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, November 25, 2016

Coming soon: voting rights for non-resident Canadians

Over a year ago I wrote: (a) that Canadians who live abroad for five or more years should retain their right to vote in federal elections, and (b) that such Canadians should have special representation in Parliament (say, a dozen or so MPs) rather than voting for MPs in particular ridings. (See my post here or at In Due Course from August 2015.)

Well, it looks I got my wish for (a). Here is the official statement from the Canadian government.

So while 2016 has been a complete disaster politically in many parts of the world, at least something good is happening for people like me (the roughly 9 percent of Canadians who live abroad*).

(*One reason why I especially care about this issue is that while I work and live abroad, I spend roughly one-third of my time [about 4 months of the year] in Canada, so I find the 5-year limit on voting especially vexing given my strong, ongoing connection to the country.)

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Kochtopus is poised to control the Trump administration

I’ve mentioned the threat that the Koch brothers and the various organizations that they fund and control – a sprawling plutocratic network of political influence and corruption often referred to as the ‘Kochtopus’ – pose to American democracy before in this blog. Given that the Kochs refused to back Trump during the 2016 election, they have not been subject to as much scrutiny in the most recent election cycle as they have been in the past. However, the Kochs are now poised to shape the policy agenda of the coming Trump administration in numerous horrible ways.

Theda Skocpol, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, and Caroline Tervo explain what is happening in their important article, “Behind ‘Make America Great,’ the Koch Agenda Returns with a Vengence,” at TPM.

Some key points:
During the election campaign, Trump relied upon well-established conservative organizational networks that could reach into many states and communities. … [H]e benefitted indirectly from Koch network operations centered in a nation-spanning, political party-like federation called Americans for Prosperity. Even more important, after his campaign squeaked through on November 8, an unprepared President-Elect Trump started to fall back on people and plans offered by the Koch network, which aims to dismantle not only Barack Obama’s accomplishments but much of what the federal government has done for 75 years to promote security and opportunity for ordinary Americans.

Despite loud pronouncements from Charles Koch that his network would not support Trump, the Kochs’ massive political operation worked over many months to turn out Republican voters in key states. Above all, AFP was deeply involved in get-out-the-vote efforts, especially in the critical swing states of Florida, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina.

Having helped to elect Trump and a fully GOP-controlled Congress, the Koch network is now positioned to staff and steer much that happens in Washington DC.

For the emerging Trump White House, Vice President Mike Pence, long a Koch network favorite, was put in charge of transition planning for federal personnel appointments – and one of his senior staffers for this effort is his long-time associate, Marc Short, recent head of Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, the lynchpin of the Koch network’s fundraising operation.

In addition to Pence and Short, newly-named White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus has had strong ties to AFP’s chapter in Wisconsin – a chapter that has been central to all aspects of politics and policy in that state during the ascendancy of Governor Scott Walker.

After apparently denouncing and opposing GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan during the election campaign, President-Elect Trump did a quick about-face to fully embrace Ryan and his radical government-shrinking policy agenda. Speaker Ryan has been a featured politician at many Koch donor conclaves over the years, and Washington Post reporter Matea Gold has described Ryan as “clearly a favorite of the Koch donor network.” It is not hard to see why. Ryan’s main priorities, already spelled out in budgets that House Republicans have repeatedly passed, include slashing federal funding for Medicaid, Food Stamps, and other parts of the social safety net for the poor; privatizing Medicare for future generations of American retirees; instituting large and regressive tax cuts rewarding corporations and the very wealthy; gutting what remains of labor regulations and union rights; and eliminating business and environmental regulations.

With all of these leadership ties in place, is it no surprise that specific plans have rapidly emerged to advance the Koch agenda in the new Congress that convenes in January 2017, perhaps enacting bills so quickly that opponents will be disorganized and most Americans will not understand what is happening.

With total GOP control of Washington DC about to happen, the Koch network dream of an enfeebled U.S. domestic government is on the verge of realization.
Read the whole thing – and despair.

Is democracy coming to Wisconsin?

Finally, some good news for the sorry state of Wisconsin:
A federal court has ruled Wisconsin’s Republican-drawn legislative map unconstitutional, saying the plan constitutes a partisan gerrymander. 
In a 2-1 decision from a special panel of federal judges, authored by federal Judge Kenneth Ripple, the court agreed with a group of Democratic plaintiffs that the redistricting plan had systematically diluted the voting strength of Democratic voters.
(From Wisconsin's NPR website: "Wisconsin's GOP-Drawn Legislative Districts Unconstitutional." More information available at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.)

Thank Crom!


Key to the decision was this:
The Democrats contend that they have found a way to measure unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders that are designed to give an extreme and durable advantage in elections to one party, a measure that the U.S. Supreme Court has said it was lacking. The measure, called the efficiency gap, shows how cracking (breaking up blocs of Democratic voters) and packing (concentrating Democrats within certain districts) results in wasted votes -- excess votes for one party in safe districts and votes for losing candidates in those safe districts.
(From the Wisconsin State Journal.)

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Wisdom of the Irish

If only more countries could have heads of state as wise and knowledgeable as Ireland’s President Michael D. Higgins:
Teaching philosophy in schools, and promoting it in society, is urgently needed to enable citizens “to discriminate between truthful language and illusory rhetoric”, President Michael D Higgins has said. 
Speaking at a function at Áras an Uachtaráin to mark World Philosophy Day, which fell this week, the President expressed concern about an “an anti-intellectualism that has fed a populism among the insecure and the excluded”. 
Amid claims that we have entered a “post-truth” society, he asked how we might together and individually contribute to a “reflective atmosphere in the classrooms, in our media, in our public space”. 
“The dissemination, at all levels of society, of the tools, language and methods of philosophical enquiry can, I believe, provide a meaningful component in any concerted attempt at offering a long-term and holistic response to our current predicament.”  
“The teaching of philosophy is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal to empower children into acting as free and responsible subjects in an ever more complex, interconnected and uncertain world,” Mr Higgins said. 
“A new politics of fear, resentment and prejudice against those who are not ‘like us’ requires the capacity to critique, which an early exposure to the themes and methods of philosophy can bring.”
(From: “Teach philosophy to heal our ‘post-truth’ society, says President Higgins,” The Irish Times [2016-11-19].)

Also recently in Ireland, Irish Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin spoke out with appropriate moral indignation against the Trump victory in last week’s U.S. election (despite receiving 1.6 million fewer votes than Clinton according to the most recent tally). His speech on November 10th was excellent. Watch it!

Erin go bragh!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Interview on freedom, money, and justice as fairness

Last September I was interviewed about my forthcoming article, "Freedom, Money, and Justice as Fairness," by Sarah Vickery for the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee journal In Focus. The interview can be found on page four of the journal (available here). I've reproduced it below.


By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science (UWM)

“With freedom and justice for all” is the last line of the Pledge of Allegiance and a guiding ideal in American society, but there’s a caveat: freedom seem to be worth more the wealthier you are.

“You and I have an equal right to freedom of association,” explained Philosophy professor Blain Neufeld. “That right is protected equally for both of us. But if I’m wealthy, I can exercise that right more effectively. I can set up associations or travel to distant places to associate with others. We have equal liberty but I can make better use of it.”

That’s one of the principles forming the basis of Neufeld’s recent paper, “Freedom, Money, and Justice as Fairness” published in the journal Politics, Philosophy, & Economics. He seeks to answer a question that has sobering implications for our society: How do you reconcile the thought that we have basic freedoms with varying abilities to exercise them against the idea that money can grant access to freedoms that others without money will never have?

There are two seemingly conflicting views of freedom at work here, said Neufeld. The first is philosopher John Rawls’ conception of Justice as Fairness which claims that: (1) every individual has an equal right to a set of basic liberties, but (2) there may exist some inequalities in society, such as those regarding income and wealth, which can in influence the worth of those liberties. The first principle has lexical priority in Rawls’ conception of justice, meaning it will always take precedence over the second.

On the other hand is philosopher Gerald Cohen, who argues that wealth can eliminate barriers to freedom, giving wealthy people certain liberties that others do not have.

“If Cohen’s right, why would (Rawls) insist on lexical priority? It doesn’t make sense,” Neufeld said. “The paper is an attempt to explain why you still want the lexical priority even if you’ve granted Cohen’s point – why you’d still want to have special protection for these basic rights, even if you acknowledged that the more wealth people have, the more freedom they have.”

Neufeld was inspired to write the paper thanks to a Canadian lottery commercial he remembered seeing regularly as a child. The ad showed happy lottery winners traveling and enjoying fun activities under the tagline ‘Imagine the freedom.’

“When I read Cohen’s article, that commercial popped into my mind. If you win the lottery, you’re free! You can remove all of these constraints,” Neufeld said. “I thought, if Cohen is right, does this spell trouble for Rawls’ conception of justice? I hope it doesn’t, or I’ll have to reevaluate what I’m doing with my life.”

Neufeld won’t have to reevaluate too hard; he concluded that Rawls can accommodate Cohen’s point if you apply to Justice as Fairness a “basic needs” principle – an insurance that everyone has adequate education, discretionary time, health care, and other fundamental needs met.

“If you secure those things, you already establish a level of freedom all citizens have to a more or less equal degree, even independent of whatever inequality might be necessary for economic efficiency,” Neufeld said.

That has implications for our own political system, he added, especially when we look at how current rhetoric and social systems have marginalized some groups of Americans, thanks to income inequality. This paper won’t change it, but, “It’s one of my on-going concerns, trying to resurrect another way of thinking about individual freedom that points out that inequality is incompatible with widespread liberty,” Neufeld added.

More concretely, Neufeld emphasized in his argument about the basic needs principle that one fundamental need is adequate discretionary time. People need time away from work to pursue leisure activities, to engage socially, and to think about important things – like what their political views should be. He’s been dismayed to see Americans working longer hours in recent decades, alongside attacks to benefits like overtime pay.

“What Rawls talks about in terms of a basic needs principle as a precondition of even being able to be free – if you’re not educated, if you don’t know what options are available to you; you’re not free to choose among those options. If you’re working constantly, you can’t, say, think about how to vote in an upcoming election,” Neufeld said. “This idea of a basic needs principle is important.”

Friday, November 11, 2016

Liberal democracy in a darkening world

There are some interesting observations from Joe Heath (Philosophy, University of Toronto) on the US election in his recent post at In Due Course.

This comment especially troubled me:
"Perhaps I am overreacting, but I do feel as though yesterday was one of those moments, like the fall of the Berlin Wall, that alters the trajectory of civilization. That’s because the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. Presidency is deeply discrediting to Western-style democracy. In fact, I think the big winner, globally, from Tuesday’s election, is Chinese-style authoritarianism."
I think that the possibility that what happened on Tuesday will be perceived in the way that Heath describes is a real danger. It reminded me of the following observation by John Rawls:
"If we take for granted as common knowledge that a just and well-ordered society is impossible, then the quality and tone of [political] discussions will reflect that knowledge. A cause of the fall of Weimar’s constitutional regime was that none of the traditional elites of Germany supported its constitution or were willing to cooperate to make it work. They no longer believed a decent liberal parliamentary regime to be possible. Its time had past." 
(From the Preface to the paperback edition of Political Liberalism [my emphasis].)

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The need for optimism

This post from Josh Marshall, "Observations on the Day After," is well worth reading (Marshall is one of the few American political pundits whom I read constantly, and with whom I usually agree).

In particular, I liked this passage:
"Optimism isn't principally an analysis of present reality. It's an ethic. It is not based on denial or rosy thinking. It is a moral posture toward the world we find ourselves in."
We're in for some very dark times, people. Let's light a candle and conduct ourselves with honour, compassion, and dignity.

Worst case scenario

The worst case scenario for the 2016 U.S. election has happened: a Trump victory with Republican control of Congress.

I'm still in shock at this gratuitous act of electoral self-destruction, with all its national and international implications.

This Vox piece --- "5 winners and 4 losers from the 2016 election" --- succinctly hits on most of the main issues.

The things that terrify me the most about the forthcoming Trump regime are: (a) the further deterioration of the environment; (b) the destabilization of the international order (in part because of the emboldenment of Putin and the potential unravelling of NATO); (c) the entrenchment of a rightwing Supreme Court; (d) the likely end of the Affordable Care Act; (e) the erosion of other key social safety programs with a Ryan-authored budget (esp. Medicaid and food stamps); and (f) the emboldenment of racist, misogynistic, ableist, xenophobic, etc., discourse within American political culture.

On racism and xenophobia --- not just within the U.S. but throughout many other democratic societies -- this article, "White Riot," is a long and depressing read, but an excellent one. (The fact that Canada turns out to be the 'hero' of the story is cold comfort...)

One "what-could-have-prevented-this" comment: As my partner and most of my personal friends already know, I always thought that Bernie Sanders would've been a stronger candidate against Trump. This Daily Kos post nicely summarizes most of my reasons. (However, aside from a couple of posts on Facebook, I did not press this view because: (a) I was only about 70% confident in my judgement; and (b) I viewed Trump with such horror that I did not think it constructive to focus too much on the relative merits of Clinton versus Sanders.)

Finally, it looks like Clinton at least won the popular vote (the tally is 59,036,741 votes (47.6%) for Clinton versus 58,914,866 votes (47.5%) for Trump at the time of this post).

Now, to bed...

(Post updated at 6:22 with links and further thoughts.)