Falsity: Not a Hill Worth Dying On

If I read him right, Robert Stacy McCain’s argument for state-enforced marriage inequality (“a hill to die on”!) is that there is a DEEP TRUTH about inequalities between men and women that must continue to be observed:

Feminist ideologues insist that men and women are not merely equal in the Lockean sense — having the right to life, liberty and property — but are radically equal in the sense of being inherently identical.

The differences between men and women, according to the egalitarian view, are so trivial that the law must forbid any recognition of such differences, so that the sexes are treated as interchangeable. As I argued in January, it is from a careless acquiescence to this egalitarian falsehood that Americans have been steadily — one might well say “progressively” — marched to the point where the Iowa Supreme Court mandates gay marriage and anyone who questions that ruling is dismissed as an ignorant, hateful bigot suffering from the mental disorder of “homophobia.”

What did McCain argue in January?

Are men and women equal in the fullest sense of the word? If so, then equality implies fungibility — the two things are interchangeable and one may be substituted for the other in any circumstance whatsoever. (La mort à la différence!) Therefore, it is of no consequence whether I marry a woman or a man.


This is why so many of those who would defend traditional marriage find themselves unable to form a coherent argument, because traditional marriage is based on the assumption that men and women are fundamentally different, and hence, unequal. Traditional marriage assumes a complementarity of the sexes that becomes absurd if you deny that “man” and “woman” define intrinsic traits, functions, roles.

To declare men and women unequal, however, puts one outside the law — you are guilty of illegal discrimination if you say that there is any meaningful difference between men and women. Yet if you refuse to argue against sexual equality, you cannot argue effectively against gay marriage, and find yourself subjected to lectures about “accessing the positive social norms” with nothing important to say in reply.

I suppose one could say this is refreshingly frank. But let’s think about the argument (setting aside McCain’s risible claims to membership in some legally and socially persecuted class of put-upon sexist homophobes).

Like many conservatives, McCain makes libertarian noises when it suits him, but when it comes right down to it, he believes the role of the state is to reinforce “traditional” social forms though the law. The “libertarian” conservative rarely wants the state to leave people alone. He wants social change to leave state-enforced legal inequality alone, which is, after all, a proud tradition, sanctified by history. As McCain says, “traditional marriage”—and the state that ensures the exclusivity of its privileges—assumes certain “intrinsic traits, functions, roles” for men and women. He wants the state to police these imagined distinctions. And he very clearly recognizes that there is an alternative “egalitarian” view according to which the there is no relevant difference between men and women—as far as a just scheme of laws is concerned. So he recognizes that there is a stark moral disagreement between egalitarians and anti-egalitarians. McCain clearly has no problem with the state taking sides in this disagreement. He demands that the state take sides with anti-egalitarians. Indeed, he thinks the conservative movement ought to be willing to die fighting to ensure the state keeps taking the side of inequality.

Now, the conservative tends to make two arguments in this kind of dispute. First, that the inequality they wish to preserve in law is an inequality that has been there a long time. Second, that the inequality reflects a DEEP TRUTH about humanity. Generally, these are linked. The inequality in question is embedded in law and tradition because it reflects a DEEP TRUTH. So the fundamental issue is the DEEP TRUTH’s truth. McCain seems to accept that everything turns on this. He seems to know that if he’s wrong about this, he has no case against marriage equality.

The problem for McCain is that you don’t need to be a feminist ideologue to see that the alleged DEEP TRUTH is in fact an especially vulgar instance of the naturalistic fallacy. From the point of view of a decent morality, men and women are equal in all morally relevant respects. Marriage is important to men and women. Family is important to men and women. So a morally decent set of laws ought to maintain the conditions under which men and women are able to express their love and commitment through marriage and realize their desires to raise families. The problem is precisely that the law fails to do this. The reason it fails is that the law (in most states; not here in Iowa!) reflects the still-popular but intellectually bankrupt view that biological regularities establish binding moral guidelines.

Now, no two individuals are identical, and differences in capacities and preferences are relevant to differences in individual reasons and plans. The capacities and preferences of average men and average women mostly overlap, but sometimes they starkly diverge. But the divergence in capacity and preference between an average man and an average women is no more interesting morally than the differences between two individuals of the same sex. If I like brunettes and McCain like blondes, so be it. And if I like women and McCain likes men, so be it. The fact that an individual’s capacities and preferences diverge from the statistical norm for their sex has no interesting moral implications, either. 

It is a fact that most men and women find something deeply meaningful in the complementarity of masculinity and femininity. It is a fact that most couples who marry will form families in the usual mammalian way. But recognizing  equality under the law with respect to marriage does nothing to change this. It does nothing whatsoever to keep statistically average men and women from doing what they will do anyway. It is also a fact that the law, as it now stands in most states, prevents certain men and women from enjoying the legal privileges of marriage and protection for their less conventional families. To see the move to rectify this injustice as itself some kind of injustice simply because men are convex and women are concave is an embarrassing absurdity, not a hill worth dying on.

Outing Myself (from the Cannabis Closet)

In my latest column for The Week, I argue that the drug war is stupid, deadly, and unjust and try to do my small part to normalize marijuana use. My favorite reaction so far comes from Jossip:

Holy shit Wilkinson, you’re really putting yourself on the line buddy! A upper-class, white Libertarian admits to smoking pot. (But does he listen to NPR? Even better: He’s on it!) Since this might actually (god we hope) take off as the next P.C. activist trend (that would be hysterical), here are the next media figures to emerge from the cannabis closet.

And then there’s a list of Hollywood types I am embarrassed to be flattered to be listed among. It’s true I don’t have a lot to lose. My employer’s response to a column titled “I smoke pot, and I like it,” is to send it out to a list of thousands as a “Cato Daily Commentary.” But you’ve got to expect people in a safe place to make the not-especially-brave early moves in the de-stigmatization game. Neverthless, I think the demonstration effect is important. I’m no “stoner” (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I’m an overeducated, relatively successful professional with a closet full of suits. How freaking square do I look in my byline picture at The Week? The stigma can’t last long when that’s the picture of a typical marijuana user. If this would “take off as the next P.C. activist trend” that would be terrific as well as hysterical. But I know for a fact that tons of P.C.-bashing Republican types smoke weed too, and it would be even better if they would stand and be counted.

Healy on the Cult

Great stuff by Gene in The Washington Examiner:

Obama “walks into a room and you want to follow him somewhere, anywhere,” George Clooney gushed to Charlie Rose.

“I’ll collect paper cups off the ground to make [Obama’s] pathway clear,” Halle Berry recently told the Philadelphia Daily News, “I’ll do whatever he says.” (Does Michelle know about this?)

Hollywood stars aren’t known for their political wisdom. More disturbing is how starstruck the mainstream media has become. Hardball host Chris Matthews isn’t the only one who gets a “thrill” up his leg at the very thought of our new president.

Last summer, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Mark Morford wrote that “Many spiritually advanced people I know … identify Obama as a Lightworker, that rare kind of attuned being who … can actually help usher in a new way of being on the planet.”

The Politico recently ran a 900-word article entitled “The Power of Obama’s Hand,” reverentially describing how the president “uses touch to control and console simultaneously,” laying hands on supporters and opponents alike.

And in February, author Judith Warner used her New York Times blog to confess that “The other night I dreamt of Barack Obama. He was taking a shower right when I needed to get into the bathroom to shave my legs.”

Instead of keeping that information to herself, Warner “launched an email inquiry,” which revealed that “many women—not too surprisingly—were dreaming about sex with the president.” Those of us who like to point out that the Emperor has no clothes now have to worry that when we do, we may give rise to a new round of lurid cougar fantasies.

Don’t worry, team players: Gene goes on to mock right-wingers’ equally grotesque G.W. Bush flightsuit fantasies. The general point is that people who care about freedom aren’t made humid by oft-televised public administrators.

New at Cato Unbound: Glenn Loury on American Prison Policy

This month’s Cato Unbound is devoted to the topic “Behind Bars in the Land of the Free.” Brown University’s Glenn Loury kicks off the discussion with his lead essay “A Nation of Jailers,” in which he argues that American prison policy is both a travesty of liberty and equality. 

I’ve often tangled with other libertarians about the effects of social norms on liberty. Glenn has made me think harder about the way the idea of individual responsibility is used selectively to reinforce barriers to opportunity. I wonder what others think about this passage of Glenn’s, which I think is correct, but which I admit makes me a bit uncomfortable:

What we Americans fail to recognize — not merely as individuals, I stress, but as a political community — is that these ghetto enclaves and marginal spaces of our cities, which are the source of most prison inmates, are products of our own making: Precisely because we do not want those people near us, we have structured the space in our urban environment so as to keep them away from us. Then, when they fester in their isolation and their marginality, we hypocritically point a finger, saying in effect: “Look at those people. They threaten to the civilized body. They must therefore be expelled, imprisoned, controlled.” It is not we who must take social responsibility to reform our institutions but, rather, it is they who need to take personal responsibility for their wrongful acts. It is not we who must set our collective affairs aright, but they who must get their individual acts together. This posture, I suggest, is inconsistent with the attainment of a just distribution of benefits and burdens in society.

What say you?

John R. Lott, Bruce Western, and James Q. Wilson are set to reply.

Nothing New, of Course

Yet I suspect Milton Friedman did more to end the draft than the accomodating Baez sisters, which I guess suggests something about the relative persuasiveness of certain organs. 

The excruciatingly pedantic former logic instructor in me cannot resist pointing out that this is a rather stronger (and more ridiculous) claim than “I only sleep with Democrats,” as it sets out a sufficient condition for girls saying yes, rather than a mere necessary condition for a girl saying yes. But it is also pointlessly weak, if it is given a not implausible interpretation as “For every boy who says no, there is some girl who says yes.” (Don’t think you’re getting Joan Baez!) But this follows trivially from the truth that “For every boy, there is some girl who says yes” — especially if money is involved. But there’s no denying it’s a damn pithy slogan!  

[Thanks to Anonymous Coward for the reminder and Brink for the link.]

I Only Sleep With Cosmotarians

Somebody probably ought to write a dissertation about the complexities of this “I Only Sleep With Democrats” business. Maybe we should dismiss this stuff as silly fun for idiot kids. But it’s more fun to take this stuff way too seriously. Therefore, allow me to observe that this is offensive on too many levels to count. But also profoundly revealing about the fundamentally debased nature of partisan political commitment!

“Blue Balled,” the TruthThroughAction.org video below, simultaneously reduces politics to fashion and elevates fashion to morality. To fail be a Democrat is depicted as something like an embarrassing fashion faux pas so egregious that it deserves a response of moralized disgust. To back the wrong political coalition is to become an untouchable, worthy of contempt. And to extend love, to extend pleasure, to those on the wrong team is beyond the pale.

But, amazingly, “Blue Balled” conceives this as too little to really succeed in enforcing standards of acceptable political identity. TruthThroughAction is not content to communicate merely that Republicans are a disgusting caste apart, but suggests that men with the right politics deserve to be sexually rewarded, or should at least be encouraged to believe that, not only will they escape painful shunning for registering Republican (or Green or Liberartian), but that the chances are good that they will be sexually rewarded for registering, voting, being Democrat. Implicit in this message is that the bodies of faithful Democratic women are tools for securing the success of Democratic politicians and their clients. For what is the sexual life of a young woman if not a means to the greater glory of the Service Employees International Union? What is casual fornication if not a Duty to the Party.

Of course the sexual psychology of all this fails. First, cheap talk. Second, there is more than a whiff of pathetic desperation in “Blue Balled” to brand sensitive intellectual artsy guys as the guys you really ought to want to screw. But the best sex is dirty, dirty transgressive sex. All this lame agitprop could just as easily redound to the benefit of the Young Republican with the popped collar who promises to give appalled Obama girls “the surge.” And an “I Only Sleep With Democrats” shirt on a guy might turn out to be a great way to pick up Republican lasses. Oh, the paradox that is the sexual mind! 

Politics is not about policy, indeed.

Billboard for the People

If you would like to chip in to support public art in celebration of the future Commander in Chief of the world’s most powerful killing operation, here’s your chance.

Yes, yes I know…. It’s wonderful that an African American is going to have this kind of status and power. It really is. But, at the same time, there is zero reason to celebrate that the head of the executive branch of the U.S. Government is in fact a position of such exalted status, or to lose our democratic antipathy to massively concentrated power. The status of the President should be denigrated and the power of the office fiercely contested.  

If this billboard happens, I pledge $10 to the guerilla mustache project. 

You can purchase Gene Healy’s outstanding Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power here


Does the Financial Crisis Discredit "Neoliberalism"?

Naomi Klein says it does. Or she wants it to. She thinks it discredits Milton Friedman in particular, because for Klein not a sparrow falls without Friedman’s having somehow strangled it. Hers is a tiny intellectual universe containing, on the one hand, the things she likes and, on the other, the baleful influence of Milton Friedman.

There’s a lot to say about this talk, and about Naomi Klein’s incompetence and mendacity. But let me just address this bit here:

Now, I admit to being a journalist. I admit to being an investigative journalist, a researcher, and I’m not here to argue theory. I’m here to discuss what happens in the messy real world when Milton Friedman’s ideas are put into practice, what happens to freedom, what happens to democracy, what happens to the size of government, what happens to the social structure, what happens to the relationship between politicians and big corporate players, because I think we do see patterns.

Now, the Friedmanites in this room will object to my methodology, I assure you, and I look forward to that. They will tell you, when I speak of Chile under Pinochet, Russia under Yeltsin and the Chicago Boys, China under Deng Xiaoping, or America under George W. Bush, or Iraq under Paul Bremer, that these were all distortions of Milton Friedman’s theories, that none of these actually count, when you talk about the repression and the surveillance and the expanding size of government and the intervention in the system, which is really much more like crony capitalism or corporatism than the elegant, perfectly balanced free market that came to life in those basement workshops. We’ll hear that Milton Friedman hated government interventions, that he stood up for human rights, that he was against all wars. And some of these claims, though not all of them, will be true.

But here’s the thing. Ideas have consequences. And when you leave the safety of academia and start actually issuing policy prescriptions, which was Milton Friedman’s other life—he wasn’t just an academic. He was a popular writer. He met with world leaders around the world—China, Chile, everywhere, the United States. His memoirs are a “who’s who.” So, when you leave that safety and you start issuing policy prescriptions, when you start advising heads of state, you no longer have the luxury of only being judged on how you think your ideas will affect the world. You begin having to contend with how they actually affect the world, even when that reality contradicts all of your utopian theories. So, to quote Friedman’s great intellectual nemesis, John Kenneth Galbraith, “Milton Friedman’s misfortune is that his policies have been tried.”

Wow. Here is Klein’s method. Take a famous thinker you really don’t like. See if they’ve ever had a meeting with anyone who is responsible for anything bad. Blame it on the thinker. Seriously. That seems to be about the extent of her investigative journalist rigor. You never saw Paul Bremer as a Friedman type? I guess you’re no investigative journalist.

Remember when Hugo Chavez was spotted at the UN thumbing through a copy of Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival?  We can only assume that Chavez has been busy implementing Chomsky’s ideas. Sure, it might not be what Chomsky had in mind, but when you leave the safety of academia and start issuing policy prescriptions, and heads of state read your books in public, you no longer have the luxury of only being judged on how you think your ideas will affect the world. Sure, you can say that Noam Chomsky is one of the world’s foremost defenders of a critical free press. But then why did Chomsky disciple Hugo Chavez seize control of Venezuela’s mass media? Ideas have consequences, Noam.

Do you know that Putin’s assassination of inconvenient journalists, and the invasion of Georgia, is the thought of Jeffrey Sachs in action? If you think like Naomi Klein you do!

If a world leader asked Naomi Klein for advice, do you suppose she would give it to them?

Naomi Klein

Is an angry fish, wondering where her water went. Naomi Klein is a Catholic without a Pope. Naomi Klein cannot believe it all turned out this way. Naomi Klein wants to sell you a better buggy whip. Naomi Klein is brought to you by the objects of her confused contempt. Naomi Klein “believes her own bullshit.”

On the topic of Naomi Klein’s recent contribution to human ignorance, Brad DeLong offers Keynes’ retort to Trotsky. Let’s freshen this up a bit and ask Klein to consider the thoughts of another disappointed hereditary communist. Here is the late Richard Rorty in “The End of Leninism and History as Comic Frame” speaking to Naomi Klein and her comrades:

The events of 1989 have convinced those who were trying to hold on to Marxism that we need a way of holding our time in thought, and a plan for making the future better than the present, which drops reference to capitalism, bourgeois ways of life, bourgeois ideology, or the working class. We must give up on the Marxist blur, as Marx and Dewey gave up on the Hegelian blur. We can no longer use the term “capitalism” to mean both “a market economy” and “the source of all contemporary injustice.” We can no longer tolerate the ambiguity between capitalism as a way of financing industrial production and capitalism as The Great Bad Thing that accounts for most contemporary human misery. Nor can we use the term “bourgeois ideology” to mean “beliefs suited for societies centered around market economies” and “everything in our language and habits of thought which, if replaced, would make human happiness and freedom more easily realizable.”

Rorty, regretfully agreeing with Alan Ryan and Jurgen Habermas that market economies appear to be part of the best we can hope for, suggests other dissappointed Marxists should just go ahead and drop their jargon, which turns out to be good for little more than signaling to one another. “It would be a good idea,” Rorty argues “to stop talking about ‘the anticapitalist struggle’ and to substitute something banal and untheoretical — something like ‘the struggle against against avoidable human misery.'”

Naomi Klein did not get this memo, or she burned it. Naomi Klein took 1989 with less honesty and grace than did Richard Rorty. Indeed, a yearning for the restoration of 1988 rises from every page of Naomi Klein oeuvre. Indeed, that’s a decent account of her project: to restore, in the early 21st Century, the sense that one can be a real intellectual, and not something like a young Earth creationist, while believing what even Richard Rorty could not believe after 1989.

But let’s not give Rorty too much credit here, either. To see “the struggle against avoidable human misery” as “banal and untheoretical” is ridiculous. That human beings should not suffer, that suffering is avoidable, that we should not simply reconcile ourselves to its inevitability and retreat to the consolations of mysticism, is an invention of modernity, and central to the ideology of progressive liberalism. The struggle to improve human welfare is banal only in contrast to the expectation of something much more romantic, dramatic, and stupid, such as the consummation of history through the revolutionary remaking of human society. And that is precisely what Rorty rightly says that it is baseless to expect and wrong to want.

But Klein wants it. And Rorty’s bourgeois petty reformism must seem anything but untheoretical; it is certainly ideological. And the struggle against avoidable human misery is evidently still not good enough, for Klein exhibits a rare genius in carefully avoiding the ample and well-understood body of knowledge about how human misery is best avoided.

Conspiracy theory will always find an audience among the ignorant, but there is no real chance that Naomi Klein matters much in the end. There is Naomi Klein and then there is the way the world is. Well-functioning market institutions will continue to lift the world’s poor from misery. It remains that Milton Friedman did immensely more to avoid avoidable human misery than did three generations of Richard Rortys and Naomi Kleins, who in stark contrast helped drive tens of millions of human beings straight into it. And Naomi Klein is a  dishonest, self-infatuated hack. With a little help from people who know what they are talking about, it all works itself out.

[Next up in the “What You’re Searching For” series: “Mormon”]

Raising Kids in Cages

In response to my claim that:

It is tyrannical for parents to attempt to reproduce their ideologies and prejudices in their children, especially when this requires social isolation and emotional coercion.

Robin Hanson replies:

So is the principle here that parents should go beyond their simple judgment when choosing to what to expose our kids?  For example, should we let polygamists argue for their way of life directly to our kids?  Should we let pedophiles argue their case directly to our kids?  Or is the principle here that we know we are right and those other parents are wrong, obligating us to make those parents give their kids what we judge best?

Yes. Parents morally ought go beyond their “simple judgment.” I’d be happy to have polygamists make their case to my kids. Pedophiles too, as long as they’re not philing my peds. The thing is, these will likely be bad arguments that appeal to dubious values and I intend to help my kids develop a sound sense of epistemic and moral judgment. If they can’t tell these are bad arguments (by a certain age), then I’ve probably failed. The principle here is that freedom is good, that psychological freedom is a kind of freedom, and that psychological freedom has some developmental preconditions — it requires the cultivation of certain moral and epistemic capacities. Part of that cultivation comes from practicing judgment in a complex world of moral diversity.

I don’t find the fact that people disagree about this any more interesting than the fact that people disagree over the wrongfulness of foot-binding or genital mutilation. Decent people  agree that there are minimal developmental conditions parents must provide their children. No one may raise their kid in total darkness, say, so that the child never develops sight–even if the kid is well-nourished, etc. You can’t lock your kid in a cage in the basement and teach it to be your personal slave. And, yes, the minimum is historically and culturally relative. It is simply not OK to intentionally raise an illiterate child, even though illiteracy is the natural human condition. So, yes, “we” just do decide that “we” are right and some other parents are wrong “obligating us to make those parents give their kids what we judge best?” Is this even controversial? Who thinks clitoridectomy or breast ironing ought to be legal in the U.S.?

Libertarians are touchy about this issue. They agree parents can’t raise their kids in a cage, but they also don’t want the state to be telling parents they can’t teach creationism, either. I agree! But it seems like lots of libertarians are so jealous of the right of parents to teach their kids about saddled dinosaurs, that they’re a bit too motivated to wave away the very real violence to freedom that comes from neglecting the conditions under which kids come to be able to meaningful exercise their freedom. If you don’t think it ought to be legal to raise malnourished kids, or blindfolded kids, or mute cage kids, then I think you’ve got to think harder about why not. And then you’ve got to think about whether some actually existing conditions are more like that than you might have thought.