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Social Justice for Mortals

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If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. – James Madison, Federalist 51

Sam Hammond caught flak in certain social justice communities by daring to defend the controversial Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad on social justice grounds. As it happens I largely agree with the condemnation of the ad, but I found Hammond’s historical analysis of the interplay between social justice and the market to be not only generally right but even inspiring. As someone committed to social justice, I’m curious what led to the interpretive chasm between my fellow social justice warriors (a moniker I use with affection) and I.

David Deluca’s response is concise and representative of the complaints against Hammond. Deluca gives the example of realizing (via the damning evidence of a discarded note) your significant other gets you flowers merely to manipulate you into giving them more foot massages. Likewise corporations deploy social justice-themed marketing merely to sell their wares.

Walter S. Mack Jr. wanted to sell more Pepsi, so he found a new market: black people. Using the image of the normal, happy, middle class black consumer, Walter S. Mack Jr. got what he wanted: he sold more product and made more money. Coke used diversity to sell more Coke. Subaru used “gay vague” marketing to sell more Outbacks. In all of these cases, the corporation saw something people cared about — inclusivity, pride, diversity — and used it to compel consumers to consume more product.

What this suggests is not that social justice movements need capitalism to succeed, but rather that capitalists will use the values and emotions of their target markets to increase profits. They will be on the side of social justice if it means profit. They’ll love diversity. They’ll publicly praise the immigrant who started Budweiser. They will be whoever and whatever you want them to be, provided it means you continue to consume the product. In this way, social justice remains subservient to profit, and if social justice became unprofitable, there is no guarantee corporations would continue to market themselves as its agents.

Corporations are made of people

Deluca decries the instrumental use of social justice rhetoric, its use as a means to capitalist ends. This assumes that capitalists and corporations can only act to maximize profits. Without a doubt the primary legal purpose of corporations is to maximize profits for their shareholders. But corporations do not spring fully formed from the head of the Patriarchy. They are started, often at great risk, by individuals with particular beliefs, passions, and agendas. And these individuals don’t drop these commitments as they take on executive positions with what turns out to be a major corporation. It would be truly cynical to believe, for example, that Soviet refugee Sergey Brin was narrowly concerned about profit when he publicly condemned the anti-immigrant actions of Donald Trump. The early days of a start-up leave a cultural imprint on the company, for good or ill. These are the days when codes of conduct and statements of values are drawn up, and when it is determined how seriously employees (high and low) take these intangibles. Is diversity training internalized by management or does it just occasion snickering and eye-rolling? Anyone who has worked for different companies can attest to the reality of their differences in culture.

Even as we accept that profit is king in the major corporation—again I’m not disputing this—maximizing profits is rarely straightforward. The economic terrain is awash in uncertainty: what consumers want, what consumers can be persuaded to want, what competitors will deliver, the regulatory environment, the weather, etc. This uncertainty, along with the cognitive diversity of one’s fellow decision-makers, leads to multiple viable strategies for maximizing profits. This opens up room for auxiliary motives. A publicly stated commitment to social justice probably won’t override a company’s clear shot at windfall profits. But in many circumstances a prior commitment to social justice can act as a tie-breaker for viable actions. If two candidates seem equally viable, why not advance diversity? If advertising campaigns can be inclusive without compromising other objectives, why not be inclusive?

The timid economics of the left

The market economy is a complex adaptive system, similar in many ways to biological evolution. Evolution abhors wasted resources and loves to fill niches. If a significant (or even not so significant) corner of the market is not being serviced, it creates an opening for entrepreneurs and other corporate risk-takers to find a way to service that niche market. It is this search-and-discover mechanism of the market economy—in addition to the typically positive sum nature of free exchange—that makes it especially well-suited to overcoming widespread bias and bigotry. An under-served niche will likely attract someone with a high enough risk tolerance to go against the tide of social opinion.

The alternatives to an economy based on free exchange among individuals, like communes or centrally planned socialist economies, require significant coordination. This coordination is inherently less exploratory than the distributed decisions of the market. If there is social injustice in the commune or socialist state, then oppressed groups must rely solely on risky political agitation and wait for the central planners to come around. There will be no entrepreneurs to gamble that the marginalized might be worth a buck.

Leftist perfectionism

This is unromantic and unjust. The oppressed shouldn’t have to wait either for politicians to perceive them as a potential voting bloc, for capitalists to exploit them as a “niche market,” or for corporations to attend to their concerns when there isn’t too much profit at stake. Their rights and dignity and welfare should be respected just by virtue of their humanity. Even if Hammond’s and my arguments are correct, and the free market can and does advance social justice, the justice achieved is hollow and fragile. What happens if and when the vicissitudes of the market swing away from the marginalized? Deluca again, emphasis his:

Social justice does not need capitalism; in fact, it cannot need capitalism. If social justice needs capitalism, then capitalism has enslaved social justice and rendered it impotent. I would go so far as to say that a world where social justice needs capitalism is inherently unjust; for, in those manifold instances where capitalism conflicts with social justice, there is no way for social justice to hold capitalism accountable. When social justice threatens capitalism, capitalism quietly retracts its powerful hand and lets social justice fall screaming into the pit.

Or as one commentator summarized Hammond:

If y’all would just get to bootlickin’, bourgies might bestow more kindness in the form of advertising that includes marginalized communities. Read: Not because they care about them, but because they care about their products being purchased.

Social justice must be done for the right reasons if it is to be social justice at all. If I make it more advantageous to you to support social justice causes, then we have both cheapened social justice. There is a kernel of truth to this: cynical, purely self-interested support for any principle is not true support. But this ignores both that social justice must be learned and that social scaffolding for any kind of virtue is one of the best social technologies we have for inculcating and proliferating that virtue.

Learning social justice

Social justice is not at all obvious. Indeed this is why we study feminism and critical theory in the first place. We live within social contexts that we inevitably take for granted. It was not active, purposeful misogyny (though this has also always existed) that has limited the freedom and dignity of women. It has instead been our understandings of the “nature” of women and their appropriate social roles, and our ignorance of the fact that these understandings are mostly socially constructed. If you had grown up in 19th century America and saw women work only in domestic labor and child rearing, never saw women educated past high school, and always saw women defer to men as heads of household, it would require an exceptional imagination to believe any other arrangement were possible. This would have been the historical norm, and the social understandings of the past cast a long shadow.

With all due respect to the (true) notion that it shouldn’t be the responsibility of the oppressed to teach the privileged about social justice, it nonetheless remains true that teaching and learning needs to happen. It should also be noted that while the oppressed are better situated to understand their own oppression, even they must learn, explore, and even invent. Sexual harassment, for example, is difficult even for the harassed to understand—and thus protest—if the only extant concepts describing the behaviors are things like “flirting” or “just fooling around.”

Social justice for mortals

We are not only ignorant by nature but weak-willed. Even when we know the right thing to do, we find reasons to avoid doing it if it’s in anyway inconvenient. We procrastinate, take shortcuts, conveniently forget annoying details, etc. We use “social scaffolding” to help us make better decisions; that is, we offload some of the necessary will power to our social environment to lessen the amount we have to muster ourselves. We work with colleagues (instead of alone) and set deadlines to hold ourselves accountable, for instance. Or, in the aim of getting to bed on time, in many places bars and entertainment venues close at a certain time, not too late (note some scaffolding is unchosen).

Social justice can be difficult in various ways. The existence of oppression and disadvantage is psychologically taxing for the privileged person, who would prefer a world where their advantages didn’t come at a cost to others, or even better, a world where their advantages were all earned. We are all susceptible to just world bias, the tendency to believe that bad things don’t happen to good people. Or to bring this back around to capitalism, upholding social justice may come at the expense of profits.

The insistence that corporations can only have cynical motives sabotages our ability to use social scaffolding for the ends of social justice. So what if entrepreneurs target minority markets initially purely for the sake of profit? If this strategy better meets the needs of those minorities while simultaneously broadcasting their humanity and equal moral worth to the broader public, then it is a powerful example of emergent social scaffolding. It lowers the hurdles for everyone to get on the right side of social justice.

These fair weather commitments can deepen over time. It was never just to condemn women to lives of domestic drudgery, nor to restrict their sexual autonomy. These are now truly deep moral commitments among liberals. Yet it can hardly be doubted that inventions like the washing machine and the pill made it easier to embrace these beliefs. We shouldn’t doubt the sincerity of our feminism just because of this historical contingency. And we should rejoice at the recent evidence that diversity improves problem solving (thus giving firms selfish economic reasons to encourage diversity), rather than feel that such developments cheapen social justice.

Leftist critics are right to worry about what happens when social justice suddenly becomes inconvenient for capitalism. But the answer is not to disparage the serendipitous alignment of social justice and capitalism when it does happen. The wiser approach is to make it a moral priority to foster social perceptions whereby markets and social justice do work with one another. This means at minimum not condemning corporations and other market actors when they advance social justice. But if, as Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman argues in The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, economic growth itself primes us for inclusive thinking, then advancing the cause of liberal markets itself must become a social justice priority. To paraphrase Madison, if we were angels, social justice wouldn’t be necessary. If we had angels to guide us, we wouldn’t need to learn social justice or erect scaffolds to support it. We are left to do social justice the hard way.

Featured image is “Scaffolding” by Peter Griffin.

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adamgurri
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Finding Liberty Between Vulnerability and Coercion

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The sources and extent of coercion in a society is one of the big fault lines that divides the different currents of liberalism. Paul Crider’s remark that “Coercion is an unsavory but unavoidable aspect of living with other people” offended several of our readers, while many of the comments on Samuel Hammond’s recent piece argued that capitalism is the source of all systemic oppression. In reality, neither markets nor government nor any other sphere of society has a monopoly on violence, cruelty, or domination, and any system which attempts to rein these in across the board will necessarily involve coercion.

The relationship between children and their parents is a good starting point for a discussion of vulnerability and the need for at least some coercion. Children have many characteristics that render them uniquely vulnerable, as will be discussed below. Moreover, child-rearing has always been challenging for liberal jurisprudence, which tends to rely on a particular ideal of adulthood. But we could start from any human relationship. Whether it is between friends, coworkers, client and server, boss and employee, or strangers. All bring their potential vulnerabilities. Every method for guarding those vulnerabilities creates its own vulnerabilities in . Courts are intended to provide a third-party perspective without a stake in the case under examination, but suffer the biases of the particular backgrounds of the judges. Unions arose to correct the imbalance of power between employers and employees, but they ended up with a mixed legacy on race, and often used their leverage to help skilled workers at the expense of the more vulnerable unskilled workers and women.

Suffer the little children

There is no relationship more basic than the one between a parent and child. Biology has wired parents to worry about their children and be upset when they are harmed or unhappy. The evolutionary pressures here are fairly straightforward and point in basically one direction—towards promoting the safety and prosperity of one’s offspring. And it is basically universal across cultures that parents are given special social roles when it comes to taking responsibility for the care and upbringing of their children.

Instinct, evolutionary pressures, and culture therefore all work together to make parents the best possible caretakers of their own children. Yet child abuse is hardly unheard of. Whether it involves beating, or sexual assault, or simply emotional manipulation, parents are frequently the perpetrators. This is because they are in the best position to be perpetrators—children are in a relationship of dependence with their parents. Dependence creates vulnerability.

This does not negate the very good reasons for parents’ special role. There isn’t anyone who would be at lower risk for abuse of the caretaker role than parents. But parents’ risk is uncomfortably far from zero.

How should the laws and institutions around childcare be organized, given these facts? Emancipating children isn’t an option. Children are dependent and vulnerable by their nature. Arguments about whether teenagers could take on more adult responsibilities are about the placement of the line, not its existence. No one thinks an infant can provide for himself, much less vote or drink beer or serve in the military.

This issue goes beyond vicious behavior. Even after infancy, children lack the experience to rely on their own judgment for many years. If a child does not want to go to school or visit a relative, their parents have the authority to make them. When a parent ends an argument with “because I said so,” a pure argument from authority, it is nevertheless a valid reason for the child to obey, even if they have reasons not . Parents get to decide on a wide range of affairs that will continue to have an impact into adulthood. There are clearly important matters such as the sort of education their child gets—whether a conventional public school (in a good or bad school district), or a Catholic school, or something unconventional like a Montessori school. Then there are smaller things: whether to make their child take piano lessons, or to send them to a summer camp, or to set a curfew on how late they can be out with friends. These things all influence the child’s trajectory, however small the difference it may make in the course of their life. However harmless and even beneficial these parental decisions are, they still constitute a kind of coercion, if we take the word to mean the imposition of one person’s will over another.

Coercive justice

What do we do when parents neglect their responsibilities or harm their children through active malice? The current answer to this question in most countries is to bring in the criminal justice system. We have laws that are enforced by police, prosecutors who seek to get offenders punished, and courts to determine guilt and the severity of the punishment. But all of these carry their own risks, individually.

Mere contact with the police creates the risk of a violent altercation, because of several important asymmetries. Police are constantly looking out for the risk that someone might attack them, because the nature of their job puts them in dangerous situations. Meanwhile the vast majority of civilians do not perceive themselves to be in a dangerous situation, especially if the contact with the police is over something like a speeding ticket or being a little disorderly in public. That is an asymmetry in perception; the other asymmetry is that most criminal justice systems end up effectively holding their police to a lower standard than civilians. Whether it’s because juries trust police or because prosecutors rely on their relationship to them, an officer who physically assaults civilians without justification is much more likely to get away with it than a civilian who does the same—never mind a civilian who assaults an officer!

As a result, simply bringing the police into the picture at all drastically increases the chance that matters will come to violence. Meanwhile, prosecutors make their careers by getting convictions, not by dropping charges when matters appear ambiguous. And in America, prosecutors are granted such broad discretion in filing charges that they can intimidate most suspects by cobbling together enough charges to result in enormous potential jail time, and use this threat as leverage to get plea bargains. Faced with 60 years in jail, many innocent people may opt for a guarantee of less than 10. Such tactics resulted in the suicide of the tech luminary Aaron Swartz in 2013.

Judges and juries, meanwhile, are entirely removed from the circumstances. They have to make their judgments based on the evidence that can be presented in a courtroom, which is obviously partial and imperfect. Their individual ability to make good judgments on the basis of that or any evidence is just as obviously imperfect.

The long and short of it that once we empower police, prosecutors, and judges to coerce people in order to protect certain vulnerabilities, it simply creates more vulnerabilities. And police, prosecutors, and judges are all systemically biased towards certain abuses. In attempting to stop abuse they create the risk of abuse, in attempting to correct coercion gone wrong they introduce the possibility of their own variety of coercion going wrong.

Not a ‘liberal problem’

Some might argue that these are problems particular to a liberal order; that settled religious communities would be much better at internally policing such things without the razor-sharp edges of a modern criminal justice system. But closeness breeds many of the same risks we already see within families—only more so, because those outside the family lack the pressures mentioned above that parents face, and are potentially capable of perpetuating abuses on a larger scale. Sexual assault is a real problem among the Amish, though the scale is very hard to know from the outside. The more famous Catholic Church abuses occurred in less isolated communities, but the dynamic is similar. The high-trust social environment so praised by traditionalists is exactly what leaves people, and especially children, vulnerable. Trust can be abused—in a way, trust is vulnerability. They call it “sticking your neck out” for a reason. And when trust is placed in authority, and authority is abused, those who fear the erosion of that authority have a strong incentive to cover it up rather than face it .

Nor do kinship-based a territorially bounded clans escape this tragic dilemma. Even when there is no central authority capable of meting out official punishment–as in medieval Iceland or any number of stateless clan-based societies throughout history–the individual is vulnerable to the needs of the family and clan. Indeed, the individual in these societies isn’t really understood as an “individual” at all but rather a member of the clan who must fulfill certain roles. This places especially great burdens on women, who must fulfill the maternal role for the sake of lineage. Transgressions against the family honor, real or imagined, result in oppressive shame. And in the worst cases individuals are at risk of honor killings and deadly inter-clan feuds.

We should never forget that in Europe in the Middle Ages, a period between the rise of strong empires like Rome and the modern nation-state, the murder rates were horrifically high by modern standards. If it is true, as Judith Shklar says in “The Liberalism of Fear,” that “Systematic fear is the condition that makes freedom impossible,” then we should be incredulous of any claim that the only threat to liberty in the United States is its democratic nation-state.

From a certain perspective, the liberal project is the attempt to balance authority and the sources of coercion against one another, in just such a way as to minimize cruelty and vulnerability as much as any system can. This is precisely Shklar’s liberalism of fear, as opposed to the liberalism of hope of someone like Kant. The liberalism of fear is the liberalism of checks and balances, due process protections, and separation of powers. Of democratic checks on powerful political elites, but also institutional checks on the tyranny of the majority. Of property rights to protect the fruits of labor, but also redistributive social safety nets to protect against misfortune.

Consider the case of Tony and Susan Alamo Foundation v. Secretary of Labor. The Alamo Foundation ran a plethora of commercial ventures which they staffed with “associates,” ostensibly volunteer labor. The Supreme Court ruled the foundation was in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act, legislation which chafes conservatives and libertarians. But Nancy Rosenblum explained why the application in this case was consistent with liberal principles:

Before their conversion and rehabilitation, Foundation associates were mostly drug addicts, criminals, and derelicts. Like the Unification Church, Alamo was widely thought to prey on the vulnerable and to take advantage of the intense need for connection and care, perhaps by engaging in infantilizing and guilt-inducing recruiting practices that made voluntarism doubtful. Former associates testified that they had been “fined” heavily for poor job performance and were prohibited from getting food from the cafeteria if they were absent from work due to illness or bad weather; members’ standing seemed closer to indentured servitude than volunteerism.

This is a classic case of the federal government intervening in the operation of an association whose internal norms are incongruent with liberal principles. But sometimes it is precisely such incongruent associations which are the lifeblood of liberal institutions. At the time Rosenblum’s book, Membership and Morals, was written, Jehovah’s Witnesses had litigated 40 precedent-setting Supreme Court cases and 150 state supreme court cases, most of which expanded the scope of our First Amendment protections.

The point is that there is no one way to deal with the problem of vulnerability, cruelty, or the ways that coercive powers can be abused. But the first step is to admit that these things are not going away; they are a basic feature of human nature. No specific set of relations or spheres of society creates a single supreme villain; all carry their own risks. Delicately balancing these risks has been the task that liberals have set themselves to for over 300 years.

 

Featured image is Fight With Cudgels, by Francisco Goya

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adamgurri
6 days ago
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7 Eleven

2 Comments and 10 Shares
Really, the only honest 24-hour stores are the ones in places like Arizona and Hawaii, and many of them are still wrong in certain years.
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adamgurri
8 days ago
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2 public comments
Covarr
9 days ago
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But which 37 minutes?
Moses Lake, WA
alt_text_bot
9 days ago
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Really, the only honest 24-hour stores are the ones in places like Arizona and Hawaii, and many of them are still wrong in certain years.

Liberal Aspiration and Moral Accounting in Hamilton and Charlie Parker’s Yardbird

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Liberalism did not originate in the US, but we have certainly laid claim to one of the boldest attempts at upholding and exemplifying its tenets, even if only in aspiration. While “all men are created equal” in 1776 was a very radical statement of political theory, the US has always fallen short of realizing that principle. Despite these failings, the ethos surrounding the uniqueness of American experience with liberalism is very real. Perhaps nowhere is this ethos more present than in the blockbuster musical, Hamilton. Lin Manuel-Miranda’s smash hit is a high-energy, full-throated defense of liberal multiculturalism and a testament to the aspirational ethos of America’s relationship with liberalism.

For anyone unfamiliar with the musical, Hamilton is an adaptation of the life of Alexander Hamilton, inspired by Ron Chernow’s biography. While not the first musical adaptation of the revolutionary period of American history, it is certainly the first to reimagine it in the context and language of American hip-hop music. Miranda reimagines Hamilton as an embodiment of the classic rags-to-riches immigrant story that is so prevalent in American lore. Born a bastard child, and made an orphan who grew up in poverty in the Virgin Islands, he made his way to New York and eventually became a leading figure in the American Revolution and the early republic. He is portrayed as a tireless, fire-in-his-gut, talented revolutionary full of fervor.

Building on the themes of multiculturalism, Hamilton was also unique in that the cast–characters who are historically white men and women–was entirely composed of black and brown actors, with the exception of the cameo by King George. Miranda says “[t]his is a story about America then, told by America now.” Its radical inclusivity when considering the story of the nation’s founding is representative of the aspirations of the American liberal spirit, if not the historic reality of the moment it portrays. It is particularly prescient now as America is deliberately backtracking on many of its liberal promises.

While I have no strong opinion on the merits of Hamilton strictly as a musical, I can recognize and appreciate the cultural significance of its larger enterprise. But there is a danger of making the historical Hamilton into something that he wasn’t. As my colleague Phil Magness has pointed out, Hamilton the man was actually much more similar to President Trump and the populist movements of today than any devotee of the musical would probably like to admit:

Over the course of almost 30 years in political life, Hamilton developed a system of sometimes nuanced but assertive economic nationalism. He believed that trade restrictions were crucial to the development of the fledgling nation’s “infant” industrial base, as well as a guardian against practices of European nations that he deemed unfair or harmful to American interests.

Towards the end of career, Hamilton, the exemplar of the immigrant story, shifted his views on immigration. Hamilton runs the risk of obscuring the real Hamilton and failing to hold him to full moral account, in much the same way that the hagiography surrounding figures like Jefferson has throughout America’s history.

As I said earlier, though, the story of America’s aspirational liberalism is not a rare one, particularly in the artistic sphere, and many find different ways of telling the same story. But other narratives and works of art do attempt to provide that reckoning story, laying bare the times when liberal ideals were not upheld. A very good (in my mind), recent example of one that happens to share many of the same attributes of Hamilton is the chamber opera, Charlie Parker’s Yardbird.

Yardbird is about the life and work of legendary jazz saxophonist, Charlie Parker. Parker was an innovative musician and one of the minds behind the development of bebop, a form of jazz that features fast tempos, complex chord changes, and requires a sincere ability to improvise. Bebop was a shift away from big-band swing. Like Hamilton, Yardbird features at the center of the story a young, extremely talented minority voice, full of revolutionary fervor. Yardbird, while being a chamber opera and performed by classical singers, heavily features jazz as the musical vernacular in which the story is delivered. At several points throughout the show, the Parker character sings improvisational licks and coloratura as if he were actually playing a saxophone.

Parker, though, was never able to achieve elite status, and he was came to represent a threat to public morality, both because of the nature of his music and his personal habits. Heroin was widely used by jazz musicians, and Parker was no exception. Jazz in general was regarded as sinful, unconventional music associated with sexual licentiousness, and Parker became synonymous with this pejorative image. As Martin Torgoff writes in his book, Bop Apocalypse: Jazz, Race, the Beats, and Drugs:

[H]e quickly came to symbolize everything … that the vice cops hated: drug use and integration. At the end of 1945 the local authorities cracked down hard on the street, shuttering clubs under the same pretext used to close down Storyville in New Orleans back in 1917: the corruption of American servicemen by sex, drugs, and jazz.

Embodying the rebellious spirit of his music in Yardbird, Parker sings “I’m a jazzman. I’m blowing all my pain out through this horn … I ain’t gonna sit in the back of the bus no more, ain’t going around the back no more.” Parker’s story is not a triumphant one about the making of a nation, it’s a gritty realist tale about a nation’s undoing of a visionary genius and a reminder of the continual struggle between our political theory and our political practice.

The point is not to say that Yardbird is more important than Hamilton because it serves as a reminder of the unfulfilled promises of liberalism. The point is that these two works of art can be seen as markers for a path that liberalism could follow.

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Career advice for undergrads

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My current thinking after returning to alma mater

I spent a few days this week at my undergraduate alma mater, Furman University, to participate in a conference at the Riley Institute on national security versus civil liberties. The conference was unique in that all of the participants were Furman alums, including Lt. Gen. John Mulholland and V. Adm. Mike McConnell.

While I was on campus, I spent a few days chatting with current students. I enjoyed this more than I expected to. I found the students hungry for career advice, and so I obliged. Here’s what I told them.

  1. The main benefit of getting a liberal arts education is that you don’t have to get on a career track. Therefore, resist career tracks. If you do find yourself drawn to a specific career track, there’s probably a faster way to pursue it than to go to a school like Furman.
  2. You don’t need a 30-year plan. I have at no point in my career so far been doing what I had expected to do even five years prior. Something like a five-year planning horizon seems right to me.
  3. The very best way to make career decisions is to be mission-driven. Have something you are trying to achieve. Then decisions about what job to take or whether to go to grad school become a lot less agonizing. They become straightforward—does this step advance the mission more than my alternatives?
  4. Undergraduates very often do not have life missions yet. This is OK. You shouldn’t try to fake one. While you are still trying to sort that out, I think a good step is to ask two questions. First, what is the most interesting thing going on in the world right now? Second, how can I put myself at the center of that? For me in my twenties, the answer to the first question was GMU’s unique economics department.
  5. When you find yourself at the center of what is most interesting to you, try to indiscriminately create value. It’s not necessary to get credit or be well paid right away. You’ll get a lot more opportunities for both work and relationships if you’re a positive externality machine. Hopefully, these opportunities will help you discover a personal mission.
  6. One of my regrets as an undergraduate is that I was not as ambitious as I should have been. People are capable of a lot more than they think they are. Not everyone can be Elon Musk, but almost everyone can be more like Elon Musk. There’s joy and meaning to hard work—I have a growing sense of this now that I lacked nearly two decades ago when I started college.

This is my current thinking, subject to revision as I am not exactly an old man looking back at the end of my career. Your mileage may vary.


Career advice for undergrads was originally published in Eli Dourado on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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adamgurri
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Wanted: Mere Liberal Writers

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After nearly one month and over a dozen articles, Liberal Currents is off to the races. But some people have asked where we are coming from, something that we tried to address in The New Liberal. The following will pick up where that piece left off, focusing specifically on who we would love to hear more from and who we are hoping to reach.

One impression we hoped to avoid with our talk of “the new liberal” was the idea that we represent some kind of true liberalism. When libertarians refer to themselves as “classical liberals” as if they were the sole inheritors of the original tradition, they underestimate the community of thought to which they undeniably belong just as much as modern liberals (progressives) who have inherited the term. But liberalism cannot be reduced to a single voice or valence. There is a reason we are called Liberal Currents, plural. All traditions of any scope or value are polyvalent and pluralistic; made up of multiple currents.

We strive to be a home for mere liberalism, a place where liberals of all kinds feel at ease with one another as liberals, whatever our energetic disagreements. That doesn’t mean we lack a specific editorial perspective. But we hope to publish liberals of many stripes—from progressives, to neoliberals, libertarians, and even those who are sympathetic to liberal causes but aren’t quite sure if they are liberals themselves. Part of what we’d like to do is focus on the important discussions that take place across these internecine divides. An important point to emphasize is that they are internecine—all of these broad currents are part of the same intellectual family. What we’d like is for the people who hold these perspectives to see themselves as part of the same community. And we hope that the people we publish and our readers will help us to promote that outcome.

Ideally, we’d like to get beyond these particular divisions, which reflect debates that played out endlessly in the 20th century. Not that we think perfect unity is possible or desirable; our vision of new liberals is just as pluralistic as the old set. But it’s high time we learn what is left to be learned from these debates and move on to new ones.
The editorial team believes that the progressive, libertarian, and neoliberal subcommunities have made valuable contributions to the liberal tradition, though all are lacking in crucial ways. The thoughtful partisans of each school realize they have much to gain from talking with and learning from one another even as they remain steadfast in their ideological commitments. The thoughtful libertarian, for instance, believes they can learn from other liberals how to improve libertarianism (mutatis mutandis progressivism and neoliberalism). Meanwhile we should resist the temptations of vulgar versions of our ideologies, those tending to reduce complex problems to bumper sticker-ready solutions.

We believe that the solutions favored by different liberal factions typically carry their own unique dangers. Liberal institutions and law ought to balance liberal aims and provide bulwarks against the worst outcomes, but there is no one, best way of striking that balance. Call us liberals of fear or liberals of tragedy, but as we see it every power created to check abuse can be abused, every attempt to protect vulnerabilities creates vulnerability, every bulwark against coercion is coercive, and all available means for preventing cruelty can be cruelly used.

But we are not liberals of despair—there is real work to be done, and we want to open Liberal Currents to those who are ready to engage. The history of liberalism is the history of using imperfect means to achieve real human improvement. There have been terrible mistakes made along the way. While liberals hardly bear total responsibility for the explosion in incarceration in America since the early 90s, they bear quite a lot. It happened in the heyday of neoliberalism, under a neoliberal President, and under the influence of a libertarian economist’s theory of law enforcement. And progressives are hardly without sin: FDR, arguably the canonical progressive president of the 20th century, used the expanded powers of his government to put Japanese-Americans into camps and pursue a brutal and total war.

But we can also speak of Milton Friedman’s contribution to ending the draft, or Lyndon Johnson wielding his clout to get the Civil Rights Act passed, or the opportunities that Bill Clinton opened up for Americans but especially poor Mexicans by pushing NAFTA through. The bag is mixed, but all traditions of sufficient longevity are necessarily mixed. On the whole, the growth of liberalism has been a gain for humanity.

What should the liberal community focus on now? What delicate balances most urgently need readjustment? We want to publish liberals of every stripe who have answers to these questions. We want to attract liberal readers who are interested in asking these questions, and who will tell us what other questions we ought to be asking.

There are certainly perspectives that we will not publish. The argument that all taxation is theft, and therefore no government action is ever legitimate, will not find a place here. The argument that all profit is theft will be treated similarly. Narrow, categorical condemnations of massive spheres of modern life—be they commerce, governance, cities, suburbs, or family—will not be found here. However, we welcome critical analyses of any or all of these.

Liberals of all stripes are therefore encouraged to pitch their critical analyses, their answers to the pressing questions of our times, to writers@liberalcurrents.com.

 

Featured image is An Old Scholar, by Koninck Salomon.

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adamgurri
13 days ago
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New York, NY
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