Friday, July 30, 2010

The Hammer of the Krauts Strikes Another Blow

For illogic:

"This is the kind of brinksmanship you get when leaders of a rogue regime are under growing pressure. The only hope to get them to reverse course is to relentlessly increase their feeling that, if they don't, the Arab states, Israel, the Europeans and America will, one way or another, ensure that ruin is visited upon them."

He's talking about how Iranian president Ahmadinejad recently claimed that the US and Israel were planning on attacking two Mideastern countries soon. How exactly this represents "brinksmanship" on Ahmadinejad's part is a little unclear -- he's not, after all, threatening any attacks, he's claiming others are doing so -- but even more startling is Krauthammer's prescription: Since the pressure on Iran is making the president crazy and reckless (as Krauthammer's sees things), the solution is... even more pressure!

Of course, for Krauthammer, the solution to every foreign policy difficulty is for America to adopt a more belligerent stance, I guess that shouldn't really surprise me.

Table of Contents

Last step done, and we're ready to print!

Oakeshott on Rome and America 1
Introduction 6
What Is Rationalism in Politics? 7
Comparing the Theory with Some Evidence 8
An Outline of This Work 9
The Manner of Enquiry 12
I. Politics as the Crow Flies 16
Was Oakeshott’s Critique Merely an Apology for Conservatism? 16
The Rationalist ‘Founders’ 18
A Further Examination of the Rationalist Character 22
An Example of Rationalism in a Modern, Liberal Democracy 28
What Is the Character of ‘Anti-Rationalist’ Politics? 31
Conclusion 34
II. The Development of Oakeshott’s Critique of Rationalism 35
Experience and Its Modes 35
The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Scepticism 37
Morality and Politics in Modern Europe 43
On Human Conduct 45
Aristotle on Practice Versus Theory 49
O’Neill on Abstraction Versus Idealization 51
Conclusion 53
III. Misunderstanding Oakeshott 54
Some Typical Criticisms 54
Traditionalism as an Apology for the Status Quo 54
Traditionalism as Denigrating the Role of Rational Reflection 56
Is Pragmatic Politics Sufficient When Serious Reform Is Called for? 60
‘Non-Ideological Politics’ as Covertly Ideological 62
Some Foils for Oakeshott 69
F. A. Hayek: ‘Why I Am Not a Conservative’ 69
Voegelin as a Foil to Oakeshott 74
The Modern Crisis 79
Neoconservatives as Gnostics 82
Conclusion 87
IV. Constitutionalism and Oakeshott 89
Constitutionalism 90
The Varieties of Constitutions 95
The Case for Constitutionalism 99
Constitutions as Embodying A Priori Natural Rights: Rothbard 100
Constitutions as Contracts I: Rawls 103
Constitutions as Contracts II: Buchanan and Tullock 107
Constitutions as Coordinating Devices: Hardin 113
V. The Roman Republic as Pragmatic Polity 119
Did the Roman Republic Have the Pragmatic Character Oakeshott Attributed to It? 120
Does a Pragmatic Polity Have the Resources to Respond to Changing Conditions? 125
The Roman Government as Representative 130
VI. The Roman Revolution: Could the Embrace of Rationalist Principles Have Saved the Republic? 132
What Was the ‘Roman Revolution’? 133
Does the Failure of the Reforms of the Gracchi Brothers Exhibit a Shortcoming of Pragmatic Politics? 137
Gaius Marius and Sulla: Planning to Halt the Revolution Proves Fruitless 141
The Ascendancy of Ideological Politics 146
Oakeshott’s Understanding of the Roman Revolution 152
The Importance of the Roman Revolution for the American Republic 156
Would the Employment of Rationalist Designing Have Been an Effective Treatment for the Ills of the Roman Republic? 157
Conclusion 161
VII. Rationalism in the American Founding 163
From Rome to America Through Florence and England 164
Machiavelli and Florence 165
The English Transit and Locke 167
Did the American Founders Exhibit Oakeshottian Rationalism? 171
American Political Thought and the Founding 172
Slaves and Women 176
It’s Not Rationalism All the Way Down 177
It Was All Planned 179
Does Burke’s Understanding of the ‘American Situation’ Contradict Oakeshott’s? 180
Conclusion 181
VIII. Were the American Founders Able to Realize Their Design? 183
The Case of Jefferson 183
The Rationalist Jefferson 184
The Practical Jefferson 186
Slavery 186
Freedom of the Press 188
The Louisiana Purchase 189
The Burr Conspiracy 191
The Embargo 193
Is Hypocrisy a Reasonable Explanation for the Jeffersonian Paradox? 194
The Crisis of the Election of 1800 196
The Continuing Failure of the Constitution to Realize Its Authors’ Designs 202
The Modern Obsession with Constitutional Design and Instrumental Republicanism 208
Conclusion 214
Summing Up 216
Bibliography 219

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


My kids are watching some animated kids show from Britain. The teacher character is "educating" the children that "people call tomahtoes a vegetable, but they're really a fruit."

I know I've blogged this before, but I am an OCD sufferer, so I just have to keep blogging it until I fix the problem: 'Vegetable' is a culinary category. It means, roughly, "the non-sweet, non-starchy things we eat as sides to our main course." "Vegetable" has no scientific meaning! No one considers bread or beer to be vegetable dishes, although they clearly come from plants, while most people consider mushrooms to be a vegetable, although they are not plants at all. (I recall watching with horror as another "educator" asked my daughter's class "Which part of a plant does a mushroom come from?" That's like asking "Which part of a plant does a t-bone steak come from?")

"Fruit," on the other hand, has both a culinary and a botanical meaning. Culinarily speaking, tomahtoes, squash, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, and more are all vegetables. Botanically speaking, they are all fruits. (Query: Why, then, 99% of the time when you hear people confusing these categories, is it tomatoes that are in question? I've never heard anyone lecture people on how "the cucumber is really a fruit.")

INTERESTING ASIDE FROM WIKIPEDIA: In the link above, I learned that the avocado is (culinarily) a fruit in Brazil, but a vegetable in Mexico.

Interesting New Blog

Big Questions Online, lead by "Crunchy Con" Rod Dreher.

Economic Reductionism

Nice post from John Médaille. A sample:

'However, the elimination of ethics could only be accomplished by a ruthless reductionism: man was reduced to an “economic calculator” capable of acting only in self-interest, while all markets were reduced to a single model of supply and demand curves with a single, well-defined equilibrium points. The new homo oeconomicus was conceived as a pure individual with no natural ties and was no more than a collection of unfulfilled desires, always waiting for the entrepreneur to fill them up, while creating new wants.'

Monday, July 26, 2010

Rational Dress

Rationalists like to believe that they have tossed aside all prejudices, and that the way they do things is based upon pure reason. I recall a rationalist, in the comments here, scoffing at my nod to the importance of tradition in judging the propriety of laws. At one point he asked me, "I suppose you'd be fine living in a culture that forces women (but not men) to cover their face in public, as long as that is customary?"

Of course, as Oakeshott pointed out, devising some "rational" way of behaving by starting from a blank slate, after having rid oneself of all influence from traditions of behaviour, is an impossibility. So to a student of Oakeshott it comes as no surprise that my rationalist interlocuter didn't seem troubled by the fact that he is just fine living in a culture that forces women (but not men) to cover their chest in public, because that is customary.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Who Was Donnie Osmond?

My daughter asked me the above question today.

I replied, "He was the white Michael Jackson... well, at least until Michael Jackson became the white Michael Jackson."

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Impeach Obama?

Someone in the middle of Milford, PA, was manning a booth with a sign saying "Impeach Obama" attached to it. As someone who was in favor of impeaching both Clinton and Bush II, I declare this officially ludicrous--if Obama deserves impeachment, so did every president who ever held the office. Sure, if one is an anarchist or Russian spy, and wants to undermine any possibility of governing the US, one rationally might be for this. But I guarantee this guy is just a rabid partisan, who, incredibly, does not even realize that Obama is giving us "Bush lite" -- more Iraq, more Afghanistan, more Guantanamo, more Wall St. bailouts. It's kind of like someone taking baseball rivalries so seriously that he wants the Red Sox jailed because he's a Yankee fan.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Monday, July 19, 2010

Stretching Things

I understand the urge to relate historical episodes to current events. But isn't calling the fight against the Barbary Pirates America's First War on Terror pushing the urge ludicrously far? Terrorists blow up symbolically important targets to try to change a government's policies. Pirates steal stuff from ships. Piracy is bad, and terrorism is bad, but that doesn't mean that they are the same thing!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

OK, He's a Fool

But still, his book is capable of prompting entertaining reviews.

Money quote: "If he had, he would have to conclude that it is not religion that poisons everything, but human beings that poison everything, including religion and atheism. They also poison garden clubs, baseball teams, industrial corporations, moose lodges, academic departments, and charitable trusts. In short, wherever one finds humanity, one also finds inhumanity."

Yes, and it is not government that poisons everything, or private enterprise, but human beings.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

New Blog Rolled

PSH, who comments here, seems to have an interesting blog called Centanium. It's been added to the blogroll.

UPDATE: "seems to have an interesting blog"
Ha! I meant "he has a blog, Centanium, that seems interesting!

Voegelin's Analysis of Liberalism

Eric Voegelin, comparing the messianic positivism of Comte with the "reasonable" liberalism of Littré:

"Littré's type represents the peculiar mixture of destructiveness and conservatism that is an important component in the complex of sentiments and ideas which we call 'liberal.' He is willing to participate in revolution until civilization is destroyed to the point which corresponds to his own fragmentary personality. He is not literate enough to understand that Christianity is one thing, and the corruption of a Church quite another; hence, he is ready to eliminate Christianity from history because, quite understandably, he does not like the state of the Church. He is not intelligent enough to understand the problem of the institutionalization of the spirit. Since he lives in the illusion that one can ruin the prestige of a Church or abolish it, and that then matters will be settled, he is greatly surprised and frightened when a new variant of the spirit raises its head, one that he likes even less than Christianity, and clamors for institutionalization in place of the Church of which he has just got rid. He cannot understand these problems, because as a man he has not substance enough to be sensitive to spiritual problems and to cope with them adequately. On the other hand, he is only a mild megalomaniac; he certainly believes that this is the best of all worlds when it is ruined enough to correspond to his limitations, but at least he does not believe he is a demiurge who can form men in his image."

Talk about Going Nuts with the Format Tool

During the debates on the US Constitution, Luther Martin declared ‘slavery is inconsistent with the genius of republicanism, and has a tendency to destroy those principles on which it is supported, as it lessens the sense of the equal rights of mankind, and habituates us to tyranny and oppression’.

How to Be a Sports Pundit

Henry Abbott shows us how, when asked if the Miami Heat will win next year's NBA title:

"There's no reason they couldn't."

Yes, Henry, what they were asking you was if it is strictly impossible that the Heat will win.

"It's a one-out-of-thirty proposition."

So one of the teams in the NBA will win the NBA championship?

"Which means you can be the best team in the NBA and still not make it out of random chance."

Rather than random determinism or non-random chance.

"It's like throwing a dart -- the best darts players in the world still miss quite often. So, if I had to bet on any single team I'd bet on the field."

If Henry HAD to bet on any single team... he still wouldn't.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Romantic Conservatism and the Decline of the West

I have a link on my blogroll to The Front Porch Republic. I enjoy reading their blog, and they seem like a generally congenial bunch. They have a pretty good read on the fact the Western Civilization is in deep trouble, and have a pretty good diagnosis as to why.

But I have to sigh when reading some of their posts, because too often their solution is to go back. Stop drilling for oil, stop using computers, go back to the Christianity of 1900 / 1800 / 1700 / 1500, or whatever period they think it was best, go back to Thomistic philosophy, and so on.

Now, it's one thing to realize that history does not march forward without a glance back, and that, in reaching 2010, we have lost some good things along the way. We might even look to the past for hints as to how to remedy present problems. But one thing that never happens is that history reverses itself. Even if you think 1400 was a better year to be alive than today, you can't get back there. Our civilizational crisis will not be solved by restoring what had been, but by the rise of a new civilization. (Which, of course, will contain many elements of the one we are losing.) And the thing is, no one knows what that new civilization will look like. Just like no one in Rome in 400 had any clue what the High Middle Ages would be like. The best we can do is to keep alive as much that was good about the old as we can, do our part to create whatever new good we can suss out, and hang on.

Ideology and Evidence

In another post, I mentioned that independent commissions were clearing the UEA climate scientists of charges that they had "faked data." When Bob Murphy saw the commissions had been commissioned by the House of Commons, he responded, "Are you kidding me?" These were government folks, and nothing they do could possibly be independent or honest.

Now, I want to suggest this response is a member of a family of similar positions:

X: Well, Phizer set up an independent study that found their new drug was not dangerous.
Marxist: Are you kidding me? They're capitalists!

X: Of course, the Catholic Church did seriously examine Galileo's claims.
Positivist: Are you kidding me? Those guys were priests!

X: You know that Einstein felt he had proved relativity quite adequately?
Nazi: Are you kidding me? Einstein was a Jew!
(STRONG WARNING TO NETWITS: I am NOT saying "Bob is as bad as a Nazi." I am sketching a family resemblance, and some members of a family are much worse than their siblings!)

These are all species of Gnostic ideology, all of which share the feature that "the cast of characters appearing in the Gnostic’s dream world can be divided, neatly and without remainder, into the adherents of the party of light and the demonic members of the party of darkness."

Now, those who agree with Bob are likely to respond, "But we are right -- the people in government really are the party of darkness!" Of course, the Marxist appearing above will make an exactly analogous claim: "The capitalists really are the party of darkness!" And so on. And, I suggest, they are all being perfectly honest, and are quite sure the evidence is on their side -- even though they might be aware of the evidence the others think make their own cases slam dunks.

How can this be? The reason is that a large portion of what goes into the ideology-learning process is learning how to filter the evidence according to the ideology one is learning. For example, Paul Krugman, in learning Keynesian ideology, learned how to filter everything through a Keynesian framework. He can't read a letter from two highly esteemed economists who happen to disagree with him without seeing it as rubbish. All data whatsoever confirms his Keynesian view: if an economy recovers from a slump, it was stimulus; if one fails to recover despite stimulus, the problem was not enough stimulus. This is not because he is dishonest, but because he is bewitched: he has bought into an ideology that seemingly makes everything simple and comprehensible, and gives him an easy answer to every problem, and filters out everything that would normally act as negative feedback about his position.

And that, as Eric Voegelin pointed out, is why it is almost impossible to have a rational discussion with someone in the grip of an ideology: they are viewing a mental construct of their own instead of the real world, so anyone addressing reality will be talking past them. They are looking at a theoretical world, but, as the late, great Sudha Shenoy once said to me, "Reality is not theoretical; it is historical." And history is made up of complex contingencies they don't mechanically yield up easy answers to any and every problem that arises.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Methodological Termitism

"Our understanding of the world is built up of innumerable layers. Each layer is worth exploring, as long as we do not forget that it is one of many. Knowing all there is to know about one layer -- a most unlikely event -- would not teach us much about the rest." -- Erwin Chagraff

Consider the oft-despised termite. The obvious 'individual' is the little bug you see crawling around in your wall, obviously 'separate and distinct' from all of the other little bugs. (Yes, I know this is not the technical usage of 'bug'.)

But, for many purposes, it turns out, the real unit of analysis should be the colony, which, in many ways, functions as a super-organism with, for instance, one reproductive organ (the queen), one nervous system, and so on. Or, glancing in the other direction, the 'individual' termite itself appears as a colony, made up of the insect and numerous mixotricha paradoxa (and other symbiotes) occupying the insect's gut and enabling it to live on wood, which the insect, by itself, cannot digest. Now, surely those little guys are indisputably 'individuals', right?

Well, they were called 'paradoxa' because Sutherland, the woman who discovered them, was puzzled that these protists seemed to have both cilia and flagella, which had never been seen on the same critter before. ('Critter' is the correct technical term here, I believe.) Well, they turned out to be stranger than she thought -- the thousands of tiny 'cilia' were discovered each to be 'individual' bacteria symbiotes -- and where cilia usually 'plug in' to a protist at a basal structure in the cell wall, the 'oarsmen bacteria' turned out to be anchored to yet another bacterium!

Anyway, the point of all of this is that sometimes, when looking at termites, the 'right' level of analysis will be the species. Sometimes, the 'right' level will be the colony. Sometimes, it will be the 'apparent' individual, the termite. Sometimes, it will be the termite as itself an ecosystem. And sometimes it will be the components of the termite ecosystem as themselves ecosystems.

Why, other than the desire of economists for simplified analysis or libertarians for a dunk-shot justification of their preferred political policies, should we expect social analysis to be any different? Why would social analysis display one uniquely 'right' level of analysis?

The Honduran Constitution and the Coup

From my dissertation:


Our final example concerns the recent ‘coup’ (I put the term in quotes because one of the chief bones of contention here is whether or not what transpired actually was a coup) that took place in Honduras in 2009. President Zelaya was proposing a referendum on reforming the constitution, a maneuver objected to be most of the National Congress and Supreme Court. The Court wound up ordering the military to remove Zelaya from office and the country. Immediately, some voices called the act an illegal military coup, while others praised it as a defense of the Honduran Constitution. It is no easy matter to abjudicate this dispute; the difficulty arises from the combination of articles 239 and 374 of the Honduran Constitution:

ARTICULO 239.- El ciudadano que haya desempeñado la titularidad del Poder Ejecutivo no podrá ser Presidente o Vicepresidente de la República.

El que quebrante esta disposición o proponga su reforma, así como aquellos que lo apoyen directa o indirectamente, cesarán de inmediato en el desempeño de sus respectivos cargos y quedarán inhabilitados por diez (10) años para el ejercicio de toda función pública.

ARTICULO 374.- No podrán reformarse, en ningún caso, el artículo anterior, el presente artículo, los artículos constitucionales que se refieren a la forma de gobierno, al territorio nacional, al período presidencial, a la prohibición para ser nuevamente Presidente de la República, el ciudadano que lo haya desempeñado bajo cualquier título y el referente a quienes no pueden ser Presidentes de la República por el período subsiguiente.
(Source: Georgetown University Political Database of the Americas, 2005.)

Article 374 declares certain constitutional clauses to be immune from amendment. (They can be amended ‘en ningún caso’, ‘in no case’.) These specifically include the subject of Article 239, which itself forbids even proposing changes in itself, and which also declares violators will be removed from office ‘immediately’ (‘inmediato’) and will be banned from politics for ten years thereafter.

While the above seems clear enough, the difficulty in sorting out whether the events took place were a constitutional blockage of an executive power grab or a military coup arises from the fact the Honduran constitution utterly fails to set out any procedure for who should determine or how it should be determined that the president has violated Article 239, or what the procedure for ‘immediately’ removing a convicted (or is the mere accusation sufficient for removal?) offender should be. In other words, we have a rationalist declaration of certain constitutional principles held to be inviolable, but no practical solution to resolving disputes about such a purported violation. And the articles cited above simply beg the question of why the constitutional generation ought to be able to bind irrevocably all future generations to any of its decisions. And thus we have our current mess, where both sides in the dispute can claim, with some plausibility, that the other is acting unconstitutionally.


So here's the deal: Zelaya says he wasn't trying to change any forbidden clause -- he was suggesting a a referendum on drawing up a new constitution. Now, the existing constitution never forbids scrapping it whole and adopting a new one -- how could it, without being absurd? And even if this was a smokescreen simply for shedding presidential term limits, the existing constitution gives absolutely no guidance for how to resolve the situation, and determine whether Zelaya or his opponents are right.

In short, it's a mess due to bad constitutional design. What Zelaya's opponents perhaps should have done (I don't want to pose as an expert on Honduran politics!) is hold some sort of trial or trial-like hearings where Zelaya and his opponents could present their cases in public. (I.e., say "Our constitution is inadequate to the situation, so let's adopt precedent from. e.g., the US, and do something like their impeachment.")

That they failed to do anything like this and simply yanked the guy out of office by military force is the reason so many nations condemned their action, and not some perverse desire to "coddle dictators."

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Collecting Old Material

I'm going to be shutting down, so I'm starting the project of moving all of the links I had collected over there to this blog. So let's start with the secrets of Java serialization!

The Spirit of Faction

The Guardian reports that a third independent review has cleared the "Climategate" scientists of any scientific malpractice: '"We saw no evidence of any deliberate scientific malpractice in any of the work of the CRU and had it been there we believe that it is likely that we would have detected it," the review concluded.'

However, I guarantee that we will still hear, for years, about the "fact" that climate scientists were "exposed" "faking data," just like similar people will endlessly repeat that Ahmadinejad said "Israel must be wiped off the map" years after it was demonstrated that he never said any such thing, or people will mindlessly repeat that Honduran President Zelaya's ouster was "constitutional" because they heard a pundit they like make that claim.

The spirit of faction is stronger than the spirit of truth.

UPDATE: A commenter notes that, while The Guardian article seems to be about the third report, it's actually mostly about the first two -- the third is still to come.

Rationalist Morality

"The morality of the Rationalist is the morality of the self-conscious pursuit of moral ideals, and the appropriate form of moral education is by precept, by the presentation and explanation of moral principles. This is presented as a higher morality (the morality of the free man: there is no end to the clap-trap) than that of habit, the unselfconscious following of a tradition of moral behaviour; but, in fact, it is merely morality reduced to a technique, to be acquired by training in an ideology rather than an education in behaviour. In morality, as in everything else, the Rationalist aims to begin by getting rid of inherited nescience and then to fill the blank nothingness of an open mind with the items of certain knowledge which he abstracts from his personal experience, and which he believes to be approved by the common ‘reason’ of mankind." -- Michael Oakeshott

What I find very amusing is that, almost every time you point out to a rationalist that the above describes a misunderstanding of morality, they respond, "Well, then, if my technique is no good, what technique do you suggest?" It is almost impossible for them to believe that you are not suggesting that they have simply gotten the wrong self-conscious moral ideals, and that you have a better set to put in their place, but that they fundamentally have misconceived morality.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Dumb or Dishonest?

Mary Anastasia O'Grady asks "Why Lift the Travel Ban to Cuba Now?" O'Grady has to be one of the most annoying columnists I have read: she repeatedly makes statements that show her either to be a dishonest propagandist or dumb. (My guess is the first, but I don't know.) Let's look at her column from earlier this week.

She starts off, "Today marks the one-year anniversary of the Honduran Supreme Court's decision to order the arrest of Manuel Zelaya, a power-hungry Hugo Chávez acolyte who tried to remain president for life."

Now, what Zelaya attempted to do, as far as anyone who is not a mindreader is concerned, was to change the Honduran Constitution to allow the president a second term. Whether he then intended to "remain president for life" is no more than a suspicion on O'Grady's part -- he explicitly said he would step down at the end of his term even if the constitution was changed.

"It's something to celebrate: Thanks to the bravery of the court and the Congress, which voted to remove him from office, democracy was saved."

Wow, what courage -- with the Army behind them, these folks "braved" kicking a lone man out of the country! They must have been sweating that one. But in any case, her claim that this "saved democracy" is ridiculous. What they did was, in fact, deny the Honduran people the chance to vote on a new constitution -- now that may or may not have been a good idea, but it certainly was anti-democratic.

"Yet a nagging question remains: Why were the Obama administration and key congressional Democrats obsessed, for seven months, with trying to force Honduras to take Mr. Zelaya back?"

Because he was removed from office in a military coup? (O'Grady, either idiotically or dishonestly, refuses to admit this is what happened.)

Now she turns her "attention" to Cuba, and claims, "With so much risk involved, any policy change [to permit Americans to travel to Cuba] will depend heavily on being able to trust the motives of U.S. leaders."

Say what? What is this huge "risk"? What dark motives might be behind the move to lift the ban? Do Democrats plan to have American travelers captured in Cuba and used as slave labor?

"Proponents of the ban point out that a wave of European, Canadian and Latin American visitors since the mid-1990s hasn't changed a thing."

Yes, as opposed to the travel ban, which... Doh!

Just pathetic, partisan hackery.

Zeno for the computer age

If you wish to better understand Zeno's worry about the continuum, you could do worse than to consider loops in software. Case 1: You...