Friday, December 28, 2012

Outcasts and thugs in the Egyptian revolution

This post from last January by Ahmed Badawi, which opens with a vivid description of Egyptian street children (of whom there are approximately a million, he says), is still worth reading a year later, I think. (I learned of it because it is quoted in the opening of an article in the current issue of Am. Pol. Sci. Rev. -- an article which, as it happens, has nothing directly to do with Egypt.)

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Lal Bahadur Shastri, anyone?

Just over at Stephen Walt's blog, where I hadn't been for a while. On Dec. 10 he wrote a post asking readers to nominate foreign policy makers of integrity. In order to look at the comments I had to create (yet another) account on ForeignPolicy.com. (What is with those people? Every time you go there they have another sign-in hurdle.) Anyway, I created the account and looked at the comments. The most interesting nomination? Lal Bahadur Shastri, India's second prime minister. I don't know offhand whether or not that nomination makes sense.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Knight & Johnson on pragmatism and democracy

I've recently finished reading Jack Knight & James Johnson's The Priority of Democracy: Political Consequences of Pragmatism.  (NB: I haven't read it with the care I would if I were writing a proper review of it; I skipped some of the footnotes and skimmed a few bits of the text here and there. So take this post for several thoughts on the book, nothing more.)

The Priority of Democracy maintains that democracy -- meaning both political argument and voting -- is able to perform certain tasks that other kinds of governance mechanisms cannot. When it comes to "facilitat[ing] effective institutional choice" and "addressing the ongoing conflict that exists in modern society" (p.20), democratic institutions, when operating under the right conditions (an important proviso), have an advantage over markets, courts, and bureaucracies, Knight and Johnson (hereafter K&J) contend.

K&J say that democracy is not necessarily the best way to deal with any given substantive issue, but it is the best way to decide how and through what means particular issues should be addressed. In this sense democracy has what they call a 'second-order priority'. A properly functioning democratic system constantly monitors its own performance and that of its component parts to ensure that they are working effectively. The point of democracy, on K&J's view, is not to bring everyone to the same views but to ensure that contending positions clash productively, over the same conceptual landscape so to speak, rather than talking past each other, and that all sides get a roughly equal chance to be heard. Drawing on Dewey's pragmatism, the authors favor institutional experimentation and argue that good institutional performance depends on effective democratic participation, which in turn requires what they call 'equal opportunity for political influence'.

The book, as might be gathered, proceeds at a high level of abstraction, despite the authors' claim -- not put in exactly these words -- that they are bridging the gap between normative and explanatory theory. They pay virtually no attention to the literature on historical institutionalism and to the actual historical record of institutional performance. Instead their main engagements are with rational-choice models of institutions, on the one hand, and theorists of deliberative democracy on the other. Against Habermas, they maintain that democratic deliberation should aim not to bring people to consensus or agreement but rather to "structure the terms of disagreement." (On the rational-choice point, see the end of this post.)

K&J write that "[t]heoretical analysis can make important contributions to our understanding of issues of institutional performance, but alone it cannot provide definitive answers to questions of actual effect. Such answers can only come from the cumulative experience of using the various institutions at our disposal" (p.165). Despite this statement and others like it, they make, as already mentioned, little or no effort to examine the historical record of such "cumulative experience" to see whether, or to what extent, it might support their argument.

That said, I'm inclined to agree with their critique of markets, which as I understand it boils down to saying that markets require demanding conditions in order to function properly but -- and here is the contrast with democratic institutions -- markets are not good at monitoring their own performance and ensuring that the necessary conditions for their effective functioning exist. In their terminology, markets, unlike democratic institutions, are not "reflexive."

However, like markets, democracy requires demanding conditions -- such as equality of influence -- to work properly, and meeting those conditions is simultaneously a normative imperative and a practical prerequisite of effectiveness and legitimacy, K&J argue. But they don't go into much detail about the kinds of state intervention that would be required to ensure something approaching 'equal opportunity for political influence'. 

The authors view political actors as mostly (though not always) self-interested, rather than as acting from a conception of the public interest (p.281). 'Winners' will seek to keep their advantages, while 'losers' -- the relatively disadvantaged -- will seek to change institutions in their favor. The push-and-pull of such democratic contention involves, they say, "an inherent learning process" (p.281) and presumably conduces to (gradual) improvements -- though the words "progress," "reforms," and "improvements" are not much in K&J's vocabulary, preferring as they do the more antiseptic diction of academic political theory. Note, too, that for 'losers' (i.e. those previously or currently disadvantaged) to play a constructive part in democratic struggles, they have to have resources and influence to begin with (hence the 'equal opportunity for political influence' condition).

The authors' range of reference is impressive and their book is clearly the result of much thought. Those with a professional interest in democratic theory and social choice theory will want to read it if they haven't already.  

However, as someone without such a professional interest, I found the book to be somewhat frustrating. K&J claim to reject the dichotomy between ideal and non-ideal theory, but I think the book is mostly the former, in spirit if not under the technical definition of 'ideal theory'. It makes a good theoretical case for a kind of democracy that does not presently exist, at least not in the U.S., but offers few concrete suggestions about how to bring such a democracy into being. Since the authors never said they would do that, I suppose this amounts to criticizing the book for something it never claimed to do. However, the authors do say that political theorists have explanatory and analytical tasks as well as normative ones, and I think the explanatory part of their argument could have benefited from a more historical and empirical perspective.


In terms both of its ambitiousness and its rather ponderous and repetitive style, The Priority of Democracy may bear some comparison with Rawls's A Theory of Justice (TJ). Of course The Priority of Democracy is less monumental in length and scope than TJ -- most books are -- and not only its 'project' but its targets are different. The latter fact partly reflects, I'd suggest, the difference in the intellectual climate between the mid-twentieth century, the era of which TJ is a product, and the early twenty-first century. To oversimplify for the sake of contrast, Rawls's main target in TJ was utilitarianism, whereas K&J take aim at what might be called market fundamentalism and, by extension, neoliberalism (though they don't use these terms in the book). Neoliberalism really came to the fore in the late '70s and early '80s, well after TJ was published. And the sources of inspiration are different: for Rawls it was the social contract tradition and (especially) Kant, for K&J it's pragmatists like Dewey, Richard Rorty, and Richard Bernstein. (Note that Dewey's name appears only twice in TJ, both times in a footnote.) K&J also frequently cite Amartya Sen's Development as Freedom and Richard Posner's Law, Pragmatism and Democracy, among others. 

At the beginning of the book K&J criticize Rawls, charging Rawlsian ideal theory with neglecting "the tasks of showing how any institutional arrangement governed by [the] principles [of justice] could emerge or sustain itself" (p.16). But as already indicated, I found their own account of institutional emergence and functioning to be too abstract and not empirical enough.

Finally, since I have criticized K&J for ignoring the literature on historical institutionalism (including the work on path dependency), I should mention that this a conscious choice on their part: they acknowledge that "several brands of institutionalism have emerged in recent years" (p.17) and say that they focus on rational-choice models of institutions for several reasons, among them that such models are usually and mistakenly assumed to "underwrite a robust challenge to democratic theory" (p.18). By making their case on this supposedly unfriendly terrain, they write, "we tacitly assume a rather substantial burden of argument" and, via a "distinct interpretation" of rational choice, "aim to place pressure on advocates of rational-choice approaches to explore more carefully the ways their analytical proofs, their explanatory claims, and their normative pronouncements hang together" (p.18). I haven't gone into this aspect of the book in this post and will leave others to judge whether and to what extent K&J succeed in this particular aim.

Added later: Compare Cosma Shalizi's take on the book, which I read after writing and posting my own. 
Added still later: See also H. Farrell's and C. Shalizi's draft paper (May '12) on cognitive democracy (link via here).
And see my postscript on democracy and individual capacities.                  

Friday, December 21, 2012

LaPierre's press conference

I just read the transcript of LaPierre's remarks. Among other things, he blamed violent entertainment for creating a culture of violence. But Fareed Zakaria answered this claim very effectively in a column yesterday:
Is America’s popular culture the cause [of gun violence]? This is highly unlikely, as largely the same culture exists in other rich countries. Youth in England and Wales, for example, are exposed to virtually identical cultural influences as in the United States. Yet the rate of gun homicide there is a tiny fraction of ours. The Japanese are at the cutting edge of the world of video games. Yet their gun homicide rate is close to zero! Why? Britain has tough gun laws. Japan has perhaps the tightest regulation of guns in the industrialized world.
The data in social science are rarely this clear. They strongly suggest that we have so much more gun violence than other countries because we have far more permissive laws than others regarding the sale and possession of guns.
As Zakaria pointed out, the previous assault weapons law in the U.S. that expired in '04 had a large number of loopholes and exceptions. This is what allows the NRA to claim such laws don't work. They haven't worked because they have been too weak.

After reading LaPierre's remarks, I find it hard to avoid the conclusion that it is going to be difficult if not impossible to carry on a reasonable conversation with him and his organization. He wants to put armed guards in every school in the country, he hires a former secretary of the Dept. of Homeland Security to create a so-called Model School Shields Program, he wants to turn schools into fortresses. He would rather do this than deprive the four million members of the NRA of their "right" to possess what he called "civilian semi-automatic firearms." 

LaPierre claimed that we have no time to debate legislation that "won't work". But it is disingenuous to imply that Hutchinson's task force is going to come up with its model plan tomorrow. Hutchinson, whose remarks followed LaPierre's, made a point of saying that he would consult with all sorts of experts and so on. That takes time. So the notion that legislation would be too slow, while the NRA's task force will be speedy, I find dubious. I suppose, as a short-term 'solution', some schools may want to hire armed security. But the real solution is much tougher gun regulation. Australia did it. It worked. There is no reason the U.S. cannot do it if the political will is there.

Update: Recent conversation at Crooked Timber has underlined for me how little I know about guns. For ex., is it true, as a commenter at CT says, that virtually all guns in use today are semi-automatic, so that an effective, 'non-cosmetic' ban on semi-automatics is equivalent to a ban on all guns? I don't know.
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P.s. For those here who may be new to Blogger and its ways: "No comments" below the post does not mean comments are forbidden; it means no one has commented yet. There usually are not many commenters here; however, for the record, I will delete any obscene, libelous comments or those that I deem to be obvious trolling. Disagreement is welcome, but I may decide not to answer particular comments or get into an extended debate.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

If I had a Twitter account...

...I'd say: "Plowing (or struggling) through to the end of Knight & Johnson, Priority of Democracy. Hope CrookTimb has its promised seminar. Otherwise may want these hrs of my life back."  But this way I don't have to count the number of characters.

[added later]: Just found out about the Erik Loomis thing. Sigh.

Update: See this statement in support of Loomis.

Monday, December 17, 2012

A tipping point?

There are indications of some shifts of legislative opinion (at least in the U.S. Senate) about guns in the wake of the Newtown CT shootings. Such changes in position (e.g. by Sens. Warner and Manchin) are good signs, as anything that indicates a weakening of the NRA's grip on many legislators is to be welcomed.

The murder of young children is especially shocking and revolting, and I hope that reactions rooted in normal emotions of revulsion will lead, in this instance, to some change in policy.  

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Albert Hirschman on the unrealized effects of social decisions

The death of Albert Hirschman prompts me to interrupt the break to quote a couple of passages from his The Passions and the Interests. First, from p.117:
In an old and well-known Jewish story, the rabbi of Krakow interrupted his prayers one day with a wail to announce that he had just seen the death of the rabbi of Warsaw two hundred miles away. The Krakow congregation, though saddened, was of course much impressed with the visionary powers of their rabbi. A few days later some Jews from Krakow traveled to Warsaw and, to their surprise, saw the old rabbi there officiate in what seemed to be tolerable health. Upon their return they confided the news to the faithful and there was incipient snickering. Then a few undaunted disciples came to the defense of their rabbi; admitting that he may have been wrong on the specifics, they exclaimed: "Nevertheless, what vision!"

Ostensibly this story pours ridicule on the human ability to rationalize belief in the face of contrary evidence. But at a deeper level it defends and celebrates visionary and speculative thought no matter if such thought goes astray. It is this interpretation that makes the story so pertinent to the episode in intellectual history that has been related here. The Montesquieu-Steuart speculations about the salutary political consequences of economic expansion were a feat of imagination in the realm of political economy, a feat that remains magnificent even though history may have proven wrong the substance of those speculations.
I wish I could quote the ensuing discussion in toto. There is a bit on pp.130-31, however, that is too good not to quote. Here Hirschman contrasts the "unintended effects of human actions," for which social scientists are often on the lookout, with intended effects that never occur:
Curiously, the intended but unrealized effects of social decisions stand in need of being discovered even more than those effects that were unintended but turn out to be all too real: the latter are at least there, whereas the intended but unrealized effects are only to be found in the expressed expectations of social actors at a certain, often fleeting, moment of time.
What's more, the original expectations that are not borne out are 
likely to be not only forgotten but actively repressed. This is...essential if the succeeding power holders are to be assured of the legitimacy of the new order: what social order could long survive the dual awareness that it was adopted with the firm expectation that it would solve certain problems, and that it clearly and abysmally fails to do so?
And there is a further consideration here. Writing in 1977*, Hirschman noted that "no twentieth-century observer" (p. 118) could maintain that the Montesquieu-Steuart view -- i.e., that commerce would have a peace-inducing, "gentling" effect on politics within and among nation-states, a view by the way that Marx (predictably) ridiculed (see p.62) -- had been vindicated by events, although Hirschman added that "the failure of the [Montesquieu-Steuart] vision may well have been less than total" (p.118). Fast forward to 2012. How does the Montesquieu-Steuart position look now? Perhaps somewhat better than it did thirty-five years ago? Or perhaps not.
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*[note added 12/15/12, edited 1/26/16]: The book was published in '77 so the words were actually written earlier, and in the acknowledgments Hirschman says he wrote a first draft of the book in 1972-73. But nothing of consequence turns on precisely when in the 1970s the passages were composed, at least as far as this post is concerned.