Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Time to rehabilitate a pejorative?

At Revealed Preferences I muse some more on the unremarkable roots of 20th century fascism compared to today's politics and whether the word is worth the effort of rehabilitation.
"While today ‘fascism’ is associated with state racism, warmongering, the dissolution of impartial courts, and the end of free elections, the fascist system didn’t intend to pursue any of these goals. Yet that’s where it led, and not only in Europe: When FDR tried to adopt near, if not outright, fascist economic policies in the U.S., he began the erosion of the independent judiciary to implement his plans in spite of the U.S. Constitution, and though the war derailed these efforts, by the time he died in his fourth term in office, he had held the position so long that some voting adults had no memory of any other president.
"That might all be ancient history, but it is very popular to have a government that can ‘get things done’, rather than being tied up in gridlock, and to direct private activities toward national goals, both on the left and the right (neither of which fascism fits neatly into, as Villari reminds us) today. The fascist system as it was developed, and before it ran into the constitutional limits on power, is really not that radical compared to contemporary politics."
You can read the whole thing here.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Not to praise, but to bury Castro

Adam, one of my co-bloggers at Revealed Preferences has a fitting obituary for Fidel Castro.
"By any reasonable standard, Castro was a disaster for his country. He leaves behind an impoverished land virtually devoid of freedom, where the most banal opening constitutes a major reform. His party won praise for Cuba’s education system, even as it imposed strict censorship, banned private libraries and cut its people off from the world. It won accolades for a healthcare system in which infant mortality is reduced by aborting “substandard” fetuses and doctors are rented to foreign governments like chattel. Castro’s recklessness came close to triggering global nuclear war. His destruction of Cuba’s economy left people on the brink of starvation when Soviet aid collapsed. Many Cubans preferred to float through shark-infested waters on precarious rafts rather than endure his socialist paradise. And not once did Castro give Cubans an opportunity to choose a path different from the one he imposed on them.
"But while his plaudits were thoroughly undeserved, the intense hatred he received from some quarters was bizarre. Obviously, it’s normal that his victims and their families would despise him. But how did the ruler of a small country with only modest strategic importance become the great bogeyman of the conservative movement? By the undemanding standards of dictatorships, his was not an unusually harsh one. Never mind Hitler, Stalin or Mao; he was not even a Saddam or a Pol Pot. Why did his tyranny merit so much attention?"
Read the whole thing here.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Much of the right abandoned trade long ago

Over at Revealed Preferences, I suggest that the right abandoning trade shouldn't be so surprising to globalist conservatives. After all, support for trade on the right has been brittle for some time, and there's been no demand that it be deepened within their ranks. 
Either trade is always positive sum and worthy of support, or it is not and it should be analysed and managed. The former leads us (and nearly all economists) toward a presumption in favour of free trade, while down the latter path lies a presumption of protectionism. There are many examples that could have warned conservatives they were on that protectionist path...
Again: either trade is positive sum, or it is not. Conservatives and progressives have together hollowed out the support for trade that would have explained to them whymarkets are effective, and a trading world is a freer, richer, and more peaceful one.
You can read the rest here

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Bridging gulfs

Over at Revealed Preferences, I share some of my thoughts on the importance of civil discourse, how conservative political parties and left-wing crusaders are making things worse, and how we might start to make them better instead.
It’s true that Republican candidates were able to win elections by focus grouping their statements so that they don’t scare away voters who are worried about immigration, trade, or the many other changes ongoing in a great society. But by failing to spend the resources to engage those voters and supporting their fears, the party has found itself floundering when it comes to explaining the limits of what American governments can do, actual facts on the ground about immigration, and an economic understanding of trade now that those fears have become worse. 
Likewise in Canada, Kellie Leitch might be able to win votes, and Ezra Levant might be able to scrape together subscribers, by playing to the worst fears of the populist wing of the electorate. They are helping to congeal those who share those fears into a distinct, separate voting bloc of people who aren’t questioned (lest their votes be risked) and whose fears are elevated, rather than engaged (lest they disappear, along with the motivation to stick with the candidate). 
An alternative is to engage fearful people. As Ilhan Omar points out in the podcast, people are allowed to be afraid – but how we react to that fear matters. Political fortress building isolates valid concerns from correction and refinement by facts, experience, and different perspectives. This is why progressives who immediately write off those same concerns as deplorable are just as culpable for the faltering pillar of societal tolerance as the conservatives who refuse to listen to the ‘MSM’. The left fears Donald Trump and what his victory today might mean. The right fears ‘social justice warriors’ who want to rewrite society. Neither talks across the gulf between them. Both contribute to the problem.
Read the whole post here.

Monday, October 24, 2016

What we mean by democracy

At Revealed Preferences, I've shared some thoughts on a more useful way to think about democracy.
When election season is upon us, there’s a lot of talk about democracy, but more specifically, there’s a lot of talk about voting: Voting as the way that people direct the government’s actions. The elevation of a person or party to power as the way in which the goals and priorities of a society are set. Voting as the most basic and critical political participation.
But people who see voting as the most important way that society is directed, think of voting as the primary duty of a citizen, or think that it’s the best (maybe the only!) way to change the world are wrong. Voting is easy to understand and that makes it easy to prioritize and focus on. Voting is the shiny, round, red cherry on top of the democratic cupcake. But it’s not the cupcake.
>>>Read more.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

A conversation about Canadian values, round 2

Mea Culpa.

Commenters Russ Campbell and 'Dollops' call me to task for the following phrase in "A conversation about Canadian values":
"If she’s sincere in not understanding this, and not simply trying to froth up a corrosive populist rage for personal political gain…"
They are, of course, correct. This phrasing falls far short of the standard I do my best to hold myself to in debate. Nobody likes to eat crow, but sometimes it has to be done. The original phrasing, now in strikethrough, links to this post and its apology. It was indulgent to use such language, no matter how troubled I am by the topic.

That needs to be said. But then Dollops continues:
"Discrimination, Ms Bufton, is good; it is how we common folk separate wholesome change from unwanted adventures."
Dollops is correct again - discrimination is important. And discriminating is what I was doing in my post.

The mindset that says only a nebulous, elite group could disagree with your position and the idea that your ideas alone should be institutionalised as soon as that elite group can be overthrown is dangerous to the values that underpin a liberal democratic society like Canada's. Discrimination against unwholesome adventures departing from Canada's foundational values of free inquiry and democratic discussion need to be levelled at populist ideas for this very reason. It is incumbent upon us to take part in it.

Too many conservatives to whom the idea of 'values-screening' is appealing seem ill-prepared for the idea that their values seem as dangerous to a large part - not a small elite - of the Canadian polity when assessed by someone like me as my ideas appear to someone like them.

What would it mean for people like Dollops if every Canadian were to inform themselves, think about it carefully, and turn out to vote, and we found that conservatives who agreed with them were a decided minority, after all? Would they, then, decide to accept the position of the majority as moral and good? No. The ballot box is not the tool we use to determine what's right and what's wrong.

To be in favour of a discussion of Canadian values only if it reaches the conclusion that we've come to is not to be in favour of that discussion. To be unprepared for the idea that 'traditional' Canadian values are not set and long-held, but a snapshot of where we are now in a fluid, democratic process that has the potential to improve them is to be opposed to allowing the conversation to continue. 

The peace that must be struck between wholly incompatible viewpoints is precisely the sort of nuanced thing that the state is ill-equipped to marshal, settle, and institutionalise. It may set out the rules, but we see to the rest. Tearing down the foundations of a building because it doesn't suit the purposes of those who want to stop the process in order to replace it with something intended to be permanent and decided is exactly what those looking to replace a conversation about values with a snapshot of what they are today are looking to do. 

My interlocutors have provided exactly the sort of feedback we should search for: They held me to account for my failings and remind me to do better, and they've helped think more about my position by providing an apt example.

My sincere thanks to you both for the comments.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Flattening an elephant

The original elephant curve, used to bolster the argument
that the middle and working classes of the developed
world are being "left behind" by globalisation. 
I saw the 'Elephant Chart' first presented with a claim: that while maybe the world is getting richer, by talking about that we're ignoring stagnation for the working and middle classes of North America and the developed world. The claim that came with this chart is that we can only celebrate global growth by ignoring the stagnation and the pain that comes with it of people here, at home.

If this were true, then perhaps policies that promote globalisation are good for the world, but by passing them politicians have failed to worry about protecting their own citizens first. This would give some weight to the claim that by supporting globalisation, politicians are sacrificing the middle class at the altar of free trade to help foreign people for whom they don't have responsibility.

But it's not true.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

What I'll never forget

Of course I will never forget that morning fifteen years ago today, walking into Mr. Carrick's English class to see a TV at the front and be told that someone had bombed one of the World Trade Center towers, and watching for the next two hours to learn how much worse the truth was than that. Of course I won't. I can't.

I don't think anyone who saw that day can ever forget it. Not while their mind is sound.

I've posted before about the fact that I don't believe remembering is enough - we've dropped the bar for ourselves far too low when all we ask is that we remember something. Especially something that we couldn't forget if we tried. Especially something that changed so much.

But even our bar for simply remembering has dropped too low. There are more things I think we should remember about today.

We should remember that the very human desire to mourn together can be turned into an intellectual weapon for demanding consensus and compliance.

We should remember that the very human fear triggered by being reminded of just how little we control the world can be turned into justification for quashing people with whom it's easy to forget how much we share just to feel like we control something. Arm bands and camps aren't the only things that diminish the humanity of others.

We should remember that that fear and demands for compliance and control stand in conflict to our uniquely human desire and propensity to cooperate in spite of and benefit from each other's differences - the very things that allowed us, so helpless individually as we might be against the world, to build the colossal concrete towers that we remember crumbling, impossibly and tragically, to the ground. 

We should remember to look around us every day and see all these marvels we build when we overcome our differences, tolerate uncertainty, take chances, and work together. Even when those marvels are just trivial little contrivances. Even when we think we should be pursuing something else. We should remember that those things are still amazing, and that they come from our equally marvellous interdependence.

We should remember what we can accomplish together when we give up direct control and rely instead on rules for cooperation without knowing exactly where cooperation will lead. We should remember how little we can accomplish alone, even though we might be able to feel like we're directing where we're going when we don't depend on each other.

We should remember that actually controlling the world to the point that we're all, always safe isn't an option.

It's incumbent on us not only to remember all of these things, but to learn as much as we can from them.

We remember the towers, the Pentagon, and Flight 93.

Of course we do.

But I, for one, refuse to let that memory become a tool for people who want to undo what we can accomplish together, and a waste in our quest to understand the world and each other.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

A conversation about Canadian values

Conservative Party of Canada leadership contender Kellie Leitch has made headlines by calling for immigrants to Canada to be screened for ‘Canadian values’. Several of her colleagues have spoken out against the idea, and CBC did a good job of pointing to some of the practical problems with the policy.

The Leitch campaign has responded by saying that people who don’t want to test for Canadian values don’t want to have a conversation about what Canadian values are. But when Canadians reject the idea she's put forward for consideration, a conversation about those values is exactly what we’re participating in. If she’s sincere in not understanding this, and not simply trying to froth up a corrosive populist rage for personal political gain (something that would be hostile to the very conversation she claims to want!), what is causing Dr. Leitch to talk past so many people?*

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Happy birthday, Jane.

Google doodle, 4 May 2016.
Today would have been Jane Jacobs' 100th birthday.

Jacobs taught us, more than anything, about the importance of people - even and especially ordinary people - over plans. She saw her work as a contribution to economics, and her inductive, heterodox approach to the subject offers insights that too-mathematical training is apt to miss.

If nothing else, she made us think harder.

I've just finished reading Deirdre McCloskey's The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce. One of the most frustrating things about the book is that it passes over Jacobs' work completely even though Jacobs dedicated her 1994 book, Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics, to the same topic (broadly speaking). Jacobs was like a bourgeois virtues hipster (those glasses!), writing about them before they were cool. Systems of Survival is, along with The Death and Life of Great American Cities and The Economy of Cities, one of her most important books.

Below is an extended excerpt from Systems of Survival, explaining the radical implications of establishing commercial rules and norms in a previously hierarchical-only society, and on the economic logic behind equal individual legal rights.

To celebrate Jane Jacobs' life, consider taking part in a Jane's Walk in your city this weekend.

Thanks, Jane.
~ 
"The contractual law we inherited from those medieval merchants contained radical conceptions. Not only did it apply alike to all individuals, no matter who they were or what their social status might be, but it was available to individuals for no other reason than that they were individuals, making contracts. That second notion is so inseparable from our contractual law that we even have the fiction that a corporation is a person. That's so corporations, like individuals, can make contracts and carry on commercial life under protection of civil law. To realize how radical the Custom of Merchants was, we only need to think about some of the battles to extend the jurisdiction of contractual law.
"For instance, slaves lack rights as individuals. After slaves in the United States were freed, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution theoretically gave them access to all the rights of individuals available under contractual law. But by custom, hierarchical law, the rule of rank, still prevailed, so freedmen and their descendants seldom enjoyed the benefits of contractual law. Every time a black homeowner was driven from his legally purchased house in a white neighborhood he was being treated as if hierarchical law, derived from social status, prevailed. Every time effective barriers were thrown up against black-owned businesses, and they were, more often than not, or against employment of qualified blacks, or they were excluded from labor unions and apprenticeships controlled by unions, it was as if contractual law did not exist for African Americans. As someone has said, even buying a loaf of bread is a contract. So is being served a meal in a restaurant. A bus ticket is a contract, but if you have to stand instead of sit because of your color, that's the rule of rank, not contract. So many of what we call civil rights are actually rights to make contracts as equals.
"A generation ago," Hortense continued indignantly, "large numbers of American women began to create businesses of their own. To their outrage and disbelief, many discovered they were blocked from signing commercial leases or borrowing commercial funds on their own responsibility. Banks and landlords demanded a male cosigner, usually a husband or father. By custom, sexism was excluding women from individual rights under contractual law. Another variety of sexism has often denied homosexuals the benefits of contractual law; those battles still continue.
"Neither rulers nor philosophers invented individual rights. Nor did nature invent them. Not Rousseau or Thomas Paine or Thomas Jefferson, much less the barons who extorted the Magna Carta from King John on grounds of the rights their rank entitled them to. The strange idea of rights unconnected to status was what medieval servs referred to when they said, 'City air makes free.' By getting to the city and subscribing to its extraordinary customs, they wiggled out of hierarchical law and into contractual law. I don't need to tell you individual rights still frighten many governments. They also frighten economic oligarchies. It's no wonder the very idea had to emerge outside the government - and even then as a by-product of other practical purposes."
--
Vintage Books edition, p. 39-40, in chapter 3: Kate and the Commercial Syndrome.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Hayek was not a conservative. Here's why.

Hayek's essay 'Why I Am Not a Conservative' is often misremembered as a defensive claim that says conservatives are invested in traditions while liberals want to move forward, and since Hayek considers himself a liberal (in the original sense of the word), he does not want to be mistaken for a conservative. Because Hayek was an advocate of emergent orders who argued against remaking them wholesale, this argument would set him up to fail. But it's not his argument.

'Liberal' and 'conservative' as they're used colloquially don't fit Hayek's definitions. As political identifiers, both are increasingly vacuous. These terms need to be defined, not because one is good and the other is bad, but because both are useful. The essay isn't mounting a defence, it's setting out definitions.

If you could say to Hayek, "But you aren't describing what conservatives believe now!" I think he might respond, "Of course not. That's why I wrote the essay." Conservatism has real meaning, but it doesn't imply a timeless set of concrete policy proposals.

Can productive rhetoric defeat the smug?

I was talking with a friend yesterday about political labels, and it got me thinking about why I've, apparently, decided to dig in my heels for them. This article on 'The smug style in American liberalism' over at Vox just crystallized it for me.

 
If we don't have meaningful language to describe political principles and how and why policy goals are pursued, this is what can happen: We dismiss our opponents as evil. As stupid. We assume that they only reason that they could disagree with us is that they are openly hostile toward the things that we 'know' are good, or that they are simply ignorant of the 'right' information that will help the scales fall from their eyes. We set out to 'fix' people rather than inform them and ourselves.

I don't think this is exclusive to modern American liberals, even if they're the ones who may have best transferred the attitude into popular culture. I have met and know many conservatives and real liberals who are just as guilty. There is a powerful seductiveness to the idea of being so right that ignorance and evil are the only things that could make someone disagree with you.

This environment is corrosive to the democratic debate that forms the backbone of a functioning liberal democracy. It is corrosive to the stable set of rules for governance that help encourage positive, rather than negative or ungrounded, change. It replaces them with disdain and encourages unbound populism. And it makes people mean.

No one is perfect when it comes to how they engage with their interlocutors, but try to recognize when you've failed to see the merit behind an opposing point of view. Assume good intentions, and try to rein it in your reflexive indignation . Push back against vacuous language. Treat each other like humans. And I think things can get better.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The problem with the relative-merit defence of Harper's government

Here's, I think, my issue with Conservatives' demand that those of us unhappy with Harper's policies and Trudeau's policies hold back on critiquing what Harper did because the alternative was X, The-Even-Worse-Big-Government-Program from a Liberal or NDP (or both) government.

Like, sure. Fine. If all democracy is about is voting and passing laws, then I guess that might be the choice.

But it doesn't seem like it was the choice, does it? We didn't get Bad Conservative Policy Y instead of Worse Liberal Policy X, we got Bad Conservative Policy Y and then Worse Liberal Policy X. Nothing was prevented. So why, exactly, should people unhappy with both withhold criticism if they think the Harper government's bad policy was not literally the worst we could do?

The hard work against Worse Liberal Policy X includes a critique of Bad Conservative Policy Y when they're bad and worse forms of the same bad idea. The hard work of policy debate in a democracy determines what 'menu' of possible policies. The easy work of shoving a piece of paper in a ballot box just makes a choice from that narrow range. Democratic policy debate can't take place without criticism.

The Harper Conservative government (and all those who continue their reflexive opposition to its criticism) act as though they have to be judged by the relative options on the table at the time, as though this was an extraneous factor. But it wasn't, and it isn't. Demands for loyalty then and now have done serious damage to conservative and at least some real liberal participation in the much more meaningful process of deciding what's on the table by demanding shelter from the criticism due to bad policies.

You need to let people talk about why a policy is a bad idea, even if your party passed a law enacting it in the past, if you want things to improve in the future.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

On the Ghomeshi verdict

I've been mostly quiet on the Ghomeshi verdict because my problems with it are more nuanced than a lot of what I've read. It's a lot to think through. But the hard truth is this: we would never want anyone convicted on the evidence in that case.

At this point Occam's Razor suggests that Ghomeshi has assaulted multiple women, and I find it hard to believe that the complainants would have put themselves through the wringer without cause. But given that those complainants corresponded, making it look as though they colluded (against the advice of the crown!), and that they seemed to believe they could control what was released to give a scrubbed version of events, it became impossible to judge if they were telling the truth - even though I think they were, however badly.

Was justice served? It depends, as the very impressive (and unjustly criticized) Marie Henein says, on how you define it.

But I don't think justice was served.

The problem seems to be that the women facing Ghomeshi didn't feel they would be given a fair trial if they presented a messy, nuanced truth, and in confronting a system they saw as too broken to do its job, they made it impossible to tell whether or not they could be believed. That's a really big problem! Justice is not going to be served as long as it persists. As advocates of sexual assault survivors, we are failing them if we terrify them into this response.

Survivors don't need a system that believes everyone who reports sexual assault no matter what, as though their stories will only matter if we put them onto a pedestal. They need to matter because, dammit, they already do. Survivors need a system that recognizes that they wouldn't come forward and subject themselves to an inquiring and exhausting process unless something is wrong, and that treats them with the dignity they would be afforded if they were the subject of any other crime.

This problem is not something that we can fix by tweaking rules in the justice system or by treating sexual assault differently. For heaven's sake - the problem is that it's treated differently! We don't need to withdraw the presumption of innocence from the accused and force them to defend themselves, and we don't need to discount their stories. To do either risks throwing oppressed groups under the bus for the sake of a band-aid solution.

What we need is to make sure that the presumption of innocence in sexual assault cases is extended to both the accused and to survivors. The only way that's going to happen is if we acknowledge what's going wrong, and recognize how it shows that we need to change our attitudes about sex, consent, and very old ideas about women that are improving much too slowly. It's a tough societal issue that we all have to work to change, and as a result it's one that won't change all at once.

That's not satisfying, and it's not fast, and it's not perfect. But it's the only way to meaningful improvement. It is the only way we will make survivors feel safe enough to come forward every time, rather than living with sometimes crippling trauma and stigma. It is the only way that we can be more sure that justice will be served.

And I don't think we should have to settle for anything less just because it seems simpler.