The truth in Hayek

(Washington, DC) You are reading English; I am writing it. English has elaborate rules and conventions. You can break the rules, but that has consequences beyond your control. Mess up your grammar in a job interview and you may not get the position. On the other hand, talk very formally in a dorm hallway and you may come across as a geek.

English also has many limitations. There are things for which we lack words. There are words without rhymes. There are words that sound awkward together. Using the language can be a struggle for people at any level of proficiency. It was a struggle for Shakespeare, as you can sense when you see him trying to convey ideas that had never been said before in his language.

Yet hardly anyone experiences the rules and limitations of English as an infringement on liberty. Why not?

  1. No individual or committee designed the language. Its limitations, therefore, are not the result of anyone’s will. Not being able to express something in English is like not being able to run at 60 miles/hour: a constraint, but not an example of coercion, because no one is coercing you.
  2. No one can change the language wholesale. We can work to change it, one piece at a time. In my lifetime, “man” has ceased to mean “human being.” That change is a result of deliberate argument and advocacy. But it’s a change of one word, and it required lots of voluntary agreement to become a new norm.
  3. Language is predicable. Within any linguistic context, the rules-in-use (not necessarily the official rules written down in grammar books) are quite stable. Change is gradual. Therefore, we can usually predict how a listener will understand a given phrase. Its predictability makes language a tool for intentional agents, something that we can plan to use for our own ends.

Friedrich von Hayek admires emergent systems. They are “complex and orderly and, in a very definite sense, purposive institutions [that] owe very little to design” (Constitution of Liberty, p. 58). Each system is a “self -maintaining whole which is kept going by forces which we cannot replace.” (p. 70). It is “not invented but arose from the actions of many men who did not know what they are doing.” (pp. 58-9). It demonstrates “organic, slow, half-conscious growth” versus “intelligent men coming together for deliberation about how to make the world anew” (pp. 56-7).

Hayek sees an intrinsic link between emergent systems and liberty, for the three reasons numbered above. Another advantage of emergent systems is that they avoid human cognitive limitations. They create complexity without relying on anyone’s brainpower to design the whole system well.

Hayek thinks of markets as emergent systems, and that is why he is associated with the political right. He opposes the idea of “social justice” (p. 65), arguing that to assess a complex system according to your own idea of justice is actually antisocial. You are substituting your opinion for what a whole society has created through emergent processes, such as market exchange.

I disagree with this important strand in Hayek. I view markets as substantially the products of political power and intentional design, in the form of laws that create and structure economic activity. I also view modern markets as the domain of large corporations that are run by (more or less) “intelligent men coming together for deliberation.” For instance, the online marketplace is not just an emergent system but an archipelago of designed islands (Amazon, Google, Facebook, the App Store). Finally, I don’t think that liberty, in Hayek’s sense, is the only important good. So even when markets do meet Hayek’s criteria of emergence and thus generate liberty (in his sense), I’m not satisfied if they are also deeply unequal, destructive, or inhumane. Note that Hayek may agree on this point (p. 18).

Having noted my disagreement with Hayek on the question of markets, I would like to underline the value of his overall view. Even with respect to economics, it is important to recognize the link between markets and liberty in the specifically Hayekian sense. His argument is not that markets offer negative liberty (freedom to do what you want), nor that they guarantee happiness or prosperity. His argument is that markets allow you to form and implement your own plans, which is a form of liberty. There is considerable truth to this position.

Besides, markets are not the only examples of emergent systems, and not the purest or best ones. Consider indigenous human cultures that are deeply embedded in natural ecosystems. The people who admire such examples and want to conserve them against the imperialistic forces of science and the state are typically on the left. Here I am not only talking about hunter-gatherer societies in distant rainforests. Plenty of leftish Americans will regard an elaborate but fragile community, like Boston’s Chinatown, as a valuable emergent system and will strongly oppose planning that disrupts it. So you can be a left-Hayekian.

Another example is the Internet. Today it is dominated by such large designed platforms as Amazon. But I remember when it emerged with very simple, very stable protocols that allowed maximum scope for creativity. The result was beautifully Hayekian, in contrast to the planned network of the telephone company. The fact that it has evolved to be dominated by multi-billion-dollar companies with centrally planned algorithms is an argument against Hayek’s pro-market complacency. The market has undermined Hayekian values. Still, the best response is to make the Internet more of an emergent system through rules like net-neutrality—not to try to design the content of the World Wide Web.

Finally, I tend to agree with Hayek’s view of ethics. Moral rules are, “next to language … the most important instance of an undesigned growth.” We observe them because of their consequences even though we do not know what their consequences will be (p. 67). That makes sense given human fallibility. Hayek rejects the Socratic ideal of questioning everything. “This givenness of the value framework implies that, although we must always strive to improve our institutions, we can never aim to remake them as a whole and that, in our efforts to improve them, we must take for granted much that we do not understand” (p. 63). Habermas uses the word “givenness” in exactly the same way when he also argues for criticizing values one at a time, never wholesale. Here the Austrian School and the Frankfurt School coincide.

[See also:  Lifeworld and System: a primerit’s not just what you think, but how your thoughts are organizedFoucault and neoliberalism]

new research on “civic deserts”

(Washington, DC) My colleagues Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg and Felicia Sullivan coined the phrase “civic deserts” to name places where there are few or no opportunities to be active and constructive participants in civic life. The analogy is to “food deserts”–geographical communities where there is little or no nutritious food for sale. You can still be an active citizen in a civic desert, just as you can grow vegetables in your back yard; it’s just that the whole burden falls on you.

Today at the National Conference on Citizenship, we are releasing Civic Deserts: America’s Civic Health Challenge by Matthew N. Atwell, John Bridgeland, and me. It’s a 36-page report that documents the declining opportunities for civic engagement in America. John Bridgeland and Robert Putnam also write about it today in a PBS opinion piece.

This is an example of a table from the report:

Thanks to friends at USC’s Center for Economic and Social Research, we were able to ask a  large, representative sample of Americans whether they belonged to various kinds of groups; if so, whether they participated actively in any of them; and if so, whether they thought that the group’s leaders (a) usually did what they promised and (b) usually tried to serve and include all the members. It turns out that only 28% of adult Americans actively belong to groups whose leaders are accountable and inclusive. That statistic does not tell us how much geographical space is taken up by civic deserts, but it suggests that they are common. And the historical data implies that civic engagement used to be much more widespread.

I separately formed a hypothesis that lacking direct, personal experience with good leadership would make a person more tolerant of the leadership style of Donald J. Trump, controlling for one’s political ideology. In other words, given two people who agree with Trump on issues, the one without experience of good local leadership would be more supportive of Trump as a leader. This was testable with the USC data, which includes a whole battery of questions about ideology, issues, and Trump. My hypothesis turned out not to be true: partisanship and media choice seem to explain opinions of the current president almost completely, and experience in groups adds no explanatory power. Still, I think there may be a more circuitous story about civic deserts as a cause of Trump’s victory: the decline of civic associations increases the power of partisan heuristics and ideological media. Even if that hypothesis is also false, civic deserts are still a problem, because civic engagement benefits health, economic development, safety, education, and good government.

See also: The Hollowing Out of US Democracy (my blog post for USC); Mitigating the Negative Consequences of Living in Civic Deserts – What Digital Media Can (and have yet to) Do (a new CIRCLE article); America needs big ideas to heal our divides. Here are three by Bridgeland and Putnam; and the power of the NRA in an age of civic deserts.

the legacy of Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School

Many years ago, I met Vincent and Elinor Ostrom in the seminar room of what is now the Ostrom Workshop at Indiana University in Bloomington. I then had several personal interactions with Lin Ostrom, and I’ve been back a few times to Bloomington. (I even wrote a poem about a B&B there once.) I have taught and studied her work and am writing a book in which the tradition that she and Vincent founded–the Bloomington School–is one of three essential components of a theory of citizenship. (The other two are the post-War Frankfurt School and the tradition of political nonviolence: Gandhi/King.) She is, for me, the model scholar.

Today, I was able to speak about Lin Ostrom’s legacy in that same seminar room. I tried to place the Bloomington School in the context of major currents of political theory and civic renewal. A video of my talk is already up on the Workshop’s website. The title is “Elinor Ostrom and the Citizen’s Basic Question: What Should We Do?”

See also: Elinor Ostrom wins the Nobel!Elinor Ostrom speaking at TuftsElinor Ostrom, 1933-2012Ostrom, Habermas, and Gandhi are all we need, and Habermas, Ostrom, Gandhi (II),

against state-centric political theory

What do all these statements have in common?

  1. “Republicanism is a consequentialist doctrine which assigns to government, in particular to governmental authorities, the task of promoting freedom as n0n-domination.” — Philip Pettit, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government
  2. “Of course governments may delegate … to private entities, but in the end it is government, meaning the society’s basic political structure, that bears the ultimate responsibilities for securing capabilities …. . The Capabilities Approach … insists that all entitlements involve an affirmative task for government: it must actively support people’s capabilities, not just fail to set up obstacles. … Fundamental rights are only words unless and until they are made real by government action.” — Martha Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach
  3. “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.” — John Rawls, A Theory of Justice
  4. “The free man will ask neither what his country can do for him nor what he can do for his country. He will ask rather ‘What can I and my compatriots do through government’ to help us discharge our individual responsibilities, to achieve our several goals and purposes, and above all, to protect our freedom? And he will accompany this question with another: How can we keep the government we create from becoming a Frankenstein that will destroy the very freedom we establish it to protect?” — Milton Friedman, Capitalism as Freedom

These authors disagree about what the government should do and what powers it should have. Friedman wants as little government as necessary to protect a certain kind of freedom. Nussbaum and Rawls would assign the state the powers it needs to guarantee a range of social outcomes. Pettit starts with a particular conception of freedom and concludes with an argument for an assertive state.

But all agree that justice means getting the role of the government right.

One objection to this shared premise is that no government alone can determine whether people experience justice or injustice. Amartya Sen begins his book The Idea of Justice with a quote from Great Expectations (“In the little world in which children have their existence, nothing is so finely felt and perceived as injustice”) to support the point that non-state actors–in Pip’s case, an older sister–can be just or unjust in ways that no state would be able to determine.

I agree, but my objection is different and (I think) more radical. All the books quoted above are about justice, but their authors and readers are not governments. Instead, these books are written by people for people. People can adopt views of what governments should do, and sometimes people influence governments. But individual people–even dictators–cannot directly make governments either just or unjust. The question for these authors and their readers should be: What must we do?

From that perspective, governments do enter the picture, as do families, markets, customs, religions, ecosystems, laws of nature, and many other tools and constraints. The question for us is not how each of these things should ideally work (if so, I’d favor laws of nature that guarantee us all perfect happiness forever), but rather how we should deal with the constraints and opportunities that confront us.

In particular, the governments that we deal with differ greatly. Some of us live in Denmark; others in North Korea or Bukina Faso. All the authors cited above would agree that Denmark’s government is better than North Korea’s, but that conclusion has limited value for residents of either country. Further, citizens of Denmark can fine-tune the justice of their government’s policies by supporting the political parties that best reflect their views. In North Korea (because of tyranny) and in Burkina Faso (because of poverty), that approach to improving the world isn’t really available.

My objection is not that governments should play a more limited role than they play today or than some theorists recommend. As an individual voter, it happens that I would support more assertive government. My objection is to treating the question, “What is a good government?” as an answer to the existential question, “What should I do as a citizen?” Apart from voting for the party that recommends my favorite size and type of government, what am I to do?

I’d venture an analogy to a family of theological views. For many theists, God is the Unmoved Mover, ultimately responsible for everything but not subject to being changed. Our stance toward God should involve such virtues as hope and faith. We can pray for certain outcomes, and we can be confident that divine choices will be just. We can ask what God is likely to do, given that God is just. We cannot, however, choose how God will act.

Likewise, in all the political philosophies cited above, the state is the unmoved mover of a system of justice. Unlike God, a state can either be good or bad; it can merit admiration or criticism. And we can debate whether the state should be more or less powerful (in contrast to God, Who is all-powerful). But these theories all suppose that the question of justice is: What is the ideal state? This question resembles the theological question, What are the attributes of God? It is a matter for analysis and inquiry, but not a choice.

Of course, everyone realizes that people make and change governments. The modern Danish state didn’t arise spontaneously; Danes made it and sustain it. They have also made the Danish language and economy and the physical layout of Danish towns and the countryside. But the strategies and ethics of citizens’ action are sidelined in all these political philosophies–even in Friedman’s libertarianism. He wants the state to do little, and private actors to do what they want; but that’s still not a theory of how we can accomplish justice. Again, if we are Danes who agree with Friedman, we can vote for classical-liberal candidates; but if we are North Koreans, Friedman’s ideals are empty.

How did a strategy for influencing the world become available in Denmark that is absent in North Korea? Because of the past behavior of people, both inside these countries and beyond.

Perhaps political philosophers focus on the state because they believe that blueprints of just political orders influence history. Without Locke, no American Revolution; without Rousseau, no French Revolution; without Marx, no Russian Revolution. The social impact of abstract philosophy is a large question on which I claim no special expertise. However, my general premise is that the Owl of Minerva flies at dusk and doesn’t see all that well. Locke writes after the actual English Revolution of 1688 and tries to make theoretical sense of it. He has some influence on the American framers, but they have many other influences as well, including their hands-on experiences in colonial government. Likewise, Robespierre may have carried his copy of Rousseau around with him–and Lenin, his Marx–but the actual revolutions that they led didn’t resemble these blueprints all that well. Not to mention that most sustainable change doesn’t occur during revolutions at all. It reflects slow, cumulative, experimental adjustments that are theorized after the fact.

Another reason that most political philosophers focus on the state rather than people may be that the actions of citizens appear to be theoretically uninteresting. Action is a matter of praxis, and the only question is empirical: Given the actual circumstances, what will work to move the society toward justice? That’s a question for strategists and empirical students of activism, lobbying, elections, social movements, revolutions, and so on, but not for political philosophers.

This is where I dissent. When we set out to change the world, we must decide what is right for us to do under the circumstances. The main way to test our answers to that question is to discuss them with other people. We must also coordinate our actions to increase our odds of changing the world. Unless we have already coordinated with some other people, we probably lack a venue in which to deliberate, because a deliberation is itself a shared activity, and it almost always takes place within an organization of some kind that we must sustain.

Deliberating and coordinating action generate relatively consistent classes of problems. They are hard problems, yet some groups of people have solved them. These problems are just as conceptually and ethically complex as the problem of designing a good state. But they are more pressing for us, because we can deliberate and coordinate, but we cannot implement our ideas of a good state. The only way that states will get better is if people (including those who work in and for states) deliberate and coordinate better. And–while we are at it–we can also change cultures, markets, religions, and even ecosystems. Theorizing that work is the task of Civic Studies.

See also: Ostrom, Habermas, and Gandhi are all we need; Habermas, Ostrom, Gandhi (II)new book–Civic Studies: Approaches to the Emerging Field; and The Good Society symposium on Civic Studies

Lifeworld and System: a primer

The great social theorist Jürgen Habermas has drawn attention–for more than half a century–to the problem that he calls the “colonization of the Lifeworld by System.” Here is my explanation, based mainly on a rare concrete example from his Theory of Communicative Action, vol. 2. 

The Lifeworld, for Habermas, is the background of ordinary life: mainly private, somewhat naive and biased, but also authentic and essential to our satisfaction as human beings. It is a “reservoir of taken-for-granteds, of unshaken convictions that participants in communication draw upon in cooperative processes of interpretation.” In the Lifeworld, we mostly communicate with people we know and who share our daily experience, so our communications tend to be opaque to outsiders and certainly not persuasive to people unlike us. But Habermas argues that we are incapable of thinking about everything at once. In order to reason and communicate, we must take most points as givens. Only then can “single elements, specific taken-for-granteds” be brought up for conversation and critical analysis.

Meanwhile, the “System” is composed of formal organizations, such as governments, corporations, parties, unions, and courts. People in a System have official roles and must pursue pre-defined goals (albeit sometimes with ethical constraints). For example, defense lawyers are required to defend their clients, corporate CEOs are supposed to maximize profit, and comptrollers are supposed to reduce waste in their own organizations. In the current period, there are fundamentally two Systems: markets (in which instrumental action leads to profit) and governments (in which instrumental action demonstrates power). Although the people who work in markets and governments are complex individuals with other commitments, their official work responsibilities are to maximize money or to administer power.

To illustrate the Lifeworld, Habermas invites us to envision an “older construction worker who sends a younger and newly arrived co-worker to fetch some beer, telling him to hurry up and be back in a few minutes.” The senior worker assumes that a whole set of beliefs and values are shared on the team: German construction workers enjoy and expect to drink beer at breaks during the workday, beer is for sale in the vicinity, the younger and/or most recently hired person is the one who does unpaid chores for the group, and so on. Each of these assumptions could be brought into doubt and subjected to debate. For instance, as Habermas suggests, the younger worker might say, “But I don’t have a car,” or “I’m not thirsty.” Other “elements of the situation” might generally pass unnoticed yet become relevant as circumstances change. If the younger worker is an immigrant without health coverage and he falls off the ladder as he goes to buy the beer, several relevant laws and controversies may suddenly occur to the workers, moving from their background knowledge to topics of explicit discussion. But at any given moment, simply by virtue of being human, the workers must assume most features of the situation as a shared and implicit background, a “vast and incalculable web of presuppositions.” This is their Lifeworld.

In order for the workers (or any other group of people) to be free and self-governing, they must be able to render any aspect of the Lifeworld problematic. It is a definitive feature of modernity that no assumptions are considered immune to critique; and it is a condition of democracy that no critique is blocked by law or other force. When the younger construction worker notes that no beer is available within walking distance and he doesn’t have a car, he is giving a reason for someone else to go. This turns his work group into a small Public Sphere. To the extent it is democratic and deliberative, his reasons will require responses.

Imagine (to go beyond Habermas’ presentation of this example) that the radio is playing as these men work. A news program includes an interview with a feminist activist who criticizes the construction industry for hiring very few women, followed by an immigrant leader who notes that alcohol is forbidden to Muslims (thus the assumption that everyone wants to drink beer is exclusionary), followed by a health expert who attributes disease to excessive daytime beer consumption. These people are making arguments that compel critical attention to specific aspects of the workers’ Lifeworld. They represent the larger Public Sphere of the Federal Republic or the European Union. It doesn’t matter whether the interviewees have self-interested motivations, such as selling copies of their books, or whether the radio station is a for-profit company trying to attract listeners. The format of any reasonably well-run news program will compel the speakers to give reasons that can be checked and assessed by reporters and listeners. This is a case of a democratic Public Sphere challenging citizens to reflect about aspects of their Lifeworld.

But although every particular point should be subject to discussion, the whole Lifeworld must be protected. One reason is that we need the Lifeworld to think at all, for we are capable of testing a specific assumption only while holding our other assumptions for granted. A second reason is that our Lifeworld is ours, a condition of living authentically. Any political program that tries to strip a group of people of their accumulated assumptions all at once would be totalitarian. A radio program that brings separate issues to the workers’ attention expands their thinking; but if a revolutionary government seizes all the radio stations and begins broadcasting propaganda against contemporary German working-class culture as a whole, that is a threat to their Lifeworld.

Meanwhile, the Lifeworld is vulnerable to manipulation by interested parties who act instrumentally. For example, suppose that on the radio, the workers hear men with similar accents to their own praising a particular brand of beer. Maybe women are also heard, enjoying these men’s company and appreciating their good taste. It sounds as if friends have entered the real Lifeworld of the construction site, but these supposed friends are really actors who are are paid to sell beer. Of course, the workers will understand the purpose of an advertisement, yet by skillfully imitating their authentic Lifeworld, the ad can affect their behavior. No reasons need be given; no rebuttal is invited. In this case, Habermas would say that the Lifeworld of the workers has been colonized by the System of markets. The System of government might similarly colonize their Lifeworld if a candidate for public office started talking on the radio as if he were their friend who shared their values and experiences.

In discussions of Systems colonizing Lifeworlds, common examples include commercial advertisements that masquerade as authentic communications. These are cases of “commodification”: firms mining the Lifeworld for economic advantage. Habermas also emphasizes the tendency of welfare state bureaucracies to “juridify” or “judicialize” the Lifeworld. For instance, when well-intentioned states seek to protect pupils and parents against unfairness in testing and discipline, fairness “is gained at the cost of a judicialization and bureaucratization that penetrates deep into the teaching and learning process,” depersonalizing the school, inhibiting innovation, and undermining relationships.

A neo-Marxist line of criticism faults Habermas for equating juridification with commodification and the state with the market. This critique hold that the underlying process is capitalist exploitation, and the welfare-state is only a threat to the Lifeworld because it is a tool of capital. Habermas disagrees. For him the underlying process is growing specialization, a feature of modernity. He insists that in socialist societies, the state colonizes the Lifeworld in a parallel way to the market’s colonization in capitalist societies; and in welfare states, both threats operate at once.

[It turns out that I have posted 58 times before on Habermas, collected here. My broadest posts are probably Habermas and critical theory (a primer)saving Habermas from the deliberative democrats; and Ostrom, Habermas, and Gandhi are all we need.]

no justice, no peace? (on the relationship between these concepts)

As a political philosopher, I’m trained to think about justice versus injustice. Both terms are controversial. It would be hard to find two people (even two who might share the label be labeled “social justice warriors”) who define “justice” exactly alike. We each put together our own recipes using various combinations and flavors of liberty, equality, happiness, solidarity, sustainability, rights, voice, agency, status, security, and other values that conflict in practice. Injustice is equally complicated, and it may not mean the mere absence or negation of justice. But although the polarity of justice/injustice does not generate consensus, it structures many of our debates.

There’s another polarity that plays an analogous role for people who have been strongly influenced by Gandhi or the Civil Rights Movement: for instance, people who work in Peace and Conflict Studies.  This is the polarity of violence versus peace.

Again, both terms are complicated. Just as it won’t really work to define “justice” as equality (Equality of what? For whom? Equality and nothing else?), so it doesn’t work to define violence as physical assault, or peace as the absence of violence. Like justice, peace can provide the framework for a discussion in which various definitions are proposed and defended.

The following schematic diagram depicts these polarities as two different axes. It implies that it’s conceptually possible to have an unjust situation of peace or a just case of violence. Consider, for example, the imprisonment of a former dictator. He is arrested at gunpoint and forced into a cell (violence) but that’s a manifestation of justice. This case belongs in the bottom-left quadrant. On the other hand, situations of political quiescence involve living in injustice without any conflict: the top-right.

Some would argue that (true) justice is (true) peace; and injustice equals violence. Then the schematic is wrong; there is just one continuum whose ends should be labeled “Peace/Justice” and “Violence/Injustice.”

Or it could be that peace is a component of justice but not the only component. Perhaps you can’t have perfect justice with violence, but you can have a violent situation that’s more just than a peaceful situation would be, if the former scores higher on liberty, equality, or some other value.

My general instinct is to resist smooshing values together, because then we fool ourselves into ignoring tradeoffs. For instance, I don’t like to load lots of values into the definition of “democracy.” I prefer to define it as a system for making binding decisions in a group that affords everyone roughly equal influence. Then we can ask whether democracy requires or implies other values, such as social equality or freedom of speech, or whether it conflicts with these values. The same logic would encourage distinguishing between peace and justice as two different goods.

I have not made up my mind on this question, but here’s a text with which to think about it. Dr. King visited Joan Baez and other anti-war protesters in prison in Santa Rita, CA, on Jan. 14, 1968. Addressing a crowd outside the prison, he said (in my transcription from the audio):

There can be no justice without peace and there can be no peace without justice. People ask me from time to time, ‘Aren’t you getting out of your field? Aren’t you supposed to be working in civil rights?’ They go on to say, ‘The two issues are not to be mixed.’ And my own answer is that I have been working too long and too hard now against segregated public accommodations to end up at this stage of my life segregating my moral concerns. For I believe absolutely that justice is indivisible and injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And I want to make it very clear that I’m going to continue with all of my might, with all of my energy, and with all of my action to oppose that abominable, evil, unjust war in Vietnam.

The first sentence might mean that peace and justice are always causally connected: one is necessary for the other. But then it becomes clear that King’s struggle for Civil Rights is about “justice,” and his opposition to the war is about “peace,” and he wants to connect these two concerns because they are both “moral.” That implies that justice and peace are two distinct components of a larger category: what is moral or right. Finally, King defines the specific war in Vietnam as unjust, leaving open the possibility that a different war (e.g., the US Civil War?) might be just. In that case, peace in Vietnam is a necessity of justice but not because it will bring about peace; only because the war is an injustice.

At another level, of course, King insists on peace as a strategy for justice. Active nonviolence is an ethical and effective method in a wide range of circumstances, with a better record of success than violent insurrection has. But analytically, we could still distinguish between peaceful and just means and between peaceful and just ends and then ask when any of these four go together.

See also:  the kind of sacrifice required in nonviolencesocial justice should not be a cliché; and we are for social justice, but what is it?

what is polarization and when is it bad?

We might say that people are polarized when …

  1. They hold opposing positions on issues that matter to them.
  2. They hold contrasting core values that drive their opinions about issues.
  3. They identify strongly and stably with parties or ideological groups or movements that compete.
  4. As a principle or guideline, they oppose compromise with the other side.
  5. They use partisan labels as heuristics to judge candidates or issues.
  6. They use partisan heuristics to make decisions not directly related to politics, e.g., which community to live in or whom to date.
  7. They don’t actually interact with people who disagree or with people who identify differently.
  8. They don’t want to interact with people who disagree or with people who identify differently.
  9. They select or filter news and opinion to match their partisan opinions.
  10. They hold different factual beliefs that support their values.

These are separate issues, and we may feel differently about each one. For instance, I think that #1 and #2 (disagreeing about issues and about underlying principles) are completely fine. It’s even possible that we should cultivate a wider range of views and air them more openly and extensively. If that means more “polarization,” so be it. Also, #3 (identifying stably with an ideology) seems fine as long as you are thoughtful about it.

Surveys ask people about #4: Do you want politicians to compromise or to stand on principle? I find this a somewhat frustrating question, because it typically mentions only two options. A person can refuse to budge in a negotiation, give ground in the face of an opposing power, choose to compromise in the interest of moving forward, favor compromise because it is fair for interests to be balanced, or actually learn from an opposing argument and change her mind. I’m for changing one’s mind when (but only when) the opposing arguments are good. I’m not necessarily for compromising or holding firm in a negotiation: that depends on the circumstances. I’m not sure how I would answer the standard survey questions about willingness to compromise.

Partisan heuristics (#5 and #6) are problematic. Indeed, heuristics of any kind are problematic; they are shortcuts that evade harder thinking. On the other hand, heuristics are necessary because our brains are limited and we have other things to think about besides politics. People who have strong partisan identifications are more likely to vote and otherwise participate than people who don’t know how to identify themselves politically. This suggests that partisan heuristics are resources that enable political action. As long as the available party labels stand for reasonably valuable options, and the major options are available, I am not overly worried about partisan heuristics.

Here’s a thought-provoking example: Between 2011 and the revelation of the “Access Hollywood” tape, White Evangelicals changed their minds about whether political leaders who act immorally in private can nevertheless “behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public life.” In 2011, White Evangelicals were the group least likely to agree with that; now they are the most likely to agree–a rapid, 42-point change. It would seem that their support for Donald Trump (81% of them voted for him) drove their opinions about a broader and deeper issue. But was this a case of partisan heuristics overwhelming people’s judgments or of people learning from experience? Perhaps their assessment of Trump caused them to revise and complicate a prior assumption about private morality.

It seems worse to choose neighborhoods and friends based on party labels (#6) than to vote on the basis of partisan heuristics (#5). To be sure, it’s good to take politics seriously, and if you do, your political judgments may affect your everyday choices. But using party labels to choose friends and neighbors prevents exposure to a broader range of perspectives (#7 and #8).

Problems #7-9 are all about living in separate bubbles, whether by accident (#7) or by choice (#8); whether in real life (#7 and #8) or in the media environment (#9). The last issue, #10 (holding different factual beliefs) follows from #7-9. I am not certain these problems are worse than they were when the entire South was “solid” for the Democrats and the whole small-town North “waved the bloody flag” for the GOP. However, we have lost large mediating institutions, such as grassroots-based political parties and metropolitan daily newspapers, that once exposed people to alternative views. The trend has been toward massively disaggregated choice. You used to decide whether or not to subscribe to a daily newspaper. Now you decide which paragraph of which article to send to whom. Massively disaggregated choice has promoted balkanization, which manifests in #7-10.

See also: the hollowing out of US democracycivic education in a time of inequality and polarization; and don’t let the behavioral revolution make you fatalistic.

the kind of sacrifice required in nonviolence

We see nonviolent social movements forming and acting all around us right now: Charlottesville, Boston, Phoenix. There’s also a lively debate about whether nonviolence is the best response to threats like the alt-right, and if so, why. (Is nonviolence a moral principle, a strategic choice, or both?)

A characteristic aspect of any nonviolent movement is sacrifice. Participants sacrifice by renouncing consumer goods, by contributing money, by spending evenings at rallies, by putting their bodies in harm’s way, by going on hunger strikes, or even by choosing to die before onrushing tanks.

In Stride Toward Freedom, Martin Luther King describes the “laborers and domestic workers, many of them well past middle age,” who had to “trudge” as many as 12 miles each day to sustain the Montgomery Bus Boycott. King writes, “They knew why they walked, and the knowledge was evident in the way they carried themselves. And as I watched them I knew that there is nothing more majestic that the determined courage of individuals willing to suffer and sacrifice for their freedom and dignity.” The words “suffering” and “sacrifice” create a leitmotif in the book as a whole.

Sacrifice deserves scrutiny because it is powerful. Occasionally it shakes the conscience of opponents. More often, it persuades enablers of the current regime and bystanders to take the insurgents’ side. It demonstrates Worthiness, Commitment, and Unity, three of the four assets of any social movement, according to Charles Tilly. (The fourth asset, Numbers, is necessary to make a sacrifice effective.) Yet sacrifice is not always appropriate or valuable. Critical analysis is necessary.

Before we can analyze the kind of sacrifice that is evident in nonviolent movements, we need a serviceable definition of it. Some characteristics of non-violent political sacrifice also arise in other contexts. For example, soldiers make sacrifices that are (in certain respects) just like those of nonviolent protesters. Gandhi was once asked whether his “activities [could] be described as war.” He says he “had no hesitation in replying, ‘Our struggle has all the attributes of a war.’” Yet his nonviolent campaign surely differed from an actual war in more than just its refusal to use physical violence. Thus we need a relatively precise definition of the phenomenon.

I posit that the category of sacrifice found in nonviolent social movements (but not necessarily there alone) has four features.

  1. It is concerned with public–social or political–issues. If you give up your career to care for a sick relative, that is a sacrifice but not of the relevant kind.
  2. It has a real cost to the one who sacrifices. If you boycott a good that you didn’t like anyway, or for which there are easy substitutes, that is not a sacrifice, even though it might be a politically effective act.
  3. The cost is concentrated on the one who sacrifices. If you blow yourself up on an airplane, along with all the other passengers, that is a political sacrifice, but not the kind offered in nonviolent social movements.
  4. The act of sacrifice is performative and communicative. A relevant audience must understand that you are sacrificing for a given cause. They must recognize your intention and objective and the cost that you bear.

This fourth criterion goes a long way toward explaining why sacrifice is powerful. It is a form of rhetoric. When you voluntarily bear a steep cost, you provide compelling reasons for observers to draw the following conclusions: you sincerely care about the issue; you and the others who join you are willing to act and will not be easily ignored; in contrast to a violent actor, you are likely to respond positively to reasonable concessions; and you have a perspective that should at least be considered by anyone who wants to understand what people believe about the issue.

These reasons fall short of an actual justification of your position. You could have a sincerely held perspective that is unjust. However, the sacrifice draws attention to your voice and clears away certain barriers to being heard, such as the assumption that you are insincere or unserious. Sacrifice thereby creates the opportunity to offer actual justifications. King writes, “nonviolence comes in as the ultimate form of persuasion. … We will try to persuade with our words, but if our words fail, we will try to persuade with our acts.”

Various complications arise for this four-part definition. For one thing, even if sacrifice always has a cost, that doesn’t mean that the impact on the sacrificer must be a net negative. Gandhi holds that “a life of sacrifice is the pinnacle of art, and is full of true joy.” This aphorism comes amid his summary of the metaphysics of the Bhagavad Gita, according to which “the world cannot subsist for a single moment without yajna [sacrifice]” and “the body, therefore, has been given us, only in order that we may serve all creation with it.” Gandhi also holds that worldly entanglements prevent equanimity, so sacrificing them is the way to avoid distress.

These arguments are rooted in specific religious and philosophical traditions, but people from a wide range of cultures and faiths have experienced joy while making political sacrifices. King observed workers walking miles to work with their heads held high because they were part of a boycott that was part of a movement for dignity. Although walking for miles is a sacrifice, it can bring more satisfaction than discomfort, even during the march. A week in jail with one’s comrades can be a time of solidarity and inspiration even though one’s liberty and comfort have truly been taken away. I think a sacrifice is still a sacrifice even if the net impact on the actor’s utility happens to be positive. This balance may be rare, but the definition of sacrifice does not require feeling more unhappiness than happiness. If it brings joy, so much the better.

Another complication is that it is very difficult to bear all the costs of a sacrifice oneself. In Stride Toward Freedom, King subtly but pervasively traces the impact of his actions on innocent others, starting with his own family. He says that he “gradually lost [his] role as husband and father” because of his activism. His father fell “into a state of constant terror,” and “mother too had suffered,” even taking to her bed under the strain that Martin Jr. was causing. “I was worried about their worry. I knew that if I continued the struggle I would be plagued by the pain I was inflicting on them.” Years after he wrote these words, when he was finally assassinated, his family were again the ones who bore his loss–along with concentric circles of people who had loved him, extending to millions of human beings. Anyone who is cared about causes collateral damage by sacrificing herself. I think a reasonable definition of nonviolent sacrifice should encompass acts that distress the innocent, even though it must exclude intentional efforts to harm opponents.

A third complication is that violent acts can work just like nonviolent civil disobedience under certain circumstances. Gandhi often analogizes satyagraha campaigns to battles. In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln eulogizes the men who “gave the last full measure of devotion” by sacrificing their lives on a literal battlefield. We know that they were trying to kill their enemies while surviving to fight another day. However, in contrast to almost all martial speeches, the Gettysburg Address never mentions the Union victory or the Confederate defeat; apart from one use of the word “fought,” it is all about suffering, not winning. Pointedly, Lincoln refuses to differentiate between the sides. He converts a bloody battle into an act of pure self-sacrifice, as if the casualties had died while turning the other cheek. The result is effective rhetoric for the same reason that an act of civil disobedience is persuasive. Lincoln presents the soldiers’ sacrifice as a call to our conscience. This is a borderline case, about which readers may disagree, but I am inclined to think that Lincoln successfully expands the category that we are considering so that it includes violent conflicts, as long as they are interpreted as shared sacrifices in the common interest.

At this point, we have a rough, four-part definition of nonviolent political sacrifice. We can also see why it is often effective. It serves as a powerful form of persuasion and it sculpts the soul. King holds that “unearned suffering is redemptive. Suffering, the nonviolent resister realizes, has tremendous educational and transformative possibilities.” King proceeds to quote Gandhi to reinforce this point.

With this definition in hand, we can also consider whether nonviolent political sacrifice is always praiseworthy. I think it is not.

For one thing, the costs transmitted to others can be too high. In a section of his autobiography entitled “Quickened Spirit of Sacrifice,” Gandhi recalls that an American salesman talked him into buying a life insurance policy for the sake of his wife and children. Gandhi’s decision to buy the insurance demonstrated his own “mixed desire. The spirit of self-sacrifice was tempered by the desire to lay by something for the future.” But then his “outlook changed” and he decided that everything he did should be “in the name of God and for His service.” Gandhi stopped making the insurance payments, reasoning that his brother could care for his family if he died, and that, by purchasing insurance, he had “had robbed [his] wife and children of their self-reliance.  Why should they not be expected to take care of themselves? What happened to the families of the numberless poor in the world? Why should I not count myself as one of them?”

Note the way that Gandhi’s “self-sacrifice” is strictly borne by his wife and children. He never hints that the insurance payments undermined his ability to lead a nonviolent movement; rather he sacrificed his family’s income security because he wanted to purify his own stance. In the same book, Gandhi recalls that he “did not hesitate to sacrifice” his children’s literary education in the interest of having them remove human waste from the house and walk five miles each day to his office and back. “My sons have therefore some reason for a grievance against me. Indeed they have occasionally given expression to it, and I must plead guilty to a certain extent. … But I hold that I sacrificed their literary training to what I genuinely, though may be wrongly, believed to be service to the community.” Even if Gandhi’s decision was right, this case is close enough to make the point that sacrificing others is not always justified. A more famous Gandhian example is his unilateral decision to become celibate, although married.

Even if one could bear 100 percent of the cost, sacrifice might not be ethical. Imagine a person with no friends or family who dies in a hunger strike. There is no damage to innocent third-parties, but the sacrificer has destroyed her own life. A utilitarian calculus holds that every life counts the same, including one’s own. By that standard, the sacrifice is ethical if, but only if, it does sufficient good to outweigh the death. Other philosophical traditions (notably, Kantianism) go further and assert that we have duties to ourselves. It could be wrong to squander oneself in a political cause.

But sacrificing not only oneself but others whom one loves can be precisely the right thing to do, as I explore in this post on the Little Rock school desegregation case. Indeed, causing the ones you love to suffer can be one of the most potent and transformative strategies available to the poor and oppressed.

See also: the question of sacrifice in politicsself-limiting popular politicsa sketch of a theory of social movements; and taking satisfaction from politics in the face of injustice. Citations from: Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (1958) (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010); Veena R. Howard, Gandhi’s Ascetic Activism: Renunciation and Social Action (Albany: SUNY Press, 2013) , p. 75; M. K. Gandhi, The Message of the Gita (Navajivan Publishing House Ahmedabad, 1959), pp. 17, 15; M. K. Gandhi, An Autobiography Or The Story of My Experiments with Truth, translated by Mahadev Desai, Navajivan Publishing House, Ahemadabad, 1927, pp. 315-6, 374.

a civic studies perspective on European citizenship

In “A Civic Studies perspective on European citizens: in search for potential in the conflict surrounding TTIP” (European Politics and Society, Aug 2017, pp. 1-27), Nora Schröder provides a learned and insightful overview of Civic Studies–consistent with the core ideals of the Summer Institutes of Civic Studies–and applies it to the case of European grassroots protests against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TIPP).

The anti-TIPP protesters hold a view of global trade and tariffs. They also hold related opinions of what citizenship should mean in the European Union context: they favor democratic control of markets and oppose neoliberalism as a political/economic philosophy. As Schröder notes, public policy research would seek to clarify these issues, assess the impact of the protests, and perhaps provide advice to the activists. Civic Studies is different because it is explicitly normative (concerned with evaluating what is right) and because it aims to expand citizens’ capacity to influence the world for the better. It doesn’t stop with assessing whether the protesters have influence and are on the right side of the issue; it strives to increase their influence for the good. Schröder argues that Civic Studies must therefore be “bottom-up” and closely related to practice, a case also made by Sanford Schram in this volume about Civic Studies. I admire such engaged research but believe there’s also room for relatively abstract and general theory in Civic Studies–a point that Karol Soltan makes in the same volume. In any case, Schröder provides one of the best available summaries of Civic Studies, en route to offering some valuable thoughts about the anti-TIPP protests.

Arendt, freedom, Trump

This passage, from a previously unpublished 1966 or 1967 lecture by Hannah Arendt, is a rich text for the week of Independence Day while Donald Trump is president:

The first elements of a political philosophy corresponding to this notion of public freedom are spelled out in John Adams’s writings. His point of departure is the observation that “Wherever men, women, or children are to be found, whether they be old or young, rich or poor, high or low . . . ignorant or learned, every individual is seen to be strongly actuated by a desire to be seen, heard, talked of, approved and respected by the people about him and within his knowledge.” The virtue of this “desire” Adams saw in “the desire to excel another,” and its vice he called “ambition,” which “aims at power as a means of distinction.” And these two indeed are among the chief virtues and vices of political man. For the will to power as such, regardless of any passion for distinction (in which power is not a means but an end), is characteristic of the tyrant and is no longer even a political vice. It is rather the quality that tends to destroy all political life, its vices no less than its virtues. It is precisely because the tyrant has no desire to excel and lacks all passion for distinction that he finds it so pleasant to dominate, thereby excluding himself from the company of others; conversely, it is the desire to excel which makes men love the company of their peers and spurs them on into the public realm. This public freedom is a tangible worldly reality, created by men to enjoy together in public—to be seen, heard, known, and remembered by others. And this kind of freedom demands equality, it is possible only amongst peers. Institutionally speaking, it is possible only in a republic, which knows no subjects.

Note, first of all, that Arendt, like John Adams, views “the desire to excel another” in public life as a virtue. She could be thinking pragmatically: by encouraging people to excel in debates, we motivate them to enter public life and do their best. We give them a reason to “love the company of their peers and [spur] them on into the public realm.” But I read Arendt as making a second point as well. She sees political excellence as an intrinsic virtue, as constitutive of a good life. Her theory differs from views of democracy that emphasize humbleness, self-abnegating service, or the dispassionate pursuit of truth or consensus. She admires people who effectively advocate their own views and obtain recognition for their special eloquence.

Excellence of this sort “demands equality.” As a matter of logic, you cannot display the virtue of persuasiveness unless the people whom you seek to persuade are your equals, free to agree or disagree with you. Thus anyone who develops a love of political virtue will fight for political equality. Helping other people to be equal is not just good for them; it’s a necessary condition of one’s own “public freedom,” meaning the freedom “to be seen, heard, known, and remembered by others.”

The corresponding vice is “’ambition,’ which ‘aims at power as a means of distinction.’” For John Adams, virtuous citizens seek to distinguish themselves by demonstrating excellence and receiving the free respect of peers. This makes them fundamentally sociable; they seek company. In contrast, “the tyrant has no desire to excel and lacks all passion for distinction.” He tries to “dominate” or exclude others, seen as threats rather than peers. That leaves him alone, “exclud[ed] from the company of others,” with only his power over them as a connection to his fellow human beings.

Examples of civic virtue in Arendt’s sense are not terribly rare, but as a well-known case, I will cite our last president. Barack Obama is not self-abnegating. He demonstrates confidence and strives for excellence. He attempts to win arguments. But he never denies his fellow citizens’ standing in the public sphere or claims arbitrary power over others. On the contrary, almost every significant speech by the former president explicitly invites opponents into the conversation. Although President Obama is sometimes described as reserved or even mildly introverted, he “loves the company of peers” in the sense that he evidently appreciates the give-and-take of ideas in public forums.

In contrast, our current president understands speech as the mere display of power. Criticism is by nature a threat. A successful statement is one that demonstrates greater power. Trump doesn’t strive for eloquence–he doesn’t even spell-check his tweets. He demands loyalty to his person and shows no interest in differences of principle. He “thereby [excludes] himself from the company of others” and is fundamentally lonely in a way I don’t think we have seen in the White House since the last days of Richard M. Nixon.

I do not mean to imply that Donald Trump is a tyrant in Arendt’s sense. He lacks sufficient constitutional power for that; his incompetence provides an additional barrier. His efforts at domination tend to be more pathetic than terrifying. A tyrannical personality without tyrannical authority verges on a laughing-stock. Because the constitutional order creates independent peers for the president–members of Congress, judges, reporters, foreign leaders, and courageous citizens–a president who talks like a tyrant just loses friends and allies. Still, Arendt’s portrait fits, and if an extrinsic factor like a terrorist attack suddenly confers power on our national laughing-stock, the patterns she observed in 1789 and 1917 will become frighteningly relevant.

See also: Hannah Arendt and Lin-Manuel Miranda and notes on Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution.