Law & Aesthetics

— So, from Volokh, I see this announcement of the Law & Aesthetics fiction contest. For those skeptical about the intellectual laugh riot that is the Social Change Workshop, I remember having a somewhat drunken conversation about just this idea with what must surely be one of the Boalt organizers. And now it's a reality! Don't you want to come?!

Notes for law and aesthetics….

– Significant formalism
– Could Baumgarten and Blackstone have met? Shared a mistress?
– The Bloomsbury judicial intuitionists
– Legal neutrality and disinterested contemplation
– Penumbras and emanations
– Weimar School of interpretive absurdism
– Cruel, unusual, and sublime punishment

I (Heart) the Social Change Workshop for Graduate Students


[Warning: I'm trying to sell something here. But only because I care.]

So, I've been busy creating marketing materials for the seminar I've run for the past two summers for the IHS, the Social Change Workshop for Graduate Students (the theme this year is “Rationality & Institutions”), and I found that I'm a bit frustrated by the process because it's just impossible to convey why I love this seminar so much, and why I think its really worth it for grad students to take a week out of their summer to come to UVA and listen to lectures, and talk about their research with a bunch of brilliant strangers. But I've got a blog, so I think I'll just use it to say my piece, and try to convey what gets left out of the usual marketing stuff. If you're a grad student, or about to be one, you should apply. You should come. I should mention that it's free (except for travel costs). [Here's a copy of the email invite to apply; consider yourself invited.]

Let me start here… I got an email a while back from one of last summer's faculty–it was her first time teaching at the workshop. She told me that the workshop was like she'd always hoped grad school would be, but sadly wasn't (having gone to Harvard for grad school and Berkeley for law). And that's really it. That's why I love it. At the Workshop you're surrounded by brilliant people. It's like the united nations of smart. Chinese students from Yale, Russians from Chicago, Poles from Oxford… Africans, Mexicans, you name it, and from some of the best grad programs in the world. (Interestingly, most of the european students come from central/eastern post-communist europe, and not France, Germany, etc, although we get those too.)

There are as many perspectives as people, and somehow everybody manages to get along, to talk and argue at an extremely high level about amazingly interesting and important things: why the rich are rich and the poor are poor, globalization, democracy, justice, religion, methodology, war. And for a week at least, ennervating grad school specialization goes by the board, and everyone talks about everything. One thing you almost never see in grad school are philosophers arguing with economists arguing with historians arguing with anthropologists, and so forth. Some students are inevitably stunned to find out that people in other fields have been talking about exactly the same issues as in their field, and have really useful and insightful thigns to say about it. Data sets get traded. Economists ask political scientists to read dissertation chapters. Ideas are everywhere, and it can be intoxicating. If I actually manage to write my dissertation, it will have a lot of the workshop in it.

That's the students. The faculty is simply stellar. I was looking at the list of faculty, and it occurred to me that if we were going to be ruled by Philosopher Kings, we could do a lot worse. Not only are these guys amazing intellects, they're wonderful people who love to talk ideas with students. You eat lunch with them, play soccer, chess, whatever. You drink with them at the socials at the evening, bouncing ideas off each other. They seem to enjoy themselves as much as the students. I consider everyone on the full-time faculty–Schmidtz, Tomasi, Nye & Munger–to be friends. I know Mike least well, but he's a riot, and razor sharp. Dave and John T. are in my biased opinion two of the best political philosophers of their generation. But I not only admire what they do, I admire how they do it. John N. is a jocular, larger-than-life compendium of knowledge, able to speak about classical music, WWII tanks, and economic history with equal brilliance. I can't wait to spend another week with them.

And the visiting faculty (who pop in and out over the week) are nothing to sneeze at. Doug North and Barry Weingast will stop by. The dapper and brilliant Jack Goldstone will be around much of the week. Melissa Thomas, from IRIS at Maryland, will grace us with her amazing poise and clarity. My man, Pete Boettke, will entertain while explaining his latest heroic theoretical synthesis. UVA's own Gerard Alexander will squeeze more argument in an hour than you thought possible. I'm still working on James Buchanan, Vernon Smith and Avner Greif (who doesn't have a Nobel Prize… yet.) Seriously, there's more than a semester's worth of good stuff, and a lifetime's worth of amazing people, in a week. It's a genuine intellectual adventure.

I really can't adequately convey the social atmosphere–the evening socials, the trips to the bars on “the Corner” in Charlottesville. All I can really say is that I've met people at the workshop who I am sure will be lifelong friends. Workshop friends come to stay at my house in DC, and I seem to have standing invitations to stay with folks in at least two dozen countries (and they always try to say that they're not just saying it.) Preparing for the workshop is a pain in the ass, yes. But when it gets into June, and the workshop is only a week or two away, I really do get excited at not just the possibility, but the certainty, of forging a few genuine friendship with some of the smartest, most interesting people I could ever hope to meet.

[Update: If I'm marketing, I might as well be marketing…
Here's a page of student testimonials.
Here's a page of video clips from past seminars.
Here's what to do if you want to present your work at the workshop.
Here are some papers and articles from some past students.]

Epiphanies

— When do you stop taking them seriously? It's been a few years for me now. Same with breakthroughs, flashes of insight, and the like. I remember when I would have a little breakthrough, and become very excited, as if this, this new insight, completes me. Now I know. Everything's different now. It all makes sense. I am whole.

When I was in college, all my short stories were about a sensitive, intellectual college guy ending in an epiphany. I remember one–it was called “The Conceptual Analysis of the Term 'Love'”–in which a young man, much like myself, ends up wandering through an old college hall in the process of being remodeled, and has an epiphany while sitting at an old fashioned wooden desk watching asbestos motes in a sunbeam. The epiphany was, what? I don't remember. It had to do with love. Or rather 'love'. I think he runs back to his estranged girlfriend and tells her that he “blorgs” her.

Of course it's all bullshit. Either I was wrong about the ultimate nature of myself and my relationship to the universe, or I wasn't, in which case I made some marginal adjustments and everything was otherwise the same. Why am I talking about this? Well, I just noticed that I never had an epiphany about the basic uselessness of epiphanies. I seem to have just given them up. I suppose its like infatuation. It hits you, but you stop being fooled by it. You just accept it, like indigestion, or enjoy it, like a good movie-musical, knowing it to be orthogonal to your deeper concerns.

The Shining Pony City on the Hill

— Since I consider non-utopian libertarian-ish political theory my niche in the world, I figure I should mention the hoopla over the Epstein, Friedman, Barnett (and Pinkerton arguing about something else) debate. Belle Waring is all “pony pony pony!” Sasha defends ideal theory, but falls short of defending ponies. I want to comment on this proposition about ideal theory:

Ideal theory is useful because it helps us to guide reform. You need to know where you're trying to go in order to know whether the next step is in the right direction.

Comment: Quite true! However, the point I insist on emphasizing is: There is no way to pick out the ideal (call it “the target”) in abstraction from the status quo. Two reasons, descriptive and normative. Descriptive: if the putative target really is the target, then you can get there from here. Ideal theorizing is utopian in the pejorative sense (rather than utopian in Rawls's sense of “realistic utopianism” — although he ends up utopian in the pejorative sense despite himself) when it just picks a target out of the air without paying any attention to whether there is any mechanism of social change that could plausibly cause us to arrive there. Normative: and the target is a pony (is pejoratively utopian) unless it is possible to get there from here in a way consistent with the values that led us to pick THAT target to begin with. If hitting the target is possible, but requires a vast system of re-education camps, killing half the population, or what have you, then it's not really the target, assuming a liberal target. So while ideal theory is just fine, the problem with the Epstein, et al. debate is that it's not clear they meet either the descriptive or normative conditions for acceptable ideal theorizing. I think they're ponytalking! It's not enough to be told that a society with such and such attributes is not an empirical impossibility and that if it were realized, it would be a morally good thing. We also need to be told that getting there from here is not an empirical impossibility, and that if it is possible, that the route is morally acceptable.

Comment on the Comment: OK! But then look. Initial conditions plus mechanisms of social change, plus normative constraints pare down the space of acceptable targets. But within THAT space, how can you know which of the possible targets to pick other than by comparing it to, you know, a REAL full blooded ideal, a shining city on the hill. You pick the one within the domain of acceptability that matches most closely the sweetest dreams of philosophers, no?

Comment on Comment on Comment: No! Don't want to kick a dead pony, but we have to have some independent reason to believe that the shining city of ponies REALLY would be worth having, and that short of having it, we'll have to settle for some pale, less shining imitation. The shining city of ponies can only have a normative gravitational tug if it really is what we should be aiming at. But what I'm saying is that there is no knowing what we should be aiming at independent of the constraints we actually face. So we pick our target by browsing through the set of feasible alternatives, and then just pick the one that best satisfies our normative desiderata. You don't design a house by drawing a blueprint of the bestest mansion ever, and then pare it down until it fits the budget. That's insane!