American aggressiveness, however it may be masked in pious rhetoric, is a dominant force in world affairs and must be analyzed in terms of its causes and motives. There is no body of theory or significant body of relevant information, beyond the comprehension of the layman, which makes policy immune from criticism. To the extent that "expert knowledge" is applied to world affairs, it is surely appropriate--for a person of any integrity, quite necessary--to question its quality and the goals it serves.
He's quite willing to endorse long-established values and ideals such as freedom and democracy, ones supposedly underlying even capitalist America. But he then shows how these ideals are hypocritically ignored and subverted by those in power and he exposes the inadequacy of their attempts at justification - somewhat like Jerome's critiques.
In general our approach ought to be evidence-based and include accuracy and fairness, and the latter means that where there is doubt, one should adopt the strongest interpretation of what others are saying, rather than the weakest or even blatantly stupid.
To discover the true meaning of principles that are proclaimed, it is of course necessary to go beyond rhetorical flourishes and public pronouncements, and to investigate actual practice. Examples must be chosen carefully to give a fair picture. One useful approach is to take the examples chosen as the "strongest case," and to see how well they withstand scrutiny.
I knew little about Rawls till I responded to ATinNM's criticism of Rawls in an OT, i.e. that Rawls assumes everyone is rational, which sounded likely to be unfair and when I checked I found that it was.
Rawls himself seems to have taken pains to ensure that his own criticism was fair and accurate, and quite generous, cf.:
Rawls ... approached the history of political philosophy by trying to see what might be right about the works of the greats. When he criticized, it was only after having painstakingly reconstructed the strongest argument for his opponent's views.
Sam Rickless http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2007/10/geusss-skeptici.html
I can understand Cyrille's particular exasperation in a response to ThatBritGuy:
"I was going to have one chapter in this series about our embracing evidence-based thought rather than slogans and demands of ideological purity. Are you telling me that this is not a shared trait here and that you reject it? If not, what do you fault him for?"
TBG sometimes attributes simplistic views to others, then shows that, surprise, surprise, they are simply refuted. While I'm all for critical scrutiny of anyone's ideas, I do think one should take some trouble to be sure that one is being fair and accurate, especially with those who are highly respected in their field, even by their critics, such as Rawls and Krugman. I think I've been fair to TBG, I've quoted him and the particular points I focus on seem clear, if wrong.
Despite Rawls's reputation, and the long development of his political philosophy, partly through responding to his critics, TBG thinks that he has identified an obvious basic error in Rawls's ideas:
I can understand the appeal because it has a certain neatness to it, but I think it makes one significant mistake, which is to assume that given a rational choice, everyone will decide that inequality is bad.
I don't think this is true. The reality seems to be more that a small minority of the population believe that inequality is a good and excellent thing, and can't get enough of it - without limit.
The "significant mistake" is TBG's, he doesn't understand the nature of Rawls's project; he's not developing some arguments which could be put to anyone in the hope that they'd consider them rationally. He was well aware of the existence of "aggressive narcissists" and other kinds of nasty people; he'd witnessed the rise of the Nazis, fought in WWII and deplored the increase in inequality in the US.
Looking primarily at the twentieth century United States, he is certain that institutions within US society are causing injustices ... The expense of healthcare restricts the best care to those who can afford it, leaving the poor to only the most basic of services.
In his political philosophy he's not talking about rationality in general terms and what choices some people are likely to make in real life. He's discussing what would be a rational choice in a very specific context, i.e. in relation to his ideas of the "veil of ignorance" and the "original position". He deliberately creates an artificial, hypothetical context as a "modelling device" so that he can focus on the rational discussion of principles:
We'd already been over this point about rationality briefly in an OT:
TBG might at least have ensured that the second time round he took more care before dismissing a major philosopher for supposedly making a pretty basic error.
Dvx tried to put TBG right in Cyrille's diary:
If I understand correctly, Rawls gets around this by postulating an uncertainty with regard to an individual's status in the society in question.
But TBG persisted:
I think the criticism still applies. The Rawlsian argument works for rational people. It won't work on aggressive narcissists because they simply ignore anything that gets in their way.
... You can't argue rationally with people like that. You can only try to keep them away from any kind of power and influence.
This misses the essential point made above about Rawls's particular use of rationality in relation to the "original position"; "aggressive narcissists" cannot be found in Rawls's hypothetical situation due to his adoption of the notion of the "veil of ignorance":
Rawls says, "Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society ... I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance" (TJ, 12/11). This veil of ignorance deprives the parties of all knowledge of particular facts about themselves, about one another, and even about their society and its history.
From this he proceeds to argue what it would be rational for anyone in this original position to decide; it's "hypothetical", a thought experiment:
Rawls argues that rational individuals in these circumstances would unanimously choose the two principles of justice over utilitarianism. And this conclusion is taken to be a strong basis of support for the two principles as correct. This is what qualifies Rawls's theory as falling within the social contract tradition; the foundation of justice is the fact of unanimous rational consent (albeit hypothetical).
This does not mean that Rawls's arguments are too abstract to have any relevance to real life; he provides a theoretical defence for liberal democracy with practical implications (as is evident in his criticisms of injustices in US society):
Rawls is attempting to point to an alternative to fascism as a whole and to offer a justification of the kind of liberal democracy that existed in Weimer, and which never had a suitable and well-developed defense or justification. (Theorists such as Kelsen had tried but without success.) Rawls project offers an answers to the theoretical critiques of liberal democracy that were prominent on what we now think of as the extreme right and the extreme left at the rise of Nazism. The ambition of developing a framework from which those critiques could be answered was certainly laudable at the time, given the fall of Weimer and rise of Nazism that Rawls had witnessed.
Of course Rawls is not beyond criticism, see:
However, the thread discussing Geuss's criticisms has some strong defenses of Rawls. It is no surprise to find that his ideas are quite complex, given the time taken in developing and defending them, and that there is disagreement about them.
Krugman and Cuba
Krugman also gets the TBG treatment; according to him Krugman is "naive" and his "political insight" is "shallow" - if only poor Krugman had had the benefit of TBG's political sophistication.
As Cyrille says, TBG attributes to Krugman something he didn't say.
"he says 'Sweden works, Cuba doesn't, therefore free market economies are better' "
The second part of the supposed quotation is added by TBG, it's neither fair nor accurate, it's a simplistic distortion. As in Rawls's case, Krugman is not just making a general point, about free market economies, but a more specific one: "systems without any inequality don't work ... there are limits. Cuba doesn't work; Sweden works pretty well."
TBG then says:
Firstly Sweden is more of a social democratic economy than a free market one.
And finally, what does 'work' mean? Does the US economy, with its vast and increasing inequality, work according to Krugman's definition?
The subtext is an obvious and rather naive or unquestioning acceptance of free market exceptionalism compared to the alternatives ...
As Cyrille said, defending Krugman:
(Krugman) keeps singing the praise of social democracy and ... picked Sweden as the example of a country that works, Sweden that, as you yourself said, cannot be called a free market economy.
Had TBG been seriously interested to know if Krugman thinks the US "works", especially in comparison to somewhere like Sweden, and whether he really had a "naive or unquestioning acceptance of free market exceptionalism" he could have done a little work and found this:
... wages are if anything higher in Sweden, and a higher tax burden is offset by public provision of health care and generally better public services. And as you move further down the income distribution, Swedish living standards are way ahead of those in the U.S. Swedish families with children that are at the 10th percentile - poorer than 90 percent of the population -- have incomes 60 percent higher than their U.S. counterparts. And very few people in Sweden experience the deep poverty that is all too common in the United States. One measure: in 1994 only 6 percent of Swedes lived on less than $11 per day, compared with 14 percent in the U.S.
The moral of this comparison is that even if you think that America's high levels of inequality are the price of our high level of national income, it's not at all clear that this price is worth paying.
Here's what he says about European social democracy and whether, in comparison, the US "works":
The real lesson from Europe is actually the opposite of what conservatives claim: Europe is an economic success, and that success shows that social democracy works.
Europe is often held up as a cautionary tale, a demonstration that if you try to make the economy less brutal, to take better care of your fellow citizens when they're down on their luck, you end up killing economic progress. But what European experience actually demonstrates is the opposite: social justice and progress can go hand in hand.
Is that clear enough ?
TBG adds a further claimed simplistic assumption, based on his own assumptions about what underlies Krugman's claim that "systems without any inequality don't work ... Cuba doesn't work":
TBG: ... it's been aggressively ostracised by its nearest and largest physical trading partner. So saying that Cuba somehow proves the limits of redistribution is a non-point.
But it's a revealing non-point. The fact that Krugman can write this, and - presumably - actually believe it, says a lot about his assumptions and the shallowness of his political insight."
Unfortunately, ARGeezer echos this:
And Krugman ignores the massive punitive behavior of Cuba's former trading partner to the north.
To say that one factor has contributed to a system not working does not entail that one is claiming that it is the ONLY factor involved, nor that it is the most important. Does anyone seriously think that Krugman is unaware of the US embargo or that he would deny that it has had serious negative effects on the Cuban economy or (given some other comments) deny that there were any positive aspects of Cuban society ? Similarly, he's undoubtedly aware that the global financial crisis has had an adverse impact on Cuba too (see Lara below), but didn't feel it necessary to add this rather obvious fact.
Clearly it's quite possible to be aware of the effects of US actions on Cuba, to admire many positive things about Cuban society, but ALSO think that the Cubans may not have helped themselves in this situation by SOME of their choices in organising their economy. Indeed the Cuban authorities themselves seem to have recently acknowledged this - without giving up fundamental values, and Krugman would seem to be agreeing with the Cubans:
The media frenzy that has followed the announcement that Cuba is to reduce its state workforce by 500,000 by the middle of 2011, is similar to that which followed Fidel Castro's throwaway remark last week that the Cuban model isn't working - it has largely missed the point.
This is not the end of communism or socialism in Cuba.
The announcement yesterday by the Cuban Workers Confederation is highly significant and it does spell the final death knell of the old Soviet model of centrally planned socialism in Cuba, but it would be very wrong to interpret it, as some have, as the harbinger of free market capitalism and liberal democracy.
Far from it.
Stephen Wilkinson is at the Centre for Caribbean and Latin American Research and Consultancy, London Metropolitan University
From an interview with Dr José Bell Lara, professor at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Havana:
This is a time of deep economic crisis globally. And of course Cuba is affected by this crisis. For the Cuban economy it has, taken together with the embargo by the United States, a strong impact. To maintain the socialist project it is necessary to achieve an efficient functioning of the economy. In this sense, we must extend factors that can increase productivity and better conditions of life.
For a long time we have had a paternalistic policy on the part of the Cuban state when it came to state employment. There is more personnel than is needed. Where it takes five people, we have eight. Those who can produce more, produce less...
... Here, together with seeking greater efficiency in the state sector, other possibilities are opened, such as working independently and through the cooperatisation of many activities.
One doesn't have to be in "awe" of Krugman, but it helps if one has a reasonable degree of respect for his intelligence and actually checks what he says about issues one raises, such as comparisons between the US system and European social democracy.
It's easy to criticise, especially from this side of the Atlantic, Rawls and Krugman for their merely liberal views and condemn them for not doing enough to "shift the Overton window". But in the US the Right has been very successful in moving political opinion to the Right, as Krugman illustrates in "Conscience of a Liberal: Reclaiming America from the Right", and now even to be liberal in the US is often to be seen as dangerously left-wing. Krugman himself notes "how timid and well-mannered latter-day liberalism has become" (Conscience of a Liberal, p.59). The US election funding system has a powerful effect on setting the agenda, and has recently become far worse (see below) and this helps explain a lot of the "timidity".
I think it's important to know who your friends are, and not to dismiss them because they don't fully measure up to your ideas of what should be done in their situation. I'm glad that Krugman is there in the mainstream regularly challenging, in an informed and often very blunt way, the very loud Right-wing voices around him and criticising the media and "centrists", e.g.:
... the supposed budget savings from the Ryan plan are a sham.
So why have so many in Washington, especially in the news media, been taken in by this flimflam? It's not just inability to do the math, although that's part of it. There's also the unwillingness of self-styled centrists to face up to the realities of the modern Republican Party; they want to pretend, in the teeth of overwhelming evidence, that there are still people in the G.O.P. making sense. And last but not least, there's deference to power -- the G.O.P. is a resurgent political force, so one mustn't point out that its intellectual heroes have no clothes.
But they don't. The Ryan plan is a fraud that makes no useful contribution to the debate over America's fiscal future.
As I said at the beginning, I think that Chomsky's general approach would provide a better basis since he isn't concerned to develop elaborate, abstract ideas about basic values or a theory about how to justify them.
This article challenges conventional views of Chomsky's critique of American foreign policy as political extremism.
... he probes the policies, testing for consistency and with reference to what he believes is good for humans. His politically 'extreme' conclusions are derived from his use of evidence created and supplied by those in power.
I doubt any author, aside from perhaps George Orwell, has approached Chomsky in systematically skewering the hypocrisy of rulers and ideologues in both Communist and capitalist societies as they claim that theirs is the only form of true democracy available to humanity.
Rawls argued in 2001 that US election funding led to injustice:
Looking primarily at the twentieth century United States, he is certain that institutions within US society are causing injustices. The very expensive campaign system essentially rules out all but the very rich from even deciding to run for public office.
Chomsky provides specific evidence of how the system works in relation to funding:
In the United States we have recently seen a dramatic illustration of the power of the financial institutions. In the last presidential election they provided the core of President Obama's funding.
Naturally they expected to be rewarded. And they were - with the TARP bailouts, and a great deal more.
Popular anger finally evoked a rhetorical shift from the administration, which responded with charges about greedy bankers. "I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of fat-cat bankers on Wall Street," Obama told 60 Minutes in December.
Since Obama was supposed to be their man in Washington, the principal architects of government policy wasted little time delivering their instructions: Unless Obama fell back into line, they would shift funds to the political opposition.
Three days later, Obama informed the press that bankers are fine "guys," singling out the chairmen of the two biggest players, JP Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs: "I, like most of the American people, don't begrudge people success or wealth. That's part of the free-market system," the president said. (Or at least "free markets" as interpreted by state capitalist doctrine.)
Chomsky is not concerned to make judgments about Obama's character, but rather to understand the way the system works and to criticise that system. As "Lucitanian" said in a discussion of a talk by Chomsky:
People are identifying with the personalities, Noam Chomsky this, Obama that, Nader whatever... and they are missing the picture. In obsessing with "personalities" they are missing the wood for the trees. As if by somehow changing the personalities the system will change.
Unfortunately the US system has recently changed and is now even worse in relation to election funding:
With the Democrats facing electoral disaster and Barack Obama battling to save his presidency, the Republicans are resurgent, their campaign chests bursting with money from big corporations whose spending power has been unleashed by a supreme court ruling earlier this year providing anonymity for donors.
The estimated $5bn dwarfs the $1bn spent on the White House race.
Public Citizen, a non-profit organisation that tracks corporate spending on elections and lobbying, said today Republicans had received six times more cash than the Democrats last month, and this could rise to 10 to one this month. Much of the cash had come from Wall Street, banking and the health and pharmaceuticals industry, it said.
Taking Chomsky's approach as a model would not make ET particularly distinctive in its "common lines of thought", but it would fit quite well with some of what already takes place here. In addition to "systematically skewering the hypocrisy of rulers and ideologues", Chomsky is very wide-ranging in his approach, focuses on systems and institutions, e.g; in "Manufacturing Consent", his analysis of media with Herman, and makes significant connections. ET does put forward some positive ideas about aspects of future society, e.g. in relation to energy sources. This is something Chomsky encourages others to do in whatever particular situation they find themselves, and to organise or participate in attempts to bring about such change.
But, given the nature of ET, I don't suppose that there will be much agreement about even this modest proposal; that's what makes ET interesting for many of us. However, as with Rawls and Krugman, if one does criticise what Chomsky has to say, one ought to be careful to get it right, cf. Jeremy R. Hammond on someone who'd distorted Chomsky's views:
Serious supporters of the Palestinian cause would do well to set aside such claptrap as Blankfort and his ilk see fit to spend their time and efforts writing on and go out and pick up Fateful Triangle or read any of Chomsky's other countless writings on the subject, read it thoroughly and actually listen to what he actually has to say, and make an effort to actually comprehend it.
I think most of us would at least agree about the importance of evidence-based criticism, fairness and accuracy, and focusing on systems rather than personalities.