What is this blog about?


What is this blog about?

I am a political philosopher. My 'political philosophy' is a form of 'liberal egalitarianism.' So in this blog I reflect on various issues in political philosophy and politics (especially Canadian and American politics) from a liberal egalitarian perspective.

If you are curious about what I mean by 'liberal egalitarianism,' my views are strongly influenced by the conception of justice advanced by John Rawls. (So I sometimes refer to myself as a 'Rawlsian,' even though I disagree with Rawls on some matters.)

Astonishingly, I am paid to write and teach moral and political philosophy. I somehow manage to do this despite my akratic nature. Here is my faculty profile.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Ted Cruz: Master Debater


This post, “Owning the PeanutGallery,” by Maria Farrell at the ‘Crooked Timber’ blog is well worth reading—especially by anyone who ever participated in university-level debating in North America. It is hilarious and does a great job in capturing what it was like to take part in university tournaments in the early 1990s, especially from the perspective of Canadian teams visiting the U.S. And of course any post that further illuminates the comprehensive awfulness of Ted Cruz is worthy of praise.

The post brought back my own memories of debating in Canada around the same time (I represented University College at University of Toronto). I recall going to tournaments at Yale and Harvard, and encountering Cruz (and Austan Goolsbee, and others), although—thankfully—I don’t recall ever debating Cruz myself.

(Nitpick: A friend points out that this claim in the post is incorrect: “We’re the highest ranked Canadian team at a US tournament, ever, at that point [1993].” A team from the University of Toronto made it to the finals at Harvard in 1992.)

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Freedom, liberal egalitarianism, and democratic socialism

[Campaign buttons for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez]

Over the past couple of years ‘democratic socialism’ has been on the upswing in, of all places, that most anti-socialist of countries, the United States. This can be seen in, inter alia, the political successes of self-described ‘democratic socialists’ like Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the skyrocketing growth in membership of the Democratic Socialists of America. Leaving aside the fact that the actual policy proposals championed by, for instance, Sanders during his 2016 campaign to become the Democratic Party candidate for the American presidency would be right at home in the ‘New Deal liberalism’ of FDR (or most versions of egalitarian liberalism), it is clear that the idea of democratic socialism is no longer beyond the pale in the United States, especially amongst younger citizens.

Corey Robin—professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center—has an interesting essay on “The New Socialists” in last Saturday’s New York Times (2018-08-25). Especially intriguing is Robin’s description of what he takes to be the core political ideal and goal of democratic socialism:
What the socialist seeks is freedom. 
Under capitalism, we’re forced to enter the market just to live. The libertarian sees the market as synonymous with freedom. But socialists hear “the market” and think of the anxious parent, desperate not to offend the insurance representative on the phone, lest he decree that the policy she paid for doesn’t cover her child’s appendectomy. Under capitalism, we’re forced to submit to the boss. Terrified of getting on his bad side, we bow and scrape, flatter and flirt, or worse — just to get that raise or make sure we don’t get fired. 
The socialist argument against capitalism isn’t that it makes us poor. It’s that it makes us unfree. When my well-being depends upon your whim, when the basic needs of life compel submission to the market and subjugation at work, we live not in freedom but in domination. Socialists want to end that domination: to establish freedom from rule by the boss, from the need to smile for the sake of a sale, from the obligation to sell for the sake of survival.
The account of ‘freedom’ that Robin describes here is (somewhat ironically) known these days within academic political philosophy as ‘republican’ freedom, that is, roughly, liberty as ‘non-domination.’ (The label ‘republican’ is meant to evoke the conception of ‘free citizens’ within the ancient Roman Republic, not the contemporary American Republican Party; indeed, one would be hard pressed to think of a mainstream political party more hostile to the ideal of non-domination, at least for everyday citizens, than the contemporary GOP.) One is ‘free,’ according to republicans, insofar as one is not subject to the arbitrary will and power of another (such as one’s master, boss, husband, priest, etc.). While some political theorists, such as Philip Pettit, claim that republican freedom is distinct from the kind of ‘negative liberty’ championed by liberals like John Rawls, it always has seemed clear to me (and other scholars) that in fact non-domination is an intrinsic part of the Rawlsian account of free citizens. (Moreover, as I have explained elsewhere, Rawls does not rely upon Isaiah Berlin’s concept of ‘negative liberty’ in his conception of justice.)

Given democratic socialism’s concern with non-domination, then, it should not be a surprise—despite how his theory was interpreted throughout much of the 1970s and 1980s—that John Rawls’s conception of liberal egalitarian justice, ‘justice as fairness,’ can be read as compatible with, and perhaps even requiring, a form of democratic socialism. Rawls’s Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (which came out about 17 years ago, shortly before his death in 2002, but draws upon lecture notes that he had used, and regularly revised, for many years) identifies ‘liberal democratic socialism’ as one of two political-economic systems capable of realizing the principles of justice as fairness. The other kind of regime is ‘property-owning democracy.’ In contrast to liberal democratic socialism and property-owning democracy, Rawls holds that ‘welfare-state capitalism’ (the political-economic system that most of us endure today), ‘laissez-faire capitalism’ (the form of society that lives in the dreams of libertarians), and (Soviet-style) ‘state socialism,’ are all incapable of realizing justice as fairness.

While most of Rawls’s own discussion about these political-economic systems (limited as it is) focuses on property-owning democracy—and that is the system that has generated the most discussion in recent years—the political philosopher William A. Edmunson recently has published an important book that argues that Rawls’s principles of justice in fact favour democratic liberal socialism over property-owning democracy (see this recent article at Jacobin for a quick overview).

Despite my commitment to (a slightly modified version of) Rawls’s conception of justice as fairness, I remain generally agnostic on which particular political-economic system would best realize that conception. I’m even open to the possibility that an egalitarian form of welfare-state capitalism—a form of ‘social democracy’ instead of ‘democratic socialism’—might be capable of realizing the principles of justice as fairness. And it seems possible that a society might include a mix of democratic socialist, property-owning democratic, and welfare-state institutions. One of my main goals over the next couple of years is to sort through what has been written on this topic in order to gain deeper grasp of these issues.

It is exciting that there is a lot of interesting new work is being done on this topic: in addition to Edmundson’s recent book, for instance, there is Alan Thomas’s book on property-owning democracy. Yes, the well of Rawlsiana is quite deep!



Monday, April 30, 2018

Academic corruption at George Mason University ('Koch U')

Finally, the corrupting influence of the Charles Koch Foundation at George Mason University has been publicly acknowledged:
"Virginia’s largest public university granted the conservative Charles Koch Foundation a say in the hiring and firing of professors in exchange for millions of dollars in donations, according to newly released documents.
The release of donor agreements between George Mason University and the foundation follows years of denials by university administrators that Koch foundation donations inhibit academic freedom."
(From: "Documents show ties between university, conservative donors" [AP]. See also: "George Mason president: Some donations ‘fall short’ of academic standards" [WaPo].)

*Sigh*... As someone who has been following the growing pernicious influence of the 'Kochtopus' in American academia for many years now, this is thoroughly unsurprising. But I'm glad that a court compelled this public university to at least be honest about its past academic corruption.

(It is worth noting that the GMU Economics Department is where the libertarian misogynist Robin Hanson works. Small world...)


Sunday, April 29, 2018

Members of Parliament for non-resident citizens

Parliamentary democracy is based on territorial representation: Members of Parliament are elected to represent citizens who reside within certain geographically-defined electoral districts (called ‘ridings’ in Canada).

One problem with this system concerns the representation of citizens who reside abroad. Insofar as such persons remain citizens of the country in question—the state remains the ultimate protector of such citizens’ rights and interests; it is the one place that they can go to if denied residency elsewhere—it would seem that they should have some kind of representation in their country’s legislature.

Many countries allow non-resident citizens to continue to vote within the electoral districts wherein they last resided, at least for a certain period of time (currently, Canadians can vote in federal elections so long as they have not resided abroad for more than five years). But a better form of representation, I think, would be to allocate a certain number of MPs to represent directly non-resident citizens.

Or so I have proposed in the past—viz., that there should be a number of MPs within the Canadian federal Parliament to represent Canadians abroad. (Such forms of representation, it should be noted, already exist for French and Italian citizens.) Interesting, a Briton residing in Spain recently has made a very similar proposal, and has started a petition to get the proposal debated within the UK Parliament. I wish him luck!

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Libertarian misogyny

So ... a 'libertarian thinker’ tries to attack a straw man caricature of ‘distributive justice’ (some implausible version of ‘luck egalitarianism’, as far as I can tell), but instead reveals himself to be a grotesque misogynist.

(For the record, I think that the ‘argument’ fails miserably against any plausible version of luck egalitarianism. But even if I were wrong about that, I would be untroubled, as I belong to the ‘relational egalitarian’ camp—along with thinkers like Elizabeth Anderson, John Rawls, Samuel Scheffler, Joshua Cohen, among others—for reasons explained here.)

And as for libertarianism’s claim to be concerned with ‘liberty’, I found this recent post from Existential Comics rather amusing.

UPDATE: for a clearer explanation of this brouhaha, see "Own Troll" by John Holbo at the Crooked Timber blog.

UPDATE 2: Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo weighs in on the matter.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Justice and leisure time

In a recent piece in the Washington Post (25 April 2018), Elizabeth Bruenig helpfully explains the importance of free time: "America is obsessed with the virtue of work. What about the virtue of rest?"

Bruenig's article coheres nicely with my view, outlined in a couple of academic articles now, that leisure time should be regarded as a basic requirement of justice -- a 'primary good' in 'Rawls-speak'.

Specifically, Rawls acknowledges that leisure time could be treated as a primary good -- one interchangeable with income/wealth, and thus distributed via the different principle. (See Justice as Fairness, p.179.) My argument is that a certain amount of leisure time should be regarded as a 'basic right' -- to be included as part of the 'basic needs' principle (which has lexical priority over even the first principle of justice). (On the 'basic needs' principle, see Political Liberalism, p.7.) Above that threshold, though, it should be distributed via the difference principle. (So I partially agree with Rawls.)

For a longer explanation of my view, see section 4 of my article, "'The Kids are Alright': Political liberalism, Leisure Time, and Childhood."

Monday, March 19, 2018

Threat to democracy: Cambridge Analytica

This undercover report on Cambridge Analytica from Channel 4 News is well worth watching.

(It is, of course, no surprise that this vile organization was instrumental in helping Trump win the electoral college vote in the 2016 US election...)

UPDATE [2018-03-20]: Here is C4 News' report on the role of Cambridge Analytica in the Trump 2016 campaign.