Rawls, Cohen, and the Difference Principle: Chris Bertram and Lawrence Solum have been posting on Jerry Cohen's critique of Rawls's difference principle. If you're new to this debate, Adam Swift has a very accessible introduction to the basic arguments toward the end of the equality chapter of his book Political Philosophy. Solum says he doesn't see why Cohen's argument has had such success:

If Cohen were right, everyone who was not in the least advantaged group would be obligated to adopt the welfare (loosely speaking) of the least advantaged as their own goal in life. So long as there was a least advantaged group, no one outside that group would be entitled to their own comprehensive conception of the good. No one could pursue art, music, religion, or building a better Internet as a life plan, unless their action would produce the greatest benefit for the least well off as compared to any alternative course of action.

Solum is objecting here to the moral demandingness of Cohen's conception of justice. Someone sympathetic to Cohen's argument might respond to this criticism by saying that one's interest in pursuing a comprehensive conception of the good is protected by a personal prerogative, or perhaps by the value of liberty. But that this value of liberty, or the prerogative to pursue one's personal interests (defined here expansively in terms of a conception of the good), is in tension with the demands of social justice. Justice requires that we act so as to benefit the worst-off. Yet we recognize that justice isn't the only moral value. A plausible balance of moral values will provide some space for the pursuit of personal interests. The upshot of the argument, however, is that citizens must consider whether deviations from equality-producing activities are justified by their personal pursuits. They cannot avoid making these sorts of difficult judgments by claiming that their every-day decisions are not the proper subject of justice. I take it this is what Cohen means when he says that justice requires a social ethos according to which citizens apply principles of justice even when they are making ordinary decisions about how to lead their daily lives. Does something like this argument make Cohen's critique more plausible?

Rawlsians are clearly exercised by Cohen's critique. Josh Cohen, Thomas Pogge, Andrew Williams, David Estlund (who develops a criticism of Cohen based on personal prerogatives in his article on "Liberalism, Equality and Fraternity in Cohen's Critique of Rawls," Journal of Political Philosophy (1998)), and others have written some compelling responses, but I think this debate is just getting under way. Lots more ink will be spilled on it before people are satisfied that the major issues have been clarified--which is as much a testimony to the depth and complexity of Rawls's theory as it is to Cohen's criticism of it.

I wish I had time to say more about this. I'll be blogging more lightly this week than last (which was sort of a mad rush out of the gates). Work is finally catching up with me . . .


Gary Hart has started a blog. Hart, who is considering running for president in 2004, recently completed a doctorate in political theory at Oxford. His dissertation was published last year by Oxford Press. The book is called Restoration of the Republic: The Jeffersonian Ideal in 21st-Century America. Hart could be the first presidential candidate-blogger. Here's what he says about it:

The Internet is clearly the most important new medium to help increase people's involvement in a "primary of ideas." It's an amazing tool for people to share ideas, talk about their concerns and their dreams, and debate the many important policy ideas that will affect our country's future . . . I cannot promise to be as skillful at this as many of those who have made the blogger universe such an important part of the internet. However, I'm committed to using the Internet as a vital tool to engage people on critical policy matters and the future of our country.

Hart recently spoke at the University of Virginia. His speech, which was delivered as part of his on-going series of major policy addresses, is available here

Update: Apparently Howard Dean also has blog, although it seems much less personal. The comments on Hart's blog raise all kinds of interesting questions. Can a major public figure survive in blogosphere? Can interaction on a blog of this kind be meaningful, or will the comments degenerate into a mixture of chat-room nonsense and vicious personal attacks? Note that Dean's blog doesn't allow for comments, and that Hart's comments are moderated--which I think is a smart move. As far as I'm concerned, though, the ability to comment--to interact with the blogger and other readers--makes all the difference in the world.

Brandeis and Yoda? So here's a line from Justice Louis Brandeis' famous concurrence defending the freedom of speech in Whitney v. California (1926):

But they [the Founders] knew that order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction; that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government . . .

And, of course, here's Yoda:

Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering!

Coincidence? Maybe Lucas has been reading old Supreme Court opinions.


See the advertisement above? (Actually, you might not, since it comes and goes.) There's a small irony here. I just noticed that the ad at the top of my blog says, "Define Libertarian: Come learn about libertarian ideas at a free summer student seminar." It's posted by the Institute for Humane Studies. I went to an IHS seminar for grad students a couple summers ago, and I've been recommending them to my friends ever since. I don't agree with a lot of what the IHS has to say, but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I'm still in touch with some of the students I met at that seminar. I think the IHS does wonderful things for the students who participate in its programs. I just wish there were more programs like it representing different political and philosophical perspectives.


Junkets for Judges: At the risk of becoming a one-horse blogger, I think it's worth commenting on the efforts of special interest groups, especially those on the right, to influence American federal judges. I've already discussed the left's failure to fund think-tanks. Here's one place where that failure really hurts. Consider this report from the Community Rights Counsel (CRC):

[R]ight-leaning, anti-regulatory organizations dominate private judicial education. Indeed, the three organizations hosting the most trips—the Law and Economics Center (LEC), the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE) and Liberty Fund (collectively “the Big Three”), with 246, 194 and 100 trips reported by judges, respectively—share a remarkably similar conservative/libertarian ideology and structure their seminars to advance this ideology.
Reported attendance at Big Three seminars increased significantly between 1992 and 1998, with a record 88 judges taking trips in 1998. With about 800 active judges at any given time, this means that about 10% of the federal judiciary takes a Big Three trip each year.

A couple years ago, ABC's 20/20 did a story about a group of federal judges who were vacationing in Tuscon under the aegis of an “educational” seminar sponsored by the Law and Economics Center of George Mason University. That story, along with documentation from the CRC, prompted Senator John Kerry and Senator Russ Feingold to propose the Judicial Education Reform Act of 2000, which would have would have prohibited “seminar gifts” and established a Judicial Education Fund for the payment of reasonable travel and accommodation expenses incurred by judges attending “panel discussions, conferences, colloquia, symposia, and other similar events.” The Judicial Reform Act was never enacted. Indeed, its most prominent critic was Chief Justice Rehnquist. At a meeting of the American Law Institute, Rehnquist took the unusual step of attacking a piece of pending legislation. Setting aside the question of whether it was appropriate for Rehnquist to comment on the issue, I want to ask whether his criticisms are valid. Here's his first argument:

One could easily get the impression . . . that the real problem is too many judges playing golf in the middle of the afternoon in Tucson in February. There was a time when federal judges worked less than they do now; I remember many years ago a judge referring to an appointment to one of the courts of appeals as being a "dignified form of semi-retirement." If that was ever true, it long ago ceased to be. The pressure to keep up with ever-increasing dockets requires and receives hard work from these judges. And so far as the locale of any seminar is concerned, does anyone really think that a seminar in Tucson in August or in Milwaukee in January would attract as many participants if the scheduling were reversed? If you do think that, I suggest you schedule the next meeting of the ALI here in Washington for the middle of August.

Just in case we thought federal judges were really interested in being "educated," Rehnquist sets the record straight. They're only interested in being educated at seasonal resorts. Seminars in climate-controlled hotels aren't worth the trouble.

Sarcasm aside, though, the problem with this first reply is that it doesn't meet the main objection to junkets for judges. Rehnquist thinks that the public might worry that federal judges aren't working hard enough. But the issue isn't that federal judges take time off for vacations. The issue is that those vacations are funded by a handful of special interest groups who are paying nicely for access to federal judges. Judges get to play their 18-holes, but only on the condition that they attend seminars geared toward promoting the agenda of the group sponsoring the trip. The central charge against junkets for judges is essentially one of corruption. Judges get extravagant vacations sponsored by corporations and foundations seeking to advance their interests. The bottom line is: no "education," no vacation. Which just means: no access, no money. Rehnquist simply doesn’t meet the objection that junket trips and other "educational" gifts undermine the appearance of judicial propriety and that, consequently, they diminish public trust and confidence that judges will make impartial decisions.

Rehnquist has a second, and more important, argument based on the freedom of speech:

The notion that judges should not attend private seminars unless they have been vetted and approved by a government board is a bad idea. It is contrary to the public interest in encouraging an informed and educated Judiciary, and contrary to the American belief in unfettered access to ideas.

Now, depending on how trips for judges are regulated, I agree that there might indeed be free speech concerns. But even if we reject the idea of regulating the content of educational seminars for judges, legislation could be tailored to prohibit judges from accepting reimbursements over reasonable levels to cover the cost of transportation and accommodation to such seminars. (If you really want to go to that seminar in Hawaii, maybe you need to pay for it yourself.) No more rounds of golf on the dime of the Scaife Foundation. I don't see any problem with judges attending Liberty Fund seminars (disclosure: I've been to one myself). But I do see a problem when judges accept large gifts in the form of what are essentially paid vacations.

At the moment, there is no pending legislation on this issue--and hardly any public discussion about it. Which raises the question: what should the left do about it? It seems to me that there are two options. The first is to work toward reintroducing something like the Kerry-Feingold legislation--perhaps with some modification to meet legitimate concerns about the freedom of speech. Second, and as you might expect, I think left and center-left foundations should sponsor their own "educational" seminars. Some people on the left will probably want to take the moral high ground here by continuing to criticise federal judges who go on junkets trips. But, short of successful legislation, I think the better strategy is for the left to get itself into the game. And, to come back to my earlier posts, that takes big money.

The Community Rights Counsel has done some very good work on this issue. Its report, available here, is a must read. Its called Nothing for Free: How Private Judicial Seminars Are Undermining Environmental Protections and Breaking the Public's Trust. Former Chief Judge Abner Mikva wrote the forward for the CRC report, but he also submitted this article to the New York Times. Also courtesy of the CRC, you might want to read the transcript of ABC's 20/20 story. ABC News did a write-up on their televsion segment called "Lobbying the Judiciary." Finally, if you want to check in on your favorite federal judge, the CRC keeps a database that can be searched by organization, judge, court, and year (from 1987 - 1998).


Are libertarian parents hypocrites? Natalie Solent disagrees with Swift, but she's got an interesting take on the issue of educational hypocrisy:

Another reason for keeping my twitching Doc Martens under control is that Swift does make some very logical points. I might make some use of them myself, seeing as I am the mirror image of his rich socialists, a poverty stricken enthusiast for capitalism. I send my children to a state school funded by extortion - that's "taxes" to the non-libertarians among you. Even if I could afford the money for any of the fee paying schools in the area or the time to home educate I would still send my kids to their present school because they like it most of the time and we can walk there. It would be nice if our village school were once again funded by voluntary contributions, but that's not likely to happen for decades.

Do libertarians have similar concerns about the hypocrisy of sending their kids to public schools? If you believe in private schools, how come you send your kids public?

Education and hypocrisy: Adam Swift makes his case in the Guardian:

Recent years have certainly seen a substantial increase in the number of parents choosing independent schools for their children. I don't know how many of them have principled objections to private schools, but I'm sure that many are leaving the state sector reluctantly, driven away by what they regard as its inadequacy. The more opt out, the worse those schools get, the more opt out... Individuals can be helpless in the face of this kind of self-reinforcing process. But does this make those who go private while disapproving of private schools guilty of hypocrisy?
Guilty, perhaps, but not necessarily hypocritical. Hypocrisy, by the dictionary definition, is "the practice of falsely presenting an appearance of virtue or falsely professing a belief to which one's own character or conduct does not conform". All you need do to avoid hypocrisy, then, is not profess beliefs you do not really hold. In which case, the issue is clear: does the fact that you send your children to a private school show that you don't really believe such schools should be abolished?

Swift shows that parents tell all kinds of stories to justify--or rather, to rationalize--acting in ways that are inconsistent with their moral beliefs. But he also points out that consistency is not enough. You can have consistently false beliefs. "What matters is not just whether beliefs are consistent, but whether they are justified, whether they are the right beliefs to hold." When we evaluate parental decisions, we want to know whether their decisions are principled. But we also want to know whether their decisions are based on false beliefs--whether moral or empirical. The issue is not simply whether any given parent is a hypocrite, but whether parents who have the right moral and factual beliefs are hypocrites. Swift thinks that, under certain circumstances, parents may be justified in sending their kids private--even if they think that private schools should be abolished. But that doesn't relieve them of the political responsibility of pursuing the right educational policies.

Dahlia Lithwick needs a blog. As Orin Kerr from Volokh points out, Lithwick has a great article about yesterday's arguments before the Supreme Court. I suppose this is as good a time as any to express my general admiration for Lithwick's coverage of the Court. I'm not about to start a completely loony web-page in her honor. But you've got a be a fan of anyone capable of writing an article on Kentucky, trademark protection, and Victoria's Secret. She certainly knows her audience . . .


Lawrence v. Texas: Litigator Tom Golstein, of Goldstein & Howe, has a good--and at times highly amusing--report on the oral arguments before the Supreme Court today.

Trying Saddam? So far I've stayed away from posting anything war-related, and I'll probably continue that policy. But Jeff Blumenthal asks an interesting question. What would we do with Saddam if we caught him? How, exactly, would we try him? By military-tribunal, by Nuremburg-style tribunal, by means of the U.N.? See Blumenthal's article for some possible responses.

Permalinks should be operational: thanks to Jacob Levy for pointing out the problem. I'm still figuring out the basics, and I appreciate the help.

Books on Political Philosophy: Chris Bertram offers a really good overview of recent introductions to political philosophy, including books by Jonathan Wolff, Andrew Levine, and Jean Hampton. He's definitely right that Swift's book can't stand on its own because it doesn't cover major topics like democracy, political obligation, and rights--which is something Swift acknowledges in his introduction. (It's a great reason for a second edition!) Swift is also explicit about the fact that he doesn't look at the history of political thought. Bertram's advice to students and laypeople is excellent:

A first-year student who wants to find out about the subject in a pretty user-friendly way should probably buy Wolff. Levine is a pretty good bet if you want to get students to read a mix of contemporary and historical material. The layperson who wants to know about contemporary debates on social justice and who is either a libertarian who wants to have their preconceptions challenged or a leftie who wants some intellectual support should certainly take a look at Swift. The professional's choice, and that for the smart grad student, may well be Hampton.

Update: more on this from Russell Arben Fox.

The American Constitution Society has been busy this year. The list of events is really impressive, considering the ACS is only in its second year. As a rival to the Federalist Society, it's off to a great start. Notice, also, that the ACS is explicitly engaged in the project of countering conservative influence. Its mission statement is not nearly as bashful as that of the New America Foundation that I quoted below. The ACS was organized "to counter the dominant vision of American law today, a narrow conservative vision that lacks appropriate regard for the ways in which the law affects people's lives." Compare the mission statement of the Federalist Society:

Law schools and the legal profession are currently strongly dominated by a form of orthodox liberal ideology which advocates a centralized and uniform society. While some members of the academic community have dissented from these views, by and large they are taught simultaneously with (and indeed as if they were) the law.
The Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies is a group of conservatives and libertarians interested in the current state of the legal order. It is founded on the principles that the state exists to preserve freedom, that the separation of governmental powers is central to our Constitution, and that it is emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is, not what it should be.

Will (or has?) the Federalist Society become a victim of its own success?

Not so new, but slightly improved. After flirting with near blog-disaster, things seem to be running as before--with the addition of archival links. I've also added links to Timothy Waligore at Free Dartmouth and a couple more familiar pages with theory or philosophy stuff. I hope I haven't forgotten any pre-disaster links, but I'm sure I'll get some subtle reminders if I have.


Technical difficulties: I'm obviously experiencing some, so I hope you'll bear with me as I sort out some template issues. Thanks.

Update: Had a small meltdown trying to add archives. Not quite up to speed yet, but getting there.

Think-tanks, continued. Klein has responded to my criticisms. His entire argument is worth considering, but here's the concluding part:

I think money that could be going to start Think Tanks is better off being put in liberal radio stations, and grooming effective left-leaning talk show hosts, and winning elections. You say we need to fund Think Tanks so they can produce and publicize new policy ideas. I think we have the ideas, but they are not being publicized, and I don't see how Think Tanks will aid in that effort.

Do think-tanks help disseminate ideas? Do they help legitimate ideas that are already disseminated? It seems to me that they do both of these things (and much else), but that they're especially important for the latter purpose. Is this worth paying for? Libertarians and conservatives certainly seem to think so. I don't think they've spent hundreds of millions of dollars in vain. As for funding liberal radio and talk shows, I'm all for it. But I don't think there's necessarily a tradeoff here. Seems to me that the left should be pursuing all of these things. So now we're back to the question of whether there's enough money to go around. I think there probably is--or at least I hope so. Still, if push comes to shove, I think we should be investing in future opinion-makers. I'd wager that the returns down the road from that investment would be well worth the money.

Are think-tanks irrelevant? Some readers have argued that I'm wrong about the need to fund think-tanks. On the left, Ezra Klein thinks:

We've always been the smarter party . . . Polls show that our policies are favored by far more of the populace than Republican ones. Nobody could deny that Gore came off as more intelligent than Bush in the debates. The reason we are losing is not that we don't have enough ideas or enough intellectual backing, it is because we don't understand how to win outside our base. We rely on the strength of our policies but not our candidates, we know that our message is better and more nuanced and more realistic, but that's not what is required to actually win. To actually win our message has to be understood, and as such, it has to fit in the media that actually exists rather than the one we wish existed. We don't need think-tanks or policy papers or more academics to tell us what to do because they'd only enhance the intellectual side of our party, not the human side. We need a few people with common sense who will hammer out a message and ensure that it is heard.

In a related, but slightly different, criticism, Jacob Levy, at the Volokh Conspiracy, has suggested that I've "underestimate[d] the intellectual influence of academia relative to think tanks and overestimate[d] the political effectiveness of think tanks." I suppose the inference to make here is that academia has more intellectual influence than I've suggested, but that intellectual influence doesn't translate into political effectiveness. Which is essentially Klein's conclusion.

This is something I'm going to have to think about for awhile. I suppose I'm skeptical of Levy's view, and I wish I could coax him into saying more. I don't think universities have much political influence--especially when compared to major media outlets. I also think that Washington-based think-tanks and lobby groups are much better at gaining access to media, if only because they are coordinated efforts with fairly clear goals and ample means. With regard to Klein's comment, I'm unpersuaded that the left has the type of intellectual support it needs. It's one thing to have people philosophizing about egalitarian ideals, and quite another to have coherent, coordinated, and timely political platforms that are philosophically informed. I don't think Klein is right that the left is somehow "smarter" than the right. Smarter in what sense? The issue here is whether the left is giving smart people who believe in its ideals enough support to produce and publicize cohesive and politically compelling ideas. Klein is right that this is partly a matter of strategy, but a good strategy is going to need some substance.

Political theory for everyone: Adam Swift has just published a book called How not to be a Hyprocite: School Choice for the Morally Perplexed. (Disclosure: Swift was my doctoral supervisor at Oxford.) As Will Hutton notes in his review, Swift is asking some tough questions: "Is it hypocritical to send your child to a private school while acknowledging it should not exist? Is there a reasonable way of navigating the right of choice and proper responsibility to your child while also discharging your responsibilities to society at large?" These sorts of questions come up in the U.S. every once in awhile, usually when prominent Democrats send their kids to private schools. For example, when Bill Clinton sent Chelsea to Sidwell Friends, could he have been anything but hypocritical? Swift forces us to ask the same question about ourselves. If we believe in public education, how can we send our kids private?

This question is linked to the more general one raised by Jerry Cohen in his book If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich? Cohen argues that our commitment to justice must be reflected in our everyday social and economic decisions--and not just in the social and political institutions that make up the "basic structure" of society. If you think Cohen is asking an important question--and it's a question that liberal egalitarians, at least, must take seriously--then you can think of Swift's project as working out an answer (or set of answers) to it within one very important area of our lives. Swift has made a significant contribution to how we should think about personal decisions involving education that often seem to be in tension with our highest moral principles.

Swift has also written what I think is the best introduction to contemporary, Anglo-American, analytic political philosophy. The book is called Political Philosophy: A Beginners' Guide for Students and Politicians. The book has become the standard among Oxford undergraduates, but it was intended for a much wider audience. Swift is committed to the idea that political theorists should try to make their ideas available to lay people. The new book, and the beginners' guide, are both written with that end clearly in mind.

A couple years ago, Swift published a terrific article in Prospect (August/September 2001) about why political philosophers should pay more attention to politics and why politicians should pay more attention to political philosophy. I've tried to find this article on-line, but I'm afraid you have to subscribe to Prospect to read it. At any rate, here is some what of Swift has to say about the relationship between politicians and philosophers:

Philosophers can help [in making hard political decisions]. We may draw the line at logos and slogans, but that leaves plenty of room for attempts to make our ideas available to a wider public. It is not easy. It takes courage for those accustomed to the rarefied discourse of academia to leave behind the careful qualifications, the dealing with every objection, the familiarity of the arcane. Also, they have to handle the snootiness of those for whom only the cutting-edge research is worthwhile. Still, scientists have managed to create a reading public for a genre which is entertaining and difficult. The intelligibility problem can be overcome.
What about content? It is hard not to be sympathetic to politicians' impatience with the utopianism of much academic political philosophy . . . We [political philosophers] should think hard about how to tailor our proposals to the realities we seek to improve. But let's be clear about what exactly is being tailored, and why. Philosophers must not allow practical constraints to infect their ultimate principles. What social justice requires of us, or what it would mean to take community seriously, are questions which cannot be answered by considering how far Middle England will go along with them . . . Politicians can be relied on to dilute the truth about justice if feasibility constraints require it. Philosophers must prevent that truth from slipping out altogether. Our job is not to accommodate public opinion, but to change it. Politicans have been known to do some of that, too.

At least some political theorists and philosophers should be in the business of writing for lay audiences. We, too, need a Dawkins or a Gould to give our ideas a wider hearing. Maybe one of these days the left will dump enough money into think-tanks to make more of this kind of writing possible.

From Charlottesville to Oxford and back again: now proudly and officially linking to Oxblog.


Broadening the Diagnosis: Zizka has an interesting comment on the disengagement of the academic left:

[T]he media-domination myth and the liberal-university myths are both relics of a time (the 60's, and diminishingly up until 1980 or 1984) when it was more or less true. And a lot of liberals did pick up that professorial persona -- masterful, bland, civil, open-minded, ironic, and condescending. When this worked, it worked; someone who's firmly in command can afford to concede little points here and there, have a self-deprecating sense of humor, etc.
It doesn't work any more, partly because a lot of people didn't go to college at all and also because a lot of college students didn't admire their professors much if at all . . . Once the authority was gone, all the other mannerisms became detriments. In particular, professors have kept the above-the-battle pose of being liberal, but too independent to identify themselves with a party line -- much less fight like a junkyard dog for a point of view. I have seen Krugman criticized . . . for lack of professionalism just because he does fight -- not because he's wrong, and not because the critic disagreed with him, but because he violates professorial decorum and is projecting the wrong persona.
All told, between the intimidation factor of the "liberal media" smear, the confusion sown by the "objectivity and neutrality" fetish, and the enforcement of the particular academic persona I just mentioned, a lot of "liberals" are out of the action. On top of that . . . the retreat into private life and personal liberation (both personally and politically -- for some Democrats, choice, privacy rights, and hate-crime laws are almost the whole Democratic platform) has left a big part of the left platform high and dry.

So far, I've stuck mainly to questioning some fairly common and straight-forward assumptions about why the left doesn't fund think-tanks and related organizations. But Zizka is certainly right that this failure is part of a much broader cultural and political story.

Political theory lives in blogosphere! Check out the ramblings of new blogger Russell Arben Fox. Seems like we political theorists are discovering the blog in droves . . . and why not? Fox has some good links on liberal nationalists and the war.

Think-tanks in Britain: Lance Knobel makes a good point about the comparative lack of influence exerted by conservative think-tanks in Britain. Part of the reason might be that they just don't have the resources of their American counterparts. But the existence of organizations like the Social Market Foundation and the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr) should also be encouraging to the American left. To get a sense of the difference between the ippr and the NAF, here's the first paragraph of the ippr's mission statement:

ippr is the leading UK independent think tank on the centre left. Through our well-researched and clearly argued policy analysis, reports and publications, our strong networks in government, academia and the corporate and voluntary sectors and our high media profile, we play a vital role in maintaining the momentum of progressive thought.

You read this and you know where they stand. And as for high media profile--or lack thereof--what is the Washington-based Progressive Policy Institute up to these days? When was the last time you saw them on television? I genuinely hope somebody will force me to abandon my skepticism . . .

Funding big ideas, continued. Myth #4: You need a big idea before you can get funding. The reason the left isn't funding think-tanks is because the left has no big ideas.

Answer: there are two kinds of responses to this myth. The first is that it gets the relationship between money and ideas exactly backwards. You need to pay people enough money so that they have the time--even the luxury--of thinking about important issues. Ideas will flow from funding. No funding, no big ideas. It's that simple.

The second response is just to point to a bunch of big ideas on the left. Some readers have alerted me to the New American Foundation (NAF) as a possible source of ideas on the center-left. I'll admit that I don't know much about the NAF, but I wasn't immediately encouraged by their mission statement. It reads:

Powerful forces - from the birth of the information age to massive demographic shifts to economic globalization - are remaking America. Now, more than ever, our nation needs a robust public debate, one that does justice to the complex challenges and opportunities of this unfolding era. Yet there remains a dearth of new thinking on both sides of the political divide, as well as a lack of investment in developing the creative young minds most capable of crafting new public policy solutions.

I think just about any organization could have written this statement. A foundation with a mission as bland is this one probably needs to do some work defining itself. But I'll agree that it's definitely a step in the right direction. To its great credit, the NAF is funding the work of young scholars and journalists, and it's got strong partnerships with the Atlantic Monthy and BasicBooks. Is the NAF progressive enough to serve as a good counterweight to libertarian and conservative think-tanks? That's not a rhetorical quesion--I really don't know. But I'm glad the NAF is out there, and I'm looking forward to learning more about it. To come back to the original point, though, groups like the NAF have enough economic and political ideas to get the ball rollling. If there's a dearth on the left, it's not in the possibility for ideas--but in the funding to make them into realities.

Gaus on Eberle: Gerald Gaus reviews Christopher Eberle's important book Religious Convictions in Liberal Politics. There is a big, on-going debate between political theorists who think that citizens should not appeal to their religious views when they make political decisions and political theorists who think there's nothing wrong with invoking one's faith. Philosophers like John Rawls, Thomas Nagel, Charles Larmore, Robert Audi, Gutmann & Thompson, Lawrence Solum (see his terrific Legal Theory Blog), and Gaus think political justifications should proceed independently of sectarian theological views. On the other side, thinkers like Michael McConnell (now a judge on the 10th Circuit), Nicholas Wolterstorff, Paul Weithman, Michael Perry, Robert George, and Kent Greenawalt are, to varying degrees, skeptical of this claim. They think that religious beliefs have a rightful place in ordinary--and sometimes even constitutional--politics. Eberle's book is the latest volley from the religious side of this debate. And Gaus's answer, while charitable, is just the response that political liberals should hope for and expect.


Funding big ideas, continued. Myth #3: The left has taken over American universities, so it doesn't need think-tanks.

Answer: There are a lot of reasons why academics at American universities don't exert the kind of influence that we expect from a think-tank like AEI or Heritage. Here are five reasons that come to mind. I'm sure there are more.

(i) Wrong audience: by and large, academics are not writing for politicians, lawmakers, or, heaven forbid, the public. Most are researching and writing for peer-reviewed journals. Even at law schools, where there is greater temptation to write for practical application, the pressures to publish means that articles are ridiculously long and jammed with footnotes that no practitioner would ever read.
(ii) Wrong mission: a lot of academics on the left have been consumed with cultural issues. For years, the new left has made important gains in areas like race and gender discrimination. But somehow big economic questions have been pushed aside. Richard Rorty has been criticized for harping on this theme, but I think he's right: “[W]e academics marched on the English department while the Republicans took over the White House.” There are deeper explanations for this that I’ll leave aside here. For now, the important point is just that one factor contributing to the political irrelevance of universities has to do with the research aims of left-wing academics.
(iii) No time: Matthew Yglesias is right that academics just don’t have the time. The job of an academic is to teach and publish, though not necessarily in that order of importance. Political engagement has to come much further down on a long list of priorities that include: writing articles, preparing coursework, advising students, attending departmental and other university meetings, etc. The mission of the university is not primarily political—which means that its employees are going to be diverted in other directions. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it’s just one more reason why even left-leaning universities don’t exert the same influence as the think-tanks I keep mentioning.
(iv) No money: Myth #2 links up with Myth #3. Part of the reason academics don’t have time to work on generating and publicizing big political ideas is that they don’t have the money. And the reason they don’t have the money is because moneybags on the left aren’t willing to fund idea-generating projects. By way of comparison, consider how much money is spent funding the Law & Economics movement at American law schools. Check out these numbers, courtesy of Media Transparency.
(v) No coordination: even if academics had the right audience, the right focus, the time and the money, they would still lack coordination. If you were an entrenched chair at a department with huge financial backing, you might be able to build a group of academics with enough synergy to produce and publicize some influential political ideas. (To some extent, I think Amitai Etzioni has tried to do this--and with some degree of success.) You might be able to bring in the right people, to get them enough money to work on the projects they care about, and to get those projects the attention they deserve. You could set guidelines, however loosely, for the type of research that people would be expected to do. And you could provide incentives for them to get it done. In short, you'd be running a think-tank. Most chairs don't have the money, the power, or the political inclination to make this happen. What's more, we probably wouldn't want them to. We want universities to be places of research and learning, not engines for driving political ideas. That's what think-tanks are for. There will, of course, be significant overlaps. But we should stop perpetuating the myth that liberal universities are fulfilling the same function as beltway lobbying groups.

The myth that liberal universities are the left's equivalent to conservative think-tanks is the flip-side of the conservative canard that universities are dominated by the left. Conservatives will tell you that groups like AEI and Heritage were established because conservative scholars were shut out of American universities. There may be some truth to this, at least in some departments. I doubt it’s true today (partly as a result of efforts on the right), but, even if it is, the right has shown quite convincingly that scholars outside the academy can have enormous political influence. The left cannot rely on universities to take up the slack. It’s not going to happen provided the reasons noted above continue to hold.


Funding big ideas, continued. Myth #2: The left should spend its money on projects to help people and not on some amorphous attempt to influence how the public thinks about politics.

Answer: The left/center-left foundations mentioned below give money to thousands of particular projects in medical research, environmental protection, famine relief, community development, public radio, the fine arts, academic research (of the reputable kind), and to noncontroversial think-tanks like the Brookings Institution and the Sante Fe Institute. To take just one example, the MacArthur Foundation gives away twenty or thirty so-called "genius grants" of $500,000 every year. Now I think it's terrific that the MacArthur Foundation funds brilliant academic work, but couldn't it take $100k of each of those grants and invest it in an organization devoted to making political ideas? The choice is between giving your money to a couple dozen individuals or investing it in a concerted effort to produce a shift in the way people think about crucial political ideas. My apologies to Richard Rorty and Tim Scanlon (two philosophers who've received MacArthur grants), but I think at least part of that money would be better spent elsewhere. You know, they might even agree with me . . .

Left-leaning moneybags have made a poor strategic decision over the last twenty years or so. They've chosen to fund particular projects--however worthy they may be--instead of trying to cultivate a political environment in which there is tremendous support for people to carry out such projects. They've given up on trying to influence government (the biggest moneybag of them all) by winning over the hearts and minds of generations of opinion-makers. Eric Alterman got it right in a piece called "The 'Right' Books and Big Ideas," published a few years back in The Nation. Here's the take-home line:
A progressive funder once told me that he never bankrolled books because if he took away a grant from a human rights or Third World poverty organization, "people would die." Yes, I said, but they will continue to die in greater numbers so long as the right has a lock on the foundations of public discourse. The outcome of any contest is a foregone conclusion when one side plays only defense.


Why doesn't the left fund big ideas? Why doesn't the progressive left in America fund the study of big ideas? Much to their credit, libertarians and conservatives in the U.S. discovered long ago the importance of supporting students, academics, journalists, policy-makers, and publicizers. For example, having attended a couple of seminars and events sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies and the Liberty Fund, I'm continually impressed by their organization, dedication, and out-reach to students. These groups know how to cultivate ideas in future opinion-makers, and they are investing their money wisely. What I want to know is why aren't progressives (or, alternatively, left libertarians) doing the same? It's not that there are progressive organizations that do this work but just not as well. There is simply no equivalent at all.

More generally, consider the major influence of the big three libertarian and conservative think-tanks: the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Cato Institute. Americans on the left don't take these organizations seriously enough. Certainly not seriously enough to imitate them--which is exactly what the left should be doing.

So here's the question again: why doesn't the left invest in idea-making organizations to counter the influence of the right? Over the next four days, I'm going to post the Four Myths. One a day--hopefully.

Myth #1: The left doesn't have the money.

Answer: Consider these numbers (which are all taken from the Foundation Center):

Foundations on the Right:

Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation: $579,739,000;
Sarah Scaife Foundation: $323,029,669;
John M. Olin Foundation: $71,196,916;
Carthage Foundation: $23,705,949.

Foundations on the Left/Center-Left:

John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation: $4,215,930,831;
Rockefeller Foundation: $3,162,542,434.00;
Florence and John Schumann Foundation: $75,304,792;
Irene Diamond Fund: $36,416,600;
J. Roderick MacArthur Foundation: $34,336,978.

So do the math--it's not a money issue. The money is there. The question is why doesn't the left use it to develop organizations devoted to making big ideas? Three more myths on the way . . .


Just beginning . . .