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Taking Inclusion Seriously: Kevin Elliott’s Democracy for Busy People

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“How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” This question, asked by English writer Samuel Johnson in 1775, still touches a nerve today. Americans on the one hand carry the pride of one of the oldest sets of representative institutions in the world. On the other, we carry the shame of centuries of chattel slavery, Jim Crow, Chinese exclusion, and the genocide of Native Americans, to offer but an incomplete list. How democratic could a country be that exhibited such obvious social hierarchies?

Jacob Levy answered the question as follows:

The early American republic, and especially the Jacksonian republic, was at once much more democratic than any European state of the same era and much more racist, and these were not unrelated. A hierarchical society with countless small social gradations can treat racial subordination as continuous with many other kinds of subordination. A levelled hierarchy among whites sharpens the distinction at the edges of that category; a social hill is replaced by a social plateau that ends in cliffs. The expanding rights and proud equal dignity of lower-class whites came to consist precisely in their equal claim to whiteness; this became a foundational fact of American democratic equality.

Levy’s remarks about the early American republic are clarifying precisely because it is far too common to assume that a single value, democratic equality, undergirds a democratic political system. What Levy’s analysis suggests instead is that this value is not singular, but has components, and those components have historically often been at odds with one another. Democratic institutions that offer a great deal of equality among political participants may be sharply exclusionary against broad segments of the population. Highly inclusive institutions may enable wide variation in degrees of participation and influence. These two dimensions need not always be entirely in tension—the early republic was in fact more politically inclusive than many of its contemporaries—but there are certainly specific ways in which increasing political equality necessarily trades off with political inclusion, and vice versa.

Though the variations in its implementation matter a great deal, in general universal suffrage in liberal democracies is the most inclusive institutional arrangement in history. Critics of this arrangement do not, in general, argue against the moral virtue of democracy—for democracy has overwhelmingly won the moral argument against its alternatives, even outside of actually democratic countries. Instead, one set of critics—democratic skeptics—argue that it is impractical. Another set of critics—democratic theorists—argue that elections and universal suffrage do not do enough to maximize true democratic equality.

Each of these critics runs into the trade-off between political equality and political inclusion. The skeptics do so more or less explicitly. The philosopher Jason Brennan, for example, revived the age-old argument for political equality among the smart and educated through the exclusion of the foolish and ignorant. The democratic theorists, by contrast, minimize inclusion by accident. They recommend a series of participatory institutions that are in practice too burdensome for ordinary citizens—and especially the most vulnerable and lowest income citizens—to use effectively.

This dichotomy between political equality and political inclusion as components of the larger ideal of democratic equality was formulated by the political theorist Kevin Elliott in his new book, Democracy for Busy People. Elliott takes on the skeptics and the democratic theorists and argues for the primacy of inclusion for any democratic arrangement. He grounds his analysis in people like his mother, “a single working mother without a college degree” who was disengaged from politics for many years not “due to any infirmity or lack of ability” but fundamentally because “she was busy.”[1]

Not busy the way a high-powered lawyer or other successful professional is. She was not plowed under with work imposed by a demanding work ethic and culture. She was busy in more mundane ways—if she didn’t pick up the child, shop for groceries, cook the meal, do the dishes, pay the bills, clean the house, tend the child, track the household budget, etc.—it simply wouldn’t get done. And after doing all of this every day, day after day, without break or assistance, she also had to find time to rest and recuperate her energies to prevent depression and burnout, at which she was only ever partly successful. She was busy the way millions of people around the world are: swamped by meeting the everyday demands of life while maintaining a modicum of sanity.[2]

Elliott seeks to articulate a vision of democracy that can include people as busy as his mother was. His critique of democratic theorists is that demandingness is exclusionary, specifically for people like her. His critique of the skeptics is that people like his mother are capable of participation—indeed, eventually she herself became politically engaged. He poses the questions:

What institutional conditions generate the most conducive circumstances to encourage citizens like my mother was to become citizens like my mother is? How can we chart a course from apathy to attention using institutions? Moreover, how can we do so while making sure to leave no one behind?[3]

He articulates the normative goal of his program as “stand-by citizenship,” which provides a floor with “upward flexibility” on participation by all. He then goes on to discuss institutional conditions which might promote and maintain stand-by citizenship as broadly as possible.


Skeptics of democracy often rest their arguments on the apathy of the masses. Some go so far as to defend that apathy as a positive good. Elliott argues that political apathy is neither inevitable, nor normatively defensible.

One of the book’s most interesting discussions in this area concerns political stability. There is a line of argument he traces to Bernard Berelson and Samuel Huntington which maintains that too much political engagement can be destabilizing. The former, along with his colleagues, argued that:

Apathy among some citizens, then, allows for compromises to be struck because apathetic citizens are not wedded to intransigence on policy in the way extremely interested partisans are. Representatives know they can make compromises because not all of their supporters are strongly interested in the specifics of the result.[4]

Huntington argued that “because democracy cannot meet all the demands made of it by the groups who became politically mobilized in the 1960s and 1970s,” that broad mobilization would ultimately prove anathema to democracy, as disappointment would lead to disenchantment and delegitimization.[5]

Elliott provides a strong counterargument, pointing out that authoritarians and Trump-style populists often draw precisely on those previously indifferent, apathetic, or apolitical: “Political apathy also threatens democracy by creating a class of citizens who are not politically socialized. Politically non-socialized citizens are a menace to democracy because they may come crashing into the system with unrealistic expectations and a vulnerability to demagoguery, which can empower anti-democratic actors and threaten democratic stability.”[6]

Rather than mobilization serving to destabilize democracy in the manner that Huntington envisioned, “exclusion is potentially more disruptive of stability since it is effectively impossible for groups to remain durably passive in politics. Events always transpire to mobilize them. Far from apathy serving as a reliable guarantor of stability, it could just as often serve as political dynamite packed around the foundations of democracy, waiting only for a spark.”[7]

It was one thing to exclude the great mass of peasants from politics in pre-modern agrarian societies. But modern citizens are literate, can communicate nearly instantly across any distance (and therefore coordinate across any distance as well), and have access to resources and technology that either did not exist or were far out of reach for the underclasses of old. As Elliott rightly points out, even where significant portions of modern citizens are disengaged for a period of time, it’s impossible to guarantee they will remain so. Indeed, this is precisely why democracy is a more practical arrangement than its alternatives, and why the most stable non-democracies get as close to liberal democratic arrangements as they can without putting their incumbents at too much risk of losing power.

Rather than exclusion or apathy, then, “A better response is therefore to mobilize everyone and get them effectively heard and included in the political system.”[8]

Elections are good, actually

To a non-academic, it is a bit stunning to read that “Elections are the neglected misfits of democratic theory today.” Yet the very people who are supposedly theorizing the basis of democracy do turn their noses up at the single most important institution distinguishing democracy from its alternatives. They argue that “elections have an ineradicable oligarchic or aristocratic bias”[9] and propose a smorgasbord of alternatives.

As a political theorist attempting to persuade other theorists, it makes sense that Elliott would spend time attempting to make democratic theorists live up to their moniker, but from the outside it feels difficult to take democratic theorists seriously. Now, among political scientists—who study systems that really exist—the conceptual distinction between democracy and non-democracy rests entirely on whether or not the top political authorities are held to free and fair elections which they stand a credible chance of losing.[10]

Ever focused on busy people, Elliott points out that voting in elections “is the quintessential example of participation that is simple, easy, and undemanding.” More than this, as a “large, society-wide event that simulates media coverage and widespread public discussion,” they are a force for broader mobilization.[11] Crucially, “Elections remain the most inclusive participatory institution by a comically wide margin. More people vote than have even heard of a citizens’ assembly, let alone than have actually participated in any deliberative institution.”[12]

Elliott goes further than merely defending elections, articulating a “Paradox of Empowerment”: “increasing opportunities for greater participation may often perversely function to further empower existing elites and empowered groups rather than broadening access to power to marginalized groups.”[13]

Here, the value of grounding his analysis in busy people really comes to the fore. The citizen voice and participatory institutions implemented in the Progressive Era, and pushed by democratic theorists today, are in principle open to all, or all within the relevant jurisdiction. The practical impediments to making full use of those mechanisms, however, means that those who do make use of them are disproportionately drawn from groups that already come from the high end of social power and influence. Political equality among participants in these institutions may be increased, but at the cost of drastically less inclusivity.

Stand-by citizenship

Elliott follows his response to democracy’s critics with a normative model which he calls “stand-by citizenship.” This standard is more demanding than simply having universal suffrage laws or even having very few hurdles to voting in practice. It consists of “critical attention,” “the civic skills needed for participation,” and “upward flexibility.”[14]

Critical attention has two components, having “the habit of paying attention to politics.” and actively exercising “one’s judgment through critically reflecting on what one sees.”[15] Going from paying attention and judging to taking action, however, requires a specific set of civic skills, “the nuts-and-bolts questions of how and when to register, how and when to vote, who the candidates and parties are and what they stand for,” and similar details that “help supply reasonable expectations regarding how the political system works and what to expect from it,” and how to participate in it.[16]

Somewhat surprisingly, Elliott does not insist that stand-by citizens must exercise these skills regularly in order to meet his minimum normative standard. For a variety of reasons, a citizen who knows how to participate in politics and regularly observes and judges it may decide to sit out an election, or even several elections. On the flipside, however, they may see opportunities to participate beyond elections and judge that they ought to pursue them. Critical attention and civic skills thus provide a floor for participation, but upward flexibility entails an openness to deepening that participation beyond the minimum, without normative limit.

Maintaining critical attention and civic skills is no small task on its own, and it is not something we should treat as a matter of individual responsibility. Both are “a product of habit or unconscious absorption from those around us, as well as incidentally through actual participation.”[17]

Institutions and culture produce and maintain stand-by citizenship, which “makes us poised for participation, like an arrow drawn back on a bowstring, tensed for action. We may remain in that state of preparedness indefinitely, or launch ourselves into the political arena, as far and as intensely as we choose. In this conception, the sky’s the limit.”[18]

Upward flexibility allows stand-by citizenship to encompass both the political heroism of the mid century civil rights activists and the ordinary citizenship of those too busy to do more than vote in elections. What Elliott cannot abide is a citizen body that is not able to participate or even to form an opinion on whether they want to participate more fully. Critical attention combined with the civic skills required to participate leave stand-by citizens ready to respond to situations they themselves judge to be worth responding to, and within their capabilities to do so.

Politics as a social process

How, then, might we foster stand-by citizenship?

First and foremost, against the democratic theorists, it is important to “concentrate power in the institutions in which it is the cheapest and easiest to participate.”[19] In a word: elections. Moreover, elections are:

a large, society-wide event that stimulates media coverage and widespread public discussion. This event focuses and concentrates society’s attention, collectively, on politics, granting even the most pluralistic society a unifying focal point.[20]

Elections are both inclusive and by their nature produce what political scientists refer to as political interest, a crucial component of both critical attention and for motivating the maintenance of civic skills. Not all elections are created equal, however. Wide variance in turnout rates across democratic countries indicates that some arrangements or cultural environments are better at mobilizing citizens than others. Differences may arise from barriers to participation, such as the difficulty of registering to vote in some places in America or long wait times at polling centers on election day. Or they may arise from a failure to cultivate the habits of paying attention or participating (even to a minimum extent); irregular and poorly advertised elections for example might cause people’s civic skills to atrophy.

Elliott suggests we maximize the mobilizing potential of elections by holding them every year, and enacting mandatory voting. By the latter he specifically means “a strictly enforced legal requirement that every eligible voter attend a polling place or submit a mail-in ballot during an election, on pain of a small monetary fine unless an adequate excuse, including conscientious objection, is provided.” He sees these reforms as “tutelary” institutions “that can help induce the kind of cognitive political engagement characteristic of stand-by citizenship” as well as “improve democracy’s responsiveness.”[21]

He also suggests a number of practical measures to reduce the barriers to voting that currently exist in America specifically. Rather than putting the onus on citizens to register to vote, the government ought to do so automatically, given that it already has the information it needs to do so. Pairing this with same-day registration by anyone that was missed by automatic registration would do away with the entirely self-imposed burdens of voter registration in the several forms it exists in America today.

Contrary to the anti-party sentiments that are endemic in political theory and democratic theory in particular, Elliott emphasizes how crucial political parties are for democratic participation in general, and the encouraging of stand-by citizenship in particular. In a healthy liberal democracy, parties serve to mitigate against political disengagement. “Parties’ democratic superpower is that their greed for power drives them to reach these citizens where they are and turn them into active supporters, along the way bringing them up out of apathy and transforming them into stand-by citizens. No other democratic institution can make this same claim, with the possible exception of mandatory voting.”[22]

For the various efforts to reach and organize such citizens, which Elliott documents[23], provide them with “a scaffolding or foundation to support their developing political identity.”

Party identification can help citizens to situate themselves in politics, learning whom to ally themselves with and whom to oppose. It helps them align their affinities and antipathies; it helps socialize them into politics, in other words. This new social identity then serves as the motivational core of their activities as citizens.[24]

Of course, parties will only behave this way in an actually competitive party system. Here in America, we have, to some extent, a competitive two-party system at the federal level. But our system as a whole would better be classified as a two-at-most party system, with many quite powerful state and local governments totally dominated by only one party each. The direct primary, both a method for mitigating the downsides of this arrangement and one of its primary causes, does away with those facets of parties and partisanship that Elliott rightly notes help to politically integrate busy citizens.

Elliott favors multipartyism rather than two-partyism, as the former “allows for greater dimensionality in political competition,”[25] more party brands that can target the formation of a greater array of distinct political identities. The path to multipartyism is well known: legislatures that are apportioned through multi-seat proportional representation methods, rather than the single-seat plurality-winner method currently used for nearly every elected office in America today. To this I would add the abolition of the direct primary as it currently exists, as this has served to institutionalize two-at-most partyism by providing an open venue for capturing a party label by political talents who, in other systems, would have opted to form their own parties.[26]

This would also be furthered by another of Elliott’s proposals, to deal with the “long ballot” of numerous local and state offices that are up for election. It may be that “Centralizing power into fewer high profile electoral contests actually boosts inclusion by making it easier and more cognitively tractable for ordinary citizens,”[27] but increasing the centrality of legislatures specifically also facilitates the creation of a competitive multiparty system.

Elliott meets the theoretical challenges to democracy head-on and provides a workable normative model to judge real-world examples by. He goes on to provide an institutional analysis and reform package in detail that is unusual for what is chiefly a work of political theory rather than political science or political activism. The theorist, the empiricist, and the activist alike will all find something of value to take away from Democracy for Busy People.

[1] Kevin J. Elliott, Democracy for Busy People (pp. 3–4). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Ibid., 4.

[3] Ibid., 14.

[4] Ibid., 31.

[5] Ibid., 32.

[6] Ibid., 46.

[7] Ibid., 50.

[8] Ibid., 50.

[9] Ibid., 120.

[10] “In particular, the countries we today call ‘democratic’ display a specific pattern of political competition for control of states. Roughly speaking, in democracies multiple organized groups compete for the support of large publics (in theory, all adults) in electoral contests in order to gain control of key offices of the state (for example, the presidency, a majority of seats in the legislature). One important feature of this form of political competition is that formal ‘barriers to entry’ into the competition for power are relatively low: incumbents (the current group or groups controlling the state) have limited abilities to prevent groups with different views about the proper uses of state power from forming, organizing, appealing to the electorate, or assuming office if they win an election, much less physically harming the membership of these groups. In the pithy formulation of political scientist Adam Przeworski, democracies are political systems in which ‘parties lose elections’, precisely because they cannot systematically prevent their opponents from winning them.” Xavier Márquez, Non-Democratic Politics (pp. 1–2). Palgrave Macmillan.

[11] Kevin J. Elliott, Democracy for Busy People (pp. 122–123). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.

[12] Ibid., 79.

[13] Ibid., 72.

[14] Ibid., 104.

[15] Ibid., 101–102.

[16] Ibid., 102–103.

[17] Ibid., 103.

[18] Ibid., 104.

[19] Ibid., 119.

[20] Ibid, 123.

[21] Ibid, 134-135.

[22] Ibid, 162.

[23] “So how do parties help to make new, stand-by citizens? First and most directly, they do so through organizing groups politically, particularly new and politically disconnected individuals. This is perhaps the most direct means by which parties mobilize, other than actual get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts. Political organizing is the process of articulating connections between the party and groups or individuals. This process often occurs through mediating institutions, such as unions or churches. Some of the most effective types of organizing seem to involve long-term engagement in the community, including providing ordinary forms of social (nonpolitical) support and service. Another common vector of organizing is canvassing, where supporters knock on doors or otherwise engage people in public spaces to urge their support. Such canvassing is often part of conventional GOTV efforts, yet these effrots shade into organizing when targeted at habitually disengaged citizens because of how they serve to transform these citizens’ view of themselves and their relationship to politics. Lisa García Bedolla and Melissa Michelson explain how this process works using what they call a Sociocultural Cognition model of mobilization that works by tapping into ideas that the individual already has to encourage them to adopt “a new cognitive schema as ‘voter'”—or active democratic citizen. Focused canvassing efforts induce these individuals to develop new understandings of themselves and of their relationship to the wider political community, one in which they take an active role.” Ibid, 163-164.

[24] Ibid, 164.

[25] Ibid, 170.

[26] See the discussion in Taylor, S. L., Shugart, M. S., Lijphart, A., & Grofman, B. (2015). A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-country perspective (pp. 181-184). Yale University Press.

[27] Kevin J. Elliott, Democracy for Busy People (pp. 133). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.

Featured image is The first colored senator and representatives – in the 41st and 42nd Congress of the United States

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Public Reason and Unreasonable Pluralism

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In the context of castigating authors’ servile dedications to superiors, and dedicating his own (1757) Four Dissertations to his cousin the playwright John Home, David Hume offers ‘liberty of thought’ as an example of ‘true liberty.’ When I first read it, I thought he meant to discuss what we now know as ‘free speech,’ ‘academic freedom,’ or ‘religious liberty.’

However, what Hume goes on to describe is really something like mutual toleration, and in particular what we would now call civility among the educated. I quote: “the liberty of thought, which engaged men of letters, however different in their abstract opinions, to maintain a mutual friendship and regard; and never to quarrel about principles, while they agreed in inclinations and manners.”

This seems like an instance of agreeing to disagree about worldviews or metaphysics (‘abstract opinions’) while maintaining mutual intellectual friendship.[1] He goes on to claim that this kind of liberty has previously existed only in ancient times. He goes on to describe how Cicero (who Hume consider an academic skeptic) managed such civility with Brutus (a Stoic) and Atticus (an Epicurean).

Not to put too fine a point on it, Hume (writing in the middle of the eighteenth century) thinks that in an age of Christian monotheism no mutual toleration has really been possible thus far. This fits with a claim that he makes in section IX of the Natural History of Religion (1757) where he asserts that pagan societies are intrinsically more tolerant than monotheist ones because “by limiting the powers and functions of its deities, it naturally admits the gods of other sects and nations to a share of divinity, and renders all the various deities, as well as rites, ceremonies, or traditions, compatible with each other.

By contrast monotheism (which he calls ‘theism’) “supposes one sole deity, the perfection of reason and goodness, it should, if justly prosecuted, banish everything frivolous, unreasonable, or inhuman from religious worship, and set before men the most illustrious example, as well as the most commanding motives, of justice and benevolence.” Lurking in the background is also a concern that there will be interests (among clergy, factions, educated) who will promote intolerance.

While Hume also thinks the Dutch and English polities of his own age do practice some toleration in the sense of allowing considerable liberty of the press and some limited religious freedom, Hume clearly does not think he lives in an age of mutual toleration. He knows this from personal experience: religious bigots prevented his appointment at the University of Edinburgh.

In his obituary of Hume, “The Letter to Strahan” (1776), Adam Smith seems to allude to Hume’s ideal of ‘liberty of thought,’ when he writes, “Thus died our most excellent, and never to be forgotten friend; concerning whose philosophical opinions men will, no doubt, judge variously, every one approving, or condemning them, according as they happen to coincide or disagree with his own; but concerning whose character and conduct there can scarce be a difference of opinion.”

According to Smith, then, people should be able to agree to disagree over their world-views and appreciate each other’s good moral and sociable qualities. That is, this is a commitment to a form of pluralism in social life by avoiding or withdrawing from conflict over ultimate matters. Smith’s position is more hopeful than Hume’s. Hume, who is more elitist, does not really seem to believe that such mutual toleration is possible even among the learned. Smith argued for disestablishment and competition among different religions as a means to moderate the effects from religious disagreement.

Our age is, of course, different than theirs in lots of ways, not the least that in many parts of Europe and even the United States there are many more open religious skeptics and atheists. But as liberalism has developed as a political doctrine, and embraced ‘freedom of speech,’ it has actually come to agree with Hume’s underlying sense that no genuine true liberty in the public sphere is actually possible: that introducing worldviews tainted by religious metaphysics is rather dangerous.

At one pole we find the practice of Laïcité or radical secularism emanating from France. Such radical secularism basically vacates the public sphere from most religious expression and relegates it to the private sphere. In practice, this contrast is not so easy to draw and, when implemented, it often is either inconsistent or an excuse to be quite illiberal including the ban on wearing burkinis or other expressions of religious identity in public. In fact, because of such features I tend to think of Laïcité as republican and illiberal in character.

In order to introduce the other pole I first mention the American practice, inspired by Jefferson, who wrote in his famous (1802) letter to Danbury Baptists, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” From the middle of the twentieth century onward (since Everson vs Board of education) this has increasingly meant that governments at all levels were not allowed to offer privileges to religion in public life. As readers have surely noticed, the supreme court is withdrawing from that stance including in ways that are disturbing to vulnerable minorities.

I evoke the wall of separation here because in liberal political theory a version of this separation between church and state has come to be known as ‘public reason.’ It goes even further than Jefferson’s wall of separation, for “public reason requires that the moral or political rules that regulate our common life be, in some sense, justifiable or acceptable to all those persons over whom the rules purport to have authority.” In practice, this means that one has to put forward one’s justification or reasons for, say, moral or political rules and policy in a relatively neutral manner distinct from the underlying worldview (or abstract opinion) that may motivate it.

In addition to sharing an implied concern over the effects of introducing worldviews tainted by religious metaphysics into public life, Laïcité and public reason liberalism have three surprising features in common: first, where they are embraced they tend to unite relatively left-leaning and right-leaning theorists. So, for example, among public reason advocates one finds relatively classical liberal types (like the late Jerry Gauss and his student Kevin Vallier) and a relatively progressive one like John Rawls.

Second, and more important, both approaches imply or even demand considerable public self-censorship. Now in the context of Laïcité this is backed up by legal sanctions and public education. The influence of public reason can be juridical in character, but also manifests itself in a set of attitudes among the relatively educated.

Now, the public sphere’s radical secularism of Laïcité and the attempts at reaching an overlapping consensus facilitated by public reason are defended on a whole range of very sophisticated moral and theoretical grounds. Some of which seem irrefutable in light of the assumptions that drive the argument. But I started with Hume because what motivates Laïcité and public reason is something of his instinctive distrust of the ways fanaticism has its roots in our impossibly hard to dislodge commitments, mystical and theological faith, and ideologies.

In his obituary, Smith presents Hume joking about himself that his battle against “the prevailing systems of superstition” is never-ending, Sisyphean in character. Even Smith’s more optimistic alternative accepts that we will inevitably disagree. Both Hume and Smith presuppose the kind of pluralism that has become a sociological and theoretical commonplace. And lurking behind their arguments is an elitist, Platonic skepticism that in democratic public life opinion will predominate and truth will not rule. (Notice their use of ‘philosophical opinion” and “abstract opinion” in the quoted passages above.)

This underlying Platonic skepticism is the third feature Laïcité and public reason liberalism have in common. But they react to it differently. Radical secularism uses the mutually supporting authority of the state and science to impose truth on public life and thereby homogenize it. Whereas public reason tries to produce a reasonable public sphere by self-imposed norms and rules of deliberation. In fact, many public reason liberals are quite critical of the authoritarianism in French radical secularism.

Yet, in practice Laïcité and public reason liberalism facilitate a habit of devaluing certain kinds of criticisms, worldviews, and their critical spokespeople as ‘unreasonable,’ ‘backwards,’ and ‘uncivil’ and, thereby, unintentionally producing or reinforcing the very anger, fanaticism, and polarization they were meant to diffuse. Laïcité and public reason risk making enemies from some citizens. That is, from a political perspective they are somewhat and in some circumstances self-undermining. Yet, Smith’s apparent optimism about the effects of religious competition seems naïve.

Now within the history of liberalism, there have been alternative approaches. In his (1937) An Inquiry into the Principles of the Good Society, the public intellectual Walter Lippmann proposed what he later called a “reconstruction of liberalism.” The context of publication  was the great depression and the rise of totalitarianisms, and a general climate that liberal ideals were a thing of the past. His book was partially successful because after the second world war he inspired and influenced a new liberalism and neo-liberalism promoted in different ways by the Mont Pelerin Society and also Popper’s Open Society.

Now, the Harvard educated Lippmann could be as elitist as the best of them (and compared to, say, Dewey he clearly was). But what he also recognized is that for liberalism to remain vital and vitalizing it needed to engage and allow itself to be confronted with unreasonable views and worldviews. In fact, he thought it was one of the mechanisms by which a democratic society could become more resilient. His underlying arguments for this position have Hegelian and Millian antecedents, but the roots are fundamentally Madisonian. I invite you to seek them out by reading his Good Society.

On Lippmann’s view, liberalism simultaneously endorses its own fundamental commitments and a commitment to a kind of unreasonable pluralism that reflects society’s true diversity.[2] Notice that here, too, there is lurking the Platonic skepticism I attributed to Hume, Adam Smith, radical secularism, and public reason liberalism. But rather than recoiling from its implications he, like Madison, embraces it. And he does so not from a naïve faith in the idea that the truth will win out. On the contrary, his earlier book (1922) Public Opinion—still a classic in political communication and political sociology—details all the ways in which strategic interests and technology conspire to keep the public sphere the realm of opinion rather than truth. He diagnosed the persistent recurrence of fake news long before the phrase was invented.

Unreasonable pluralism understands true liberty, including religious liberty, as the freedom for each of us as individuals to make political claims in whatever vernacular we choose including religious and unreasonable one. The idea is, in fact, healthier for political life and liberalism if, say, organized religions pursued the public, spiritual warfare of their choice.

Of course, at this point one may well wonder whether the polity can survive the lack of harmony that unreasonable pluralism presupposes. Here’s where Madisonianism enters in. Madison writes in Federalist 51, “by so contriving the interior structure of the government as that its several constituent parts may, by their mutual relations, be the means of keeping each other in their proper places.” This is achieved by fracturing territorially and temporally the representation of the people (through federalism, bicameralism, staggered elections, and only partially overlapping constituencies, for example). Lippmann was much impressed by the temporal “architecture” we find in, as Elizabeth Cohen notes, in “every democratic state.”[3] As the political theorist Richard Bellamy has remarked on Madison’s insight, “different forms of representation mean that they are not treated as a homogeneous entity with a singular, all commanding will.”[4] For Lippmann the right constitutional structures could, thus, be made resilient in part through structuring open-ended and fierce political contestation in the right way.[5]

That is to say, a liberalism that embraces unreasonable pluralism, of course, risks the hegemony of illiberal political confluences. This is what Smith missed. But a well ordered Madisonian constitutional structure generates the conditions and political debates which allow individuals, in Bellamy’s summary, “to voice their concerns for themselves.”

Of course, Madison’s vision was imperfect in multiple ways, not the least on the question of slavery and women’s disenfranchisement. For present purposes it is especially significant that his constitution did not prevent an awful civil war. There are, after all, no guarantees in life. What we may call the Reconstruction constitution did not prevent Jim Crow nor, more topically, Trump’s attempted usurpation. No created thing is eternal. But it can be made more durable if the crises are used to learn and adapt.

Because of its embrace of markets, the development of science and technologies, and liberalism’s receptiveness to cultural (and religious) innovation, liberalism constantly invites society to voyage into the uncertain and unknown while trusting the intelligence of individuals to solve the challenges encountered. Lippmann thought we needed to embrace what I call ‘a spirit of adaptation’ alongside well designed institutions in order to mitigate the dangers involved.

[1] Confusingly for us, he goes on to use ‘science’ as one of the synonyms of ‘abstract opinion.’ I use ‘worldview and metaphysics’ in part because other examples of ‘abstract opinion’’ Hume goes on to offer are ‘love of paradoxes’ and the ancient philosophical systems.

[2] Eric Schliesser (2019 “Walter Lippmann: The prophet of liberalism and the road not taken.” Journal of Contextual Economics–Schmollers Jahrbuch 139.2-4: 349-364. Lippmann’s position anticipates Chantal Mouffe’s agonism to some degree, but their sensibilities are very different.

[3] Elizabeth F. Cohen The political value of time: Citizenship, duration, and democratic justice. Cambridge University Press, 2018, p. 2.

[4] Richard Bellamy “The Political Form of the Constitution: The Separation of Powers, Rights and Representative Democracy.” Political Studies 44 (1996): 436-456.

[5] Nick Cowen & Eric Schliesser “Novel externalities.” Public Choice (2023).

Featured image is Statute of David Hume

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Deradicalizing the Center

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In 2016, the Washington Post ran a remarkable piece of journalism. Derek Black, a pedigreed, up-and-coming white nationalist leader had experienced an ideological transformation while a student at the New College of Florida. 

After he was outed by another student as a white nationalist, the school reviewed Black’s academic record and chose not to intervene. This left the students in control of how to respond to his presence, and while most condemned him, a few befriended him. Those friendships formed the foundation of trust on which Black’s persuasion away from white nationalism rested. 

The story is amazing. It resonated strongly with a certain kind of people—libertarians among them, and many sympathetic to liberalism but uncomfortable with the left and who, at least until recently, might have fit in the political center. These folks are often skeptical of condemning someone unless what they say is explicitly and intentionally problematic. 

Frustration with this group is almost an internet pastime, and many won’t be inclined to extend to them much charity. But there is something deeply good about a stubborn insistence on the almost universal potential for redemption. A liberal society needs that potential. Without it, we definitely wouldn’t have the conversion of Derek Black. 

More to the story

Libertarian and right- and centrist-liberal hand-wringing about censorious tendencies on the political left, especially on college campuses, was at a fever pitch in 2016. Speaker series and think pieces speculated that the future of free speech would be in trouble if young adults weren’t convinced to leave de-platforming and safe spaces behind and embrace open inquiry. 

I think that many libertarians hoped that the story of Derek Black could act as a how-to manual for deradicalization that fit tidily with our priors. There’s no need to censor or censure someone whose views we disagree with. The key to building the trust needed to change someone’s mind is friendship.

It’s a beautiful idea. The problem is that it’s not what happened. Rising Out of Hatred, by Eli Saslow, details how Black was ostracized and cut off from the tight-knit campus community at New College. He even wondered about his safety on campus a few times. He read hundreds or thousands of vitriolic comments on the school’s message board. He moved off-campus in response to the outrage over his outing. 

Libertarian commentator Robby Soave wrote, “Ostracizing Derek wouldn’t have made him any less racist: on the contrary, it would have driven him further into the arms of the white nationalist movement.” But that’s wrong. Black himself says that the ostracism about which libertarians and centrists can be such scolds was in his case indispensable. While it was his friends that ultimately convinced him to change his views, “Campus condemnation was the only reason I spoke to those people.” 

Wishes for a simpler world notwithstanding, this shouldn’t be surprising. Black (now R. Derek Black, another break from his former identity) has been clear that ideological conversion is not only difficult but traumatic. Turning away from an ideology like white nationalism “means disconnecting from the network of human beings that you consider to be important to you. Changing your mind about something that’s deeply held is exactly the same thing as changing the people who matter to you.”

The problem with coded language

Commitment to openness to all ideas and all discussion flatters a common belief among many centrists and libertarians that they are in an important way above the fray of ordinary, vulgar politics. They flatter themselves that this makes them more “rational” and more likely to spot and check bias than someone who takes a side. 

There is a persistent message that “The Woke”, rendered hysterical by vulgar politics, see the bogeyman of white supremacy, or the danger of it, everywhere. But Black told us something important: that white supremacists also see white supremacy, or its potential, everywhere. White nationalists see—in the common sympathy for worries about changing culture and immigration rates, opposition to affirmative action, emphasizing higher crime in racialized neighbourhoods, anxiety about running afoul of political correctness—ubiquitous sympathy for the premises underlying white nationalist ideas, and they capitalize on that sympathy to insist on the reasonableness of broader white nationalist concerns. That reasonableness is used to promote the underlying premises of white nationalism, all while denying a connection to anything like white supremacy. In short, white nationalists mock the idea that there could be white nationalism everywhere while working to make it so. 

As a white nationalist, Derek Black participated in a change that has been underway for decades in the way white nationalism packaged, marketed, and mainstreamed its views. White nationalist leaders essentially adopted Lee Atwater’s approach to the Southern Strategy, eschewing racial slurs and explicitly hateful statements, preferring coded language about political correctness and the rights of white people. White nationalists are explicit that this is their strategy: “White nationalists have believed for decades that if they convey their message in the correct way, bundled up in the right packaging, they can get widespread support for it from people who share a lot of their racial views” but who are not white nationalists or even explicitly race-conscious (yet), says Black. 

This strategy is a real problem for people who need racism to be explicit and intentional before it’s worth condemning the people and behaviour that support it. It’s a problem for people who have made openness to edgy ideas part of their identity. 

This, unfortunately, brings me to Richard Hanania. 

I started thinking about the present piece after I encountered Hanania’s argument for “enlightened centrism.” Hanania directly appeals to those who see themselves above the fray of ordinary democratic politics, are informed about basic economics and its implications for political analysis, and whose contrarianism compels them to consider arguments outside the mainstream. “Centrism” isn’t a position on the left/right spectrum but, says Hanania, a position above it. An enlightened centrist can analyze the world with a dispassionate rationality that’s out of reach to the politically inclined. 

Frankly, it is written in a way that would have been appealing and persuasive to an earlier version of me. It provides a flattering portrait of how many (maybe most) libertarians see themselves. 

To prove that “centrism” is about being above or detached from politics, rather than simply in the middle of left and right, Hanania offers the following list of people who he believes qualify for the label: 

Left: Peter Beinart, Jonathan Chait, Freddie deBoer, Michelle Goldberg, Ezra Klein, Peter Singer, Noah Smith, Matt Yglesias

Center/apolitical: Scott Alexander, Josh Barro, Patrick Collison, Jonathan Haidt, Steven Pinker, Progress Studies types, Nate Silver, Alec Stapp, Andrew Sullivan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Derek Thompson, Cathy Young

Right: GMU economics department, Tanner Greer, Sam Hammond, Anatoly Karlin, Emil Kirkegaard, Razib Khan, Megan McArdle, Virginia Postrel, Steve Sailer

There are folks in the center who appeal to libertarians, but the real catnip is in Hanania’s “right” enlightened centrists. Libertarians will read this list and recognize GMU Econ (the economics department of George Mason University), with its commitment to market economics (also home to Bryan Caplan, who is praised separately in the piece), as well as Virginia Postrel, and Megan McArdle. These are people who have supported free markets and limited government. Many libertarians will also know Sam Hammond from his work at the more left-friendly Niskanen Center. 

I’m willing to bet that most libertarians do not know Anatoly Karlin (a Russian white nationalist), Emil Kirkegaard (a sexist, homophobic, “race realist” who argues for pedophilia), Razib Khan (dropped by the NYT for writing for white nationalist publications), or Steve Sailer (a race realist and blogger for the far right websites VDARE and Taki Magazine). But hey, if you like Austrian economics, you might like what these guys have to say! If Hanania likes both, their ideas are at least worth considering, right? 

(Tanner Greer seems fine. My sympathies to Tanner Greer.)

I was still considering how to make people see the implications of Hanania’s list when Christopher Mathias at The Huffington Post published an exposé of Hanania’s writing ten years ago for and other far-right outlets, advocating for truly horrific ideas under the pseudonym Richard Hoste. 

So that was easy. Or so I thought.

Not great, Bob

In 2019, libertarianism was aflutter after Rosie Gray of Buzzfeed published a profile of ex-alt-righter Katie McHugh in which McHugh revealed that she had been recruited to the alt-right through a connection made via the Institute for Humane Studies’ (defunct by 2019) journalism program. Despite the fact that McHugh’s introduction to the alt-right happened after the connection in question had left the IHS, the IHS laudably conducted an internal review to confirm that they hadn’t missed far-right activism under their roof. There was a public discussion and stock-taking as libertarians thought about how to respond to make it clearer that our ideology stands firmly against racism and reactionaries.

Unlike McHugh, who recalls being treated as somewhat disposable by the alt-right, Hanania (as Hoste) was recruited by Richard Spencer to write content like “Why An Alternative Right is Necessary” for Spencer’s website 

By the time Gray wrote her profile, McHugh was basically living in hiding, her life in tatters. Her advice to anyone who had a run-in with ideas from the alt-right was to “get out while you can.” 

At the time he was outed, Hanania was writing things that inspired this article.

Hanania offered an underwhelming response to his outing. He claims to have been young (he was in his mid-20s and at the University of Chicago Law School) and stupid (but not stupid enough to write under his own name) and that he’s renounced what he wrote about (sort of) and come clean (once he was exposed). 

Hanania is more like Black than McHugh in that he is someone who’s garnered a lot of attention but not someone whose introduction to extremism came through a respectable institution. But there’s a lot less soul-searching this time around about how someone can see himself at home in both the libertarian and alt-right worlds. In fact, there have been many arguments against worrying about Hanania’s work. “He writes interesting stuff.” “He’s a friendly guy!” 

The libertarians and centrists defending Hanania (by no means a universal position) have more ire for Mathias than they do for the ideas espoused by Hanania-as-Hoste. Scoffing at Mathias for reacting strongly against arguments for the political importance of racial differences in IQ requires ignoring that the basic premise formed Hoste-Hanania’s “scientific” argument for treating people as sub-human, that Hanania still argues racial differences in IQ help to justify arguments for more brutal policing of Black people, and that it bolsters dangerously illiberal political programs.

Hanania’s outing is a pallid comparison to Black’s conversion. Whether that’s evidence that not much has changed or evidence that bigotry just doesn’t sting like it used to, it’s not great. 

Black told us that the goal of white supremacists was to raise the respectability of white supremacist concerns until they become something we’re attacked for rejecting outright, not something we’re attacked for believing. He told us that the idea was to advance this goal by using coded language and reasonable-sounding questions about things like cultural change and political correctness to help make racism and concerns about whiteness mainstream. He told us that we can’t just point to a lack of bald-faced bigotry and insist there’s no there there. 

Richard Hanania’s portrait of “enlightened centrism” leads libertarians and centrists to believe that they’re too smart to be taken in by all that. That’s nicer than hearing you’re naively playing into extremists’ hands. But once again, too good to be true. 

We can extend a lot of charity to Hanania without eliminating the problem of libertarians’ and centrists’ dogged determination to loudly defend him and his intellectual program. It’s not just true believers that white nationalists need. The defence of coded language, “just asking questions,” hostility to political correctness, and troll culture help white nationalists advance their ideas. Hanania surely contributes to the environment white nationalists are trying to cultivate, whether he’s clever and malignant or just stubborn and naive. We don’t have to litigate what’s in his heart. It doesn’t matter. 

Good intentions don’t always lead to good outcomes. This is a problem with which libertarians, in particular, are familiar. 

Time to change our approach 

“He is a bold surgeon,” said Adam Smith, “whose hand does not tremble when he performs an operation upon his own person; and he is often equally bold who does not hesitate to pull off the mysterious veil of self-delusion, which covers from his view the deformities of his own conduct.”

There are a lot of good people committed to liberty and equal human dignity among libertarians and non-leftist liberals. But at some point, if we don’t do the work to understand how this keeps happening, we become wilfully ignorant. Examining one’s conduct to see where we’ve been duped is not easy. Part of the strategy of the far-right is to make it harder still.

Libertarians and centrists have got to start listening to folks who escape extremist movements, and to the leaks that reveal the strategies those movements employ. We are part of their plans; we are vulnerable to their plans. They don’t ignore us, so we can’t ignore them. Dog whistles are supposed to be inaudible, and I don’t blame people for not always hearing them. But if we see all the dogs running in one direction, especially if it’s towards us, we should take note. 

The need for such self-reflection and scrutiny is very annoying. I assure you it’s not the worst thing about the far right.

Extremist movements don’t only endanger the good names of libertarians and centrists (such as they are). By weaponizing good faith and generosity of interpretation, extremists put those habits in danger. And we need at least some people to foster good faith and generosity if we’re going to convert more Derek Blacks.

Good faith isn’t the only thing extremist strategy puts at risk. Culture warring makes engaging with bad ideas extremely costly. But good people really do need to engage with bad ideas. We are so much better at spotting other people’s bullshit than we are at seeing our own, and exposing bullshit is an important step in dismantling bad ideas. Bad ideas can be engaged without giving them respectability or a platform. This takes more care and thoughtfulness than we employ when we just present those arguments as interesting and assume the marketplace for ideas will reveal the truth, or when we ignore them because they’re just so unpleasant.

Black describes

What it means to be an outspoken white nationalist, or at least to be an outspoken person who is talking about ‘white’ stuff. We imagine it is the Nazi going down the street getting punched by ANTIFA and, certainly there’s some level of that, but we often miss that being an advocate for this means you get widespread support from very unexpected places. That can mean money, that can mean social support, that can mean someone in line coming and buying you coffee every morning … another demonstration of the potency of this message.

More libertarians and centrists have to get better at being vigilant about and pushing back against the far-right and white nationalist messaging. At the very least, resist the urge to buy the race realist a coffee and slap ‘em on the back for making a great point about the Wokes. Don’t blurb books for folks that lend them aid and comfort. 

This isn’t an argument to refuse to learn more about the ideas of the far-right. It’s important to understand those ideas and how they’re mainstreamed and promoted because it’s important to be vigilant against lending them cover. 

Countering white nationalist and far-right ideology can and should be done without descending into the culture war. White nationalists will try to treat any attempt to counter them as left-wing culture warring to shield themselves from substantive criticism. Don’t let them. 

Derek Black blew up his life to help us do better. If we listen to him, we just might. 

“[White Nationalism] is a fringe movement not because its ideas are completely alien to our culture, but because we work constantly to argue against it, expose its inconsistencies and persuade our citizens to counter it.” – R. Derek Black, August 2019

Steve, this one’s for you. 

If you are someone who has found yourself pulled into an extremist movement and you are looking for a way out, there is help for you. The story of Derek Black illustrates that you can leave and you will be forgiven. Visit Life After Hate for more resources and information.

Featured image is Desert Pipeline, by Ken Kistler

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33 days ago
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Placing Hegel in the Liberal Tradition: Elias Buchetmann’s Hegel and the Representative Constitution

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Thomas Nipperdey began his magisterial history of modern Germany proclaiming, “in the beginning there was Napoleon.”  In the popular conception of G.W.F. Hegel as a political philosopher, Nipperdey’s notion can be inverted: “In the end, there was Napoleon.”  So many accounts of Hegel’s political philosophy begin and end with his chance 1806 encounter with the Corsican general in Jena. Hegel famously recounted this event by stating that in the person of Napoleon, he saw the world-spirit [Weltgeist] “astride a horse, reach[ing] out over the world and master[ing] it.”  From this quote, the idea of Hegel as the arch-Bonapartist emerges. Napoleon represents the pinnacle of mankind’s striving for the German philosopher—and the modern Prussian state serves as handmaid to a globalist, “universal” conception of statehood, whose task is to bring about the “end of history.”

Hegel’s writings buttress his sordid reputation. Infamously, Hegel writes in an addition to The Philosophy of Right that “…The state is as far above physical life as spirit is above nature. We should therefore venerate the state as an earthly divinity…” Hegel also took the side of the Prussian monarchy over the estates in the political disputes after the Napoleonic Wars. Passages and positions like these in Hegel’s “political work” expose him to the criticism that he is the architect of “globalism” in the form of neoliberal technocracy or the author of modern totalitarianism as Karl Popper contends in his Open Society and its Enemies. However, these characterizations do not easily square with Hegel’s overwhelming concern with freedom throughout his life. Moreover, Hegel’s meeting with Napoleon occurred in 1806—the Philosophy of Right first appeared in 1820, and was accompanied by a number of lectures in 1824, and additions inserted by his student, Eduard Gans after his death in 1831. In the imagination of many readers and critics, all these events become compressed into a mishmash of half-truths and intrigues about one of philosophy’s most enigmatic and divisive figures.

Elias Buchetmann’s new manuscript, Hegel and the Representative Constitution, seeks to address many misconceptions readers have about the controversial and difficult German philosopher’s political writings through a combination of textual exegesis and historical context. To Buchetmann, Hegel is not a proto-fascist or proto-Marxist, but an indefatigable opponent of aristocracy and supporter of Constitutionalism. Buchetmann points out that Hegel’s understanding of a “Constitution” differs from the social contractarianism of Rousseau or Hobbes, however. Hegel contends that a Constitution cannot be “made” through a contract, but “spoken into existence” through the dialectical relationship between a people and their representative, a hereditary monarch whose capacity to speak for a people lends the regime a sense of “personality” [Personlichkeit] that a “representative Constitution” cannot engender through a mere contract.

At first blush, Hegel’s monarchism appears utterly foreign to readers in liberal democracies. To combat this discomfort, Buchetmann begins his manuscript by placing Hegel’s monarchism in historical context. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars, nearly all relevant European intellectuals spoke of the need for monarchy as a means of “preserving order” against events like the Reign of Terror. This desire to prevent another Terror also meant opposing elective and absolute monarchs to preserve executive power in the hands of established and “stable” royal lineages. In a word, Buchetmann characterizes the post-Napoleonic intellectual milieu as broadly Hobbesian with one major concession: the estates and their landed gentry should have a perpetual presence in parliamentary orders to better “educate” the masses in the “virtues” required to preserve lasting order and peace after  Napoleon.

Buchetmann evokes Hegel’s 1815 Assessment of the Constitution of Württemburg as his first major foray into contemporary debates about German Constitutions following Napoleon’s defeat in the “Wars of Liberation.” Breaking with the consensus that aristocratic estates needed lasting representation in parliamentary systems, Hegel sided with the German monarchy, not from a reactionary “need for order,” but because he feared the dominance of landed economic elites over German society. To this end, Buchetmann describes Hegel’s politics as anti-authoritarian in nature and deeply informed by the experience of Swabia as a plaything of landed elites. This characterization of Württemburg finds historical support: the poet Friedrich Schiller’s career began in opposition to the Swabian prince, Karl von Eugen’s, rigorous military academy, the Karlsschule. Eugen’s academy itself represented part of a plan to transform the Swabian city of Stuttgart into a “new Versailles,” capable of rivaling France in grandeur and military power.

The ongoing German rivalry with France meant that intellectuals attempted to locate a new source of German identity in German letters. Again, bucking this trend, Hegel turned to French authors like Montesquieu for inspiration in his articulation of what he termed a “representative Constitution.” As Hegel moved from Jena to Berlin to pursue a professorship at the city’s University, he began writing the Philosophy of Right, his first major philosophical treatise on politics. Buchetmann thereby transitions from historical to textual analysis, especially regarding the work’s third part, “Ethical Life.” Appealing directly to the text and Hegel’s lectures expositing it, Buchetmann articulates Hegel’s unintuitive political positions. To Buchetmann, Hegel argues that hereditary monarchy best serves a representative Constitution precisely because its patrimonial nature means the future monarch remains unknown, whereas an elective monarchy pulls its selectorate from a pool of known landed elites. Moreover, Hegel limits the monarch to a functionary role, “rubber stamping” decisions the people’s representatives make in a bicameral legislative body. Occasionally, a monarch may make concessions to restore property to small holders, but otherwise acts as the creature of a middle class [Mittelstand] of civil servants. 

Buchetmann’s description of Hegel’s parliamentary system delights and surprises. In his reading of Hegel, the legislature is bifurcated into a “moveable” [Beweglich] and “substantiated” or “landed” chamber. The former consists of representatives of major sectors of the German economy and other cultural and political interests in the form of “associations.” The other chamber consists of members of the landed estate who affirm decisions made by the “moveable” part. Hegel also argues the franchise should be limited to members of political associations, which serve as the major organ of political education [Kenntnis] over “the many.”  

A number of implications emerge from this reading of Hegel’s politics. Among the many virtues of Buchetmann’s manuscript is its attention to language, for the most part. However, Buchetmann does not explain what the term Hegel uses for “political education” captures in German. Kenntnis as a verb is kennen, which is often used to connote “familiarity” with something or someone as opposed to Wissen or “intellectual knowledge.”  To Hegel, then, political association is a function of recognition [Annerkennung] which involves the “life or death struggle” for mutual cognizance between peoples, groups, and ideas he describes at length in The Phenomenology of Spirit. This subtlety of language reveals that The Philosophy of Right does not radically break with Hegel’s larger project, but finds some expression in his later work.

Hegel’s confluence of political education with civic association (and indeed, civil society), as well as his Montesquieuian influences, potentially brings him in contact with other authors in the liberal tradition. Alexis de Tocqueville famously argued that American democracy is unique in its tendency to work primarily through voluntary civic associations rather than aristocratic estates or individuals working independently of one another—and uses Montesquieu’s regime typology to reach that conclusion. Likewise, Publius makes liberal use of Montesquieu in the The Federalist, arguing the United States represents a “new” regime, “an extended republic.”  Luke Mayville’s work on John Adam’s Thoughts on Government identifies an egalitarian strain running through Adams’s defense of the Senate as a gathering place for America’s “landed elites” so as to “better keep an eye on them.” This notion bears a striking resemblance to Hegel’s concept of a “substantiated” or “landed” chamber in his proposed parliament. 

It would not be a fair criticism of Buchetmann’s text to fault it for not exploring all these connections. Rather, it is a virtue of the text to open Hegel’s work to these avenues. A new work on Hegel’s Philosophy of Right is long overdue. The last major scholarly work to address Hegel’s political treatise was Shlomo Avineri’s 1974 Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State. Yet, it behooves Buchetmann to address or at least acknowledge some topics of contemporary importance. He begins the text by (rightly) identifying the recent resurgence of Hegel scholarship in the past decade. However, he does not identify a cause. Why are scholars returning to Hegel, especially on matters of deep significance like his system of logic, dialectical history, and theology?  Instead, much later in the text, Buchetmann makes a passing reference to political apathy as a question Hegel’s thought may elucidate or alleviate.

But, are democratic citizens becoming more apathetic?  The 2020 American Presidential Elections were among the mostly widely participated in American History by sheer numbers. The rising mass opposition to police brutality in the United States and France also speaks to a rising political consciousness among its participants and opponents. Can the people be “apathetic” if they are taking their concerns with the state to the streets? Or is this trend a sign of a widespread lack of confidence in the political system? Is this a phenomenon a Hegelian perspective can illuminate? After all, Hegel begins The Philosophy of Right by critiquing mass political movements as expressions of a Rousseauian “abstract will.”  If Hegel is correct that “philosophy is its own age apprehended in thought,” then some statement about the present age would certainly improve Buchetmann’s manuscript.

These issues do not sink Buchetmann’s project: far from it, in fact. Two things can immediately be said of this text. One, that engaging with it prompts a number of new and evocative questions, especially as they pertain to contemporary politics in advanced liberal democracies. Two, reading this text with Hegel’s Philosophy of Right open next to it allows readers to rediscover Hegel. It has been some time since I read The Philosophy of Right. With Buchetmann’s text, I became reacquainted with poignant passages I previously pored over and became familiar with a number of new ones that charmed and delighted me. In fact, I often became aware of passages that Buchetmann addresses before he brought them up. For this reason and others, Hegel and the Representative Constitution is a great new work of Hegel scholarship that breaks new paths in an increasingly crowded field.

Featured Image is a Statue of Hegel by Daniel Stocker

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79 days ago
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The Political Economy of Patriarchy

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There’s a new program of antitrans and increasingly anti-queer simpliciter politics sweeping across America. After they lost on gay marriage in in courts of public opinion and Supreme, Republicans went looking for a new bogeyman. They found it in trans people. Their new hate campaign is focused on the idea that trans people are “grooming” children (and nevermind the many actual documented cases of preachers, priests, and pastors literally grooming children). It has largely failed to win over voters, but it plays well with the conservative set. 

None of this is that surprising. What is surprising is the number of ostensibly liberal commentators dressing up this latter-day Satanic Panic in feminist language. This is most clearly seen in the British anti-trans hate movement known to its supporters as “gender critical feminism” and its opponents as “terfism,” most famously advocated for by children’s author Joanne Rowling, but also supported by a small number of influential authors and editors at British newspapers. Why are these nominal feminists so eager to sign up with a hate campaign organized by blatantly misogynist conservatives whose other policy goals include banning abortion, birth control, and no-fault divorce?

To understand this phenomenon, we must recognize that it is not new but old—that some version of it has been with us from the very first wave of feminism. We are confronted with a puzzle: “Why have [some] women always been willing to sign up to defend the forces of their own oppression?” This puzzle can seem especially difficult if you have a simple understanding of feminism’s enemy, patriarchy, as a uniform field of oppression that runs from all men to all women. Why has feminism always struggled to maintain a united front in the face of patriarchal oppression?

The Old System

Patriarchy is older than history. Patriarchy is almost certainly older than agriculture. This makes it an almost incomprehensibly ancient inheritance of humanity—fifty or a hundred thousand or more years old. And yet, unlike so many other things of comparable antiquity, patriarchy has endured down the ages and to the modern day. At the same time, patriarchy has the queer feature of being personal, familial, and political all at once. 

To understand its antiquity, its ubiquity, and its durability, we need to understand patriarchy as a form of social organization—which is to say, we need to understand its political economy. We’ll build up this picture in steps, though it’s important to understand that I am not describing a historical process—I describe these features in this order to make it easier for the reader to follow.

What follows might strike some readers as objectionably evo-psycho. But while evolutionary psychology seeks to reassure its readers that contemporary biases are natural and normal by way of just-so stories about The Savannah and some sleight of hand involving the phrase “designed by natural selection,” the project here is to understand a material structure of power with the aim of tearing it down.

Now. Picture a primordial couple, a man and a woman. They both have an interest in having children. Most reproductive labor is done by the woman, but she doesn’t have much ability to set the terms on which that labor is performed—which is an anodyne way of saying that men rape women, and women bear the consequences of pregnancy. Not all sex is rape—but rape is a pervasive aspect of the premodern world. The unfortunate result of this is that the average premodern woman would spend the majority of her adult life either pregnant or nursing.

And here we must go beyond Firestone and recognize that reproduction has the rather signal effect of producing children. And in the premodern world, children are a resource rather than a liability. Children start work at very young ages—typically, helping to tend to even younger children and babies; they graduate rapidly to ordinary housework, and soon after to normal adult responsibilities. (Childhood as an extended period of innocence and education that costs parents vast sums of money is a particularly modern invention—we’ll return to the importance of this fact later.) Sons in particular have a central role in perpetuating “the family line” in many societies, which makes them an especially prized resource.

But while our primordial family is busy with these activities, so are all the other primordial families. Our primordial family is related to some of them—brothers, sisters, cousins, etc—and not to others, or at any rate not closely. And humans, by and large, prefer their families (even the extended parts) to strangers—you can tell a kin selection story about this, if you like, or you can just accept it as fact. But being as how human beings are political animals, we do not identify our cousins by smell or through any other biological pathway, but through culture. The in-group is identified by knowledge, tradition, language, culture; the out-group in similar fashion—though these identifiers are often pseudobiological in surface appearance. So our primordial family is organized together with some other primordial families, and sets itself against strange Others.

This premodern world is a world of low economic growth.  Technological and social progress are so slow as to be imperceptible. The only way to grow (which is to say: gain power) is through “extensive growth”—or, put more plainly, to use violence to acquire land or people. “Acquire people”—and here we come to slavery and rape. Acquiring people in this way means that our primordial family has, in addition to its family unit and its collection of “cousins,” a servant class notionally unrelated to them. (This is the reason that patriarchal and racist sentiment are so invariably intertwined, despite their superficial distinctions: they each express an aspect of the Old System.)

This completes our picture of the “ideal type” of patriarchal society. The family unit is a unit of production; it produces goods and it produces people. The fruits of this production are not accorded to those who produce them, however, but to those who have the power to seize and redistribute them—patriarchs. Patriarchs divvy out the fruits of this production so as to maintain their own control over the system. The woman’s part of this is sometimes known as the patriarchal bargain: she provides children and service, and receives security.

Of course this system rarely operates as pure naked domination, and instead under an ideology and a culture that explains that this is all for the best for everyone, and to one degree or another gains adherence from much of the population. And there is of course substantial local variation in all this—in kinship systems, in the understanding of the in-group and the out-group, in the precise contours of male dominance, in better and worse conditions for women. But while these variations may seem substantial in local perspective, none of them so much as approach what we today would think of as acceptably feminist social orders: they are all characterized by pervasive male domination.

One final note, and an important one: this system is fractal, in that the same structure recurs at different levels of analysis. The larger collection of patriarchal families called “society” is likewise controlled by powerful men, who, we are so often told, rule over the rest “like my own children.” At the same time, the subaltern servant class has a similar patriarchal structure in its own families.

Faggots and quislings

The funny thing about patriarchal societies is that they are not characterized by peace and order, but by constant conflict and disturbance. This is because of the nature of human reproduction: there are always more sons than there are slots for being a patriarch. The Ideal Family, by its very nature, produces too many people to fill all the Ideal Roles. And this is on top of the fact that there are always those who do not “fulfill their telos,” as Aristotle might have put it: the fags, the dykes, the whores, the trannies, the failsons—and other worse slurs I won’t put to print here. The bad women and the failed men: every social position in the system is partly defined by how you can fail at that role, how you can be a “defective ____.” And, as described above, these terms are very frequently racialized, or capable of being racialized—because that subaltern class is an inherent part of the system.

We are now in a place to explain the durability of patriarchy as a social system—or, put another way, to explain why so many people who are oppressed by the system have been so willing to defend it. The fine-grained internal structure described above means in practice that wherever you are in the patriarchal social structure, you maintain your place by stepping on the head of those below you. The fruits of human production are divvied out according to how well people fulfill their roles in this system—good wife, dutiful son, faithful daughter, etc. etc. And if you want to keep your slot as One Of The Good Ones, it behooves you to support the system as a whole. (It is perhaps worth noting in passing the similarity of this structure to the program of colonial exploitation known as “divide and rule”: and here we see the fractal nature of the Old System at play.) 

As important as the material rewards, however, is what we might call the psychic wage of hierarchy: the pleasant feeling one gets knowing that you are in your place because you are good, and your place is above others, who are bad, and deserve it. “I am a dutiful wife and mother, not like those filthy whores!” What makes patriarchy such a durable social structure is not that it is simple and inflexible and unalterable, but rather that it has a plethora of ranks on the hierarchy, such that everyone involved is at once both anxious about falling down it, and eager to climb up it. Every man wants to be a patriarch and fears being a faggot; every woman wants to be a mother and fears being a whore (or at least she wants the safety and security that come from being such, even if the act of motherhood is rather a difficult one).

This is why, incidentally, the patriarchy is in material terms quite bad for men—patriarchy isn’t the rule of men, it is the rule of fathers, and the rat race of men competing with each other to become patriarchs both inevitably produces a great many losers and in the process does immense spiritual damage even to those who win. The cruelty consumes you. Just go read your average incel’s manifesto to see what I mean.

Thus we finally arrive at our central topic: understanding that from the very first moment that the very first feminists began to challenge this system, they were opposed by other women who presented feminism—liberation—as a danger to women. Witness, for instance, what Hannah More, a conservative critic of Mary Wollstonecraft, had to say about women: “Nature, propriety, and custom have prescribed certain bounds to each [sex]; bounds which the prudent and the candid will never attempt to break down; and indeed it would be highly impolitic to annihilate distinctions from which each acquires excellence, and to attempt innovations, by which both would be losers.” A moment later we’re hearing about how women are porcelain vases who must be kept in locked cabinets for their own good, and never venture into the Affairs of Men (for their own safety). The same phenomenon will recur with the coming of the suffragist movement—a recurring feature of anti-suffrage activism will involve portraying suffrage as harmful to women.

And of course the second wave likewise had its own anti-feminists—most famously, Phyllis Schlafly, who called her anti-ERA organization STOP: “Stop Taking Our Privileges.” This is the model for anti-feminist feminism: “demanding your ancient rights and prerogatives [within the system],” for it is precisely by handing out some (conditional) benefits to some (en toto) marginalized persons that the system maintains its own stability.

More’s metaphor of women as exquisite porcelain vases that must be kept locked in secure cabinets is instructive, because it so clearly outlines the most standard anti-feminist dialectic: “Women are in danger from male violence. Since they are too weak to protect themselves, they therefore require protection by other male violence. To earn this protection, they must accept the patriarchal bargain—a share of men’s resources and protection, in exchange for faithful service.” We might also refract this through the lens of Good Ones and Bad Ones: “good women are in danger of violence from bad men, so they need protection by good men, which they earn by being good women.” And what makes a good woman or a good man is their willingness to both embody and enforce patriarchal norms.

A feminism of liberation

Thus far this essay has been pretty dismal. The Old System endured fifty thousand years in its filthy horror. It’s based in deep facts about human biology and human psychology. How are we to overcome it?  The answer is that we have already begun to do so; the explanation lies in what an economic historian would call the Great Divergence and you probably know as the Industrial Revolution. Circa 1800, economic growth stopped being approximately zero, and the long-run graph of human technological progress tilted upwardsdramatically.

This had some important social consequences. Human interaction stopped being a zero-sum game. The key to modern prosperity isn’t rape and slaves and land theft—it’s peace, commerce, and mutually beneficial interaction. And this explosive growth in technology deeply changed the nature of human labor. The principal contribution of an adult man today isn’t to drive a plough or swing a sword. Modern production relies increasingly little on brute physical strength, and increasingly deeply on education and skill. This radically changed the calculus of reproductive labor—children were no longer a near-instant source of labor, but an expensive long-term investment. At the same time, a wife in constant childrearing mode was an immense loss of income. And new reproductive technologies in abortion and birth control gave women increasing control over reproductive labor. The net result of all these changes was that, for the first time, a society of free and equal human beings, without regard to gender or race, became possible as a durable mode of human social organization.

The fundamental interest of persons in a liberal society is equal access to participation in society—economically, politically, socially. Nothing more, nothing less. This is just another way of saying that we have an interest in autonomy, in the chance to be a law to ourselves—to chart the course of our lives as we see fit. And, somehow, the chaos of it all works out to all our benefit.

But even as progress has undercut the foundations of the Old System, it staggers onwards under its own inertia. To he who has, more will be given. Pre-existing inequalities of wealth and power continue to enable those who possess them to extract more wealth and power in the future. And the cultural inheritance of patriarchy continues to pollute all our minds. Thus the Old System continues to attract quislings, happy to sell out the rest of us for the conditional reward of being One Of The Good Ones. The Old System is a prehistoric persistence, a monster from the human past that we must all liberate ourselves from, materially and psychologically.

The struggle before us is to make real this possibility of a society of free and equal citizens. To do this, we must distinguish between a feminism of liberation and a “feminism” of false empowerment. The feminism of liberation tells us that we must liberate everyone from the shackles of this thing called patriarchy. The feminism of false empowerment presents itself as empowering women, but only does so within the confines of the patriarchal order—in truth, it is nothing more than defending the “ancient rights and prerogatives” of “good women.” Contemporary anti-trans “feminism” falls firmly in the latter category. Their activism invariably is oriented around a hierarchy of good women and bad women, inevitably circumscribed by patriarchal logic. In the end, they are obsessed with maintaining a pretty prison for themselves from the lofty heights of which they can pride themselves as at least being better than those Other Women who deserve everything they get. Three examples of contemporary feminist—”feminist” contestation will illustrate the point: puberty, sports, and bathrooms.

Sometimes, a teenager looks at the puberty barreling towards them, says “seems bad,” and takes a couple of pills that put them on the other track. This, anti-trans feminists would have us believe, is a national emergency. Our daughters are being “groomed” by “social contagion” to “mutilate themselves.” We better ban this, post haste—we need to protect our daughters from the danger!  The anti-trans crowd talks as if teenage girls were primarily vessels for wombs, and that these wombs matter more than “whatever silly notion they have in their silly heads”—as Schreier’s cover image so memorably suggests. The opponents of teen transition are rather like those nice church ladies who are “of course” all in favor of choice, they just think that pregnant teenage girls should be required to go through six years of mandatory counseling and evaluation (and in the meantime we’ll let nature take its course), and indeed after all they’ll probably change their mind soon (you know how flighty teenage girls are).

The feminism of liberation teaches us that all persons have a fundamental interest in their own bodily autonomy, prior to any pious handwringing about the contents of their abdomens, that puberty produces irreversible changes in the body (given our present medical technology), and that therefore if a teenager is insistent, persistent, and consistent that they’d like to control the course of their own future life, they ought to be able to—just like all the rest of us. We should ensure that everyone has access to the medical and social capacity to be a law to their own flesh—this means access to abortion, access to gender transition, and access to health care generally.

Now maybe this all feels a bit polemical to you. Medical transition is a life-changing decision; surely it might be reasonable to protect children from such risks—after all, they’re children; we protect them from all kinds of risks. Let us not ask why the “children protectors” are so obsessively focused on “protecting” trans boys and not trans girls; let us not ask why we must protect children from a trans puberty but not a cis puberty. Let us simply grant that transition is the kind of thing we might want to protect children from. But the truth is that almost no one who undergoes medical transition regrets it. While a variety of children will, at one time or another, express some degree of “gender variance” or dissatisfaction with their gender role, of those children, the ones who are insistent, consistent, and persistent enough to get access to puberty blockers and hormone replacement therapy are almost uniformly happy with the result. Something on the order of 99% of teenagers who go on hormone replacement therapy are happy with it, and a substantial fraction of those who do regret it do so because of the discrimination and oppression they face afterwards, rather than for any intrinsic reason. We let children ride horses, get knee surgery, and take out student loans, all of which are substantially more dangerous—and more regretted—than gender transition. By any reasonable standard, we do a pretty good job protecting children from whatever risks gender transition may involve.

Sometimes, a bunch of girls get together and play a sport. And sometimes, a trans girl takes third, or maybe even just fifth. This, anti-trans feminists would have us believe, is a national emergency. Our daughters are being dominated and brutalized by these roided-out trans monsters!  We better ban this, post haste—we need to protect our daughters from the danger!  The anti-trans crowd talks as if the most important thing about sports is that three spots on the podium must be reserved for white America’s prettiest daughters, because how else are they going to get into college.

The feminism of liberation teaches that the three people on top of the podium are, in fact, significantly less important than the thirty thousand people who competed in the tournament—who got the chance to participate in that aspect of human excellence called “sport.” Sport is not a way of answering “who is naturally the best,” because that’s a silly question. We’ve got forklifts now, we don’t need strongmen for anything real. Simply, we all have an interest in access to that form of social participation called sport. We should ensure that there are sufficient opportunities for everyone to engage in enjoyable athletic activity, not maintain some expensive preserve in which The Right People get to prove how special they are.

Now perhaps this all feels a bit polemical to you. We already—through leagues and weight classes and age classes and competitions—regulate athletic competition in a variety of ways to ensure that the games are fun and enjoyable, rather than one-sided blowouts. Let us not ask why the sports protectors have never once before this moment evinced any interest in women’s participation in sports—in the problems of harassment, underfunding, and sexism that prevent women across the country from participating in athletic excellence. Let us not ask whether women’s sports leagues have, from the start, been designed to prevent women from participating in athletics rather than to encourage such participation. Let us not ask why the sports defenders seem so resolutely focused on “protecting” white women from black women. Let us simply grant that physical overmatch is the kind of thing we might segregate athletics by. But the truth is that trans women who have undergone medical transition do not have much, if any, advantage over cis women; certainly they do not have an advantage that is so decisive as to be insurmountable—that is the kind of thing that would leap out of the data (and signally fails to). Including trans women in sports poses no threat to cis women’s participation in sports; excluding trans women from sports quite obviously poses a threat to theirs.

Sometimes, a woman uses a public restroom. Sometimes, that woman has a dick. This, the anti-trans feminists would have us believe, is a national emergency. Our sacred public bathrooms are being “infiltrated” by “pedophile predators” who want to expose themselves to innocent women and girls!  We better ban this, post haste, and post a guard at every women’s bathroom door to perform a genital check. Just in case. The anti-trans crowd talks as if the primary danger to women and girls’ sexual purity comes from disgusting outsiders who must trick and force their way into Women’s Spaces—and not, instead, from perfectly ordinary and familiar men in positions of respect and power.

The feminism of liberation teaches us that most rapes are committed by men the victims know. The “dangerous outsider” from which good women must be protected is a classic figure of the Old System, the threat of which has always been used to justify the guardianship (ownership) of women’s bodies by “good” men—recall that security guard, and his genital checks. Note the degree to which this harassment is almost invariably directed against gender-nonconforming women—which is to say, almost always used to reinforce patriarchal norms. The feminism of liberation teaches us that increasing the power of men to regulate women’s bodies does not decrease rape and sexual assault, but increases it.

Now perhaps this all seems a bit polemical to you. It shouldn’t. Fathers, priests, and powerful men are the primary perpetrators of sexual assault. Consider the pervasiveness of sexual assault in conservative Christian denominations from the Catholic Church to the Southern Baptists to the British Methodists. Consider the repeated scandals involving police officers raping the sex workers they are, supposedly, protecting from Dangerous Pimps. And consider, dwarfing all the above by orders of magnitude, the number of women and children raped by their own family members or acquaintances. Trans bathroom predators, on the other hand, simply do not exist. Just as the Satanic Panic displaced increasing knowledge of the pervasiveness of domestic child abuse onto a suspicious and luridly imagined Other, so too does the recent trans panic displace the pervasiveness of rape and sexual assault brought to light by Me Too onto a suspicious and luridly imagined Other—the simultaneously dangerous, disgusting, and pathetic transsexual

If we want a chance at tearing down this hideous endurance, we must confront it, not acquiesce in its framing of the problem—not accept the idea that there are visibly identifiable “bad men” who “good women” must be protected from by the violence of visibly identifiable “good men.” Accepting this dynamic simply places more power—physical, material, social, epistemic—power in the hands of those men who can pass themselves off as Good. And history teaches us very clearly what such Good Men do with that power.


The liberal project of ensuring equal access to social, political, and economic participation for all is still incomplete. The project of liberating us all from the Old System of hierarchy and domination—our biological inheritance—is still incomplete. The great question of the age is whether we shall liberate ourselves from the muck we were born in—or drag ourselves back under, in the name of “protecting” ourselves from a world without domination. The past wishes to strangle the future, and from the dawn of time to today it guises itself in the language of “protecting women and children” from those Dangerous Others. Contemporary anti-trans “feminists” seek to reify that ideology in which women are inherently weak and fragile and in need of constant protection from Man’s World. Rather than retreating into biopessimism or monasticism, we must instead look forwards to a future in which all people regardless of gender or gender identity are free to chart their own course through the world—biology and patriarchy be damned.

Featured Image is The Pater Familias, by Adriaen van Ostade

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80 days ago
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Lessons for a New Cold War

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I am a child of the 90s. America had emerged from the long twilight struggle of the Cold War victorious, materially and ideologically: liberal capitalism was, it was said, the end of history. As such it was hoped that free trade and free exchange would slowly see the People’s Republic of China liberalize their society and join the liberal world order as a prosperous, peaceful member. Recent events have disappointed those hopes—no one thing, but an accumulation of them: crushing Hong Kong’s democracy after promising to maintain “one country, two systems,” the ongoing genocide in Xinjiang, the ever-more-extensive apparatus of state surveillance developed to monitor and regulate their own citizens. This domestic illiberalism is only mirrored in Xi’s “Wolf Warrior” foreign policy, aimed at the conquest and subjugation of Taiwan, the ownership of the South China Sea out to the nine dash line, domination of its neighbors, and generally accumulating sufficient power to challenge American hegemony. The PRC’s years-long campaign of state-backed industrial espionage, especially aimed at military and aerospace technology, is only one disturbing manifestation of this program.

It is natural as liberals to deplore war and warmongering. But the truth is that Cold War Two is upon us whether we like it or not. Just as Vladimir Putin picked his war in Ukraine, Xi Xinping has picked his conflict with the liberal order. And as prominent conservatives begin advocating for America to abandon our allies, attack our friends, and close our borders, all in the name of beating China, we must not cede the field to these voices. Cold War Two started years ago, and it is incumbent on us to develop a liberal program for winning it. Without a liberal alternative, conservatives will use the excuse to push us towards isolationism, xenophobia, and a new Know-Nothingism. 

This essay proposes a simple answer. We can win Cold War Two the same way we won Cold War One: not through violent confrontation, but by proving the superiority of the liberal system over the long run. This can be achieved by cleaving to three fundamental principles: economic growth, immigration, and national sovereignty.

Plank 1: Economic Growth

We and the Soviets spent billions on tanks, on planes, on missiles, on war and death—but in the end, Cold War One was decided by the grocery stores. In the Soviet Union they were unreliable, short on bread or meat, long on shoddy clothes and badly-fitting shoes. In America they were overflowing—with fresh fruit, refrigerated goods, the jell-o pudding pops that astounded Boris Yeltsin when he stopped at a random Randall’s in Clear Lake, Texas. And this abundance was the result of one simple factor: the American system delivered greater long-run economic growth than the Soviet system.

You might at this point interject that it’s pointless to try and compete with the People’s Republic of China on economic growth. Their economy has grown faster than five percent per year since Deng’s reforms in 1978, and it’s impossible for us to ever achieve such heights. But the truth is that history has shown, over and over, it is easy to achieve astounding rates of growth when your nation is catching up to humanity’s technological frontier. Pouring modern technology and methods into a population that mostly consists of rural subsistence farmers can of course achieve incredible growth. The factories don’t even need to be particularly efficient for huge gains to be possible. The early Soviet Union, after all, is one such example—there’s a reason that the early Cold War was dominated by fears of Soviet economic might, despite the end of the Cold War being dominated by jokes about Soviet inefficiency.

Many trends indicate that China has already begun facing severe economic headwinds, not unlike Japan in its Lost Decade. China is simultaneously hitting the demographic transition and the limits of the “developmentalist” model of state-led growth, with the real possibility that they will fall into the middle-income trap—and with a lower GDP per capita than Japan had achieved when it hit the same speed bump. It is sometimes taken for granted that Chinese growth will continue infinitely forever, and that there is no point in even trying to compete with them on this matter. It’s worth remembering that people thought the same about the Soviets, once.

So how can the United States achieve durable long-run growth and escape the spectre of “secular stagnation”? The unfortunate truth is this: secular stagnation is not some mysterious force operating from beyond human control. Secular stagnation is a self-inflicted wound. We can take the brakes off the American economy through three key policies. First, we must reform our anti-housing regulations. A thicket of red tape has prevented Americans from building housing where the jobs are. We have created an artificial scarcity of housing, one that prevents people from moving to where the jobs are, and diverts an ever-greater share of national income into rentiers’ pockets. Cutting down this thicket in just three cities would boost American GDP by 8.9%. 

Second, we require permitting reform, especially for new green industries like solar and wind. Much as with housing, we have put endless red tape in the way of new industrial development, one that, as Adam Gurri says, achieves the worst of both worlds—neither effective regulation nor efficient markets. These regulations have stifled not just growth but the transition to a green economy, as local busybodies (and the oil and gas lobby) strangle the development of wind turbines, solar plants, and transmission lines. 

Third, we must embrace a new Keynesianism that provides stimulus, not austerity, in response to crises. Since Reagan, America has embraced fiscal austerity and anemic monetary policy. The inadequate stimulus following the 2008 financial crisis gave us the Great Recession. Contrast that with the rapid resumption of growth after Covid—a result of large-scale government stimulus in response to crisis. Under Biden, a hot labor market has driven down unemployment to 3.4%, all while inflation has been brought under control by prudent monetary policy.

I do not know what the “refrigerated aisle” of 2100 is going to be—just as the people of 1945 could not imagine what the grocery stores of 1989 would look like. But if we can take the brakes off America, we shall continue to be the foundry where the future is forged—and at the end of Cold War Two, our broadly-shared prosperity will, once again, astound the world.

Plank 2: Immigration

Between the beginning of its construction in 1961, and its eventual destruction in 1989, more than five thousand people would flee from East to West across the Berlin Wall—and at least 140 others would die trying. There was no more visible symbol of the difference between the Soviet and the Western systems: the Soviets had to build walls to keep their people in.

Between January and March of 2023, more than four thousand Chinese citizens attempted to cross America’s southern border without authorization. Like East Germans before them—like millions of immigrants from the founding of America to today—they have come to the West seeking escape from oppression and a better life for their families. As Xi’s China turns increasingly authoritarian, more and more Chinese citizens will come to our shores fleeing stagnation and oppression at home. We should welcome them with open arms.

It is sometimes alleged that immigration must, as a matter of “simple economic logic,” be bad for incumbent residents. By increasing the supply of labor, immigrants must necessarily decrease its price—”they’re stealing our jobs!” Such “simple economic logic” tends to ignore the part where immigrants consume goods and services like everyone else—and thus, as study after empirical study confirms, do not decrease incumbents’ well-being. It is also alleged—with the racism less masked this time—that immigrants must of necessity tear apart the “social fabric” of America. It is worth in such moments recalling that twenty-eight percent of Americans are either immigrants or the immediate children of immigrants. The United States has proven world-historically good at welcoming new immigrants and integrating them into our social fabric.

And, to be blunt, we need them. Under Biden, the CHIPS Act and the Inflation Recovery Act have unleashed a new era of industrial policy—one that will require vast numbers of highly skilled workers to operate. Chip fab construction is already hitting roadblocks finding the highly specific expertise needed to set up advanced photolithography manufacturing. America is a big country, and we produce a lot of brilliant people. But it’s an even bigger world, and there’s no reason to prevent the best and brightest around the world who wish to become Americans from doing so. Immigrants consistently deliver unusually high rates of innovation and entrepreneurship—two things that will be essential to winning the twenty-first century.

Meanwhile, immigration is one area China has consistently struggled with. The PRC is hitting the demographic transition sooner than anyone expected, with the Chinese population expected to begin shrinking by 2031, if not sooner. The overhang of elderly citizens is likewise expected to exert a similar effect on their economy as it has on Japan’s, as fewer and fewer young workers begin supporting a larger and larger number of non-working retirees. And the PRC experiences near-zero immigration, with approximately 1448 naturalized citizens in the entire country as of 2010

The race of the global talent of the world is one that America can easily win—if we choose to. This will require reforming our broken immigration system. We do not need a wall. We need an Ellis Island for the twenty-first century. The guiding light of immigration policy should be to naturalize new citizens each year equal to one percent of our current population. This is not an unreasonable goal—if Canada can do it, so can we. Any foreign national who completes an advanced degree in the United States should be eligible for permanent residency. The world already comes to America to receive the best education there is—we should let them put that education to work in America afterwards! Achieving an overall one percent naturalization goal will also require streamlining the immigration process, eliminating the burdensome paperwork and pointless bureaucracy that currently clogs up our system. It will also require paths to citizenship for DREAMers and other undocumented workers. By increasing legal immigration, we will decrease illegal immigration, freeing up resources for enforcement of actual threats to national security, instead of the endless, mindless brutality of the current regime. We can prosecute smugglers and spies more easily if our resources are not consumed by policing ordinary people who are simply seeking a better life.

Plank 3: National Sovereignty

The twenty-first century began with the United States, under the leadership of George W. Bush, pursuing two great projects in regime change: to remove the Taliban from Afghanistan and Saddam from Iraq and replace each with a liberal democracy. A generation later, a million dead later, trillions of dollars later—and the Taliban still rule Afghanistan. The War in Iraq profoundly harmed America’s standing in the world, and gave cover to dictators like Vladimir Putin who thought they too should be allowed to launch wars of aggression in their near abroad.

These contemporary foreign adventures are in that respect little different from those of Cold War One. It would be hard to argue that our endless anti-Communist meddling (read: dirty wars and paramilitary murder) in Latin America produced anything like stable liberal democracies. We spent twenty years propping up a failing French colony in southeast Asia—and, fifty years later, the Communists still rule Vietnam. Our ability to forcibly intervene on other nations’ domestic politics is extremely limited. 

We can contrast these failures with the war in Ukraine, in which Ukrainian resolve and Western weapons have enabled a fledgling liberal democracy to stand off the second-largest military on the planet. Our weaponry has a place—and that place is defending democracies, not propping up corrupt dictators. When the Iron Curtain came down, and democracy spread across the former Soviet bloc, it did not do so at the point of American rifles. Rather, these were nations at a turning point in their history. At that turning point they looked around to see what models of society had successfully delivered—and liberal democracy had. It may have been the force of our arms that kept Stalin’s armies at bay in 1945, but in 1989, it was the strength of our example that turned Eastern Europe democratic.

This history suggests a twofold policy. First, America must reject regime change as a goal of war. Regime change has not only failed on its own terms, but has caused tremendous damage to American diplomacy, foreign policy, and the legitimacy of the liberal international order. Second, America must commit to working within the liberal international order to defend liberal democracies. First and foremost, this means an explicit commitment to defending Taiwan in the event of an invasion by the PRC. Our strategic ambiguity regarding Taiwan may once have served a purpose, but now it only increases the risk of a military confrontation. We must state clearly what everyone already knows: Taiwan is a free, independent nation, and we will fight to ensure it stays that way.

We must make it our principle to let nations determine their own course, without fear of foreign conquest, and by our example show the world a better way forward—a shining city on a hill and a light to the world.

Featured Image is Artist Rendering of Apollo-Soyuz Test Program

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131 days ago
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