Bizarro Callahan

David Callahan has a silly op-ed in the LA Times today on "A Gentler Capitalism," which mainly caused me to recall Julian Sanchez's rather ungentle review of his book The Cheating Culture:

An amusing game to play while reading The Cheating Culture — and perhaps the only way to avoid being driven mad by its plodding repetition — is to imagine the book's anti-matter counterpart. It would be a right-wing screed penned by Callahan's goateed twin from some mirror universe, his equal and opposite in zeal and tendentiousness. Armed with a Lexis-Nexis account, this Bizarro Callahan would cherry pick not tales of fallen Masters of the Universe but such tidbits as this, from a background paper on the "fall of the Swedish model" written for the United Nations' 1996 Human Development Report:

"The tax and transfer system that developed was, to begin with, based on the citizens (sic) honesty….While tax evasion in the 1960s was regarded as a shameful crime, forcing respected citizens even to commit suicide if caught, the honourable tax payer became, in the 1980s, almost regarded as a ridiculous relic of the past. The increasingly generous social insurance systems also invited people to cheat."

Perhaps Bizarro Callahan would cite experimental data from the MacArthur Foundation's Norms and Preferences Network, which found that participation in markets correlates with greater trust and reciprocity. He might note the strong correlation between market freedom and lower government corruption — not terribly surprising, since the effect of increasing regulatory power is to shift "cheating" from the private to the public sphere. And he could add a litany of stories of corrupt businessmen and special interests currying favor and gobbling pork. Bizarro Callahan would gravely conclude that big government and the welfare state are the founts of our cheating epidemic.

The point is not that this anti-matter version of The Cheating Culture would get it right — although it might come at least as close as the original — but rather that it's fairly easy to churn out a partisan potboiler clothed as a meditation on some topic of pressing public concern. It's just not a very good way to do social science.

I intend to say something about Bill Gates' ideas about "creative capitalism" later over at Free Exchange.


I hereby declare a holiday, after this post, from analogies of bad arguments to bad art and from further references to the intellectual and moral philistinism of neocons. But allow me to offer David Hume's minor masterpiece “Of the Standard of Taste“. A selection:

A good palate is not tried by strong flavours; but by a mixture of small ingredients, where we are still sensible of each part, notwithstanding its minuteness and its confusion with the rest. In like manner, a quick and acute perception of beauty and deformity must be the perfection of our mental taste; nor can a man be satisfied with himself while he suspects, that any excellence or blemish in a discourse has passed him unobserved. In this case, the perfection of the man, and the perfection of the sense or feeling, are found to be united. A very delicate palate, on many occasions, may be a great inconvenience both to a man himself and to his friends: But a delicate taste of wit or beauty must always be a desirable quality; because it is the source of all the finest and most innocent enjoyments, of which human nature is susceptible.

There is such a thing as good taste, and it applies to argument as well as art. The ability to spot excellences and blemishes in a discourse is as much a part of taste as is the acute perception of beauty and deformity. The intellectual case for National Greatness Conservativism is easy enough to debunk. But I am constantly struck by the gag-making vulgarity of its moral vision, and I think that's worth pointing out. Yes, many people do find it appealing, and that's central to the point. Taste is a refinement of sensibility; it is elitist, not populist. Of course, I don't think it's wise to lean very heavily on such transparently aesthetic judgments. Indeed, it is in poor taste to depend so much on direct appeals to taste. It makes you look like a supercilious jerk. But it can also be illuminating to occasionally note openly that ideologies do have an aesthetic dimension, and that some of them are just hideous.

Hume, of course, is not really observing a settled truth when he tells us just how fantastic it is to have developed delicate taste. He knows what he's doing, and what he's doing is coaching us to care about taste — to develop a taste for taste — because unless you do, you won't even notice all the great stuff you're missing. You won't even notice how debased you are. You might even like  it! And that's sad. So, yeah, Hume's being a supercilious jerk, too. But he's a lot more clever about it. It is no inconvenience at all to a man of taste or his friends when he finds them dull and ugly. Not at all. That's a delight!   

The Idealism of Jackets and Ties

A Day at Cinderella Castle

David Brooks is one of America's most successful thinkers in much the same way that Thomas Kinkade, painter of light, is one of America's most successful artists. And Brooks's column on Teddy K's endorsement of Obama is artful in much the way “A Day at the Cinderella Castle” is artful.

The respect for institutions that was prevalent during the early ’60s is prevalent with the young again today. The earnest industriousness that was common then is back today. The awareness that we are not self-made individualists, free to be you and me, but emerge as parts of networks, webs and communities; that awareness is back again today.

Sept. 11th really did leave a residue — an unconsummated desire for sacrifice and service.

Got that? The “residue” of 9/11 is not the bitter recognition of how a surge of panic and nationalism can lead to unjust failed wars. The residue is David Brooks's unconsummated desire for further nationalistic sacrifice, as if all those corpses in Iraq were not, are not, enough. He believes that America's young, like him, long for a day at the Cinderella castle, which, it should be emphasized, has a dungeon in the basement.

Do you think Kinkade thinks clouds really look like that? Maybe he does. Do you think Brooks really thinks that we are “free to be you and me” only if we are unsocialized atoms? Well, maybe he does, because the way he puts it, we aren't individuals at all. We — you and me — “emerge as parts of networks, webs and communities.” What you are is a mere part of a larger, grander whole. And if that whole demands your time, your money, your life–demands to consumate its desire for sacrifice and service — who are you to say no? Well, nothing, really. At least not anything distinct, with purposes, plans, and a value of its own. You are it.

The truth is that we emerge from networks, webs, and communities as individuals with a heavily socialized set of ideas and desires. Individualism is an idea about the locus of agency, worth and respect, about how responsible we are, or can be, for our decisions. It is an idea about the uniqueness of individuals, about self-discovery, self-creation and self-expression. These ideas can become embodied in the norms that govern our networks, webs, and communities. A culture can be individualistic. The evidence is that people in individualistic cultures thrive. But for Brooks it is nihilistic, vain, anti-social, empty self-indulgence or the marching “idealism of jackets and ties,” idealism for conformists — for conformist men.

Yes, Mies van der Rohe is Antiseptic and Cold and Socialist

Yes, I know the political history of the Bauhaus and the International School, thank you very much. (That major in the history and philosophy of art is not worth nothing!) And I admit it does put a strain on my not-very-well-thought-out analogy, if that's the modernism you had in mind. Of course, I had in mind houses that actually are very lovely and quite nice to live in. How about Frank Lloyd Wright (everybody loves him, right?) or Richard Neutra?

Perhaps the difference in mentality I had in mind is better captured by the difference between the person who is able to grasp why Mark Rothko, say, is a much greater painter than Bouguereau. If you don't get it, well, then that just proves my point, doesn't it?

Anyway, semi-silly aesthetic analogies aside, the point is that people's natural tastes for social structure runs toward the tribal and teleological, but this isn't actually that good for people. Market liberalism, which is too abstract or “thin” to seem really satisfying or meaningful, since there is no single common goal that transcends the goals individuals happen to have, actually leaves people better off than all the alternatives, and measurably so. It's not hard to understand why people are so attracted to National Greatness, or to Bouguereau. But with a little inspection of the evidence, or a little development of taste, one can see why this is a mistake… is what I was getting at.

It's not just that you should be ashamed of your vulgarity if you thrill to the idea of America uber alles, though of course you should, but rather that you should be ashamed of preferring a morally worse state affairs over a better one. People who thunder on about virtue like to complain about the immaturity and self-indulgence of individuals in commercial societies, but those people are very often the ones seeking to indulge atavistic social instincts that our moral culture has begun to mature past.

I don't have a beef against virtue. Far from it; I'm a big fan of the attempt to study character strengths scientifically. But virtues, if they are worth caring about, are instrumental to well-being and relative to social and economic structure. McCain's brand of military virtue isn't admirable in a politician. It's dangerous. And it does not seem to me that McCain has any worthwhile virtues that, say, Mitt Romney lacks. Indeed, I suspect that my man Mitt has modern managerial and leadership virtues that all the other candidates lack. If Romney is the candidate of virtue, it's because he's a first-rate capitalist, not an abstemious Mormon family man. And, as far as I can tell, Barack Obama has a much more inspiring capacity for leadership than does McCain, if that's the sort of thing you like. The only reason a virtue-thumper would be touting McCain in particular is an infatuation with the virtues of war.

Must… Destroy… Milton Freedman

Benjamin Storey & Jenna Silber Storey: “The moral vacuity of dogmatic libertarianism is poisonous to public life.” Translation:

Libertarianism is dangerous because it discourages juvenile romantic attachment to higher things — meaningful things like Honor, Virtue, and the indescribable joy of sacrificing one's life to the service of the American Volksreich. All libertarians care about is superficial shit like not starving, living a long time, and being creative and happy. Blah blah blah. But, really, what's the point of living to 200 if all you do is enjoy yourself the whole time? I mean, don't you want to know what it is like to kill a man? DON'T YOU WANT TO TASTE BLOOD!? Besides, virtue.

Vote John McCain.

Oh, goodness that's not fair! But, really, that whole thing is just as embarrassing as misspelling 'Friedman'. I am more and more coming to the conclusion that National Greatness Conservatism, like all quasi-fascist movements, is based on a weird romantic teenager's fantasies about what it means to be a grown up. The fundamental moral decency of liberal individualism seems, to the unserious mind that thinks itself serious, completely insipid next to very exciting big boy ideas about shared struggle, sacrifice, duty, glory, virtue, and (most of all) power. And reading Aristotle in Greek.

I sometimes think that liberal individualism is something like the intellectual and moral equivalent of the best modernist design — spare, elegant, functional — but hard to grasp or truly appreciate without a cultivated sense of style, without a little discerning maturity. National Greatness Conservatism is like a grotesque wood-paneled den stuffed with animal heads, mounted swords, garish carpets, and a giant roaring fire. Only the most vulgar tuck in next to that fire, light a fat cigar, and think they've really got it all figured out. But I'm afraid that's pretty much the kind of thing you get at the Committee on Social Thought. If you declaim the importance of virtue loudly enough, you don't have to actually think.

Our Pritchett, Who Art in Cambridge

Heads up, globalist pigs! Kerry's interview with Lant Pritchett, now online, is full of great stuff about how to increase liberty and well-being at the same time! Here's a taste:

Pritchett: […] Being against migration to the United States is wrong for two reasons. One, I don’t think it gets the scale of the poverty in the United States vs. poverty in the rest of the world right. Second, if you are really concerned about inequality in the United States, there are many things you can do that would be better than blocking other people from coming to our country. I don’t want to say that people who are concerned about inequality in the U.S. aren’t right to be concerned about inequality in the U.S. But I think taking that concern and using it to keep people from coming to the United States is victimizing the world’s true victims in favor of people who happen to live closer to you.

Reason: It seems strange to worry more about inequality within the arbitrary boundaries of a nation-state than about much larger global inequalities.

Pritchett: Exactly. I’ve never understood a view of the world in which the place in which a person was born becomes the key factor in whether you care about them.

Pritchett is nice; he says he doesn't understand this view of the world. What I'd like to think he means is that it is obviously a sign of a shamefully stunted moral sense to see shared national membership as the key condition for giving a damn.

The conclusion to Kerry's prelude is great:

What’s keeping so many would-be migrants in place? “Men with guns,” Pritchett says. His message is less a call to arms than a call to lay them down, less a provocation than a vision of a richer, better, freer world.

That's libertarianism right there.