On equality and social insurance: Response to Landes and Néron

The most recent issue of Res Publica features a collection of articles on social insurance and the welfare state, a topic near to my own heart. It was recently featured by Bookforum under the heading The Greatness of Modern Welfare States. I thought I might say a few words on this paper (ungated here) by Xavier Landes and Pierre-Yves Néron (two of my former postdocs, I should mention). Much of the discussion is a response to this paper of mine (which is actually just a more academic presentation of an argument developed in my book, The Efficient Society), in which I basically present a philosophical defence of that standard “public economics” view that the major role of the modern welfare state is to correct various forms of market failure. Much of this activity gets misclassified, however, as “redistribution,” suggesting that it follows some sort of an egalitarian logic, when it fact it is just an insurance scheme being run in the public sector, and is therefore no more redistributive than any other sort of insurance.… Continue reading

Welcome to the long election

My dinner was just interrupted by a knock on the door. Standing there was a young volunteer from the Conservative Party, handing out election material and asking me to support the local candidate. I guess this is the brave new world of fixed election dates, and thus, perpetual electioneering.

Can someone explain to me how this works though? I haven’t been paying enough attention. Because we’re outside the writ period, there’s a different set of spending rules that apply? I suppose also it’s not an accident that the Conservative Party are first out of the gate, with actual election material. I should have asked whether I can get a lawn sign yet…

Who ever thought this was a good idea?


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10 books that blew my mind

I’m in deep summer mode now, so blogging will be light for a while. Someone asked for this though, so here it is – a list of the books that have had the most influence on the way that I see things (or that deeply changed the way I see things, or that in some other way blew my tiny mind). I’m excluding the classics here, focusing just on books published post-WWII:

1. Jürgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis

2. Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action

3. Talcott Parsons, The Social System

4. David Gauthier, Morals by Agreement

5. John Roemer, A General Theory of Exploitation and Class

6. Robert Brandom, Making it Explicit

7. Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson, Culture and the Evolutionary Process

8. François Éwald, L’état providence

9. Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool

10. George Ainslie, Picoeconomics

These are also roughly chronological, in the order that I read them.… Continue reading

Climate change syllabus

I’m teaching environmental ethics for the first time this coming fall, focusing on climate change. This is a third-year course, which has our second-year general environmental ethics course as a prerequisite. So I’m not obliged to cover the basics. I’ll be using Eric A. Posner and David Weisbach’s book, Climate Change Justice, as more-or-less the textbook, with supplementary readings as I go along. Not everything I assign, I should add, is stuff I agree with, some is just to provoke discussion. Also, it’s not really environmental “ethics” so much as environmental “justice” & “policy.”

Anyhow, any suggestions would be welcome — I haven’t read more than a fraction of the literature that’s out there (beyond the usual suspects Shue, Gardiner, Broome, McKinnon, Moellendorf, etc.), so if I’m missing good stuff let me know. Also, the syllabus may not make sense for those who have not read Posner & Weisbach, because my presentation of topics really tracks their discussion, which seems to me quite well organized.… Continue reading

The pope is not a liberal

That’s the upshot of my op-ed in the New York Times today.

For those who are wondering, these things are really hard to write — you have to cram so much into such a tiny space, there really is no room for nuance. The Times asked for 1000 words, I delivered 1250, they wound up having space for 850, so 400 words had to go!

Part of what went were the sections where I expressed my appreciation for the encyclical, which I actually think is an incredibly positive contribution to the current debate. If one thinks of how much damage the Church has done with respect to the population issue (and it’s important to remember that, back in the ’60s, the Church really could have gone either way on the contraception and abortion question), it’s absolutely wonderful that Pope Francis has positioned the Church on the right side of the climate change issue.… Continue reading

Is this some kind of a joke?

One of the problems that many students encounter, when reading older philosophy texts, is that they don’t get any of the jokes. I was thinking about this with regard to my recent “normative sociology” post, a term that comes from a joke that Robert Nozick made in Anarchy, State, and Utopia. I actually missed this the first time I read it through as well, just because one doesn’t expect there to be jokes in serious works of philosophy. (It is my colleague, Arthur Ripstein, who pointed it out to me.)

The “not getting the jokes” problem becomes even worse once a book is more than a century old. Apart from the fact that both humour and writing styles change, making it harder to tell when someone is joking, the mere fact that a book is old seems to lead people to assume that it must be entirely serious throughout.… Continue reading

On the problem of normative sociology

Last week I did a post complaining about how journalists tend to use the undifferentiated term “political correctness” to describe a complex group of behaviours that one can find in contemporary academia. I was trying to make the case that “classic” political correctness – such as language policing – has been on the decline, but that there were other worrisome trends that continue. This week I would like to pursue the discussion, by talking about another slightly pernicious habit, which those of us who like to classify these things refer to as the problem of “normative sociology.”

The whole “normative sociology” concept has its origins in a joke that Robert Nozick made, in Anarchy, State and Utopia, where he claimed, in an offhand way, that “Normative sociology, the study of what the causes of problems ought to be, greatly fascinates us all”(247). Despite the casual manner in which he made the remark, the observation is an astute one.… Continue reading

Great sentences: Alec Nove

I was flipping through Alec Nove’s The Economics of a Feasible Socialism (revisted) today, looking over my old underlined quotes from 20 years ago. This book is probably one of the dozen or so I’ve read that fundamentally changed the way I think about things. Looking back, this line in particular stands out:

Externalities arise not because of separation of ownership, but because of separation of decision-making units (p. 74).

Tiny sentence with huge implications. This idea is one that, when I read it, I had never seen articulated so clearly or forcefully. The implication is that some of the pathologies of capitalism do not arise because of the ownership structure of firms, or the profit-orientation, but merely from the decentralization of decision-making. As far as I’m concerned, this is something that every environmentalist needs to understand and grapple with, especially those who think that moving away from capitalist firms towards cooperatives is going to do anything for the environment.… Continue reading

More on political correctness

So apparently I’m the go-to guy on political correctness now. I wrote an op-ed for the Ottawa Citizen that appeared today (“Why Canadian professors aren’t afraid of their students“). It all started because I get irritated by the number of occasions on which “universities” in general get bad press whenever something outrageous happens at an American college — particularly at a small liberal-arts college, which is a type of institution that barely exists in Canada (outside Nova Scotia). This is not to deny that there are problems at Canadian universities, it’s just that it would be nice to discuss these problems with reference to Canadian universities, rather than just imagining that everything happening in the United States must be happening here as well.

In any case, the narrative I’ve been trying to establish is that, here in Canada, all that “political correctness” craziness blew over a long time ago, leaving behind only serious people, focused on having serious conversations, trying to work out solutions to the pressing problems of the day.… Continue reading