Thursday, April 14, 2011

A few more things on Rorty

Gary's claim in the comment section of the prior post yesterday that Rorty depended on "some sort of positive action by the state" for a credo of universal human rights both flustered and confused me. This confusion was reinforced by a later claim by Gary that I hold an ancient view of rights, which I apparently take to "depend on participation in the body politic by "the people"" (if you don't remember me ever being of this view, you're not alone - I can't manage to remember that either).

Regardless, it lead me to browsing more Rortian themes. I came across a few points of interest. First, when he died in 2007, he was memorialized by Greg Mankiw and Tyler Cowen. Cowen provides his understanding of Rorty's significance and Mankiw provides a story of his relationship with Rorty in class.

I also found this passage from a 1992 Virginia Law Review article interesting:

"The good kind of prophet thinks of herself as just someone who has a better idea, on an epistemological par with the people who claim to have a new gimmick for retreading tires, or programming computers, or redrawing the company's table of organization. Good prophets say that if we all got together and did such and such, we would probably like the results. They paint pictures of what this brighter future would look like, and write scenarios about how it might be brought about. When they've finished doing that, they have nothing more to offer, except to say "Let's try it!" (a phrase I prefer to "Just do it!").

This kind of prophet does not think that her views have "legitimacy" or "authority". The other, worse, type of prophet thinks of herself as a messenger from somebody (God) or something (Truth, Reason, History, Human Nature, Science, Philosophy, the Spirit of the Laws, The Working Class, the Blood and Soil of Germany, The Consciousness of hte Oppressed, Woman's Experience, Negritude, the Overman who is to come, the New Socialist Man who is to come) - somebody in whose name, or something in the name of which, they speak. Such prophets think of themselves as not just one more voice in the conversation, but as the representative of something that is somehow more than another such voice


The first paragraph made me think of Keynes's approach, and the second paragraph provides a window on the some of the voices he was up against; those who took the gold standard and other orthodoxies of either theory or policy as an independent authority for Britain to hew to, as well as socialists and other totalitarian philosophies that cited higher authorities for their counter-arguments. It also reminded me of the "reform liberals" or non-Keynesian New Dealers in America; those for whom the primary problem was "economic royalists" rather than "magneto trouble". Many of these sorts were really just well-meaning people with rhetoric instead of reasoned positions (the same can probably be said for many gold-bugs), and they were eventually brought into the Keynesian camp. You can also see the opponents of Keynesianism today reflected in that second paragraph - some higher moral priority like "fiscal responsibility" as an abstraction, or "sound money" as an abstraction and as a moral goal substitute for "this is my idea, this is how it works, let's give it a try". It doesn't matter if dedication to the abstraction works - "liberty" or "responsibility" or some other abstraction or tradition justify it. Functionality is a distraction.

This is not to say that a moral justification of sorts isn't important: it is. But it's not a substitute for (1.) humility when it comes to citing the authority with which you speak, and (2.) a good argument on why what you're proposing is functional in making the world better.


  1. Not to quibble too much, but I don't see what one gains by calling the "good prophet" a "prophet". It seems that the legitimacy/authority of the "bad prophet" is sort of definitional for the concept of the prophet... and one doesn't even have to be speaking from a theological perspective to say this. Weber ties the prophet to the charismatic type, which fits nicely enough into the prophet being a message of "something" as well as "someone".

    But his wider point is well-taken. I'm just pestering you. And for some small amount of good reason, I take it... it seems worthwhile to be tidy with categories that can lead to such "good" or "bad" ends. As I see it, someone like Rorty, who has little use for religion, should just not go to the trouble of cramming his square peg into the round hole of something like "prophecy". Why not just say "reformer" or "inventor" or "visionary"?

  2. ...or "motivational speaker"?

  3. I would agree, but he's responding to a prior article that uses the term.

    You don't think you can be purely a prophet of "something"? Perhaps not... I'm not sure. I haven't run across enough prophets to know.

  4. I wouldn't bother using the term prophet for that, but sure, I think it's reasonable to talk about being a prophet for an ideology or a system or a cause. That still falls under the "bad" sort of prophecy for Rorty insofar as it claims some special legitimacy or authority for the voice of the prophet on the basis of the unquestionable nature of the "something".

    I take it that what makes a prophet is the status of ambassador... "I speak for X, so you should hear my words as Thus saith X rather than Thus saith the prophet." Whether X is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob or global capitalism, the point is that the prophet speaks less as a communicative partner in the give and take of regular discourse, and more as a voice from on high or afar to proclaim the truth in a certain context.

  5. Daniel,

    The so-called "good prophet" has as much of an abstract credo as anyone else does. Anyone who tells you they don't have an ideology which is focused on certain abstract ends is basically spouting B.S. Indeed, what this sort of reasoning reminds me of is the former cult of the non-ideological journalist - it wasn't that they weren't ideological, it is that their ideology hewed to the "norm."

  6. Speaking of experiments (ones which would make folks like Rorty freak out):

  7. Gary - I definitely agree on the ideology point. I do think, however, that there is a difference between saying "I am compelled to find this course of action laudable given my own ideology and I think you'd find it laudable too" and saying "X [God, liberty, the the fatherland] is my ideology and it compels you to accept this".

    One can have an ideology as a personal authority without citing it a an authority for others.

    I don't get the Reason video... what would cause him to freak out about outsourcing? I don't know what his views on privatization are especially... does he have an opinion?

    Anyway, Sandy Spring looks great - outsourcing this stuff makes sense. But you have to look at this a little more critically than what Reason spoon-feeds. It's an affluent suburb - only 20% of residents have children, and those children still go to school in the Fulton County School district. Of course they don't have a pension problem - they're a small city and they don't have a major educational workforce on the payroll, and they're wealthy. B.F.D. I think it's fantastic that a relatively old, affluent community can outsource non-educational city services. More power to them. I am supportive, but don't expect me to be impressed.

  8. "I don't get the Reason video... what would cause him to freak out about outsourcing?"

    Because it is essentially "anti-democratic," and Rorty's first, best solution for anything was "democracy." When you outsource government tasks you are essentially depending on markets, and folks like Rorty are suspicious of markets when they take place in areas where "traditionally" the state has held sway.

    "It's an affluent suburb - only 20% of residents have children, and those children still go to school in the Fulton County School district."

    Well, that likely is not the fault of the city - states largely demand that they have a near monopoly on educational services. I'm sure if they could outsource the schools they would do that too.

  9. I can't argue with you on this point day in and day out. Just because some market advocates oppose these ideas does not mean that every advocate of democracy has a problem with the market. And there's certainly nothing inherently anti-democratic about the market or about outsourcing services. "Democratic" is not always a strictly political disposition. We talk about both the market revolution and the democratic revolution that went on in Jacksonian America. Democracy is fundamentally about leveling of hierarchies - something I'd imagine you wouldn't be so flippant about - and while democracy has implications for the state, it need not be a state-centric position.

    And of course it's not the city's fault. I'm just saying it seems like a convenient point for Reason to omit when they talk about long-term obligations, pensions, balanced budgets, etc. I think it's sensible to attribute the efficiency of the community to its outsourcing effort, but I think it makes more sense to attribute the solvency to the unique and advantageous situation of the residents. It's hard not to run a fiscally responsible city with a population that is well positioned like that.

    Anyway, it's a great thing they're doing - and very democratic.

  10. "Democracy is fundamentally about leveling of hierarchies..."

    No, democracy is fundamentally about the creation of hierarchies as well as the creation of privilege.

    "...but I think it makes more sense to attribute the solvency to the unique and advantageous situation of the residents."

    That sounds vaguely elitist to me actually.

  11. There are very real risks and excesses associated with democracy, and there are very good reasons for libertarians to be skeptical of democracy. But the construction of hierarchies is not one of those risks. Hierarchy is anti-thetical to democracy.

    Sometimes I get the impression that no matter what I say, you would jump to hold the opposite position.

  12. And how is that elitist?

    If you are affluent, if you don't have to pay for as many services for younger residents, you're going to have a different fiscal situation.

    My point is this - there is not one, but two things that have changed recently in Sandy Springs. First, they incorporated. Second, they outsourced services. My only point is that the incorporation - breaking free from the county but leaving school obligations with the county - seems to be the driver of their strong fiscal position. Clearly the outsourcing helped as well. But if they incorporated and did not outsource a substantial amount of services, it seems to me they would still be in a strong fiscal position. The big ticket items that this relatively affluent community were supporting largely went away with the incorporation, rather than the outsourcing.

    So please, spare me the whining about elitism.

  13. Daniel,

    The promise of democracy is anti-hierarchy, the result is the "iron rule of oligarchy."

    "If you are affluent, if you don't have to pay for as many services for younger residents, you're going to have a different fiscal situation."

    The point is that outsourcing works whether you are rich, poor or in between. It is the very universality that is so appealing.

  14. "Sometimes I get the impression that no matter what I say, you would jump to hold the opposite position."

    I agree with you from time to time when you are right.

  15. Citing the iron law of oligarchy does not make it true, but if you're going to cite it at least cite it right. The iron law of oligarchy says that all systems tend toward oligarchy and bureaucracy. It's hardly an argument against democracy uniquely.

    re: "The point is that outsourcing works whether you are rich, poor or in between. It is the very universality that is so appealing."

    Right - I NEVER challenged the idea that outsourcing works Gary. Come on - read before you write. What I'm challenging is the idea that that factor dominated in the fiscal situation of Sandy Springs.

  16. All "systems?" Presumably you mean organizations - point being that markets relatively free of meta-organizations, democracy is wedded to such.

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