Not So Super?

Hi there. I seem to have botched the end of SuperNovember! Sorry about that! There are a multitude of issues on my end of the monitor including my nth cold in two months, weird awful eye strain, unpleasantly large TA duties, and a writing deadline. But if you could just see how adorably charming I am, you'd forgive me. I am, however, pleased to see that The Fly Bottle has remained a venue of vigorous discussion. FYI, I am largely in agreement about whatever you like with the indefatigable Micha Ghertner.

The Demography of American Democracy

Here is the Economist column by Adrian Wooldridge (“Lexington”) I mentioned a few days ago. Demographic upshot:

Mr Bush's optimistic message gave him a commanding advantage in pro-growth America. Joel Kotkin, a Los Angeles-based writer who knows as much about the grassroots economy as anyone, points to the close relationship between growth, both demographic and economic, and a propensity to vote Republican. Most of Mr Kerry's base was in stagnant America. Democratic strongholds such as Chicago, Cleveland, San Francisco and Mr Kerry's Boston have been losing people and jobs.

Mr Bush's America, for the most part, is booming. This is not just because the red states that voted for Mr Bush are growing faster than the blue states that voted for Mr Kerry. It is also because Mr Bush did well in the fast-growing suburbs and “exurbs” in both red and blue states. Mr Bush's triumph in greater Phoenix, greater Houston and greater Atlanta was perhaps predictable. But Mr Kotkin points out that he also triumphed in what he calls the “third California”: the vast inland region that is producing the bulk of the state's growth at the moment.

Also interesting: Republicans reproduce.

Public Reason in Bad Faith

I've been meaning to comment on Matt's skeptical post about public reason. In a nutshell, Matt worries that folks are offering arguments in publicly acceptable terms in “bad faith.” That is, they are motivated by their comprehensive views, which they know not everyone shares, and so they give an argument that is more broadly acceptable, even if they don't really believe it.

Sez Matt:

. . . I am totally unconvinced that the “public reason” arguments against gay marriage are being offered in good faith. I know perfectly well that people who oppose gay marriage do so overwhelmingly either out of religious conviction or simple prejudice. I also know that people understand that such arguments cannot be presented in elite media contexts and so forth and that, as Beinart writes, it's considered (even by people who haven't studied Political Liberalism) to be a kind of 'debate foul' to just pound the Bible. So they gone out into the world, searching around for a tolerable public reason argument that will reach their favored conclusion. But the motivating issue for (the vast majority of) these people isn't demographic shifts in Scandinavia, it's the religion stupid. As a result, I have little incentive to take the empirical arguments offered by the anti-gay folks, and as a result of that, they have little reason to bother to make their arguments convincing (since they know no one will be convinced no matter what) rather than simply providing a kind of “public reason” cover for their real agenda.

I think Matt's largely right as a matter of fact, but the relevance of Matt's observation isn't clear. Rawls is doing a bit of what he calls “ideal theory,” and although I don't think Rawls conceives of ideal theory in the right way, it remains that norms of public reason are offered by Rawls as part of an ideal normative conception of a well-ordered society, and not as a description of actual norms of public discourse. The observation that people, as a matter of descriptive fact, offer public reasons in “bad faith” has the same standing as the observation that people, as a matter of descriptive fact, only grudgingly pay their taxes under the threat of sanction. That, of course, does not mean that it is okay for people to pay their taxes only grudgingly. It may be that they ought to recognize and be motivated by a duty of justice.

Rawls at one point talks about the way a society might move from a mere modus vivendi (a kind of truce or detente) to an order that is stable “for the right reasons,” i.e., because enough people have come to affirm a public conception of justice. Relatedly, we don't just begin with full-fledged norms of public reason. These must develop over time. The fact that many folks recognize that some “arguments cannot be presented in elite media contexts and so forth and that, as Beinart writes, it's considered (even by people who haven't studied Political Liberalism) to be a kind of 'debate foul' to just pound the Bible” is a very important step on the path toward more widespread and robust norms of public reason.

I think we should consider it important to reinforce these norms, to make sure that people know what is an is not a debate foul. This is not something worth doing just for its own sake. For one thing, we need to do it so that we can have a debate at all, and not just the assertion and counter-assertion of incommensurable considerations. But mainly, we need to do it to reinforce the ideal of a pluralistic liberal order. We have to remind people, and keep reminding them, and keep reminding them, that we do not all agree on certain fundamental matters, and that therefore we should agree to refrain from using politics to impose our vision on others.

Now, I agree with Matt that the ideal of public reason is “in a great deal of tension with human nature.” I therefore don't think that we can realize an order that is stable for the “right” Rawlsian reasons. The best we can hope for is some kind of modus vivendi. But this kind of stability need not be fragile. It can be fairly robust and self-equilibrating, and is quite worth having. It is unlikely that even most people will ever internalize norms of public reason. But if enough of the right kind of people do so, that can have a deeply positive effect on the neutrality and stability of our social order. So keep the faith.

Warning: This Post Contains a Discussion of Public Reason, Which is Just a Theory

Kriston links to a funny sheet of textbook advisory stickers and discusses some matters of public reason.

Which puts me in the mind to say this: You know, I wish that some folks on the left (and I don't mean Kriston or Matt, unless the shoe fits) would be more frank about the fact that they really do seek to use the manifold powers of the state to impose their secular liberal comprehensive conception on the unwilling. (The right seems to be pretty frank about its intentions.)

But, I suppose, if you're really up front about this, then you simply CANNOT pretend to be shocked, shocked when you end up in a cultural-political battle with the right. And you can't be properly surprised and appalled when the right wins, and ends up imposing some of their comprehensive conception on you, because this is exactly what you wanted to do to them, but you lost.

So, if you would just cop to your designs of imposition through the power of the state, then it wouldn't be so grating to me if you went ahead and railed full bore against warning stickers on textbooks and those creationist oafs and whatnot. But please don't ALSO bitch about the fact that public schools are a politicized battleground for competing conceptions of truth and goodness. I mean, I guess it's a cagey bit of rhetoric to pretend that sex ed classes and environmental consciousness-raising units and good old Darwin aren't all part of a scheme to impose your view of the world upon other people's children, so that you can then turn around and scream bloody murder when some zealots wants to put a sticker on a textbook because the textbook doesn't teach what they (as opposed to you) want their children to believe. But, please, be serious.

I think that if you're a political liberal, and sincerely don't want to impose your comprehensive view on people, then you're obliged to support something like vouchers for religious schools, so that you don't end up imposing a secular comprehensive conception by means of crowding out the institutions through which people are able to raise and educate their children as they see fit. If you're not willing to go quite this far, then it seems to me extremely unreasonable to complain about a sticker on a textbook. In fact, I don't think you can complain about the sticker, be against vouchers for religious schools, and claim to be a political liberal all at the same time. If you do, then you're really just an “impositionist” liberal of the first sort who has at least tacitly assented to the principle that those with the political power get to impose their views.

Having endorsed this principle, you should be pretty worried to find yourself on the wrong end of the power, but you shouldn't pretend to be shocked that the right is trying to use its power to at least insulate elements of their comprehensive conceptions from the influence of we atheist, Darwinian liberals. Right?