Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Peter Suderman, Consequentialism, And The Path Of The Wanker

Katha Pollitt on Ross Douthat going to the NYT:
So who would I like to see in the Kristol slot? Actually, Kristol. I was livid when they gave him the job, but he was perfect: a dull, complacent apparatchik who set forth the Bush line in all its fact-free glory. His columns were like press releases—you could hardly remember them two minutes after reading them. But his presence on the page reminded readers that David Brooks is not really what Republicanism is all about.
I'm not totally sure what to think of the whole thing (I don't know whether he'll be influential in pushing his freaky right-wing social views, or whether he'll just make those views look properly freaky), but Katha's view certainly seems plausible. Peter Suderman's response:
assuming Pollitt actually believes this, this strikes me as a deeply cynical exercise in intellectual bad faith. Partisans and hacks may want the other side to put forth their worst defenders, but shouldn’t anyone who considers herself an intellectual hope for the best from her political opponents?
Well, no. This seems to beg the question against any consequentialist intellectual. If the government enacted my favored policies (universal health care / climate change legislation / liberal social policies / humane foreign policy with huge global antipoverty spending), but the debate in major op-ed pages was reduced to ungrammatical raunchy limericks, I'd call that a wonderful state of affairs. And since I think that good consequences are the criterion of what you should do and what you ought to hope for, I'd say that Pollitt's hopes are in the right place. I don't see anything anti-intellectual about holding these views or honestly expressing them.

This doesn't mean that acting to produce good consequences is always consistent with retaining one's credibility as an intellectual. One can't maintain one's intellectual credibility while making bad arguments just because one thinks they'll be effective in getting people to vote the right way and make the right consequences happen. Now, in some situations, ceasing to be an intellectual and becoming a hack will be the morally right move, because in these situations, hackery has tremendous benefits to others. (Similarly, in some unusual situations, ceasing to be a law-abiding citizen and becoming a thief will be the morally right move, because there are large social goods to be generated by theft.) Of course, none of this is what Pollitt is doing -- she's just expressing an honest opinion about what will best serve her political ends.

Suderman's position seems to be that being an intellectual involves wanting public debate to go well, with smart people on both sides carrying on a respectful and informative discussion. I agree that that's a pretty good thing. But much more central to being an intellectual is presenting good, well-thought-out arguments that you believe in. Someone who honestly presents an interesting argument for why it would be okay for public debate to go to hell is doing the intellectual thing a lot better than somebody who presents a bad argument he doesn't actually believe for why it's important for public debate to be conducted on a high level.

A participant in high-minded public discussion who values high-mindedness so highly that he loses sight of the consequences for the outside world indulges in the vice of wankery. While good intellectual discussions can be quite pleasant and are certainly worthwhile, pursuing them should not lead one to lose track of important and valuable things in the outside world. My purpose is not to accuse Suderman of this vice, but to make clear that the path of the intellectual need not be the path of the wanker.


ikl said...

I think that you are wrong here. You leave out at least three important points:

1. I would think that, on average, better quality public debate (especially in media likely to influence key decision makers) contributes to better public policy. There is more to public policy than just whether the Dems or the Republicans win.

2. Your team doesn't have a monopoly on truth. Thinking that there is nothing to learn from the other team is rather hubristic. Better to have someone who has something real to contribute to the national conversation than a hack like Kristol who is only right by accident because he doesn't seem to care much about writing things that are true. Kristol sets the bar so low that even another David Brooks type would be a big improvement.

3. The Republicans are going to be back in power at some point. When they are, whenever that is, it would be better if we didn't have a repeat of the GWB administration. Having conservatives who are at least trying to get things right rather than Bushian hacks increases our chances. Yes, jettisoning Kristol probably helps the Republicans a very small bit, but they aren't going to get back in power just by having better ideas or more likable Op-Ed writers - when they get back in power depends on (a) the economy and (b) screw ups by the Democrats such as scandals. It is largely out of their control.

I hope that the Republicans get slaughtered again in 2010 and then Obama wins reelection in a landslide. But in the longer term, it is important from the country that the Republicans figure out something contructive to stand for rather than what they became under Bush.

ikl said...

In other words, there are good reasons to defend intellectual values in this context even if one is a committed consequentialist.

Neil Sinhababu said...

I agree with 1 and 2 -- in fact, I don't think anything in the post contradicts them, and they motivated the second sentence of the penultimate paragraph.

As for 3, I really never have a clear idea how to weigh Republicans being crazier but in power more rarely against their being less crazy but in power more often. Case by case, I guess, and I don't know how to evaluate this case.

ikl said...

We already have ample precedent for what I am suggesting. Eisenhower keeping New Deal reforms in place and Nixon making little effort to role back Great Society programs and Civil Rights law. The idea, I think, is that you want to enact a bunch of your policies when in power and change the political culture such that they stay in place when the other team takes control. This means that it is important to win now enough to get the policies enacted, but in the longer term, you should want the opposition to basically accept your policies (even if it was against them and still isn't too enthusiastic) and move on to other things so that they don't undo them when they get in power.

If you compare the effects of Bush I (a pretty decent President) vs. Bush II (a national disaster), I think that you'd have to believe that craziness (in the sense of what constitutes good public policy rather than what people regard as nuts) has a really big impact on election outcomes in order to have the cost-benefit calculation come out against my argument. Having suffered through the election of 2004, I am pretty skeptical that there is such a big impact.

Neil Sinhababu said...

in the longer term, you should want the opposition to basically accept your policies

I'm not sure about that. Think of Gingrich's failed attack on Medicare in the mid-90s, which ended his legislative career and resulted in a comfortable re-election for Clinton, and Bush's attempt to privatize Social Security. I'm glad they tried these things and failed miserably.

If we pass universal health care, I wouldn't be surprised if the GOP tried to undo it or otherwise mess it up the next time they reach the apex of their power, and it ended up looking like a bad attempt to go over the top in World War I.

ikl said...

That is a pretty big risk to take - what if Gingrich and Bush had been successful?

I don't think that the cost-benefit comes out very well. The Republicans didn't lost control of Congress as a result and I don't think that Gingrich's successors were really any improvement. Clinton would have won anyway (the economy is the biggest factor in any peace time Presidential election) and it is not as if his running up the score at a big impact on downticket races.