agendas should be incorporated into the institutions that produce knowledge”) to separatist (“We need new institutions to produce knowledge.”) Since these questions are independent, four options result:

When French postmodernism arrived in the US, much of the academic left was reformist and somewhat relativist, or so I recall. A common view was that science and scholarship were valuable pursuits, but they needed to be substantially diversified. Humanists tended to doubt the claims of objectivity made by their colleagues in the sciences. Works like Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession (1988) extended the critique to the humanities. Thus many academics found themselves in Cell A, although some self-described leftists argued that it was a fundamental mistake to undermine objectivity; they defended Cell C.

In that context, French postmodernism was strongly relativist and at least implicitly separatist. Its critique of established institutions (universities, clinics, newspapers, etc.) was radical enough to suggest the need for alternatives–whole new institutions, or perhaps anti-institutions. It made a case for Cell B that many accepted with caveats or else resisted.

At that time, most of the academic right claimed to be strongly anti-relativist and also reformist (Cell D). They viewed relativism as an insidious attack on core values. Conservatives were reformist because they thought that conservative voices were marginalized in the academy and the media and deserved more prominence. Conservatives believed in truth and wanted to change who spoke most powerfully about the truth.

However, some conservatives were separatist: Cell D. They might gravitate to the Federalist Society, the Liberty Fund, evangelical colleges, conservative think tanks–or even “Creation Science”–as alternatives because they had given up on the academy and government-funded science. They believed in objectivity but had lost faith in professors and reporters to produce or disseminate it.

I think a lot of the academic left today falls in Cell C. They believe that real knowledge is possible but that we must enhance diversity in newsrooms, laboratories, universities, and funding agencies in order to get closer to the truth. “Diversity” refers not only to the demographics of the researchers and reporters–although that is important–but also to their topics and methods. Many academics on the left are vigorous defenders of tenure, federal science funding, public radio, and other bulwarks of fairly traditional knowledge-production. Women Also Know Stuff is a perfect example of Cell C.

This means that the academic left shares some of the values that animated conservatives during the 1970s-1990s. Meanwhile, there are strands of the right that now prefer Cell B. They debunk truth, doubt the value of independent scholarship, and want to create alternatives to Fake News, lying scientists, etc.

It’s in that respect that French postmodernism presaged the era of Donald Trump.

See also: Bernard Williams on truth as a virtue of the humanitiesconservative relativismteaching evolution, creationism, Intelligent Design; and media literacy and the social discovery of reality.

issues in the philosophy of social science

Here is the outline of a course I’d like to take–or possibly design and teach some day:

  1. What is the social world? Is it, for example, a bunch of human individuals who interact? Perhaps not, since individuals’ identities and values emerge from social processes, while institutions also have intentions and agency. Do sex and/or gender (for instance) actually exist? Do cultures exist, or are they simplified labels that we impose on heterogeneous phenomena?
  2. Does it matter who studies the social world? On one hand, we might think that what we believe about society is just a function of who studies it. On the other hand, we might assume that social phenomena can be objectively known using procedures that are independent of who uses them. The truth probably lies in between. So how does the identity of the researcher influence the results of social science, and, more generally, how does power relate to truth?
  3. Facts and values: Are they distinct? How do they relate? Should we think of values as biases that may interfere with objectivity, or can they be valid as opposed to invalid? Should social science have values?
  4. What do various methods of social science assume about epistemology? For example, what must we believe about our ability to know in order to run a randomized controlled experiment, develop a game-theoretical model, survey a population and calculate distributions, or interpret a Balinese cockfight?
  5. What is and ought to be the role of social science in society? Should it be influential? When and how? Is everyone a social scientist, or does that phrase name a distinct group of experts or specialists? Should the goal of changing the world affect the research agendas and methods of social science? Who should govern (i.e., fund, regulate, organize) social science and how?