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July 11, 2006

Comments

Matt McIntosh

I'll drink to that. Here's to things that should be bloody obvious but bear repeating regularly.

J.Cassian

What Yeats said.

Frank McGahon

Indeed (well the second part anyway) although I think Yeats was doing a bit of apathy-bemoaning himself and would be quite happy for the "best" to have the passionate intensity...

Brian

It's my undying hope that more Americans become passionate about soccer/footy. And it's happening. But I've always said I hope that we never get so passionate that it provokes rioting or hooliganism or vicious sectarianism. I I hope that we never get so passionate that the POLICE are excoriated for not ensuring an absolute segregation between opposing fans because they can't be trusted to intermingle in a civilized way. I hope our passion never reaches that level.

Jon Ihle

I think the real danger your talking about is when extremity of action is taken as a reliable index of sincerity of intent (i.e. passion), so that the more outrageous the implementation of your politics the more righteous and persuasive you seem. Consider certain reactions to 9/11 or Zidane's headbutt.

Frank McGahon

Brian, I think you're safe enough on that score for the moment!

Jon, Yeah, that's one aspect and the idea is that policy proposals should be based on reason - what promises to be effective, rather than passion - just about the worst justification for any proposal is that it sounds exciting and appealing - plus all that "one more heave" and "if we just make a special effort, we can make it work this time" See also "Make Poverty History". But another is that "Politics" in the common understanding means "lots of messing about in the lives of others" and no matter how cleancut, and "moderate" someone seems, if they have a "passion for politics" and succeed in obtaining power, it's a nailed on certainty that they will make your life worse and not better.

Jon Ihle

Yet it's hard to deny passion's attractions. To return to soccer (which is a poor model for society, of course), Ruud should chase down that ball to demonstrate that his commitment goes beyondwhat is strictly rational or self-interested. I would argue this has benefits for the team as a whole, like when some dude jumps on a grenade or makes a suicidal charge at the enemy. Symbolic action can inspire hard work in others. I wish Landon Donovan had chased a few more loose balls. But I'd hate to see Alex Ferguson in a position of real political power.

Frank McGahon

We can certainly agree upon that!

J.Cassian

Yes. "Passionate" is not an argument. Likewise the old injunction to writers and artists to be "committed". As someone once pointed out, "committed" just means "committed to their own opinions". Exhibit A : Jean-Paul Sartre. I rest my case.

The twentieth century was full of passionately political people, which is why it was the bloodiest era in history. I'll make exceptions for a few good guys with a strong interest in politics, but in general, no thank you, I prefer dispassionate. I've cut down my daily intake of current affairs and I feel a whole lot saner. Politics has been described as "rock'n' roll for ugly people". I think it's equally true to call it melodrama for people who don't get Mexican soap operas.

Frank McGahon

I can agree with that too!

Brian

In fairness, that extremeity of passion is not part of the North American sporting culture, soccer/footy or otherwise. I remember going to a New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox baseball game a few years ago with my family. Bear in mind that this is widely considered the most passionate rivalry in North American sport (along with Montreal-Toronto in ice hockey). My family were Red Sox fans and we sat amongst mostly Yankee fans. There were no problems or even hint of problems. Some good natured back and forth banter, a bit of colo(u)rful language but that's it. Granted, I know it gets a little more dicey when drunk fans are involved But no one would think of suggesting segregating opposing fans as is common place in Europe or Latin America. I think this is because with maybe one exception (Montreal Canadiens ice hockey), North American sport teams are generally not tied up in cultural or identity politics like they are in many other parts of the world so the passion, while there, has a different dynamic. I think that's a good thing.

(Incidentally, almost as many Americans watched the World Cup final as watched an average game of last year's baseball 'World Series')

DC

"Political power is an extremely blunt instrument which can do a lot of harm."

Best, then, to have it wielded by the rational elite, insulated from popular scrutiny by the healthy apathy of the masses.

Leave power to the experts, they'll look after things. Your interests will not be negatively affected. Go back to Big Brother, or whatever amuses you.

Frank McGahon

Bravo for spectacularly missing the point! I'm arguing against authoritarianism, not for it.

You can take it that, unlike your fellow (illiberal) statists (on the left and the right) I have no confidence at all in the abilities of the "rational elites" or the "experts" in wielding that blunt instrument any more than I do the mob. So, the corrollary is for that blunt instrument to be as small and as infrequently deployed as possible. Popper famously identified the debate about "who rules?" as the wrong question. As he put it in The Open Society and its Enemies:

"I am inclined to think that rulers have rarely been above the average, either morally or intellectually, and often below it. And I think that it is reasonable to adopt, in politics, the principle of preparing for the worst, as well as we can, though we should, of course, at the same time try to obtain the best. It appears to me madness to base all our political efforts upon the faint hope that we shall be successful in obtaining excellent, or even competent, rulers."

DC

Frank,

Forgive my cantankerous tone, but as a bit of an ex-libertarian turned socialist I consider Hayekians and the like good sparring partners, before exasperation sets in.

Anyhoo, I didn't miss the point, I merely satirized it. I'm well aware that you were making a Hayekian-libertarian argument about the authoritarian tendencies of, in particular, the welfare state. But given that the actions (or inactions) of the state affect everybody's interests, your celebration of political apathy has an ideological content that amounts to supporting ("objectively") the domination of some (the apathetic) by others (the engaged), particularly when we know that political apathy and ignorance happen not to be distributed uniformly across social strata.

Also, I don't know why you think I'm a "statist": the only major intellectual difference between a Hayekian-libertarian and a libertarian-socialist is that the former manage to ignore the massive exercise of state coercion that is the enforcement of private property. G.A. Cohen has some very good work on this if you're interested.

DC

Besides, whatever happened to eternal vigilence being the price of liberty? I don't know if you support the American idea of a "well-armed militia" keeping a check on the government/tyranny-in-waiting, but if not, surely a well-informed and politically active citizenry is the best substitute?

Frank McGahon

I'm well aware that you were making a Hayekian-libertarian argument about the authoritarian tendencies of, in particular, the welfare state.

Actually, in this instance I wasn't thinking of the welfare state so much as the capacity for government, any government to do harm and that those who are "passionate about politics" tend to have a zeal for interventions into ordinary life of individuals of one type or another which vary from pain-in-the-ass to tyrannical and this zeal ought to be condemned rather than celebrated.

But given that the actions (or inactions) of the state affect everybody's interests,

I see that you choose the (oxymoronic) label of libertarian socialist (incidentally, what part of this is "libertarian" - do you seek a planned society with some exemptions? Of are you more concerned with corporate power? because if you don't seek a planned society the socialist part is a misnomer) So you might have a different idea than I have about government inaction. Greater harm is done by government action and any "harm" due to government inaction is usually more than outweighed by the benefits of that inaction. Maybe you could give me an example of a harmful government inaction and I'll see if I think it's something worth getting worked up about.

your celebration of political apathy has an ideological content that amounts to supporting ("objectively") the domination of some (the apathetic) by others (the engaged),

It might if that were the case, but in an ordinary liberal democracy like ours, there's precious little "domination" going on.

particularly when we know that political apathy and ignorance happen not to be distributed uniformly across social strata.

I don't know about that. Most of the people regularly decried as "mindless consumerists" are reasonably well off.

As for the check on the government business. I think such curbs are useful but a politically active citizenry is typically composed of competing groups who are less interested in curbing government power than obtaining a bit of that power for themselves

DC

I could give you countless examples of cases where state action is good and inaction bad, but your belief in the "free market" would most likely lead you to reject them, so the argument would really be about fundamentals rather than the example.

Instead, let me suggest an example of state inaction that you might consider harmful. Let's say I take your bike in full view of a guard, but he does nothing about it. That's state inaction - what do you make of it?

Frank McGahon

Well I'm not an anarchist so there's no disagreement there, but I don't think that there's much debate or political activism around the idea that the gardai should arrest thieves. To the extent that political apathy, in your formulation, was "objectively" supporting "domination" I was looking for an example of what you had in mind, again to see if it was something I would consider worth worrying about.

wulfbeorn

Great article there Frank. Reminded me of what PJ O'Rourke said:

The Cato Institute has an unusual political cause -- which is no political cause whatsoever. We are here tonight to dedicate ourselves to that cause, to dedicate ourselves, in other words, to . . . nothing.

We have no ideology, no agenda, no catechism, no dialectic, no plan for humanity. We have no "vision thing," as our ex-president would say, or, as our current president would say, we have no Hillary.

All we have is the belief that people should do what people want to do, unless it causes harm to other people. And that had better be clear and provable harm. No nonsense about second-hand smoke or hurtful, insensitive language, please.

So in agreement with you, people who don't care about politics and who mind their own business are far preferable in my book to the passionate ones who, if enough people took them seriously, would surely pose a threat to civilisiation.

DC

"Well I'm not an anarchist..."

I suppose my question about the bike was really supposed to ask "why are you a libertarian and not an anarchist?". That is, why do you oppose state intervention, except in defence of the distribution of wealth produced by the capitalist economy?

Frank McGahon

DC:

Who said I was a libertarian?

I consider myself to be a liberal (in the unbastardised sense) and think that one of the pillars of a liberal civil society and indeed a condition for prosperity is that property rights be defended. Wealth is not a matter of a fixed number of resources but rather what people can do with resources and the total amount of wealth can go up (as it has done here over the last decade) or it can go down (as it always does when governments start fiddling around with its distribution). So long as everyone's getting wealthier, it doesn't matter that some are getting even wealthier.

W:

Thanks. That PJ O'Rourke quote is certainly germane.

DC

Sorry about the misnomer Frank, if it's any consolation I did the same thing to myself when I said that I was an ex- libertarian - I too thought of myself as a "a liberal (in the unbastardised sense)".

Empirically, your claim that wealth "always [goes down] when governments start fiddling around with its distribution" is unsustainable - all governments of advanced industrial countries do so, and GDP continues to rise. Even a weaker version of that claim is discredited by the fact that the post-war economic miracle coincided with the expansion of the Keynesian/welfare state. Granted most of state spending was not oriented towards distribution per se, but much was, and much more (educational spending for example) had an egalitarian distributive effect. Theoretically, it's also wrong, because the defence of property rights (i.e. state enforcement of particular property relations) is precisely a massive "fiddling around" with the distribution of wealth, in the sense that it is not somehow natural or neutral - it is a definite decision to coercively enforce a certain distribution of property (and hence wealth), and not other possible distributions.

I also think your belief that economic inequality is unimportant is unsustainable, but that argument can wait.

Going back to the point about apathy and dominance, to put it fairly simply and abstractly: presuming that the state does indeed affect the interests of different people, and groups of people, differentially - i.e. some for good, some for bad, some better than others, some worse than others - it is in everybody's interest to be able to defend/assert their interests vis-a-vis the actions (and non-actions) of the state.

If liberals/libertarians had their right to vote taken away, we could expect their interests and aspirations not to taken into account by the state. Similarly, those who are apathetic are less likely to have their interests taken into account, i.e. to be treated fairly, by the state. They will have no say in the state's actions/non-actions but will still be affected by these. In this sense they will be subject to domination - not total domination, not slavery, but a relationship of domination with those who disproportionately influence the state.

Frank McGahon

DC, Thanks for the reply, there's quite a bit there that I want to comment on but I'm going to have to get back to you on this tomorrow as I'm going out shortly...

DC

Good timing, so was I. As a result I'm hungover today - advantage you.

Frank McGahon

Empirically, your claim that wealth "always [goes down] when governments start fiddling around with its distribution" is unsustainable - all governments of advanced industrial countries do so, and GDP continues to rise.

It doesn't logically follow that "standard issue" government intervention contributes to a rise in GDP, but in any case, it's the type of "fiddling" which is intended to equalise the distribution I had in mind, and not just general government intervention. For example, the type of tax regime which obtained in the UK in the 1970s.

Theoretically, it's also wrong, because the defence of property rights (i.e. state enforcement of particular property relations) is precisely a massive "fiddling around" with the distribution of wealth, in the sense that it is not somehow natural or neutral - it is a definite decision to coercively enforce a certain distribution of property (and hence wealth), and not other possible distributions.

There are two problems with this: a) you are making an assumption here that wealth consists of a fixed amount of resources when it mainly consists of what we do with those resources - It is much easier to "distribute" my property than it is to distribute my expertise. and b) Whether you like it or not, property rights are here to stay, one way or another. I can see the argument that says that property rights are ultimately defended by the coercive power of the state, but this conveniently elides the important distinction: Property rights of the weak are generally (not, regrettably, in all cases: see Kelo) defended by the coercive power of the state. Without the coercive power of the state, the strong will usually be able to defend their own property rights by use of their own coercive power (see Somalia).

My argument in favour of property rights is not based on some "natural" order or law -i ndeed the liberal order we are fortunate to find ourselves in is not "natural" at all - but that liberal order would be unsustainable in the absence of clearly defined property rights (a problem which bedevills most of the third world - if you don't have secure ownership of your land there's not much you can realistically do with it).

I also think your belief that economic inequality is unimportant is unsustainable, but that argument can wait.

Fair enough, but what I'd say is that in a relatively wealthy country like Ireland (where there is little to compare with the poverty of the 1980s), economic inequality is a "problem" in search of symptoms. It's something which "feels" like it should be wrong, but most of the examples profferred don't seem to me to compare with the problems of absolute poverty

Going back to the point about apathy and dominance, to put it fairly simply and abstractly: presuming that the state does indeed affect the interests of different people, and groups of people, differentially - i.e. some for good, some for bad, some better than others, some worse than others - it is in everybody's interest to be able to defend/assert their interests vis-a-vis the actions (and non-actions) of the state.

That's a big presumption. The flipside of that is that by seeking to sate all these competing group interests (which is always a zero-sum game), the government can end up making everyone worse off. The fact is that by allowing economic activity to flourish it's a positive sum game whereby everyone gets better off. In a positive sum game, some people might get more better off than others are getting but it's not at the expense of those others. In a zero-sum game (or even a minus-sum game which when you add deadweight costs describes real world redistribution or satisfaction of group interests) people only get better off by making someone else worse off.

If liberals/libertarians had their right to vote taken away, we could expect their interests and aspirations not to taken into account by the state. Similarly, those who are apathetic are less likely to have their interests taken into account, i.e. to be treated fairly, by the state. They will have no say in the state's actions/non-actions but will still be affected by these. In this sense they will be subject to domination - not total domination, not slavery, but a relationship of domination with those who disproportionately influence the state.

But the liberal/libertarian is not looking for his own "interests" to be upheld, but is making an argument that liberalism benefits everyone. In any case, the only fair solution - as a competing domination arms race surely wouldn't be - to the problem you identify is that the government be restrained in dominating anyone at the behest of the mob - this, surely is a principle that those who are concerned by populist witchhunts or racist scapegoating would uphold?

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