Holy Terror

Somehow I missed Sam Harris's incredibly sensible LA Times op-ed (reg. req.), which simply articulates the plain fact that religious belief is a major source of our woes.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

13 thoughts

  1. I guess I never can see the practical application of this kind of philosophical talk.
    You say, ” The closest we can get to a guarantee is by cultivating a system of institutions that maximizes the production of wealth.”
    I can only practically take that to mean I should vote Democratic because imperfect as they are they seem to have the best record of producing wealth in this nation.
    I’m really not trying to be a jerk here just trying to square the evidence with the ideologies and with the realities of the situation we find ourselves in.
    You say we need to “cultivate” and go on to say our government has no respect for it’s subjects. But I thought we are supposed to be the government.
    Watching the John Adams mini-series brought the issue to light. In part 4 Adams and Jefferson debate the age old question of how to set up the government. Jefferson saying to Adams he needs to trust in the people more and Adams saying Jefferson he has too much trust in the people.
    I still can’t tell which one is the Libertarian but personally I seem to side with Jefferson.

  2. There’s something to this idea, and you’ve expressed the upside well.
    But there’s also a bit of a “Throw the proles a bone” to it, isn’t there? It’s a bit trivial, for example, to say that more people will be able to claim “status” if we multiply the dimensions along which they can claim it.
    Moreover, and along related lines, it’s far too easy to cast those who express skepticism about this ideas as merely “sniffing” at the things that “matter most to most people.” Being the greatest Tiddlywinks player in the world may matter most to someone. But one has to wonder whether it’s really too “elitist” to hope that someday that person might aim a little higher. If not, then we’d have to concede that some dimensions of status just aren’t that meaningful. And so we’re left mostly back where we started, with problematic inequality along normatively more salient dimensions. Or?

  3. There is much in the quotation that is of a piece with Mickey Kaus’s central argument in The End of Equality that what really matters is social equality not economic equality. That seems right to me, even if I disagree with some of Mickey’s mechanisms for state intervention to that end. It would be interesting to get Mickey on Free Will talking about concepts of equality. I’m pretty certain it would give him a better chance to burnish his credentials as a Democrat than talking to Bob Wright week after week.

  4. Muirgeo,
    Jefferson is the clear and obvious libertarian in that debate. Libertarians were passing that video clip around in glee as they finally watched the real paradigm that libertarians see given a platform.
    Moreover, Adams is stunned to see Jefferson supporting (am I am paraphrasing):
    A system of government that creates a space in which no power exists at all. Jefferson smiles, Adams looks at him like he can’t be serious.
    I blogged it here. With Video in the comments.
    It’s sad but I think the Adams (and more extreme Hamilton) won that debate in implementation. Jefferson’s side is merely referred for cheap support from America’s lingering sense of the good in people being protected from the powerful.
    In the end, Jefferson never really got what he wanted from the Constitution and felt it gave too much room for the government to assume power over things it was never intended to have.
    The irony is to watch this failure get turned back against and blamed by political elements like you onto those people who best represent Jefferson’s position….the libertarian-minded.
    The paradigm from the founders that seems to dominate now is something murkily between Adams and Hamilton….while the libertarian paradigm is still more like the original Democratic-Republicans vs. The Federalists.

  5. BTW,
    You seem to be confusing Jefferson’s real positions on limited government and individual liberty with your desire for social democratic populist mob rule.

  6. This is interesting. It’s always seemed to me that it’s conservatives that are most against the idea of multiple hierarchies. They seem to be particularly against the idea that minority groups might be able to opt of hierarchies that place them firmly at the bottom.
    For example, many conservatives promote idea that hierarchies of wealth are nothing but a reflection of hierarchies of virtue and intelligence. Poor people, they say, are both bad and stupid.
    And the idea that people who disagree with their moral and political ideas are able to achieve high status in universities, the media or the entertainment industry drives them completely insane. Hence the perpetual campaigns against these illegitimate status hierarchies.
    And then there’s the alternative status hierarchies associated with non-western cultures. Nothing drives social conservatives as crazy as multi-culturalism and cultural relativism. Surely all rational people agree that Shakespeare is the world’s greatest playwright?

  7. DW – I’m glad you asked.
    One of the major disagreements between conservatives and classical liberals is over the claim that markets are an engine of social justice.
    In The Constitution of Liberty, Friedrich Hayek challenged the idea that the free market achieves social justice “if by justice is meant proportionality of reward to moral merit” (p93).
    The conservative thinker Irving Kristol, took issue with Hayek over this. His argument is fairly subtle (perhaps a result of reading too much Leo Strauss). While Kristol suggests we should promote the idea that markets reward merit, he doesn’t offer any evidence that they do.
    Kristol argued that the free market society was threatened by the erosion of bourgeois culture. In an essay for the Public Interest (‘When virtue loses all her loveliness’ Fall 1970) he wrote that:
    “capitalism at its apogee saw itself as the most just social order the world has ever witnessed, because it replaced all arbitrary (eg inherited_ distributions of power, privilege, and property with a distributions that was directly and intimately linked to personal merit — this latter term being inclusive of both personal abilities and personal virtues.”
    In Australia and the UK, Peter Saunders has taken up this line of argument. Saunders — who until recently worked at the Centre for Independent Studies — argued that we ought to stress the meritocratic aspects of market society. Unlike Kristol, Saunders uses data on IQ and social mobility to support his argument.
    See here for an example of Saunders’ work: http://pandora.nla.gov.au/nph-arch/2000/Z2000-Nov-13/http://www.cis.org.au/bertkelly/bk299text.htm
    Here in Australia, we’ve argued about this issue at length. For example:

    1. It’s hard for me to respond to the Hayek, quote as I confess I do not own The Constution of Liberty, but the other links don’t support your original quotation. Instead the argument is that capitalism rewards people in accordance with merit, but that is a far cry from saying poor people are bad.

  8. DW – Maybe we’re disagreeing about what ‘merit’ means.
    It could be:
    1. Ability
    2. Effort
    3. Ability plus effort
    4. Ability plus effort ‘rightly’ applied.
    ‘Rightly’ could mean:
    (a) Applied in a morally sound way; or
    (b) Applied in a way that leads to results other people value.
    It seems to me that if ‘merit’ means 3 then talented, hard working torturers and embezzlers have more merit than less talented and hard working nurses and firefighters.
    If merit means 4 this brings you back to Hayek’s problem. If — for the sake of argument — we assume that the market rewards people who produce things others values this doesn’t necessarily mean that the market rewards merit (4). This is because the results may depend as much on luck as on ability and effort.
    I think it’s clear that Kristol thought we should promote the idea that the market should reward 4(a).
    Have I got this wrong?

  9. Interesting post, although my response to
    “our government’s actual respect for its subject’s “merely formal” political rights is so sorry that it seems that Lucas’ “minimal respect” is fairly demanding after all”
    is that you should try living (outside the ivory tower) in almost any other country. Not to be rid of you, but to adjust your perspective on what ‘sorry’ can mean in this context!

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