Monday, February 23, 2009

Moral and Immoral Hazard

Rick Santelli has been all over YouTube, the blogs, and prime time news with what has been described as his "rant of the year". Santelli's complaint is a simple one - that the Obama mortgage plan is rewarding bad behavior, and that responsible tax payers are being forced to subsidize irresponsible ones. Economists call it "moral hazard". When certain bad behavior is subsidized or forgiven or bailed out, people are more likely to engage in that bad behavior in the future than they otherwise would have. A number of libertarian blogs have taken the "moral" part of "moral hazard" very seriously. Obviously, the broad sketches of this argument are completely sound. Nobody denies the logic of moral hazard, and it's not the goal of anybody who institutes these programs to reward bad behavior.


But I wonder if it's a misnomer. Really, it should be called "immoral hazard" - because the hazard about which we're concerned is that people will be encouraged to commit immoral acts. I think "moral hazard" could then be redefined to communicate the risk of preventing people from engaging in fundamentally moral behavior when a government chooses not to step in and guard them from what have been called the "rough edges" of capitalism.


Clearly - a completely irresponsible borrower is not going to learn their lesson if every single time they default they are forgiven by the government. I'm now calling that phenomenon "immoral hazard". But what about the responsible borrower, who only borrowed what they could afford and is now caught in the down-draft of a burst asset bubble? I would guess that if they aren't supported by the government (or some other benevolent white knight), they would be less likely to borrow responsibly in the future. They might rent, or borrow extremely conservatively - leading to an underutilization of available capital. They also might feel a little bitter that they are suffering from the mistakes of others, which caused the collapse in their own home value.


So of course we, like Rick Santelli, should be concerned with "moral hazard" (what I've renamed "immoral hazard"). One of the reasons why Santelli didn't really impress me was that his rant was so trivial. It's not like he was bringing new information to Obama's attention. Everyone knows about the problem. But what nobody is ranting about is the risk of punishing and disincentivizing good, moral behavior by standing to the side and doing nothing to help innocent bystanders who are being hurt by the irresponsibility of others. That's the real moral hazard, and that should be getting some attention as well.

Santelli's Assumptions

Rick Santelli’s recent publicized comments are fertile ground for interesting conversation, if nothing else. In his original “rant” (I use the phrase not disparagingly, but simply because even his supporters are calling it that), Santelli turns to fellow traders and says, “This is America.” The assertion is significant, as is a comment from White House press secretary Robert Gibbs in response… “I think we left a few months ago the adage that if it was good for a derivatives trader that it was good for Main Street.”

Santelli and others of libertarian sensibility offer an important perspective when they discuss something like the mortgage plan in terms of morality, but I frequently sense a lopsided sense of moral imperative in these discussions, which must itself be scrutinized closely. Alongside concerns about encouraging irresponsible behavior (“How about we all stop paying our mortgage?”), Santelli voices a reticence to giving up his just deserts (“How many of you people want to pay for your neighbors’ mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?”). Indeed, in an appearance on Hardball on the 20th, he states that “contract law should be sacred.” Moral outrage at the hazard caused by propping up individual vice is accompanied by an equally strong… but distinct… moral outrage at the idea of compulsive assistance on the part of the taxpayer for the sake of communal virtue, especially the sort that might disrupt the fair’s fair mentality that Santelli seems to assume everyone assumes. Because, if you’ll recall, he quite clearly assures us that the Chicago trading pit “is America.” Kind of reminds you of someone, doesn’t it?

When an economic response to moral problems is unveiled, it is often couched in terms of incentive or disincentive. This is neither good nor bad; the system is simply built to work in this way. But such language should clue us in to the possible shortfalls of any moral argument determined by these strictures. For Santelli, the ultimate common good seems to be that of personal property and the consistency of the system within which it is attained. The extent of the moral action he advocates is negative and passive: we must prevent moral vice by refraining from “rewarding” it or “incentivizing” it. The economic language is retained because that is the structure of his moral vision. It also seems to exhaust the scope of his moral concern.

It’s worth noting what Santelli speaks of when he speaks of “moral hazard”. He says sarcastically, “How about we all stop paying our mortgages?” When we hear this sentiment, it’s important to remember that moral hazard actually has nothing directly to do with what is moral. The immoral practices encouraged by lenient consequences are not a problem because they are immoral, but rather because of the instability that they provide to the entire system. When Daniel mentions, then, that many people have latched on to Santelli's rant and "have taken the 'moral' part of 'moral hazard' very seriously," it is important that we question what this means. Santelli and the libertarians do have a strong moral case to make, but we should not let them overstate it by taking for granted their understanding of the individual's place in society as homo economicus or politicus. One's rant should only be as loud as its case warrants, and if the case that Santelli puts forward draws a line at the inviolable nature of contract law, then it cannot expect to be widely accepted as a moral response to economic failure beyond those circles that already conflate the two.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Revisionism and Recent History

In popular parlance, “revisionist” tends to be an undesirable label. It’s usually applied to someone who changes their story, or who ignores the evidence. Yet historical revisionism is really just the work that we go about doing every day in making sense of the past. Given that any sort of empirical knowledge only has a scientific certainty, the task of revision is a methodological necessity. We must revisit what we know about how things are in order to reassess our reasons for knowing and re-ground our certainty based upon more recent evidence, consideration, or perspective.

The most pronounced revisions to historical knowledge end up being seismic shifts in our understanding of the world. The work of Foucault, Kant, Lyotard, or Barth may not be as widely known, but they are analogous to the shifts in physics represented by a Newton or an Einstein. Generations of common sense and assumption were overturned by their revisions, and we live quite differently as a result. Revisionist history may allow us to better understand the reasons why our Constitution was written, or may uncover atrocities committed within our borders against Native Americans, or Japanese Americans. It may change our views about medieval Europe or classical Rome, or our understanding of how global politics has been affected by colonialism.

These are all rather distant examples. While they have serious implications for public understanding, much of the work behind them is not public, but professional, private, and quiet. The public tends to entertain only a few current or recent events at any given time; after a while things are either forgotten or filed away with more distant histories. During this brief window of time, however, historical revisionism is no less at work. In many ways revision of recent history is what should concern us the most, as the general impression of an event as established by those who remember its occurrence will form the basis of future opinion about it.

When the conflict between Russia and Georgia broke out this past summer, where did you first find out about it? CNN.com? A Russian news station? A political blog? When you didn’t know the first thing about Tskhinvali, did you Wikipedia it? All of these sources of information might vary widely based on ideological commitment, and all of them can be revised and republished in minutes. Sometimes such revision is acknowledged and sometimes it’s just out there, perhaps a minute before or a minute after you read or watch it.

The benefits of revisions of recent history have to do with the immediacy of the material, and communication technologies afford us the ability to increase the immediacy on many different fronts, by way of access to data, speed of distribution, etc. It’s the reason why Daniel and I were able to comment last week on wars, countries, and enemies that we’ve never seen before. The cost of this immediacy, on the other hand, is the lack of gatekeeping that is built into it. I don’t need an economics degree to access information about the current stimulus package. All I need to do is navigate a google search towards those think tanks with which I most agree, and read their interpretation of the numbers. When I read about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there are a limited number of people who are commenting from experience about the region and its politics. There are many more available for comment, however, who speak second- or third-hand, or who speak based upon preconceived notions of who holds divine right to the land.

This is not to be entirely cynical about the prospects of revisionist accounts of recent events. We wouldn’t be commenting publicly if we didn’t think that reasoned correction and argument could get to the bottom of a number of issues and problems that surround us. This is to say, however, that there are significant pitfalls present in the revising of historical accounts of recent events. This is not a reason to leave off our attempts, but rather to renew them with more vigor. Yet in doing so we must remind ourselves of what technological or ideological advances have contributed to our ability to revise our thought on matters in the rather democratic fashion that blogs provide.

Revising or Re"vision"ing?

I think Evan's post goes a long way toward explaining why the oft-derided "historical revisionism" isn't always bad. But I would like to make some caveats to his points.

First, I think most of what Evan talks about in terms of the accessibility of information and the role of technology has less to do with "historical revisionism" as it is traditionally thought of, and more to do with revising facts. Revising happens constantly, and insofar as it is done accurately it is almost always a good thing. Technology (both social and material) like wikis accomplish this by broadening the sources of information and incentivizing those sources to be self-policing. Who shot first in South Ossetia? How many Palestinians did Israel kill? How many middle age white males voted for Obama? These are facts that should go through as much revising as it takes to get to the cold, hard, truth.

But historical revisionism is very different - and I think it hinges on a new "vision" of what the history of a situation was, rather than a revising of the facts about that history. For example - when Charles Beard challenged the idea that our founding was the culmination of an Enlightenment experiment in liberty. Or when the story of the Civil War gets written as a war over slavery... or the tariff... or states rights. The facts of the 1860s haven't changed substantially (although certainly we do still revise those facts) - but the meaning of those facts does change - and that change is what I tend to think of as "historical revisionism".

Now, having said all that and having distinguished between two strands that I think Evan talks about simultaneously (revising and revisioning), I would definitely still agree with Evan's assertion that "historical revisionism" isn't always all that bad. After all - as Evan says, much of our historical memory is derived from the memories of those who actually experience the history. And if that memory is tainted or distorted to begin with, then perhaps some historical revision is in order.

I'll close by drawing attention to a recent historical revisionism fad - claiming that the New Deal didn't work or was counterproductive. A chief culprit in this school is Amity Shlaes, of the Council on Foreign Relations . Now, I haven't read her book - but I have read her articles and reviews of her book, and she provides a new vision of the New Deal by assuming:

1.) Work program jobs aren't actually jobs

2.) The Dow Jones is the best indicator of economic strength (despite the fact that the Dow Jones is an index of the price of a handful of products - in this case, corporate stocks) rather than GDP, which is a measure of all products.

3.) Don't include the defense budget in federal spending, even thought it was the single biggest components of federal spending in the 40s, and

4.) Pretend that the brief, sharp downturn in 1937 was a result of the deficit spending of 1933-36 and not the budget balancing of 1937.

It is one thing to "revision" the past by ascribing new meaning to old facts. For example, if (God forbid) the United States ever does turn into a socialist state, historians will probably reevaluate Roosevelt as the founding father of that slow march to socialism, and will probably revision the New Deal as the first American "five year plan". If we slip into socialism, that characterization may or may not be accurate. I feel that as long as they get the facts right, ascribing significance to those facts based on the current context of the times is reasonably fair. We know the scientific revolution was a success and not a real challenge to the Church because of the perspective we have. A Vatican historian in the 1600s might not have known that, so our "revision" of that history is appropriate given the information we're privy to.

But what Shlaes and others are doing is not providing a new vision to frame old facts. They are fundamentally changing the facts themselves. I think this is where historical revisionism is the most dangerous - when the past is forced into a certain mold, not because of the new context or information that future generations have - but because new generations have new ideological imperatives to make it fit the new mold.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Terrorism, Just War Theory, and the Proportionality Principle

This post started as a collection of thoughts I had on the Israeli invasion of Gaza, back in December. I've expanded it and made it a little clearer for the purposes of the blog - but that's why I start by talking about Hamas and Israel.

Proportionality and Gaza

The proportionality principle roughly holds that a "just war" must keep its number of casualties proportional to the magnitude of the threat that the war is meant to address. One definition of this states: "The anticipated benefits of waging a war must be proportionate to its expected evils or harms."

This proportionality principle is obviously at the front of everyone's mind when they think of the conflict in the Gaza Strip in late December and early January. Every night the Palestinian casualties - civilian or otherwise - grew higher and higher, seemingly exponentially. The Israeli casualties, while increasing, were only creeping up with each day of combat. I have to admit that even though I felt that the Israeli action was fully justified, I was deeply troubled by the increasingly disproportionate body counts. A lively exchange with a good friend from high school only drove the point home for me that whatever we think of the justice of a particular military offensive, we cannot simply ignore the body count. This friend posted an article that grabbed my attention, especially because of this very striking statement by the author:

"Israel's insane offensive against Gaza seems to follow the logic of an eye for an eyelash".

It is not a trivial concern. Certainly it isn't a trivial concern for intelligent, caring American onlookers - as is amply demonstrated by me and my friend. But I also think it is evident that the concern is not trivial for the Israelis, who have made efforts - at least in most cases - to warn civilians before military strikes.

But I wonder how our understanding of the proportionality principle should change when we consider a war on terrorists. If proportionality is to be determined by weighing the anticipated benefits against the "expected evils or harms", how do we assess the "expected evils or harms" of terrorism?

We are left to balance "anticipations" against "expectations" - two very fuzzy things which leave any assessment of symmetry in warfare in even fuzzier territory. If we know Hamas is receiving missiles from Iran, and we know Iran is seeking the development of nuclear warheads, is the prospect of nuclear warheads in the hands of Hamas an "expected evil or harm"? If it is justified as an "expected evil", then a harsh crackdown on Hamas in an effort to destroy that network by Israel, with considerable civilian casualties, seems to me to be justified. Yes, the cost of hundreds of civilian casualties is great, but the "expected evil" of thousands of Israelis dying in a potential nuclear strike is far greater. The justification game becomes a game of providing the best argument for the "anticipations" and "expectations" that you're peddling.

However, if the "anticipated benefit" and the "expected evil" must only be restricted to the immediate casualties inflicted by Hamas, clearly the current conflict is "disproportionate". I don't think there can be any doubting that. The question is - what is the "expected evil" that we should be weighing military action against when we contemplate the proportionality principle?

Proportionality and Terrorism

I would argue that the question becomes especially challenging when we consider the problem of terrorism. The whole point of terrorism is to exacerbate fears and expectations of evil and harm. That's what al Qaeda wants to inflict on us - not necessarily greater actual harm (although they would love to do that too), but the expectation of far greater harm. That's what Hamas wants to inflict on Israel as well. It's what Khaled Meshaal, a senior Hamas leader, meant when he said that Israel would face a "black destiny" as a consequence of invasion. What did he mean, exactly? The uncertainty is the object of the statement. It is the intention of terrorism.

So should the "expected evil and harm" that we weigh the cost of war against under the proportionality principle be the harm that we have already endured (the couple thousand dead on Sept. 11th; the handful dead by Hamas missile attacks), or should the "expected evil and harm" be the evil and harm that we can envision happening? And if it is the evil and harm we can envision happening at the hands of terrorists, it seems to me that the nature of terrorism itself necessary escalates the war against terrorism. If the business of terrorism is exacerbating "expected evil and harm", even when actual evil and harm may be minimal, then the business of terrorism necessarily leads to a devastating response under just war theory.

Ultimately, though, the strength of an argument for military response is only as convincing as the argument for the "expected evil and harm" is. Hamas could obtain a nuclear device from Iran, but in all likelihood they won't. Iran is happy to send money and explosives to suicide bombers, but I'm guessing they'd distribute technology like nuclear weaponry with a little more discernment. So that "expected evil and harm" isn't very convincing. But expectations of more traditional, but nevertheless horrific Hamas terrorist attacks if nothing else is done is certainly not an unconvincing argument.

Iraq figures into this as well. The Bush administration tried to make a case of exceedingly high "expected evil" that justified a massive military undertaking. I didn't buy it, and neither did a lot of other people. Whatever benefits may have accrued to the Iraqi people from ridding themselves of a dictator, the "expected evils" that were trumpeted in 2003 - WMD's - didn't really pan out.

But I think the way we use the proportionality principle of just war theory to approach Iraq (and Iran, for that matter) is fundamentally and qualitatively different from the way it is used to approach terrorism. Iraq and Iran, unsavory as they are, have always tried to downplay the threat they pose to the West. Yes, they do their fair share of belly-aching and name-calling - but they don't dare threaten the spectacular attacks that terrorist groups do. Why? Because they are nation-states. They rely on good relations with the outside world. They are members of the United Nations. They have to be careful how they resist the West.

Terrorist organizations operate differently, and their primary purpose is to terrify their enemies - to convince them that all hope is lost, and incredible violence and destruction is just lurking around the corner. I think this represents a fundamental snag in a Just War Theory that has otherwise served us reasonably well in prosecuting conventional warfare. The proportionality principle, it seems to me, justifies substantial asymmetric warfare against terrorism. Honestly, I'm still personally rather convinced. I have no problems with a long, merciless war against al Qaeda. But this blind spot in Just War Theory still bothers me. I wonder if I'm misdiagnosing the implications of the proportionality principle for terrorism, or if I'm correctly diagnosing it and perhaps we need a new standard for determining whether a war is just.

What are people's thoughts on this? I don't know if this is a legitimate way to look at the problem or not. I don't even know if just war theory is something we should feel obligated to. Perhaps it's just a medieval relic.

What is justified proportionality in war?

1. Just War in our day 

I am not very well read on just-war doctrine, and so I'll begin by repeating Daniel's solicitation of peoples' thoughts on this.  We are debatably in somewhat uncharted territory as nation-states seek to continue using the just war tradition within a world that Jürgen Habermas has called the "postnational constellation."  Terrorism is simply one aspect of this world, though a significant one.  

The problem with ambiguities of proportionality didn't begin with 21st century terrorism, of course.  Not quite a year before George W. Bush was born, another United States president ordered the use of nuclear weapons against Japan, killing an estimated 120,000 people, mostly civilians, by the end of 1945.  In Truman's words, "If they do not accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air the likes of which has never been seen on this earth."  Japan and the United States were two sovereign states engaged in diplomatic activities and currently disputing the very terms upon which Truman chose to drop the bombs (and concerning which negotiation of a surrender were already underway).  The question of terrorism presents a very different situation because the lack of recourse to diplomacy is often what distinguishes the terrorist.  Either in a situation where a non-state actor (such as Al Qaeda) has chosen to organize and act precisely because diplomacy is a foregone possibility, or in a situation like Iran, Hamas, or Iraq, where legitimate or near legitimate demands and terms are articulated even though constructive diplomacy may be aggravated by how extreme or uncompromising these terms are (this is presumably what the case was for 1945 United States Japan).  

The difficulties that a non-state actor like Al Qaeda presents for just war have to do with the way that war is waged amongst sovereign national governments (who had a monopoly on world real estate the last time I checked), and how all that changes when one of the parties to war is not a recognized government.  Al Qaeda in Afghanistan remained a relatively straightforward target on the level of just war theory because their Taliban hosts allowed the attack to function on a more conventional level; we could invade a country with a legitimate reason for doing  so on a country-to-country level.  All that has changed in the foothills of Pakistan, where we are not intending to invade the country Pakistan, but only the territory over which it is sovereign, and only in order to pursue Al Qaeda.  The question of proportionality and terrorism seems to be not just a matter of body count; we're also forced to ask ourselves whether the conventions of political recognition, the rules of diplomacy, and the status of the modern nation state have themselves lost all sense of proportion!  And while this question may appear more academic than the gritty battlefield concerns, it quite simply is not.  What goes on in marbled government buildings and UN headquarters has the potential to prevent or reap significant damage to global peace.  Daniel is right to point out the potential escalation of possible "just" responses to terrorism.  But the basis of this escalation is not so much terrorism itself as it is the unknown entities of nuclear and other weapons in the hands of those who cannot be anticipated the same way that nation-states can be simply by virtue of their dependency upon the world community for political recognition.  The question more basically is one about the very structures of just-war thought, which I think have changed radically.  Not suddenly, and not recently, to be sure.  But we have seen a lot of the outcomes of these changes over the past 8 1/2 years.

2. Just War, terrorism, and proportionality

What I think always needs to be remembered about just-war thought... or at least what I think is the only way that just-war thought can hope to remain compelling on a moral level... is that it always seeks to reduce war.  Many recent neo-conservative accounts of "just war" portray it in terms of what a war of "justice" entails, and I think this is a highly problematic rendering of the theory.  Just war theory, I would argue, lays out the terms upon which any war must first be "justified".  That is, the burden of proof is squarely on the warring nation to demonstrate that state orchestrated violence is acceptable, the default assumption always being that it is not acceptable.  This is all a matter of jus ad bellum... whether it is justified to begin a war in the first place.  Proportionality, as I understand it, is usually discussed as a matter of jus in bello, whether a war already underway is being fought in a manner that can be morally justified.  The fact that benefit or harm is "anticipated" or "expected," however, highlights the fact that proportionality is not just a wartime concern, but also something which must be weighed when making the initial decision to use violent force.

Daniel defines proportionality in this way: "The anticipated benefits of waging a war must be proportionate to its expected evils or harms."  The spiralling upward of expected harm from terrorism doesn't seem strictly to be what this definition is talking about.  The evil or harm must be balanced with the benefits of war, which sounds to me like this is a cost/benefit analysis on the part of the warring nation.  This is a question of how many American troops will die, how many civilians in Afghanistan or Iraq will be killed, how much money the endeavor will cost.  All this is weighed against benefits of safety and security, of a stable Middle East, etc.  

Another aspect of proportionality might be articulated this way (this is my own wording and may not reflect actual just war thought as well as Daniel's): "the anticipated effects of a war must be proportionate to its causes."  This is where questions of Israeli versus Palestinian casualties come in, or questions about whether 3,000 lives lost on 9/11 plus the victims of a possible future dirty bomb in New York is proportionate to projected Afghan and Iraqi casualties.  

In the end I think both sorts of proportionality are worth investigating, but I certainly hope that the second one isn't doomed to such escalation as Daniel sees.  We are, I hope, moving away from Truman style resort to massive collateral damage as a way to "git 'er done."  And terrorist threats, of all things, should be what moves us away from this type of warfare.  The argument here is similar to a common one made against waterboarding or other forms of torture- whether or not the moral calculus can be justified, it's just not effective!  Whether or not a terrorist strike kills a large amount of civilians, the amount of terrorists that the United States wages war against will be relatively few, and the sort of warfare effective against these few will not be imprecise airstrikes or massive bombing campaigns, but rather covert operations, assassinations, and specific targets that themselves solve the problem of proportionality by virtue of their specificity.  The times proportionality becomes a question are in cases like the Israel-Gaza conflict or the current Iraq War, and it is precisely in these situations where you see the most criticisms come up about ineffective use of force and disproportionate strikes that simply feed the hatred, which feeds the terrorist camps, which caused the problem to begin with.

I can't help but wonder whether Daniel's closing question of whether just war theory is a medieval relic was put there to bait me.  What is a relic, I think, is the wartime mentality of  what Harry Truman called "a rain of ruin" and what George W. Bush called "shock and awe".  The weapons that we have developed over the last six decades make such possibilities terribly disproportionate to anything we might reasonably call just.  Furthermore, this sort of escalation belongs only, if anywhere, in situations like Japan and Iraq, where outright invasion and regime change are clearly the agenda.  I don't see how this would apply to any war on terror, where we are dealing with rogue organizations who do not legitimately hold any territory that we can invade nor any government that we can overthrow.  

Monday, February 2, 2009

What does open discourse entail?

The transition to Barack Obama’s presidency is marked by a number of themes that are at least perpetuated in public commentary, if not always present in actuality. The idea of transparency and reasoned public discourse stands high on this list, and is perhaps a little less grating than the ubiquitous rally-cries of “Change” or “Hope” that we’ve lately had to suffer through. (and don’t get me wrong- I think both of these things are great. It’s the bumper-sticker feel of them that leaves something to be desired)

Yet the message of a need for constructive dialogue is not uniquely Obama’s. Rival candidate John McCain was often praised for his attention to the town-hall format of campaigning, and a number of third party or fringe Republican and Democrat candidates had argued that, amidst the mainstream centrism of both Democrat and Republican candidates, a diversity of voices and criticism could simply not be heard in American public discourse.

Since the president took office, we have already seen a reversal of Bush’s restrictions on access to presidential records, a memorandum declaring a “presumption of disclosure” with regard to the Freedom of Information Act, another memorandum on government transparency, an interview with an Arabic news network, meetings with Republicans over the economic crisis, and on and on.

Some of this represents an important shift. Some of this may just be window-dressing. Certainly, though, Obama is setting a high standard for his presidency, and it is already challenging him… a good thing, I think. One reason for transparency and public dialogue, after all, is to fix what needs to be fixed. Were the Obama administration perfect, he’d have no need for such discourse.

But these examples don’t exhaust the scope of reasoned discourse, nor can they tell us what to do as informed and informing members of society. Most of these orders, memos, and conversations are the government cleaning house, but the public has some cleaning of its own to do.

Daniel and I have started this blog as a place where we can discuss a number of different topics in an open format, in an intelligent way, and as a contribution to the ideal res publica. It seemed fitting to begin with a discussion about transparency, reasoned discourse, non-ideological cooperation, and what the purpose and shape of such things might look like.

Some theses.  These are, of course, not exhaustive.  They probably also all assume a more basic thesis, amounting to the protected rights of the sort that the 1st Amendment clarifies.  For the purposes of our society I'm assuming that this underlying thesis is already in place: 

1. Open public discourse requires some attention to critical thought. America has always fostered an anti-intellectual populism on some level, but such posturing against a vague "elitism" does more to cut off cooperative dialogue than it does to give the common woman or man a voice. In our day we hardly need to worry about an intelligentsia that lords it over the masses; firstly, the availability of education is unprecedented as compared to other periods, and secondly, an elite intelligentsia can hardly be said to have a monopoly on public discourse anymore-- we've handed that honor over to various celebrities and pundits. If we are going to talk usefully and do things with those words, then we must abandon the us-against-them mentality that has been built up by Joe the Plumber & co. Saying that an idea is stupid when it's stupid and giving good reason for such a claim is not elitist. It should be a matter of course.

2. Open public discourse need not follow certain conventions. One thing that I have always disagreed with Obama on is a statement that he made during his 2004 Call to Renewal speech: "Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason." While I agree that his second sentence is rather necessary, the notion that a concern must be translated into the lexicon of universal values in order for it to become subject to argument or amenable to reason is not at all obvious. Such a conception of democratic liberalism does not take seriously enough the pluralism with which a society of multiple faiths, ideologies, and cultures is faced. Open public discourse cannot be bound by such strict rules if it is to truly express the meeting of minds.

3. Open public discourse must provide moments of closure if it is to remain stable. At a certain point, a conversation is over and society moves forward. When democratic elections are set up and fairly monitored, the winner of those elections holds office over his or her entire constituency. When a bill is passed or an interpretation is given by a court, opponents of such outcomes can work towards a different legal future, but should do so in an orderly way, and not acting as if an authoritative decision disagreed with is thus simply null and void. I think that one outcome of America's recent culture of partisanship has been a failure to see that parties are a means to the end- not of establishing a particular platform in stone- but rather to the end of challenging one another towards the societal outcome that likely as not will not fit any one party's political vision, but will be more ideal than what might have been established without the clash of differing public agendas that partisan politics offers.

4. Open public discourse must have public interest in mind. Public discourse doesn't make much sense without an understanding of the common good in mind. There is simply no reason for discourse to be public if it is not in service to the public-- otherwise it would simply be private discourse, or public dictation. And there is a place for both of these other options, but public discourse is what contextualizes the private, while public dictation (such as an executive order) must be monitored by discourse if it is to avoid tyranny.

The purpose and pitfalls of open discourse

Evan raises the question of what an “open discourse” looks like, later adding the qualifier of an “open public discourse”. This theme reminded me of a work that I am only marginally familiar with – Karl Popper’s The Open Society and It’s Enemies. In it, Popper once again makes his case against Hegel, Marx, and historicism by emphasizing that knowledge is “provisional and fallible”, necessitating an openness to diverse opinions. The fallacy of totalitarianism and communism is to assume that well informed individuals can organize society according to deterministic laws. Popper points out that Plato makes a similar mistake in empowering his Philosopher King. More recently, and perhaps more benignly, I would suggest that we see this impulse in the writing of John Kenneth Galbraith, who heralds the rise of the Technocrat as a replacement of the Bureaucrat in social organization.

In democratic societies, we place a premium on open discourse because we believe that the laws of social organization don’t operate as predictably as the laws of physics. If determining whether foreign aid should fund programs that provide abortion services or whether a school bond initiative should be adopted could be accomplished by plugging some numbers into a formula, the argument for free speech and democracy might be much weaker.

I think what Popper’s analysis ignores is the more fundamental distortions of language that make it susceptible to the same kinds of tyranny that an “open discourse” is designed to protect against. The kind of tyranny I have in mind is the “discursive framework” or double-speak that is attached to the words and phrases that structure our public discourse. A discursive public square is a defense against the proclamations of a Philosopher King, but if the speech used in the public square is blunted or co-opted, there is no reason to put blind faith in "open discourse".

One example that comes to mind is the reemergence of the term "socialism" in American political discussion. Barack Obama and his domestic agenda is what is most often refered to as "socialist" particularly since the infamous statement he made to Joe the Plumber about "spreading the wealth around". What is most ironic about the media and the public's newfound love affair with this word is the conspicuous absence of socialism in the United States, a topic addressed in Seymour Lipset and Gary Marks' famous book "It Didn't Happen Here." No platform of either party even resembles socialism - a rarity in the industrialized world. And even if one of them did, the platforms of the two parties are so similar on the fundamental questions of social organization (i.e. - a progressive income tax, social insurance, etc.) that the differences between Democrats and Republicans can hardly be attributed to socialism on the part of the Democrats. Some of the nation's most celebrated Cold Warriors were Democrats, and the fundamental outlook of that party hasn't changed substantially since the early years of the Cold War (something that cannot be said for the Republicans, who brilliantly reimagined themselves in the late 1970s). There are definitely important questions of appropriate government intervention to address in public discourse today, but a discussion of socialism is wholly irrelevant to the issues before us. And yet, "socialism" is central to the current public discourse!

Why is that? Because new meaning for words is far easier to impose on the public discourse than new initiatives are. It is easier to reinvent the Earned Income Tax Credit (an instrument imagined by a conservative economist and initiated by a conservative president to supplant welfare) as "socialist" than it is to eliminate it.

We should guard the words we use, and use those words very precisely. We shouldn't use words like "socialism" unless we're discussing the abolition of private property rights and the collectivization of the means of production under the power of the state. In other words - we probably shouldn't use the word "socialism" in relation to American policy making at all. We should also be careful about applying terms like "fascist" to the Bush administration or Israel. The faults of the Bush administration and the state of Israel are very real, but a fair-minded assessment of those faults very quickly show that fascism has nothing to do with it. Only a handful of regimes in the world today could possibly be described as "fascist". When we identify our two political parties with the extremes of the political spectrum - socialism and fascism - we are discounting the rich "middle ground" policies that are actually being considered.

Who do I blame for this? I blame the Ann Coulters of the world who sell books by redefining words like "treason", "guilty", and "liberal". It's particularly sad because she makes her living as a writer who uses the English language every day - and yet her millions have been made from redefining hot-button words. At one time, "treason" meant betraying your country. Now it means betraying Coulter's idea of what the country should be. It's not the first time "treason" was defined that way. John Adams' Alien and Sedition Act had a similar interpretation of the word.

We should also blame people like Cindy Sheehan and the MoveOn.org crowd, who take perhaps legitimate concerns about the war in Iraq and superimpose language of fascism, Nazis, and "blood for oil" on the issue. MoveOn.org has also committed what we might call the "Coulter Fallacy" of assuming that betrayal consists of turning your back on a very specific interpretation what the county should look like. Recall the full page New York Times ads that MoveOn.org ran about "General Betray Us", mocking Gen. Petraeus and accusing him of betrayal. MoveOn.org had several good, legitimate points to make that where very critical of Petraeus - as Coulter surely did about the historical treatment of Sen. McCarthy - but they both chose an irresponsible short-cut. They chose to make their point by distorting language and the meaning of words.

I'm not trying to say that catchy titles are bad. But when you write titles, you have to consider how you're using words. Did General Petraeus "betray" us, or was he unobjective and misleading to Congress? Wouldn't it have been better to say "General Petraeus is Misleading Congress about the War in Iraq"? It's still certainly accusatory and eye catching. But presumably the word "misleading" is more defensible than "betrayal". The same goes with Coulter. Instead of "Treason" (my understanding is that she argues that liberals, as a group, are basically traitors to their country), she could have used the title "Ungrateful Whiners". It would capture what she's trying to say about the slander of Sen. McCarthy's record and her views on liberals without accusing them of being traitors - an accusation which is clearly false.

In conclusion, we all need to refamiliarize ourselves with Orwell's "Politics and the English Language". I'll leave the reader with a line from the conclusion of that piece:

"I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought. Stuart Chase and others have come near to claiming that all abstract words are meaningless, and have used this as a pretext for advocating a kind of political quietism. Since you don't know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism? One need not swallow such absurdities as this, but one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end."