Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The End of Libertarianism


FT.com / Comment & analysis / Comment - The unmourned end of libertarian politics

The most epochal event in world politics since the cold war has occurred – and few people have noticed. I am not referring to the conflict in Iraq or Lebanon or the campaign against terrorism. It is the utter and final defeat of the movement that has shaped the politics of the US and other western democracies for several decades: the libertarian counter-revolution.

Here's a nice article from, of all places, The Financial Times and I hope to God that it's true. To be honest, for me international politics is just a side show. The central political issue from my perspective is the establishment of a cradle-to-grave welfare state.

Why? Because I am simply terrified of being in a situation where I'm trapped and have no room to maneuver, without options. I can't handle long plane trips. I don't go to concerts, movies or any events where I have to sit in an audience without an escape route. At papers, I sit in an aisle seat next to the door or just stand if I can't get one. I am terrified of being bored and trapped. I am terrified, even retrospectively, of the possibility of working at a boring job where I'm physically trapped--behind a check-out counter scanning groceries, at a terminal inputting data, in a carrel taking phone orders. I am terrified of being forced to do work where there's no possibility of learning or achievement--the drudgery of routine clerical work, waitressing, child care, retail sales or any of the default jobs for women which, in addition to being boring and physically constraining, involve people contact which I find almost as bad as boredom and constraint.

I can't cast the first stone. I wouldn't want an arrangement in which people who didn't luck out as I did were forced to do that kind of work--which de facto is the only option most women have. When Clinton abolished "welfare as we know it" I was scared because welfare to me was the ultimate safety net, insuring that if I were prepared to live minimally I wouldn't have to do that kind of work. I was, and am--retrospectively, in spite of being tenured--scared. That's why I have a stake in the Left--in affirmative action so that women aren't restricted to those miserable, boring jobs and, as a fallback position, to welfare so that regardless of what happens there's always an escape route. I have to sit in the aisle seat next to the door.

Ages ago, before I got tenure, I saw a woman go spectacularly mad in public. We were in the pedestrianized town centre in Swindon, just outside of Debenhams, and there was a woman rolling around on the pavement screaming while her carers tried to calm her and take her away. I wondered at the time if that could be an escape route for me. If I didn't get tenure and got fired, would screaming and rolling on the ground in public get me onto some disability program that would pay enough to live on so that I wouldn't have to work, or finance a course in drafting or appliance repair so that I could get a tolerable job, or just get me into a decent looney bin where I could do basket weaving? (I've always liked crafts) When I see beggars at freeway exits and supermarket entrances I wonder if that would be tolerable. It seems pretty bad but I imagine I could read. It beats typing anyway.

I am scared, scared, scared. It amazes me that my fellow Americans are so frightened of violence, of terrorism and plain crime, because the odds of being affected are so low. My oldest kid back from Baltimore and I were talking about this. When we lived there, my home as I still think of it, I walked uptown to Hopkins from the train station, through the bombed out no man's land, and never though anything of it. I got hassled, and didn't like it, but it seemed pretty trivial. In any case, you're unlikely to get killed--at worst they'll take your money and credit cards--which you can cancel. A fortiori, if you live in a leafy suburb the chance of getting hurt is negligible. Why this obsession? The odds of being impoverished, getting stuck working at Walmart, having no options and no room for maneuver, spending every day at this drudgery without any chance of accomplishing anything, are much, much greater and much, much worse.

I just don't get it. Why are people so scared of unlikely, episodic violence but not of very likely chronic misery--poverty, financial insecurity and lousy work?

12 comments:

Sanpete said...

I like the way you situate some of your political views in the context of emotional factors. We may not have greatly different feelings about the welfare state, though I may be closer to Clinton than you, but I have fairly different feelings about some points that lead you to your views. I have seriously weighed the rewards and burdens of teaching philosophy against those of being a checker at the local market, and remain uncertain about which would be the better job for me. Part of this is due to my view of philosophy, which is far less rosy than what yours appears to be. I think I might find it more rewarding to help someone find the frozen corn than to implicitly encourage students to pursue a kind of inquiry that I think is likely to lead them nowhere, or nowhere very good. And since I don't have the same strong fears about boredom and being confined you do, being a checker doesn't have the same fearsome aspect. I knew a very bright man in college who was very happy as a library card filer. He now has a career more in keeping with what we'd expect from his gifts and education, but I don't know if he's any happier. I agree with you that people, and women in particular, should have more options for work, but I see the options differently.

There is a book out in the last year or two that deals with the perception of risk as opposed to actual risks, including crime, terrorism, and so on. Can't recall the title, but the little I heard about it sounded interesting.

Boofykatz said...

HE, it is very important you remind yourself that this is a very personal fear. As Sanpete demonstrates, there are people whose boredom threshold is much lower than yours. Not everybody finds Kant's 'dare to know' a compelling message.
If I may interject a personal note, my son got his A level results today. They are, for a lad of his intelligence, appalling; but he will now tootle off to read chemistry at a third rate university with at least the possibility of redemption. If he had never had to do drudge work I might understand his insouciance; but he spent a year cleaning floors and toilets and yet still sees no imperative to get a decent degree leading to an enjoyable job. I think our priveleged offspring may just have been too featherbedded. Walmart might be a necessary vaccination.

H. E. said...

Sounds familiar. No. 2 son, screwed up in high school, went to a "community college" that has a special entre to the state university system--which is excellent. In the US there are lots of 2nd, 3rd and nth chances. After messing around, through no fault of his own he was admitted to a very decent university in the system on the condition that he maintain a 2.8 GPA for his final community college semester. He didn't--as we discovered last month, while we were busily laying plans for a mini-vacation driving him up to what we thought would be his university. So now it's another year at the local community college so he can fix his grades by re-taking courses and have another shot.

For a time he was working at a fast food place--secretly, because I've forbidden all our kids to work while going to school. He liked it and only quit because I bribed him. But I'm committed. I did terribly in school myself, went to a rotten college for undergraduate because I couldn't get in anywhere else, but redeemed myself. It happens.

My point in any case is not that boredom and constraint are inherently bad or that everyone finds drudge work has horrid as I do, but that some do and that more generally different people have different tastes and aversions. The aim of a decent social system should be to provide the widest possible range of options so that individuals can make trade-offs and no one is absolutely stuck in a situation that they absolutely can't stand.

William Morris' utopian proposal in News from Nowhere was that the worst jobs be the most highly paid so that people could trade off job satisfaction for money or vice versa, according to their tastes. It's not feasible--Morris was better at wallpaper than at politics or economics. But the moral intuition seems right. As things stand though few people have the option of trading off money for job satisfaction--the trade-off that academics like me make.

Sanpete said...

This is off the point, but an irony for me with philosophy is that it was the "dare to know" ideal that led to my disillusionment with it. If I had entered the field with less desire for knowledge, I probably would have been happier with the results. It's sometimes fascinating as just ideas. And the philology can be fun.

H. E. said...

Off-topic but interesting. What did you want to know? I suppose I got into philosophy for 4 reasons, none of which had anything to do with the quest for knowledge:

(1) I was interested in what I thought of as "the spooky"--whatever produced "metaphysical thrills"--certain sorts of science fiction, ghost stories, religion, pop science about black holes, time travel, etc.

(2) I like to fight.

(3) I can't stand irrationality, fuzziness or messiness. I want everything cleaned up, clarified, organized and made cold, sharp and sparse.

(4) I like to tinker, play with machinery, and solve puzzles. For me, philosophy is conceptual engineering.

I didn't get (1). After the initial metaphysical thrills you settle in to working on technical details. But (2) - (4) are probably universal characteristics of the analytic philosopher.

Sanpete said...

I wanted to know the answers, or more realistically some promising approaches, to questions like what the good life is, how we should behave, what basic reality is, and so on, classical questions of philosophy. Conceptual games can be fun, and I did enjoy some of that a great deal, but I was also a "serious" youngster and wanted more. One of my grad school colleagues took to mockingly calling me Truth because I kept bringing up the issue of why we should believe or even take seriously the various theories we were studying. To someone actually seeking a kind of wisdom, academic philosophy can be a very strange experience. What on earth are these people trying to accomplish this way? It reminded in some ways of my religious training, with minds being turned away from the elephants in the room.

I wasn't so naive as to think that I could really get settled answers to the age-old questions, but I thought perhaps some ways to make progress towards answers could be had. Instead I found that the methods distinctive to philosophy weren't suited to getting at the truth of things, that it was good at spinning out our intuitions but, to the extent it differed from science, was hopelessly cut off from the real world. In practice, science and information about the real world does play a role in philosophy, but its methods don't key on that sufficiently. If they did, philosophy would by necessity be absorbed into the sciences, with a more solid basis in facts and experiments. (I realize this is controversial, but it's the view I came to and still hold. I think the history of philosophy, among other fairly basic points, gives ample evidence.)

Another disappointment with philosophy has to do with what truths I think I have arrived at about some of the basic questions, based on a more science/fact based approach (e.g. treating our moral experience and intuitions as data to be explained). I've referred to some of these in other posts, moral subjectivism in particular, which seems to be by far the best explanation of the data. When I contemplate teaching philosophy, I wonder if the truth about the some of the questions that have practical implications is on the whole good or bad to know. Still haven't sorted that out.

About neatness and clarity, my own experience with philosophy is that this tends to be more appearance than reality, when it matters most. Look for example at what has become of the notion of objectivity in general and in moral theory in particular. It's become hopelessly muddled and tortured, so that it's far easier and more productive to have a conversation with an intelligent plumber than a trained philosopher about it. Now I understand why Socrates liked to talk to craftsmen instead of professional thinkers!

I think there are at least two reasons for the lack of real clarity (as opposed to neat outlines and such). One is that philosophy often relies on intuitions that can be vague and vary among and within people. It often isn't tied to the world in a way that would allow clarification by reference to a common object to examine. Two, the rabbits philosophers typically try to pull out of their philosophical hats require some haziness and obfuscation, almost always unintentional, of course. Trying to clarify the muddle of even the clearest philosophers is a large part of what fills the journals.

If you like clarity, precision and so on, compare a medical or other scientific journal to a philosophical one, and draw your own conclusions. I had occasion to read a lot of medical articles once and was shocked by the difference in clarity, organization, and actually saying something. It was like stepping out of a stuffy sealed room into cool, fresh air. (An image that ought to appeal to you, HE.)

I have some idea from what you've already said, but what do you think philosophy is about? What is the point of it? Is it just a game?

Scott said...

I, on the other hand, have found the boring, low-paying, dead-end jobs to be perhaps the most enjoyable and most personally rewarding. At those jobs, the company may have had my body, but as I did my repetitive tasks, my mind was my own, to do with as I wished.

Now that I have a high-paying, supposedly responsible job, the company gets both my body and my mind. Leaving me less time to think, to meditate, to work out the details of stories that I could later write in the evening. Believe me, if I could trade the work I do now for something undemanding that only gave them by body and let my mind roam free--but also allowed me to live--I would do it in an instant.

For me, working those jobs wasn't a trap. It was a gift. And not just because I knew I could get out if I could. But because the most personal part of myself was left for me alone.

H. E. said...

That's the difference between blue-collar manual labor and pink-collar service-sector jobs--clerical work, cashiering, data-input, waitressing, child care, etc. In these jobs you're doing low-grade intellectual work that blocks you from thinking about anything interesting or concentrating on other projects in your head. Lots of these jobs, e.g. waitressing, sales, child care, etc., also involve heavy people contact so that you're always exposed, always have the stress of interacting, and can't crawl into your own head and think about other things.

That's real slavery--they've got you body and mind. You can't even think. And you can't even get any physical exercise doing them. About the only real manual labor women can get is housecleaning--something I never minded and did when I could get it to pick up pin money in college. Most of women's bad jobs have one or more of the bad-making characteristics I've noted: physical constraint, close supervision, heavy people-contact, low physical exertion, high repetition and almost always the sort of low-grade intellectual activity that makes it impossible to meditate, work out details of stories you're writing or do anything in your head beyond the boring mental drudgery it takes to do the job.

Women are de facto locked out of plan manual labor--not just physically demanding jobs, like working construction, that most women probably couldn't do (though some could) but cab driving, truck driving, house painting, and a whole range of skilled blue-collar work that takes some physical activity but not a huge amount of upper-body strength.

I still wouldn't want to do manual labor--unlike you I've never had any interest in writing or doing my own projects as such: I just want to do something intellectually challenging and I don't much care what it is, whether it's for myself or for the company. Jolly good I'm female because if I were a guy I'd never have bothered going to college much less getting a PhD--I'd be working construction, and have a much less satisfying life that the life I in fact live.

H. E. said...

Sanpete, what do you think philosophy is about? What is the point of it? Is it just a game?

Don't really know what it's about--I'd guess it's "conceptual analysis," getting at our linguistic intuitions and tidying them up so that they're consistent. The point, if any, is that like doing math or playing chess it sharpens you intellectually, but it also promotes rationality, detachment and a critical approach to real life issues in a way that purely formal games like math or chess don't, because nothing is beyond it's scope. You don't just play the game and then deal with real life in a mush-headed way: ideally, you treat all real life issues in the same way that you treat technical questions, aiming insofar as possible at clarity, consistency and detachment. No one achieves that ideal, but philosophy sez that it IS an ideal and provides tools to go some way to achieving it.

It's just a game but games are good: they get you physically and mentally fit. It's good to live in a society where people are healthy and intellectually sharp.

Apart from that I don't think philosophy is very important: it's a luxury we can afford in affluent societies, like art, sports and other frills. What is important? Politics, economics and engineering, medicine, dentistry and farming.

Sanpete said...

Sorry to further distract from your discussion of work, which is interesting too. I don't know if this is something you want to "fight" about, but it's of particular interest to me. Your view of philosophy is a common one among analytic philosophers. I agree that something we might call philosophy, based on its connections to what used to be called philosophy, can be carried out as you describe, and that it generally isn't all that important. It seems this kind of philosophy would properly be classed as a branch of psychology or linguistics, as a partly prescriptive study of ways of thinking and speaking. (Both sciences already have prescriptive aspects, so that's no problem.)

However, a good deal of what is and has been done by philosophers doesn't fit with that view. That is, even today many philosophers at least try to get at the truth of the questions philosophers have historically dealt with, which aren't simply matters of what we think about things. They're about how things really are. I should add that it is this view of philosophy as a search for truth about ultimate realities that is usually advertised in various ways, implicit and often explicit as well, to undergrads and others being introduced to the field. Among analytic philosophers there is sometimes something of a bait and switch, unintentional no doubt, in the way philosophy is taught.

I'm curious whether you think ethical theory, as you do it, is the kind of philosophy you describe, or something else, and whether it's important. Ryle argued that ethics is simply a matter of how we use language, and that its prescriptive force flows from that. It seems obvious to me that isn't the kind of prescriptive force we normally associate with morality, and isn't a kind that is especially useful for morality, though it may work well enough for manners. I had a professor who, taking a view of philosophy similar to yours, argued that ethics isn't philosophy, but is the domain of poets and novelists. That obviously isn't your view.

You can probably guess that my view of the usefulness of academic philosophy as an aid to thought and dispassion is less rosy than yours. I do think philosophy helps people to think better in some limited ways, more than most other disciplines (I seem to recall your taking something of a contrary view in connection with preparation for law school), but I haven't noticed this leading to better thought overall or better citizenship among professional philosophers. I think the dispassion, which isn't really taught but is implicit in the academia of which philosophy is a part, is equally well instilled by most academic disciplines, and can also be taught more directly and probably more effectively in other ways.

H. E. said...

Among analytic philosophers there is sometimes something of a bait and switch, unintentional no doubt, in the way philosophy is taught.

This is true of all disciplines: you don't know what the game is about until you play. Lots of my advisees are keen on psychology because they think it's all about feelings and relationships, but it turns out to be lots of math and running rats through mazes. That's why students are supposed to take GE courses before they fix on a major--so that they get an idea of what various fields are actually like. If you're interested in "truth about ultimate realities," insofar as I can understand what that means, obviously the field that delivers is physics.

I've never suggested to undergraduates that philosophy delivered truth about "ultimate realities." I believe one of the most important jobs of philosophy is to deflate and debunk so that people don't make themselves miserable striving after the wind. What exactly is it that bugs people when they complain that life seems "meaningless"? I'm pretty sure it's boredom and a lack of direction, and that the cure is to find a job, a hobby or a project that interests you where you can set yourself goals and achieve--even if it's only something as mundane as body building or interior decoration. There's nothing beyond that so there's nothing that philosophy can deliver beyond that.

I had a professor who, taking a view of philosophy similar to yours, argued that ethics isn't philosophy, but is the domain of poets and novelists.

This was the old time religion, from the logical positivists. That isn't the way things have gone. I think there is something for normative ethics to do: reflecting on moral intuitions and tidying them up to achieve a "reflective equilibrium" and, more importantly, critically assessing arguments about particular moral and political issues, flushing out unstated assumptions and subjecting them to scrutiny, etc.

I wonder whether you're disillusioned with philosophy, as you claim, or with the wisdom it delivers--the good news and bad news that everything is more manageable and less dramatic than it seems. What seem to be big amorphous, intractable questions when you subject them to rational scrutiny turn out to be lots of dull little questions about what you should major in, what kinds of activities you most enjoy, how you should allocate your time, how you should assess costs, benefits and risks given your tastes: there is no grand theory about what the Good Life is. The Big Truth about Ultimate Questions cashes out lots of answers to lots of ordinary questions, some of which are trivial, others tedious to deal with and lots of others just very, very difficult technically--like questions of fundamental physics and cosmology. That's all there is.

It's sad I suppose--no grand, apolocalyptic revelation, no key to all wisdom, no Big Picture beyond the construct of lots of tedious little facts and theories to organize and explain them, no special discipline that gets behind the phenomena to some deeper Reality, nothing that gets at the truth about the world but the sciences and nothing but technical questions. If you want to stare Truth in the face, there it is.

Sanpete said...

OK, that gives me a better idea of what you believe.

>>Among analytic philosophers there is sometimes something of a bait and switch, unintentional no doubt, in the way philosophy is taught.<<

This is true of all disciplines: you don't know what the game is about until you play.


This may be true, but it isn't what I had in mind. The typical introductory psychology text and course gives a fairly accurate view of what psychology is about (the feeling/relationship stuff is stressed in many of the counseling/therapist programs). The typical introduction to philosophy is likely to deal with the great questions of philosophy, using texts that take the questions at face value and present earnest efforts to answer them. The idea that philosophy is actually not about the pursuit of such answers but is merely conceptual analysis, if that view comes up at all, is likely to be presented as one view among many, a controversial possibility, presented that way even by most analytic philosophers in their intro courses, based on all I've seen.

I take you at your word that you've never suggested to undergrads that philosophy delivers truth about ultimate realities, though you seem to give such truths to me in your post (more on that below). No doubt you usually keep such ideas to yourself in class. But the bait isn't that philosophy delivers the truth, rather it's that it does center on those big questions. Many teachers, maybe most, regardless of their personal views, do suggest this when they say in their first lecture something like that philosophy is the study of life's big questions, such as "What is truth?," "What is the nature of reality?," and "What is justice?," and then have students read folks like Plato, Aristotle, Descartes and Kant or arguments based on them for much of the semester. Some might argue about Kant (or Hume), but I'd say none of the traditional greats of philosophy until Wittgenstein treated their task merely as one of conceptual clarification. Old fashioned philosophy dominates the intros.

But this was just a side issue I raised because I think it's curious and interesting for those in philosophy, and gives some minor insight into my own disappointment. The fact is, even though I was in a grad program dominated by ostensibly analytic philosophers (for whom the switch comes in junior or graduate level courses), there actually is still room in most philosophy departments for old fashioned philosophy, and I had my pick of a postmodern Marxist, different kinds of Platonists, and a variety of others with real views about the big questions that they thought could be derived philosophically. My dissertation supervisor was a Platonist and true beliver in objective Morality and a kind of intuitionist.

My greater disappointment was in philosophy's domination by a failed methodology (which the analytic view both discounts and embraces) and (as I said above and you also suggest) in the answers I reached for some of the big questions of philosophy, more or less despite my training, or in reaction against it.

What you call the wisdom philosophy delivers isn't something that analytic philosophy of the type you espouse is able to deliver. That is, the small answers you give to the big questions aren't simply matters of conceptual analysis; they're claims about the world. They're versions of answers put forward by some in our tradition at least since the ancient Greeks, very old fashioned philosophy. But chances are that for you they're based more on modern science than on philosophical arguments proper. To the extent they're based on arguments. Many people reach them rather impressionistically. But they aren't philosophy of the kind you claim.

Which brings me back to what philosophy is good for:

I think there is something for normative ethics to do: reflecting on moral intuitions and tidying them up to achieve a "reflective equilibrium" and, more importantly, critically assessing arguments about particular moral and political issues, flushing out unstated assumptions and subjecting them to scrutiny, etc.

Why, independently of some theory about their connection to our lives, is it useful to achieve a reflective equilibrium concerning moral intuitions? I can't see any use at all for this unless you have some assumptions that go beyond what you say philosophy is about.

It seems that the other task, which you see as more important, ought to be the domain of political science or other fields, if the claims are about the world. If they are claims not about the world but are just about our intuitions, then I return to the question of why they matter at all.

What exactly is it that bugs people when they complain that life seems "meaningless"? I'm pretty sure it's boredom and a lack of direction, and that the cure is to find a job, a hobby or a project that interests you where you can set yourself goals and achieve--even if it's only something as mundane as body building or interior decoration.

This is related to the matter of the draw of religion for people, which draw, as you know, I keep thinking you tend to underestimate, though you say well some ways what you settle for is sad. You often seem to have, or maybe just pretend to have, a kind of deafness to the siren song, maybe some kind of philosophical wax in the ears. I think the fact that many people who have all the things you suggest still find those things don't give life meaning effectively disproves the theory that there's no more to it. I think part of the reason people find the views you promote (and which I accept in some version) not meaningful enough is that they aren't all that satisfying in comparison to what we can imagine and feel. And they aren't very satisfying either when faced with death and other instances in which we feel normal tools fail us. And the alternatives are very natural to us.

You say that one of the most important jobs of philosophy is to deflate and debunk so people won't make themselves miserable striving after the wind. It seems, though, that this is exactly what makes many people happiest.

I hear the sirens when I read Plato and religious scriptures, but I tie myself to the mast of some kind of hardheaded skepticism. I consider that rational in one sense of the word and perhaps irrational in another.