Thursday, April 28, 2016

Harvard Magazine: The Egalitarian

About Danielle Allen's newest book. A taste:
At the moment, no book is more visible or abundant at the gift shop of the National Archives in Washington, D.C., where more than a million visitors a year come to view the earliest copies of America’s founding documents, than Our Declaration—the most recent work by Danielle Allen, Ph.D. ’01. The title, appealing boldly to a spirit of national wholeness, is so prominent that it’s easy to overlook the argumentative note in its smaller subtitle: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality.

Allen, a recently appointed professor of government and director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, writes that in the past century, equality has been pushed to the side—by philosophers, politicians, and laypeople—in favor of its sibling, liberty: “I routinely hear from students that the ideals of freedom and equality contradict each other.” She rejects this notion that liberty and equality are on a seesaw, that one can rise only at the expense of the other. Instead, she contends, “Equality is the bedrock of freedom.” Her evidence? The Declaration of Independence, read line by line as a masterpiece of plain-language philosophy. The Declaration’s authors, she contends, were far from being libertarians in the modern sense. To the contrary: they were proud and eloquent egalitarians.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Prince, RIP

The late great genius was a devout and devoted Jehovah's Witness. At American Creation, we've dealt with the issue of how "Christianity" defines. One understanding says if you don't believe in orthodox doctrines like the Trinity, then you aren't a Christian. Well Jehovah's Witnesses don't believe in that. But below is what they do believe:
'He was a spiritual man from what I know of him and he talked to individuals and he very strongly believed in the message of the bible that Jehovah Witness’s proclaim.
‘He believed that the true God is Jehovah and he knew for example that when we die, we’re dead, we’re sleeping and the hope is the resurrection, that’s why Jesus died.’
Brother Cook said Prince regularly ‘witnessed’ alone in the community, as well as in groups.
And he admitted that people might have been shocked to see the superstar turn up on their doorstep to talk to them and offer a free bible course, but added: ‘We try to downplay the person, it’s all about the message.
‘We try not to eulogize any individual from a personal standpoint, one person is equal in the eyes of God as another person.
‘So our main goal is to proclaim the message of God’s kingdom as equals and Prince did what he could from what I understand.
‘He did what he could to help people to get into the Bible and appreciate the benefits of family life and the hope of God’s kingdom.’

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Balkin on Barnett's New Book

See it here. Even though I sympathize more with Randy Barnett's vision, I think Balkin's critique, which is more linguistic, is strong. A taste:
On SSRN, I've published a draft of Which Republican Constitution?, a review of Randy Barnett's new book, Our Republican Constitution. The article is part of a conference on the book held in March at the University of Illinois, and will be published in Constitutional Commentary. Here is the abstract:
Randy Barnett argues that the American political tradition, understood in its best light, features a "Republican Constitution." But Barnett's version of "republicanism" has relatively little to do with the historical tradition of republicanism, a tradition that celebrates the common good; seeks to inculcate civic virtue; opposes aristocracy, oligarchy, and corruption; understands liberty not as mere negative freedom but as non-domination; connects civil rights to civic duties; and demands a government which derives its powers from and is ultimately responsive to the great body of the people.
Instead, Barnett's "Republican Constitution" is far closer to what most historians of the Founding would regard as the opposite or complement of the republican tradition. This is the tradition of natural rights liberalism, which begins with John Locke and evolves into classical liberalism in the nineteenth century. ...

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Drs. Noam Chomsky, Eric Nelson, and ...

Me Trying Better to Understand the "Economic Egalitarianism" of the European Hebraic republicans and tensions within the synthesis of American originalism. 

We live in a world where we must define terms to understand reality. All terms are socially constructed. But where I differ from the followers of Michel Foucault (et al.) is, I believe in ultimate underlying objective reality. They would argue there is no such thing, that everything is a social construct imposed by power. I, conversely, believe such socially constructed terms are useful and better when they more accurately “get at” the objective reality that lies underneath.

Dr. Noam Chomsky, brilliant, who has done groundbreaking work in the field of (appropriately enough for the introduction to this post) linguistics, is, as far as I can tell, a "democratic-socialist." He believes in democracy and civil rights, but not capitalism and markets. But, interestingly enough, he doesn’t call himself a “democratic-socialist.” I call him that because that’s what he appears to me to be. Rather, he calls himself an “anarcho-syndicalist.” Alas, such term has not stuck.

I don't agree with Chomsky's ideal vision of "geopolitics." When he engages the issue, though not a lawyer, he notoriously uses his brilliant mind to selectively focus on certain details supporting his narrative while ignoring everything else. That is, he's great at making law office arguments.

But I do read his work, because I learn much from him. For instance, while exploring Dr. Eric Nelson's groundbreaking work on the European Hebraic republicans and pondering how they "fit" in Dr. Bernard Bailyn's paradigm of originalism (that certain key influential ideological forces were in tension with one another, but ultimately presented as harmonized by American Whigs) I concluded that Chomsky had already anticipated my understanding of Dr. Nelson's thesis.

I remember reading something from Chomsky where he applauded the economic ideals of among others, Thomas Jefferson, while harshly criticizing those of James Madison.

Like notable scholars of the Anglo-European tradition of "republicanism" have concluded, such tradition argued for what might be termed "economic egalitarianism." They were economic wealth limiters and redistributors. This relates chiefly to the republicans' support for agrarian laws. Jefferson among many others supported such. So too did the Ancient Greeks. But not the Ancient Romans.

This is what Dr. Nelson argues. As he wrote:
It is a measure of [James] Harrington’s remarkable influence that, from 1660 onwards, agrarian laws would remain permanently at the center of republican political thought. Writers from Montesquieu to Rousseau, and from Jefferson to Tocqueville, would regard it as axiomatic that republics ought to legislate limits on private ownership in order to realize a particular vision of civic life.
Harrington, author of Oceana, a key figure of the British Whig opposition "republicans," argued the Ancient Hebrews 1. had a "republic," 2. with wealth leveling economic principles that constituted the earliest agrarian laws. Therefore, all republics ought to adopt agrarian laws where "the state should coercively maintain an egalitarian distribution of property[.]"  Harrington relied on the scholarship of earlier European contemporaries from among other places the Netherlands and Italy who initiated this understanding. This is why I refer to these figures as "European Hebraic republicans" as opposed to strictly identifying Great Britain.

Read the results of this search engine to see Chomsky's various writings on the matter. 

Why was Madison, according to Chomsky, the chief villain? He rejected agrarian laws as policy for America and his vision prevailed over the many others, part of America's Founding ideological stew, who hoped for such. This was a victory of (classical) "liberalism" over "republicanism."

But, as alluded to, both liberalism and republicanism were part of the ideological stew. In addition to Jefferson, Chomsky enlists Adam Smith and Aristotle -- both certainly important to America's Founding vision -- as economic egalitarians (contra Madison).

I don't know enough detail on Smith's writings to see why Chomsky would place him with the republican levelers. Likewise, Nelson notes that whereas Cicero argued for "property rights" along the lines of what present day supporters of laissez faire might endorse, the Ancient Greeks supported agrarian laws, and consequently, economic egalitarianism. Though, Nelson turns to among others Plutarch and Plato, not Aristotle to support his thesis.

So, Nelson asserts Harrington argued a thesis that was both biblical and Platoic in order to support agrarian economic egalitarianism. (Later economic egalitarians like Rousseau may have focused more on the philosophical, i.e., Platonic elements, than the biblical ones, though Rousseau still claimed to be a "Christian.") 

Next, let's explore what "economic egalitarianism" means. In previous posts, I used the terms "proto-Marxist" and "proto-Rawlsian" attempting to describe such. Presently, hyperbole dominates contemporary political discourse. For free market purists, there is a tendency to categorize someone to one's economic left as a "socialist." For instance, Ludwig von Mises purportedly termed among others Milton Friedman (the eyewitness to this account) and Frederic Hayek "socialists" because they were willing to put up with slightly more statism than he was.

Likewise, if "Marxism" is understood necessarily to include the abolition of private property, the European Hebraic republicans cannot properly be termed "proto-Marxist." Others, however, have a "looser" understanding for "Marxism." But I named Rawls in my attempt to understand this era's "economic egalitarianism" as an alternative. 

Nelson briefly mentions Rawls but doesn't explore deeper because, though an "economic egalitarian," Rawls' ideal of justice accepts, in principle, the possible existence of a degree of economic inequality the European Hebraic republicans would not. As Nelson notes:
Even John Rawls, however strongly he might reject the perspective of his more libertarian critics, nonetheless insists that inequality per se is not inconsistent with the principles of justice. On his view, as long as the position of the least well-off social group is improved under a particular economic arrangement, it does not matter that the arrangement in question might improve the situation of the most fortunate to a greater degree. The only relevant question is whether some rival scheme might be envisioned that would make the least advantaged even better off; if so, the latter would be preferred even if it would result in greater inequality.
Below I focus on what I see as Nelson's clearest attempt to describe the economic vision of his Hebraic republicans:
European political theory had been dominated by the unequal contest between two views of property: one which saw the protection of private property as the central obligation of the state, and another which saw the abolition of private property as the ultimate salvation of mankind. Cunaeus’s innocuous semantic move in 1617 had opened up a “third way”—one which remains central to modern political thought and practice. Republican political theory would now embrace neither the protection nor the abolition of private property, but rather its redistribution. The coercive power of the state would be used to impose limits on private wealth, and to generate a roughly egalitarian diffusion of property throughout the commonwealth.
The bold is mine. So this isn't "pure" Marxism which would seek to abolish private property. Neither is it laissez faire capitalism which sees state protection of private property as central. The "third way" is a term and policy Tony Blair and Bill Clinton established and supported, the kind of capitalism that dominates geopolitics post 11/09/89. The kind of capitalism that "Ended History" according to Francis Fukuyama.

Indeed, as the Amazon page to Nelson's book describes:
Nelson demonstrates that central features of modern political thought emerged from an attempt to emulate a constitution designed by God.
Again the bold is mine.

What I conclude from this study is that whereas the "liberal" view of economics, something closer to laissez faire capitalism, prevailed during the American Founding (i.e., Madison's vision) today's modified form of capitalism that engages in more economic redistribution arguably can be traced to the vision of these European Hebraic republicans like James Harrington and figures from or related to the American Founding who supported agrarian laws. 

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Tensions Within the Synthesis of Originalism II: "For the Land is Mine"

"For the Land is Mine" is the title to Chapter 2 of Eric Nelson's book. I found it in a Word document from Brown University. There Dr. Nelson notes other scholars -- Philip Pettit of Princeton and Michael Sandel of Harvard -- who have also stressed the egalitarian nature of "republican" ideology (as contrasted with the individualistic nature of "liberalism").

I was recently reminded that “few American Whigs in the 1770s saw any conflict between what they read in Locke and Montesquieu and what they read in the Bible." In fact it's a feature of Whig thought that it served as a "unifying" ideology. As Thomas Jefferson noted to Richard Henry Lee, "All American whigs thought alike on these subjects." He did this while sourcing Aristotle, Cicero, Locke and Sidney along with "harmonizing sentiments of the day." Yes harmonizing was needed. The four named sources didn't always agree with one another on all important matters of "public right."

Those of us who study Leo Strauss often hear about the break between Aristotle (Ancient) and Locke (Modern). Nelson focuses on the (arguable) break between Cicero and Algernon Sidney. Cicero was one of the ancient Roman republicans. These republicans, according to Dr. Nelson, "had accorded enormous respect to private property rights, and had exhibited a particular horror of coercive attempts to redistribute wealth."

One thing I stress is that the Ancient Hebrews didn't have a republic. They had some kind of idealized theocracy, where, if you believe the tale, God was directly in charge by virtue of direct interaction with man. They eventually got a King which God warned against. The concept of "republicanism" is entirely a creation of the ancient Greco-Roman tradition.

Yet Nelson's figures CLAIMED that the Hebrews had a "republic." (This claim would resonate with Thomas Paine and the American Founders). And in the process of "revising" or at least "re-understanding" the biblical record, they also broke with the ancient Roman position of Cicero which looks more like something the promoters of laissez faire economics would endorse (Milton Friedman, et al.). 

Rather, the British republicans, notably James Harrington, but also others, endorsed an equality of wealth holding that was if not proto-Marxist (which would demand equality of holdings) but proto-Rawlsian (which accepts in principle inequality of wealth, but sees a role for government in redistributing wealth to provide for a more "just distribution"). 

Indeed, Marx didn't invent radical economic egalitarianism. Neither did Jean Jacques Rousseau. Thomas More, whom Dr. Nelson specifically names, anticipated both of them (I won't discuss possible ancient sources for the concept). On "Utopia" both wealth and poverty were abolished. Though it's difficult to tell whether that book's claims are meant to be taken seriously or as satire.

One big difference between Marx and Rawls on the one hand and the earlier economic levelers on the other is that the former attempted to make either atheistic or secular arguments for their theories, the latter rest their principles on religious claims. 

Thus, those whose politics, at least on economic matters, are left of center -- especially those of the "Religious Left" -- might find something of interest and inspiration in the works of Dr. Nelson's British republicans who greatly influenced America's Founders.

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Tensions Within the Synthesis of Originalism

At The New Reform Club, the estimable Seth Barrett Tillman makes an observation about double speak coming from the mouths of left leaning law professoriate on "originalism." 
Perhaps Chemerinsky believes the Framers’ intent is discoverable in regard to Senate advice and consent, although not in regard to the First Amendment. That’s a possibility—a way to reconcile his two positions. 
There is a second possibility. The alternative view is that Chemerinsky signed the letter because he agrees with the result argued for, and because he understands that non-originalist discourse is not favored by the American public he is hoping to convince. In other words, Chemerinsky and his colleagues are unwilling to make the effort to explain to the public that a better mode of constitutional discourse is possible; indeed, the 350+ signatories hope to convince the American public via a mode of discourse that they themselves reject, without even putting the public on notice that they reject that discourse. No one is stunned by this situation precisely because it is the norm.  
.... If Chemerinsky, a dean at a publicly funded law school, and 349 other academics take this second approach, reserving one mode of discourse for the elect, and another for the public, then the public, particularly tax-paying public, will take the hint.
Is it any wonder that millions vote for Trump?
I don't defend the ethics of such practice. But I can't find myself outraged by it either. I neither like nor trust leaders and that includes Donald Trump. Likewise, I've read too much Leo Strauss to be surprised that philosophers and politicians would engage in communication that offers one message to one set of people, and a different one to another set.

And certainly figures who support left leaning politics don't hold a monopoly on this practice either.

If I may, I will offer a slightly different explanation for why law professors who have an interest in politics in particular behave this way. Law is arguably a subspecies of philosophy, but with its own special set of rules. That is, arguments that are fallacious in philosophy "work" in law. Appeal to authority is the classic argument that is valid in law, but fallacious in philosophy.

In democratic politics, one needs a voting majority to validate certain outcomes. That commits another fallacy in philosophy, the argumentum ad populum.

Likewise, an argument that seems to "work" in the politics of law (alluded to by Prof. Tillman) is "originalism," that is, arguments that appeal to the original American Founding.

Still Professor Tillman lists 10 challenges made of originalism (see the original post to save space here) that I think are serious. Some harder to answer than others. Furthermore, there is a difference between the "letter" of the original Constitution as amended (what is "justiciable" by Article III Courts), and the "spirit" of the American Founding (something the argument from originalism wants us to remain faithful to, even if the political order, sans a constitutional amendment, is permitted to deviate from, however unwise).

I am more interested in exploring the issue of the "ideology" of the American Founding (that would be "spirit" more than "letter" issues) and tensions found there. Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn notes 5 key ideological sources of the American Founding: 1. "Biblical" (we could call this everything from "Judeo-Christian," to "Christian," to "Protestant Christian"); 2. Greco-Roman; 3. British common law; 4. Whig opposition; and 5. Enlightenment philosophy.

I used to say that #5 -- Enlightenment -- was the most important and lens through which all others were viewed. But that's not what Bailyn argues. Rather, he points to #4, Whiggery as the lens. Or at least the result of the stewing the pot.

Now this is just a construct of five. One could further divide or consolidate the categories to go above or below the numerical five. Moreover, certain key figures like for instance John Locke could be claimed by more than one of the categories. And the different categories often times contradicted one another.

It's true that most of the "cutting edge" thinkers in today's academy are not interested in exploring the history of the American Founding for any reason other than to deconstruct it in favor of some post-modern theory. But I think that an honest exploration of the American Founding offers something to those whose politics are left of center, even as other sources in the synthesis hold contradictory positions.

Harvard's Eric Nelson offers cutting edge research that encompasses at the very least categories #1 and #4. The Amazon page for Dr. Nelson's book asserts his thesis demonstrates:
It was the Christian encounter with Hebrew sources that provoked this radical transformation.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Christian scholars began to regard the Hebrew Bible as a political constitution designed by God for the children of Israel. Newly available rabbinic materials became authoritative guides to the institutions and practices of the perfect republic. This thinking resulted in a sweeping reorientation of political commitments. In the book’s central chapters, Nelson identifies three transformative claims introduced into European political theory by the Hebrew revival: the argument that republics are the only legitimate regimes; the idea that the state should coercively maintain an egalitarian distribution of property; and the belief that a godly republic would tolerate religious diversity. One major consequence of Nelson’s work is that the revolutionary politics of John Milton, James Harrington, and Thomas Hobbes appear in a brand-new light.

Nelson demonstrates that central features of modern political thought emerged from an attempt to emulate a constitution designed by God. This paradox, a reminder that while we may live in a secular age, we owe our politics to an age of religious fervor, in turn illuminates fault lines in contemporary political discourse.
The figures Dr. Nelson invokes were not American; rather they were British. But they come from a particular period in Great Britain that greatly influenced America's Founding: Ideological source #4.

In addition, there was a marked difference between "liberal" sources (perhaps more properly belonging to #5) on the one hand, and "republican" sources on the other. The liberal sources were more "free market" oriented in their positions. The "republican" sources were more collectivistic and egalitarian on economic matters. 

Nelson's is saying the "republicans" were proto-John Rawlsians,* as opposed to proto-Milton Friedmanites.

(*In my first best world, I'm more sympathetic to Milton Friedman than to John Rawls. When it comes to government imposed limits on wealth and inequality, one serious question we Friedmanites offer is "who decides what's fair and where the line draws?" Well, John Rawls provided an answer. It may not be satisfactory, but he gave one. Likewise Eric Nelson's "republicans" gave those answers, indeed anticipated them, on similar grounds as well.)

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Kidd: "The New United States: A 'Christian Nation'?"

Check it out here. A taste:
Politicians and pop history writers squabble endlessly about whether America was founded as a “Christian nation.” Skeptics routinely point to the 1796 Treaty of Tripoli, in which American officials declared that “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion” and “has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of [Muslims].”

[...]

To an outside Muslim observer, it was common sense: America was a “Christian nation.” There were few Muslims living in America (most of them were Muslim-background African slaves). Virtually all public officials and voters were at least nominally Christian. ...