Friday, April 30, 2010

Conservative Statism and Immigration

By “statism,” I mean the reflexive presumption that social conditions that can be controlled through state action should be so controlled. Sometimes that’s a matter of deciding whether it’s better for collective action to be undertaken by means of state institutions or the institutions of civil society. A society can make provision for the poor, for example, exclusively through a system of state-enforced legal entitlement, exclusively through a system of private charity, or through some combination of both. Liberals and conservatives argue about whether it’s better to have a system in which the welfare state largely displaces private charity, as in much of Western Europe, or a system like ours that not only leaves ample room for private charity, but subsidizes it through tax deductions and public expenditures to faith-based charitable organizations.

Here, I’m more interested in statism in connection with the political choice between state-sponsored collective action and enjoying (or suffering) the unintended consequences of spontaneous interaction within civil society. That’s what the ideological contest between American liberals and conservatives over the size of government is mostly about. When it comes to the distribution of wealth, risk and social status, liberals are reflexively statist and conservatives are reflexively nonstatist. Liberals presume that there’s something willfully irrational about tolerating the social distribution of benefits and burdens that emerges spontaneously from prevailing market structures when it’s within our power to implement standards of distributive justice. Conservatives reflexively believe not only that state-imposed redistribution is inconsistent with liberty, but that it’s likely to hurt the people it’s designed to help in the long run.

The ideological contest over ObamaCare, for example, conforms to this template. Liberals have been trying to socialize the risks associated with the delivery of healthcare for generations, not because they’ve always agreed among themselves about what distributive standards apply, but because they believe in their bones that it’s crazy not to apply any standard at all. Conservatives think that the state enforcement of any mandatory standard exacts a high cost in lost liberty and threatens to retard medical innovation that benefits the most vulnerable Americans in the long run.

We often forget, however, that there’s such a thing as conservative statism. Tom Schaller’s plausible speculation about why a majority of American voters approve of Arizona’s recent immigration law suggests that the immigration debate is the mirror image of the debate over ObamaCare:

“What I suspect further polling will reveal is that a significant element of public support derives from a general empathy and encouragement Americans want to express toward Arizonans for doing something--anything--in the face of Washington's continued foot-dragging. This is essentially the point--or, rather, one of the points--the highly-controversial Arizona anti-immigration icon Sheriff Joe Arpaio made this week: If nothing else, Arizona's actions now force Washington's hands. But that does not necessarily mean Americans favor rounding up and/or profiling people for deportation, or that they are xenophobic racists. Instead, some of them surely are tired of and frustrated by inaction on the national level, of more talk than action--and they approve of the fact that Arizona this week sent a shot across Washington's bow, which it undoubtedly did.”
Conservatives reflexively think that it’s intolerable that the federal government won’t take the trouble to secure the border because it’s irrational willfully to leave membership in American society to happenstance. Moreover, it’s unjust to the legal immigrants who’ve played by the rules and the native-born workers whose wages are depressed by competition from the flood of illegal immigrants. Visceral conservative support for the Arizona law doesn’t tell us much about what standard of membership conservatives favor, just that they favor the application of some standard.

Liberals reflexively think that any effort to enforce standards of membership amounts to an unacceptable infringement of liberty.  Moreover, it's likely to hurt the people it’s designed to help by subjecting legal immigrants to discriminatory law enforcement and native-born workers to the lawlessness that results from the immigrant community’s diminishing cooperation with law enforcement personnel.

Ideologies are complicated things.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Lani Guinier’s Judicial Modesty

Here’s Lani Guinier on the question of whom Obama should nominate to replace Justice Stevens on the Supreme Court (my emphasis):
“Through their opinions, judges send messages to “We, the People,” as to what is possible. There are many examples, from Brown v. Board of Education to the recent Citizens United case, where Justices of the Supreme Court seek to place their imprimatur on perceptions of what is right and wrong.”
I'm pretty sure that the "perceptions of right and wrong" that Guinier has in mind aren't perceptions of what counts as a correct or an incorrect interpretation of the law. She’s saying, reasonably enough, that since the Supreme Court can’t help sending signals about what’s morally right and wrong, it makes sense, other things being equal, to appoint the judges who you think will send the best moral signals. (Although it would be interesting to hear exactly what moral signal she thinks the Court was sending in Citizens United.) In the rest of her post, Guinier explains why she thinks her friend Hillary Clinton would be the best available signal-sender (my emphasis):

"[I]magine a justice who invites 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling to participate in a public debate about the meaning of constitutional principles. Imagine a justice writing in dissent, who, as a former Secretary of State brings a world (literally) of experience to the court. Imagine how she, in the model of governor-turned-Justice Earl Warren, might summon progressive activists and politicians to meditate equally on the meaning of the Constitution.”
I’ve given my reasons here for not being wild about the idea of appointing a politician to the Supreme Court. But I think Guinier’s position on how We, the People should to respond to the Court’s inevitable moral signals is exactly the right one for liberals to take.  We should listen attentively for the moral implications of judicial opinions, but we haven’t the slightest obligation to take any court’s moral signals to heart. It’s the job of citizens “to meditate . . . on the meaning of the Constitution” conscientiously and independently, especially when that means disagreeing with judges.

Lots of liberals and judges take a different view: they think that, because interpreting the law is crucially a matter of making moral sense of it, courts speak with special moral authority. Consider in this light how the Supreme Court explained itself in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. That 1992 case was a pleasant surprise for a lot of us pro-choice liberals because the Court unexpectedly (because it consisted mostly of Republican appointees) affirmed that women have a constitutional right to an abortion in the face of the formidable political pressure generated by the right-to-life movement. The controlling plurality opinion cited several grounds for this conclusion, but one in particular warrants our attention. The plurality thought that the Court needed to reaffirm the constitutional right to an abortion emphatically because any appearance that it was caving in to pro-life pressure would undermine not only its own legitimacy, but the People’s commitment to the rule of law (my emphasis):

“Like the character of an individual, the legitimacy of the Court must be earned over time. So, indeed, must the character of a Nation of people who aspire to live according to the rule of law. Their belief in themselves as such a people is not readily separable from their understanding of the Court invested with the authority to decide their constitutional cases and speak before all others for their constitutional ideals. If the Court’s legitimacy should be undermined, then, so would the country be in its very ability to see itself through its constitutional ideas. The Court’s concern with legitimacy is not for the sake of the Court, but for the sake of the Nation to which it is responsible.”
Here was the highest court in the land, urged on by the liberal community, reserving for itself the role not only of interpreting the law, but of nurturing the People’s moral and civic character by directing oblivious right-to-lifers how “to see [themselves] through [their] constitutional ideas.” What’s more, at least three Supreme Court justices were persuaded that people’s readiness to reinterpret themselves in light of a judicial opinion is an authoritative measure of the People’s commitment to the “rule of law.” That apparently meant, in the plurality’s eyes, that pro-lifers have a civic obligation to keep their mouths shut going forward.

The Casey plurality was claiming a measure of moral authority for the Court that no other office-holder in a constitutional democracy would ever think of claiming. It’s one thing to say that courts are authorized “to settle” issues about the meaning and constitutionality of a statute for the time being by authoritatively interpreting the law. That’s been a fixed point of our constitutional jurisprudence since Chief Justice John Marshall, writing in 1803 for the United States Supreme Court in Marbury v. Madison, declared that “[i]t is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” That soon-to-be uncontroversial statement implies that, in our constitutional system, whenever a duly constituted court acting within its jurisdiction pronounces on the meaning or the constitutionality of a legal rule, the other branches of government and political subjects are obligated to defer even if they still think that the court got the law wrong.

Properly adjudicated court holdings, in other words, are legitimate public decisions in the same sense that applies to the duly enacted decisions made by the other branches of government. But as I’ve stressed many times on this blog, the legitimacy of a decision is one thing, its rightness something else entirely. Citizens have a political obligation to each other to abide by duly enacted public decisions. Yet that doesn’t mean that they’re obligated to believe that those decisions are legally or morally correct. Any such interpretation of Justice Marshall’s words respecting judicial decisions not only runs afoul of the laws of logic, but ignores basic structural features of our constitutional system.

Take the logical point first. Belief is involuntary; you either believe something or you don’t depending on whether you think you have sufficient grounds. As a matter of simple logic, then, you can’t incur any civic obligation to believe something is legally or morally correct just because a court says it. So long as you think that belief is unwarranted on the legal or moral merits, that would be an obligation to do something impossible. The most you can conceivably be obligated to do in your capacity as a citizen is to keep your doubts about the rightness of a court’s decision to yourself.

Yet that’s something our constitutional system plainly doesn’t require you to do. Indeed, it presents every citizen with a standing invitation openly to express, and to act on, the belief that a court has misinterpreted the law. It’s not just that we have a First Amendment right to state our objections to public decisions and seek redress of grievance from public decision-makers. The U.S. Constitution plainly gives the People the right to try to overturn Supreme Court decisions either by constitutional amendment (as it did with the Sixteenth Amendment respecting the income tax) or by electing presidents who will change the composition of the federal bench before the courts revisit a legal issue.

None of this, of course, is news to liberals. They certainly didn’t keep quiet about their disagreement with the holding of Bowers v. Hardwick, the 1986 Supreme Court decision holding that there’s no right to consensual sodomy under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. That wasn’t, like Casey, an example of a court presuming to tell the public what to think about an issue of sexual and political morality. The U.S. Supreme Court merely held that public decisions about the legality of sodomy had to be made through legislative enactment or its absence.

The liberal community responded to the Bowers holding with a well-orchestrated campaign of judicial politics. Liberals contested and succeeded in blocking the appointment to the Supreme Court of Judge Robert Bork, who’d surely have upheld Bowers; they elected a Democratic president whose appointment of two new Supreme Court justices, Justices Ginsberg and Breyer, shifted the balance on the Court in privacy cases; and liberal advocacy groups mounted a succession of court cases that invited the reconstituted Supreme Court to revisit its Bowers holding. Liberal efforts were rewarded in 2003 when the Supreme Court held, in Lawrence v. Texas—in an opinion authored by the Justice Kennedy, who took the place on the court that Judge Bork would have taken had he been confirmed, and joined by Justice Ginsberg, who’d replaced Justice White, the author of the opinion for the Court in Bowers—that laws criminalizing consensual sodomy were unconstitutional.

A lot of liberals celebrate the process that culminated in Lawrence as an exemplary display of democratic citizenship, but pretend, as a matter of political morality, that liberal legal precedents are set in stone—think of the widespread liberal reaction that it wasn’t just wrong-headed, but somehow illegitimate for the Supreme Court to upend legal precedents to reach the result of Citizens United. They could learn a thing or two from Lani Guinier.

Krugman on Epistemic Closure in Macro-Economics

Here’s Paul Krugman arguing that, just as there’s more epistemic closure among political conservatives than among liberals, there’s more epistemic closure among “fresh-water” macroeconomists than among neo-Keynesian, “salt-water” macroeconomists (my emphasis):
“There’s been a huge outpouring of blogospheric discussion about “epistemic closure” on the right: a complete refusal to look at evidence or arguments that don’t come from the like-minded. I don’t have much to say about all that aside from the fact that it’s obvious, and has been going on for years.

“But I think it’s worth pointing out that something similar has long been true in macroeconomics. And like the political version of epistemic closure, it’s not a “both sides do it” issue. It’s a fresh-water phenomenon; salt-water macro isn’t subject to the same problem. . . .

“It’s been painfully obvious since the crisis broke that people at Minnesota, or even many people at Chicago, have no idea what New Keynesian economics is all about. I don’t mean they disagree, or think it’s garbage, they literally have no idea what the concepts are. And that’s why they reinvent 80-year-old fallacies when they try to discuss the subject.”
I don’t know enough about macro-economic theory to take sides myself, but I’d be willing to bet that the fresh-water economists Krugman is disparaging don’t think much of his open-mindedness either. I’ve given my reasons here and here for thinking that an ideologue’s zeal to impute irrationality to political opponents is a pretty good predictor of his own irrationality. In my mind, that Krugman thinks the alleged fact of right-wing epistemic closure both in politics and science is too obvious to require justification raises red flags about Krugman.

What particularly interests me about Krugman’s post here, however, is his readiness to analogize the irrationality of political ideologues and the irrationality of working social scientists. I don’t doubt that there’s an analogy to be drawn in that connection, but I don’t think it’s exactly the one that Krugman draws.

His post reminded me of an academic debate that I recall from my days in graduate school. (Take my intellectual history with a grain of salt because I’m relying entirely on memories dimmed by doddering middle age.) Very roughly, Thomas Kuhn's research in the history of science had inclined him to believe that working scientists didn’t act much like philosophers around Karl Popper (the “Popperians”) presumed that scientists did; i.e., they don’t spend most of their time making bold theoretical conjectures that they’re prepared to renounce as soon as well-designed experiments generate an empirical refutation. When you look closely at what scientists actually do (“normal science”), Kuhn argued, you’ll find that they spend most of their time massaging data to bring it into line with their pet theories, politicking for their point of view in the institutionalized scientific community or sucking up to scientific mentors by adopting their views. In other words, “epistemic closure” is a central feature of scientific practice. The Popperians jumped indignantly to the defense of working scientists because they took Kuhn’s argument as an accusation against the rationality of science itself.

I recall thinking that Kuhn’s response was pretty persuasive. He said, in effect, that he wasn’t arguing that science was irrational, but that its rationality was widely misunderstood. People tend to think of scientific rationality as an attribute of individual scientists when it's really a property of scientific communities that’s irreducible to statements about the conduct of scientists considered in isolation. A lot of things that individual scientists spend their professional time doing may look dogmatic and intellectually biased. But Kuhn thought that most of what we properly regard as scientific progress emerges from the interaction of dogmatic and biased scientists within the confines of an institutionalized scientific community. Were it not for the dogmatism and bias of individual scientists, scientific theories or “paradigms” would never get fleshed out sufficiently to generate the breakthroughs that result when paradigms finally go head-to-head in the theoretical death matches we call “scientific revolutions.” Seen from Kuhn’s perspective, the Popperians’ insistence that it took philosopher-priests like themselves to reveal to the rest of us how scientific rationality flows through the heads of working scientists was an expression of philosophers' and scientists' intellectual vanity.  

The application of Kuhn’s view of the scientific community to the rationality of ideological communities is too straightforward to require much elaboration: as I've noted, a certain amount of epistemic closure is essential to the deliberation of ideological communities inasmuch as they couldn't deliberate effectively about anything if they tried to deliberate about everything all at once.  Without epistemic closure, they’d never be in a position to score the ideological victories that change the direction of our politics over time.

If any of this is right, we should be asking ourselves how much the people indiscriminately deploring epistemic closure on the other side really understand about how ideological contests work.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Liberal Fairy Tale

I’m a great admirer of Michael Tomasky. So it gives me pause when I see him attempting some unlikely conceptual back flips. Here he’s talking about the Tea Partiers in a post entitled “So Maybe They Are” (my emphasis):

“There's a new study out of the University of Washington that looked at the racial attitudes and resentment of tea party people vs. the general population, Newsweek reports. And guess what:

“‘The data suggests that people who are Tea Party supporters have a higher probability" - 25 percent, to be exact – ‘of being racially resentful than those who are not Tea Party supporters,’ says Christopher Parker, who directed the study. ‘The Tea Party is not just about politics and size of government. The data suggests it may also be about race. . . .’

“Again, a point I've made a bajillion times: people can be personally not racist toward individual African Americans in their orbit, and thus plausibly say that they are not at all racist and they resent being called it, while still holding attitudes about black people at large that are different than their attitudes about other groups. Personal conduct and broad social attitudes are two different things.”
Let’s work back from Tomasky’s back flip. By insisting that “personal conduct and broad social attitudes are two different things," he's saying that you can be a racist in a sufficiently substantial sense to discredit your political views about seemingly nonracial issues even if you make a point of treating people of other races as well as you treat people of your own race. You have to ask yourself why someone as smart and intellectually scrupulous as Tomasky would say something that implausible.

The answer, I suspect, is that he’s enthralled by a proposition that liberals have been reciting with feeling for the last forty years, viz., that the things Republicans or conservatives say about a wide range of seemingly nonracial issues are “code words for racism” or “dog-whistle politics” in that they transmit malign messages audible only to other racists. Liberal intellectuals of Tomasky’s stature seem to have a huge psychological investment in saying such things. That’s why they go to lengths to guarantee that facts will never get in their way.

Let’s: (1) grant the contestable proposition that asking Tea Party supporters whether they agree with statements like “if blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as whites" or that “blacks should work their way up without special favors as the Irish, Italians, and other groups did” is a good measure of whether the whole population of Tea Partiers is more racist than the general population; and (2) credit the study’s finding that, by that measure, the Tea Partiers are. How do you get from there to the conclusion that what the Tea Partiers say about government spending, ObamaCare and taxes are “about race” or an “expression of” or “code words for” racism?

Not by any known rules of logical inference or empirical cognition. Assume (not implausibly because they’re probably disproportionately Roman Catholics) that the Latinos now demonstrating in the streets against Arizona’s recently passed immigration law are more likely than the general population to disapprove of abortion. Does that mean that the demonstrators’ complaints against Arizona’s treatment of immigrants are really “about,” or “a code word for,” outlawing abortion? Were you to say any such thing, you wouldn’t be enunciating an empirical hypothesis since there’s nothing the demonstrators could say or do to refute it—remember, “personal conduct and broad social attitudes are two different things.” You’d be putting fingers in your ears to keep from hearing what the demonstrators are saying about Arizona’s immigration policies.

That’s what a lot of liberals are doing with respect to the Tea Partiers. They’re reciting a fairy tale that makes them feel better about the elections they've lost over the last thirty years. Liberals won’t stand a chance of winning the argument over the proper role of government in our society until they get over it.

Political Failure and Finance Reform

Matthew Yglesias’s depressing account of the state of play on the financial regulation bill sounds about right:
“On many aspects of financial regulatory reform, there’s no real consensus among reputable analysts about what should be done. Is the existence of big banks a problem, or does Canada’s stable and highly concentrated banking system prove that it’s a red herring? Should we fix the ratings agencies by regulating them more stringently, or do we need to deregulate and increase competition? What should happen to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac? Given that we need to limit leverage, how much should we limit it before we start adversely impacting growth?

"The bill substantially punts on these questions, either not addressing them at all or else merely instructing regulators to come up with an answer. In part, that’s what speed required. And in part it’s the inevitable result of a process driven by technocrats rather than lengthy congressional deliberation. Which means that we’re looking at a bill that basically gives regulators the tools they say, in retrospect, they would have needed to prevent the crisis. That’s a pretty good idea, but it naturally raises the question of why they didn’t ask for these tools at the time. Instead of having a far-reaching debate that touches on the fundamental role of finance in our society and the relationship of banking to government, we’re updating the regulatory toolkit.”
We all know why Harry Reid has his foot to the floor anyway; the window for reforming the finance system in a progressive way is rapidly closing with the approach of the mid-term elections and a possible Republican takeover of the House. But it’s hard even for conscientious progressives like Yglesias to believe that we’re heading toward a good public policy decision. All the options laid out so far have too many moving parts, and therefore promise to generate too many unintended consequences, to inspire much confidence. Yglesias is right that, in a perfect world, we’d be able to slow down and scan the options more carefully. But in this world, progressives would be shooting themselves in the foot if they tried that. They have a compelling political reason to push a bill through, then, even if they lack confidence that it’s a good enough bill to take the the political issue of financial reform off the table.

A functioning system of public decision-making is supposed to get an ideologically divided public to a political equilibrium. When a major public decision generates political disequilibrium, it makes sense to speak of “political failure” in a sense that’s roughly analogous to the way economists speak of “market failure.” If Yglesias is right, we’re probably headed for a political failure with respect to financial reform.

Achieving a political equilibrium is partly a matter of public morality and partly a matter of distributing benefits and burdens efficiently. A public decision is morally stable by virtue of its legitimacy, that is, by its having been enacted through an authoritative decision-making process that generates an overriding obligation on the part of all citizens to abide by the final decision even if they think it’s unjust or unwise. A public decision is politically stable mostly by virtue of its efficiency, that is, by its distributing benefits and burdens among the population such that no significant constituency can be made better off without at least one other significant constituency being made worse off.  Efficient policies tend to be politically sustainable because powerful constituencies can be expected effectively to resist changes that make them worse off. That’s why a polity can usually move on to other things after it reaches an equilibrium on a matter of public policy, even though different constituencies prefer different equilibria.

Whatever you think of ObamaCare as public policy, it’s hard to deny that its enactment is an example of political failure. On the one hand, its supporters needed to resort to enough procedural innovations (e.g., circumventing the customary House-Senate Conference Committee and using reconciliation in the Senate to negate features of the bill on which conservative Democratic Senators had conditioned their earlier closure votes) to impugn its legitimacy among significant political constituencies. On the other hand, there’s ample reason to doubt ObamaCare’s efficiency owing to its unfathomable complexity and the imperfect metrics we've used to measure its effects (e.g., CBO accounting conventions). There’s no better evidence of political failure than the fact that, after a year-long process of public deliberation, a substantial majority of likely voters favor repealing a bill that was just enacted into law.

We can argue endlessly about who’s to blame. Democrats think that Republicans engineered a political failure by using the Senate filibuster irresponsibly. Republicans think that Democrats' specious pitches for ObamaCare (e.g., "if you like your health insurance you can keep it," or "ObamaCare won’t add a dime to the deficit") amount to political fraud. But there’s no denying that there’s been a political failure to blame someone for.

All other things being equal, that’s worse news for liberals than it is for conservatives. We're the ones committed to using the political process to do distributive work that conservatives would leave to markets. It’s up to us, then, to explain how the political process can operate with tolerable efficiency, and do our best to see that it does. The state of play with respect to financial reform illustrates how hard that is to do.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Rush Limbaugh’s Status Among Conservatives

I only get to listen to Rush Limbaugh’s radio program when I’m in the backseat of New York City taxis— daytime talk radio doesn’t fit into my schedule and, from the little I’ve heard of it, I doubt that I’d listen much to it even if it did. But, from what I can tell, Limbaugh knows exactly what he’s doing. The zeal of the conservative movement's critics to portray him as the its de facto leader hasn’t gone to Limbaugh's head. He knows perfectly well that he’s a political entertainer, more in the business of telling jokes and selling product than of changing minds. Seen in this light, the appropriate measure of his success isn’t the political influence he wields, but the advertising revenue he generates.

There’s no denying, however, that Limbaugh enjoys an elevated status in the conservative community. He’s treated deferentially not only by rank-and-file ditto-heads, but by high-brow conservative publications like National Review and The Weekly Standard. What significance you attach to this fact will depend, in large measure, on what you think of Limbaugh’s commentary: to some, its high quality entitles him to that deference; to others, a radio huckster’s commanding such respect is Exhibit A in the argument for epistemic closure in the conservative movement. This is just one more case where our judgments about our political opponents’ rationality are largely a projection of our own ideological commitments.

Let’s stipulate, for the purposes of argument, that talk radio in general, and Limbaugh’s material in particular, isn’t intellectually edifying enough to justify his high status among conservatives. What follows from that generous concession?

As far as I can see, not nearly as much as the people deploring conservative close-mindedness think. Being an effective conservative rabble rouser isn’t the same thing as being an authoritative voice in the conservative community. Granted, conservatives agree with Limbaugh most of the time—that follows from their being conservatives. Yet I know of no evidence that many conservatives subscribe to opinions just because Limbaugh voices them. Getting out in front of public opinion isn’t the same thing as leading it. The limits of Limbaugh’s authority in conservative circles are vividly demonstrated by the fact that his influence is deplored by conservatives of the stature of David Frum and David Brooks. Despite Limbaugh’s immense popularity among rank-and-file conservatives, lots of mainstream conservatives are happy to be seen disagreeing with him. Moreover, the limits of Limbaugh's influence were demonstrated vividly by the fact that someone Limbaugh detests as much as John McCain could be the Republican Party's presidential candidate, with substantial support from its conservative wing, in the last election.

Consider this comparison:

When liberals launched the Air America Radio Network, they weren’t able to come close to matching the ratings of conservative talk-radio despite employing talent with a proven track record. Al Franken, the network’s principal attraction, was not only a successful television comedian, but an accomplished ideological infighter who’d authored best selling books about conservatives with titles like Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Lies, and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. When their hopes that Limbaugh had finally met his ideological match were dashed, liberals consoled themselves with the thought that their ideological comrades are too intellectually discerning to warm to the talk-radio format.

But look what happened to Franken after his stint on Air America. Having struck out on talk radio, his next move was to run for a Minnesota senate seat. You might have thought that the senatorial candidacy of a television comedian would have been greeted even in liberal circles as comic relief, in the tradition of the tongue-in-cheek presidential candidacy contemplated by Stephen Colbert in the last election cycle, or that Pat Paulsen mounted back in 1968. But Franken wasn’t joking and the liberal community wasn’t laughing. Evidently, a goodly number Minnesotans, and virtually all Minnesota liberals, not only agree with Franken on the issues, but are willing to authorize the author of Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot to speak on their behalf. More impressive still, you’d be hard pressed to find a reputable liberal pundit who dreamed of asking whether a career as an irreverent entertainer qualifies one for a seat in the Senate.

So which ideological community is more susceptible to epistemic closure, the conservatives who admire Limbaugh or the liberals who elected a Bizarro-Limbaugh to the Senate? If that question gives you even a moment’s pause, that’s just one more sign of how little intellectual return there is on ideologues’ psychological investment in the other side’s irrationality.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Measuring Epistemic Closure

It’s no accident that recent talk about “epistemic closure” takes the form of an accusation. It’s a way of saying that other people are close-minded. “Epistemic closure” or “close-mindedness” aren’t terms that lend themselves to self-reference. That it occurs to somebody to ask whether she’s suffering from that condition herself is prima facie evidence that she isn’t. Being self-consciously closed-minded is a logical impossibility. Wishful thinking about our own open-mindedness, however, is an all-too-human reality.

That makes it a particularly adroit rhetorical move on the part of young conservatives to affect a high-minded concern with epistemic closure in the conservative movement. Ostentatiously worrying about your ideological comrades’ closed-mindedness makes a self-aggrandizing spectacle of your own open-mindedness. It’s all for show, of course, unless you’re applying the same metric for measuring epistemic closure to yourself that you’re applying to other people. I haven’t yet seen any evidence that either the conservatives or liberals deploring conservative epistemic closure are doing anything of the sort.

Identifying a single standard of open-mindedness that can be applied across opposing ideological communities isn’t easy. Consider how Ezra Klein stumbles when he makes a typically conscientious stab at it:
“[W]e'd all agree that it's certainly theoretically possible for partisans of one party to embed themselves inside an echo chamber and become systematically more hostile to outside evidence than partisans of the other party. And given that this country has only two serious political parties, that would clearly be a troubling state of affairs. So the relevance of this discussion and the potential need to have it are not, I imagine, in doubt. The question is how do you measure epistemic closure?

"The easy answer is you test for its product: Misinformation. What you'd want to do, I guess, is continuously poll a standard set of questions based on empirical facts. "Has GDP grown since President X's inauguration?" "Have global temperatures been rising or falling in recent decades?" "Does the United States have longer life expectancy than other developed nations?" "Do a majority of Americans approve of the president's job performance?" That sort of thing. Have representatives of both parties decide the questions and then see whether respondents from one party or the other get more questions right.”
This sounds like a fair test of comparative epistemic closure--until you start thinking about what questions would accurately measure the extent to which people are comparatively (mis)informed. Even when we’re on our best deliberative behavior, our perception of facts interacts with our ideological commitments. Take Klein’s question: “[d]oes the United States have a longer life expectancy than other developed nations?” That’s a fact close to his heart because it’s liberals’ favorite measure of the output of a health system relative to the imputed dollars of medical spending. By that measure, under our (pre-ObamaCare) health system, we spend a lot more money than other developed countries to get marginally worse health outcomes.

If you’re a well-informed conservative, however, you’re not nearly as likely to keep track of life-expectancy data because you've already decided that it's a poor measure of healthcare outcomes. You know that we Americans have lower life-expectancies than people from other comparably developed political economies because, inter alia, we eat more fast food, murder each other more prolifically and kill ourselves in car accidents more frequently than people in other developed countries. But survival rates from various forms of cancer are likely to stick in your mind because they suggest a respect in which our healthcare system generates substantially better outcomes than the competition.

It’s reasonable to say that, in each case, liberals’ retention of the former fact and conservative’s retention of the latter is an example of confirmation bias, i.e., our tendency to be more attentive to facts that corroborate our pet theories than those that falsify them. That, however, is a species of irrationality characteristic of well-informed people who’ve taken the trouble to have theories to confirm.

When conservatives talk about the liberal echo chamber, they’re thinking about people who get most of their news from sources like NPR; liberals’ favorite example of the conservative echo chamber is the influence exerted by Rush Limbaugh. Yet, according to the Pew Research Center, both of those audiences are pretty equally informed about politics and significantly better-informed than the general population. I suppose you could test for liberals’ and conservatives’ retention of political facts that aren’t pertinent to the assessment of either side’s ideological theories.  But why would anybody bother to remember them?

Klein’s mistake, I submit, is that he’s thinking of close-mindedness as an attribute of individuals rather than of ideological communities. I’ve mentioned one measure of collective epistemic closure here, viz., "ideological victories." I’ll try to describe some others in due course.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Ideological Generation Gaps

It’s my impression that there’s an important generational dynamic to the discussion about epistemic closure among conservative intellectuals: the younger the thinker, the more likely he is to think that his ideological comrades, particularly his older comrades, are closed-minded. Ross Douthat (b. 1979), for example, is more receptive to the idea than Ramesh Ponnuru (b. 1974), who's more receptive than Jonah Goldberg (b. 1969) who’s marginally more receptive than Mark Levin (b. 1957).

This, of course, is the worst sort of armchair sociology. But I won’t apologize for believing it because it makes some psychological sense. You’d expect younger thinkers anxious to make a name for themselves to experience an oedipal impatience with their ideological elders. If it exists, that impatience probably tends to counter the psychological and social pressures toward epistemological closure in an ideological community that I’ve discussed here, here and here.

The interesting thing is that I can’t detect any comparable generational dynamic among liberals. Can you think of any issue that has provoked a rebellion by a younger generation of liberal thinkers against their ideological elders? Is there any issue on which you’d reflexively expect a Jon Chait, a Matthew Yglesias or an Ezra Klein to take an appreciably different view than an E.J. Dionne or a Paul Krugman? If, like me, you can’t think of one, isn’t it a little strange that young liberals can’t muster up a respectable generation gap?

Here, for example, is the relatively young Peter Beinart (b. 1971), explaining why he’s undisturbed by liberalism’s dire electoral prospects in terms that would sound right coming from a current liberal writer of any age, or a liberal writing in 1948 (my emphasis):

“Yes, the Democrats are going to get throttled this fall. But Obama has had so much success that he can afford spending a little time playing defense. It’s a strange moment in Washington. With the stimulus bill and health-care reform now law, and serious financial regulation gaining momentum, Democrats are witnessing the greatest run of policy success of my lifetime. . . .

“When it comes to politics, however, an arena where Democrats were actually growing comfortable with success after the landslides of 2006 and 2008, things are ugly. President Obama’s approval ratings, which belly-flopped to less than 50 percent over the course of 2009, have been treading water there ever since. Despite some liberal wishful thinking, in fact, Obama and his party’s fortunes now look even worse than before health care passed. On April 12, Gallup recorded Obama’s lowest approval rating ever (47 percent). The next day, it reported that Republicans have opened up a lead in generic congressional balloting (“Which party’s candidate would you vote for if the midterms were held today?”). Intrade now predicts that Democrats will lose seven seats in the Senate and 36 in the House.

All of which makes me feel… pretty darn good.”
You can’t blame Beinart for being a little giddy over the election of Obama and the passage of ObamaCare. But is it really part of “the greatest run of policy success in [his] lifetime”? The jury is surely still out on whether ObamaCare will work according to Obama's standards by enabling the currently uninsured to secure affordable, high-quality healthcare at a sustainable social cost. I’m afraid that the jury has already come back with a mixed verdict at best on the macro-economic effectiveness of the stimulus bill. And financial regulation is still just a gleam in Chris Dodd’s eye.

What has Beinart and his generational cohort feeling so good is the fulfillment of fifty-year-old liberal policy aspirations. He’s confident that it will translate into effective public policy because he subscribes to public policy theories of roughly the same vintage. Maybe he’s right, but he still sounds like he's ruminating from the front porch of a liberal old folks’ home. Is that a sign of liberal open-mindedness?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Yet Another Post on Epistemic Closure

Conservatives are butting heads over at the Corner. Jim Manzi stirred the pot by accusing fellow Cornerite Mark Levin of “wingnuttery” in connection with the discussion of climate change in his best selling Liberty and Tyranny. That prompted Cornites Kathryn Jean Lopez and Andy McCarthy to rush to Levin’s defense. Their closing ranks around Levin may look like a straightforward confirmation of the thesis that the community of conservatives is suffering from “epistemic closure” (on which I’ve already commented here and here). But it’s more complicated than that.

McCarthy wasn’t addressing Manzi’s substantive criticisms of Levin—that’s a task he has expressly left for another occasion. He was taking Manzi to task for a breach of etiquette.

“I would just observe that Jim Manzi's post on Mark Levin's widely acclaimed book is beneath him. No one minds a good debate, but Jim's gratuitously nasty tone — ‘awful,’ ‘Trilateral Commission,’ ‘wingnuttery,’ etc. — is just breathtaking. I've read a number of Jim's articles and posts over the years, including more than a few involving exchanges with other writers. He has always struck me as a model of civility, especially in his disagreements with the Left. Why pick Mark for the Pearl Harbor treatment?”
Ideologues of all stripes routinely turn substantive political principles into rules of etiquette. We can’t begin to understand how deliberation by an ideological community works, and what counts as “epistemic closure” in that context, without getting a handle on this crucial dynamic. Please excuse the length of this post; ideological etiquette is a complicated phenomenon encompassing both an ideological community's mandatory beliefs (political correctness), and how it goes about forming new beliefs (civility).

Let me try to explain what I have in mind by means of an autobiographical reminiscence. Like a lot of middle-class mothers, mine made a determined, if unsuccessful, effort to make me into a gentleman. Teaching me some semblance of table manners was part of that enterprise. When it came to eating soup, for instance, she insisted that I fill my spoon by guiding it toward the far end of the bowl, before abruptly reversing course and bringing it deftly to my (always too audibly slurping) lips. In yet another gesture of childish rebellion, I pointed out that there were advantages to filling my spoon by moving it toward my body and then conveying it to my mouth in one economical motion. I proposed this technique as a generous compromise between my mother’s wishes about my soup-eating and my own preference for dispensing with the spoon entirely. Shrewdly, she told me to shut up.

She was right. She hadn’t been opining on the ergonomics of soup-eating, but raising a point of etiquette. My proposal showed that I didn’t, or wouldn’t, understand what etiquette was all about. The prescribed way to eat soup is the right way, not because it’s the uniquely rational way to do it, but because it’s the way the right people already do it. Conforming to established practice wasn’t a matter of getting the soup down one’s gullet with the least expenditure of energy but of showing solidarity with polite society. It’s entirely fitting, then, that proper soup-eating should be a little inefficient. People ought to be ready to endure a little inconvenience in the name of social propriety. Anyone for whom it’s too much trouble isn’t a conscientious objector with a better idea; he’s just a slob.

I’d made the mistake of thinking that the practices commended by the rules of etiquette needed to be defended on their merits. The point of etiquette, however, isn’t to persuade people to follow some independently justified set of best practices. It’s to draw distinctions among people according to the “correctness” of their conduct, that is, the extent to which it conforms to arbitrary, but generally recognized, conventions. Of course, political convictions aren’t arbitrary conventions inasmuch as they originate in deliberation and invite reasoned criticism. Political correctness consists in treating them as if they were so that they can play a role in an ideological community roughly analogous to that table manners play in polite society.

That makes it sound like every outbreak of political correctness on the other side marks a surrender of intellectual integrity. Yet even an ideological community firing on all cylinders as an engine of objectivity needs to turn core convictions into rules of etiquette. Objective political deliberation is crucially a matter of testing our political beliefs against our ethical and empirical common sense. But common to whom? We can’t start deliberating without identifying a circle of people whose political principles and moral reflexes carry weight in our eyes. Our core political values aren’t branded on our foreheads for all to see. Ideologues therefore need a protocol for spotting comrades in a crowd as a prelude to deliberating together. Ideological etiquette enables them to show each other that their hearts are in the right place by deriding incorrect opinions and belittling the people who voice them.

Seen in this light, political correctness isn’t an impediment to political objectivity, but one of its social preconditions. Granted, it preempts deliberation insofar as it rules questions that challenge certain prescribed beliefs out of bounds. But it makes objectivity-enhancing deliberation on other issues possible by enabling ideologues to identify the people entitled to a seat at the table at which their community’s deliberations occur. No ideological community can deliberate effectively about anything if it tries to deliberate about everything all at once. It needs to generate orthodoxies before it can deliberate at all.

That makes etiquette essential to sound deliberation by an ideological community in at least two respects:

First, it fixes a boundary at any given point in time between those issues that are, and are not, candidates for collective deliberation, by generating a body of political correct positions. Ideological communities need to observe that boundary because, like individual ideologues, they have finite attention spans. No politically engaged person can afford to stew about any political issue indefinitely. Life is too short to do anything but make up one’s mind as best one can and move on to other things. There comes a time in politics when deliberation must give way to conviction, and conviction to action.

The same goes for an ideological community; it needs eventually to make up its corporate mind about an issue under deliberation. When it does, an orthodox position had emerged in each camp that most of its members have, by their own lights, pretty good reasons for embracing. That doesn’t mean that scattered individuals wouldn’t change their minds and, if need be, adjust their ideological affiliations accordingly. Individuals are always repositioning themselves within, and migrating among, ideological communities without undermining the communities’ collective judgments. But there can’t be ideological communities for anyone to situate themself within, or defect from, without durable political orthodoxies.

Second, an ideological community’s etiquette prescribes the manner in which its members address unresolved issues. Political correctness only impairs an ideological community’s objectivity when it immunizes a political position from intra-community challenges prematurely, before the community has settled on good reasons for subscribing to it. The parallel with individual ideologues still holds. Habitual opportunism or dogmatism can turn an individual ideologue’s core convictions into hollow rationalizations. In the former case, he neglects to ask himself whether a politically expedient position he’s taken is consistent with his principles, in the latter, whether he can really stomach his principles’ application to a new situation.

Negligence of either kind can be explained by what psychologists call “the reduction of cognitive dissonance” and the rest of us call “wishful thinking.” People tend to repress inconvenient experiences that undermine beliefs in which they’re psychologically invested. Facts that don’t fit a preferred narrative can be summarily ignored. Ideologues have a lot riding on the success of their partisan projects and the unassailability of their core beliefs. That’s why they’re often the last to know that they’ve compromised their objectivity.

When it gets out of hand, political correctness functions as the interpersonal analogue of the psychological pressures clouding an individual’s political judgment. An ideologue loses his bearings by repressing inconvenient doubts about conventional ideological wisdom. Ideological communities lose theirs by banishing or silencing the troublesome members who voice inconvenient doubts. The intellectual costs of that process are often invisible to the people who set it in motion just because it operates through the medium of etiquette. Gentlemen shun a rube picking his teeth at the dinner table not because they’ve weighed the pro and cons of that practice, but because they’re bred to recoil from uncouth behavior. Ideologues shun politically incorrect people less out of conscious reflection than out of the reflexive sense of propriety that comes with playing on an ideological team. That’s why they can be so adept at spotting every intellectual corner cut by political opponents, but blithely unaware that they’re cutting corners themselves.

A thriving ideological community has the metabolism of a shark. It has to keep moving to sustain itself, digesting new ideas through genuine deliberation to reproduce the politically correct muscle mass that gives it definition and vigor. When political correctness impedes its movement by preempting deliberation about issues as they arise, the shark swims in aimless circles and withers. Sometimes you find one floating upside down in the water, like Marxist-Leninism, because it has reached something approaching total epistemic closure.

Most ideological communities, however, are animated by more adaptable ideals and a sense of how the social world works that is sufficiently sensitive to emerging facts to sustain them through their bad stretches. They sometimes paddle along with withered fins for a time until they regain their vigor by recovering their capacity to deliberate. The politically relevant measure of “epistemic closure,” I submit, is an ideological community's capacity to see its emaciating tendencies for what they are.  How things play out at the Corner will be an interesting test case for the conservative movement on this score.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Another Breach in the Levee

One of the things that separates a thriving constitutional republic from a banana republic is that, in the former, the administration of justice generally isn’t a matter of scoring political points and settling political scores. This is an area of policy as to which the way things look is just as important as the way they really are; citizens can’t be expected to settle their disputes by deferring to public legal authorities that look like they’re in the business of helping political friends and hurting political enemies. That’s why it’s the job of judges and prosecutors not only to resist political impropriety, but to do their best not to project its appearance

Granted, there are instances where there’s no bright line between the even-handed administration of justice and partisan politics. There was no way, for instance, that the Supreme Court could have ruled in Bush v. Gore (the case about the Florida recount in the 2000 presidential election) without people on the losing side believing that they’d suffered a political hit job. It’s not often, however, that circumstances conspire to leave judges and prosecutors with no choice but to plunge headlong into a political thicket. Under normal circumstances, we expect responsible judges to do their best to avoid rendering politically charged decisions in the interest of maintaining the judicial system’s legitimacy. The same goes for prosecutors; we expect them, in their sound discretion, to avoid bringing cases that look like political vendettas or an effort to change public policy at the expense of a defendant who wasn’t given fair notice that his conduct was illegal.

In this respect, our legal system is like a reasonably designed flood-control-system; its levees keep the political waters at bay under normal circumstances, even if they can be overwhelmed by a hundred-year-storm like the 2000 election. One of the disturbing things about our recent politics is that the system is starting to spring leaks in its day-to-day operation. Did it look politically even-handed to you when: Alberto Gonzalez fired U.S. Attorneys who'd resisted filing politically inspired voter fraud cases; a politically connected Texas D.A. changed the national political landscape by prosecuting Tom DeLay under a controversial legal theory; the Justice Department (according to the court hearing the case) overzealously prosecuted Alaska Senator Ted Stevens in the heat of his reelection campaign; the Justice Department tried to bend the code of legal ethics out of shape to exact retribution from John Yoo for his legal opinions on coercive interrogations (on which I commented here)?

Seen in this light, Harvey Pitt’s observations about the SEC’s recent civil complaint against Goldman Sachs point to another breach in the levees:
“But to quote Jimmy Breslin, in suing Goldman Sachs, the SEC 'received immediate lacerations of the credibility.' This begs the question why, considering that this SEC litigation takes it places it hasn’t been before—

• challenging the premier firm of Goldman Sachs,

• about a synthetic derivative transaction,

• on which Goldman lost millions of dollars,

• where the parties were sophisticated and not in obvious need of SEC protection,

• after a year-and-a-half investigation,

• filed immediately after the President threatened vetoing financial reform legislation that doesn’t strongly regulate derivatives,

• and a few hours before release of the Inspector General’s Report on SEC inadequacies in attacking Alan Stanford’s Ponzi scheme,

• but apparently without giving Goldman advance notice of the filing,

• or exploring possible settlement, and

• splitting 3-2 along political lines in a major enforcement action.”
All of the bulleted points count as reasons why the SEC could have refrained responsibly from prosecuting a civil case against Goldman. The last, in particular, makes it look to a lot of people like Goldman is suffering collateral damage from an SEC campaign to strike a political blow against Republicans on the issue of financial regulation. From the little I know, I can’t tell whether the Commission’s three Democratic appointees decided unreasonably to prosecute Goldman or the two Republican appointees unreasonably withheld their consent. We’ll probably find out as the case proceeds. But I can’t help believing that our legal system is a little less legitimate than it was a few days ago because one or the other group abused its discretion.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A Thought About Elena Kagan

The three rumored front-runners for the next seat on the Supreme Court (viz., Kagan, Wood and Garland) all strike me as good choices. Based on what I know now, if it was up to me I’d probably go with Diane Wood from the Seventh Circuit. As I’ve said before, all other things being equal--and in this case they very nearly are--I prefer an experienced judge and, for reasons that are too ordinary to be worth recounting, I like her a little better than Merrick Garland.

But it has often been said that one thing that Obama should be looking for in a nominee is Justice Stevens’s skill at piecing together a liberal majority on cases dividing the conservative and liberal wings of the Court, usually by winning over Justice Kennedy. If that’s right, could there be a better endorsement than the one Charles Fried gives to Elena Kagan based on her ability to bridge ideological differences when she was Dean of Harvard Law School?
“Does this all mean that she is some kind of crypto-Republican who would shift the Court to the right? And what does her behavior as dean tell us about her ideology? My clear answers are no and nothing. I do not doubt that her heart beats on the left. After all, she clerked for Abner Mikva and Thurgood Marshall, two of the most liberal judges to sit on their respective courts, and she calls Marshall her legal hero. No, what it all tells us is that she came to Harvard Law School at a critical time in its history and determined that it was her job to make the biggest, richest, and most famous law school in the world also the best. And that she would do it by recruiting excellent teachers from across the ideological spectrum. That she would make students with every point of view feel as if they were part of an intellectual and professional enterprise. That the students and faculty should feel this was not just a place to come to work and an experience to be endured, but an enjoyable and satisfying part of a life that should be satisfying and enjoyable in its entirety. She saw that was her job; that was her role. She threw herself into it wholeheartedly. And she succeeded.”

Ross Perot and the Tea Partiers

Ross Perot’s third-party presidential candidacy and the Tea Party movement have something important in common: they both succeeded in putting deficit-reduction at the center of the political agenda. I’ve speculated before on how that issue is likely to play differently in our politics than it did in the 1990s because the ideological dynamics are crucially different: the Tea Partiers largely are, and the Peroistas weren’t, part of the conservative movement and the Republican electoral coalition. Ron Rapoport (via Tom Schaller) preempts my gaseous observations with some hard facts:

“'Perot callers were slightly right of center on the liberal-conservative scale, but on specific issues they were not consistently conservative. They strongly favored abortion rights, national health insurance, and government controls on pollution, while strongly opposing affirmative action, gun control and the revocation of the death penalty.

“'But there were a set of issues important to Perot supporters on which they were more extreme than either Democrats or Republicans--economic nationalism, reform, and the budget. On these issues they saw the major parties as indistinguishable and largely indifferent. They staked out positions very different from where they perceived the major parties to stand.’”
Tea Partiers, however, have a welcoming ideological home in the Republican Party:

“In the New York Times survey, 54% of tea partiers rated the Republican Party favorably. Only 17% of Perot callers rated either party as “above average” or “outstanding” and 43% rated both parties as “below average,” or “poor” with 8% rating the Republicans as “above average” or “outstanding,” and 9% rating the Democrats as “outstanding” or “above average.” Sixty-nine percent rated the Republicans as “below average” or “poor,” with 64% saying the same about Democrats.”
Schaller draws out the electoral implications:

“One of the ironies of the tea "party" is that it is less of a party than the Perot movement was, and yet is more traditionally partisan--i.e., Republican--in its attitudes and preferences. If it is a danger or threat to the Republican Party it is thus a danger from within, not without. And if it is a threat to the Democratic Party it is because it readily mobilizes voters who ultimately are going to vote for Republicans (or more accurately, against Democrats), not third-party candidates.”
This shows how much the ideological landscape has changed since the early 1990s. The 1992 presidential election pitted a Republican moderate against a southern New Democrat and a centrist insurgent proclaiming that each major party candidate was too beholden to special interests to make good on his promise to govern from the center. With respect to the budget deficit, every presidential candidate was gravitating toward a grand compromise that combined tax increases with spending restraint. Ideologically, the Peroistas were amplifying centripetal forces. The transformation of our politics into a contest between ideologically disciplined parties started to become noticeable only with the Gingrich revolution in the 1994 election cycle.

The Tea Partiers are creatures of the Gingrich revolution. They’re amplifying centrifugal ideological forces by generating primary challenges moving Republican candidates to the right (e.g., driving Charlie Crist out of the Republican Party in favor of Marco Rubio) and by leaving Democrats little choice but to stand behind ObamaCare and other fiscally provocative policies. Neither party needed to embarrass itself by spinning fairy tales about a bipartisan deficit-reduction commission in 1992.

Monday, April 19, 2010

More on Epistemic Closure and Ideological Mirages

Last week I asked how people like Julian Sanchez, Matthew Yglesias and Noah Millman could be so certain that the conservative movement is more closed-minded than its liberal counterpart. That strikes me as an unlikely proposition on its face: first, because it’s not obviously intelligible; and second because, insofar as it is intelligible, it seems unlikely to be true.

What could it mean to say that conservatives are less open-minded than liberals? Each of those ideological communities contains people who are variously intelligent and intellectually scrupulous. So it’s always going to be easy to find a conservative who’s more open-minded and rational than most liberals, and a liberal who’s more open-minded and rational than most conservatives. It only makes sense to compare the open-mindedness of conservatives and liberals if we’re talking about the way they deliberate as a group. It’s not immediately clear how to make such a comparison fairly. In any event, that’s a task that the people deploring conservative closed-mindedness give no indication of having undertaken.

This much, however, is clear: in a society like ours, where people consult a plurality of reputable traditions having inconsistent political implications, you can’t infer that your opponents are irrational just because you think they’re wrong about pressing issues of political morality and public policy. On the face of things, it seems unlikely that open-mindedness would be concentrated on one side of any durable ideological divide. That’s why I speculated in the earlier post that the most probable explanation of the currency of beliefs about conservative closed-mindedness has less to do with people making warranted judgments to that effect than their having surrendered to psychological and social pressures encouraging them to jump from the fact of disagreement on big issues to the unwarranted conclusion that the other side is being irrational.

Let’s try to put a toe in these deep waters by putting the contest between liberalism and conservatism in a little historical perspective. The ideological war between them has continued in substantially its present form for at least thirty years, since conservatives took firm control of the Republican Party in 1980 when Reagan became the party’s presidential nominee. So it’s reasonable to ask: relative to the baseline year of 1980, which, if either, side has been winning? That’s a pertinent question for present purposes because, if any ideological victories have occurred, it’s hard to say that the side that has won most of them has been deliberating less rationally than the other side.

As you might expect, however, ideological victories are slippery things that aren’t easily identified in terms that don’t merely confirm the ideological presuppositions of the person doing the identifying. We have a perfectly straightforward idea about what counts as “winning” an argument between persons: one wins when the other either concedes defeat or betrays a pertinent change of heart through his conduct. Yet a victory/defeat is hard to spot even in these relatively simple circumstances because the parties are apt to spin the facts out of pride and wishful thinking, the winner so that she can claim victory prematurely, the loser so that he can avoid having to concede defeat.

Victories/defeats among ideological communities are even harder to detect because, encompassing many minds, they never speak with a single voice. In general, one side can credibly claim an ideological victory only when its reasoning arguably becomes the other side’s conventional wisdom. Victories/defeats are evidenced mostly by what members of the losing community don’t say, by their reluctance out of conviction or ideological etiquette to voice an opinion that was once treated by their comrades as a badge of ideological rectitude, but is now embarrassingly passé.  When we've spotted a genuine ideological victory, we've found one issue as to which the winning side’s superior rationality is no mirage because it’s just as visible from the loser’s standpoint as it is from the winner’s.

There’s no point trying to be any more precise. Ideological victories aren’t the kind of events with a beginning, middle and end demarcated by bright lines. That doesn’t make them any less real than a “heap” of corn. If we started piling kernels of corn atop each other one at a time, we’d eventually reach a point where everyone would agree that we had a heap. But that doesn’t mean that reasonable people could ever agree on which additional kernel turned the mere pile into a genuine heap, and thus on whether many actual piles qualify as heaps.

Ideological victories/defeats exhibit the same indeterminacy, compounded by the further complication that the people identifying them need to rely on the evidence presented by their own variable, and often self-serving, thoughts. Occasionally an ideological victory/defeat is indisputable, like the defeat suffered by Marxist-Leninism in the 1990s. Usually, however, their occurrence is inherently contestable. So identifying victories unequivocally enough to satisfy both liberals and conservatives isn’t going to be easy.

Recognizing that ideological victories often exist only in the myopic eyes of liberal and conservative beholders, I propose this expedient. Let’s compile two lists of issues, entitled “Advantage Conservatives” and “Advantage Liberals” respectively. To qualify for either list, the issue must enable one side or the other to lodge a prima facie claim to an ideological victory since the beginning of the Reagan presidency by identifying intellectual concessions from prominent figures on the other side. I submit that the Advantage Conservative list includes at least four items:

(1) Welfare Reform: it was bitterly opposed by liberals in the 1990s but is now widely regarded as a successful policy by liberals and conservatives alike;

(2) Marginal Tax Rates: Before Ronald Reagan made tax reductions the cornerstone of conservative domestic policy in 1981, marginal income tax rates for the highest earners stood at 70 percent (down from 90 percent during the Eisenhower administration) and stout-hearted liberals still insisted we were an under-taxed society. Try finding a reputable liberal who favors marginal tax rates above, say, 50 percent now.

(3) The Cold War: By the time Reagan died in 2004, Ted Kennedy, once among Reagan’s most dedicated foreign policy opponents, honored him as “the president who won the cold war.” It’s hard to interpret Kennedy’s resoundingly counterfactual claim made at the Reagan Library in 2007, that “the cold war had been waged as a bipartisan enterprise by Republican and Democratic Congresses and administrations from the first moment to the last,” as anything other than a backhanded concession that Reagan conservatives had been right about how to wage the cold war, and liberals wrong, between 1980 and the fall of the Soviet Union.

(4) Constitutional Interpretation: When liberals spoke of a liberal Supreme Court Justice, we used to mean someone like William Brennan or Thurgood Marshall.  Now we mean a champion of judicial modesty like John Paul Stevens.

I’m happy to concede that there’s plenty of room for reasonable disagreement over whether each of these items represents a genuine ideological victory. You can always find diehard liberals who’ve never reconciled themselves to the conservative policies I’ve identified. And it’s possible to argue that some of the ideas I’ve characterized as winners lack a genuinely conservative provenance. But we needn’t be detained by such objections.

That’s clear when you take a look at the Advantage Liberals list. . . . .   I can’t think of anything to put on it either. The last liberal ideological victories I can think of occurred sometime before the end of the Ford administration when the Republican presidents embraced part of the liberal policy agenda by supporting environmental policies like the Clean Air Act and labor policies like the Occupational Health and Safety Act and when once-controversial liberal constitutional principles like “one person, one vote,” or the “exclusionary rule” became a settled part of constitutional law. Liberals have won the odd political victory in the ensuing years, like the passage of ObamaCare, but those haven't been anything like ideological victories given the continued opposition of movement conservatives.  It’s a sad fact of my whole political life that, if liberals have been out-deliberating conservatives, they’ve done it with the stealth of an accomplished cat burglar who walks off with the loot without leaving behind any probative evidence.

Does liberalism’s thirty-year history of ideological retreat before movement conservatism show that today’s conservatives are more rational than today’s liberals? No. The psychological and social forces undermining objective deliberation in any ideological community are always formidable and conservatives enjoy no special immunity from their rationality-inhibiting effects. So we should never underestimate the capacity of conservatives to go off the deep end.

But the pertinent history does suggest that liberals’ exorbitant investment in the idea of their superior rationality is fool’s gold that glitters to no one else.  It might be a good idea, if only for the sake of appearances, for them to dial down the talk about conservative "loopiness" until they've chalked up an ideological victory of their own.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Obama’s Alleged Realpolitik

It’s hard to know what to make of Obama’s foreign policy this early in his presidency, especially when the conceptual categories at our disposal (like “realist” and “idealist”) are so inexact. But I’m perplexed by the notion, floated by the people quoted in this New York Times piece by Peter Baker, that Obama’s foreign policy recalls the realpolitik and realism of the George H.W. Bush administration (my emphasis):

“’Everybody always breaks it down between idealist and realist,’ said Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff. ‘If you had to put him in a category, he’s probably more realpolitik, like Bush 41,’ the first President George Bush, Mr. Emanuel said.

“He added, “He knows that personal relationships are important, but you’ve got to be cold-blooded about the self-interests of your nation.”

“Stephen G. Rademaker, a former official in the George W. Bush administration, said: ‘For a president coming out of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, it’s remarkable how much he has pursued a great power strategy. It’s almost Kissingerian. It’s not very sentimental. Issues of human rights do not loom large in his foreign policy, and issues of democracy promotion, he’s been almost dismissive of.’”
“Realpolitik” and "realism" aren't terms with very precise standard definitions. But their meanings are being stretched beyond all recognition if they don't encompass the Kissingerian idea that nations will, and should, act to improve their position, according to their own definition of their national interests, relative to the prevailing balance of power. A realist or a practitioner of realpolitik is ready to make mutually advantageous agreements with hostile powers. But he isn’t ready to renounce advantages his nation enjoys under the status quo unilaterally to facilitate a hoped-for future agreement. That certainly wasn’t the approach of the H.W. Bush administration or the Ford and Nixon administrations when Henry Kissinger was calling the foreign policy shots.

Yet such unilateral renunciation seems to be a central plank of Obama’s foreign policy. As far as I can tell, Obama’s nuclear nonproliferation policy works off the assumption that it’s morally unreasonable, and therefore practically ineffective, to expect aspiring nuclear powers to even consider ending their nuclear weapons programs unless they already know that the U.S. and Russia are disabling their nuclear arsenals. Similarly, Obama seems committed to the idea that unilateral Israeli concessions from the negotiating baseline in place during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations will move the Palestinians to the negotiation table rather than make them hold out for more unilateral concessions.

These might be perfectly defensible policies, but they aren’t examples of “realpolitik” or “realism” under any recognizable definition of those terms.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Epistemic Closure and Ideological Mirages

I don’t have anything substantive to add to the discussion about “epistemic closure” in the conservative movement initiated by Julian Sanchez here and carried on by, among others, Matthew Yglesias here and Noah Millman here. I’m more interested in understanding how people outside the conservative movement can presume so confidently that the reality of conservative close-mindedness (compared, presumably, to movement liberals) isn’t a matter of a contestable judgment on their part standing in need of a defense, but an incontestable fact crying out for an explanation. Yglesias captures the tone of the discussion when he characterizes it “as trying to think through why the right is so loopy.” This looks to me less like the makings of a serious intellectual discussion than a symptom of the interlocutors’ lack of self-consciousness.

Generally speaking, seeing is believing. The way things look is usually pretty reliable evidence of the way they really are. Yet we’re all familiar enough with optical illusions to resist the testimony of our lying eyes occasionally. We don’t believe in disappearing lakes, for instance, just because we see bodies of water off in the distance on a stretch of desert highway that vanish as we approach them. We know a mirage when we see one.

Yet, even as we acknowledge their unreality, we still see mirages. We’re not taken in by the sight of them for at least two reasons. First, we know in advance that desert vistas present optical conditions under which our eyes are likely to lead us astray. Second, we usually don’t care enough about the water we see off in the distance to be susceptible to wishful thinking about its reality. Someone dying of thirst, or anxious to make a scientific reputation with a cutting edge theory about disappearing lakes, might be more gullible.

Ideology generates illusions of its own. Every ideologue has to contend with political opponents whom she thinks are systematically wrong about pressing issues of political morality and public policy. She can’t help but notice that they’re unaware of, or unmoved by, “facts” staring her in the face. Moreover, she sees that, most of the time, her opponents disregard evidence against their positions not because they’ve rendered a considered judgment about its unreality or insignificance, but simply because it’s politically incorrect in their circle to pay it any mind. From her vantage point, this looks a lot like irrationality. Yet, on the occasions when she engages opponents on ideologically neutral ground, the specter of irrationality usually vanishes without a trace.

It’s not surprising that we “see” ideological mirages. Rationality is, among other things, the disposition to deliberate in a manner that maximizes one’s chances of being right under a given set of deliberative circumstances. So it’s perfectly natural to think that someone we see having a propensity for being wrong is irrational. We conclude, for example, that a student we see getting 100 per cent of the answers right on math tests is more mathematically rational than someone getting 60 per cent of them right. That’s what math tests are for. Ideologues apply their own litmus tests for sound political thinking to opponents in roughly the same way.

The puzzling thing about ideological mirages isn’t that we see them, then, but that we’re so bad at seeing through them. It doesn’t take very much self-consciousness to appreciate that the appearance of political opponents’ irrationality is as likely to mislead us as the sight of a distant lake in the desert. We’re entitled to infer that other people are irrational from our perception of their being wrong only when we and they acknowledge roughly the same standards of rightness. That’s why math exams test mathematical rationality. Bad students are trying, less successfully, to live up to the same mathematical standards as good ones.

When people disagree not just about their political conclusions, but about the normative standards properly invoked in reaching them, one’s perception of another’s mistakes says next to nothing about their comparative rationality. That happens routinely in any society like ours with a culture rich enough to present its members with a plurality of traditions having inconsistent political implications. In that context, the application of ideological litmus tests to political opponents usually says more about the rationality of the people applying them than the rationality of those to whom they’re applied.

These truisms don’t keep ideologues from falling, and falling hard, for ideological mirages. Take a look at the political blogosphere. The main occupation of its virtual warriors is “fisking” political enemies. That’s typically a matter not just of rebutting what their enemies say, but of insinuating that they say such things because they reside in an ideological echo chamber in which politically correct reverberations drown out anything resembling objective deliberation. Conservatives wouldn’t have converged on “moonbats” as a term for liberals, or liberals on “wingnuts” as a term for conservatives, if either side doubted its superior rationality. Both sides like to think that they must be right because their opponents are so good at being wrong.

Upon reflection, of course, most bloggers must know perfectly well that they look as irrational to their opponents as their opponents look to them. What keeps them from reassessing themselves, their comrades and their opponents in that light? Wishful thinking is the largest part of the answer. No one can acknowledge the rationality of political opponents without contemplating the possibility that some of one’s deepest convictions are just the expression of parochialism, prejudice or simple error. That’s not a pleasant realization for anyone, especially for someone whose self-conception is bound up with a political project.

An ideologue could take the appearance of reasonable opponents as an objectivity-enhancing challenge to find better reasons for his political convictions that resonate among a wider circle of people. Becoming more objective, however, is usually hard work. Wishful thinking is always easy. When the perception of reasonable political opposition threatens an ideologue’s equanimity, the least taxing response is simply to ignore evidence of its rationality.

Every ideologue’s psychological inclination to repress dissonant perceptions is reinforced by social pressures exerted by his peer-group. The appearance of his opponents’ irrationality invites him to bask with comrades in mutually gratifying solidarity. Declining the invitation deprives him not only of that gratification, but of the comradeship he needs to situate himself intellectually in the political arena. Why should anybody strive for a point of view general enough to accommodate people with different values when he and his comrades persuade themselves that other people reject their values out of stupidity and bad faith?

Here are my questions: how do the people scratching their heads about “epistemic closure” know that they’re not just flattering themselves by latching onto an ideological mirage?  And if they do know that, why don't they bother to tell the rest of us?

“Judicial Activism”

Words are political weapons. In the wake of Warren Court decisions about apportionment and sexual morality in the 1960s, “judicial activism” was the conservatives’ weapon of choice. They invented it principally to assault alleged constitutional rights that, by all accounts, were unknown to the people who drafted and ratified the Constitution. “Judicial activism” is the name conservatives give to a deplorable mode of legal interpretation that leaves judges at liberty to use their best judgment to bring coherence and normative integrity to the developing body of constitutional law by fitting the legal precedents together in the most morally defensible way.

More recently, liberals have turned that weapon against conservatives by using it to stigmatize the readiness of conservative judges to nullify democratically enacted affirmative action policies and campaign finance reforms. “Judicial activism” is the name liberals give to conservative judges’ deplorable tendency to nullify duly enacted statutes that promote liberal values under the flimsy pretext that they’re “strictly construing” the Constitution or interpreting its abstract provisions in light of their “original meaning.”

It’s a sign of the rhetorical headway that liberals have recently made that an observer as conservative as George Will is ready to surrender “judicial activism” to the liberal arsenal. In his view, each side's rant about judicial interpretation distracts our attention from the matters of substantive political morality that are really at issue:

“Conservatives spoiling for a fight should watch their language. The recent decision most dismaying to them was Kelo (2005), wherein the court upheld the constitutionality of a city government using its eminent domain power to seize property for the spurious "public use" of transferring it to wealthier interests who will pay higher taxes to the seizing government. Conservatives wish the court had been less deferential to elected local governments. ([Justice John Paul] Stevens later expressed regret for his part in the Kelo ruling.)

“The recent decision most pleasing to conservatives was this year's Citizens United, wherein the court overturned part of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. The four liberal justices deplored the conservatives' refusal to defer to Congress' expertise in regulating political speech.

“So conservatives should rethink their rhetoric about ‘judicial activism.’ The proper question is: Will the nominee be actively enough engaged in protecting liberty from depredations perpetrated by popular sovereignty?”
Will seems to think that the nub of the argument over the role of courts in our society is liberal majoritarianism against conservative libertarianism. To see why he’s wrong, note how little explanatory work the majoritarian/libertarian grid does with respect to each side’s attitudes toward Kelo and Citizens United.

Judicial conservatives deplore the majoritarian Kelo decision and celebrate the seemingly anti-majoritarian Citizens United decision. Indeed, conservatives think that they're on the majoritarian side of Citizens United because they uphold the theory they find behind the First Amendment that the more political speech there is, the better the majoritarian decision-making process works.

Judicial liberals deplore what they take to be the anti-majoritarianism of Citizens United but are at best ambivalent about the majoritarianism of Kelo. Justice Stevens’s regrets about Kelo were an expression of that ambivalence; he regretted having to decide the way he did not because he thought that Kelo was incorrectly decided as a matter of law, but because he thought that judicially proper respect for legal precedent compelled him to a majoritarian result that made him morally uncomfortable.

Each side’s theory of legal interpretation does some real explanatory work. Conservatives hate Kelo and love Citizens United because, in their view, the former decision flies in the face of clear constitutional language contemplating that private property may only be taken for “public use” and the latter decision upholds the plain meaning of the First Amendment language that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” The disruption caused by overturning legal precedents and acts of Congress, in their view, is a price worth paying to uphold the original meaning of the Constitution in these crucial respects. Yes, conservatives are also sticklers for property rights and generally supporters of corporate interests on other grounds.  But that doesn't show that their originalism is merely pretextual.

Liberals regard Citizens United as a giant backwards step because they think the conservative majority had gone improperly out of its way to upend a developing body of campaign finance law that has made our elections fairer in the wake of Watergate. And Kelo made liberals uneasy because it was a case where judicially appropriate respect for legal precedents in eminent domain law forced them into the morally discomfiting position of affirming a local government’s authority to take property away from people of modest means and give it to wealthy real estate developers. Their ambivalence was a sure sign that their theory of legal interpretation isn't just camouflage for a partisan agenda.

I don’t need to be reminded that there’s a strong correlation between federal judges' legal philosophy and whether they were appointed by a Republican or Democratic president. But the argument between liberals and conservatives about the role of the courts in our society is about something real. We do ourselves, and society, some good by having it.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

How Does Ideology Drive Elections?

I was astonished when I first saw this result from Public Policy Polling:
“Americans are now pretty evenly divided about whether they would rather have Barack Obama or George W. Bush in the White House. 48% prefer Obama while 46% say they would rather have the old President back.”
Viewed from one angle, that’s a strange-looking phenomenon. It’s less than 18 months since Obama won the presidency by taking every opportunity to remind voters not only that he isn’t George Bush, but that he’s a lot less Bush-like in politically crucial respects than John McCain. How can it be that Obama’s running neck-and-neck in a popularity contest with the guy that he won the presidency by disparaging? How could the voting public be that fickle?

My astonishment wore off pretty quickly, however, when I remembered that substantially the same thing happened to George Bush after the 2004 presidential election. Having won reelection with the highest percentage of the presidential vote in sixteen years, Bush thought that he’d “won political capital and [he] intend[ed] to spend it.” But his political checks started bouncing almost as soon as he started writing them. In the first year of his second term, Bush couldn’t even get his own party to support his principal domestic objective, the reform and partial privatization of Social Security, even though he’d campaigned hard on the issue throughout the election season. By the time his Iraq policy really started to unravel in early 2006, observers across the political spectrum were already talking about a failed presidency. Despite his election mandate, Bush’s power seemed to vary inversely with his ideological ambition. Now the same thing seems to be happening to Obama.

It's easy for those of us who have a large psychological investment in our ideological commitments to imagine that presidential elections are ideological contests, where the object is to convince the public that our side’s general ideas are right and the other side’s are wrong. When we find ourselves on the winning side, we like to celebrate by telling ourselves that the voting public finally figured out that we’ve been right all along. We imagine that we can turn to other issues because those on which (we’d like to think) the election turned are settled once and for all. That’s one possible explanation of why, for example, liberals are having so much trouble absorbing the fact that similarly large majorities of voters could both elect Obama and disapprove of ObamaCare in the space of 18 months.

Yet, when you think about it, that’s an irrational reaction. Not everyone cares enough about politics to bother having an ideology. Those who do aren’t likely to have their minds systematically changed by a single election. Given the fact that non-ideologues tend to be less engaged by politics, it’s hardly surprising that they can change their political minds pretty quickly. Our surprise at drastic shifts in public opinion, I submit, is generated in part by the unreasonable presumption that the very same people are ideologically flexible enough to have their political worldview changed by a single election, but too ideologically rigid to change it again after the election’s over.

If ideology affects elections in the short-term, it can’t be by making more people into ideologues or converting people from one ideology to another. Public Policy Polling throws some light on how ideology affects elections by noting that the surge in Bush’s popularity relative to Obama's is largely a function of Bush's recovering the same level of support from the Republican base that Obama gets from the Democratic base (my emphasis):

“Bush had atrocious approval ratings for his final few years in office, particularly because he lost a lot of support from Republicans and conservative leaning independents. Those folks may not have liked him but they now say they would rather have him back than Obama. 87% of GOP voters now say they would prefer Bush, a number a good deal higher than Bush's approval rating within his party toward the tail end of his Presidency. Democrats predictably go for Obama by an 86/10 margin, and independents lean toward him as well by a 49/37 spread.”
This suggests that, all other things being equal, ideological commitment affects elections to the extent that one or both candidates excite enthusiasm in ideological comrades and anxiety in ideological opponents. Think of the general ideological argument between conservatives and liberals as if it were a contest to move the ball on a football field in a game of “sudden death.” Each side steps onto the field with a pretty firm idea of how they’d like to run the country. One side moves the ball toward the other side’s End Zone to the extent it succeeds in institutionalizing its view of how the political economy should work. Scoring a touchdown would mean that the game is over because the side doing the scoring has succeeded in remaking the whole political economy to its ideological specifications.

Now make the psychologically plausible assumption that yards on the field have a diminishing marginal significance to each contestant the farther they are from that contestant’s End Zone. That means that they lose more from the other side’s pushing the ball a yard further into their territory than they gain from pushing the ball a yard farther into the other side’s territory. On that assumption, for example, conservatives cared more about keeping the public option out of ObamaCare than liberals cared about keeping it in the final legislation.

If this is approximately right, all other things being equal, ideologues on each side will tend to expend more political energy, and exert more political influence, the closer the ball moves toward their End Zone. That would help explain why George Bush’s electoral mandate evaporated once he got around to the more ideologically contentious aspects of the “Ownership Society” like the partial privatization of Social Security. And it would explain why Obama’s making good on his campaign promise to reform the healthcare system is killing him politically.

And note this counter-intuitive implication. We normally think the noticeable increase in ideological polarization and intensity among our political elites makes our politics more volatile than it once was. But if the dynamic I’ve been describing is real that should have, on balance, a moderating effect on our politics. On this view, the ideological ball should remain near the middle of the field because ideologues are better at playing defense than they are at playing offense.