The Week in Review

An annotated list of the things I’ve been reading, writing, thinking, and talking about.

Future Perfect

The latest book from Steven Johnson, Future Perfect makes the case for a new political ideology, one he terms “peer progressivism.” Johnson takes Hayek’s most important insight (namely, that markets often have better information than any group of central planners could ever hope to access) and combines it with the best of progressivism (namely, a genuine concern for the poor and the disenfranchised) to yield something unique. Johnson advocates for distributed solutions to political problems. His suggestions for crowdsourcing decisions about local infrastructure spending are particularly intriguing. Side note: huge thanks to my brother, Josh, for passing this one along.

Modular Web Content

I’m slightly late to the party on this January blog post from Chris Butler. If you’re at all interested in the future of online publishing, it’s well worth checking out. Butler discusses the inherent tension between the type of gorgeous (but typically bespoke) digital longform piece and the limitations of CMS templating systems. Butler suggests moving to modular templates–ones that allow authors to arrange different blocks of content inside a single template.

The Book Metaphor

Interface design often relies on metaphors. Indeed, pretty much everything about the graphical user interface rests of some sort of metaphor, from information storage and retrieval (files and folders) to spreadsheets (ledger books) to, yes, ebooks (think iBooks and its page flips). This piece from UX Magazine reminds us that, however useful books have proven over the past millennium, they do have some inherent UX limitations, one that we might do well to avoid in our design of ebooks and ebook readers.

Death to the PDF

The World Bank released a new study (in PDF, natch) showing that no one downloads its PDF reports. Music to my ears! The Washington Post’s Wonkblog weighed in with the provocative suggestion that, “The solutions to all our problems may be buried in PDFs that nobody reads.” The Guardian, meanwhile, asks “Is the PDF Hurting Democracy?.” That may be too strong. But it’s certainly true that PDFs are an inceasingly-terrible way to present research reports.

Limited Government and Liberalism

Julian Sanchez has a knack for saying things that I wish I’d thought to say first. To wit:

A polity can establish broad and general principles specifying the conditions under which government may or should act, or it can vote on individual policies and programs on a case-by-case basis (with many gradations in between, of course). Both are clearly in some sense “democratic”; the proper balance between them will depend in part on one’s theory about how democratic deliberation confers legitimacy, just as the weight an individual gives to different types of “choices” will turn on a view about the nature of rational autonomy. Limited government is sometimes painted as constraint on democracy—an obstacle to what a majority might favor at a particular time. But political elites, like marketers, understand how the frame and scope of a choice may radically affect what the very same person or polity would choose—and claims by either that only one counts as true “choice” or “democracy” ought to be viewed with due skepticism.

I’d actually go a bit further here and suggest that this is the distinction between democracy and liberal democracy. A democracy can be (and sometimes is) full of majorities who do fairly unpleasant things to minorities. In (relatively) progressive democracies, those unpleasant things include prohibiting some minorities from getting married or from smoking in bars. In other places, majorities sometimes prefer to throw rocks at women who have the audacity to survive being gang raped.

Liberal democracy is about setting certain kinds of constraints on what a polity can and cannot do. It rules out certain classes of actions, even (or perhaps especially) when those actions are wildly popular.

It’s also the distinction that should make us wary of undertaking regime change. Establishing democracy isn’t particularly difficult to do. Kill off some dictators, hold some elections, and you’re good to go. Establishing liberal democracy — one where people agree in advance to some first principles that rule out some of the things that majorities might otherwise impose on minorities? That is considerably harder.


If you live in Virginia (or, I suppose in NJ or NY-23) and happen still to have a landline for whatever reason, then I’m sure you have a very special reason to be glad that election season is over for another year(ish). By the final week, Caroline and I were getting 3 or 4 robocalls a day (in our case, mostly urging us to vote for Bob “Women Should Be Barefoot and Pregnant” McDonnell, but YMMV). The blitz of calls prompted my friend Dale Miller (we’re not related so far as I know, but we are both Mill scholars with overlapping interests in political/moral/legal philosophy) to posit that political robocalls ought to be subject to some restrictions. I countered that doing so would likely fail on free speech grounds. We had an interesting set of exchanges that are mostly buried in a comment thread. Seeing as how a bunch of y’all are lawyers, though, and that a bunch more of y’all are political consultants, I thought some of you might want/be able to add in your $0.02.

For starters, some ground rules: We’re going to just stipulate that robocalls are annoying as all hell. And we’re going to bracket the question of whether they work. I suspect that there’s probably pretty good evidence that they do. My evidence for this is basically that really smart campaign managers seem willing to pay for them, and they must have good reasons for doing so. (Although seeing as how some of those same managers pay to put signs in the median of ever single road in the Commonwealth, my faith might be misplaced here.) Also, it’s probably not the smartest thing in the world to start a Con Law discussion with someone who is currently teaching Con Law, especially when you last looked at the literature somewhere around the spring of ’05. That’s really less of a ground rule and more of an observation. But I digress.

Anyway, here’s the gist of the argument thus far.

JM: Political robocalls might well be annoying, but they are clearly a form of political speech. And the Court has consistently ruled in favor of political speech over annoyance. The standard in Cohen v. California would apply here: you might find the speech irritating, but if so, you can always avert your gaze (in this case, by unplugging the phone.) That might be inconvenient, but your being inconvenienced isn’t adequate reason for limiting political speech.

DM: The “avert your gaze” standard in Cohen doesn’t apply. Cohen was on public property. Your phone is in your own private home. Moreover, my voicemail automatically picks up the content of said calls, so simply turning off the phone isn’t even equivalent to turning off my TV to avoid those ads. I’m stuck hearing them either way. Robocalls are closest to direct mail, but even there, I can choose when to pick up my mail, and the high price of mail limits the extent to which I am inconvenienced anyway.

Dale goes on to suggest at least limiting the times during which candidates can call. That doesn’t strike me as terribly unreasonable. Nor does it seem to me as if subjecting political candidates to Do Not Call registries would be Constitutionally problematic. After all, the First Amendment gives me the right to say as I wish, but it doesn’t guarantee me an audience or a particular platform. (Which is too bad, because I think I could publish a really kick-ass political magazine, if only the Constitution would guarantee me some readers. And some advertisers.)

That said, I’m not sure it’s possible to do things like limit numbers of calls. I think that Cohen is probably still the right answer, wrt the annoyance factor. One can, after all, ditch the voicemail feature. And these days, one can communicate by plenty of other methods (e-mail, cellphone, skype, etc.), so it’s not as if one can plausibly argue that turning off the landline would be unduly burdensome.

Then again, I’m a philosopher, not a lawyer. And I’ve rarely found the law lining up with the clearly-articulated, internally-consistent sets of reasons that philosophers tend to offer.

Voting and Democracy

Some of you may remember that once upon a time, I was the token non-anarchocapitalist blogger at a place called Catallarchy. The old site has had a name change (it’s now The Distributed Republic), and it has reinvented itself as a community site. If you play nicely — and by that I mean say interesting things and refrain from acting like a dick — Jonathan will promote your stuff to the front page, even when he thinks you’re wrong. Well, I still read DR daily, even though I can’t write for the site any longer and most of the regulars from my day have moved on to other things. Still, if you’re not keeping up, you should be. There’s some interesting stuff going on. Case in point: a new blogger going by the name “Lenin of Liberty” (and no, I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean either) has put up two of the best posts I’ve read in quite some time.

In the first, Why the U.S. Constitution Works, LoL (geez, the abbreviation is worse than the name) offers a qualified libertarian defense of democracy. For those of you not in the know, a lot of radical libertarians are pretty skeptical of democracy, preferring something like polycentric law or building floating cities.* So it was fun to read LoL defending democracy right in the heart of the lion’s den, as it were. I’m intrigued by some of his arguments, and particularly interested in his discussion of Score Voting, which strikes me as an improvement on the single transferable vote that I have favored for a while.

When it comes to scale, however, we part company. I strongly favor proportional voting. LoL does not. For those of you who aren’t Dale or one of my former students, that basically means that I’m in favor of (a) a wide variety of political parties and (b) a  system of voting that results in numbers of legislators from those various parties being in rough proportion to the number of people in the country who support those parties. Wow, that sounds complicated. Here’s the simpler version. If 8% of the voters actually favor the Green Party, then in a proportional system, there would be 34 or 35 Green Party representatives in the House. The Libertarian Party would have some representatives, the “socialists” or Democrats, as the non-crazy people call them, would have some and so on. Hell, Ralph Nader might even be able to win himself a congressional seat, which would be awesome since then we could justify writing about his surrealist ads. LoL, however, thinks that proportional representation is “dangerous,” even going so far as to play the Hitler card (possibly the only lowpoint in either essay).

So why the disagreement? I think it really comes down to a claim LoL makes in one of his comments. When asked whether he thinks democracy is an end in itself, LoL replies:

I think democracy is a means to an end: not too bad government that kind of serves the people. Better government with democracy requires better people; that is, a population with better knowledge of good government. (I’ll address this important point in a later post.)

I do want our government to be more democratic than currently. Libertarian views are under-represented and the current system has biases as mentioned by commenters here and by Moldbug. But I also want near term stability; the herd can panic, and outliers can be disruptive.

I don’t think this is quite right. I agree that the herd can panic and that outliers can be disruptive. But I think that those drawbacks might be inextricably linked to the very thing that makes democracy valuable in the first place.

This all comes back to Mill. (And, really, what doesn’t?) More specifically it comes down to my somewhat idiosyncratic interpretation of Mill. I think that our autonomy — that is, our capacity to make our own choices — is inextricably linked to our happiness. We could have been built in some other way; one can imagine (sort of) a being that derived intense pleasure simply by virtue of directly observing the mathematical principles that govern the universe. I’ll leave it to those of you who are more creative than I to come up with more interesting examples. My point is just that while we might be able to imagine beings whose happiness was not tied up with their choice-making capacities, we wouldn’t likely be able to relate to such beings. That’s because for us, autonomy cannot be separated out from our happiness. It’s contingent that we happen to be built this way, but given the way we are built, autonomy is a necessary condition for real happiness. Also now I can use the phrase “contingently necessary” which is almost as nice an oxymoron as “legal ethics.” (Hi sweetie. Just seeing if you read this far.)

So what’s all this weirdness have to do with with voting? Well, if autonomy really is fundamental to human happiness, then voting is probably going to have to carry somewhat more weight than LoL assigns it. Autonomy is about governing myself. But since direct democracy isn’t really feasible (for lots of reasons that I’m not going to go into here, as I’m already closing in on 1000 words), representative government is our best bet for carrying out our autonomy in the public sphere. A representative democracy that fails to be representative, however, is sort of missing the point. When we leave large chunks of people unrepresented — when we fail to give them a voice at the table — we have effectively denied them the meaningful exercise of their autonomy.

This is all getting really abstract and into the weeds, enough so that anyone who is still following any of this (both of you) has probably already heard me go on about it all before. The takeaway points:

  1. Proportional voting rocks.
  2. You should be reading The Distributed Republic.
  3. Posts that mock libertarians, conservatives and Naderites get way more attention than those that try to do philosophy.

* I’m not actually opposed to polycentric law or to seasteading; both sound to me much like Mill’s experiments in living writ large (though I do have a few reservations about how well this sort of thing scales up). Mostly that’s because I’m convinced that in open competition, some sort of democracy will ultimately beat out a “pure” libertarian system. If I’m right, we’re hardly worse off for having had the competition. And if I’m wrong, well, it’d probably be good to know that, too.

Bad Lectures

So I just got back from a lecture at Cato on James Bennett’s new book, Not Invited to the Party: How the Demopublicans Have Rigged the System and Left Independents Out in the Cold. (And, no, I’m not going to bother linking to the book, for reasons that will become clear in a moment.)

Now probably I should have known better, given the rather silly subtitle. But I did write a chunk of my dissertation on Mill’s arguments for proportional representation, and it’s a system that I still think is inherently superior to our current first-past-the-post, Single Member District system. So I figured that it might be interesting to see what Bennett had to say about the issue. Now I haven’t read the book (it just came out today, and Amazon said it was still unavailable when I checked this morning). But I can tell you that, if the lecture was any indication, there’s little reason to bother.

Let me start by saying that Bennett is probably the worst public speaker I’ve ever heard. And, my friends, I have sat through a 90 minute Habermas lecture. For those of you who haven’t had that pleasure, just imagine trying to sort through the incoherence that passes for post-Kantian German philosophy in a thick German accent by someone who also has a very serious speech impediment. And yet Bennett was actually worse. Every third line or so was an attempt at a (lame) joke, most of which consisted of snarky Heritage/Republican talking points, including the tired old line about Al Gore inventing the Internet. Because that one never gets old, does it? Only, he flubbed his own snark. Every single fucking time.

But worse than Bennett’s terrible delivery is his apparent decision that the principles of social science apply only when they lead you to results that you happen to want. See, Bennett starts out with the observation that the Single Member District generally leads to a two-party system. It’s a principle known as Duverger’s Law. Now bear in mind that James Bennett is a professor of economics. At George Mason University. And he introduced himself as an expert in public choice theory. So obviously when faced with a principle grounded in good public choice analysis, one which shows that a particular structure inherently leads to a particular sort of outcome, his natural conclusion is to alter the structure. Right? Right?

Only, not so much.

Bennett spent all of two sentences on proportional voting. And he says that he opposes it because it could leave people in rural areas (upstate NY was his example) underrepresented while the cityfolk elect all the representatives.

Seriously? Does the man have even the foggiest idea how proportional representation works? I did some back of the envelop math. According to the U.S. Census, New York state had about 19.3 million residents in 2007. About 11 million of those in New York City or on Long Island. Heck, I’ll even give you Erie (home of Buffalo) and Westchester Counties, which gets you up to 12.9 million. That’s about 67 of New York’s population%. New York likewise has 29 Representatives in the House. Which means that if every single urban (and I use that term loosely, as it does include Buffalo, Westchester and Suffolk Counties) voter banded together to choose people from their very own regions, they could, at most, elect 20 people. That leaves 9 representatives to be divided up among the rest of the state. Guess how many of New York State’s 29 Congressional districts currently represent people outside of NYC/Long Island/Westchester/Buffalo

. If you guessed 9, you win the prize.

So I can’t figure out whether Bennett simply doesn’t understand proportional voting, hasn’t bothered to actually do any math, is shockingly stupid, or has some other agenda. I mean, I don’t want to get too deeply into assigning motives to anyone. But Bennett made it pretty clear that while he often dislikes both parties for failing to be sufficiently libertarian, when push comes to shove, his sympathies are with one of the two major parties. And, shockingly enough, it turns out that that same party happens to perform better…where was it again…oh, yeah, in rural areas. Indeed, as it turns out, in our current SMD system, Republicans are vastly overrepresented in the U.S. legislature. Hrm.

So what, then, was Bennett’s solution? Repeal campaign finance reform.

Yes, that’s the solution of the social scientist. Apparently repealing campaign finance reform will also repeal Duverger’s Law. There was no discussion of how exactly that causal mechanism is supposed to work. It probably involves underpants.

Unfortunately, the other members of the panel weren’t much better. There was Theresa Amato, who (a) ran Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential campaign (thanks again, Ralph) and then (b) ran Ralph Nader’s 2004 campaign anyway. I could maybe even forgive four years of temporary insanity, if only she hadn’t wasted part of my afternoon arguing that the media is responsible for the meme that Nader spoiled the 2000 election for Gore. Now I don’t want to let Gore off the hook for having run a terrible campaign, but still, it strikes me as at least vaguely possible that the fact that Nader campaigned aggressively and won 10,000+ votes in a state that Gore lost by 537 votes might be at least partially responsible for the meme that Nader cost Gore the 2000 election. Just a thought.

Then there was Hans von Spakovsky, whose main contribution to the event was taking exception to Bennett’s claim that members of the FEC tend generally to be partisan hacks. Von Spakovsky assured us that was false. He then went on to tell us that the failures of the electoral system are all due to the machinations of Democrats while good Republicans like him fight their efforts. Later today, von Spakovsky willl be appearing at the National Association of Dramatists to deliver a keynote lecture on irony.

So, to sum: Terrible lecturer. Ignored principles of social science in favor of preferred political hobbyhorse. Even worse commenters. Hours of my life that I can never get back. /rant.

Words Have Meanings

So, I’ve been accused of writing a lot. But the truth is that I actually spend most of my days reading, rather than writing. Besides the (usually boring) stuff I read for work (texts of bills, transcripts of speeches, reports from think tanks, that sort of thing), there’s also the fiction I read for pleasure, the nonfiction I read as background for work (lately a lot of econ), and the philosophy that I still try to keep up with. And then there are the blogs. Lots of blogs. I have about 50 of them in my RSS feed and nearly that many more that I look at when I have time.

One of those blogs is Cato@Liberty, the blog of the Cato Institute. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with C@L. I actually agree with a lot of their conclusions on domestic policy. Hell, if they didn’t make you wear a tie every day, I might send ’em a resume. But some of the scholars there have a distressing tendency to run with absurd talking points. And sometimes otherwise sensible posts end up with these absurd claims thrown in. Case in point: Malou Innocent’s post today on illiteracy in the Afghan army.

Now I don’t actually agree with Innocent (or, for that matter, with most of Cato’s foreign policy folks) all that often. They are mostly of the realist school of IR, with a pretty strong predisposition toward isolationism. But I read their posts regularly because I find it a useful check on my own liberal interventionist tendencies. And Innocent generally produces pretty thoughtful work. But then she throws in stuff like this:

It’s also ironic that many conservatives (possibly brainwashed by neo-con ideology) who oppose government intervention at home believe the U.S. government can bring about liberty and peace worldwide. These self-identified “conservatives” essentially have a faith in government planning–which is socialism.

Now rag on conservative hypocrisy all you want. Lord knows there’s plenty of it to criticize. (And, yes, there’s plenty on the left side of the aisle, too.) But this is…what’s the word?…oh, yeah, crazy.

I mean, look. It’s true that government planning is a feature — arguably even a necessary feature — of any sort of socialist society. But c’mon. “All socialist states require faith in government planning” simply doesn’t entail “all faith in government planning is socialism.” I feel really confident that just about any government in the world could successfully plan to rob its citizens blind. Does that make me a socialist? This is like Hayek on steroids. Forget the road to serfdom. It’s anarchy or bust.

That, of course, is a view that one can hold. But it’s a very strange one for a Cato scholar to hold. They’re more limited-government than no-government types. Indeed, it’s a particularly odd view for someone who works in international relations to hold. And I think it’s pretty doubtful that Innocent actually holds such a view. This seems more like an instance of joining the movement to label any sort of government activity we don’t like as “socialism.” It’s not true, obviously. But “socialism” polls well (or poorly, depending on what you’re looking to accomplish). So we’ll just throw it out there.

That’s fine for the Sarah Palins and the Joe the Plumbers of the world. It’s maybe even fine for the FreedomWorks activist types. Obviously I’d prefer intellectual honesty in politics. But I’m realist enough to know that intellectual honesty doesn’t win elections. Though intellectual honesty and several hundred million dollars might. Still, I’m reasonably tolerant of crap being flung around by political types. Hey, it keeps me in a job!

But I really expect better of Cato scholars. If you want to play the Serious Public Intellectual, then you have to check the demagoguery at the door.

Rights and Health Care

So, a week or so ago, I posted a half-snarky status message on Facebook poking a bit of fun at a then-popular meme about health care reform. Jim Arnold, who was good enough to give me a job a couple of years ago, and Mike Taylor, a career diplomat, both took some exception to my way-too-brief remarks. Their criticisms were fair in light of what I’d posted. I think that there are important responses to both, but making that case requires going into a bit of detail about rights. Those of you who think that philosophy majors talk too much as it is (you know who you are) may want to click something else right now. And those of you who had to endure my philosophy classes can probably skim pretty quickly through much of this, as there’s not a whole lot here you haven’t heard before. The rest of you…eh, you’ve been warned.

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